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.

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What I'm Reading, What I'm...

What I’m Reading This Month (February 2017)

I’m far too fickle to do a TBR for each month. I change my mind far too often, or suddenly find a new book that I just can’t wait to start even though I’m halfway through something else. So instead I’ve decided to do something a bit less structured part-way through the month and talk about what I’ve read, what I’m reading and what I’m excited to pick up with absolutely zero commitment to actually reading it because I’m flaky and will never change.

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I actually picked up The Foxhole Court, the first book in the All For the Game series, as an ebook for free a while ago. I finally got around to reading it a few days ago, finished it quickly and moved instantly on to the second. I’m enjoying the series so far and am really excited to see what happens next, although I do wish that the pace of the first book had been a bit faster and I’m slightly unsure of Sakavic’s interpretation of mental illness. I’m still looking forward to the rest of the series though, and will probably review them as a trilogy once I’ve finished them all.

This month I’m also very into using Project Gutenburg, where you can read books that are out of copyright for free either as a downloadable ebook or on the site itself. I’ve read a couple of shorter things on here, including The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde which is one of my absolute favourite plays. If you haven’t come across Gutenburg yet then I would highly recommend it.

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I’m also currently reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and although I’m not very far through I’m getting a sort of Dead Poets Society meets Gossip Girl feel from it. I’m enjoying it largely because Miss Brodie reminds me of some teachers that I had at school. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that Spark tells you what ultimately happens to each of the girls early on, but the characters are likeable even as slight caricatures – I identify especially with Sandy – and I still want to know how they reach their futures.

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I’ve had Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush for a while now – I actually studied and wrote about one of his poems, You Are Jeff, for my English Lit A-Level – but I’ve never really sat down and dedicated time to reading his work properly. I’d like to do that at some point this month, because his poems are raw and beautiful and deserve proper thought.

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Because February seems to be Neil Gaiman’s month (I’m so excited to get my hands on Norse Mythology!) I think I might pick up one of his books I’ve had for a little while but haven’t got around to yet. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read anything Gaiman’s written alone, but I love the work he did with the late great Sir Terry Pratchett and think he’ll definitely be my cup of tea. Good Omens is wonderful and if his style is anything similar I know that I’ll really love Neverwhere.

 

So that’s a small taste of what I’m reading this month in lieu of an actual TBR. I’d be really interested to know people’s thoughts on the books I’m reading, or any recommendations of anything similar!

 

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.

Other Stuff

March Wrap Up and April TBR

I’ve finally managed to get out of my reading slump! It feels so good to be able to say that.

Despite this month being pretty busy with travelling around for Easter and my birthday (someone reminded me that this was my last year of being a ‘teen’, and now I’m having a small crisis), I’ve read more this month than I have in a while. I managed to read everything on my TBR and then an extra, and I’ve started both Outlander and The Talented Mr. Ripley as well.

April’s TBR shouldn’t have any shortage of possible material, because I’ve bought so many books (darn you Amazon and your book sale!). Now it’s just a matter of deciding which to read first.

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As mentioned, I’ve started this one today. I did read it a few years ago and remember really enjoying it. I watched the film the other day (hello young Jude Law) and got a sudden urge to reread it. It’s actually better than I remember, so if you haven’t read it and enjoy thrillers I would highly recommend it.

 

71I’m reading this one on the recommendation of a work friend, who I actually bonded with over Marvel films and men with beards. I was assured that this contained men with not only beards but also kilts, so I was sold.

More seriously though, I’ve been informed that this is a great piece of historical fiction and that it’s incredibly well written. I’ve read the first couple of chapters already and I’m loving the style, and the protagonist’s husband is absolutely adorable, so I’m looking forward to more.

Also, men in kilts.

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I can’t believe I’m so far behind the bandwagon on this one. When I first heard about it I wasn’t enamoured with the idea and dismissed it as just a space book, but the more I’ve heard about the humour and the emotion the more I’ve been worn away, and seeing clips from the film that I really enjoyed finally broke me to the point where I’m actually really looking forward to this now.

 

 

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adore Alan Bennett. He’s the ultimate sarcastic Yorkshireman, The History Boys is one of my favourite plays ever (which reminds me, I need to watch the film again…) and his prose is just as good as his plays. The recent film brought The Lady in the Van to my attention and I honestly can’t wait to read it.

 

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Having finally rectified the tragic state of affairs where I didn’t own my own copies of the Harry Potter books, it’s far past time for my at-least-yearly reread of the series. If anyone would want to do a read along with me just let me know and I’ll see what I can organise!

 

 

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I’ve read the first two books in the Mortal Instruments series before several years ago. I remember liking the ideas but being a little disappointed in the execution, and one particular development made my put the series down. I’ve been watching the new Netflix series though and have really been enjoying it, so I decided it was time to give the books another go. If anyone has any hints about what order I’m supposed to read them in it would be much appreciated, because I’m clueless. Mortal Instruments first? Infernal Devices? Some combination of the two? Help!

 

If anyone has any recommendations for next month’s TBR I’d be more than happy to hear them (although my bank account might not). Has anyone read any of these before? And can anyone please help me with these Mortal Instrument books?!