Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

– William Ernest Henley

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Received from NetGalley for review.

Holy relatability, Batman. I’m pretty sure Becky Albertalli has telepathically taken my seventeen-year-old self, chucked in a flair for vintage and craft, and created Molly. She’s chunky, she’s sweet, she’s a serial crusher (totalling twenty-six crushes but no kisses), she’s totally baffled by how relationships work and how one can acquire a boyfriend, and I related so hard it hurts. She also gives (and says) a big ‘fuck you’ to guys who say shit like, ‘you’re gorgeous for a big girl’ – she may be insecure and unsure at times but body acceptance, especially in a world that shoves the notion that thinner is more attractive down your throat, takes time, and I think Molly’s doing alright with that.

Now, the nitty gritty (summarized from the blurb because I’m lazy): Molly and Cassie are seventeen-year-old twins. Normally cynical Cassie is suddenly on cloud nine with Mina, and Molly feels confused and adrift, feeling pushed aside for Mina. Molly can’t cope with the idea of being rejected and feels that, as a fat girl, she has to be careful, which means she’s never had a boyfriend or been kissed. Enter cute hipster Will, and adorable geek Reid, who make her rethink everything she thinks she knows about love and relationships. It may sound superficial but I can assure that this book has a lot going on beneath the surface, whilst still being gloriously feel good.

The story is so driven by the characters and what’s going on in their lives, and I became entirely wrapped up in it – it’s all about first love, teenage relationships, the silliness of said relationships, so if you don’t like any of that stuff, stay away because it is inescapable. Boyfriends, being desired, wondering if you’re a freak for not having that mythical first kiss – all that gloriously silly teenage stuff that seems so important at the time – I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, and I mostly loved living it again through Molly. There’s something both nauseating and wonderful about all that first love stuff that makes me go gooey.

If it’s not already obvious, I loved Molly, and most of the other characters by the end of it – they all felt very real, flaws and all. I think Molly could easily come across as boy obsessed, but when you’re seventeen stuff like that can seem so important – relationships, being liked, fitting in, it’s all so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but you don’t always know that when you’re younger. It’s why Cassie seemed irritating at times, you just get caught up in that first boyfriend/girlfriend and forget about everything else, but she was also unapologetically herself and a fierce defender (as well as irritator) of Molly.

Aside from bundles of relatability, I loved the diversity within this novel. I liked that white, straight, and cis, was not the ‘default’ for the characters. Different races and sexualities abound in the novel and it is treated as completely normal, rather than there being a ‘token gay friend’ or ‘token black friend’ – they are just characters, just people, who are never portrayed as ‘other’. I found a real feeling of acceptance throughout the novel, like anyone could pick it up and find something to relate to amongst the characters and situations that happened. It’s just mushy, gooey sweetness, and crazy teenage hormones, and love, so much love, all wrapped up into an imperfect but wonderful parcel. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m growing to go throw glitter amongst the madness that is life.

Read: April 10th-15th 2017

4/5 stars

Room Empty by Sarah Mussi

Received from NetGalley for review.

I got about 170 pages into Room Empty before I realised the writing style was just leaving me cold, and a story about anorexia, addiction, child abuse, and suicide, should not leave someone without feeling. Although I genuinely feel for people who go through those terrible ordeals in real life, in this story I felt nothing – the writing is so disjointed and jumpy (which I’m sure has been done purposely to reflect Dani’s mindset) that I found I didn’t really care what happened to the characters and just wanted to get it out of the way so that I could move onto a different book. The premise of the book is fairly interesting, though, with Dani suddenly remembering parts of a horrific repressed childhood memory, and her rehab ‘buddy’ Fletcher becoming determined to solve the mystery of it.

Good stuff:
– Realistic depiction of addiction and mental illness. Even though I found the characters largely unlikeable I think Mussi did a good job in showing how illness and addiction can change a person – the patients appear selfish and uncaring but that can happen when you’re struggling against your own mind. I really didn’t like Dani but I can appreciate that she had lived a traumatic life and was incredibly damaged and ill; it’s not an excuse but it certainly helps you understand why she is so unpleasant.

Bad stuff:
– The writing. It’s not badly written, it’s just a style that didn’t work me this time. It is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, which I usually love, but I didn’t like being stuck in Dani’s head at all.
– It’s set in a rehab centre yet it seems that Dani needs to be in hospital; she’s dying rather than struggling and the centre seems to be doing very little to help other than ‘circle time’ group therapy. I’m not sure how realistic that is, having never been in any kind of rehabilitation centre, but I can’t imagine that somewhere like that would allow patients to die rather than trying to help them.
– A lot of the focus seems to be on Dani and Fletcher, and their developing relationship…and I just didn’t care. I wanted a focus on illness and addiction and the fight to overcome it, not a fleeting relationship between an anorexic and an addict.

Read: April 7th-10th 2017

2/5 stars

Stolen Words by Melanie Forence

Received from NetGalley for review.

‘They took our words and locked them away, punished us until we forgot them, until we sounded like them.’

Considering it’s only thirteen pages long, Stolen Words is incredibly powerful. It tells the story of a granddaughter wanting to reunite her grandfather with his stolen language; as a Cree child he was forcibly removed from his family and sent away to a school where he was beaten for speaking his own language. When he is unable to tell her the meaning of grandfather in Cree she resolves to do something about it.

I didn’t even know something like this had happened. I know that many crimes were committed against indigenous people, but I had no idea of the extent of it – it’s truly horrifying that children were separated from their families and forced to forget their heritage. I’m absolutely heartbroken for every child that happened to, every parent who had to watch their child be taken away. It baffles me that we as human beings are capable of being so cruel to each other.

It really makes me wonder if people have learnt anything from the horrors and mistakes of the past – terrible things have happened, yet we continue destroying children, families, cultures, for the most pitiful reasons. I never imagined that this little story would make me think so much about the state of the world and the horrendous crimes that have been committed, and are still being committed, today. I only hope that we’ll realise the destruction we cause before it’s too late, before we really are past the point of no return.

Read: April 7th 2017

4/5 stars

(Not so little) Little Bits

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

One of the most disturbing and intense books I have ever read.

Read: March 21st 2017

4/5 stars

Hollow Pike by James Dawson

DNF

I would’t say this is a bad book, per se, but it is a bad book for me. I was intrigued by the setting (Yorkshire Dales!) and the potential for witchcraft and black magic but it read much too young for me to enjoy it; the overwhelming ‘teen speak’, use of ‘like’, and cliquey social groups were just too much for me. The characters and plot felt underdeveloped from the beginning and I hated the bitchy high school vibe immediately. This is another example of a novel being unable to transcend it’s genre and age group – it feels very much like a story for teenagers, and although there’s nothing wrong with that it’s not for me.

Read: April 3rd 2017

2/5 stars

Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately by Alicia Cook

Received from NetGalley for review.

I seem to be very much in the minority here, but I didn’t find this collection particularly moving. Normally I love this style of poetry, and I did enjoy the use of a mix-tape format with songs at the end of each poem, but the writing itself didn’t really do anything for me. I wasn’t overly moved but I wasn’t left completely without feeling, mostly they were just words on a page to me.

I have to applaud Alicia Cook, however, for crafting this collection and pouring her heart and soul into it. Although it’s not for me, I can practically feel the emotions of the writer pouring off the page, and I think anyone who reveals themselves like this deserves a medal. I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to reveal yourself so thoroughly in print, so that in itself is something to marvel at.

Read: April 7th 2017

2/5 stars

Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Received from NetGalley for review.

‘Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody, but unbowed.’ – from Invictus by W.E. Henley

To say I loved this book would be a grave understatement; it is one of the most superbly crafted books I have read this year and I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it if I tried. I highly doubt it’s perfect, but it was perfect for me and that’s enough. When you have to scrawl ‘ALL THE FEELS’ into your notebook just for some shred of an outlet of the emotions overtaking you, you know you’re feeling everything on a deep level.

Letters to the Lost was not what I expected. Although much of what I read was not a massive surprise – two grieving teens united by anonymity, helping each other, falling for each other – the story was so much deeper than a love story between two suffering people. It speaks of second chances, making your own path, realising you were wrong, realising you can apologise and try again. It is dark and heavy and overwhelming. And it is magnificent. I’m a mess of emotions and the ending all but destroyed me, but I’m so glad I read this book.

The characters are outstanding; they are not all likeable, but they are understandable and I liked how Kemmerer slowly revealed that there was so much more to the characters than meets the eye – they are angry, they are grieving, they are flawed, but it makes them all the more human and relatable. Each one is so well written and relevant to the plot, no one makes an appearance without reason (especially a certain English teacher). The narrative switches between the protagonists, Juliet and Declan, with each chapter beginning with a letter, email, or message, which is a format that I love.

We are first introduced to Juliet who recently lost her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run. She’s understandably struggling, finding it hard to just get through the day in one piece; her mother was the sun that she orbited around, idolizing her entirely, and the only way she can find any form of relief is by leaving letters at her grave (writing letters to each other was one of their special things):

‘We just thought on paper to each other.’

We are then introduced to Declan who is grieving his little sister, Kirsty, and his father, who is in jail and the reason that Kirsty is dead. Although they share grief they are complete opposites – Juliet is generally a good student and average teenager, whereas Declan is volatile and violent, unable to express his feelings productively, and serving community service at the cemetery where Juliet’s mother is buried. After Declan responds to one of Juliet’s letters the pair begin a tentative friendship, corresponding first through the letters and then by email, all the while not knowing who the other is.

I adored their friendship and how it developed – they begin angry with each other for looking at each other’s words, before realising that there is a comfort in sharing your heartache, and the relationship builds from there. Both are able to express and open themselves in a way they can’t with people they know; anonymity provides them with safety and bravery. The irony is, of course, that they know each other vaguely in real life but can’t stand each other; every interaction is fraught with aggression and snide remarks, with each using the other as an easy target and outlet for their grief and rage, so it’s incredibly interesting seeing how everything unfolds.

“Am I stronger than you thought I was?”
“You’re exactly as strong as I thought you were.”

This book deserves to be read by everyone; it is so well written and makes for an incredibly powerful and moving reading experience. It’s one of those books that I felt down to my bones, and I know that it will stick with me for a very long time. I know that it’s something special, and I love that one of the most overwhelming messages I got from it was this: people cannot often be judged by what you’ve heard or think you already know about them, there’s often a lot more going on beneath the surface, and sometimes all that person needs is someone unwilling to let them be anything other than the best version of themselves.

Read: April 4th-5th 2017

5/5 stars

Girlhood by Cat Clarke

Received from NetGalley for review.

3.5 stars

Girlhood turned out to be a huge surprise; I was so sure I knew what was happening and how the story would unfold, only to be proven wrong at the end. I have to admit I was expecting more mystery and darkness, although now I think about it the title gives it away – Girlhood is about just that, being a girl, dealing with growing up, and finding your place. Even though it wasn’t quite what I expected, it was compulsive and compelling reading from start to finish. It deals with the intensity of boarding schools and friendships that develop between teenagers (girls in this case), but it becomes so much more than that – the importance of friendship, good communication, grief, and seeking help when you need it.

The story opens at Duncraggan, a boarding school for girls in rural Scotland. The protagonist, Harper, has a solid group of friends – Rowan, Ama, and Lily – but is suffering after the death of her twin sister, Jenna, a few years previously. Their close-knit group is disrupted by the arrival of new girl Kirsty, who has something in common with Harper: she’s lost a sister, too. The narrative simultaneously explores Harper feelings of grief and her enjoyment of school, finally finding a group of friends she fits in with, and her confused feelings when Kirsty arrives as she feels like she suddenly has someone who understands her, even if Kirsty seems a bit strange and quiet.

In terms of plot, there isn’t really one outside of the girls – Girlhood is all about the characters and their relationships, and how being together all the time can be both intense and wonderfully rewarding. They live in each other’s pockets entirely with Rowan and Harper in one room, Ama and Lily in the one next to them, and I loved their friendship. Rowan was my ultimate favourite and if you read it I think it will become obvious why. The girl’s lives are not always sunshine and daisies, especially after Kirsty’s arrival, but they are realistic – being a teenager is hormonal and messy, people are flawed and make mistakes, and Clarke has captured that entirely. Kudos to her for a bit of diversity, as well.

I like how Girlhood showed that problems can happen to anyone and money doesn’t always equate to happiness. Every girl is wealthy but they all have their own problems, which is something I feel people often forget. Just because the characters have money doesn’t necessarily mean they have better lives; Harper and Kirsty especially deal with grief that threatens to consume them and causes them to make bad decisions. There is also an air of mystery that is not resolved until the end of the novel, which had me constantly questioning motives – what happened to Jenna? Why is Kirsty’s behaviour so bizarre at times? Who is revealing secrets?

Ultimately, this book is about five teenage girls and their experiences at a boarding school, but it touches on so much more, especially the power of grief, friendships, and forgiveness. This is definitely one to be read on a quiet day, when you can devour it in one or two sittings and get caught up in the messiness and intensity of being a teenager.

Read: April 1st-3rd 2017

3.5/5 stars

Calm: Calm the mind, change the world by Michael Acton Smith

This is one of the better ‘mindfulness’ books I’ve encountered, and I find myself dipping into it more and more for inspiration. Ways to find calm and beauty in the everyday can be difficult but Calm provides easy, accessible, and non-patronizing ways to re-connect with your mind, body, and environment.

I find that some books or narratives on the concept of ‘mindfulness’ can be incredibly disappointing and superficial; the whole idea of ‘wake up and BE happy or ‘make your own happiness’ makes me gag when I have everything I need in life, except a brain that can balance itself in the chemical sense without medication.

Depression and anxiety doesn’t discriminate and this book knows that – the writer isn’t trying to make you look on the bright side of life and feel happy no matter what’s happening inside your head. It’s all about taking a step back and finding small bits of goodness – an evening walk, pressing flowers, hot chocolate, taking a break from technology. It’s something to dip in and out of, pick and choose from, and hopefully find some calm along the way.

Read: March 21st 2017

4/5 stars

I would also recommend: How to be a Wildflower by Katie Daisy (not really related to mental health but certainly worthwhile), The Little Pocket Book of Mindfulness by Anna Black, and The Book of You by Various.

*If you are really struggling please make sure you seek help: family, friends, teachers, your doctor, the Samaritans – don’t suffer.