Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-26-17

Wonderful Entertainment

Just finished listening to The Assassin's Apprentice today, a fantasy tale set in an alternate medieval time about a young man who is trained from age 6 onward to become a dispatcher of souls at the king's command. A lovely coming of age story, plenty of adventure, and intimations of special 'gifts' that allow for wordless communication. This is most definitely not my usual fare, as I don't read fantasy all that much. But Robin Hobb is an apt storyteller and has crafted characters you want to find out more about. I was going to just give this first book a listen, taking advantage of a sale, and thought I'd just ignore the rest of the series (who needs yet ANOTHER series to follow when the tbr is already out of control!), but I'm already tempted to listen to the next book. A perfect diversion from current events.

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1 of 2 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-25-17

Felt too much like chick-lit for my liking

Overall, I can't say I was very excited by Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel. Unlike another reviewer, I was indeed entirely clear when I got this book that it was a work of fiction and could expect plenty of free interpretation, but there could have been many ways to tell her story without making it sound like a Hollywood Romance. Only taking part in France, with French people, who are presumably speaking French to each other. I bring that part up because I am not American and found it very difficult to get into the spirit of things with a narrator who was so emphatically American in her delivery that it made the whole thing slightly surreal to me.

I think in retrospect I would have been better served with a straight biography of Gabrielle aka Coco Chanel. I am not a reader of romance by habit and I like my fiction as free of it as possible, and I certainly never in my life had any curiousity about how Coco Chanel might enjoy her sexual relations or not. I found these passages distracting and annoying and completely unnecessary.

There was little to like about the woman other than her clear determination to be one of the most successful fashion designers of her time. Whatever had to be done to get there, she did it. Here we saw a woman determined to leave her mark on the world, but also incredibly dependent on men and their money to make her place, just as she also presumably strives to remain completely independent. I was curious to see how the author would describe how she fared during the Second World War, as read somewhere a few years ago that she had presumably collaborated with the Nazis, though I had no other information than that. Here, once again, romance comes to the rescue and saves the day between her and her Nazi of choice. He was a 'good' Nazi, you understand, so really she was doing her country a service. She may have been a heartless bitch to her employees, but she was willing to sacrifice herself for a good cause, as long as there was promise of profits in the offing.

Truly, the book got on my nerves and I'm not sure why I stuck to it. I think the fact that it was written in the first person made it especially unpalatable, as this gave us an entirely subjective point of view on the kind of person she was without the benefit of the perspective of what her contemporaries thought of her very much.

Why am I even giving it three stars then? Because the author does a good job of describing the times and places, and as an entertainment, I suppose it was a good story. In fact it came highly recommended by a reviewer I've been following for quite a few years already. She may or may not have said words to the effect that it was a thumping good read. Of course, that is always a highly individual experience.

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-13-17

If You Think You Are One, You Certainly Aren't.

Equipped with a 40 point questionnaire provided by its creator, Ronson sets out to identify psychopaths (once and for all, I now know that 'psychopath' and 'sociopath' are one and the same thing). He makes the very valid and probably all too true point that psychopaths are often to be found at the top of the echelon, as politicians and especially CEOs, since their lack of empathy and competitive urge and predatory instincts are useful traits to have in a cut-throat financial market. In the later part of the book, Ronson makes the case that psychiatry has overreached its purpose by giving diagnoses where none are necessarily needed, and he mentions both autism and bipolar disorder as two of the most commonly inappropriately and overused mental conditions ascribed to children. One specialist argues that there is no real evidence that bipolar disorder actually exists in children, as apparently the illness usually develops in late teens or young adulthood and not before. I contest this finding as I'm absolutely certain I've been 'bipolar' (or whatever new term they find for my specific condition in future) since early childhood.

One theory he proposes is that society, and specifically, all the EVILS in society, are caused by psychopaths shaping the world to suit their needs for exploitation and victimization. I believe this book has been hugely influential since it came out in 2011 and may directly or indirectly have influenced journalists and the public at large to claim that the current POTUS is unhinged and probably a psychopath... though since this term isn't used in DSM-4 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; DSM-5 was released in 2013, after the publication of this book), the closest diagnosis they can give is 'narcissistic personality disorder', which essentially amounts to the same thing.

Statistics show that 1% of the population are psychopaths and that they are much more present in our daily lives than we might realize. Most people reading on psychology and psychiatry has a natural tendency to worry that they may have whatever illness is described, so the question 'am I a psychopath?' is bound to occur to most readers, but the author claims that just the fact of worrying if you are one indicates you definitely aren't, since psychopaths aren't capable of introspection to begin with. Also, anyone with a surfeit of empathy, as Joh Ronson is (he suffers from pronounced anxiety problems) is more likely to be a victim of a predatory sociopath than to become one. The current theory is that people are born this way and are impossible to 'cure' and that trying to rehabilitate them only teaches them how to more convincingly mimic how most sane people express emotions, in effect providing a kind of 'finishing school' for psychopaths. I found those segments describing how the illness (or characters trait) is manifested and how researchers used extremely unusual methods (including LSD trials) to find a 'cure' really fascinating. Definitely recommended.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-15-17

A Radically Different Approach to Self-Medication

This book came to my attention a few months before its release, when a caring friend mentioned that it might be of interest to me. This friend, along with most people who know me, was aware that I struggle daily with my mood disorder, and she was right in thinking I'd be curious to learn about a radically different approach to 'self-medication'.

Ayelet Waldman also suffers from mood disorders and according to her, she has taken just about every pharmaceutical drug available on the market, AND suffered all the accompanying side-effects. Treating a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder is complicated business and usually involves a whole drug cocktail to stabilize both the highs and lows. Approaching menopause, Waldman found that she was becoming more and more out of control, and the feeling she was putting her marriage at risk with repeated angry outbursts along with suicidal thoughts prompted her to seek a solution.

Having studied a book on the subject of microdosing which provided helpful guidelines, and not least of all, having procured a small vial of LSD from a mysterious source, she decided to become her own research subject for a month-long trial which involved taking minute amounts of LSD every three days and journaled any changes she was able to perceive over this period. At the kind of doses she was taking (about one-tenth of a standard hallucinogenic dose), the user experiences no hallucinatory effects whatsoever. Instead, she describes the overall effect of the experience as providing a feeling that one is more focused, more in control and with the general impression that one is just having... a really good day.

Waldman makes it very clear that she is by no means a typical drug user and that in fact, with her background as a Federal public defender, she is probably more cautious than most. She did a lot of reading and research on LSD to discover that it is actually a relatively safe drug and that one is unlikely to ever overdose on it. Furthermore, she was very much against the idea of 'tripping out' or getting high in any way. The doses she was taking did not produce psychotropic effects, which leads Waldman to make some very good points on the merits of legalization of drugs, which might be beneficial for treating individual who do not respond to other pharmaceutical drug regimens. She makes good points on why there is a need replace the ineffective and ultimately racist 'war on drugs', and develop a more practical approach to drug use, to, among other things, allow for more clinical trials and ultimately to give adults a right to decide for themselves whether they would like to alter their consciousness with drugs or not.

I would not say this is a 'general interest' book. I had a keen interest in it because it treats on a subject that is very close to me, but I can imagine that someone expecting to read about someone's wild experiences with LSD will be sorely disappointed.

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92 of 92 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-07-16

Loyalty and Other Human Foibles

The story takes place in a small town in Switzerland. Gustav and Anton are to be lifelong friends. They meet on their first day of kindergarten, with Anton in tears about his first day away from home and Gustav summoned by the teacher to keep him company. Gustav's mother is strict and unfeeling. Gustav is used to her unpleasant ways and doesn't take special notice of them. Anton is destined to become a concert pianist, showing signs of prodigality at a young age. Their childhood takes place in the 50s. Anton is Jewish with a banker father and doting mother. Gustav's mother holds a grudge against Jews, claiming she lost her husband because he tried to help their cause during the Holocaust. This novel does indeed feel like a sonata, with intimate portraits of each of the characters, going backward and forward in time, from the 30s and a newfound vocation for Gustav's mother, to the early 21st century, when both men have a loaded past separately and together. The characters come in and out of contact, in a kind of gentle dance. Rose Tremain's beautiful writing shines in this book, as it has done in the other five novels I've read by her in recent years. I learned a little bit about Switzerland, where nationalism was one of the core values and played a large part in helping that small county remain neutral during European conflicts. Loyalty is one of the themes explored here in depth, and once again, Tremain demonstrates a beautiful sensitivity to what makes humans tick. Highly recommended—one I will revisit for sure. Excellent narration by Derek Perkins on the audio version.

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7 of 7 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-19-16

The Long Version, and the Short.

This was my sixth novel by Ian McEwan, and though I'd be hard-pressed to say which has been my favourite so far, it's safe to say "Nutshell" now ranks among my favourite novels of all time. This is one of those audiobooks I felt the need to take on much-hated household chores for, just so I could have a long stretch of listening time, and I listened to this audiobook in one extended, fascinating session (the house looks much better for it too).

A modern and loose retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, it has all the elements of high drama and theatrics you'd expect from the Bard, but whether you're 'into' Shakespeare, or even familiar with the original play or not hardly matters. Here is a very clever thriller about two lovers plotting murder for entirely selfish motives, the whole of which is narrated by a yet unborn foetus. An unusual and not especially credible narrator you might say, but then I've read books narrated by trees, dogs and horses among other things: the greatest reward comes if you're willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the story.

Trudy and her husband John are currently separated, though they are expecting their first child. The expecting mother claims she needs 'time to herself', but really, she just wants to keep the coast clear in the London marriage home that John inherited from his parents so that she and her lover Claude (who just happens to be John's younger brother) can indulge in frequent passionate sex and even more frequent plotting sessions. John must be gotten rid of, so they can get their hands on the fortune the sale of the house will bring, and nothing is going to get in their way. Possibly.

Our narrator has clearly inherited a large dose of his father's creative genius—John is a published poet and publisher, and baby expresses himself beautifully and with great wit, quotes famous literary authors and happens to be a wine aficionado thanks to his mother's frequent imbibing of fine vintages. He hates and mistrusts his uncle Claude, and for good reason. Apart from Claude possibly wanting to be rid of another man's baby, he's also an insufferable bore whose conversation is entirely made up of platitudes and boring clichés; not clear is whether Claude is a complete fool, or cleverly hiding his true self.

I've seen Rory Kinnear perform in Shakespeare plays, and his Iago, the great villain in Othello, was especially chilling. Here he brings all his talent to give voice to baby and all the other protagonists, and it's a brilliant performance.


But why am I using so many words? I should just copy/paste my spontaneous reaction when I finished the book, which I shared on Facebook:

"THIS BOOK IS BLOODY BRILLIANT!!! Hurry up and get your hands on it, and I defy you to NOT take it all in in one go. Also, if you're considering trying audiobooks, then this is one to go with, brilliantly performed by the fantastic Rory Kinnear, who is among other things, a superb Shakespeare actor, which is entirely fitting for a book referencing Hamlet. But wait! It's a thriller! Narrated by a foetus! With horrible people doing horrible things (plotting murder most foul), in most amusing ways. And needless to say, this being Ian McEwan, beautifully, beautifully written. I loved this book so much, I hurried up to purchase my own audio copy right after having listened to a library loaner. Kinnear's performance is definitely a keeper (and may he narrate many more remarkable books like this one).

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45 of 45 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-22-16

A Great Debut

This book proved to be quite a *page turner* for me (or its audio equivalent), even though I've been making lots of noises in resent past about not liking to read about female victims and serial killers, be it fiction or otherwise. And then of course, I get excited about a book that is all about... mostly female victims (a dog too!) and... a serial killer. I went as far as sacrificing my bedtime reading session last night, which I always devote to an eye-eading book usually, but there was just one hour to go and I just HAD to finish it then and there. Describing the storyline without spoilers doesn't yield anything terribly original, and you can read the summary anywhere, but I'll say what made this one click for me was the main characters; the fact they all evolve in a small tight-knit community (some of the protagonists are family members of Simon Serailler, the hero of the series); also what I'd have to characterize as a woman's point of view, with lots of little details that only a woman would think to put in, which somehow made the whole mess bypass the inner critic who is always ready to ban disturbing reading from my life. I'll be continuing with the next book in the Simon Serrailler series for sure.

The narrator Steven Pacey added a lot to my enjoyment and I'm glad he narrated all the subsequent books so far.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-19-16

The Forest for the Trees

Barkskins is a multi-generational saga, but the main character of the story is the forest—the ancient forests that covered the world and most of North America before the settlers arrived and decided they must conquer the forest as well as the native Indians who had been living in peaceful harmony with the ancient trees before the arrival of the colonizers. The story begins with two French settlers who have signed on as indentured servants to work in New France. They are the originators of two 'dynasties': the Sels, and the Dukes. The Dukes are descendent from Charles Duquet, who literally escapes from his obligations into the woods, and through years of travel and trading, and an eventual marriage to a wealthy Dutch woman, establishes a foresting company that will operate over several generations and be partly responsible for the clear-cutting and deforestation of North America and New Zealand, from the 17th through the 21st century. The Sels are descendants from René Sel, who is forced into a marriage with a native Micmac woman. He fathers mixed-heritage children, who are all faced with the problems plaguing the native Indians as the settlers methodically took away their lands and their rights, as they strive to keep their Micmac origins alive despite the overwhelming challenges and persecution they face.

By necessity, some of the characters weren't as fully developed as others, and I found the huge cast of characters quite daunting, though there is a helpful family tree provided as a pdf chart with the audiobook. I had to refer to this often, but eventually it ceased to be an issue as a handful of characters were fully developed and came to the fore, carrying the bulk of the story with them. Proulx clearly wanted to show how the white Colonialists, motivated by greed and hubris, systematically destroyed forest land which they assumed was endless and would continue to regenerate itself. Of course we now know otherwise and are suffering the consequences of events which Proulx makes clear originated from the very beginning of the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans.

I very much wanted to love this story, but found it somewhat overwhelming at times, and the environmental message, while it is one I think is important to keep in mind, seemed overbearing at times, if not always explicitly stated. The word 'Barkskins' is an invention by Proulx, who says in an NPR interview that she's not entirely sure where the word originated, admitting she might have coined it herself, and that (her novel) "was Barkskins before even the first word was written." (

The narrator handled the various accents very well, and his overall performance is definitely recommended.

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27 of 32 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-18-16

The Horror! The Horror!

I had expected to more or less hate this novel because of the difficult subject matter and because so many readers before me have, but the narrator, David Horovitch helped me appreciate the beautiful writing from the start, and so I was hooked. The story of Robert Marlowe travelling by steamship into the heart of the Congo and witnessing the horrific treatment of black slaves is not an easy one to take in, but it became positively bizarre when the character of Kurtz was introduced. I can certainly see how Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was based on the fictional one (that famous line: "The horror! The horror!"). Conrad is considered a racist by some, and I have yet to read more about the man or his work to form a more informed impression, but if he is considered so because of this specific book, I'd have to say I disagree. While the language he uses to describe the black natives is predictably disturbing to the modern reader, the character of Marlowe, while he doesn't intervene to help the slaves, also observes their treatment with palpable horror, and Conrad seems to make a strong case against colonialism. A book I'll eventually have to revisit to make sense of Kurtz (can one ever make sense of a madman??). Next time I'll take in Kenneth Branagh's version to compare between two great performances.

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-18-16

Doesn't Disappoint!

Very much enjoyed this novel, about a man who is forced to give up his identity and go underground when he witnesses a murder and himself becomes the next target for the killer. A pharma company is about to launch a new cure for asthma, but something is amiss—might they go as far as murder to cover up their tracks? An interesting exploration of the underbelly of London, where the dispossessed and nameless manage to eke out a living. I became a fan of Boyd after my first book by him; he did not disappoint this time either and delivers an interesting suspense filled with intriguing characters.

Will look for more books narrated by Gideon Emery, who delivers a flawless performance.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful