Tag: books

Review – How To Change Your Mind

Posted October 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Change Your Mind by Michael PollanHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Michael Pollan

If you’re interested in the recent findings that psychedelic drugs (like LSD and magic mushrooms) could help treat forms of depression that have proven themselves resistant to the usual standard of care, this is pretty helpful in many ways as a survey of how LSD et al were originally perceived, how and why things changed, how a psychedelic experience feels, and where things are right now with research (roughly, given that anything based on research can be refined or retracted by the time the book’s printed).

It is also, however, very much about the author: his experiences with various different psychedelic substances take up a whole chapter, and another chapter is given over to the hunting of mushrooms (and the descriptions of a psychedelic trip based on those, too). It’s a very personal history, though I feel that Pollan does make his biases and prejudices — and how they changed with the research — pretty clear, so the unwary reader is still aware that some of this is coloured by opinion.

It sounds like psychedelics are a pretty promising avenue not just for treatment-resistant depression, but for quite a few other mental health issues too. I don’t think that I’m ever likely to see out psychedelics recreationally: the described dissolution of the ego and changed perceptions don’t really appeal to me, and I’d rather find my oneness with the universe through meditation and just trying to be a good person. The one way in which it appeals to me is the finding that it often changes people’s relationship to death (having been used with great success as part of palliative care). As someone with 10-15 years of constant anxiety about my health and anxious predictions of my imminent death under my belt, the idea of feeling able to let that go to some extent sounds very appealing… if only there were an exact science to having the kind of trip that leads to that outcome.

There are a few things that bother me about the current perception that psychedelics could be a panacea for almost all mental health problems, and to his credit, Pollan does discuss them despite his enthusiasm. One is the near-impossibility of randomised controlled studies; another is the impossibility of tightly controlling all the variables when psychedelic drugs are used, because people’s experiences depend highly on their setting and their mental state beforehand, and crucially, what they expect to happen. As soon as you’ve got someone’s informed consent for a psychedelic to be administered, you’ve changed the outcome of their trip.

Finally, we’ve had seemingly amazing breakthroughs in mental health treatments before, but over time they have lost their efficacy — repeat studies on antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) now find far smaller effects, even when everything is carefully controlled. It’s not entirely clear why that is, so it is also unclear whether that will apply to psychedelics as well, and to what extent.

In any case, Pollan’s book is an interesting survey of the history and the state of the field now, and well worth it if you’re interested in the topic.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Proper English

Posted October 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Proper English by KJ CharlesProper English, K.J. Charles

Proper English is the story of Pat and Fen, who I previously encountered in Think of England — this book is set before that, but reading them in either order is completely fine, because you don’t need to know much from either book to appreciate the other. It opens with Pat and her brother travelling to a shooting party at a country house, where it transpires that there’s a whole party invited, including their host’s fiancée, Miss Carruth. She turns out to be a sweet but apparently fairly silly girl, rather prone to giggling and girlishness: a pretty stark contrast to Pat, who is a women’s shooting champion, and expects to be treated practically as one of the men.

Most of the rest of the company aren’t nearly that nice, and it quickly becomes apparent something is very wrong, as their host allows his brother-in-law to lord it over everyone and say awful things, while clearly hating that it’s happening. Pat tries to just enjoying the shooting, but quickly finds that Miss Carruth (Fen) is a lot smarter than she likes to let on. Also, Pat is not at all immune to her charms, despite the differences between them. Their friendship and romance is adorable, and they quickly find that they’re not so much opposites as complementary to each other.

Because this is a K.J. Charles novel, of course, that’s not the end of it: in classic country house mystery style, on a miserable rainy day when no one can go out or leave, one of the company is found dead. Pat and Fen are all too aware of all the secrets in the house, one of them being their own, so they decide to figure it out and try to present the police with a fait accompli

It’s all very fun, exactly as I would expect from K.J. Charles, and I’m a little disappointed I’ve finished it already.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dead Man in a Ditch

Posted October 29, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke ArnoldDead Man in a Ditch, Luke Arnold

Dead Man in a Ditch is very much like the first book in many ways: Fetch gets in over his head, does questionable things because he can be led around by his nose, makes a mess of everything and resolves to do better, with questionable results. I’m amazed by the way these two books have made that work for me, in that I keep reading in the blind desperate hope that somehow he will stop doing the wrong thing. You know he’s not going to, and yet you still really, really hope he will.

Part of that in this book is because there are no great choices, it’s true. But I do have trouble feeling that Fetch is growing, because the whole point of him is that he keeps making the same damn mistake again — that’s been engaging for two books, but could it sustain more? I don’t know if more is planned, and I’d gladly read another book because it’s good pulpy noir-ish fantasy fun, but I’m lacking a certain level of satisfaction.

I could tell you more about the plot, but it really amounts to what I said. Fetch tries to investigate things, like weird accounts of magic that cannot be magic, and it leads into a larger plot that sees his vacillation writ large and messing things up for other people, across a fantasy city after all the magic is gone. (That’s Fetch’s fault, too.) He is just the ultimate loser, in so many ways, and I really do have to reiterate that I completely applaud the way the author still makes me care about him despite that.

So, if there’s another book, I’ll read it for sure; after that, I guess it depends where Fetch’s personality drifts off to next. This keeps sounding like faint praise, but I really enjoyed reading it — I sped through it!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The CBT Toolbox

Posted October 28, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The CBT ToolboxThe CBT Toolbox, Jeremy Crown

A friend who knows I studied a little bit of the science around mental health, and am also currently seeing a therapist for CBT, asked whether I thought this book would work as a self-guided treatment. It’s available cheap on Kindle, and free on Kindle Unlimited, so it’d be kind of nice to think it’s an easy answer.

Well, I’m not discounting the power of a good book, ever, but I don’t think it’s likely to ever be a very good idea to try to do CBT on yourself. A therapist can slice through a whole crowd of issues to pick out the one which sounds important right now; you’re the one stuck in your head with the dizzing number of possibilities. If you know yourself really, really well, then maybe you can pick out the right thing… but even then, it can be hard to take things seriously, and give things a proper try, without someone to report back to. It can be hard to see your progress without having someone to help you see it, even if you self-administer the GAD7 or the PHQ9 or whatever other diagnostic.

And this particular book… no, it’s not a replacement for CBT. It can help introduce you to some of the ideas, but mostly it explains what a therapist will focus on, and a really high-level version of what they might choose to work on. My “deferred worry” system isn’t mentioned, for instance, even though it’s what my therapist identified as the most likely thing to help me. (Not sure. Maybe it is helping.) It has a worksheet for each type of problem that it mentions, but I don’t think it is (or could be) a replacement for the expertise of someone who has treated all kinds of people in their practice, and who can hone things down to what you need.

It would be a good one to read if you’re feeling a little sceptical about CBT and what it might offer; I still wouldn’t turn down CBT based on how you feel about it after reading this book, but it gives you a bit of a frame of reference for what CBT can be used for, and how broadly efficacious it is considered to be. So, it’s of use, but not a treatment plan unto itself.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted October 28, 2020 by Nicky in General / 3 Comments

Here we go! I’m actually pretty on time to post this for once… Check out the host’s post and find others from the comments!

Cover of Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon JamesWhat are you currently reading?

I’m still working on Black Leopard, Red WolfI’ve sort of ended up just letting it wash over me, and see where it goes, and that’s working for me a bit better. I still don’t love the narrative style, and it’s hard to hold onto the clues that will be important later, because it feels unstructured.

I’m also reading Luke Arnold’s Dead Man in a Ditch, which is — like the first book — pretty fun but not amazing. It’s a nice pulpy read, like some of the noir it imitates in fantasy-form, and I’m still so frustrated by how much of an idiot Fetch is.

Non-fiction wise, I’ve got Mary Dobson’s Murderous Contagion on deck; it’s okay, but I know a lot of this stuff already, of course, and it doesn’t often go into the kind of tasty depth I was kind of hoping for (which pop-science/pop-history is perfectly capable of doing). Perils of the type of book it is, really!

Cover of Blackout by Mira GrantWhat have you recently finished reading?

Ugh, what have I? I’m having trouble focusing on reading at the moment, being honest. I did recently finish Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, and I’ve also read a book called The CBT Toolkit to evaluate whether it can be used alone. (The answer is no, I wouldn’t recommend it.) I also joined in part of the 24-hour readathon on Sunday, and finished a couple of books then, so I think mostly my brain is just too tired to hold onto stuff right now.

Cover of Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha LeeWhat will you be reading next?

Well, I have four books on my “next up” pile. This doesn’t mean I’m definitely going to read them next, but it means they’ve been plucked off the shelves to sit prominently in my field of vision, increasing the chance I’ll pick them up. So that’s Phoenix Extravagant (Yoon Ha Lee), Cemetery Boys (Aidan Thomas), The Angel of the Crows (Katherine Addison), and The Animals at Lockwood Manor (Jane Healey). I should add a fifth book — Dead Man in a Ditch just came off the shelf, so it needs to be replaced.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Deadline

Posted October 26, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Deadline by Mira GrantDeadline, Mira Grant

Georgia Mason is dead, and Shaun Mason is alive. Certain people are going to have cause to regret that, if Shaun can only get beyond his grief and his fragmenting sanity in order to find them. Deadline opens a while after Georgia’s death, when a certain amount of balance has been found in the After the End Times office, and people are figuring out how to be a team after the loss of their leader. But they don’t have long to do that before Kelly Connolly from the CDC shows up with news of a dreadful plot, and then of course the bullets start to fly again.

There’s a fair bit of journalism in the first book, albeit hands-on investigative journalism in places, which fades into a political thriller toward the climax. This second book is more in that category, with less actual reporting — by necessity, since the characters are quickly sent on the run. There’s a lot more of certain characters, like Becks, Maggie and Mahir, not to mention Dave and Alaric, which helps flesh out the team a bit (and makes up for the lack of Georgia to balance Shaun’s personality)… but I do still miss Georgia, really.

It feels a little middle-booky, in some ways, but there are some deeply satisfying reveals, and some real “wait, what?” bits.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Goblin Emperor

Posted October 26, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

I know, I know, another reread! It was for a readalong, this time — I could hardly ask other people to read it without reading it myself, right? Right??

In any case, I’ve reviewed this so many times now that I won’t linger. But it is interesting to note that my memories of the book are profoundly positive: sure, there’s a coup or two, and there are some deaths, and past references to abuse and neglect… okay, okay, I see what you’re getting at, but the point is that those don’t define the book, for me. They happen, as bad things always do, but it’s not what I think of when I think of this book.

Instead, I think of the profound grace with which Maia takes his sudden elevation, his determination to be better, his mindful and deliberate rejection of pettiness (though he’s not human, and it does slip through, and he then patiently and carefully atones for it). I think of the way he offers goodness, and kindness, and understanding, and gradually finds his allies from the people who respond to it with kindness in their turn.

That’s what I find so hopeful about this book. Maia might be tempted to descend to the level of his tormentors, but he never does. He sometimes has to take his time, or put something aside to think about later, or he does something despite being terrified… but every time he tries to meet the world with mindfulness and grace, and thus, succeeds.

Rating: 5/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted October 22, 2020 by Nicky in General / 0 Comments

Hey folks! I’m having a tired and overloaded week, so I’ll try to make this quick!

What are you currently reading?

A bunch of things, as ever! I’ll keep it to the three most “on deck” at the moment: I’m reading Blackout, the third in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy. I keep restarting the trilogy and having to reread the first book, because a lot of the themes are a bit anxiety-making for me, but this time I am determined to get all the way to the end. There’s so much goodness here, even with the anxiety-making.

Cover of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary SutcliffI’m also rereading The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff. I love the way she put some historical facts together to make this story, and I love Marcus and Esca, and I love the fact that I’ve finally managed to track down another copy of the edition I read to pieces, with the illustrations that are so familiar and the right cover and everything (not the one pictured here). It’s odd how much shorter some bits of the book seem now than I remember them to be. I had this with Narnia, too — I feel like as a child I roamed a lot freer in imagining the bits between chapters and scenes, and made it longer as an experience.

I’ve just started The Little Free Library by Kim Fielding, today, and I’m halfway through. The impulse-buying of books thing is — ouch! I feel called out. I’m finding the rapport between the love interests believable, though, and I’m enjoying watching them get where they’re going.

Cover of Deadline by Mira GrantWhat have you recently finished reading?

Oof. I’ve been bad at actually finishing books, lately, so it might have been Mira Grant’s Deadline. Bit middle booky, now I look back at it, though with some good stuff.

What will you be reading next?

I really couldn’t tell you. I just got Joyce Chng’s Dragon Physician, and I’m intrigued. It’s also short, which suits my current attention span.

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Review – Two Rogues Make a Right

Posted October 18, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat SebastianTwo Rogues Make A Right, Cat Sebastian

This was exactly what I needed to read last weekend, and I didn’t know it yet. It’s the third in a series, but it’s one of those loosely connected series which share some characters and details, but which don’t necessarily need to be read in order. I probably still would, because it helps to have had things that impact all the characters revealed in order, but I reckon it’d be a perfectly satisfying story either way. It follows Martin and Will, childhood friends who always had a spark of something more, but who have never acted on it. Martin is consumptive and ill, though, and Will practically kidnaps him to take him to the country and nurse him to health… and in that closeness, they finally start to explore that something more.

It’s very sweet, and though there’s a bit of angst in the middle and a couple of misunderstandings, it’s not infuriatingly so, most of the time. You can see where they’re each coming from, even though it’s totally stupid. And despite Martin’s abusive father and Will’s unhappy past in the Navy — not to mention the former’s consumption and the latter’s addiction — it stays reasonably light, focusing on the future they can make together if they’re brave enough. It’s not quite as light-feeling as the first book, but the progress isn’t as painful and hard-won as in the second book.

I ended up reading it almost all in one go, which I think is a recommendation all on its own. Also, hey! Tuberculosis!

(Disclaimer for those who don’t already know me: tuberculosis is exciting to me because it’s one of my research interests in my other life as an infectious diseases postgrad student.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Kushiel’s Dart

Posted October 17, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline CareyKushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey

This was a reread, and not the first, largely prompted by the readalong. It’s weird, though; I reread it relatively recently, and yet there were so many details that I didn’t remember ahead of time, and I forgot bits about how it all comes together.

In any case, Kushiel’s Dart follows the adventures of a courtesan, Phèdre nó Delaunay, from unwanted child to plaything of the powerful to spy in enemy territory to ambassador for the Queen. She has been marked out as belonging to the angel Kushiel, making her an anguisette — or a masochist, in plain terms — and this makes her courted and desired… and very useful to Delaunay, a disgraced nobleman committed to protecting the heir to the throne.

This book goes so many places, it’s hard to review it coherently. We follow Phèdre’s childhood, her training both as a courtesan and as a spy, her assignations, her exile, her return… and all sorts in between. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of characters to love, though I’ll confess that I had less patience for Delaunay on this readthrough than I ever had before. He all but buys Phèdre when she’s a child and wields that over her to control her (even if that’s also to protect her), while giving her a home and almost everything else she asks for. He keeps her in the dark, so she couldn’t possibly consent freely, and endangers her with his schemes. I have sympathy for him, but more condemnation than I ever remember feeling, as well. He takes advantage of her and her foster-brother Alcuin, and I couldn’t get past that this time.

I continue to love it, as a whole, despite the ridiculously over-ornate language at times (which more or less works for me after a chapter or so, despite how purple it feels — it’s like you have to acclimatise). It’s still one hell of an epic, and it’s just the first book. I think part of why I love it is that you can get so deep into analysing the motives of a character who dies less than halfway through the book; the characters all feel like people, with their own stories, and their own histories.

If you’re worried about the sex scenes, the sadomasochistic aspects are usually somewhat glossed over, and almost every sex scene I can think of does have a key part to play in either the plot, the character-development, or both. I’m a poor judge of whether something succeeds as a sex scene in terms of “sexiness”, but that doesn’t feel like the aim. Sensualness, yeah, but not crude titillation. Phèdre is a courtesan, but she has her pride and sees what she does as an art (which it is, in the culture of Terre D’Ange).

I’ve really got to start on the next book this time, and actually finish rereading the whole trilogy!

Rating: 5/5

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