Book Reviews, Reviews

The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls Review

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Chances are you’ve never heard of Emilie Autumn unless you move in very particular musical circles; I very much stumbled across her when someone referenced her in a blog. Her style is self-described as ‘victoriandustrial’ with a bit of musical theatre thrown in, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but something I actually quite like (if you want to check her out I’d start with Opheliac, which is generally considered to be her best album). She’s bipolar and an outspoken feminist, both of which feed into pretty much everything she does. She’s occasionally a bit controversial in her comments and her aesthetic has garnered accusations of romanticising mental illness, but overall I like her and her music has actually helped me through some tough times.

In 2009 Autumn self-published The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls to accompany the tour she was on and is based on the time she spent in a mental institution. Part autobiography, part historical novel, part fantasy, AFWVG is an odd mish-mash of styles mixed in with handwritten notes, recipes and photographs including shots of Autumn herself and as a whole looks stunning.

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I would definitely describe this as a Marmite book: either it works for you or it doesn’t.

The fictional half of the book is told in letters ‘received’ by Autumn during her time in the mental institution. Emily-with-a-Y, a Victorian violin prodigy who is condemned to life in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, a place where vulnerable girls are mistreated and abused, and ultimately part of sinister dealings by the corrupt Asylum doctors. It’s fairly standard fare, but for the most part it’s executed reasonably well. Emily-with-a-Y is likeable and very human, although she does fall prey to the ‘Chosen One’ trope a little as the Asylum doctors find her a little too interesting for no apparent reason. There are also a few issues with overly-loquacious style and structure – there are places where the action begins to pick up pace only to be followed by a whole chapter describing the food at the Asylum – but I found it relatively enjoyable and, with a good editor (which will be happening now that Autumn has signed with a publishing house) it definitely has potential.

You do need to let historical accuracy go a little which people have complained about, but I don’t think that that was what Autumn was going for. Although her description can be a little clunky at times she does create a vivid, gritty world that holds genuine fear for the female characters and, although the villains are exaggerated, she draws parallels between their attitudes towards women and sentiments that are still held by some today that manage to cut close to the bone.

But it’s the autobiographical parts of the book that are by far the more interesting. Autumn bares her soul in these sections, drawing on things that she wrote around the time she was committed to create not just an account of her time in the mental institution, but a holistic look at what it means to be ‘crazy’. She’s definitely not always likeable in these parts, but she’s brutally honest about it and it’s both harrowing and beautiful. These parts aren’t for the faint hearted – the three diaries she includes sections of are very difficult to read – but I would honestly say it’s worth it. If you’ve ever been through anything similar then Emilie’s thoughts and experiences will probably speak very personally to you.

Unfortunately, I get the feeling that Autumn became more interested in the fictional world that she created than telling her own story because the autobiographical chapters become less and less frequent and don’t receive any proper conclusion. Instead she meshes the two worlds she’s written about together, which is fair enough, but I would have liked some closure or reflective thoughts on her time in the institution. I would definitely call this my main complaint because I enjoyed (although maybe that’s not the right word) the autobiographical parts much more than the fiction, although I realise that how much Autumn tells us is entirely up to her as it is very personal.

I’m not sure I could say that I recommend this book. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I know that a lot of people didn’t like it, either because of the faults in the composition of the fiction or because the autobiography didn’t connect with them, and I can definitely understand why. I have to say that I’m glad I read it though because it spoke to me personally. I think it’s the kind of book each individual would have a different experience with, so if it sounds like your kind of thing then check it out. Just make sure you have a strong stomach.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Disaster Artist Review

Apologies for the long hiatus from any content at all, let alone book related content! 

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First of all, let me start by saying that if you haven’t seen Tommy Wiseau’s cult masterpiece The Room then you haven’t lived. It is one of the most beautiful messes ever to exist and everyone should see it at least once before they die.

Some context: long ago, in distant 2001, Thomas Wiseau decided to make a film. For those who haven’t seen it, The Room is an attempt at a serious romantic drama written, directed and starred in by Wiseau, who unfortunately has very little talent at any of those three things. The film is only still around because it reached cult status for its sheer awfulness. People attend screenings of The Room like they do Rocky Horror Picture Show, heckling the screen, throwing spoons and joining in with every iconic line (“You’re tearing me apart Lisa!”). It transcends all possible description with mere words, so I can only advise that you seek it out and watch it as soon as possible. You can thank me later. If you can’t watch it right now, all you really need to know can be summed up by this quote from Professor Ross Morin:

It is one of the most important films of the past decade…the Citizen Kane of bad movies.

What The Disaster Artist reveals is that the making of the film was just as painfully entertaining as the film itself. Written by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s (possibly only) friend who was dragged into starring in the film, this book gives an enthralling insight into every aspect of the film and the genius(?) behind it.

Wiseau is a fascinating and often quite sinister character, both as a man and a filmmaker, and Sestero is perfectly situated to give us a reasonably in-depth look into both. The book alternates between ‘past’ (how Sestero met Wiseau, their friendship and how The Room was conceived) and ‘present’ (describing the making of the film), ending with the glorious premiere. It’s hard to say which chapters I enjoyed more; the filming chapters were great fun and full of hilarious anecdotes about Wiseau’s odd directing choices and his inability to read the lines he wrote himself, and if you’ve seen the film then you’ll find lots of explanation for some of the more…unusual…aspects of the film, such as why there are pictures of spoons everywhere or why there’s a scene where the characters play football in tuxedos for no discernable reason.

But Sestero goes beyond just writing a funny book about a terrible film in the ‘past’ chapters and actually gives some thoughtful insight into Wiseau’s past and how it affects his behaviour and motivations. In some ways this is even more interesting than the amusing anecdotes from the film set, and goes a long way to explain how The Room ended up the way it did. Somehow the film is all the more interesting when you have a glimpse into the psyche of the man who made it. Of course, there’s no way to confirm Sestero’s stories about Wiseau’s past – Wiseau is notorious for lying and avoiding questions about his history – but he makes some educated guesses that turn his friend into more than just a strange comedic caricature.

This is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s seen The Room, or even anyone with an interest in film-making because it gives such a unique and in-depth perspective of the process. It’s a light and engaging read that offers a little more than most books of its kind. I’ll be interested to see how the film adaptation that’s coming out later this year treats it (yes, they’re making a film about a book about making a film). It’s bound to be entertaining with a great cast, but I’ll like it all the more if it keeps some of the heart that makes this book so readable.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Firebird Chronicles: Rise Of The Shadow Stealers Review

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Apologies for the long unplanned hiatus. It turns out that moving cities and starting a new job takes up a lot of your time! Hopefully I’ll be able to start posting with more regularity. To kick us off again, a book I was sent for review by its author, Daniel Ingram-Brown, who may be the world’s most patient man and who you should definitely check out here or on his Twitter.

Rise of the Shadow Stealers is one of those books that you would never normally find but somehow stumble across – or in my case, get sent a copy after a Twitter connection – and reading it makes your week. The premise is charming, fanciful and wonderfully meta: set on an island where fictional characters are trained to fit their roles in their respective novels, Fletcher and Scoop team up for a quest to restore their lost memories of their lives before they were at Blotting’s Academy and to attend the wedding of the mysterious Storyteller.

I have to say I found Rise of the Shadow Stealers rather surprising, and not in a bad way. I came to it assuming from the cover and blurb that it would be children’s fiction (not that that’s a bad thing in the slightest. Critics sniffily dismissing something as children’s fiction irritates me no end). It’s actually quite sophisticated for that genre though, interweaving a delightfully whimsical fantasy plot with more mature themes, like maintaining morality in difficult times and finding your purpose, and drawing heavily on religious symbolism and metaphor throughout. This can get a little heavy-handed in places, particularly the religious parallels, but for the most part it’s skilfully interwoven with the fantasy narrative that means you can read it on whatever level you’d like: whimsical fantasy, Christian literature, good old fashioned morality tale and so on. A lot of reviews made comparison to the Narnia series and I can definitely see their point. Rise of the Shadow Stealers stands on its merits as a charming fantasy novel, but it really comes into its own when you delve deeper and think about the messages behind it all.

While the plot is technically about Fletcher and Scoop’s quest to reach the Storyteller’s wedding, it’s as much about their growth as characters as it is about getting from to B. This is a world inhabited by purposeful stereotypes (the infinitely wise but slightly batty old mentor, the outrageously evil witch, and even one character who proudly identifies herself as a Snob), who can at times feel a little 2-D by themselves, but this does help to emphasise the fact that the two protagonists develop naturally and realistically enough that I was really very fond of them by the end. Their flaws are what make them important as characters, and so they’re nicely fleshed out and allowed to make mistakes. Fletcher in particular undergoes some notable development, and his transformation is well handled and enjoyable to witness, because the characters, like the rest of the book, are charming and you find yourself really rooting for them as they undergo their quest.

The real triumph of the novel, however, is the world building. You can really tell that Ingram-Brown had great fun creating Fullstop Island (which is just the most adorable name ever) from the ground up to create a setting that lives beyond what we see in the story. It’s my favourite kind of world building too, where tiny details and minor characters are fleshed out beyond just filling their role to advance the plot, even if they just appear in once scene. Particular favourites of mine were the batty and slightly weird ladies who run the tea shop and one very special character who appears at the end, who you will have to read the book to find out about. If nothing else convinces you to give Rise of the Shadow Stealers a go, the joy of it’s construction should be all the persuasion you need.

You’ve probably noticed the common theme in this review: ‘charming’. You can’t help but enjoy yourself while reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone out there who needed a little cheer to brighten their week. I’m definitely looking forwards to the sequel and what Daniel Ingram-Brown has up his sleeve for his characters next.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Other Boleyn Girl Review

cover21My past experiences with Philippa Gregory haven’t exactly endeared her to me. I watched the first episode of the BBC adaptation of her novel The White Queen and got as far as the scene where Edward IV raped Elizabeth Woodville in the forest causing her to declare her undying love for him, at which point I promptly stopped watching. I also saw the film version of The Other Boleyn Girl, but was distracted the whole time by watching Natalie Portman chase her English accent around her face (how is it possible for her half-decent accent from V for Vendetta to have got so much worse in 3 years?)

I’d also heard things about her historical accuracy, or rather lack thereof. My A-Level History class watched a documentary where she was included in a panel of historians and historical novelists, and one of the theories she presented caused several of the others to break into hysterics and one old man looked like he was going to cry.

I therefore chose to ignore The Other Boleyn Girl during my A-Level years so I didn’t pick up any strange ideas that would make old men cry, but having finished my exams and having a historical itch to scratch (is that a thing, or am I just strange?) I decided to pick it up and have a read.

Pinning down my actual problems with this book was difficult. There’s no real overarching problems that make it a Bad Book, but a build up of small niggles just made me feel uncomfortable. And a book making you uncomfortable is possibly even worse than a Bad Book, because at least you can laugh at a Bad Book.

Setting aside the historical accuracy – and you have to, if you don’t want to spend the whole time hitting your head against a wall – Gregory sets out  to humanise these infamous historical figures. This is a lofty goal, with particularly Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn having been so analysed, counter-analysed and over-analysed throughout history that it’s hard to form an opinion without it being informed by some pre-existing social or political school of thought. What they were really like as people we shall never know (although meeting controversial historical figures would be the best use of time travel as far as I’m concerned), so Gregory’s aim to bring them to life is admirable.

Unfortunately she falls at the first hurdle by Characterising them (capital letter intentional) instead of characterising them. You can’t go two pages without being reminded that Anne is self-serving and ambitious, or that Mary is kind-hearted but easily manipulated, or that George is a bit of a slut. It works well enough to begin with, but after the twentieth time of being told that Anne has an enigmatic smile an enigmatic smile is what she becomes to a reader, which puts us straight back to square one on the humanising front.

This also, slightly ironically, causes a few problems for the main theme of the book, namely family. Mary is torn throughout between her own emotions and her loyalty to the Boleyns, but when Gregory makes it so clear that they’re greedy social climbers her protestations of ‘But family!’ only work for so long before they seem a bit unbelievable. It only becomes more strained when Mary gets her own family away from the scheming of court, and yet continues to serve Anne loyally until her arrest and defend Anne to her husband as if she is some kind of misunderstood saint.

In a novel apparently about the vicious rivalry between the two sisters the rivalry appears only in an abstract form in Mary’s head. She insists repeatedly throughout that Anne is both her greatest friend and her bitterest enemy, but the interactions between the two show merely reflect the need for tension in the plot and not any realistic reaction to events. Mary is bitter or loyal as the plot needs her to be; slights are forgotten within pages, even Anne effectively stealing Mary’s son, simply so Anne’s character can be developed. I understand that she is the most historically compelling, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your protagonist’s character for that of another you deem more interesting, especially if the reader is stuck with them as a narrator. To begin with this confusing loyalty can be passed off as self-sacrifice for the family, but, as discussed above, this excuse quickly gets stretched too far to be credible.

Gregory’s actual writing style is a bit wonky at times too. There’s no real consistent issues, but every so often something happens that completely threw me. A prime example of this would be the two pages where Mary describes in intricate details events that she never witnessed and never has described to her. This happens at a few points in the book and, while I guess you could claim that Mary is filling in the gaps with her imagination it just strikes me as clunky. The benefits of using Mary’s point of view is that, other than a few basic details, not much is known about her or her movements. She therefore makes an ideal narrator, being able to witness anything the author needs her to. It seems lazy not to use that to your advantage; in the bustling social world of the court that Gregory paints it would be easy to just write Mary into a corner to overhear the important conversations she needs to. Contrived it may be, but it at least prevents your narrator from being omniscient.

When all is said and done, however, I can’t deny that I found The Other Boleyn Girl a very compelling read. I kept picking it up whenever I could and, despite not setting aside any long periods of time to read it, practically raced through what is a reasonably hefty 529 pages in quite a small typeface. I think it’s due to the short ‘segments’ the book is divided into, as they break it up into manageable chunks you can just pick up easily without dedicating hours of reading time. It also means that Gregory can’t fall prey to the common issue in historical fiction, namely boring the reader to death with lovingly researched detail about what the walls are made of. Gregory’s style is quick and gets both plot details and historical fact across neatly and effectively, making it a good starting point for someone wanting an introduction to the genre, or even someone wanting a light but exciting read.

Just so long as you don’t think about it too hard.