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.

Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean

Received from NetGalley for review.

DNF @ 90 pages

I made in ninety pages in before I just gave up. Skimming through the rest of the book only confirmed my theory – this book and I were not destined to have a happy relationship. Whilst Toward a Secret Sky has a fantastic premise – orphans, secret organisations, Scottish Highlands – the actual story was severely lacking. It reminded me of a less compelling Twilight with secret codes and angels and demons instead of vampires (ripping off The Da Vince Code and The Mortal Instruments simultaneously), but the same nauseating sense of insta-love and a special snowflake protagonist.

The writing felt underdeveloped and rushed – the reveals in those first ninety pages felt hurried and unconvincing. At no point was I invested in Maren’s character or her story. Instead of feeling sympathy for the death of mother I just felt bored – bored of her narrative, her experiences in Scotland, and her obsession with Gavin. We are simply told that Maren is cursed/unlucky and feels like an outsider, without any evidence to back it up – yes, her parents are dead and that is tragic, but many people lose parents, it doesn’t make you cursed or some kind of harbinger of death. Even though this is fiction it still needs to be convincing and I can’t remember the last time I felt so unconvinced by a story.

Maren’s interactions with Gavin had me laughing out loud with their idiocy – it is not logical to become obsessed with or fantasise about some guy you’ve just met because he’s hot, even less logical to find yourself wanting to kiss him, be with him, just be near him, even though he’s acted like an asshole, just because he’s hot. I’m not buying it; it’s a disservice to teenage girls to suggest that that is all they care about, that they are that shallow, especially when they have just experienced the massive emotional trauma and upheaval that Maren has. I’m actually fairly pissed off that this book didn’t live up to my expectations because it could have been so good.

I seem to be in the minority with this as the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, so I can only say it might be for you – there is always the possibility that the writing becomes more compelling and the plot more developed but I am not willing to find out. Maybe it is just me, maybe I’m too old or too cynical, but I sadly found no enjoyment in Toward a Secret Sky.

Read: March 14th-16th 2017

1/5 stars

Tutti’s Promise by K. Heidi Fishman

Received from NetGalley for review.

‘I hope you learned something from my story. It’s a story of hope and perseverance. It’s a story of courage and compassion and luck. Most of all, it’s a story that reminds us that we must never forget what prejudice and hatred can lead to if we don’t confront them together.’ – Tutti Lichtenstern Fishman

Tutti’s Promise is an account of Tutti (Ruth) and her family’s experience of being Jewish in the Netherlands during WWII. Having already left Germany for Amsterdam when Tutti and her younger brother, Robbie, were young, they suddenly found themselves further targeted by Hitler and the Nazis for their faith when Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. As most people know, some six million Jews (alongside many other people the Nazis deemed ‘inferior’) were murdered during the Holocaust, and this is something that can never be forgotten. Tutti’s Promise delivers a heart-breaking story of the terrible circumstances Jewish people found themselves in during the war, and feels even more important given what’s happening in the world right now.

K. Heidi Fishman recounts her mother’s story, documenting the fear and heartbreak the family lived through, alongside the immense courage and will they had during the darkest times – the small ways in which Tutti’s father, Heinz, tried to sabotage the Nazis may not have had any effect, but it was so incredibly brave for him to try and do something, anything, whilst imprisoned at Westerbork (a detention and transit camp). I found myself moving between fear, hope, and terrible sadness as I read what happened to Tutti’s family and it will always baffle me how people could believe that there was something inherently wrong with a group of people because of their religion, race, or sexuality.

The writing is simple and easy to read, and at first I thought it wouldn’t be as emotional a reading experience because of this, but I was wrong. Even though the prose is simple and to the point, the actual events make it an extremely harrowing and emotional story to read. Tutti and her family experience extreme hardships and a wild array of emotions, and I don’t think I will ever be able to read a memoir or story from WWII and not be moved; everything regarding the war and Holocaust is incredibly emotive in some way and this is no exception, especially as Tutti and Robbie were so young when they experienced it all. The accessibility of the writing makes this an excellent resource for younger readers who are beginning to learn about the Holocaust, as it is very informative without being overly wordy – the use of historical pictures and documents also add another dimension of realness, and I found them fascinating.

I’ve felt this way about pretty much every book about WWII and the Holocaust that I’ve ever read: this is such an important story to tell that I can barely articulate it. These stories need to be told, need to be understood, and need to be taken seriously so that they never happen again. Most people seem to understand this and even when the world seems a terrifying place (recent events especially) I’m always reminded of something Fred Rodgers said, ‘when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”’. Even with all the hardship and hate, there will always be people helping, speaking out against wrongdoing, and telling their stories – just like Tutti – in the hopes that one day they won’t need and that the world will realise we are all human, and we all matter.

Read: February 24th-28th 2017

4/5 stars

Black Cats and Butlers (Rose Raventhorpe Investigates, #1) by Janine Beacham

Received from NetGalley for review.

Black Cats and Butlers was so much fun to read. It’s a middle-grade murder-mystery romp through Victorian London, complete with a secret service of Butlers and ancient prophecies regarding cat statues. How could that not be a winning combination?

The story focuses on Rose Raventhorpe, a young girl with a big imagination that doesn’t quite mesh with her mother’s ideas of propriety. She adores her Butler, Argyle, and is obviously distraught when he is murdered – stabbed on the doorstep of Rose’s home and clutching a black glove – more so as Argyle’s murder is the third murder of its kind. Rose’s investigation into Argyle’s murder leads, as the blurb suggests, on a ‘journey into a hidden world of grave robbers and duelling butlers, flamboyant magicians and the city’s ancient feline guardians’ and it is just as much of a fun journey as it sounds.

I absolutely adored Rose. She’s smart, imaginative, caring, and brave – a generally lovely and refreshing character to read. She makes mistakes but she always has the best intentions and wants nothing more than to find Argyle’s murderer and make sure that justice is served. The other butlers were hilarious – an elite group who are Guardians of Yorke, protecting the city and its inhabitants, and Heddsworth, Bronson, and Malone were excellent supporting characters to Rose’s investigation. Rose’s friend Emily was another hilarious addition, a wonderfully dramatic young lady in mourning for her beloved Pomeranian.

The story as a whole is brilliant – the writing is simple and easy to read, and I had such a good time reading it. It is a prime example of a fun, light read, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of the things that were happening. One of the most impressive things about this story is the atmosphere. Beacham has created an incredibly vivid world; Yorke is based on Yorkshire’s gorgeous city of York (a place I love) and it felt so real, all cobbled streets, great architecture, and hidden treasures.

It is very much a middle-grade story but I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting something light and heart-warming, I certainly found it a welcome break from the more intense novels I’ve been reading lately.

Read: February 20th-23rd 2017

4/5 stars

Little Bits

Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman

This posed some interesting questions about life and was useful in a classroom setting for lower ability readers. Unfortunately, easy to read as it was, it was rather bland.

Read: February 10th 2017

2/5 stars

Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

There’s something beautiful about a book completely and unexpectedly getting under your skin and into your soul. Bravo, Krystal Sutherland.

Read: February 13th 2017

5/5 stars

The Chain by Keith Gray

This was certainly more interesting than the other ‘dyslexia friendly’ books that I’ve read from Barrington Stoke. It is very short and choppy in its narrative but I found it quite intriguing finding out how everything was interwoven (although it took me an embarrassingly long time to connect the title – The Chain – with the chapters – Links). And, for the record, Ben is a dickhead.

Read: February 23rd 2017

3/5 stars

Countless by Karen Gregory

Received from NetGalley for review.

Countless is a heart-breaking story; it ripped my heart out and didn’t entirely put it back. It tells the story of a very troubled girl, seventeen-year-old Hedda, who has been in and out of hospital most of her life for anorexia and now finds herself pregnant. I imagine it’s hard enough being pregnant without being so young, living in a grubby flat because your parents don’t want your ‘corrupting influence’ on your younger sister, and being in the throes of a mental illness that doesn’t want to let go. It’s not a pleasant story but it is an important one that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of mental illness and teen pregnancy.

I felt so deeply for Hedda – she’s young, angry at the world, defensive, and missing her best friend, all whilst dealing with mental illness and pregnancy. She finds out she’s pregnant (nearly five months) following a one night stand and decides to follow through with the pregnancy, intending to have the baby adopted. She makes a deal with anorexia, which she personifies as ‘Nia’, to eat just enough until the baby has been born and then continue as she was. She has so much to deal with but I found it admirable that she tried to put aside her issues to nourish her baby – it’s not all sunshine and daisies but she really tries, and it reminded me that there’s always something more to a person than we can see and to not judge so fast.

The book really shows the horrible way eating disorders can work – you know it’s causing problems, and you try to pull yourself out of it, but it’s your normal, it’s your control, and there’s a comfort in that, even if it’s not healthy. Anorexia is Hedda’s normal, something she’s dealt with most of her life, and even though it’s damaged her relationship with her family, her body, and her education, it’s something that’s always been there with her. Through the narrative we get insights into her time on the wards and what she thought was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about it – Hedda slowly realises that there were aspects of life of life on the unit that she enjoyed and missed, and gradually realises things about her battle with anorexia that she had always refused to see.

Although I found this book overwhelmingly sad, there is hope – I won’t go into too much detail but the ending does give a glimmer of hope, which is much needed after the heart wrenching events of the novel. Some might find this book too much – too much sadness and hardship – but that is reality; life is hard and mental illness is harder, and a seventeen-year-old who is suffering from anorexia and pregnant is not going to have an overwhelmingly happy story. I personally found it to be incredibly realistic and honest (something that was reinforced in the Author’s Note at the end), and I was glad that it didn’t end with a ‘happily ever after’ scenario, as those generally do only belong in fairy tales.

Read: February 13th 2017

4/5 stars

The Mesmerist by Ronald L. Smith

Received from NetGalley for review.

We are the League of Ravens, and we are seeking evil where it sleeps.

The Mesmerist can pretty much be summed up with that quote. It’s a little cheesy, a little cliché, a little bit fun, but a little bit like everything you’ve read before. I was initially drawn in by the setting of Victorian London and the idea of a young girl being able to communicate with the dead (something both awesome and spooky) despite being something that’s been done A LOT in literature, but the actual story didn’t quite deliver – not for me at least.

The story is based around Jessamine – a thirteen-year-old who helps her mother conduct fake séances until it’s discovered she’s a mesmerist who really can communicate with the dead. So far, so good. Jess and her mother then head to London to see the mysterious Balthazar who will know what’s going on. Now, it was here when everything started getting a bit silly for me. The reveals come thick and fast with Jess’ heritage, her parents past, and the whole messy business of Mephisto and the League of Ravens. It was just too much, too many different plotlines and weird happenings going on for the story to be anything other than ridiculous. I wanted to scream at the book ‘pick a plotline!’ because using Fae, ghouls, spiritualists, the Plague, children with strange abilities, a big bad guy with a pale face and red eyes (sound familiar?), and a super league of super humans, needs serious skill to pull off in 270 pages.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The story itself is quite fun and fast-paced when not taken too seriously; I wanted a lot more depth and development, but for a middle-grade supernatural romp, it really isn’t a bad little story. I enjoyed the setting of Victorian London – always a winner for me – and found it to be incredibly atmospheric, transporting me into Balthazar’s lush mansion and the grimy, poverty ridden streets with ease. Jess was an interesting character as although she started off a proper young lady, concerned with etiquette and appearance, she soon developed into a badass young lady, concerned with doing what was right and not relying on some dashing young man to sweep in and save the day (yay for lack of romance!). Those who were there to assist, however, were wonderful supporting characters and I probably liked Emily and Gabriel more than Jess.

This is definitely a book that doesn’t transcend its middle-grade label. I can imagine many younger readers really enjoying this slightly wild tale, though, and rightly so, but I would advise older and more advanced readers to give this a miss.

February 4th-11th 2017

3/5 stars