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Rachael
This afternoon I've been feeling very weak and shaky, and a little bit dizzy and queasy. I did some exercise early in the afternoon, and then I felt like that for several hours afterwards. This is fairly normal for me after exercise, to a greater or lesser extent.

Googling suggests this is fairly common and could have various causes: dehydration, low blood sugar, lack of sleep, and overexertion. (Apparently it's more common to feel energised after exercise, which seems really weird to me, like feeling hungrier after a big meal.)

I'm pretty sure it's not dehydration or low blood sugar, because I drink water and eat like all the time, and find it very difficult to spend a few hours without either, even if I don't exercise. (Although maybe if there's some underlying condition that means I have the effects of dehydration or low blood sugar even when eating and drinking regularly, those effects would be worsened by exercise?) I borrowed a blood sugar meter a few months ago, and found my blood sugar was pretty normal throughout the day, but didn't actually think to exercise and check it after that.

I don't think it can be overexertion, because I'm doing pretty beginner-level stuff. Warm-up stretches, three sets of eight supported squats, three sets of eight kneeling pushups, three sets of eight leg lifts, a few pullups from reclining at about a 45-degree angle and holding onto a door handle, and cool-down stretches. Or am I so unfit that that is overexertion?

And then sleep. Subjectively, I sleep through the night (usually 7-9 hours); but according to a low-tech sleep cycle tracking app on my phone, and according to an overnight sleep study at Papworth three years ago, my deep sleep (stage 3 sleep, slow-wave sleep) is fragmented. So I guess if that is causing me to have the effects of lack of sleep (like fatigue) even though I think I sleep through the night, then, again, that could make me shaky after exercise, just as it would if I were actually only getting a few hours a night? I am going back to Papworth in a couple of weeks for another study. Apparently they dismissed the fragmented sleep last time as a one-off (even though I have ongoing fatigue, and even though it's corroborated by the low-tech phone app) but they're going to do it again and go from there.

I keep flip-flopping about whether the root cause of my tiredness is physical or psychological. I had been leaning towards psychological recently, but today's post-exercise crash is making me lean back towards physical again.

There is a thing in ME/CFS called post-exertional malaise, but I don't think it's that: that tends to go on for longer, like a couple of days or more (whereas I'm basically recovered now, about 5 hours after exercise) and even start later, like the following day; and it involves things like joint pain and brain fog and flu symptoms, which I don't have. What I do have - weakness and shakiness - is a much better fit for what people in otherwise good health have if they exercise under the wrong conditions. (I currently don't think I have ME/CFS, but not sure how meaningful a statement that is, since no one really knows what ME/CFS is anyway.)

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I decided to try hypnotherapy for my mystery tiredness. Various doctors keep insisting the cause of the tiredness is nothing physical, it really doesn't feel like anything consciously psychological, so that leaves subconsciously psychological.

("Subconsciously psychological" also ties in with one of my preferred theories about chronic fatigue: that the "central governor" - which is supposed to signal exhaustion and make you rest before you're literally exhausted, in order to keep some reserves of strength for life-threatening emergencies, and to avoid damage from driving your body to the absolute limit - is over-sensitive in chronically-fatigued people, and activates the fuel light when the tank is still half full.)

I've had three sessions with Luke at Cambridge Hypnotherapy in Histon. They're very expensive: twice as much as I was paying for CBT, which was itself quite expensive.

I had a free initial consultation, where I talked about the tiredness and how it manifested itself, and he talked about his theory of how the subconscious works: it means well and it comes up with strategies to protect or help you, but sometimes these backfire and do more harm than good, and need to be unlearned. (It reminded me of yvesilana's "monster talk", where unhelpful parts of your mind are visualised as monsters, but they were actually trying to help you, and you can talk to them about how they're not helping and what they could do instead, and turn them round to your side.)

I was a bit disappointed after the first session. It was all quite generic feel-good psychobabble about how I can achieve my dreams and have the life I want and so on, and he barely referred to tiredness or energy at all. I felt like I could have got the same thing on a £10 CD or free on YouTube. And in the week after that session, I noticed no difference in energy levels at all, despite trying to look for one.

But the second session was better, and more specific and tailored (and I asked Luke about the first session, and he said it's supposed to be generic, it's about getting through to the subconscious at all, and then he can build on that). It felt like it was really doing something. I had to imagine myself in specific unwanted situations caused by the tiredness, and also imagine myself in situations I'd like to be in the future when not tired (and then "go forward in time" and put that situation somewhere "on my timeline", so that it was there in my future and my subconsicous would then work out a path from here to there). I also had to come up with four past memories which were positive and exhibited traits I wanted to have, and go back and retrieve those traits from those memories. (I'm describing this a bit hazily because I was in a trance at the time.)

The sessions are on Wednesday mornings, and the rest of that second Wednesday I felt really good, and got loads done, and interacted really positively with the kids, having the energy to play with them and keep up with them and be enthusiastic. That lasted until about 9am Thursday morning, when I crashed quite hard, and spent a lot of Thursday resting on the sofa, feeling guilty about failing to play with Zoe.

Even if the psychological tiredness is dealt with, I am still physically very unfit due to low levels of activity. I need to take care to distinguish between "hypnosis not working" and "hypnosis working as best it can in an unfit body, which will improve as I increase my activity levels".

The rest of that second week kind of alternated good and bad days. Sunday was particularly good; I was playing outside with the kids quite a lot, and didn't feel the need to lie down afterwards. Luke said he'd expect a period of adjustment as the subconscious figures out that the new approach is indeed better. I thought of it like my subconscious performing a controlled experiment: OK, let's give you energy on even days and not on odd days, and compare them.

The third session was a bit disappointingly generic again. I was pretty tired that Wednesday morning. I think I might even have dozed off in the trance. It was hard for me to wake up at the end (not in a scary argh-stuck-in-hypnosis way, I don't believe that happens in real life, just in the way I sometimes get if I doze in the daytime and am expected to get up quickly), and I went home and went straight to sleep, and functioned very badly for the rest of that day, staring into space half-asleep and finding small tasks insurmountable. The Thursday wasn't much better. But the Friday was pretty good, and the whole week since then has been good, with no big crashes, and generally getting lots more done than usual, and functioning better as a parent.

I didn't have a session this Wednesday just gone, because Luke says three is enough to make the subconscious start working through making changes on its own, and a fourth session only a week later wouldn't really add anything (and given the prices I'm happy to take his word for that). He says I should come back for a fourth session in a few weeks if I need it, but that I might not need it.

So... cautiously optimistic?

It's not the first time I've tried something and it seems to be working and I don't know if that's for real or not. At least this time I don't have to worry if it's placebo - hypnosis is kind of placebo by design. But I am concerned about whether it will last or not. And also about whether this is no more than regression to the mean: I had been even more tired than usual this winter, and I was feeling that the tiredness was getting worse, and getting worse faster, which worried me; but maybe it was just a bad patch which has now passed. I don't feel as healthy and energetic as a "normal" person my age yet. But I do feel as energetic as I did a few years ago. If the hypnosis has "only" arrested and slightly reversed the decline it's still worth the money.

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I've been playing a programming-puzzle game on my phone called Hacked, and enjoying it a lot. It feels really good to be coding again, to be thinking algorithmically, to go "OK, how will I code this?" and then "Let's figure out exactly how it's not working and fix it." I hadn't realised how much I missed that. I've hardly coded anything since I left work nearly six years ago (apart from one time when we were doing the 2012 CiSRA puzzle hunt, there was one puzzle which we were failing to solve analytically and I decided it would yield to computational brute force, and wrote a 300-line C program to solve it).

In Hacked, you have a deliberately stripped-down language, and you have coding puzzles to solve in it, and the more you solve, the more language features you unlock. For example, in one early level you have to square integers, without a multiplication or exponentiation function; but once you've done that, you have access to those functions in later levels.

It reminds me of interview questions. (That's a good thing. I like technical interview questions; I just don't like the soft-skill ones. And at least here you don't have anyone watching you get it wrong.)

The review of Hacked currently displaying first on the Google Play store gives one star and says "So much lost potential It could be soooooooooo awesome but it fails because even though my code is right it won't accept it u less it's exactly the characters they want." I nearly let this put me off, but luckily I had the sense to check with Alex (who recommended me the game) and he said it wasn't his experience. And, indeed, I've found that it lets you solve the puzzle any way you want as long as it passes the tests (and Alex and I have had fun comparing notes afterwards and saying "Whoa, why would you do it that way? That seems really weird!") So the reviewer is just completely wrong. Maybe he thinks his code works and it doesn't.

(The game does have "hidden tests" in addition to the three examples it tells you about - so that you can't solve it by just hard-coding the three examples, you need to understand the general rule - but it is very explicit about telling you if you're failing the hidden tests, and you can spend coins (earned for solving previous puzzles, or actually paid for) to see what the hidden tests are - or make an educated guess. There was one level where you had to test whether an input number was prime. They give you the examples (3->true, 12->false, 17->true). My code passed those, but failed the hidden tests. So I thought about some possible edge cases, and double-checked it would succeed for 2 and for a square number, but then realised it was failing for 1. I didn't need to spend any coins.)

(Or maybe the reviewer meant the output has to be exactly the characters they want? In which case, yes, but then he's using a very... idiosyncratic meaning of "my code is right".)

It's quite a frustrating coding environment. You have a tiny screen, and you don't get to name your variables (you have to use the built-in var_a, var_b etc) and you can't add comments; so when re-reading your code to correct it, it's easy to lose track of which variables are which. And there's no debugger. You can always see the final output, so you can stick a temporary return var_a in somewhere if you want to see what var_a is. It's harder if you want to peek at something on, say, the fourth iteration through a while loop. You could bung in an extra variable, increment it, and go if var_b == 4 return var_a but I haven't resorted to that yet (partly because in the scoring for each level you're penalised for the number of edits you make!)
I'm not sure how I feel about these limitations. On one hand, they are frustrating. On the other hand, it's not real-world programming, it's a deliberately limited and gamified setup, where working round the limitations is part of the challenge (the integer-squaring level I mentioned would be pointless if you had a fully-featured language). I can't decide whether the difference between limitations of the language and limitations of the programming environment is relevant here (or even well-defined).

There are also some genuine bugs. It gives you a little on-screen keyboard containing all the tokens it thinks are valid at your current cursor position, and 99% of the time it's correct, but I was once trying to enter a closing bracket and it was complaining "Expected: )" at me while not letting me input one. Also, data types are a bit of a mess. The (brief) documentation explicitly says that characters are integers; and indeed you can compare them using > and <. But you can't pass them to the max and min functions (it complains "Integer expected") and you can't multiply them by -1.

Now I'm about half way through, it's getting more challenging to figure out what the requirements are. They don't give you a spec like "Return the input array with all the missing integers filled in from 0 to the largest number present", they give you three examples along the lines of "[2,4] -> [0,1,2,3,4]", plus a puzzle title which may be a blatant or subtle hint. In the early levels, it's very obvious what the rule is; but I'm currently stuck on a level where I've stared at the three examples and have no idea! This is also an enjoyable part of the game: it makes it like a rule-guessing game like Zendo or Penultima.

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I've been targeted by chuggers three times in the last few days (two at the front door, one in town).

How do you come away from an encounter with them without either feeling like a terrible human being, or signing up?

I wish they would collect cash (or, alternatively, one-off card payments, to keep everyone honest). I'd be happier with that. I just don't want to sign up to loads of direct debits.

There was one at the door a few months ago, working for Mencap, and he was very transparently using all the persuasion tricks I'm familiar with from behavioural economics and so on, and yet I still ended up signing up for a direct debit. (I guess it's like how the placebo effect can still work even when you know it's a placebo?) I signed up on condition they don't send me anything, because getting lots of junk mail from a charity you're already supporting is irritating, and environmentally wasteful, and financially wasteful for the charity (especially at the low level of the direct debit I signed up for - I was worried they'd be spending most of my donations on writing to me.) They did still send me a load of bumf. So I emailed their head office and explained the situation and said I'd cancel the DD if I got any more stuff in the post from them. That worked, although depending on how they do their admin, it might actually be costing them more in staff time to remove me from the list.

The one who stopped me in town today was collecting signups for a charity who work with runaways. He said "33% of them are under 13. What was you doing when you was 13, Rachael?" I really disliked that question. It's personal and intrusive, and manipulative; but also, how do you even answer it? I'm sure I did lots of things when I was 13, but I can't remember them all, or pick one to give as an answer in a couple of seconds. Maybe it's just me, but I really dislike quick-fire, open-ended questions. (I assume the idea of this one is to guilt-trip people by contrasting their presumably relatively privileged adolescence with the runaways'. I wondered what would happen if someone replied "Running away," but that would probably just lead to an approach like "Great, then you understand...")

There are a couple of things I could say to get out of signing up, but they don't quite work:

* "I'm an effective altruist, so I prefer to give money where it'll make the most difference, like in developing countries." That is true, but it sounds a bit self-righteous, and also, if I were to sign up for a chugger's direct debit, which is a small amount relative to our giving to international charities, it would come out of our "own" money rather than our charity budget - we wouldn't reduce our existing giving by a few pounds to cover it. The chuggers realise this: I tried the effective-altruist argument on the Mencap dude and he called me out on it. It is (pretty much) always possible to give a little bit more.

* "I'm not actually earning anything." This is true, but clearly I do have access to some money I can spend - almost everyone does, whether that's their partner's income, or their savings, or benefits. I guess I could go further and say "so I'd have to discuss it with my husband, it's his income." That would look quite old-fashioned, but probably better than looking like a terrible human being. Although it possibly transfers the terrible-ness to Alex by making him look like a control freak, so I wouldn't want to do that.

I'm not willing to lie to them, but if I were, I thought of a couple of lies which ought to work:

* I already have a direct debit to you guys.
* I don't have a bank account.

Anyone have any better tactics?

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SF short story: Cat Pictures Please, by Naomi Kritzer
I often follow links where people recommend recent sci-fi stories. My reaction is usually "Is that it? That wasn't a story." But this one is a story, and I really liked it. It's about an AI trying to find morality and purpose, and (as you can probably guess from the title) it's quite light and fluffy.

What happens when teens don't have the internet for a day
Scary.

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In a vague attempt to gain fitness and strength I have tried doing squats before, but find them extremely difficult. I feel very unbalanced when squatting, and inclined to fall over backwards, and can't hold the pose for more than a second or two. This is odd because most people seem able to do them (the challenging part is supposed to be doing lots of them in succession and/or lifting weights while doing them) and because squatting is clearly a natural human pose (this is very apparent to me as a parent of young kids: Bethany and Zoe will squat for ages on the floor playing with toys, with their bottoms hanging just a couple of centimetres from the ground, apparently perfectly comfortable).

I recently found this website about bodyweight fitness (i.e. strength training using your own bodyweight, so no need for equipment or trips to the gym. That site has graded exercises going from very basic to scarily advanced.) There is a page on there about ankle dorsiflexion, i.e. how closely you can move the top of your foot towards your shin. If you don't have much flexibility there, it makes sense that you would find squats difficult, because you can't lean your weight far enough forward. And he has a nice quantitative test: stand with one foot a few centimetres away from a wall, and lean your knee forward until it touches the wall, and see how far from the wall you can have your toes and still manage this. He says you need at least 11cm to do a decent squat.

So, I had no idea I had poor flexibility in my ankles, but I could only do about 7cm last week. That would explain why I can't do squats. (In the comments he expresses surprise that a commenter could only do 7.5cm if they've never injured their ankles.) But I've been doing the exercise recommended on that page, and already noticed an improvement: I can do 10cm with the right leg. You feel the stretch low down in the back of the leg, below the main calf muscle, but above the Achilles tendon. It's not a muscle it's ever occurred to me to stretch before. I thought lower legs not bending much further forward than 90 degrees from the foot was a hard skeletal limit, not something where flexibility can be improved by stretches.

So hopefully as that flexibility improves I'll be able to do squats and gain strength from doing those, and also be better able to follow the well-known-but-difficult advice of bending at the knees rather than the waist when lifting things.

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I've had these open in tabs for ages meaning to share them somewhere; LJ will do.

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The Truth About Alice - Jennifer Matthieu

This was a fun YA novel about the destructive power of rumours. It reminded me of the film Gossip.
I read YA novels fairly often, but this one was somehow more YA than most. It's pretty short, and it's set in a high school and deals with very teenage concerns (and makes me thankful I'm no longer a teenager), and all but one of the multiple-viewpoint narrators have a strongly teenage-slangy style. The exception is a nerdy character who is the only nerd in this small-town high school, looking forward to the time when he can leave for college and meet people like himself. I liked him.
I had one nitpick: someone says the town has 3,000 people, and someone else says their high-school "class" (presumably as in grade, year-group) has 150 people. That means 1/20 of the town are in a single school year. The numbers would be more plausible if the whole school were 150 people, then 1/20 of the town would be spread across 4 years, which makes sense if on average the citizens are evenly distributed by age up to the age of 80. But the author says in an interview at the back that she's bad at maths, so fair enough.
Also, one of the bitchy popular girls criticises Alice (in her first-person narration, not when gossiping with her friends, so I assume it's her sincere opinion) for having a granny name. But her own name is Elaine, and her best friend's name is Maggie. To me they're more granny names than Alice, but maybe it's different in America.

The Boy That Never Was - Karen Perry

This was very gripping and twisty and I stayed up finishing it the same day I started it :) A very good example in the domestic thriller genre. Harry popped out for five minutes, leaving his three-year-old son Dillon sleeping alone in their apartment in Morocco. While he was gone there was an earthquake, the building was destroyed, and Dillon's body was never found. His wife, Robin, doesn't allow herself to blame him, because she has her own guilty secret. We pick up five years later, when Robin is pregnant and trying to move on, but Harry is convinced he's seen Dillon walking around with a strange woman...

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Before I Fall - Lauren Oliver

Basically Groundhog Day set in an American high school.
The story follows a Friday in the life of Sam, a popular bitchy teenager in her senior year. She goes through the school day being mean to people, then goes to a party in the evening, and is killed in a drink-driving crash. But then she wakes up again on Friday morning and gets to relive the day, with other people all acting the same way they did before unless Sam does anything to change events.

It has a lot in common with The Truth About Alice. They're both set in a high school, and popularity and social standing are really major themes of both. Both have narration by cliquey popular girls who muse about what it means to be popular, and desperately fear returning to their nerdy pasts (which sound much nicer to me - back when they had hobbies they'd chosen because they liked them rather than because they were fashionable). Both explore the power the popular kids have to hurt and destroy less popular kids and outcasts. Libellous bathroom graffiti features prominently in both.
I got the impression Before I Fall was marketed as less of a YA book, though. Certainly, it's liberally covered in reviews, and they're all from grown-up publications like She and the Sun and Grazia and Heat. I didn't spot any from Just Seventeen. If I were the sort of adult who doesn't read teen novels, I'd actually feel quite ripped off by this one.

Sam is such an unpleasant character at the beginning of the book that the first run through of the day, before any weird Groundhog stuff starts happening, is quite a slog to get through. (It's probably not too spoily to say that she does develop as a character over the course of the book.) But on day 1, she expounds her philosophy that there are those who get laughed at and those who do the laughing, and the purpose of life is to make sure you're one of the laughers. And she tries to cheat in a test by copying from a classmate, and the classmate's arm is obscuring some of her answers, so to make her move she asks to borrow a pen. The classmate, who is less popular than Sam, is eager to help, but Sam is ungrateful, and is reluctant to accept the pen because it looks chewed. In the end she does accept the pen (resolving to throw it away later) and sees this benevolent condescension to a social inferior as her "good deed for the day". The teacher sees part of the interaction, and blames and punishes the classmate for talking in the test, and of course Sam says nothing in her defence.

It's interesting to compare this to Life After Life. I was quite negative in my review of that because I felt it handled the life-reliving speculative element badly. But it did have mostly likeable characters and an interesting setting. If both were straightforward linear stories, then I'd rather read about imaginative, thoughtful Ursula, growing up in her idyllic upper-middle-class rural home in the 1910s and 20s, and then coping with the Blitz, than shallow, selfish Sam, cutting classes and getting drunk in a contemporary American high school. But Before I Fall has a very similar life-reliving element, and does that part much better, in that Sam gets to make deliberate choices and see their consequences, and learn from them on future iterations. (But even so, I'm not sure she does that as well as the protagonists of Groundhog Day or 12:01.)

Lauren Oliver has also written a trilogy called Delirium, set in a dystopia where romantic love has been identified as a mental illness and there's a cure. I thought from the premise it sounded a bit heavy-handed, like, "those horrid adults don't understand the one thing that's most important to us, and they want to eliminate it!" but I read the sample chapters at the back of Before I Fall and found it quite compelling, so I'll probably read that.

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I thought this would be like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Replay, which are both excellent stories of someone reliving some or all of their life multiple times and making changes. But compared to those, it felt lacking and insubstantial.

(Also: Noun phrases. Lots of them. Sentence fragments of literary description. Whole paragraphs with no verb. A grating stylistic quirk.)

Each time Ursula dies, we go back to her birth and start again (except it's not quite as straightforwardly sequential as that; sometimes we pick up again much later on in a timeline). Sometimes the circumstances around her birth are a bit different: the doctor does or does not get there in time, and if he stays the night, he may or may not get called away to help a man injured by a cow, and may get there by different means of transport, and so on. However, these variations around the time of her birth don't seem to have any causal link to the ways her life diverges after that, and to me that completely ruins the book. It's just "Some things happened. Or alternatively, some different things happened." It's a bit pointless and arbitrary. I guess maybe Atkinson is trying to make the point that life is a bit pointless and arbitrary (it is lit-fic, after all).

The thing Life After Life most reminded me of is about as far from lit-fic as you can get: Wayne's World. I haven't seen that since it was in the cinema and don't remember it very well, but I remember the ending, where they just cycle through showing you a few different ways the film could have ended, without committing to any of them. That gimmick works in Wayne's World: it, like the film, is silly and shallow, and it reinforces the tone of the film. It doesn't work so well in a Serious Novel.

Ursula, unlike the protagonists of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Replay, doesn't really have a continuous consciousness throughout all her lives. Sometimes things just happen differently for no apparent reason. Sometimes Ursula causes them to happen differently because she has a vague sense of foreboding about taking the course of action which led to her death in the previous timeline, but she doesn't understand it. Sometimes she takes quite detailed and complex actions in order to prevent something, but still without consciously understanding why. It's weird and a bit unsatisfying, and makes Ursula a "protagonist" without much agency.

There are some mysteries in the book which don't get wrapped up. For example, we don't get to find out the identity of the man who attacks and kills Nancy in some of the timelines. In the timelines in which Ursula is at the scene and able to avert the attack and save Nancy, she sees that the man has a limp and so on. I thought this would be a clue so that we could match him to someone we get to know better in a different timeline. I also thought that the timeline in which Izzie's baby grows up in England would shed light on the timelines in which he grows up in Germany, and ideally identify him with Jürgen, the German Ursula marries in one timeline; but the English baby's apparent learning disability suggests that's probably not the case (but I don't think it rules it out completely).

In one of the timelines she takes an action likely to have a dramatic effect on the course of history (and it's not clear how well she consciously understands this at the time, or to what extent she's just uncomprehendingly following her vague sense) but she dies doing it, so because the rules of the book are that we start again every time she dies, we don't get to see the outcome. That makes that whole timeline, and that whole subplot, seem a bit pointless.

I was hoping to really enjoy this book because I love stories where you can trace the threads of causality, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in surprising and unintuitive ones. But there don't seem to be any. (Or, again, maybe they're really subtle and I missed them.) And I love stories which examine the same events from different perspectives - whether that's multiple character viewpoints, time travel, reliving lives, or whatever - and the new perspectives shed new light on them and reinterpret them; and there's loads of opportunity for this book to do that and it doesn't really (see: Jürgen).

There are some stories with interest and depth in some of the timelines. They might work as novellas. An account of the grimness of everyday city life during the war isn't really my thing, but I recognise it's done well. But this book was marketed heavily on its life-reliving gimmick, and I felt that aspect of it was done very badly. I agree with the Amazon review of it which says "Each thread is mildly interesting and not without merit but there is no purpose to it all, no revelation, no outcome. You could as easily stop reading at page 558 as 613, or page 386."

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I am very excited about all the books I got for Christmas:
2015-12-29 18.08.25

It was a really huge book haul: Alex, my parents, Alex's parents, Alex's brother, and some friends all got me books. About two-thirds were from my wishlist, and the rest ones I hadn't specifically requested but which all look really interesting. I'm really looking forward to reading them. I think it'll take me quite a while to get through them all, but I've read three already:

Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer

An old-ish children's book which I hadn't heard of before. Alex bought it for me because it's about time travel, which is always a good bet. It actually involves both time travel and Freaky Friday-style body swap, so a double whammy on my "MC1 list" (NaNoWriMo term for a list of things you really enjoy in stories).
Charlotte, a girl at boarding school in the 1950s, finds herself mysteriously swapping places with Clare, a girl who attended the same school in 1918 (putting it in the category of time-travel stories where the original and destination time are closer to each other than either is to today) - but on alternate days. So she spends Sunday in her own time, Monday in 1918, and so on. The two girls leave each other notes to fill them in on what they missed on the other days in order to avoid slipping up. It's really, really good fun, and doesn't feel tritely childish - it deals with serious topics like war, death and separation. The only way it was really noticeably a children's book was the way things which seemed obvious to me weren't obvious to the characters; for example, it's the first world war and all the kids' fathers are away fighting, and one time the kids are mucking around, just one girl gets called into the headmistress's study for a talk. They all wonder why she's been singled out, and it comes as a surprise to them that she was actually being told of her father's death in combat.
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We Were Liars, by E Lockhart

It reminded me of Liane Moriarty's The Last Anniversary, in that both were set on small islands populated by a handful of households from one extended family (and there's a map of the island and its handful of houses at the beginning). But I think the island setting is even more key to this book. The family are insular, cut off from ordinary people - both by their wealth and privilege, and by the invulnerable false front they put on to conceal tragedy and failure, sort of an upper-class American version of stiff upper lip - and their summer retreat island feels especially disconnected from the real world. The writing is beautiful and poetic in places, and is even sometimes laid out like free verse.
The story is about cousins Cadence, Johnny and Mirren, and their friend Gat - known collectively as the Liars. The four of them are the same age and spend every summer on the island, and it's very telling that in Cadence's narration she refers to the years by the Liars' age: "summer eight", "summer fifteen". The calendar the rest of the world uses doesn't matter, only the Liars matter. We don't even know what calendar year the story happens. (You can tell it's fairly recent by the occasional references to iPads and Obama, but the story would have worked just as well without those, and could then have been set any time in the last 60-odd years.)
Some kind of trauma happened in "summer fifteen", leaving Cadence with a head injury and amnesia surrounding the details, and no one will tell her (apparently her mother used to tell her, and then Cadence would get upset and promptly forget again, so her mother has stopped trying). Summer sixteen, she didn't go to the island at all. The main plot is set in summer seventeen, as she sees the Liars again and tries to piece together what happened two years ago.
The characters are very well-drawn. The Liars are very different from one another and likeable, and the mothers are kind of pitiful and bitchy, bickering over the estate and the inheritance, and each trying to coerce their teenage children into sucking up to Grandad for transparent financial reasons.
There is a big reveal. I'm torn between admiring it and thinking it's sort of cheating. I think I could write basically the same story with the same reveal but without the cheating. Maybe I should.


Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

It was interesting reading this after We Were Liars. Both involve an unreliable narrator with memory loss, trying to piece together a mystery while unable to trust her own memory. But while Cadence was a teenager, Maud is eighty.
I found this quite an uncomfortable read, because it paints such a vivid portrait of dementia, and it's very scary to imagine it happening to my parents, or to me or Alex. Although Maud is a sympathetic character, you also really feel for her daughter Helen and her frustration at Maud continually forgetting things she's just told her, or things she's repeatedly told her and written down. Maud's dementia clearly worsens over the course of the book: at the beginning she was quite forgetful about everyday tasks, but perfectly clear on who her family members were, but by the end she's mixing up her daughter and granddaughter, not recognising her son, and complaining to Helen about "that woman who works here, the one who's always cross and in a rush", not aware she means Helen herself. And as the book progresses her narration contains more circumlocutions where she can't remember the word for something. It's interesting seeing it from the inside: you get to follow Maud's thought processes and see why she comes out with the random-sounding nonsense she does - it makes sense inside her own head.
As a portrait of dementia, it's very good. As a mystery, less so. Maud is concerned about the whereabouts of her friend Elizabeth, and the answer there is obvious from fairly early on, to the reader if not to Maud, and I think that's deliberate on the author's part. She is also wondering what happened to her sister Sukey fifty-odd years ago. The two mysteries are not intertwined in any objective plot sense, but details of each remind Maud of the other and she starts to blur them as her condition gets worse. She is more lucid when talking about Sukey and the past, and that is the more interesting of the two mysteries, although still not hugely interesting as a mystery in its own right; it serves more as a vehicle for Maud's reminiscences.
Overall I'd say this is very well done, and certainly interesting enough to read to the end, but not especially enjoyable because of the depressingness of the subject matter.

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