Finales and New Beginnings: A YA Double Dip Review…

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Today’s YA Double Dip Review will require a snack that won’t repeat on you easily because today’s books feature a fair bit of graphic gore.  We received both of today’s titles from HarperCollins Australia for review, so let’s get dipping!

First up is the conclusion to Derek Landy’s action-packed, monster-fuelled Demon Road series, American Monsters.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Bigger, meaner, stronger.

Amber closes in on her murderous parents as they make one last desperate play for power. Her own last hopes of salvation, however, rest beyond vengeance, beyond the abominable killers – living and dead – that she and Milo will have to face.

For Amber’s future lies in her family’s past, in the brother and sister she never knew, and the horrors beyond imagining that befell them.

Dip into it for…  american-monsters

…a finale that really does the series justice.  I am so glad that Landy didn’t fall into the trap of trying to draw the ending out as long as possible while attempting to eke every last ounce of readability out of the story because its an all too common tactic of authors finishing up a profitable series.  American Monsters is perfectly paced, switching between action and banter, with some excellent twists to keep the ending interesting.  The book is a reasonably quick read, which I was pleased about, and there is no faffing about introducing new characters or new plotlines that take up space. Rather, Amber and Milo get straight down to the business of hunting down her parents (with a few Astaroth-ordered stop offs along the way) while trying to figure out a way to backstab both her parents and Astaroth in one (or at the most two) easy manoeuvres.

Don’t dip if…

…you haven’t read the other books in the series.  You could probably still enjoy the action parts of the book, but as all of the characters and back story are well and truly established, you may find yourself a tad confused about what’s going on.  I myself had a bit of trouble remembering exactly who was who with a few of the bad guys and serial killers that made an appearance, and a character glossary at the beginning would have been helpful for old fogeys like me who suffer from a touch of the Old Timer’s disease.

Overall Dip Factor

I have to reiterate what a satisfying series finale this is.  It’s pacey, familiar faces turn up in unexpected places and while I did say there are no new characters to muddy the waters, there is a hitherto unmet mysterious trucker who certainly throws a few hellish spanners in the works for Amber and Milo.  There’s a lot more soul-searching going on for Amber here (although not so much that it slows the pace) as she attempts to reconcile being a demon’s servant with the more human and humane parts of herself.  The ending wraps things up nicely, while leaving the way open for a possible fourth story, but Derek Landy returning to a series after it’s obviously finished? Pfft, as if that’s likely to happen!

Next up is a story of new beginnings: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.

A deeply moving portrait of a teenage girl on the verge of losing herself and the journey she must take to survive in her own skin, Kathleen Glasgow’s debut is heartbreakingly real and unflinchingly honest. It’s a story you won’t be able to look away from.

Dip into it for… girl-in-pieces

…one part standard psychiatric hospital story, one part standard recovery story and one part interesting take on “homeless girl makes good” story.  What Glasgow has done particularly well here is the realistic depiction of the post-hospitalisation experience, in which Charlie is left on her own with no support and is expected to manage both her illness and the basic problems of life, like finding a job and somewhere to live. The short, choppy chapters, particularly at the start and towards the end of the book, reflect Charlie’s state of mind and her precarious situation. It’s obvious that Glasgow has insider knowledge about the internal conflict experienced by someone trying to recover from trauma or mental illness that swings between choosing life-affirming strategies and giving in to familiar impulses.  Charlie is a young woman who has experienced abandonment, the loss of family and friends, drug abuse, homelessness and sex trafficking before her sixteenth birthday and as a result, is left with a steep hill to climb towards a comfortable life.  Hope prevails though, surprising as that is, and Charlie keeps putting one foot in front of the other, despite being rocked by those around her.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for a story bathed in sunshine and rainbows.  Even though there are some hopeful aspects to the story, overall it can come across as a pretty depressing read.  The amount of struggling that Charlie has to do just to catch a break is a bit of a downer, but once again, that’s often the reality for people on the bottom rung of society trying to climb up.  There’s also a fair amount of violence (self-harm in particular), drug use and sexual assault, so if those are topics that you’d rather steer clear of, this is definitely not the book for you.

Overall Dip Factor

While I think this is an authentic and engaging story about a traumatised young woman trying to make a go of her life against all odds, I still feel like I’ve read this all before.  Call it an occupational hazard of blogging, or the consequence of having a special interest in fiction (and particularly YA fiction) relating to mental health, but I do feel like I’ve seen this story, or versions of it, umpteen times before, in Girl, Interrupted, The Mirror World of Melody Black, The Pause, Skin and Bone, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Cracked and pretty much all of Ellen Hopkin’s work, not to mention the memoirs of Kate Richards, Sandy Jeffs, Anne Deveson and Patrick Cockburn.  If you have not delved quite as deeply as I into the realms of fiction relating to mental illness and trauma, then Girl in Pieces would probably be a good place to start, provided you are prepared for some confronting content in places.  Glasgow has left out no detail of the travails and triumphs on the road to recovery from a place of deep suffering and readers will be wishing Charlie the best of luck and all good things by the time the novel reaches its conclusion.

Have either of these titles given you an appetite for more reading?

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

The Easy Way Out: An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review…

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Before I kick off, I should probably mention that WordPress kindly reminded me that it was my four-year blogiversary a few days ago, so have a celebratory snack on me, if you like.

Today’s book is one that will inspire conversation, get your little grey cells pumping and place you in an ethical conundrum from which there may be no return.  It’s also an enjoyable read.  I speak of The Easy Way Out by Stephen Amsterdam, which we received from Hachette Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

If you could help someone in pain, would you?

Evan is a nurse, a suicide assistant. His job is legal . . . just. He’s the one at the hospital who hands out the last drink to those who ask for it.

Evan’s friends don’t know what he does during the day. His mother, Viv, doesn’t know what he’s up to at night. And his supervisor suspects there may be trouble ahead.

As he helps one patient after another die, Evan pushes against legality, his own morality and the best intentions of those closest to him, discovering that his own path will be neither quick nor painless.

He knows what he has to do.

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Steven Amsterdam challenges readers to face the most taboo and heartbreaking of dilemmas. Would you help someone end their life?

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Read it if:

* you think George R. R. Martin got it right and prefer a book where nearly everyone dies by the end

*you suspect you’ve got the right sort of temperament, character and belief system to fill the role of a nurse in the assisted-dying unit

*you’re looking for a book that the people in your book club will actually read – instead of pretend to read

*you like books about big issues that don’t rely on preachiness or shock tactics to present their message

This isn’t the first novel featuring assisted dying (or euthanasia or suicide or whatever you want to call it) I’ve read, but Amsterdam impressed me here with the subtle way in which the topic has been approached.  That might seem like an odd statement to make – a book that plainly states that it’s about assisted dying might hardly be deemed to be “subtle” – but Amsterdam has done a brilliant job of laying out many of the complexities, be they legal, ethical or practical, that surround the idea of assisted dying and allowing the reader to absorb these without steering the discourse in a particular direction.

Without making it obvious, the author has included all types of end-of-life choices throughout the novel, including suicide of the conventional type (if we can call it that), the “pre-planned” type of assisted dying that features a clear end-of-life directive, the “look the other way” sort of medically assisted dying that goes on in hospitals all the time for those who are terminally ill and in pain, and the “legally sanctioned” assisted dying of which Evan’s job is a key part.  Simply by including a wide range of characters whose deaths impact on the story, Amsterdam has neatly thrown out the question to both advocates and those opposing an individual’s right to choose their death as to how this concept can be managed realistically.

If you’re the sort of person who has strong views on whether or not an individual should have the right to choose the manner and time of their death, this book is going to provide plenty of fodder for your thought-processes.  Should a mentally ill or socially isolated person have the same access to end-of-life processes as a terminally ill person, for instance?  Should a family’s objections to an end-of-life choice have a bearing on the access to assisted death of the person choosing to die?  What should happen if the person has made a clear choice but is physically unable to carry it out by the time the legal processes are finalised?  I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’m glad that this book has raised these questions (and more!) for pondering.

I should also point out the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous also, which is a clever touch.

Apart from being an “issues” book, The Easy Way Out is also an absorbing and highly readable novel.  Depending on how deeply you want to engage with the ethical content of the story, the book could certainly be read as a sort of grown-up “coming of age” novel that just happens to feature a main character in a highly unusual job.  Evan, the protagonist, does an awful lot of growing and soul-searching throughout the novel as things he thought were clear in his mind become muddied by one life experience or another.  His relationships, family history and work environment all force him to re-evaluate things he thought were obvious, and as his situation changes, so too does his ability to be sure of his decisions.  I particularly liked the authenticity of Evan as a character and the fact that he sits in that hazy position in which most of us have found ourselves at one time or another – that of being completely sure of something until we aren’t – and the absolute upheaval that this can cause on a personal level.

If you’re looking for a reasonably quick read that also provides some food for thought and a cast of fascinating characters, I’d definitely recommend taking The Easy Way Out…off the shelf and giving it a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

An MG Double-Dip: Bubbles and Boy Bands…

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It’s middle grade Double-Dip time again!  I just love getting stuck into the middle grade titles – my TBR shelf comprises about 75% middle grade titles and it’s a reading age-bracket that we just can’t get enough of.  Today we have a boy in a bubble and a girl competing with a boy band.  Grab your snack and dive in!

First up we have Girl vs. Boy Band: The Right Track by Harmony Jones, the opener of a new series aimed at tween girls who aren’t quite ready for YA contemporary titles but are craving a bit of innocent romantic interaction.  We received this one from Bloomsbury for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Talented but painfully shy eighth-grader Lark secretly writes feisty, heartfelt songs about her life-about school, crushes on boys, not getting along with her mom, and missing her dad who lives in Nashville. But that secret becomes harder to keep when Lark’s mother, a music record executive at her own label, announces that British boy band Abbey Road will be coming to live with them while they make their first album!

Sharing her L.A. house with three noisy, mischievous rising stars isn’t as glamorous as expected, especially when things aren’t going smoothly with the band members. When one of them plagiarizes one of Lark’s songs and passes it off as his own, will Lark gain the courage to step into the spotlight herself?

Dip into it for…girl vs boy band

…innocent adventures with a self-effacing and  down-to-earth main character who is going through some majorly disruptive life events.  Lark is a girl with a lot of talent but not much confidence, whose recent family breakup has meant that she has had to move to a new town.  Her best friend Mimi provides the comic relief and the encouragement and the strong friendship developed throughout the book will appeal to young female readers.  As indeed will the attractive young males that suddenly appear in Lark’s house, due to her mother’s job as a musical talent agent and recording studio boss.  Generally, this is a story featuring a positive pair of female leads, pitched at a female audience on the cusp of the teenage experience.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not up for a tween-girl issues fest.  I will admit that this is not my kind of book, and while there is obviously a gap in the market that needs to be filled with age-appropriate content for young women who are venturing into the romance/contemporary genre and need something slightly less adult-themed than your typical YA title, I cannot picture the actual young person who will pick up this book and get excited about it.  Clearly, I am not the target audience for this one.

Overall Dip Factor

If you can stomach tween-angst (or you are a tween), then this is a fun, light read with some beguiling main characters on a crazy, growing-up adventure.  There’s a bit of diversity thrown in, in that Mimi, Lark’s best friend is Latina.  This is a good opening piece for what will be an ongoing series with a slight cliffhanger ending that will entice readers to seek out the second book.  Overall, I enjoyed the friendship between Mimi and Lark and the focus on Lark gaining confidence to shine her light, as it were.

Next up we have The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster, which we received from Simon & Schuster Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

They call it a crash when the blood goes from my head to my feet, pours out into the room and drains through a hole in the middle of the floor. They call it a crash when the walls start spinning and the pictures blur. Then the ceiling turns black and the floor turns black and I don’t know which way I’m facing any more.

Eleven-year-old Joe can’t remember a life outside of his hospital room, with its beeping machines and view of London’s rooftops. His condition means he’s not allowed outside, not even for a moment, and his few visitors risk bringing life-threatening germs inside his ‘bubble’. But then someone new enters his world and changes it for ever.

THE BUBBLE BOY is the story of how Joe spends his days, copes with his loneliness and frustrations, and looks – with superhero-syle bravery, curiosity and hope – to a future without limits. Expect superheroes, super nurses and a few tears from this truly unique story.

Dip into it for…the bubble boy

…a remarkably engaging story, considering that all the action takes place entirely in the one room!  Joe is a winning narrator, and despite the fact that the majority of the other characters in the book are adults, the story never loses the feel of being a middle grade read, told by a middle grade-aged protagonist.  The inclusion of Henry, Joe’s fellow bubble boy from America, and their regular Skype chats, plus the computer forum interactions between Joe and various others provides a nice change in format from the typical text, and reflects the sense that it is mostly tiny changes in day-to-day routine that Joe looks forward to.  There are some big issues at play here, but Foster manages to keep most of them in balance with a deft hand.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for an action-packed adventure.  Much like a long, uneventful hospital stay, the book moves at a leisurely, predictable pace with stretches of sameness punctuated by startling interludes.

Overall Dip Factor

This is a middle grade “relationship and growth” novel that is atypical in the telling.  While there are challenges and sad events that Joe has to face, there is an undeniable sense of warmth and security running through the book that neatly compensates for the more ominous elements of Joe’s life.  On reflection, I wonder how the book might have read differently, had Joe’s parents been in the picture, but that is just idle curiosity.  Overall, The Bubble Boy is an intriguing and thought-provoking (and quite funny) foray into middle-grade sicklit (!) and a strong second offering from Foster.

I hope your appetite for middle grade reading has been sated somewhat by these two titles!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Mondays are for Murder: Beloved Poison..

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I honestly didn’t think we’d get a Murderous Monday in this month.  Things were looking a bit shaky – time was running out, I’d had a crack at two separate candidates and found them lacking – but then along comes Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson, kindly provided by Hachette Australia for review, and all of a sudden we have a dark, stench-laden, historical, medical, gender-bending murder mystery on our claws.  Brilliant!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour’s Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.

Six tiny coffins are uncovered, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary’s old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgottenpast – with fatal consequences.

In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate and the gallows, Jem’s adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour’s destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. Murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

beloved poison

Plot Summary:

Jem Flockhart is a young woman pretending to be a young man, working in the apothecary of (architecturally) condemned hospital St Saviour’s, under the guidance of her father and a host of unsavoury medical men.  When Will Quartermain rolls up as the man in charge of overseeing the relocation of interred residents of St Saviour’s graveyard, prior to the hospitals’ demolition, Jem is annoyed at having to share her sleeping quarters and worried that personal secrets may come to light.  While showing Will around the hospital chapel, Jem unknowingly unearths some strange, disturbing relics that will set off a chain of events that threaten nearly everyone Jem holds dear.  One murder follows another and unless Jem and Will can make some links between the past and the present, Jem may well end up accused of the crimes and facing the gallows.

The Usual Suspects:

Pretty much everyone who works at St Saviour’s hospital is a suspect in this unusual murder mystery.  The main doctors, Magorian, Catchpole and Graves, all have motives and shady pasts; the wives and daughter of two of the doctors may well have their own reasons to commit murder; and there are servants, prostitutes and street urchins who could all have played a part.  Given that this is a historical fiction with certain darkish overtones, nobody is entirely blameless of wrong-doing of one sort or another and most of the characters are hiding some sort of secret they’d prefer was kept from the public.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is a bit of an unusual pursuit, given that the first murder doesn’t happen until quite a way into the book.  Before that, the focus is more on figuring out the meaning behind the strange relics that Will and Jem discover.  Once the first murder occurs though, people start dropping like flies and the hunt is on in earnest.  It’s tricky to pinpoint the killer/s ahead of time though, because salient information is drip-fed throughout and relationships between characters are all important in unravelling the mystery.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the steady drip, drip, drip of an alchemist’s retort

If you love a good murder mystery format but are looking for something with a sinister twist and more secrets than you could poke a rag-covered stick at, then I definitely recommend picking up Beloved Poison.  There is so much more going on here than in your typical murder mystery that it actually took me a while to figure out that this was actually going to involve hunting for a murderer.  There’s cross-dressing, graveyard excavation, limb amputations, lady almoners, poisons and potions, degenerative diseases, executions, bizarre rituals, mental asylums, prostitutes, ghostly presences and surgery practiced without regard for cleanliness and hygiene.

If I had to boil this one down though, I’d say that it was about secrets and masks.  We find out early on that Jem is playing a gender-swapping role for reasons that are fleshed out (although not, in my opinion, entirely believable) as the story unfolds, and is assisted in this by a large facial birthmark.  Jem’s father has some secrets of his own, not least of which relating to the death of Jem’s mother in childbirth.  The doctors of the hospital are all playing their own agendas, and each have habits, mannerisms and methods of working that are decidedly unpalatable, and their wives and lovers are just as bad.

The best thing about this book is the pervading atmosphere of bleakness and unrelenting gloom that Thomson has set up.  The historical aspects are faithfully recreated and some of the medical details described in stomach-churning detail.  While the atmosphere is thick with a pervasive miasma of sinister goings-on, the book itself isn’t a depressing read.  Jem and Will, and even apprentice apothecary Gabriel and servant Mrs Speedicut, inject a certain sense of fervour and hope that provides a neat counterpoint to their unsavoury surroundings.  Even if you don’t pick this one up for the murder mystery aspect there is plenty to uncover as you peel back the mud-encrusted layers of the lives of St Saviour’s residents.

I was also happy to see that this appears to be a standalone novel.  After all the shocks and “blergh” moments in this one, I don’t think I could stomach a second foray into London’s stinky historical underbelly any time soon!

I am also submitting this one for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

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You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A Kidlit, Nonfiction “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Nonfiction 2015Today’s book is aimed at a young audience but fascinated me all the same, what with me being so young at heart and all that. Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a concise history of the events leading up to the imprisonment of Mary Mallon as a “healthy carrier” of typhoid who inadvertently spread the disease to many of the households in which she worked as a cook. Before I picked this one up, I knew absolutely nothing about Typhoid Mary, beyond being familiar with the name. After reading, I feel I have been much enlightened and am slightly chagrined (and mildly disappointed, admittedly) to discover that most of my assumptions were utterly wrong.

I am also submitting this one in the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.

Let’s crack on. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

What happens when a person’s reputation has been forever damaged?

With archival photographs and text among other primary sources, this riveting biography of Mary Mallon by the Sibert medalist and Newbery Honor winner Susan Bartoletti looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary’s controversial life. How she was treated by medical and legal officials reveals a lesser-known story of human and constitutional rights, entangled with the science of pathology and enduring questions about who Mary Mallon really was. How did her name become synonymous with deadly disease? And who is really responsible for the lasting legacy of Typhoid Mary?

This thorough exploration includes an author’s note, timeline, annotated source notes, and bibliography.

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Five Things I’ve Learned From…

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America

  1. If a woman walks like a man, it is likely she is hiding a deadly secret, according to the learned opinions of sanitary officials of Mary’s day.
  2. If you find yourself inexplicably transported to the time before electric refrigeration, declining the dessert menu might save your life as well as your waistline.
  3. Much like today, the popular media of the past was a great means for spreading unfounded hysteria, misinformation and fear-mongering yet catchy nicknames.
  4. Mary may not have actually been the deadliest cook in America, but one of a (not very hygienically washed) handful of such cooks
  5. Even if you have been labelled the deadliest cook in America, there will always be some people who are happy to eat your baked goods.

As narrative nonfiction books for youngsters go, this is a surprisingly engaging tale that attempts to look behind the scandalous headlines and get to the crux of Mary Mallon and her role in inadvertently spreading disease through her role as a cook for well-off households. The early chapters read a bit like a detective story as health officials attempt to find the cause of an outbreak of typhoid within a prominent family. I was drawn in from the start and the first half of the book had me guessing and deducing along with George Soper, a sanitation engineer with big dreams of unmasking the first “healthy carrier’ of typhoid in America.

I appreciated the way in which the author looked at the “chase” from Mary’s point of view. It was very easy to sympathise with her when, out of the blue from her perspective, a strange man turns up at her door telling her she is spreading a deadly disease and demanding she provide samples of bodily fluids. It was not hard to picture Mary’s aggressive response to such an approach.

The second half of the book, which concentrates on Mary’s imprisonment on a hospital island for years at a time, moves at a much slower pace than the first half and takes a more in-depth look at the legal rights of Mary and the government orders that kept her from release. The competing forces of individual rights and protection of the public are discussed at length as the author points out other cases (the “Typhoid Tom, Dick and Harries” as I thought of them) of people who were known to be healthy carriers responsible for infecting others, but who weren’t imprisoned.

I will admit to being slightly disappointed that the story behind the headlines was reasonably dry and based in legality. I was hoping (and feel free to think of me as a scurrilous rascal if you like) for a real humdinger of a tale in which a murderous and downtrodden servant deliberately brought low the upper classes before trip-trapping off to do it again in another unsuspecting city.

Instead, the author has created a very readable biography in which the characters spring off the page and the inconsistencies in the treatment of Mary in comparison to others in her situation allow the reader to get an insight into why Mary might have behaved in the way she did. Based on this experience, I would be very interested in reading more nonfiction by Bartoletti in the future, and I would recommend this to scientifically-minded youngsters and as a great conversation starter for classes learning about public health or individual rights.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 9/10

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Shouty Doris Interjects about…Madness: A Memoir

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Shouty Doris interjects

Welcome one and all to a new feature here at the shelf – Shouty Doris Interjects! Every so often you come across a book that will arouse strong emotions. When this happens, you may find yourself shouting (in your head, mostly), at the book, the author, the characters – whatever it is that has you all het up. Well around the shelf we have someone who takes this interjection to the next level. She is known as Shouty Doris. She is a denizen of the shelf and often takes it upon herself to loudly interject when happening upon certain emotion-provoking reads. And so we have given her a feature. She is a vocal non-fan of modern technology, so I was forced to create an artist’s impression of her countenance for the feature button. It’s quite a good likeness, I think. So enjoy this new feature – I hope Shouty Doris’s shoutiness will give you some sense of the complex issues behind today’s book.image

I’m also popping this one in for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the  comfy armchair.

The book is Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Madness is a real world for the many thousands of people who are right now living within it. It never apologises. Sometimes it is a shadow, ever present, without regard for the sun. Sometimes it is a well of dark water with no bottom, or a levitation device to the stars. Madness, a memoir is an insight into what it’s like to live with psychosis over a period of ten years, in which bouts of acute illness are interspersed with periods of sanity. The world is beautiful and terrifying and sometimes magical. The sanctity of life is at times precious and at times precarious and always fragile. It’s a story of learning to manage illness with courage and creativity, of achieving balance and living well. It is for everyone now living within the world of madness, for everyone touched by this world, and for everyone seeking to further his or her understanding of it, whether you think of madness as a biological illness of the brain or an understandable part of the continuum of the human condition.

madness a memoir

Right from the start, I found this to be a harrowing read. I had just picked it out for a bit of pre-naptime reading and was treated to a very graphic and frankly, stomach-churning description of the author’s attempt to amputate her own arm. While this was definitely not what I was expecting as an opening gambit, it was undoubtedly compelling and I knew that this would be an engaging read.

Shouty Doris interjects

It was bloody disgusting, all that talk about fatty tissue and seeping blood. I nearly had to reach for the sick bag. Honestly, books like this should come with a warning. I had to take one of my tablets to calm down.

This was not the first memoir I’ve read from someone diagnosed with Bipolar, but what set this one apart was the fact that it was written by a trained medical doctor and deeply explored the effects of her psychosis on everyday life. An author’s note at the beginning informs the reader that the book has been put together using the author’s notebooks as a basis for describing the periods during which she was unwell, and I found it interesting that while the descriptions were quite harrowing and shocking, we were also dealing with a narrator who, by her own admission, was unreliable. I questioned, for instance, the fact that none of her colleagues (who were all medical doctors, you will recall) picked up on the obvious signs of her psychosis.

Shouty Doris interjects

What you mean is, it beggars belief that she could turn up to work wearing multiple layers of odd clothing, with seeping wounds from a self-inflicted hydrochloric acid burn, after nights spent awake and imbibing large amounts of alcohol and not one of her learned, medical doctor colleagues noticed anything was amiss. And her being in and out and in and out and in and out of hospital and missing work! Surely her boss would have figured out that something strange was going on!

That aside, the book really raised the complexity of mental illness and the services available to people who suffer from its many variations.

Shouty Doris interjects

How did her workmates not notice the smell? The unkempt hair? I mean, how could you not notice the seeping wounds?!! WHY WOULDN’T ANYONE HELP THIS WOMAN??

The author had quite a negative view of psychiatrists in general as well as the specific psychiatrists of whom she was a patient. This was a recurring theme of Richards’ personal narrative, despite the fact that during much of the book she was too unwell to comply with the psychiatrist’s recommendations.

Shouty Doris interjects

Why did she stop taking her medication? She was doing so well! WHY IS THIS WOMAN NOT CHAPERONED DAY AND NIGHT?! She obviously can’t take care of herself. It was just a revolving door – self-harm episode, hospitalisation, out the door with some medication, and start it all again. For Pete’s sake woman, put away the alcohol! Follow the Doctor’s orders! Wait, now she’s going to New York? And Israel?? On her own? WHOSE STUPID IDEA WAS THAT? THIS IS NOT GOING TO END WELL!

Overall, this book was an in-depth look at one woman’s experience with severe mental illness over a period of years and her journey through the public health system. Reading it has stirred up a lot of questions for me about the glaring gaps in provision of mental health services generally, and especially for those who don’t have the money to afford private health care. In essence, while it was a difficult read in places, Madness is an engaging addition to the literature on mental illness in an Australian context.

I’d recommend this one to anyone interested in individuals’ experiences with mental illness, particularly Bipolar, but if this is your first foray into memoirs about mental illness I’d probably start with something a little less “in your face”, lest you be overwhelmed with the enormity of the subject.

Shouty Doris interjects

Thank goodness it did end well. Or well enough. Although that should have been obvious, seeing as she wrote the book. I need a cup of tea and a good lie down after that debacle. It’s enough to give an old woman heart failure.

Non-Fiction Reading Challenge Progress: 4/10

Until next time,

Bruce (and Doris)