Tag Archives: Book Review

In Review: The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

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,
Caf

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

    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.


    (source)


    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,

    Caf

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  • In Review: Nightshade by Andrea Cremer

    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,
    Caf

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  • In Review: Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke (2004)

    Dear Audy,

    Set amidst the modern age of man, Dragon Rider tells the story of a young dragon’s quest to find the mystical Rim of Heaven – a secret valley where fabulous creatures can live in peace. Firedrake is one of the last remaining dragons who inhabit a valley that man is insipidly encroaching upon. The only hope for the dragons’ survival and to preserve their secret existence is to find The Rim Of Heaven before man finds them. The big problem is that the dragons Firedrake descended from fled The Rim Of Heaven so many centuries earlier and for reasons blurred by time. Not only is its location long forgotten, very little is known about this ancient land and it is a place commonly thought to not exist at all.



    Firedrake the dragon is not alone in his journey. His good friend Sorrel, a bad-tempered and cynical brownie, accompanies him from the beginning. Their search for clues that might lead them to The Rim Of Heaven takes them precariously into the cities of man, where they serendipitously meet a young, homeless boy named Ben. With no ties to bind him and an instant affinity with the friendly dragon, Ben joins the expedition – in spite of Sorrel’s defensive bickering. Ben’s eyes give the reader a human window through which to view the fantastical world that he finds himself a part of.

    This book was one of those truly remarkable, beautifully written stories that can warm a person from the inside out. Cornelia Funke has a uniquely intriguing manner of taking well-known mythological creatures and giving them interesting twists and traits. Sorrel and her kind are the first brownies that I have read of who look like a cross between a squirrel and a cat and harbour a constant hunger for mushrooms. Funke’s portrayal of Sorrel is engagingly intricate, the brownie’s temper provides shock and amusement and her love for mushrooms is so deeply ingrained in her nature that she even swears in mushroom species. Holy shitake!

    The dragons themselves are of a kind that I have never met before, their only necessary sustenance being moonlight. This critical element of their nature is woven immaculately into the story and develops cleverly as the plot progresses. Along with dragons and brownies, the earth is inhabited by many fabulous creatures, a term that delighted me with every mention. Creatures that are commonly referred to as mythical or magical being labelled fabulous, as their many dazzling traits would dictate, just seems like a perfect fit. The journey of our heroes across the globe sees them encounter many amazing, magical friends, along with some nasty pasties and one particularly terrifying and powerful villain. The many exciting events that form the adventure of Dragon Rider mean there is never a shortage of action and excitement throughout the chapters. I found myself captivated and hurrying to turn every page.

    Although classified as a children’s or young adult novel, Dragon Rider is the kind of soul tickling story that I think would move and delight readers of any age. The language flows descriptively but not excessively and creates an inertia of wonder and suspense that can completely wrap a reader up in its words. At times I felt my eyes sting with tears of pure emotional overload, the good kind of overload, the kind that reminds you that not everything in life is hard or cruel. The world that Funke has created contains so much scope that even the avid guess-ahead reader will surely find themselves enchanted by a few pleasant surprises.

    This story will have you cheering and, in usual Funke fashion, entranced in excitement and wonder right up until the end. It’s mentioned in the author’s notes that Dragon Rider began with the intention of creating a cartoon series, but that it developed such a life of its own that Funke eventually decided that she didn’t want Firedrake’s story told as a cartoon show.

    “Only by writing such a big book did I learn that your characters can develop a life of their own – and that a truly adventurous writer lets them show you the way.” – Cornelia Funke


    In a consumer driven world, so many ideas are sold down the franchise river and slowly destroyed by endless marketing. Stories can lose a little bit of their magic when mixed with other mediums. I think the fact that this story was written for the simple love of writing shows through. Read it now, in case they make a movie… this tale is one best digested with its full sparkle.

    Love & Magic,
    Caf

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  • In Review: Under The Dome by Stephen King

    Dear Audy,

    I mentioned that all this time laying around due to The Flare has given me a chance to read more than usual. In recent days, I finished a book that has been sitting beside my bed for months, Under The Dome by Stephen King.


    (click for image source)


    I have never been one to back away from a good piece of artistic horror. King is a favourite author of mine from way back. I am often reminded of this by a particularly embarrassing memory of loudly jumping to his defense when his books were declared “sleaze reads” in a year 12 literature class (I was in year 11 and still pretty stupid, I probably deserved the laughter I received).

    In the author’s note, King mentions that he began Under The Dome in the 70s, which would explain why this emotionally wrenching novel feels a lot more like old Stephen King (The Stand, Cujo and, most comparably, Needful Things) than new Stephen King (Cell, Duma Key – which I still loved, btw). The classic King elements of Under The Dome include: the setting of a group of people cut off from the rest of humanity by forces they do not understand; grotesque death scenes; the darkest side of human nature roaming free without restraint; bad guys; good guys; intelligent and useful children; the abuse of power; the power of hope and a mystical element that stretches the imagination right to the very edges of comprehension.

    It took me months to finish this 1000+ page whopper of a book. Mostly, this was because I had to read it in small chunks. My problem was thinking about things too much, things being the horrifying and graphic deaths that are splattered across most pages. I tried to find a death count total, however it seems that even internet nerds haven’t added that up for me. To describe the tally simply, it was a lot. No character is safe from the terrifying hands of the grim reaper, an element that, once established, drives a lot of the novel’s suspense. Fictional horror doesn’t usually affect me, however in his masterful manner, King pushed the boundaries of what I could handle (or perhaps I am growing emotional in my old age? I did cry all the way through Up). I found myself in tears at times, and at other times, haunted for days by certain scenes. King’s skill lies in drawing out realistically horrifying reactions from his very human characters. Do they act abhorrently? Yes, of course, it’s Stephen King, duh. Is it believable, even so? Absolutely.

    As I sit and recall the things I disliked whilst reading the book, I can’t help realising how they all served a purpose. A couple of hundred pages in, it really felt like the story had too many characters, too much scope and way too many pages. Unlike The Stand, which unravels over a lengthy period of time, Under The Dome is only an apparently epic novel, with the actual story filling out only about a week in its own time. The very length of the book itself helps to create an atmosphere where time passes slowly, which is the case for the characters because the routine of actions that usually fill their days has been interrupted.

    Many of the characters are familiar stereotypical staples. Most notably, James “Big Jim” Rennie, the resident devil in a suit, equipped with enough greed to motivate him, enough intelligence to manipulate those around him and a completely twisted set of self serving morals. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d met him before, in Desperation, only in that incarnation he truly was a monster, not just a monstrous person. This time around he rules a syndicate of the stupider of the townspeople from his position of political power as a town selectman (which, let’s face it, I live in Australia and I don’t really know what that means. When I read “town selectman”, I just think “dude with some political sway, on some sort of managerial board”, I’m not even going to look it up, my description sufficed). The advantage of using stereotypes was that King could juggle a huge number of characters, so many that I often had to pause and rack my brain for a semblance of them when they made a second or third appearance in the story. Although the large number of characters frustrated me at first, they served to create a massive scope for the story, many perspectives to look at things from and many situations in which human error can have horrifying consequences.

    An aspect that drags the story is the constant thwarting of the good guys’ plans. With dreadful things happening all over town, the persistent failure of sensible behaviour to prevail is like a hammer to any sense of human spirit. Again and again, awful things happen, stupidity causes chaos, bad luck takes the reigns and intelligent action is crushed by greed and idiocy. A lot of these scenes are highly entertaining in horror value and humour, however my spirit had trouble handling all of those whacks. Thankfully, King has woven in some wonderful young characters, whose hope, courage and wit helped to keep me reading. There was also that other, massive, motivating factor. Once you start, there is no completely abandoning this novel, because….what is The Dome?

    I am not going to tell you, no way. What I will say is that this book holds most of its power in retrospect. It left me feeling bruised and battered, but also, affected. It gave me a lot to think about, much of that was depressing, but it can be interesting to push one’s mind into that arena within the fictional play zone, to mull over the harsher parts of life on Earth, to wonder how you, yourself would react if thrown into the situation of these characters. There is a lesson to be learnt from reflecting on this book as a whole, or perhaps just a deeper understanding to the clear fable element of Under The Dome in the final chapters.

    I wouldn’t say I would rate this amongst King’s greatest work, but if you are a fan, then it is definitely worth your time. I don’t think that I am alone in my feeling that post-The Dark Tower, he had lost a bit of his punch. Cell was rather forgettable and Duma Key was fascinating, but in a more supernatural than horrific style. Like a lot of King’s work, Under The Dome isn’t for the faint-hearted. I found this out by the shocked flutters in my own chest as I read it. This is a book for those who enjoy a bit of fictional violence and an exploration of the more dreadful actions that perhaps they might think of, but never actually carry out. It’s a book for those who like to ponder the whys and hows of both human nature and the world that we live in and aren’t afraid to do that from the dark side.

    Best read with a pondering mind, daylight hours leftover for recovery before sleep and an iron stomach.

    Love & Chills,
    Caf

    P.S. Thanks so much for your wonderful words of encouragement, I am sorry I am so slow to reply, my hands are getting burny after a page or two of typing but I shall get there soon!

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  • In Review: The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

    Dear Audy,

    Silly virus and its silly making me coughy and grouchy! I have done nothing of interest this week, unless you count laying on the couch and look pathetic. Rather than blog about the crappiness of illness, I thought I’d try my hand at a book review, having gotten a taste for writing down my review-like thoughts after seeing Tomorrow When The War Began. It’s fun to write about the stories that have been inspiring me!

    Oh, how I love a good story! For a long time, I felt that, as an adult, I should be reading adult books. The truth is, however, that I’ve never really gotten over my love of children’s and young adult novels. There is just a certain magic and simplicity in these texts that doesn’t quite make it into most works aimed at adults.



    I have just finished reading The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. Although critically acclaimed, I had never heard of this book until I read the Inkheart trilogy and fell in love with the author. If I remember correctly, I was looking for something that would entertain and enthrall as Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story does, so naturally I was looking at other German fantasy authors. I’m really not sure if that is racist or clever (is it still racism when you are being complementary?), but it worked!

    The Thief Lord is set in Venice – a super attractive setting for the inner romantic. Two young brothers, Prosper and Bo have been orphaned in Hamburg. Their fairy-taley standard nasty aunt only wants to adopt Bo, she has been unable to have her own children and only wants the younger boy, content to split the boys up and leave Prosper to the fate of an orphanage. Prosper isn’t having a bar of that. He gathers his younger brother and they steal away to Venice, a city their mother had long told them tales about being filled with magic and wonder.

    On the run from their aunt and her hired detective, the boys befriend a young girl on the streets of Venice, named Hornet, and find shelter with a gang of homeless children, who are living in an abandoned cinema and surviving on profits obtained by their mysterious, often masked “Thief Lord”. A modern day Robin Hood, the Thief Lord steals from the rich and pawns his takings to earn money for his friends in poverty.

    Victor, the detective hired by Prosper and Bo’s aunt, gets very close to catching the boys and in doing so, throws the lives of the homeless children into chaos, exposes secrets about their mysterious leader and has them running scared through the City of Canals. This uprooting leads to an adventure of the wonderful kind; intriguing, scary, exciting and most pleasantly, magical.

    The Thief Lord manages to be both simplistic and highly entertaining. Funke uses a lot of fairytale cliches, orphaned children, nasty adults, a little bit of magic and a fable-like warning or two. The characters are hardly original: a proper and responsible boy; a recklessly ignorant young child; a tomboy with a flair for the dramatic; a couple of kids roughened by years on the streets; a loner, slightly dodgy detective and even an eccentric old lady, thrown in to bring about explanation and inspiration for the magical events that control the plot in the second half of the story.

    In spite of the cliches that Funke uses to tell this tale, she weaves a beautifully original story that surprises right up until the last page. The cliches almost serve as a means to build up the element of surprise as the final chapters take the story to places beyond the usual ‘return to happy normal’ of a children’s story. I was so amazed at some of the aspects of this that I was almost horrified and then slowly impressed with how Funke eased this feeling into an ending that I could smile about. Had the story simply followed Prosper and Bo through a standard running away and attempting to avoid capture, it would have fallen into boringdom, however Funke prevents this by weaving in a supernatural, secondary plot that would just about make a story on its own. I am currently having a love affair with her imagination, next up on my Funke pile is Dragon Rider, although I should possibly finish the other two books that I am half way through before I get excited about the next one!

    Ah, the pile. What reader doesn’t have a pile of ‘to be read’ books that always seems to grow more quickly than they can be consumed? Funke is about to release a new, collaborative series, I’m pretty sure this will end up right on that pile long before the pile starts to look puny!

    Love & Magic,
    Caf

    P.S. This was fun! Reviewing what I’ve just finished reading is a good chance to sit and ponder it in greater depth than I would be otherwise likely to do. Personal blogging is the best, I can just decide to write on a new topic and away I go…thanks, internet!

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