Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Helen and Ellie are identical twins - like two peas in a pod, everyone says. The girls know this isn't true, though: Helen is the leader and Ellie the follower.

Until they decide to swap places: just for fun, and just for one day.

But Ellie refuses to swap back...

And so begins a nightmare from which Helen cannot wake up. Her toys, her clothes, her friends, her glowing record at school, the favour of her mother and the future she had dreamed of are all gone to a sister who blossoms in the approval that used to belong to Helen. And as the years pass, she loses not only her memory of that day but also herself - until eventually only 'Smudge' is left.

Twenty-five years later, Smudge receives a call from out of the blue. It threatens to pull her back into her sister's dangerous orbit, but if this is her only chance to face the past, how can she resist?

I read Beside Myself as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a debut author in 2016.  I was drawn to this book by its intriguing premise - a twin essentially takes over her sister's identity. I wondered what would happen to the lives of these twin sisters, and just how far Ellie would go to keep the truth from coming out.

I expected Beside Myself to be an intense thriller, perhaps one full of violence. Instead, it is far more a book about mental illness and Smudge's descent into madness. Don't get me wrong, I certainly enjoyed reading this story; it just wasn't what I expected going in.

Ann Morgan managed to capture the behaviour of someone who is losing their grip on reality, someone who is cut off from their emotions and unable to move forward in life. At times Smudge's narrative is scattered and hard to follow, her thoughts rushing from one extreme to the other. As a reader, this was a challenge to keep up with. But I admire Morgan's ability to get the truth of mental illness onto the page; while reading I felt myself growing confused and unsure, mimicking Ellie's own feelings and disorientation - telling the story in that fumbling way is clever writing by Morgan.

The main theme in Beside Myself is a question of identity - who are we really and how can our circumstances change us? The novel explores an interesting idea - that who we are can be a product of how we are treated by others. At the beginning, Helen is the happy, confident one, who is adored by all. But as soon as the twins switch and Helen is treated with annoyance, as Ellie always was, she retreats into her shell and becomes Ellie. Likewise, shy Ellie is suddenly treated with affection so she steps out of her shell and basks in the attention; she becomes Helen. This made me wonder - are our child personalities so malleable that we can be forever altered by the attitudes of others? I think we can. Often, as children, we're told certain things about who we are. Some might be true, but sometimes they're the false observations of well-meaning adults. Either way, they can influence how we see ourselves, and the personality we go on to present to the outside world.  

Beside Myself is a complex novel. It was hard to read at times, but I believe that was the point. Morgan gave us an insight into mental illness, as well as the havoc a big lie can wreak on an innocent mind. While I did find parts of the novel quite predictable, and the character of 'Mother' to be too far-fetched in her behaviour, I enjoyed reading the book and got very caught up in the story. I'll be keeping an eye out for Morgan's next novel.   

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Book Review: Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, they thought their lives were complete. But it wasn't long before they noticed a marked difference between Jonas and his brother, Wyatt. Jonas preferred sports and trucks and many of the things little boys were 'supposed' to like; but Wyatt liked princess dolls and dressing up and playing Little Mermaid. By the time the twins were toddlers, confusion over Wyatt's insistence that he was female began to tear the family apart.

Becoming Nicole is the heart-wrenching story of a mother whose instincts told her that her child needed love and not disapproval; of a conservative, army-veteran father who overcame his deepest fears to embrace his new daughter; of a loving brother who never gave up supporting his twin sister; and of a town forced to confront its own prejudices. More than that, however, Becoming Nicole is the story of an extraordinary girl who fought for the right to be herself.

I read Becoming Nicole as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. Cheryl Strayed recommended this book on her Facebook page and I was immediately drawn to the subject matter. I've always respected the transgender community and I hold a strong belief that everybody on this planet deserves to live as their authentic self. But I'm not ashamed to admit that I knew very little about what it means to be transgender. That's why I decided to read this book - to learn.

Amy Ellis Nutt's book tells of the fight the Maines family had to pursue after Nicole was bullied at school for being transgender. As a result of prejudice and fear, Nicole was not allowed to use the female restroom, even though it is the gender to which she identifies. Reading about this fight, I was struck by just how brave Nicole is. She was only a young girl when the bullying started, too young to fully understand why adults were making her face humiliation every day at school - a place where she'd always felt safe and accepted. But through it all Nicole kept her head held high. She knew she'd done nothing wrong. She was simply stuck in the wrong body. Nicole continued to be herself, unapologetically. Such courage is very inspiring. And it just goes to show that a lot of the time children are more enlightened than adults!

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Maines' story, the most intriguing part of the book for me was learning all about gender identity. It is actually a process that happens in the brain during development in the womb. Brains have certain structures that differ in size depending on whether it is a male or female brain. A person's gender identity is the product of prenatal hormones, genetics, and environmental effects. Separate to this, the growth of the genitals is a physical process resulting from the presence of male or female hormones. Usually the two align, but for a transgender person their gender identity and their genitals are opposite.

Understanding how a transgender person finds themselves stuck in the wrong body has only increased my respect and admiration for the trans community, and for Nicole Maines. While Nicole has faced some prejudice in her life, Becoming Nicole is full of many who support and love Nicole just as she is. Nicole and her family are committed to helping to dispel myths surrounding transgender people, and to fight for trans equality. They encourage others to learn about gender identity in the hope of ridding the world of ignorance, hatred and fear. I feel blessed to have read Nicole's story, to have opened my mind to new knowledge, and to have witnessed on the page how powerful it can be when a family stands up for what they believe in to show the world what love really means.       

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It's Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman

As your average cynical Brit, when Ruth Whippman moves to California, it seems to her that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy.

But soon she starts to get sucked in. She meditates and tries 'mindful dishwashing'. She attends a self-help course that promises total transformation (and learns that all her problems are her own fault). She visits a strange Nevada happiness dystopia (with one of the highest suicide rates in America), delves into the darker truths behind the influential 'science of happiness', and even ventures to Utah, where she learns God's personal secret to eternal bliss.

Ultimately she stumbles upon a more effective, less self-involved, less anxiety-inducing way to find contentment.

Fantastically fresh, funny and honest, this is an eye-opening look at what happiness really means.

I read The Pursuit of Happiness as part of my two reading challenges - the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a 'psychology' book. In The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman asks the question - Is the happiness/self-help industry actually creating anxiety? This idea intrigued me as I've had an interest in self-help for many years now. At certain times of my life, it has brought me a lot of comfort. But I know that a deeper happiness can not come from meditation or positive thinking alone.

Whippman suggests that positive thinking, affirmations and the like can actually make us more unhappy, as we strive to be perfect and happy and not a slave to our emotions. All of this can have an adverse effect - we're trying to find our happiness by putting pressure on ourselves to be happy. Ignoring negative emotions and aiming to be happy all the time ends up creating anxiety as we attempt to be our 'perfect' selves. But all emotions are a necessary part of life. As Whippman says - we need to "develop a discourse of happiness that engages with people's problems rather than dismisses them."

In the book Whippman talks a lot about our internet-obsessed society and the fact that Facebook and other social media platforms are filtered versions of us, showing the positive only. This breeds discontent as we come to compare our lives to those of our friends, who always seem to be sunning themselves on a tropical island etc. Being envious of others leads us further away from our own happiness and makes us question our own 'life satisfaction'.

In researching this book Whippman stayed with a Mormon family to find out if a simple life is just what we need, she visited Google HQ to learn about work-life integration, she questioned hyper-parenting and the pressure we put on our children to provide us with purpose and joy. Whippman studied the positive psychology movement and the billion-dollar self-help industry to see where our society is going wrong. After all, if happiness really is to be found in the seemingly infinite number of self-help options now available to us, surely we'd be a world overflowing with joy. But that is not the case.

Whippman comes to believe that in our search for happiness we seem to have lost our way. We're all spending far too much time alone and staring at our screens. Socialising and interpersonal relationships are good for us, good for the soul and can make us happy. Society believes the myth that happiness is an individual responsibility, that it's our duty to go out and find our happiness, be it through yoga, meditation, religion, work, parenting etc. But giving most of our free time to self-absorbed pursuits can be counter-productive. It's often better to make time for family and friends, to share life and create joy together.

Ultimately, society needs to remember that happiness can be fleeting. But what we all really need is a deeper joy, a sense of 'life satisfaction' that will carry us through tough times. Seeking a picture-perfect happiness, full of endless smiles and positivity, is unrealistic. Sometimes life is hard and negative emotions are bound to pop up from time to time. Embracing the full spectrum of human experience can help us step closer to that deeper joy.   

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart

On June 5, 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, the daughter of a close-knit Mormon family, was taken from her home in the middle of the night by religious fanatic, Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. She was kept chained, dressed in disguise, repeatedly raped, and told she and her family would be killed if she tried to escape. After her rescue on March 12, 2003, she rejoined her family and worked to pick up the pieces of her life.

Now for the first time, in her memoir, My Story, she tells of the constant fear she endured every hour, her courageous determination to maintain hope, and how she devised a plan to manipulate her captors and convinced them to return to Utah, where she was rescued minutes after arriving. Smart explains how her faith helped her stay sane in the midst of a nightmare and how she found the strength to confront her captors at their trial and see that justice was served.

I read My Story as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. I remember reading about Elizabeth's abduction in the news all those years ago and being horrifed that a young girl could be snatched from the safety of her own bedroom. I was happy when Elizabeth was rescued, but her story eventually faded from my mind. I wasn't aware she'd written a memoir. As soon as I came across My Story while searching online for nonfiction books for this challenge, I knew I had to read it.  

Elizabeth is an inspirational woman. I'm fascinated by the way in which Elizabeth has overcome her abduction and gone on to live a happy and productive life. Her faith in God has helped her of course, but she also talks about being grateful for everything and acknowledging that even when things are bad there are still many things in life to be thankful for. She also says she knows things could always be worse, so make the most of your life. That's very brave; I'm sure a lot of us would want to drown in the sorrow instead.

What struck me the most while reading this memoir, was just how ridiculous Mitchell's reasoning was for having abducted Elizabeth. The Smart family are a good Christian family who offered to help a homeless Mitchell by giving him odd jobs to do at their house. That's how he came to know where Elizabeth's bedroom was and how he could get in to the house to kidnap her. I found it awful that good people who see their faith as important, who want to help their fellow man, were subjected to such a betrayal of trust. To take a young girl from her home, to rape and torture her for months is as evil an act as there ever was. Such an ungodly thing to do. And Mitchell did it all in the name of religion! This makes me so angry on behalf of the Smart family, and reminds me again what a phenomenal woman Elizabeth is that she has been able to move past this horrific tragedy with her faith still intact.

Reading My Story, it was clear to me from the outset just how much courage Elizabeth possessed. At only fourteen years old she recognised that she needed to get along with her captors, to make them think she wasn't going to fight them, or try to escape. She knew to try to get them to like her, so they might come to trust her. That's a heroic mindset to have under such harrowing circumstances and it's an incredibly brave thing to decide - to attempt to be nice to your rapist so you might eventually find a way to manipulate them. Elizabeth silently fought her way to freedom.   

As hard as it is to read about everything Elizabeth had to endure, I found this book to be overall a positive one. This memoir is life-affirming because even through months of torture Elizabeth kept her strength, kept hoping, and in the end she was rescued. She knows how miraculous that is, and that it's something to be thankful for. She talks about it being only nine months of her life that were awful - she's had plenty more months that have been filled with joy and love. What a courageous woman she is!

Elizabeth has allowed her experience to empower her. She uses her knowledge of being an abductee to help others. This is a significant and brave thing to do - to use your tragedy to help others, to change the world, to turn an horrific negative into a positive force in the world. That's remarkable.    

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Book Review: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane. So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live.

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.

I read How To Be A Heroine as part of my two reading challenges - the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a 'book about books'. Being an avid reader I was drawn to the premise of Ellis' book; I think it's a fascinating idea to go back and re-read novels you enjoyed in your youth to see if you view the characters differently with adult eyes. And I can certainly relate to the idea that characters in novels become as important to you as your real-life friends, especially when you read books as an adolescent. That's the beauty of fiction - authors create characters that can come alive on the page and readers get to use their imagination to give these characters form.

Ellis' book is well-written. It was interesting reading about characters and novels that I haven't thought about in years. It was fun to think back on my own first reading of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind etc, remembering how much those books meant to me. I especially liked how Ellis re-read fairy tales from a feminist perspective. It's always good to be reminded of the absurdity of these stories- eg: the Little Mermaid gives up her legs and her voice, all for a man. Ridiculous!

I must admit, however, that I ended up skipping a few chapters in this book. Some of these were because I hadn't read the novel Ellis was discussing so her reflections meant very little to me. But it wasn't just those chapters; I found myself growing bored. For some reason this book failed to hold my attention. It definitely has little to do with the quality of the book, because that is excellent - Ellis is a great writer. And while I could relate to some of Ellis' life decisions, I came to view it as monotonous and unrealistic that Ellis would be so enamored with fictional characters that they would guide her life so significantly.

For Ellis, it seems, books are her world, her passion, her life. Of course that's fine. I respect that. And I do relate to it - that's why I chose to read her book in the first place. But unfortunately, I didn't fall in love with How To Be A Heroine. I wish I could have, because the premise was so intriguing to me.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

On the evening of 4 September 2005, Father’s Day, Robert Farquharson, a separated husband, was driving his three sons home to their mother, Cindy, when his car left the road and plunged into a dam. The boys, aged ten, seven and two, drowned. Was this an act of revenge or a tragic accident? The court case became Helen Garner’s obsession. She followed it on its protracted course until the final verdict.

In this utterly compelling book, Helen Garner tells the story of a man and his broken life. She presents the theatre of the courtroom with its actors and audience, all gathered for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth, players in the extraordinary and unpredictable drama of the quest for justice.

I read This House of Grief as part of both the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge (which asked for an investigative journalism book). Even though I'm Australian, I've lived in London for many years so I was unfamiliar with the tragic story of Robert Farquharson and his three sons. After choosing to read This House of Grief, I purposefully didn't look up the case; I was able to read about the trial without any idea of whether Farquharson would be found guilty or innocent.

Helen Garner is such a fantastic writer. She was able to turn the somewhat boring legal proceedings into a compelling narrative. I was hooked from the first page and devoured this book in two days. I was desperate to find out what would happen to Robert Farquharson. It wasn't long in to the book that I decided for myself that he was certainly guilty. His strange behaviour immediately following the incident, and his inability to say exactly how he had helped to save his sons from drowning, made me question Farquharson's coughing blackout story. My instincts told me that something was just not right there. Surely a parent would be frantic, trying desperately to save their children's lives? Farquharson seemed to accept his boys' fate too willingly.

Reading about this horrific incident made my heart ache for the boys' mother Cindy Gambino. To lose all of your children in such a tragic way was heartbreaking. This House of Grief is a hard book to read, even though it is expertly written. Garner's thorough descriptions of the trial left me with visions of those three innocent souls fighting for their lives in that cold, dark water. It was torture to imagine such things and I don't even know the family personally. To understand the depths of their grief is impossible for me, but my compassion for them is boundless.

This House of Grief is investigative journalism at its absolute best. Garner's writing kept me enthralled throughout and I was able to relate to all of the emotions she so eloquently spoke about experiencing as she sat through week after week of Farquharson's murder trial. Garner is herself a compassionate observer while also being a competent journalist who is able to give us an uncensored report of every aspect of the trial. Garner has her own opinion of Robert Farquharson, but at all times she asks questions of herself and her reader, so as to look at this man from every possible angle. If he is as innocent as he claims, a misunderstood man, then he really is living every parent's worst nightmare.

After reading this book though, I don't believe in Farquharson's innocence. I think he made a terrible choice, out of spite and revenge, to take his children away from his ex-wife Cindy. I'm no expert, but if two separate juries found him guilty of intentionally driving that car into the dam and murdering his sons, then that's evidence enough for me. What Farquharson did is unforgivable. As heartbreaking as it was to read about this tragedy I'm grateful to know the story, so the lives of Jai, Tyler and Bailey can be honoured and remembered.  


Friday, 18 March 2016

Book Review: The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza

'Her eyes are wide open. Her lips parted as if to speak. Her dead body frozen in the ice…She is not the only one.

When a young boy discovers the body of a woman beneath a thick sheet of ice in a South London park, Detective Erika Foster is called in to lead the murder investigation.

The victim, a beautiful young socialite, appeared to have the perfect life. Yet when Erika begins to dig deeper, she starts to connect the dots between the murder and the killings of three prostitutes, all found strangled, hands bound and dumped in water around London.

What dark secrets is the girl in the ice hiding?'

I read The Girl in the Ice as part of the 2016 Eclectic Reader Challenge, for which I needed to read a 'serial killer thriller.' I chose this particular novel because it is set in South-East London, where I live, and because the book had so many glowing reviews.

The Girl in the Ice is a typical crime novel, so fans of the genre will likely enjoy the story. Although some reviewers have questioned the accuracy of the police procedures in the book, that wasn't an issue for me. Die-hard crime novel fans might feel that stretching artistic license when it comes to describing police investigations is a no-no, but I was able to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride. As you can tell, I'm not a die-hard crime novel fan. I don't often choose to read crime novels, but when a reading challenge calls for it I always manage to find one that I enjoy.

The best part of reading The Girl in the Ice, for me, was its setting. Reading a story set in places that are so familiar to me really made the story come alive. It was easy for me to imagine the action and picture the characters in their surroundings. This made the story much more realistic for me and really allowed me to engage with the characters' actions.

I especially liked the main character, Detective Erika Foster. In the opening chapters it is clear she's a woman who stands her ground and commands authority. It's refreshing to read a strong female character who holds her own among her male colleagues. But there is also a vulnerability to Erika Foster, which she tries to keep hidden. She's dealing with a personal tragedy that makes her behaviour a little erratic. I notice some reviewers said this was unrealistic, but for me I enjoyed that side of Foster as it made her a more rounded character. We all have our flaws, even strong police officers aren't perfect.

I enjoyed The Girl in the Ice. It was a fast-paced and engaging read. I didn't know who the killer was so I found the last few chapters especially exciting as the hunt for the killer intensified. The writing was good and I liked the way the author used the snowy and rainy weather to create a haunting atmosphere. There were some minor errors in the book though; mainly editing issues, things being forgotten etc. Overall, an easy read that entertained me.