Monkey Mind by Daniel B. Smith

“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. Aaron Beck, the most influential doctor in modern psychotherapy, says that “Monkey Mind does for anxiety what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression.” Neurologist and bestselling writer Oliver Sacks says, “I read Monkey Mind with admiration for its bravery and clarity. . . . I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.” Here, finally, comes relief and recognition to all those who want someone to put what they feel, or what their loved ones feel, into words.”

I don’t normally review non-fiction, or indeed anything besides science fiction and fantasy.  I felt compelled by this book, though, not only to read it but to write about my experience reading it.  And it’s going to be a hard review to write.

Allow me to explain.

The full title of this book is Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.  I was diagnosed with panic disorder back in 1990, so you can imagine my interest in reading a story about someone living with a condition that is so familiar to me.  I didn’t go into it looking for wisdom or advice—I’ve gotten plenty of that over the course of time, useful and otherwise—but I was hoping to see the experience of anxiety through the eyes of another.  Knowing, as I do, that the anxious can be sensitive to criticism, I’m going to have a hard time being honest about how much I disliked this book.

I have no quibble with Smith’s actual experience of his anxiety.  Every person’s struggle with it is different and unique, although there are many symptoms and traits that tend to be similar no matter what.  But for a book that purports to be a “hilarious” look at the tragedies and triumphs, it’s incredibly negative.  I didn’t like the tone that the author often took, which was a cross between a self-deprecating “woe is me, this is all my fault” attitude and looking for anyone and anything to blame for his condition.  He also seems to think that anxiety sufferers are, by their very natures, toxic to those around them.  This is hardly encouraging to any readers who might be having their own issues with anxiety.

Now, a lot of what I just wrote is personal preference, and I freely admit that.  A “memoir of anxiety” needn’t take a positive tone to be successful, by any means.  I do, however, think that Smith’s stated aims in writing the book and what actually came out in the writing were two entirely different things.

Taking a more technical look at the writing, there was a quote from Pride and Prejudice came to mind: “He studies too much for words of four syllables.”  Far too much of the book is taken up with lengthy quotes from Kierkegaard, Philip Roth and the like.  I know that the author has spent a lot of time researching and reading about mental illness—he says as much in this book—and it feels like he wants to work as much of that material into this book as possible.  The quotes often slow down the narrative flow, and after a while, it felt like the author was trying to show how educated and well-read he is.  The story could easily have been written without so much literary navel-gazing.

Structurally, the book is all over the place.  Part of that is due to the proliferation of quotes from other sources, but I think it’s also due to the author trying to link his past and present in a bid to explain his anxiety’s roots.  The story is arranged in roughly chronological order, but there is some jumping around time-wise, and there are many asides about aspects of anxiety that seem shoehorned in at moments where they don’t really fit.  For example, during the section about his time working for The Atlantic, he suddenly goes into a dissertation on sweating.  Maybe better organization would have made this work better, but I don’t know.

I do have to wonder if all of the positive reviews for this book were from people who don’t suffer from anxiety.  After I wrote the bulk of this review, I went onto Amazon to see what others thought, and it does seem that the vast majority of the negative reviews are from people like me—those who live with anxiety.  I found that my reaction wasn’t atypical at all.  Monkey Mind may be a fairly accurate representation of one person’s experience with anxiety brought on by certain specific events, but it does not give a good picture of anxiety to those who don’t already know what it’s like.

This review was originally posted on November 4, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

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A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

“After Grandmére Ursule gives her life to save her tribe, her magic seems to die with her. Even so, her family keeps the Old Faith, practicing the spells and rites that have been handed from mother to daughter for generations. Until one day, Ursule’s young granddaughter steps into the circle, and magic flows anew.

From early 19th century Brittany to London during the Second World War, five generations of witches fight the battles of their time, deciding how far they are willing to go to protect their family, their heritage, and ultimately, all of our futures.”

Check out that description.  Badass women wielding magical powers, fighting injustice, and saving the future.  Sounds interesting, yes?  Well, actually, no.

As stated above, the novel follows five women in a generational tale set in England.  Although these women are supposed to be five individuals, the author tells the same story (more or less) all five times: character has normal life; character suddenly discovers magical powers in both her mother and herself; character finds man to impregnate her; has a daughter; rinse and repeat.  Given this framework, none of the characters really stand out–they all exist for the same purpose, and that is to pass along magic to a daughter.  The ladies are reduced to breeding stock, in a sense, since they greatest achievement is always their child.

Except for the last character, anyway.  And that’s the oddest thing of all.  Four generations of nothing happening, and then, suddenly, one of the family helps to save England?  By doing magic with Queen Elizabeth?  Helping to turn the tide of World War II?  Huh?  There’s absolutely nothing to prepare readers for this rapid about-face in the plot.  Actually, I should amend that: there’s nothing to prepare readers for the appearance of an actual plot, since nothing really happens in the first 80% of this book.

Honestly, I found this book to be boring.  I forced myself to finish it, but I really didn’t enjoy it.  I can’t even think of much to say about it, now that it comes down to me actually writing this review.  Given how much I love to blab about books, that should be a huge red flag in and of itself.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton

monterey-bay-199x300“In 1940, fifteen year-old Margot Fiske arrives on the shores of Monterey Bay with her eccentric entrepreneur father. Margot has been her father’s apprentice all over the world, until an accident in Monterey’s tide pools drives them apart and plunges her head-first into the mayhem of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is hiding out from his burgeoning fame at the raucous lab of Ed Ricketts, the biologist known as Doc in Cannery Row. Ricketts, a charismatic bohemian, quickly becomes the object of Margot’s fascination. Despite Steinbeck’s protests and her father’s misgivings, she wrangles a job as Ricketts’s sketch artist and begins drawing the strange and wonderful sea creatures he pulls from the waters of the bay. Unbeknownst to Margot, her father is also working with Ricketts. He is soliciting the biologist’s advice on his most ambitious and controversial project to date: the transformation of the Row’s largest cannery into an aquarium. When Margot begins an affair with Ricketts, she sets in motion a chain of events that will affect not just the two of them, but the future of Monterey as well.”

Well, this book was certainly not what I expected, and unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way this time.  From top to bottom, from plot to characters, there was very little about this book that I enjoyed.  My disappointment is especially keen given that the book is about an area that I absolutely love: Monterey Bay, one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world.

Let me start by saying that I feel really misled by the novel’s premise as written.  The tagline that precedes the above description says that the book is “set around the creation of the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium–and the last days of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”.  None of that is really correct.  No part of the novel deals with the actual creation of the aquarium–there is a completely fictitious move in that direction during the portion of the novel set in 1940, but all it mentions is the possible purchase of the building.  The rest of the novel, set in 1998, is almost a decade and a half after the aquarium opens its doors.  Also, Cannery Row hung on until the mid-1950s, when the fisheries collapsed and the canneries closed, so the novel doesn’t happen during that period either.

This is, unfortunately, one of the problems of writing a purely fictional account that takes place in the middle of a well-established historical setting.  It’s all too easy to either fail to mesh your story with reality, or to twist reality to the breaking point to fit your story.  Neither option works well.

It feels like this novel was a warped love story between a teenager and an older man, and the author chose to try to shoehorn that plot into a setting that she’s familiar with.  The closest the story comes to any kind of conservation narrative is Ed Ricketts’ assertions that the sardines are being overfished.  The main character does sketch sea creatures for Ricketts, it’s true, but she eventually moves on the more lucrative business of drawing pornographic pictures to sell at local brothels.

And that leads into my other main complaint about this book: I intensely disliked the main character, Margot.  When not obsessing over Ricketts, her observations about the bay are almost uniformly negative.  She comes across as self-centered, emotionally distant even in the midst of her pursuit of Ricketts, and caring nothing for the area in which she finds herself living.  She only gets worse, in some ways, during the 1998 sequences.  Here, we see her as the head (and founder) of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  We are readers are then expected to believe that someone could create a world-class research and education institution while simultaneously thinking to herself that she could easily see herself hating the place.  At one point, during the planning of the release of a giant sunfish (something that actually did happen in 1998), she even feels disinclined to put in the effort to plan the release and talks about just killing the fish instead.  Any modicum of sympathy that I might have had for her was lost at that point.

I do hope that the main character doesn’t reflect how the author feels.  From what I’ve read, she lived on the Monterey peninsula, worked at the aquarium, and supposedly loves the area.  None of that comes through in this book.  I know that the Monterey of the 1940s was substantially different from the Monterey of today, but I would hope that the present day beauty would, at least a little bit, inform the squalor of the past and show the hope of better things ahead.  It’s just not there.

There were moments when I could see a glimpse of something skillful in Hatton’s writing.  Some of her prose is quite lovely, although oftentimes she seems to be trying to hard to be “literary”, for varying values of that concept.  I caught hints of the Monterey that I know, and it just made me hungry for more.

I so wanted this novel to be more than it was.  Had it been as advertised, it could have been.  Instead, I followed the tale of a girl that I couldn’t like, doing things that made no difference to me.  Readers who are familiar with the gorgeous landscape of Monterey Bay and its incredible wildlife will find little to appreciate here.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis

girl-in-the-woodsGirl in the Woods is Aspen Matis’s exhilarating true-life adventure of hiking from Mexico to Canada—a coming of age story, a survival story, and a triumphant story of overcoming emotional devastation. On her second night of college, Aspen was raped by a fellow student. Overprotected by her parents who discouraged her from telling of the attack, Aspen was confused and ashamed. Dealing with a problem that has sadly become all too common on college campuses around the country, she stumbled through her first semester—a challenging time made even harder by the coldness of her college’s ‘conflict mediation’ process. Her desperation growing, she made a bold decision: She would seek healing in the freedom of the wild, on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail leading from Mexico to Canada.

In this inspiring memoir, Aspen chronicles her journey, a five-month trek that was ambitious, dangerous, and transformative. A nineteen-year-old girl alone and lost, she conquered desolate mountain passes and met rattlesnakes, bears, and fellow desert pilgrims. Exhausted after each thirty-mile day, at times on the verge of starvation, Aspen was forced to confront her numbness, coming to terms with the sexual assault and her parents’ disappointing reaction. On the trail and on her own, she found that survival is predicated on persistent self-reliance. She found her strength. After a thousand miles of solitude, she found a man who helped her learn to love and trust again—and heal.”

Being an amateur hiker, it’s not that big of a stretch for me to enjoy reading hiking memoirs.  My introduction to the genre was Bill Bryson’s excellent A Walk in the Woods, which set the bar pretty high in my mind.  In the following years, I found other great memoirs like Suzanne Roberts’s Almost Somewhere and Barbara Egbert’s Zero Days.  Most people, when you ask them to name a hiking memoir, will mention Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was a decent book, if a bit overly heavy on the internal drama for my taste.  Of course, every memoir has its own focus, but I’ve found that the ones that work the best, in my opinion, have a good mix of the details of the hike itself, as well as the hiker’s inner experience.

I might have been more forgiving of this book had it come out before Wild, but since it didn’t, there’s no way to avoid comparisons with Strayed’s book.  And for me, this book suffers in the comparison to both Wild and just about every other hiking memoir I’ve read.  This book is heavy on the drama, heavy on the internal maundering indulged in by Matis, heavy on the seemingly stubborn refusal to learn anything from the constant inner turmoil.

I find it hard to criticize the author’s writing in this manner.  She was a rape victim, and everybody heals from such an experience at their own pace and in their own way.  I simply want to note that while I admire Matis’s openness about her thoughts and experiences, she doesn’t write herself in such a way as to get readers to empathize with her.  Perhaps a different approach, or a different form of editing, would have brought these elements across to the reader more skilfully.

I also felt that, with regards to many things in this book (but not the rape), the author’s credibility is in question.  Here’s what I mean: throughout this book, Matis talks about the mistakes she makes on the trail and the times that she nearly got into serious trouble due to lack of water, lack of food, or lack of navigation skills; however, she also claims to have walked the John Muir Trail on her own a year or two before this hike.  The JMT is one of the most remote trail sections in the High Sierras, and the author apparently walked it without incident.  She would also have us believe that she had previously walked 1000 miles on the PCT, also without incident.  Yet, at the time of this memoir, she had no more skills than an absolute beginner, and no ability to judge how much food and water she would need for the High Sierras.  I find it hard to believe that someone who had supposedly never dressed themselves before could successfully hike a thousand miles of wilderness.

On a technical level, this book again needed a stronger editor.  I’m sure it was a stylistic choice, but the constant use of strings of clauses joined by commas got on my nerves.  Because they were so clunky, they would often pull me out of the narrative because I’d be trying to parse out exactly what the author was saying.

As far as I’m concerned, this is neither a good hiking memoir, nor is it a good example to give to young women considering going into the wilderness.  Stick with Suzanne Roberts–she’s a much better role model.

This book was a personal purchase.

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The Queen’s Pleasure by Brandy Purdy

the-queens-pleasure“Accused of conspiring with rebels to steal the throne, Princess Elizabeth is relegated to the Tower of London by her half-sister, Queen Mary. There she finds solace in the arms of a fellow prisoner–her childhood friend, Robert Dudley. Certain their days are numbered, their bond deepens. But they are spared the axe and Elizabeth soon wins the crown, while Robert returns to his wife and the unhappy union he believes cheated him of his destiny to be king. . .

As a daughter of Henry VIII and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth knows firsthand the cruelty marriage belies and roundly rejects the many suitors eager to wed the “Virgin Queen”–with the exception of the power-hungry Robert. But her association with him will carry a risk that could shake the very foundations of the House of Tudor. . .”

The story of Amy Robsart Dudley’s short life and untimely death remains one of the biggest mysteries of Tudor England.  No one knows if she committed suicide, had a terrible accident, or fell victim to foul play.  But her death rocked the political climate of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, because Amy’s husband was Sir Robert Dudley, rumored paramour of the Virgin Queen.  In this novel, Purdy sets out to explore the relationships between these three historical figures, but unfortunately, the result is lackluster.

For one thing, the text contains way too much description.  For example, at the wedding banquet for Guildford Dudley and Jane Grey, there is a massive salad.  The author feels it worth her while to list every ingredient in this salad, and it takes more than a page to do so.  Every dress worn by the two female main characters is described in painstaking detail, down to the embroidery patterns.  I found myself skimming sections like these, because they seemed like filler.

For another thing, the author is really repetitive.  There are phrases that get repeated multiple times through the novel, so it kept feeling like I was reading the same scene over and over.  Did you know that the Dudley emblem is a bear and a ragged staff?  You will by the time you finish this book.

Then there’s the author’s tendency towards florid writing.  It’s not really purple prose, but instead there are tons of italicized words and a forest of exclamation marks.  This is used mostly for Amy’s sections of the book, and it’s so prevalent that it contributes to Amy coming across as immature, brainless and hysterical.  The other characters don’t escape this, but not a page goes by without Amy’s dialogue or inner thoughts reading like the equivalent of a drama queen’s acting out.

I really feel bad about this book, because the historical story is extremely interesting, and this novel could have explored the politics of the time and place of women in society.  Instead, it reads like a cheap romance, and there was nothing simple or easy about this situation at the time it was happening.  I love historical fiction based in Tudor England, but this is one you can safely bypass.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Emergence by John Birmingham

emergence“Dave Hooper has a hangover from hell, a horrible ex-wife, and the fangs of the IRS deep in his side. The last thing he needs is an explosion at work. A real explosion. On his off-shore oil rig.

But this is no accident, and despite the news reports, Dave knows that terrorists aren’t to blame. He knows because he killed one of the things responsible.

When he wakes up in a hospital bed guarded by Navy SEALs, he realizes this is more than just a bad acid trip. Yeah, Dave’s had a few. This trip is way weirder.

Killing a seven-foot-tall, tattooed demon has transformed the overweight, balding safety manager into something else entirely. A foul-mouthed, beer-loving monster slayer, and humanity’s least worthy Champion.”

If I didn’t know for a fact that Birmingham has written other books, I would swear that this novel was the work of a first-time author with a penchant for fanfic.  The story wasn’t bad, but the writing mistakes were plentiful and widely varied.

First of all, a writer should mostly stick with a single way of designating their characters.  Our main character here is Dave Hooper, and one would think that after introducing him, he would mostly be referred to by either his first or last time.  Instead, the author uses “Dave”, “Hooper”, “Dave Hooper”, “the oilman”, “the oilrigger”, and I think one or two others that I’m forgetting.  I can see varying it occasionally, but this goes on constantly, oftentimes on a single page.

The one time that Birmingham does stick to one name is with the demons, when it’s most annoying that he do so.  The first demon we encounter is Urgon Htoth ur Hunn, Battlemaster of the Fourth Legion.  I didn’t even have to look up this name, because it gets repeated, in its entirety, many times.

Something else that pulled me from the narrative was the author’s habit of interrupting the action for infodumps.  For example, when Dave first meets Urgon (I refuse to type that whole name out again), he grabs a splitting maul and swings it at the creature’s head.  In mid-swing, the story changes to Urgon’s point of view and spends several pages describing what it’s thinking while conveniently providing all kinds of information for the reader.  Oh, and that maul?  When Dave picks it up, there’s a long description of that, too.

Birmingham also appears to be fond of similes.  The most common way he describes things is to compare them to something else.  As a result, there’s a lot of sentences like “His voice was and rasped in his throat like gravel.”  (Page 36)  The tendency seems to increase as the book goes on, as well.

Lastly, I just don’t like Dave as a character or as a person.  He’s foul-mouthed, denies responsibility for things, insults people, and generally acts like a reprehensible human being.  His worst failing, to me anyway, is how he compartmentalizes the kinds of person that he has to be.  Instead of being truly repentant for things that he does, he pulls out a personality he calls Contrite Dave.  He calls the side of him that drinks, does drugs, and womanizes as Bad Dave.  It’s like those parts of him have only a passing relationship to the “real” Dave, and it grated on my nerves.

There were the glimmers of a decent story in all of this, and I think I might have liked this book better if it was actually the first half of another book.  Heck, the entire trilogy (books two and three upcoming) might end up working best as one long-ish novel.  But with all the padding, the writing gaffes, and the unlikeable main character, this book become something that I can’t recommend.  It disappointed me, because I was looking forward to this one and had my expectations shattered in the worst possible way.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

princess-of-thorns“Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?”

You know, given the recent brouhaha around Jay’s Kickstarter campaign–the one that garnered her threatening messages for attempting to raise money to write a sequel to this book–I feel bad giving this book a not-so-positive review.  But I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t at all happy with this novel.

For one thing, I didn’t really see any plot.  The characters mostly went from one place to another with not much happening except a lot of bickering.  The places that they went didn’t stand out to me.  And even though this is billed as a fantasy retelling of Sleeping Beauty, it bears no resemblance to the original fairy tale.

That brings up a second point: a retelling should be just that.  It should take the skeleton of the original story and clothe it in new flesh so that readers meet a whole new creature in reading it.  This?… not so much.  The Sleeping Beauty character, in fact, isn’t even part of the story, since she dies at the start of the book, leaving her two children to win back her kingdom.  The daughter is named Aurora, which is the name of the fairy tale antecedent, but she has nothing in common with that character.

This leads into the third point: the characters ranged from boring to annoying.  Sad to say, Aurora is the boring one.  Although there’s no insta-chemistry with her and the male lead, she really has no personality of her own.  She wanders around, solely focused on raising an army, completely missing the fact that she has no means or support to do so.  Her counterpart, Niklaas, is a character that I’d cheerfully throttle if I ever met him in person.  He’s self-centered, egotistical, and boorish.  He believes that Aurora is her brother (she’s disguised as a boy), but he talks about his plan to marry Aurora as if she has no choice but to fall into his arms at the first opportunity.  And when he inevitably discovers the truth, instead of being mortified at all the things he said, he gets mad at Aurora for fooling him and exposing him as the aforementioned self-centered, egotistical, etc. that he is.

I’ve seen some stellar reviews for this book, so it obviously strikes a positive chord with some people.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I’ll have to recommend that you give this book a pass.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an  honest review.

(Description nicked from B&

Willful Child by Steven Erikson

willful-childThese are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the…

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space.’”

I hate to say it, but the more I read this novel, the more I winced.  I know that Erikson is a good author, but after reading this book, I don’t believe he has a good enough grasp of satire to succeed in that genre.  My role model for a good solid satire is Terry Pratchett, because he knows how to lampoon a subject without straying over the line into farce.  Erikson, unfortunately, is nowhere near that level of skill.

One of the big issues is that the novel tries to take itself too seriously as a satire.  Sound like a contradiction of terms?  Not really.  The author is so committed to lambasting every aspect of Star Trek that he can, he infuses absolutely every line of this book with snark.  What he doesn’t seem to understand is that really good satire relies on a lighter touch–moments of sharp wit woven into a strong story.  I can’t help but compare this novel to John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which also parodies Star Trek but does so in a much less in-your-face manner.

I also noticed a lot of choppy writing.  A good chunk of the dialogue is stilted and doesn’t bear any resemblance to real speech, much less to the kind of dialogue heard in the original Star Trek series.  Some transitions between scenes were rough and didn’t give the reader a good idea of how the characters were moving around.  And yes, we all joke about Captain Kirk being willing to sleep with anything that has a pulse and seems vaguely female, but Sawback spends way too much of the book focused on sex.  Kirk may have been a maverick, but he did try very hard to protect his crew, and Sawback has no such moral imperative.

It’s frustrating, because there were little glimmers of some truly funny stuff, little moments where the author seems to brush up against some skilled satire.  They don’t last long, though, and they’re buried in all the over-the-top writing that makes up the bulk of the novel.

This is one of those books that I had to force myself to finish.  Usually I can find something to enjoy in just about every book that I read, but this one sorely tested that ability.  Aside from a few brief flashes of wit, this book just doesn’t measure up to its promise.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&