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Archive for April, 2015

On New Years Eve, four people meet up on the top of Toppers House – a block of flats in London, which is notorious for suicidal people throwing themselves off the roof.  Martin is a disgraced television presenter, whose marriage and career are in tatters after he slept with a 15 year old girl; Maureen is a single mother with a severely disabled son, and looking after him has left her with no time for a life of her own; Jess has family problems, and has also just been dumped by her first boyfriend; and JJ’s band has broken up and his girlfriend has left him.  These four very different people have all decided to kill themselves, but when they all turn up at Toppers House at the same time, they decide to take the long way down (i.e., they walk down) instead. (No spoilers, don’t worry, this all happens in the first few pages.)  The book then focuses on the next few months in their lives, as they try and help each other – or cause problems for each other.

I have read and enjoyed Nick Hornby’s books before, and had been meaning to read this one for, literally, years.  It wasn’t what I expected – for some reason I cannot remember, I expected the whole book to take place in one night, on top of the building.   The book is narrated by each of the four characters in turn, so we see certain events from multiple points of view.  It’s a format that I usually like, and I think it worked well in one sense.  All of the characters were very different, so it seems logical to give them all their own distinct voice.  However, I have mixed feelings about the book as a whole.

I think the main issue I have is that it all seems too implausible.  The premise is certainly interesting, but certain events which followed just didn’t seem very likely at all, and so I was never really able to invest in the story.  Jess was such a dislikable character, that even though she really did have some major issues to deal with, I could not feel any empathy or sympathy for her whatsoever.  She was completely and utterly cruel for no other reason than for the sake of being cruel.  I don’t think it’s necessary to like every character, but surely they should make you feel something for them?!

On the plus side, it was an undemanding read, which sounds an odd thing to say about a book featuring four suicidal main characters, and there were some amusing moments.  I liked JJ, and I felt sorry for Maureen.

Overall though, I would say this is my least favourite book out of those I have read by Nick Hornby, and something of a mixed bag.  Not brilliant, not terrible, just….so-so.

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The subtitle of this book is ‘A Neuroscientist and his dog decode the canine brain’.  Gregory Berns – the neuroscientist in question – has done years of MRI work to help understand how the human brain works, but as a dog lover, he wanted to learn how a dog’s brain works.  After first determining that such a thing could even be done, he and his team at Emory University came up with methods of doing MRI scans on a canine brain.  He leads the reader through the initial idea, right through the various difficulties they had to overcome (for example, from being given the go-ahead to do the experiment in the first place, or  training dogs how to lie absolutely still in the MRI scanner.

The two dogs who participate in the experiment are Callie, Berns’ own adopted mix-breed, and McKenzie, the Border Collie owned by a friend of a friend. Berns describes the scientific aspects of the experiment, including how an MRI works and is used, and while the narrative sometimes necessarily becomes quite technical, it was explained simply enough for someone like me – with not the best grasp of scientific concepts – and didn’t lose me or bore me along the way.

Stories about Berns’ family life and his two dogs – as well as Callie, they have a Golden Retriever named Lyra – keep the story bouncing along, and underline the fact that while he is a scientist, he is also a dog lover, with the greatest respect for their happiness and well-being.  For that reason, he was determined that the experiment should not be detrimental to the dogs in any way, and that they should be allowed to not participate if that was what they chose.

It’s a fascinating study, and the telling of it is engaging and, for the most part, upbeat.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this particular branch of science, but also for any dog lovers.  Very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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