Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Non-fiction mini-reviews: Super Freakonomics and Under the Banner of Heaven

Super Freakonomics

Written by: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Published: 2009

My thoughts: If you've watched Orange is the New Black you'll remember the scene where Big Boo comforts Pennsatucky about the children she aborted by citing a study which linked the Wade V Roe case on abortion with the drop in crime 20 years later. I first heard about that link when I caught a snippet of the Freakonomics documentary and after rewatching it with Tom last year I decided I should read the actual book. We don't own the first Freakonomics book, but for some reason we do read the second (which was probably for the best since I hadn't heard of any of the studies/stories that were in this one). The book really is fascinating and super-consumable - I finished it in one afternoon only breaking to run over to Tom and tell him about the latest chapter. I found the "why suicide bombers should buy life insurance" pretty problematic because it seemed like it was essentially just racial profiling with the fancy guise of economic patterning thrown over the top, but the other stories - especially the creative approaches to global cooling - were all creative, funny and fascinating.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Written by: Jon Krakauer

Published: 2003

My thoughts: I'm conflicted with how I feel about this book. On the one hand I really love the way Krakauer writes, he has drawn me into so many stories that I don't know I would necessarily find interesting or engaging otherwise. And when he writes about the Lafferty brothers, two brothers who killed their other brother's wife and child because of a 'calling from god', I felt that same sort of pull in his writing. However amidst the story of the Laffertys Krakauer sets out to tell the history of the Mormon church and explain why there are so many fundamentalist splinter groups. This is where I struggled. I am sure there are people who will find this interesting but the history sections, whether it was the content or Krakauer's writing I don't know, just bored me. That said, I am glad I read this book. I have never really known much about the Mormon faith and the short and turbulent history Krakauer paints really lays the ground for the extremist fundamental Mormon groups that spring up every so often. It also gives a side of American history that I don't often hear, and it's amazing to think how lawless* the US was until recently. So read it? I really don't know if it was that Krakauer was tackling too big a project for a book this length and his writing suffered or if the subject just wasn't enough to engage me. If you've read it, I'd love to hear what you thought.

*In the sense that there wasn't a great deal of unification or concrete army/police forces which led to a lot of chaos,

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve (The Passage #2)

Written by: Justin Cronin

Published: 2012

Synopsis: At the end of The Passage, the great viral plague had left a small group of survivors clinging to life amidst a world transformed into a nightmare. In the second volume of this epic trilogy, this same group of survivors, led by the mysterious, charismatic Amy, go on the attack, leading an insurrection against the virals: the first offensives of the Second Viral War.

To do this, they must infiltrate a dozen hives, each presided over by one of the original Twelve. Their secret weapon: Alicia, transformed at the end of book one into a half human, half viral—but whose side, in the end, is she really on? (Via Goodreads)


I finished reading The Passage while I traveled around Europe last year, and I made a stop in every book store I found to try and find a copy of The Twelve to read on my flight home. Considering my excitement to read The Twelve, it's maybe a little surprising that it took me over 3 months to finish. But my problem (alongside my general reading block) was the same as the one I had when I read The Passage, 1. it's flipping long you guys and 2. the first half is so chaotic and disjointed that it takes awhile to get absorbed into. With that said, I understand why there is so much location and character switching at the start. In both books it sets up the action set pieces of the second half of the novel and it adds a lot of the emotional weight of the narrative, but it also makes it hard to read at a decent clip. My edition was around 700 pages, I think I spent 3 months reading the first 300 pages, and less than a week to read the final 400.

But the book itself, the book I loved. After finishing The Passage I was so excited to find out what would happen next to the rag tag group of youngsters who seem to succeed against all odds. Would they find and defeat the rest of the 12? Would they live happily ever after? Would they ever see the other members of their little community again? When I first began The Twelve I stumbled a bit because it jumps to 5 years later* and suddenly characters from the first book are dead or missing. And even though I read these two books essentially back to back, I still had to get out my copy of The Passage and see if I missed something. There's also a chapter about a completely separate group of people and I struggled to place that event in the book's timeline, only working it out when the event later becomes relevant to the narrative. So there was some rocky ground there, and if you've had a big gap between reading The Passage, it's probably a good idea to revisit the book (or the wikipedia page) before launching into this one.

Knowing that the book is the second in a trilogy also causes some issues because it does seem like some parts are stretched out and treading water waiting for the intense conclusion which is surely coming in book three. That's not entirely fair on the book because like I said, after the mid-way point this book actually takes off at a decent clip but there is something ... hesitant? ... about the story. Perhaps that's in comparison to the insanity of the first book or maybe Cronin wanted to focus more in setting up the characters and foundations so that the third book could take off from page one. I don't know entirely and I can't quite put my finger on it because it isn't like there aren't huge set pieces in this book, it just feels like it's holding back.

I know this has been pretty broad, but it's been so long since I finished the book and I'm actually a little foggy about the details. But I want to get back into blogging more regularly and I felt like getting this review out into the world was probably a good step in that direction. So sorry for the broad and vague review, trust me when I say at the end I really enjoyed the book even amidst the slow and rocky first half and hesitancy.

*Maybe? It's been awhile since I finished it now and I can't remember specifics. It's definitely a chunk of time anyway.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

(audio)book review: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made 

Written and read by: Greg Sestero

Published: 2013

Synopsis: The Disaster Artist is Greg Sestero's laugh-out-loud funny account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and friendship to make "the Citizen Kane of bad movies" (Entertainment Weekly), which is now an international phenomenon, with Wiseau himself beloved as an oddball celebrity. Written with award-winning journalist Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist is an inspiring tour de force, an open-hearted portrait of an enigmatic man who will improbably capture your heart. (Via Goodreads)


“The only casting directors who’d be willing to call Tommy in on the basis of this headshot were the ones curious about what it was like to be murdered.”

Many moons ago, Tom sent me a link to a youtube video which neatly smooshed together some of a film's "best moments". The movie was The Room and the descriptor "best" is ... controversial at best. It is not a good movie, but it is a movie so bad that it's hilarious. 

Soon after that The Room was screened at a little cinema here in Brisbane and we were both hooked. I 100% do not recommend watching this film by yourself or even with a couple of friends. It's a pile of absolute garbage, but as a cinema experience it's amazing fun. There are all sorts of rituals and games that the audience perform through the screening, which aside from being fun to participate in have the added bonus of distracting from the nonsense onscreen.

When I heard that Greg Sestero (the cheating best friend Mark in the trailer) had written a book about his experience making the film I knew I had to read it. It took me several years but here I am, I have now officially read the book and know the story behind "the greatest bad movie ever made". Or rather, I have listened to the book. If you only take away two things from this review, be sure that they are to only watch The Room in a cinema with a huge group of people (and probably a significant amount of alcohol - I recommend scotchka) and listen to this book so that you can experience the beauty that is Sestero's Tommy Wiseau impression.

I don't think this book will offer much to people unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is The Room. The hook of the book is a privileged look inside what must have been an unbearable filming process and the man responsible for it. Tommy Wiseau is notoriously cagey about his past and it fuels the mythos that has developed around him and his film. This book further pushes this mythos, detailing all of the secrecy Wiseau maintained during their friendship while also peeling back a few of the layers. But even when something is revealed it's so crazy a story that it's hard to know if there is any truth there at all.

What is to be known for sure is that the movie must have been horrible to work on. Sestero detailed the lengthy shooting of The Room in painful detail ... painful because it resulted in 2 people taking trips to the hospital and multiple mutinies where large numbers of the crew walked off the set at once. The book alternates between a chapter on the production of The Room and the early days of the friendship that began in a San Franciscan acting class. The early portions of their relationship serve to make a clear foundation for how the production could be such a mess, but it also provides a really intimate look into the permanent state of self-doubt and fear that comes with being a young actor. I may have read the book for the eccentric Tommy Wiseau, but it really lead to a real appreciation for Greg Sestero.

So if you've seen the film and was attracted to that mess like a moth to the flame then definitely give the book a read/listen. Or if you've seen the film and hated it then maaaybe borrow it from the library and see if you can enjoy the schadenfreude. And if you haven't seen the film, then why are you reading this review? Go find a public screening, laugh at the absurdity and cry at the fact that they're now all probably richer off this terrible movie than any of us could wish to be. Then give the book a read.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train

Written by: Paula Hawkins

Published: 2015

Synopsis: Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good? (Via goodreads)

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts.”

When I was travelling through Europe I found this book in every book store and I nearly bought a copy, but since I was mostly travelling by trains and I wasn't sure if this book was about something evil happening on a train - I decided to not risk suddenly being terrified travelling alone in a strange country and bought The Twelve instead. But I did note it down because I did want to read it, I just wanted the safety of knowing I could avoid trains if I needed too.

Anyway, this is going to be a vague and short book because like most thrillers, it's best to avoid as many details and story points as possible before heading in. I certainly went into this blind, knowing only what the blurb on the back cover said. And since I really quite liked this book that's what I'd recommend for you too.

But in case you want some details here we go. The book is about Rachel, a woman who takes a train to and from work in London every day. She catches the same train in the morning and the same one in the evening, and because she follows this routine so regularly she knows exactly where the train stops or slows. At one particular point in her trip, the train slows down beside a series of terrace houses and she's able to glimpse a couple that live in one of them. She doesn't see them every day and she doesn't see them with much detail, but she sees enough to know that they're young and in love. She has a backstory for this couple, careers, names, hobbies - things she couldn't possibly know but which help pass the time and make her feel happy. There is a sense that Rachel is a little lonely, and perhaps she's missing this kind of love from her life. And then one morning while looking out for her favourite couple she sees something. It could be nothing, but in her gut she knows that isn't true. Rachel pulls at this thread and it unravels catastrophically for not only her, but for several other people too. Which people though I can't share without giving away some of the details that should really be discovered on reading.

I thought the book was pretty well constructed. Hawkins divulges the tiniest glimpses of details only slowly over time, pulling back the covers to reveal things dark or haunted or ugly. I don't mean to sound snobby, but thrillers often follow a fairly predictable path - even if you don't necessarily cotton on to who the killer/monster/villain is. Hawkins plays with all of the typical tools of the thriller, but she also experiments with these tools to construct a thriller that is both fairly traditional and also quite breathtaking. There is a sense of an unreliable narrator within this story, but Hawkins plays with this idea and the effect is rather dizzying. That's all I can say without giving anything away, but if you've read the book I'm sure you understand what I mean here.

I was a little worried when I began that it was going to be a Gone Girl clone. It's fairly cynical about life and people and love and the characters are all fairly unlikable. I had a couple of moments where I wondered if I really cared why things were happening or where they would go. But the unfolding narrative made me constantly change my mind about characters, for instance new information suddenly giving insight which adds a level of sympathy to a character's previously murky agenda. So even if I didn't necessarily like the characters, I was curious about uncovering the full story.

So if you've been looking for a new thriller then give this one a shot. It isn't perfect, but as a debut novel I think it shows a lot of promise for Hawkins in the future.

**I was thinking that instead of writing these vague "things happen, but read it for yourself" reviews I might start writing analysis reviews of thrillers instead. So they'd be aimed at people who had read the book so I could discuss the spoilers and what I liked/didn't like about the real story. Would people be into this or nah?**

Thursday, March 17, 2016

mini-reviews: Redshirts, Storm Front, Carry On and Flowers for Algernon


Written by: John Scalzi

Published: 2012

My thoughts: This was a book I'd heard a lot about over the years since it was published. Some good, some bad but almost everyone commented on just how nerdy it was. And nerdy it is, it is an incredibly meta joke about Star Trek and the unfortunate role the 'redshirts' play within that series. If you don't have a bit of a history with Star Trek and the preponderance of quick and sudden deaths for newly introduced characters on the show (which series? Take your pick) then I don't think you'll get much joy out of the book. And even being in on the joke as I was, it did feel like the meta jokes took precedence over actual narrative flow and structure at times. Overall I enjoyed the book and had fun reading it, but like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I did feel a bit like the joke had run its course about 100 pages in.

Storm Front (Dresden Files #1)

Written by: Jim Butcher

Published in: 2000

My thoughts: I actually read this ages ago, but never got around to finishing a review for it. It's a lot of fun, it's about a modern day magician living in Chicago and working as a P.I. Harry Dresden is sarcastic, grumpy and a little bit incompetent, but also clearly was a much better person and magician at an earlier point in his life (we learn a little about this as the book goes on). There's a lot of rules to how magic is used in this particular world and it's governed by a magical community who stamp down pretty heavily on anyone with a history using black magic, as Dresden once did. This makes Dresden's life and career very tricky when a murder is committed and it looks to both the magical and non-magical communities as though Dresden is the prime suspect. I do intend to read some more of these books, apparently they get really good from about book 7. That doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the next 6 books I have to get through, but if they're at least at the quality of this first novel I think they'll be interesting enough to take along on holidays or long rides on the train.

Carry On

Written by: Rainbow Rowell

Published: 2015

My Thoughts: I'm a little scared to say (in front of all of you, my fellow RR fans) that I wasn't too excited for Carry On. Fangirl was easily my least favourite of Rainbow's books so I wasn't sure that this book would deliver anything I was after. I was pleasantly surprised. I probably won't head back to reread it like I will Attachments or Eleanor and Park, but I found it funny, heartwarming, compelling and narratively sound (which sounds douche-y, but considering it was essentially Drarry fan-fiction I wasn't sure it would really stand up as a story of its own). I liked this a lot more than the extracts in Fangirl led me to believe I would enjoy it, so my sincerest apologies to Rainbow for daring to doubt her.

Flowers for Algernon

Written by: Daniel Keyes

Published: 1958

My thoughts: Though I hadn't read Flowers for Algernon before last October, I knew the story pretty well and as  there were at least 2 shows  (It's Always Sunny, The League) last year which spoofed the concept, I figured it was time I read the source material. Flowers is fairly short but it hooked me in from the start. Telling the story of a man with below average intelligence the book is written from his perspective literally, taking an epistolary approach to tell Charlie's story as he undergoes surgery and testing to increase his intelligence. You end up incredibly close to Charlie because of the way it is written and it is a real gut punch to interpret things about his life that he's never been able to recognise because of his intelligence and general innocence. It's a very simple story but the takeaway is huge and immensely emotional.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Trailer: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

I feel like it was only yesterday I heard that they were making Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children into a film and now we have a trailer? I wasn't super impressed with the book when I read it, so I don't really mind the obvious changes to the characters and plot because I hope they've been made to fix some of the roughness of the book. But I imagine if you were sucked in with Ransom Rigg's story you might have some mixed feelings, so here's hoping the changes are for the best. Also I feel like this is the first time I've seen Eva Green in a non-villain role? Which I am totally on board for, even if at the back of my mind a tiny kernel of distrust leaves me waiting for a duplicitous switch half way through the film.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Holiday Photo Diary: New Mexico and the Grand Canyon

Guys! I had the most wonderful time travelling around the South West! So for anyone not in on the whole backstory, I had a conference to attend in Albuquerque and I decided to make a trip of it and bring Tom along. We rented a car in Texas and hit the road and traveled across to New Mexico and hit Santa Fe, Bandelier National Monument (Los Alamos), Albuquerque, Roswell, White Sands National Monument, Las Cruces before driving into Arizona and up to the Grand Canyon South Rim. And after that it was a drive through the desert to California and back on a plane to Australia. So obviously LOTS happened. The best thing though was how different it was from our previous US trip. Not only were we in a different section of the States, but we were travelling differently and aiming to see a different side. Outside of San Francisco (which was only a pit stop before the airport) we didn't really see any big cities this time, but we did get a chance to see so much more of the stellar US outdoors. And even though we did see a teeny bit of snow up around Santa Fe and in southern Arizona, this time we were seeing a totally different type of American winter. Loved it. Absolutely loved it all. Since I'm cramming everything into a single post I'm going to leave my description short and let the photos do the talking. But I will happily deconstruct the holiday in the comments section and give countless recommendations or chat about the best parts of my holiday (oh, perhaps Tom proposing? :P).

Santa Fe:

Took a brief stop on route 66 on our way to Santa Fe

Our stunning home away from home

Bandelier National Monument:

Spot the Tom!

I fell in love with the colours and textures up around Bandelier



White Sands:

Grand Canyon:


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Holiday Photo Diary: Germany (Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg)

Germany was sort of my home base as I traveled through Europe. I stopped at Cologne on the way through to Prague, spent some time in Berlin before heading into Scandinavia and stopped into Hamburg before making my way to my final stop in Amsterdam. I'd spent most of 2015 learning German on the Duolingo app so it was one of the countries I felt most comfortable in, language wise, which was was a welcome relief while travelling by myself.

I mentioned being sick at the start of my Prague visit, and sadly it was at its worst in Cologne. I had caught an overnight bus from London so I was tired, stressed and aching. The train station in Cologne is huge, but I think there are maybe 4 seats in the whole place so I wandered around the area before trying to grab a seat in Starbucks to warm up and rest my weary bones. Sick or not, the cathedral was seriously stunning.

Berlin was also amazing. My photos make it seem a little grey and morose, but it certainly felt brighter and more exuberant in person. I was staying in Mitte, which put me in the perfect positon to visit all the iconic sites from world war 2. I have so much respect for the Germans and their absolute refusal to hide from their history. It's a dark and devastating past and you can't walk down a street without a reminder of exactly how horrific it was, but at the same time the city is so alive and positive. I took another one of the free walking tours which started at the Brandenburg Gate, and went past the Reichstagg, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Hitler's Bunker (or rather the carpark that sits there today), Luftwaffe HQ, Checkpoint Charlie, East Side Gallery and some other spots. The tour guide was fantastic and gave us a great history of Germany both pre- and post- WWII. I did tours through a few different companies, but I did a few through Sandemanns and I wholeheartedly recommend their free walking tours. Such an excellent way to get your head around the city and some free advice on what you should visit and what can be skipped. After the tour I took a train out to Sonnenalee to get a tattoo by the amazing Daisy. She's actually from my home town (small world or what?!) and if you are anywhere near Berlin pay her a visit. Her line work is so delicate and her style is incomparable. After my tattoo session I went down to the turkish markets that are in the area. If I lived in Berlin I would buy all of my food there, it was all so mouthwatering. There are non-food things for sale too, but honestly I was so hungry that they were basically blurs as I hunted down the food stalls.

The next day I started with a coffee and a walk through the Tiergarten, the large park right beside the Brandenburg Gate. It's a gorgeous park, but it's also home to a lot of monuments commemorating people who were persecuted during WWII. My favourite monument was probably the one commemorating the persecuted homosexuals, it's a grey block of concrete with a small screen on one end which screens a short film of two men kissing. It's so simple but it's so deliberate and unapologetic and I loved it, I can't really explain it any better than that. I had signed up for a tour out to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which took up the majority of my afternoon. It was such a raw experience, it paralleled the visit Tom and I took to Hiroshima a few years ago. One of the most mind-boggling aspects was getting off the bus and seeing all of the houses buttressed against the camp. I can't imagine trying to live a regular life with such an unavoidable reminder of human suffering outside of your window. I think it'd probably be incredibly humbling, but I don't think I'd be strong enough. The tour guide sat with each person individually on the train back into Berlin and helped us find somewhere to visit to help balance out the experience of Sachsenhausen and I really appreciated that. He also gave everyone a list of books and movies about the concentration camps that he recommends, both fiction and non-fiction. He really went above and beyond the usual tour guide role.

In direct comparison to my rather somber Berlin visit (I swear it wasn't all WWII and concentration camps!), I spent my day in Hamburg literally just hopping between Christmas markets. It was divine. They opened at around 10, and there were at least 4 within a short-ish walk from each other. I started at the Weisserzauber markets on the edge of Binnenalster, where I drank mulled wine at 10.30am and then had to make a beeline for some bratwurst because it went straight to my head! The next market was at the Hamburg Rathaus (town hall). These markets were absolutely packed full of people and I shuffled along with everyone drinking hot chocolate and buying little handmade Christmas decorations. Each market had their own souvenir mugs and by the time I made my way back to the hotel my bag was clinking from all of the cups I had purchased. There was a parade of dancing children and small floats riding around the streets and it was the cheeriest parade ever. There's something about Wham Chistmas carols and snow machine and dancing gingerbread which makes my heart shine.

Actually I lied, I didn't spend my whole day at the Christmas markets. I did spend most of my day there, but I spent the afternoon at the Museum Für Kunst und Gewerbe. They had an exhibit of 'jugenstil' or the art nouveau movement which was a nice compliment to the Mucha museum in Prague. I also got to see some exhibits on modernity and fashion and interiors, islamic art and flatstock gig posters. And when I went to find a bathroom I found a group of 6 little girls dressed like Marie Antoinette dancing in a alcove. It was basically the most perfect museum ever. They also had a local artist market in one section and I'll tell ya, if I had the money I would have bought my weight in hand-dyed scarves, jewelry and pottery.

Cologne Cathedral
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin
The memorial is said to be inspired by the Jewish cemetery in Prague, which incidentally Hitler wanted to conserve as a museum of the extinct Jews. Just in case you didn't already think he was an awful, awful, awful person.

Brandenburg Gate

Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, Berlin
My new tattoo!
East Side Gallery, Berlin

Christmas parade in Hamburg, complete with snow machine!



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