In Review: The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Nov 14, 2012 by

Dear Audy,

The Brain That Changes Itself has been my favourite book for some time now. Younger, novel devouring me would never have believed that one day I would come to love a non-fiction book more than all the others, but that’s where I find myself. Today I read to learn far more often than I read for escape.

The Brain That Changes Itself completely opened my mind to new and amazing ideas. It enlightened me as to the previously misunderstood workings of my brain and to the hope that comes from recognising infinite possibility.

It’s been a while since I’ve read thoroughly through the pages, this review will be focused on what I’ve learnt from reading it, what I’ve retained several years later and how the information has effected my life with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

Click image for source

First published in 2007, The Brain That Changes Itself has made an impact on many people. This is a big achievement for a science-type book, many of them are inaccessible through all of the jargon. Norman Doidge, however, has managed to bring together inspiring stories from the world of brain science and communicate them in a way that is easy for readers to understand.

This book approaches its topic from the angle of sharing personal stories. The byline reads: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science – and that’s exactly what you’ll find inside.

There are stories about people with issues such as brain damage, stroke, anxiety and phantom limb pain. Sometimes, the way that we figure out how something works is by studying what happens in the cases that it doesn’t work. In the instance of the brain, a lot can be learned by looking at how the brain copes with or recovers from injury.

Some of the most inspiring stories in The Brain That Changes Itself are those about people recovering from strokes (a situation in which parts of the brain no longer work at all) and also those about people that have re-wired their brains around actual missing tissue, that is, part of their brain is physically absent due to injury or development issues.

If a brain that has missing parts can learn to work around the gaps, then surely a brain that has all its parts, but is misfiring, can learn how to function harmoniously again!

Possibility is powerful.

Neuroplasticity was long considered a dirty word. Many revolted against the notion that the brain is constantly rearranging as it processes and learns. Many interpreted the discussion of neuroplasticity as some sort of victim blaming, although that really has nothing to do with it. I’ve written about neuroplasticity before, in relation to depression and received some rather passionate responses from people who chose not to accept my opinion or were blatantly outraged by me blogging about it.

Neuroplasticity is not an airy-fairy term for a method or a psychological work process, it’s a bodily function akin to “digestion” or “circulation”, it’s just been more freshly labelled.

When a person attempts to improve their situation by practising mindfulness or meditation, they are attempting to incite neuroplasticity. When a person reads a book or a news article or watches a report on the television, everything that they learn and retain from that experience is evidence of neuroplasticity.

Learning itself is one of the most obvious forms of neuroplasticity and one of the easiest to understand.

Your brain doesn’t have a little hard drive marked “Memory” where you deposit your experiences like files into folder.

That concept sounds a little bit ridiculous as I’ve written it here, however it is a very common misunderstanding of how memory works (it’s the vague comprehension that I had before life forced me to study further).

Memory, along with every other process in your body, works by creating connections between neurons in the brain. These create a complex pattern that is often referred to as a “brain map”.

When you give a thumbs up, there is a specific brain map of synaptic impulses that connect so that you can create that movement. This brain map is unique to you, despite similarities across people. A brain map is the product of each person’s individual experiences with both external stimuli and internal interpretation.

Reading The Brain That Changes Itself helped me to to understand the value of individual case studies when it comes to neurological research. There is a fabulous quote from the man that Doidge refers to as the Sherlock Holmes of modern neurology, V.S. Ramachandran:

“Imagine I were to present a pig to a skeptical scientist, insisting it could speak English, then waved my hand, and the pig spoke English. Would it really make sense for the skeptic to argue, ‘But that is just one pig, Ramachandran. Show me another, and I might believe you!’”
-V.S. Ramachandran, quoted in The Brain That Changes Itself

Stories of individual accomplishment will never fit the scientific method, but they are nonetheless incredibly valuable in the field of neuroscience. To be proven by science, something must be able to be hypothesised, tested and have results that will repeat if the same method were to be re-followed.

People aren’t always like that. Brains aren’t like that, they’re the most intelligent parts of our bodies and it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are the most difficult part to understand. We are trying to decipher our brains, using our brains. This was never going to be easy.

There is a chapter in The Brain That Changes Itself that is all about pain, specifically phantom limb pain, which is not all that different to chronic pain in the absence of injury. A confused nervous system is a confused nervous system.

“Normal pain, ‘acute pain’, alerts us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain, saying, ‘This is where you are hurt – attend to it.’ But sometimes an injury can damage both our bodily tissues and the nerves in our pain systems, resulting in ‘neuropathic pain,’ for which there is no external cause. Our pain maps get damaged and fire incessant false alarms, making us believe the problem is in our body when it is in our brain. Long after the body has healed, the pain system is still firing and the acute pain has developed an afterlife.”
– from Chapter 7, Pain: The Dark Side of Plasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself

This isn’t the full story of how chronic pain affects the body, but it’s a great explanation to start with. When describing the stranger symptoms of CRPS, I am usually talking about how the body responds to this “excess firing” over time. In short, the pain system malfunctions for long enough that the brain starts trying to treat symptoms of the ghost injury.

The idea the brain is always changing can be a hard concept to get one’s head around, especially for those that have grown up with an image of the brain as a machine with certain cogs (physical regions) responsible for each different aspect of its function.

In some ways, the brain is like a machine and this analogy can be helpful to the education process. The difference between something mechanical and the human brain is that the brain can physically reorganise its parts. The brain can change to adapt to changing circumstances or input. It is not a rigid, one-trick organ, it is a malleable mass of interwoven circuitry. If the brain was a machine, it would be made of plasticine with interlocking parts that could be re-shaped and re-arranged.

CRPS is difficult to explain and difficult to understand. Reading a lot and across various platforms exposes me to many different ways of thinking, to different ways of approaching healing now that I’ve landed just to the left of medical knowledge. I’ve learnt lessons of epiphanic degrees from hippies, scientists and even slightly crazy people.

I’ve learnt not to judge information, it’s just existing. Just like trees, birds and bees. Information is not the intent of the person delivering it. Information is not the style of writing of a text, an author’s arrogance, or a concept that appears based in imagination.

Information is just information. How you understand, interpret and, in some cases, implement information is the important part of learning.

I’ve learnt that no matter how much I learn, I will never know all that much of anything at all. That’s how much information this world has; that’s how many ways there are to look at things. I’ve learnt not to be attached to my opinions as they are prone to changing, just like everything else.

I’ve learnt a lot since reading The Brain That Changes Itself. The book inspired me to go and seek out more information. It prompted me to buy more books, to find more stories, more theories. It helped to explain to me how and why chronic pain has been able to grip me so tightly and throw out such confusing symptoms.

It even inadvertently explained why I find The Feldenkrais Method so helpful – the therapy is a method of strengthening helpful, healthy brain maps.

The most important thing that it did was give me hope. Hope for my future and for that of neuroscience. Humans are only at the beginning of fully understanding the workings of our brains and there’s so much hope to be had by pondering the things it has left to discover.

I could write a blog post every day for a year and still find more to write about within this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

What’s your favourite book?

Thanks so much to everybody that has been supporting me in the NHBPM challenge! If you like what I am doing, please share these posts with the people that you share things with or click that little thumbs up. It’s CRPS Awareness Month, which is why I’m choosing to disclose a little more about my health on a daily basis. The more awareness that we can raise, the easier it will get for people who are navigating the choppy waters of chronic pain.

Love & Grey Matter,

WEGO, CRPS Awareness Month, #NHBPM

This post written as a part of National Health Blog Post Month, run by WEGO health. Check out what people have been contributing via #NHBPM on Twitter, or joining the NHBPM Facebook Event.

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    In Review: Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters

    Sep 16, 2011 by

    Dear Audy,

    When I first read the blurb for this book, my interest perked up like it had the force of a thousand cups of coffee. I ordered a copy, waited patiently for it to arrive and devoured it in a matter of days. Crazy Like Us is an incredibly fascinating read.

    The most devastating consequence of the spread of American culture across the globe has not been our golden arches or our bomb craters, but our bulldozing of the human psyche itself. American-style depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anorexia have begun to spread around the world like contagions, and the virus is us. Traveling from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka to Zanzibar to Japan, acclaimed journalist Ethan Watters witnesses firsthand how Western healers often steamroll indigenous expressions of mental health and madness and replace them with our own. In teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we have been homogenising the way the world goes mad.


    Like many people living with chronic pain, I have been through periods of depression. Aside from using low-dose antidepressants as painkillers, I have tried to avoid medicating this part of my condition. Something about the inertia of antidepressant usage in the past decade and the varying results amongst patients has tickled my suspicion meter and I have often wondered about the validity of the long term medicating of emotional distress.

    Personally, I have found that learning about other cultures and particularly Buddhist principles has helped me to both climb out of periods of depression and also help to ward them off. I have learned to better understand the workings of my mind and the sorts of thoughts that will lead to negative feelings, and how to start changing these. Most importantly, I have learnt that mental processing can be changed, which isn’t something that is emphasised in a Western view of depression.

    My inspiration for bettering my own mental health stemmed from practises that grew in the East, so it’s probably not a surprise that I was hungry to learn about how Eastern cultures might have been influenced by the one in which I was born.

    Crazy Like Us is divided into four chapters that explore well known Western mental afflictions in non-Western cultures. These instances are: The Rise of Anorexia in Hong Kong; The Wave that brought PTSD to Sri Lanka; The Shifting Mask of Schizophrenia in Zanzibar and The Mega-Marketing of Depression in Japan.

    The Rise of Anorexia in Hong Kong is a brilliant opening study for this book. Watters gives a chronological account of how anorexia first presented in Hong Kong and contrasts this with how it is understood today – even giving a statistically distinctive link to the widespread media coverage of young girl’s death from the disease. Interestingly, the symptoms described by early cases of self-starvation differs greatly to the reasoning given by patients suffering in the last couple of decades. Most fascinating to me was that “fat phobia” was not a symptom in early anorexics, it wasn’t a fear of gaining weight that propelled them to stop eating and anorexia presented as more like depression than body dysmorphia. The propelling effects of starvation itself appear to take control of people in a similar manner, regardless of the reported instigation point for the disease.

    It is in this chapter that Watters first introduces the idea of emotional distress subconsciously taking forms that society will recognise and respond to at any given point in time. This isn’t to undermine the very real suffering of patients, but is an interesting concept. All sorts of things go on in our brains below our level of conscious functioning and pain itself is a perception, not a sense. It doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to me that a distressed subconscious could quite literally present an individual with particular symptoms that can be understood as needing attention, both by society and the individual themselves.

    The Wave that brought PTSD to Sri Lanka explores the rush of Westerners that flocked to Sri Lanka following the devastating 2004 tsunami. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that the Western world has come to recognise in people that have been through and incredibly traumatic experience – such as soldiers returning from war. Following the tsunami in Sri Lanka, many Westerners, convinced that PTSD cases were about to explode in an “underdeveloped” nation sped in and set up counselling services, many with no formal registration, just the promise of help to the people.

    The chapter explores the ways in which Western methods of coping with PTSD do not transcend cultural boundaries. Many of the people that they were diagnosing with PTSD and attempting to treat with medication and experimental psychological therapies were not suffering the way that a Western person was expected to suffer following such a disaster. Their cultural beliefs and understanding of emotional distress differ from the West and as such, PTSD does not necessarily exist in the same form that it is understood to by the American DSM-V.

    The differences were fascinating, including a difference of opinion as to whether depression is a medical symptom that causes one to withdraw from society, or contrastingly that the removal from society is the actual symptom that causes the feelings of depression and that if the symptom is reversed, recovery from depression will soon follow.

    The Shifting Mask of Schizophrenia in Zanzibar follows researchers looking for answers as to why people living in developing nations and diagnosed with schizophrenia appear to have better chances of recovery over time than those in more developed societies. What was most interesting to me in this chapter was the ways in which external stimuli and cultural perception can influence a mental illness that the Western world understands to be a definitive measurable difference in brain chemicals. It made me wonder, how much does one’s understanding and expectations of their condition actually influence these changes in brain function? Was it the chicken or the egg?

    “Here is an insight! The entire human drama of love, suffering, ecstasy, and joy, just chemistry.” -D.A. Granger

    The final chapter, The Mega-Marketing of Depression in Japan, is both the most sociologically fascinating and personally disturbing section of the book. Watters details the way in which pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline literally set out to market antidepressants to the Japanese. Japan is one of the most highly populated countries on the planet, how could they resist attempting to tap into such a market?

    Many people harbour lingering suspicions that pharmaceutical companies are not to be trusted due to the commercial nature of their trading, however it is still highly disturbing to read stories that both back up these suspicions and introduce new horrors. This chapter explores the study of Japanese people, the ways in which depression, as it is understood in Western terms, could be translated into a condition that the Japanese could relate to. If you want to sell people pills, then first you’d better sell them on the idea that they need them.

    Conferences were held and doctors financially encouraged to purport the concept of depression and the promise of relief from medication. Advertisements were used to convince Japanese people that any number of negative symptoms they might be experiencing in life were the result of a chemical imbalance that needed correcting.

    Most disturbing was the revelation in this chapter that the very basis for our Western understanding of depression has been manipulated and exploited:

    “… it turns out that there is currently no scientific consensus that depression is linked to serotonin deficiency or that SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) restore the brain’s normal ‘balance’ of this neurotransmitter. The idea that depression is due to deficits of serotonin was first proposed by George Ashcroft in the 1950s, when he thought he detected low levels in the brains of suicide victims and in the spinal fluid of depressed patients. Later studies, however, performed with more sensitive equipment and measures, showed no lower levels of serotonin in these populations. By 1970 Ashcroft had publicly given up on the serotonin-depression connections. To date, no lower levels of serotonin or ‘imbalance’ of the neurotransmitter have been demonstrated in depressed patients. The American Psychiatric Press Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry states simply, ‘Additional experience has not confirmed the monamine (of which serotonin is a subgroup) depletion hypothesis.’” – from Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters

    This was by far the most jarring paragraph in this book, it left me feeling like I couldn’t trust what I thought I knew, nor can I completely trust this statement because my previous understanding is so ingrained. I will need to conduct further research on the topic, follow up on the studies that Watters has used to compile this evidence and see what I discover for myself.

    In short, this book will make you question what you believe about some mental illnesses and why you believe it. It may cause you to question your very beliefs about yourself. This can be confronting, however there is the huge liberation of self understanding at the end of that journey, so don’t be afraid.

    I especially recommend this book to anybody currently taking medication from GlaxoSmithKline or Pfitzer (manufacturers of Lyrica, also brought under scrutiny in this book) for chronic pain or other reasons. I have paid both companies dollars galore over my years with CRPS and in all honestly I am doing a Hell of a lot better now that I no longer take Neurontin or Lyrica. I chose to stop taking these medications of my own accord and I am not convinced that they ever offered me more than a brief placebo effect combined with a hindering dulling of my thought processes.

    This book is best read with a cup of coffee and an attitude that is open to changing its direction.

    Love & Revelations,


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    In Review: Lissie, Live at Northcote Social Club, May 19th 2011

    May 23, 2011 by

    Dear Audy,

    Lissie has been enjoying high rotation on my mind-radio thanks to the fantastic performance that she put on last Thursday. I simply love going to see live music and the atmosphere of a pub gig is a lot more to my tastes than joining an enormous audience in an arena.


    Lissie played at Northcote Social Club, which is one of my favourite venues. Especially when I am forced to go out in my wheelchair as it is easily accessible from the street. The staff are pleasant and helpful and the crowd usually has no problem allowing a space in the front so that I can see.

    Of course, occasionally people will push in front and block my view with the amazing recording that they are making on their mobile phone, but I am not shy about tapping people on the shoulder and asking that they please not do that in front of my face. I was amused and appalled by a few elements of the audience behaviour at this and other recent gigs…but that is another post for another day. Probably a post like this old fave.

    Getting back on topic, Lissie was fabulous! She was friendly and funny with her stage chatting, an element that not all musicians are good at but that can add a lot to a show. Her refreshingly laid back appearance and demeanour acted like an invitation for the audience to kick back and, to quote whoever said it first, dance like youtube was never invented.

    The atmosphere in the room lit up, fuelled by the electric energy that Lissie generated on stage. She is far from a shy performer. Her vocals are powerful, interestingly melodic and emotionally raw. She sings as though she is putting her all into that moment, into every moment on stage, and the result is far more powerful than when musicians attempt to recreate the exact sound that their music has in its released recording.

    When Lissie is performing, she glows. You can feel how much she enjoys what she’s doing flowing out in waves over the audience. It’s this feeling that I go and see live music for, that magical element that can’t be captured, only enjoyed in the moment.

    The setlist was a mix of songs from her debut album, Catching A Tiger and a few covers. I wish that I could find a copy of the exact setlist as one of the covers was the highlight of the evening, it was just so much fun! Lissie introduced it as a song that she had heard around the place a lot, she did mention the title and artist, however those details have completely escaped me! If you happen to know the song I am loving and not remembering, please leave me a comment and fill my memory gap.

    Other highlight songs included When I’m Alone – her most well known track, Record Collector – a lot of fun to rock out to, In Sleep – one of my favourite tracks from the album, and The Pursuit Of Happiness – a cover that also appears on her album.

    Lissie and her band are on their way to Canada, if you happen to be in the vicinity and like to like music, then definitely get yourself tickets and go along to one of her shows.

    Overall, the night was a lot of fun, even on two wheels. I caught up with some friends that I hadn’t seen for ages, including my blogging buddy, Carly, who introduced me to Lissie’s music a few weeks ago.

    It’s easy to get frustrated at having to go out in a wheelchair when I rarely need it anymore, but it’s a much better alternative to going without it and getting hurt before I even get to the venue, or not going out at all. I have gotten over feeling like needing a mobility device is a step backward, it’s just a part of unpredictability of chronic pain and not worth putting much emotional stock in. Thankfully, I have nice friends who will push me!

    I got to enjoy a night out without interrupting the healing of my injury. That is total win.

    Love & Living

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    In Review: Eddie Vedder, Solo Tour, Melbourne, March 24th 2011

    Mar 25, 2011 by

    Dear Audy,

    I cannot think of anything that I would rather do than sit in a darkened room and watch Eddie Vedder make masterful music. The man is incredible.

    (click image for source)

    I was a latecomer to Pearl Jam fandom. Back in the days when they were fresh and taking the grunge scene by storm, I was still listening to teenage girl garbage. It was only that I happened to go along with a friend to see them play live, when they toured for Riot Act, that I discovered how mind-blowing their music is and was drawn in by their dynamic, intense and stunningly talented frontman, Eddie.

    I was hooked. I listened to nothing but their back catalogue for months and I haven’t since missed the chance to see them live, they never disappoint.

    Last night, for the first time, Eddie Vedder played in Melbourne without the rest of Pearl Jam. I have been shaking with excitement since I first heard about the tour and bought tickets months ago. It felt like I had won the lottery. Eddie Vedder was coming to play at The Palais (my favourite venue in Melbourne) and I had scored front row balcony seats!

    In The Palais, this section of seating is referred to as “The Lounge” on account of the seats are wider, squishier and more comfortable than the rest of the theatre. Sure, the front row front row is the best place to be close to an artist, however the balcony is the best place to be for the best sound. I couldn’t have asked for better seats! I also couldn’t have been more thrilled that the gig was in a theatre, as opposed to the stadium shows that Pearl Jam usually tours. Stadiums are great fun and all, but really not the best places for sound quality.

    Eddie is nothing if not pure quality. Top of the line rock star. First grade.

    Performing the night before in Sydney. Click image for source.

    I loved the little retro, homey set; old suitcases, a rug and the circular design of the minimal staging helped to create a feeling of intimacy, almost like being privy to a private session between Eddie and the music.

    Oh, the music. If, for some alien overlord’s reason, I was forced to only hear one voice singing for the rest of my life then it would be Eddie’s. Mmmm, so deep, so rumbly, so powerful and distinctly articulate. The kind of voice you hear with your chest, ricocheting off your ribs. A superbly crafted instrument that delivers songs that have aged decades without a trace of waning emotion and always with a new take, a different view, renewed vigour.

    The setlist included some Pearl Jam classics, some tracks from the soundtrack to Into The Wild; Vedder’s only solo album to date and many brilliantly performed covers, including his much loved versions of You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (The Beatles cover, originally from the I Am Sam soundtrack) and Rockin’ In The Free World (Neil Young cover) – this was a total evening highlight, the crowd went nuts, Eddie went off and the balcony danced under the pressure of a hundred stomping feet.

    The absence of the rest of his band (who are amazing) gave a chance to really appreciate the seemingly endless talent that boils inside this musician. The music vibrates out of his every pore. The intensity with which he strums his guitars and ukeleles, with which he pounds his foot on a cool amplifying box-y-ma-thing, was awe inspiring. Also, inspiring, inspiring; there is something magical about watching someone do what they do and do it so well.

    Eddie teased with mention of an upcoming solo album that he is releasing, all tracks performed with a ukelele. Ah, so rustic. There is something so utterly genuine about a musician who can create masterpieces with only the simplest of tools. The preview he gave is making me drool with anticipation about this album. I. Cannot. Wait.

    Wielding his trusty uke, Eddie gave us a re-inspired version of Better Man – a song that most members of the 1990s and any Pearl Jam fan knows inside out and back to front. His peeled back solo performance gave the song a new feel, a deeper connection to the lyrics, a fresh and fascinating reincarnation. Simply superb.

    Elderly Woman was as moving as ever; this is one of my favourite songs of all time. As is tradition, the crowd lights shine brightly when Eddie reaches the lyric “I just wanna scream…HELLO”. This element never fails to bring a smile to my face as my eyes squint and I feel connected to both the performance and the room filled with ecstatic fans.

    Wishlist never fails to delight and I couldn’t help but bounce in my seat with joy when he strummed the opening chords. Such a sweet, nostalgic song. How I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro’s hood…

    The second encore ended with heightened fabulousness. For his final song, a performance of Hard Sun (from Into The Wild) the back drop became an an ocean covered with clouds sporting licks like those of painted surfer waves. The stage filled with smoke, giving another ocean illusion and my grin managed to get even wider. Pearl Jam has long preserved their surfer vibe, they surely have more tracks built on ocean references than any other band and Eddie has long been a surfie, grunge god. He knows his audience.

    Leaving his seat as the song built, Eddie reminded us that “Oh, by the way, I’m a fucking rock star”. He didn’t need to say it, he emanates it. A couple of his signature rocking out poses and the crowd was going insane, myself included. He is a performer with such energy that it can fill arenas and during most of last night, all that energy and intensity that usually has him jumping around a stage was channeled into his music…ah, I’m running out of words for awesome.

    See the full set list here.

    I love the fact that, in this internet era, Eddie Vedder is still an untouchable, ever evolving rock GOD. You won’t find him on Twitter. You won’t find him exploiting himself, or explaining his art. Why should he? Such brilliance needs no embellishment. His in-between song chatting is always amusing and the rare chance to hear him speak feels like a privilege.

    His kind of wonderful simply needs appreciation and by golly, I will be savouring last night for years to come.

    Love & Rock Royalty,

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    In Review: Nightshade by Andrea Cremer

    Mar 18, 2011 by

    Dear Audy,

    Nightshade by Andrea Cremer was a book that came into my reading realm purely by chance. I just happened to be the lucky winner of a competition over at Literary Life, before that competition I had never heard of the book nor the author. Being that supernatural YA fiction has long been a favourite genre of mine, I was filled with anticipation about reading it.

    Technically, I’m not really a young adult anymore, however that doesn’t mean I can’t still enjoy some YA fiction! When I was a teenager reading was one of my favourite things to do. Growing older, wiser and capable of comprehending much more complex texts has done little to tarnish the gleam of an easy to read but magical story. The magic has always been a big part of it for me, I love the escape of plunging into a supernatural tale. Thus, in the past couple of decades, I have read a lot of them.

    I went through my vampire phase long (and thankfully) before Twilight came along and did its best to ruin the genre. Anne Rice gave us Louis and much more delectably, Lestat – who is truly one of the greatest vampiric characters in creation. I developed a love of kick-ass chicks kicking ass with Christopher Pike’s Sita in his series, The Last Vampire – a great foundation for a later obsession with Buffy The Vampire Slayer. As for the love between an immortal monster and a human, that was pretty much covered for me by Janice Harrell’s Vampire’s Love books.

    The supernatural has always been a source of joy and wonder for me and I have loved different interpretations of the same mythology.

    Recent writings have consistently paired vampires with werewolves, witches and just about every mythological creature you can think of. Meyer can’t be held solely accountable for this; the mythological mashup is a staple of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series (the basis for the TV show True Blood) and having been watching the show, I can only assume this mashup is also a major feature in L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries.

    When I delightedly opened the package that arrived at my door containing my book prize, I was keen to discover a new take on the supernatural.

    She can control her pack. But not her heart.

    The tagline for this book sums up an awful lot in very few words, especially when you consider that it’s YA fiction. Immediately my brain put werewolves as the things that come in packs, so I guessed it was a werewolves book, probably destined to contain a bunch of vampires as well, if recent trend was anything to go by. The second sentence causes my teenage heart to flutter, but my adult eyes to roll a little. My inner teen hoped desperately for an interesting, romantic aspect to the story, whilst the outer me couldn’t help but prepare for a more Jacob-y Twilight.

    Thankfully, this repetition of mingling themes was not the case with Nightshade. I began reading, meeting the characters and attempting to build the world of the story in my mind. Andrea Cremer has been careful not to give away much about the supernatural setting in the beginning, dropping just enough crumbs to keep me reading and wanting to find out more.

    Her werewolves are not ordinary werewolves. Her world is populated by supernatural creatures, however Cremer has created her own mythology; reasons and purposes for things existing the way that they do. I found the unveiling of this world slow at first, before I realised that I couldn’t stop reading and wanting to know more, which was a good sign that the author was giving enough to keep me interested. I especially enjoyed that it’s not a story I have heard before, no vampires in sight!

    The characters are many that we’ve met before, albeit these ones can shift into powerful wolves when needed, to protect….something.

    A strong-willed, tomboyish female (Calla); a cocky and arrogant male (Ren); a bookish and unexpectedly strong male (Shay)…all the ingredients needed to stir up a love triangle. The interesting part about Cremer’s love triangle is the archaic traditions that support it. The situation between these characters only exists because Calla is promised to Ren; promised in the sense that they will be married and have no choice in the matter. Calla and Shay are thrown together and naturally, being teenagers and forbidden from such feelings, they fall for one another.

    Forbidden love has long captivated audiences, however, I must say that in this novel it felt a little forced. All three characters have likeable traits, but overpowering flaws. Ren is portrayed as a typical, misogynistic jerk, however he is merely behaving in the manner in which he has been raised; a manner drawing heavily from the more strict human patterns of eras past. I found it pretty hard to hate him; one cannot hold the merely ignorant in contempt. Ren might be the enemy of the moment within the love story, however the true enemy in Nightshade is the mysterious one governing their world.

    Calla is presented to us as the lovely heroine, however her flaws and betrayal are no more reprehensible than Ren’s public womanising. She is stubborn, gullible, inconsistent in her desires. Physically fascinating and magical, but emotionally, no more developed Miss Teen Average Jane.

    In a way, Calla is losing her religion in this tale. Having her whole world rocked and a little rolled. I actually liked that she was always plunging into things, making mistakes and then having to deal with the harsh consequences. I enjoyed the fact that Cremer didn’t create a strong female and then make everything easy for her. Mistakes make a character relatable, I liked the way Calla made her mistakes with as much passion as her victories.

    Shay’s character is watered down with convenience. As the outsider, it’s his eyes that we must look through in order to understand the world of Nightshade and they are eyes with an ever changing perspective. His character is mysterious, even to himself. He is in a state of flux throughout the story and whilst interesting, his evolution can be frustrating at times. Shay is the nice guy, the boy we are supposed to like, the boy who is supposed to be the opposite of Ren, the boy that Calla truly desires. He is also one of the factors of this story that remains mysterious after the turning of the final page.

    This is because Nightshade is not really a novel on its own, it’s the beginning of a series. My biggest gripe with this book is that nowhere on the cover does it indicate being a story that won’t finish within the already bound pages. There is no “part 1” anywhere.

    Frankly, I believe that if you are going to write a book with a story that doesn’t exactly finish then you have an obligation to let the reader know that’s the case. Nearing the end of the novel, I was enchanted by the action, the explanations that came slowly but surely, however I could see that there was no way the story would wrap up before the back cover.

    The end of a book that is only the beginning of a series is both disappointing and exciting. On one hand the reader is left dangling, on the other hand they have a whole new book to look forward to. I enjoyed Nightshade enough to want to know more, to want its world explained and to pre-order a copy of the sequel/next book in the series, Wolfsbane. I assume that is the intention of an author writing any sort of first-part-of-a-series novel, I would just rather they were upfront about the fact that their book is not a self contained story. Is it just me? Does this sort of thing only bother me?

    Nightshade is a book best read with an open and vividly imaginative mind, under the covers with a torch, whilst pretending to be 12 and completely taken with the romance and adventure. Also, without the expectation that all those setups will pay off in the final chapters. It’s amazing how much the lack of an explanative ending can soil the experience of what was otherwise an interesting new perspective on an old mythology.

    Love & Awaiting The Sequel,

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    In Love With She & Him

    Feb 1, 2011 by

    Dear Audy,

    Oh, it has been a crappy 18 hours. For some reason, my knees have gone into a crazy flare. It’s extremely painful and I don’t really want to think about it, but I can’t concentrate on very much else. I am taking the pretty music escape route.

    Now playing is She & Him Volume 2. Pretty, pretty, pretty. She & Him are Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward (which feels weird to type because I know a guy by that name). Everything about their music is pretty: the instrumentals, the vocals, the gorgeous harmonies, the bittersweet lyrics…everything.


    She & Him – Don’t Look Back from Merge Records on Vimeo.

    Everyone should dance like that.

    I think that if I could adopt the appearance and talents of anyone, it would be Zooey Deschanel. Not only does she have a stunning face, gorgeous figure and immaculate vintage style sense, but she sings like a bellbird in Spring. Somehow, she manages to be incredibly beautiful, yet humble; quirky, yet not oddball, just interesting.

    Everything about her enchants and earns my respective envy. Her music and dresses alone are enough to draw my attention, it’s kind of easy to forget that she has also had a pretty amazing acting career. I love that She & Him don’t exploit that fact, their music really speaks for itself.

    It doesn’t hurt that as a band, they look adorable and take lovely photographs.

    (click images for sources)

    If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of bopping along to the melodies of She & Him, I thoroughly recommend going to iTunes right now and buying both of their albums. Right now. My favourites from Volume One are Change Is Hard and Sweet Darlin’. Frontrunners for Volume 2 include Thieves and Home. If you happen to share my girl crush, you can also find Zooey on Twitter and Tumblr.


    Love & Girly Music Crushes,

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