Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Secrets Sisters Keep by Sinéad Moriarty

I've been reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy recently, which undoubtedly I do enjoy, but it was nice to kick back with some contemporary Irish fiction featuring real life issues. I've had this book for ages and had been dipping in and out of it for a while, but once I really got my teeth into it, and blocked out all my recent supernatural distractions, I couldn't put it down. 

The Devlin sisters, although close, are still reluctant to share their painful problems with each other. Julie has just come into money but with an absentee husband and four young children to manage, she finds herself becoming increasingly lonely and out of touch with the world. 

Strong, single mum of one Louise is tough, especially in her career as a lawyer, but when she comes up against something that is so out of her control she finds it hard to bear the truth. And youngest sister Sophie struggles with her age as her ex-husband finds a younger model and she feels like she’ll never be good enough to find love.

All the sisters engage in private battles with their situations, not even considering that the people best able to help them, are the closest ones that they are so hesitant to reach out to. I think we've all those moments where we are embarrassed or too proud to speak out about our problems so straight away I liked that theme in the story. 

It took me a little while to get to grips with all the characters’ names. As each sister has quite an individual life, there are lots of interlinking characters that come in and out of the story. I think my favourite character was the little brother Gavin, who seems a bit feckless in the beginning but really comes into his own by the end.

My favourite storyline was probably Louise’s where she finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that her precious daughter may have mental health issues and this was tactfully worked into the story. After Mental Health Awareness Week recently and mental health being prevalent in the news; it was a clever addition to the tale. 

I always find the unique way of speaking that comes through in Irish fiction very charming and gives a great sense of location. Once everything has been laid out, the book becomes very quick to read as you become eager to find out how it all works out, and was happy with the way things ended. 

This is a charming story about family and friendship, and the age-old adage of “a problem shared is a problem halved,” which is both an important and lovely sentiment to keep in mind when life gets too much. Filled with heart, good humour and emotion, The Secrets Sisters Keep is a touching and worthwhile novel to read. 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

It wasn’t so long ago that I reviewed The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, the book which kickstarts the legend of the Witcher. 

A Witcher, in case you hadn’t heard, is taken as a child and brutally trained to become a killer; physically and also utilising the use of magic and elixirs. Witchers are called upon to fight monsters and supernatural creatures that no other could have a hope of surviving. 

In this collection, Geralt faces a dragon, converses with mermaids, chases a changeling and braves a forbidden forest, to name but a few. The stories also feature Geralt’s complicated love interest, the sorceress Yennefer and womanising minstrel Dandelion (who also happens to be one of my favourite characters). 

On top of his treacherous assignments, Geralt has his own code to follow, which doesn’t always lead him on the easiest path. I find these stories to be very character led, and so when they are placed into extraordinary situations, it means even more to the reader that they come through unscathed (without detracting too much from the action of course!) 

My favourite of all the stories in this book was ‘A Little Sacrifice’ which is set by the sea featuring a haughty mermaid, a minstrel sing-off and it gets a little Innsmouth towards the end. Geralt is a well illustrated hero and his long term storylines (his relationship with Yennefer and his impending destiny) interwoven between his current mission that makes him all the more appealing to read of. Despite all the action, drama and mythology built in, the narrative is very easy to read and the imagery is strong without being overbearingly descriptive. 

It is no surprise that these books have spawned its own media franchise including the bestselling Witcher video games. I'm kind of intrigued to know if the games keep in line with the books or if they have a life of their own. The trailer for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is shown below, and even if you’re not a gamer, it’s still pretty cool. 

In such an imaginative genre, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski has created unique universe and made his mark in the fantasy arena. There are endless possibilities for Geralt the Witcher and his world, and I cannot wait to see what else is in store for him and his companions. 

Monday, 18 May 2015

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries edited by Stephen Jones

As soon as I saw the words Detectives and Supernatural in the same sentence, I was definitely game to read this book. Some of the most well-known literary sleuths, including C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, have been called upon to investigate some strange and unusual cases, and often find a completely logic answer. 

This collection of stories takes that theme with the view that some mysteries cannot be solved by logic alone. The authors are Kim Newman, Peter Tremayne, William Hope Hodgson, Basil Copper, Manly Wade Wellman, Brian Lumley, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Brian Mooney, Clive Barker, Jay Russell and Neil Gaiman.

I really enjoyed the introduction that outlines nearly 200 years of fictional detectives in literature along with their loyal sidekicks and their most famous of cases. There were so many that I hadn’t heard of, I kind of feel that I’ve missed out on so much of a unique genre and this anthology helps to bridge that gap. 

There are 18 short stories in this collection. Seven Stars by Kim Newman is one large story split into 8 instalments, spanning a number of decades and detectives. Seven Stars also happened to be my favourite of the tales, as I liked how the case was ongoing but tackled by varying investigations. 

The spectrum of detectives is enthralling. There are policemen, PIs and psychics to name but a few, each aided by some kind of sidekick, such as a priest, a doctor or a fellow officer of the law. I sometimes feel a bit sorry for the sidekick who is often just a patronised, loyal, sounding-board for the lead character, who gets dragged along on some dangerous escapade and gets little to none of the praise or credit when the mystery is solved. 

Speaking of danger, there is plenty involved in these stories. Whether it is from something undead, very human, or even unexplainable, there are many adversaries to be faced and heaps of excitement to be had across all the stories. In this collection, the way most of the stories tie in with or follow on from each other flows really well and keeps you engaged with each account. There is also some cool artwork courtesy of Randy Broecker breaking up the tales and reminding you of the themes of the book. 

With numerous interesting characters and strange cases stretching from ages past to a futuristic landscape, there is something for everyone. If weird crime and mysteries are already your thing, or if you want to try out this unique genre, then Dark Detectives is the anthology for you. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Skeleton Cupboard by Tanya Byron

My sister bought this book for a friend with an interest in psychology. After reading it, the friend immediately gave it back (temporarily) for my sister to read because she had found it so interesting and wanted to share it. After that kind of recommendation I had to have a read as well. 

Tanya Byron is a clinical psychologist as well as a journalist, author and lecturer in her field. The Skeleton Cupboard is her journey as a trainee clinical psychologist and the stories are inspired by the people she encountered and their individual situations. 

Every single story offers a unique insight into a different area of mental health with a variety of realistic characters that illustrate the spectrum of human emotion and the challenges of daily life affect us in different ways. From eating disorders to drug addiction, dementia patients to sociopaths; the boundaries between our perception of what is ‘normal’ and what is not in a person are blurred. 

Tanya really hits home that in society there is still so much stigma attached to mental health issues. People are afraid of ‘abnormal behaviour’ and may turn their backs, when in fact the behaviour may have a treatable cause or is a coping strategy for a person in distress. 

In this book, the narrative is not solely focussed on the people in treatment, but also on the person providing it, who has thoughts and feelings just as chaotic at times as the person seeking help. As well as exploring different facets of mental health and the subsequent treatment, there is also insight into more of the person’s character, not necessarily defined by the difficulties they are experiencing. 

I was particularly moved by the story of the dementia patient who begins to relive the horrors of Nazi concentration camps during his decline. Obviously mental health can be a delicate subject and not clear cut in the slightest and the author has approached it with tact, respect and honesty, as well as with wit and personality. 

I was thoroughly absorbed in this book and each unique story captivated me each in its own. Especially having done a psychology degree myself, I found both the psychological, practical and emotional insights incredibly fascinating and educational. 

The Skeleton Cupboard is an artfully written, eye-opening read on a subject that is so important for people to acknowledge, informed and without judgement.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Introducing Bibliotherapy - Tales for Tea Interview

As part of my Mental Health Awareness Week posts, I thought I would find out about Bibliotherapy. Readers have many reasons to pick up a book but there is a therapy that uses books as treatment for mental health. I asked Sharon Dunscombe, founder of Tales for Tea, more about this little known treatment. 

In a nutshell – What is bibliotherapy?

Bibliotherapy is the ancient Greek practice of healing through reading. I am a Bibliotherapist and I use short stories and poetry to promote and build a strong mental and emotional wellbeing, without worry of stigma or being labelled.  I use the characters in a story to create conditions within a group setting where the capacity for empathy, discussion and understanding can flourish and grow, enabling emotions to be brought to the surface that might not be raised otherwise.  It allows us to come together to talk at the same table.   As a participative therapy, this in turn promotes therapeutic healing.

What are the benefits of bibliotherapy?

To share a book by reading out loud can bring insights not available when we read alone.  It’s as if the author is acting as an intermediary, allowing us to broach subjects that there isn’t the time or space or intimacy for in the normal pattern of our lives. 
   Listening to someone read gives a deep source of comfort.  Nourishing and replenishing, there’s a sense - as with a good, home cooked meal - that someone is looking after you and that you can relax into a more passive state.  Being removed from the need to take in and translate the marks on the page gives an immense sense of freedom and ease.  The mind and imagination move freely and at leisure and the consequence of the story grows deeper and more real.

What kind of issues can bibliotherapy help treat?

I am a passionate believer in the fact that stories and poems have the ability to heal and help holistically address many ailments or issues including alleviating depression, pain, isolation, stress, anxiety and grief.  I also know that they can help “make a moment matter” when read to people living with dementia. As Virginia Woolf once said, “Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

What motivated you to become a bibliotherapist?

I have been putting bibliotherapy into practice since 2004, after running reading groups for junior school children as part of my development as a Level 3 NVQ Classroom Assistant.
   After studying for a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature, I returned to my interest in bibliotherapy and I applied to train as a Shared Reading Facilitator at Kensington & Chelsea Library.
   I am now an independent Bibliotherapist and Founder of Tales for Tea.
   I have worked with students and lecturers at Exeter College, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries, Made-Well Community Project, Help for Heroes, Recovery Devon, CRISIS Winter Rough Sleepers and Dementia Pathfinders.  I work in retirement villages (St. Monica Trust) and hold sessions at various retreats around the country.
   I am a regular speaker at NHS Conferences and Events and I also host a weekly radio show at UK Health Radio, where I present a one-hour bibliotherapy session to a large audience worldwide. I am an Ambassador for the Reading Agency’s World book Night and am part of the BBC’s  “Get Creative” Team.
I am also excited to be working with Dr. Surendra Dass, Chairman of the IHF Wellness Orbitarium, Nagpur, who is promoting and supporting Tales for Tea to introduce a programme of bibliotherapy to India.

Is bibliotherapy a long-standing method of therapy or a fairly new treatment?

The word bibliotherapy originates from the Greek words for book ‘biblion’ and healing ‘therapeia.’ An American minister, Samuel Crothers, combined the Greek words in 1916 to describe bibliotherapy as a ‘process in which specific literature, both fiction and non-fiction, was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.’ In the mid-20th century, the use of bibliotherapy began to move away from the hospital environment and into diverse areas of the community including libraries, general medical practice, psychology, criminal justice, nursing, social work, education and occupational therapy.
   In today’s society, Bibliotherapy is normally practiced by using self-help books or reading lists.  Tales for Tea does neither – I just use stories.Unlike a book club or reading group, where you may feel under pressure to have critical knowledge of the book, Tales for Tea offers you just the stories themselves. I offer you characters, and the stories that they have to tell, as a vessel, like an invisibility cloak, to wrap yourself up, connect and relate to what you might be feeling.

What happens in an average session?

It is my duty as a Bibliotherapist to make personal connections between the content of the books and the people I read to. I normally run a group with six to eight members, which takes approximately two hours.        Every member of the group has an opportunity to read out-loud and this is highly encouraged although, most certainly not, insisted upon.
   The text rich titles I use as material will include extracts from the classics, modern literature, short stories and poems. These stories will have no relation to the kind of ailment the group members may be experiencing. My sessions are facilitated to take members away from their troubles for the duration, not to focus or highlight them, unless issues are raised specifically by themselves and are drawn from the reading of the text.  It aims to enrich life quality and life spirit through looking for the wisdom to be found in writing.
   It has three recognized stages: (1) identification, (2) catharsis, and (3) insight..Identification is when a reader associates themselves with the character or situation in the literary work. Catharsis is when the reader shares many of the same thoughts and feelings of the characters in the literary work, and insight is when the reader realizes that they relate to the character or situation and learn to deal more effectively with their own personal issues.         

Are all bibliotherapy sessions the same?

No in a word!  Every session is different as everybody has different experiences and different connections to the stories and poems.  Depending on whether the people attending the sessions are students, veterans, people living with dementia, people with poor mental health, bipolar or people who are lonely or homesick, the sessions flow differently.  The same story, read in three different sessions in a day, will all have different outcomes. 

Are there any books that are consistently popular in this therapy?

All my short stories and poems work well.  I specifically do not have certain stories for certain groups.  Novels that have wonderful memories for me when reading with my groups are Wind in The Willows, A Scarlett Letter, Street Cat Bob, short stories by Joanne Harris and many, many more.  Luckily, I will never run out of stories!

Is bibliotherapy widely available in the UK?

No it isn’t and I am working hard to change this!  I have colleagues at Kirklees Council who run a bibliotherapy group and I know there are other organisations which run Books on Prescription (self-help) and reading groups that focus heavily on the text rather than healing but the kind of bibliotherapy I offer, as far as I know, is possibly only Tales for Tea!

Do you have any long term goals / projects that you hope to achieve as a bibliotherapist?

Yes I do!  I am presently working on delivering effective workshops to allow others to experience and develop their skills as bibliotherapists.  I am working together with Dementia Pathfinders to roll out a programme for their carers.  I also have a trip to India planned, rolling out a programme of bibliotherapy to schools in Nagpur with the IHF Wellness Orbaritum.
    My plans include training others, growing my own reading groups across the UK and trying hard to bring the importance of bibliotherapy to the World!  

More information about Tales for Tea can be found on her website, and Sharon can be found on Facebook (Tales for Tea), on Twitter (@talesfortea) and LinkedIn (Sharon Dunscombe and Tales for Tea).

Monday, 11 May 2015

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

This week I'm doing a series of posts that tie in to Mental Health Awareness Week 2015. Although this year's theme is Mindfulness, I'll be sharing some books and book related things that I feel are applicable to mental health awareness in some way. 

It starts with a poignant meeting on the ledge of a bell tower. Theodore Finch is thinking about taking his own life and often dreams up different ways of doing it. Violet Markey is still devastated by the death of her sister and is struggling to cope. On the day of their meeting, nobody jumps. 

The two teenagers, who normally would not socialise with each other, are then thrown together for a school project in which they must wander their state and find points of interest. 

Through their wanderings, the pair open up to each other in ways they never thought possible. Slowly, friendship and understanding turns to love, and as Violet’s world begins to grow as she comes to terms with the passing of her sister, Finch’s grows smaller and Violet wonders if she will be able to save him. 

Right from the off I became emotionally attached to the two characters. Violet has experienced an utter tragedy, and so her actions are relatable. Finch is a turbulent character, constantly changing and trying to work out who he is. I found myself feeling sorry for him and also finding him to be brave in equal measure. 

He is certainly a forceful personality and the sort of character that you don’t forget in a hurry. You see all the elements of his family and life that have helped shaped him. His forays into darkness and his obsession with suicide are quite harrowing to read but are an important part of his character. 

It is a sad fact that most people have known a person that has committed suicide (myself included) and although it is a hard subject to talk about, it is important that it not be ignored. The author treats the subject very thoughtfully in the wording and context of the story. I loved the premise of the wanderings and when Finch and Violet find their bright places, they leave a part of themselves there, the imagery of which I found quite striking. 

As well as the story, the author’s note about how the book came about is truly touching and really puts some perspective to the book. There is also lots of useful contact information for different mental health organisations. 

This book is already a hit in the YA and bookish community and I really hope that it is picked up and enjoyed by a much wider audience. As well as being a beautifully written story, it has such important messages to give as well, that will touch each reader in its own way. I don’t want to give too much more away about this story but this is an incredibly moving novel that should be in every school and library in this country and beyond. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Confectioner's Tale by Laura Madeleine

Luxury. Glamour. Beauty. Sin. We must create all of these, today.

I do enjoy stories featuring food as well as historical fiction, so I already knew I would like this novel, but after reading this book was quite different to how I had expected it to be. 

In Paris 1909, Gui du Frere takes a chance and enters the world of the famous Patisserie Clermont. Drawn in by melting chocolate, extravagant cakes and cleverly constructed confections of sugar and caramel, he gives up the dirty work of the railways for the hard but refined work in the kitchens. 

He is also lured by the patisserie owner’s daughter; the strong willed Jeanne who is both beautiful and clever. With the differences in station, an affair between them would be scandalous but they are both young and seemingly in love. 

Alongside their story, we meet Petra, an academic in the 1988s who is researching the history of her Grandfather who is somehow tied to the scandal that occurred in Paris all those years ago. With a brash biographer on her heels for the rare information she requires, and her final thesis becoming neglected, Petra becomes more immersed in the mystery that leads her to find out more about her beloved Grandfather than she ever knew was possible. 

I liked that the story was written with alternating chapters between 1900s France and 1980s England as each part of the mystery was revealed from the characters involved. It was so clever that the modern day character was in the 80s rather than now, as she had no Google or modern technology to search with, so the old style detective methods were really charming and suited the story. 

Petra was a very likeable, real lead and I was rooting for her to succeed the whole way through. I also really enjoyed the immersion into an old version of Paris, especially in the patisserie. The delicious foodie descriptions of the confections created were truly mouth-watering and I would have liked it even more if there was more of it. The mystery itself was very addictive and I liked how the story was concluded. 

The Confectioner’s Tale is an elegantly written and compelling story and I ate up every word like a hungry Parisian diner! Laura Madeleine’s passion for baking shines through and I really hope there is more foodie fiction in the works from this author. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal

In post-war Egypt, having just been robbed, American chancer Peter Wells becomes embroiled in a secret task for which he does not know all the details of, but is certain to profit greatly from. 

With the assurances of a charming English gent and an alluring French seductress, all Peter has to do is smuggle a precious necklace out of the country. It seems like he is on the verge of some serious money; whether he completes the deal, or if he decides to double cross his new acquaintances and take the necklace for himself. 

But with the meddling of a corrupt police officer on his tail and the complication of a beautiful but secretive new love in his life, Peter becomes the target for all forms of trouble and he soon begins to wonder if the risks are truly worth his own life. 

Thieves Fall Out is the lost pulp crime novel from one of America’s most controversial authors of his day. Having never had the pleasure of a Gore Vidal novel, I had high expectations for this story. After reading, I didn’t find it as sensational as I had thought it might be, but it certainly is a thrilling crime caper. 

The picture he paints of Egypt is one of a country in turmoil, filled with shady dealings and two-faced characters under the unforgiving heat of the Egyptian sun. Peter was a hard character for me to like; in fact a little part of me wanted him to fail. I actually preferred the pep of the two females in the story, despite it not always being clear who was good and who was bad; blurred lines between both concerning  those women. 

The story is sexy and substantial in content, but I think maybe more sex and violence could have made all the difference (in my humble opinion)! All the action takes place quite quickly so as fast as you are drawn in, the quicker you come out the other side. Overall I did enjoy this story, and would definitely recommend this as a quick fix for crime fiction fans.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Crime fiction or psychological thriller maybe? Social exploration or prison memoir? I couldn’t work it out from the intriguing cover and blurb. I suppose it’s a mixture of these things; even now I’m not 100%. What I do know is that days after reading this book, I’m still thinking about it. 

We are introduced to a nameless prisoner on death row. We do not know his crime, but we do learn about the ins and outs of his prison from his unique and insightful perspective. 

We learn of the golden horses that run beneath the earth of his dungeon cell, the little men that scamper inside the stone walls and the sinister beasties that dance in the warmth of the prison crematorium. 

Alongside the mysterious prisoner and his musings, we learn of “the lady” whose job is to investigate the lives of the men who have their execution death set, in a bid to see if they can be saved. 

We learn about the lady and her job in depth, as well as the man who is her current case; a man who is ready to die. We also meet other characters in the prison; we see their lives both in and out of the prison through both their eyes, and those of the mystery inmate, who is a somewhat all knowing, yet indiscernible narrator. 

This story explores the ideas behind why people commit such horrific crimes against each other, and also tells of the lives of the people facing capital punishment. I was hooked in by the subtle, haunting tones of the narrator prisoner. The imagery with which he illustrates his prison life to the reader gives the prose a magical quality which, when paired with the gritty nature of the storyline made it so enchanting. I especially liked the idea of the golden horses that run wild and free under the ground of the prison at the most momentous of times. 

I felt such a connection to all the characters, and got completely involved in their dark and sometimes sad lives. The Enchanted is such a beautiful, powerful and thought provoking study of human behaviour. This is a one-of-kind story, and despite initial mixed expectations, this is a tale I feel will stay with me for a long while to come.