Book Reviews, Reviews

The Sun and her Flowers Review

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Rupi Kaur’s first book of poetry, Milk and Honey, was one of those books that took the Internet Book community by storm when it came out. It was a regular feature in Bookstagram posts, mainly for the gorgeous illustrations (also done by Kaur) that accompany the poems. So I was surprised that there hasn’t been more hype around the release of Kaur’s second book which is equally as vibrant and beautiful as the first.

Kaur’s poems are the kind I like best, with a lot of emotional heart and personal connection. She draws inspiration from throughout her life, splitting the poems into themes: “wilting” (moving on from a failed relationship), “falling” (depression), “rooting” (her mother’s experiences as an immigrant and in her marriage), “rising” (a new relationship and falling in love) and “blooming” (feminism and femininity). Sectioning her work like this does mean that reading chronologically can get slightly repetitive, but that just means that The Sun and her Flowers works best as a book to dip into.

Her poems range from a couple of pages to just one line, but she mostly works in short stanzas that focus on one emotion or thought at a time and it creates some beautiful ideas that float on the page but don’t linger too long. They’re accompanied by line drawings that are incredibly simple but somehow lyrical and sit alongside the poems to emphasise the themes and emotions.

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It’s very difficult to write about or review poetry without either becoming too technical – clinical, even – or focusing too much on the emotions you felt while reading. I can only say therefore that anyone, but especially women, should absolutely go and find a copy of either this or Milk and Honey and just lose yourself in it.

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Book Reviews, Reviews

Our Numbered Days Review

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I was introduced to Neil Hilborn by a friend during my I Hate Poetry phase that I had in high school, and I credit him with providing the turning point when I realised just how stupid and stubborn I was being.

Hilborn writes mostly from his own experiences with a heavy focus on mental illness. He’s found a cult following amongst those with their own struggles and as one of their number I can absolutely see why. Hilborn is refreshingly honest throughout his poetry. It’s definitely not all sunshine and puppies because mental illness isn’t like that and it’s wonderful to hear someone expressing that instead of trying to paint over the painful moments. Our Numbered Days embodies one of my favourite quotes from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met […] And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

But he doesn’t fall into the very common trap – which I know I have – of writing about depression as though everything and everyone is terrible with the paradoxical sense of superiority that can only come from feeling worthless (for examples of this see The Catcher in the Rye, or literally anything ever written by a teenager). Hilborn comes across as a man who knows that the world is good even if he can’t feel it. His work is punctuated with moments of true hope and emotion, and many of his poems had me bawling. I would be interested to hear what someone without experience of mental illness makes of his work seeing as how deeply rooted a lot of his poems are.

Hilborn’s style manages to be sophisticated without seeming pretentious or overworked. Reading his work feels like talking to a friend, albeit one who has a wonderful way with metaphors (and boy does he have some beautiful ones. Plus there’ll always be a place in my heart for the “slutty chicken” simile.) His roots in slam poetry are evident in his writing, but this works to create a personal connection with the reader rather than being distracting. That said, if you have the chance to see him read his work I would absolutely recommend you leap at it. I had the pleasure of hearing him at the Bullingdon in Oxford at the end of August and he is a brilliant performer as well as one of the funniest people I’ve met.

To finish, here are two of Hilborn’s poems. The first is OCD, his most popular poem and the one that went viral to gain him his following. It’s based on his own experiences with the illness and is a captivating performance from him (and it’s just as spellbinding in real life):

The second is The Future, which isn’t in Our Numbered Days but is my absolute favourite of his. It’s another personal look at his struggles with Bipolar Disorder, and the final note of hope never fails to make me cry.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Psychopath Test Review

 

 

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Believe it or not, I’m actually reviewing a book on this book blog! Shocking, I know.

When I tell people I’m interested in true crime, I usually have to follow that up with the caveat that I’m not a serial-killer-in-training or one of those naïve weirdos who think they can change mass murderers through the Power of Love. My main fascination with the subject lies in the psychology behind it: what circumstances would drive someone to do something so abhorrent, how the police use profiling to catch a criminal, and how the justice system deals with people who have done awful things but might not be entirely accountable for their actions.

The Psychopath Test focuses, as the title suggests, on psychopaths i.e: people who feel little to no emotion or empathy. It’s a mental illness that has caused a lot of divide in the psychiatric community, and that’s just amongst those who believe it is a mental illness. Ronson approaches the subject very openly, talking to a wide range of sources from Robert Hare, the man who developed the list of criteria currently used to diagnose psychopaths, to CEOs he believes may have utilised their psychopathic tendencies to climb the corporate ladder, to Scientologists who believe that psychology and those who practice it are evil and corrupt. Possibly the most interesting is ‘Tony’, a man who claimed to have faked insanity to get out of prison for a GBH charge and ended up in Broadmoor diagnosed as a psychopath and desperately trying to prove his sanity. Tony’s story is an intriguing look into the nuances of the psychology, how difficult it is to really quantify mental illness with a series of boxes to check, and how terrifyingly easy it would be to get it wrong and ruin someone’s life. (As it turns out, Tony’s diagnosis may not have been so entirely wrong. Ronson revealed in an AMA on Reddit that Tony has been incarcerated at least three more times since he met him.)

It’s common for people writing about mental illness who don’t have experience of it to become hysterical and fall into the trap of fear-mongering, but Ronson thankfully has a much more sympathetic approach. He himself struggles with anxiety, so he’s aware of how mental illness can affect the way you think and act and doesn’t place blame with the sufferers. There are a few places where he clearly begins to think of psychopaths as ‘other’, especially when he’s in the presence of Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant (founder of the Hatian death squad FRAPH), but interestingly he catches himself doing this and turns it into a very interesting discussion point. It’s a much more sympathetic approach than many journalists would take to the mentally ill and criminals, and I find this open mind set much more enjoyable to explore the subject through.

I have a lot of love for Ronson’s style as he explores all of these issues. It’s light and friendly, and it doesn’t feel like he is trying to push an agenda; instead it feels more like he’s leading you on a treasure hunt for information, taking you on the same journey of discovery he went on because he found it fascinating and hopes you will too. There’s no opening statement telling you how you should be approaching the book, just the story of how Ronson himself was introduced to it and how that story progressed. It’s my favourite style of non-fiction and Ronson’s witty voice makes it a highly entertaining read.

There is a distinct lack of satisfying conclusion which I can see as being irritating for some people, like this reviewer for the Guardian comments, but for me the lack of certainty is part of the fascinating quality of the subject. It seems a little unfair to ask Ronson, a journalist, to answer questions that generations of trained professionals have failed to agree on. However, I can understand that this sort of open-ended investigation may not be for anyone, so if you want any kind of conclusive answers then this may be one to avoid.

This is the first I’ve read of Ronson’s work and I am absolutely going to be seeking out more. The Psychopath Test manages to balance information with effortlessly readable style and leaves you with a lot to think about, which for me is the mark of an excellent piece of journalism. There aren’t always easy answers, but investigation for the thrill of the chase will almost always provide an entertaining read.

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.

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I was nominated for the Liebster Award!

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I was nominated by the lovely Jemima from thebookaholic. Her blog is wonderful, so go check it out!

Here are the rules:

  • Acknowledge the blog that nominated you and display the award.
  • Answer 11 question that the blog gives you.
  • Give 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 5-11 blogs you think are deserving of the award that have less than 200 followers.
  • Let the blogs know you have nominated them.
  • Give them 11 questions to answer.

And these are the questions Jemima asked:

How many pages do you read in a day?

This varies wildly depending on how busy I am. On a good day it’ll be over 200. On a bad day it’ll be none. Those are dark days. We do not speak of them.

How do you start your day?

Reluctantly! I hate getting out of bed, so I usually leave it until the last minute before rolling out from under the covers and dashing out of the door for work. I’m not really awake until I get into the library, when I use my bullet journal to plan my day out before getting down to business.

What popular book (or series) have you (shamefully) never read?

I’ll completely lose my nerd cred for admitting this, but I’ve never finished the Lord of the Rings series. I’ve read Fellowship and the first half of Two Towers, but I haven’t got any further. It’s been on my TBR for years, and I’ve made myself promise to read all three by the end of 2016!

Who is your book crush?

I’ve been through so many, but my one true love that has never died is Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter series. I just want to wrap him in a blanket, make him tea and fight anyone who tries to hurt him.

Who is your favourite artist?

I adore Noelle Stevenson, aka. Gingerhaze. Her doodles and fanart are adorable, and her webcomic-turned-graphic-novel Nimona is one of my favourite things ever. I highly recommend it if you like knights, science, sharks and having your heart stomped into tiny pieces.

What is your favourite meal?

When I was little I refused to eat everything except macaroni cheese. I’ve broadened my tastes a bit since then, but I could still happily return to those days.

What is the last thing you do before you go to sleep?

Because I’d lose them if I didn’t keep them on at all times I’m not sleeping, the last thing I do is take my glasses off (if I were being super pretentious, I could call that a History Boys reference. But I won’t.)

What is your favourite bookshop?

There’s a wonderful shop in Oxford called The Last Bookshop (spoiler: it’s not actually the last one, there are multiple stores in Oxford and Bristol) which sell new books for £3 or 2 for £5. How can you say no to that? I also have a frankly dangerous University staff discount at Blackwells, and a soft spot for Waterstones, if just because there was one next to the train station where I used to live and whenever I was waiting for a train I’d go in and they’d let me rearrange the Terry Pratchett books.

Where do you want to travel?

I’d love to go to Italy. I was a Classicist at school (and have also played a ridiculous amount of Assassin’s Creed), so the history and culture combined with my ability to point at pretty much any building and say “I’ve climbed up that” makes it pretty much my dream destination.

What is your favourite place to read?

I really like reading on trains. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time on them, what with travelling to school on one every day and now using them to travel home and visit friends a lot, but a long journey and a good book are a perfect combination for me.

What do you like most about blogging?

I like being able to write down my thoughts about what I’m reading and discuss them with other bloggers. There’s a really lovely sense of community in the book blogger community that makes it really easy to slip into a conversation with someone.

 

11 facts about me:

  1. I actually forgot how to ride a bike (seriously).
  2. I play the flute and got my Grade 8 before I left school.
  3. The only reason I read George Orwell’s 1984 was because I lied to a teacher about having read it.
  4. I took Irish Dancing lessons for 14 years.
  5. The highlight of my year is The Great British Bake Off.
  6. I was the first person in my family to read the last Harry Potter book because I stole it from my parents and hid it until I’d finished it.
  7. My party piece is singing the entirety of the song Secrets by Sammy J and Randy with my friend (I’m Sammy J, she’s Randy).
  8. All of our family dogs have been named after Harry Potter characters. So far we’ve had Dumbledore, Luna and Ludo Bagman.
  9. I have been asked multiple times in my life if I plan on becoming a nun just because my Dad’s a vicar.
  10. I can’t wake up in the morning until I’ve had at least one cup of tea.
  11. The first thing I ever remember writing was Lord of the Rings fanfiction. Very little has changed since.

 

I’m nominating adoptabookaus, Wield Words, abookaccount, Outright Book Review and My Novel Thoughts. Here are your questions:

  1. What’s your favourite reading drink?
  2. Where would you most liketo live?
  3. Paperback, hardback or ebook?
  4. What made you want to start a book blog?
  5. What’s your favourite genre?
  6. Do you prefer borrowing from libraries or buying books?
  7. What was the first book you remember reading?
  8. How do your organise your bookshelves?
  9. What author, past or present, would you most like to meet?
  10. What is the last book that made you cry?
  11. What book is next on your TBR?

 

I think this award is a great idea to help smaller blogs (like me!) get to know each other and find a place in the community. Thanks again to thebookaholic for nominating me!