‘Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl’ – Jeannie Vanasco

This was a fascinating, if depressing, book.
Jeannie is a creative writing lecturer who specialises in memoir writing. She recounts a number of students who tell her stories of rape. Some of those have ended badly. But all of them share the common experience of someone taking away an individual’s right to control what happens to them.
There’s no doubt this is a book that will strike a chord with many readers. Some will feel anger, others will empathise…but, I imagine all will feel a sense of amazement at the way this experience is recounted.
We follow Jeannie through a very unusual experience. She decides to write about the man who raped her fourteen years ago. At the time he was a good friend, but they’ve not really spoken since. He is not the only person to have assaulted Jeannie, and he wasn’t the first, but she gets in touch with him to try and talk to him about the experience.
The story itself was not one you’d expect to find pleasant reading, but I was absorbed to follow her process as she creates this book. Sometimes the narrative felt muddled, yet this reflected the subject/feelings with which she was struggling.
I’m still undecided how I feel about the perpetrator of this crime, or her decision to engage with him. However, reading about her experience and the way she/those close to her respond to this was compelling stuff. There’s no easy way to view such crimes when we see who might do such things/see how common it seems to be, but it certainly stops such things being swept under the carpet and blaming victims for their experience.
Thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

 

‘The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their World’ – Dashka Slater

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

A seemingly innocuous action, done with little thought of the potential consequences, and I’m fairly certain that many teenagers could identify – to some degree – with this scenario. What will be quite different is that for most of us who carry out a ‘dumb/risky’ action there will be no further impact. Richard was not quite so lucky.

From the outset we are told exactly what happened to the two students involved – Richard and Sasha. Sasha fell asleep on a bus travelling home from school, Richard put a lighter to their skirt and then watched as they were seriously burned. The consequences for both could have been so much more severe, but what we are privy to here is enough.

We begin by focusing on Sasha. Born as Luke this section outlines how they came to view themselves as agender and what that meant for them and their family. There’s a lot of info packed into this section, but it gives a clear insight into some of the issues facing teens exploring their identity.

Next we’re introduced to Richard, a cheeky young boy who wants to achieve. Circumstances seem to play a huge part in his life and the options open to him, but each person has to take responsibility for their actions and live with the consequences of their actions.

As we watch the bus journey unfold, the moment Richard sets Sasha’s skirt on fire is fleeting. However, the repercussions of this moment are enormous.
The story takes us through court appearances, how both families reacted and some of the wider issues involved. It poses a number of questions about hate crime, how teens are treated in the justice system and how we can accommodate difference.

I felt quite humbled reading this, and very fortunate to not be faced with so many of the issues touched on within the pages. While the writing style had an inevitable journalistic tone, the story was engaging and one that needs to be shared. Thank you to NetGalley for granting me access to this book.

‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and other lessons from the crematory’ – Caitlin Doughty

I think there comes a point in everyone’s life when they have to face the thorny issue of death. Until then, it’s one of those things that we know will happen to us but are happy to ignore until we have to. Daft really, considering it’s one of the things we can count on happening.

Having recently had our first close encounter with death as a family the issues of how to celebrate the life of a loved one at a time of immense grief was pertinent. I was intrigued to see what Doughty shared with us about her experiences.

The thing that struck me first was the way Doughty recounted the ins and outs of daily life in her profession. There was a fascinating amount of detail given about what happens to the body after death and the ‘tricks of the trade’. I loved the sense of discovery we went on with Doughty as she explored her own feelings about death, and the details about how other cultures respond to death was interesting. I also felt Doughty was genuinely open to getting us as a society to examine our attitudes to death/funerals and the customs we associate with this very natural event.

The nature of detail given means it will not appeal to everyone. For many, keeping the experience as sanitised as possible will be just fine but it made me question some of the assumptions we have about what will happen to our bodies after we die. It certainly provokes thought.

‘We Can’t Be Friends’ – Cyndy Etler

Thank you to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review, and I’m happy to post my thoughts but don’t really want to rate such a personal book.
Cyndy is a hard narrator to get under the skin of. She is quite abrasive, and jumps around topics almost as a coping mechanism when things get too uncomfortable.

We begin with Cyndy returning to high school after months in rehab. We learn she was sent there at fourteen, by her mother, who seemed convinced she was an addict after what could be seen as experimenting. I understand there’s another book chronicling this experience, but the flashbacks we get here are enough to demonstrate how abusive it was.

Any memoir is subject to criticism. We only get that person’s perspective. Their thoughts and emotions are valid, but we never know how someone else would view the situation. Unfortunately, we’re told that Cyndy suffered abuse at the hands of her stepfather which was ignored. We are told her young stepsister is experiencing the same things. But their mother does nothing…I know it’s not her story, but I just cannot comprehend how a parent can hear these things and not take action to benefit their child.

It becomes quite apparent that Cyndy seems to have low self-esteem and is depressed. Her reactions to her peers really illustrate her desperate need to be validated in some way. How she tries to get this validation is understandable, though upsetting to read.

An unflinchingly honest read. Definitely not pleasant, but certainly important.

‘Not Just Jane:Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature’ – Shelley DeWees

Not Just Jane

Due for publication in October 2016, I have to thank the publishers and edelweiss for allowing me the opportunity to review this prior to publication.

Most of us are aware of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, but this meticulously researched piece of writing asks us to consider some of the other female writers of the same period. As an English graduate who had not heard of most of these writers it highlighted for me just how the Literary Canon is shaped by the politics and beliefs of others.

The writer’s passion for her subject is evident, and I found this an absorbing read. I don’t know how easy it will be to find some of these writings, but I am keen to try and find some of them.

 

‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer’ – Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy

 

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for the advance copy of this novel. Just as with ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, I was absorbed by this meticulously researched and fascinating story.

Set in 1895, we see 13 year old Robert and his younger brother, Nattie, spending money that it seems they should not have. They tell neighbours that their mother has gone to visit relatives in Liverpool, and they have been left in the care of a family friend. For ten days their behaviour is not seen as out of the ordinary. Our suspicions are raised by comments about a foul smell coming from the home and Robert pawning much-loved possessions to obtain money.

It is not until their aunt becomes suspicious and forces her way into the family home that we learn the source of the smell. The badly decomposed body of their mother is found upstairs in her bedroom, and Robert confesses to matricide.
Summerscale takes us through the trial at the Old Bailey and details of what happened next. This was packed full of information about the case, but it also included a wealth of details about life and attitudes of the time. We are told of the plea that Robert was insane, and I could not help but be shocked by the generally held beliefs about the effects of educating the poor.

When Robert is sentenced to imprisonment in Broadmoor, that could have been the end of it. What follows seems more a work of fiction, but we learn of the chance Robert was given to start a new life and the way he seizes this opportunity. This, for me, was what made the story special.

Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century – Sarah Miller

Bordenmurders

Not knowing anything about this case, I was curious when I received a digital copy of this novel – due for publication on January 12th 2016 – from NetGalley.

I’m giving nothing away when I tell you that this novel tells us the story – gleaned from news reports and other contemporary sources – of the trial of Lizzie Borden, accused of the brutal killings of her father and step-mother. We are taken through the details of the case as it is known, and we are left to make up our own minds about the outcome.

Non-fiction is not something I tend to read out of choice, but this read enough like a novel to keep me interested. What I found fascinating was the way in which the trial itself was conducted and what was revealed about the society of the time.

This is certainly a book that will gain readers’ interest, and it has piqued my curiosity enough to be on the lookout for more information about the case.

‘I Am Malala’ – Malala Yousafzai

i am malala

 

There can’t be many people who haven’t heard of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot by the Taliban for fighting for her right to be educated.

This book – now told in more of her own words – takes us back to the beginning of the story. We learn that Malala had written, under a pseudonym, a blog for the BBC about life in Pakistan and how daily experiences that many of us take for granted were affected by the changing political environment.

For teenage readers this is an interesting insight into a politically complex situation, telling us a story that you cannot help but be moved by.

As an adult I was amazed by the strength of character shown by Malala’s family as they come under pressure to shut down access to education for females. I admired the strength of will that was clearly shown by the whole family to try and ensure that everyone in their province would get access to what many of us see  as a fundamental right. I also admit to being more than a little humbled by the personality of such a young girl who, thanks to her family support, was determined to fight for what she believed to be right when it would have been all too easy to give up.

Though the novel is not well-polished, that isn’t important here. Malala’s voice shines through, and I felt it was important to get a sense of the girl behind the image. Her voice is engaging and honest. I enjoyed reading about how her family coped with the daily struggles of being uprooted from everything they knew, and I honestly believe that this is a book everyone ought to read.