Juggling the Issues: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome by Matthew Kenslow review

The author Matthew Kenslow was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was six years old. In his book Juggling the Issues Kenslow recalls events from his life and how his condition has affected his life. Whilst candid about the struggles he has gone through, he also highlights the positive advantages of having Asperger’s.

The book is made up of vignettes; essentially it is a collection of short stories from Kenslow’s life, and he even mentions near the beginning that the chapters can be read in any order. This makes the book a less traditional autobiography and much more little snippets of someone’s life. The structure was very effective, as each chapter contained a new event or situation that Kenslow is faced with, the reader is never bored. The different chapters never bled into each other or became indistinct; they were different enough that they kept you entertained. Admittedly, there were a couple of passages that I felt could have been longer – perhaps because I was enjoying myself too much and didn’t want the chapter to end – but certainly the layout helped make this an entertaining read.

Yet, ultimately the biggest positive of the book is Matthew himself. As mentioned beforehand, he is incredibly candid throughout the narrative, and never shies away from discussing the negative aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. But his honesty and self-reflection is what drives the book, and I see as the main highlight. The book is an honest look at life with the condition, and Kenslow never sugar-coats anything. Despite this, I found Juggling the Issues quite an up-lifting read. Watching Kenslow work on the problems he has and excelling in different fields, but always maintaining a sense of positivity and self-confidence, was both entertaining and inspiring.

Overall, Juggling the Issues: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a frank, revealing account of living with the condition, highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of it. The book’s main strength comes from its writer; Matthew is an entertaining narrator and successfully captures the different moments of his life. If you would like to know about Asperger’s Syndrome then Juggling the Issues is the book for you.

Juggling the Issues: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome is published independently and you can find more information here.

This book was kindly given by the author and Booktasters to review.

Upon Destiny’s Song by Mike Ericksen & Sage Steadman review

Deciding to resume my non-fiction binge from January, I picked up Upon Destiny’s Song which was kindly sent to me by the authors. Here we follow two separate timelines; the first in 1850s and ten year old Ane Marie Madsen immigrates to the US from Denmark with her family. Whilst travelling to Utah, they become part of the Willie Handcart Company, and have to battle extreme weather and disease in order to reach their new home. The other timeline is set in (roughly) present day, with Mike attempting to research his ancestors.

This book is a non-fiction that reads as fiction. Ericksen has included dialogue, as well incredibly descriptive passages, in the 1850s narrative which was unexpected. It does work though. It allows the readers to hear from these people who have long since passed, and understand their motivations and feelings during their travels. It also stops the historical chapters from becoming bogged down in information or becoming too staid. Instead, readers can engage with the characters without being bombarded with info dumps. The only slight criticism of this method of storytelling however, is the small niggle that it might not be completely accurate; writing dialogue for a person in the 1850s. Despite this, I do think it gives a good gist of the different personalities.

That’s not to say that Ericksen hasn’t done his research into the Willie Handcart Company. He clearly has. It is just woven into the narrative in a natural manner that it isn’t overwhelming. The focus does seem to be on this first timeline with the Madsen family. Whilst I understand why, I also found Mike’s research interesting and wished we heard more about that. This is probably because I enjoy reading about people researching their family tree, and the things that are discovered.

The Epilogue was also really well done. Here are short biographies and (where possible) images of the people mentioned in the book. This really drove home the point that these were real people. As mentioned previously, the book reads like a fiction novel so to be reminded that it had happened, that people had suffered in the horrific conditions described, made the book seem more poignant. It was interesting reading what happened to these men and women after the events of the book.

Overall, Upon Destiny’s Song was a really interesting, solid read. Ericksen and Steadman write in a really engaging manner, and their passion for their subjects is apparent. There are some minor quibbles but they never hampered the reading experience. So if you are interested in this period of history or the Mormon handcart companies, then you might like this.

Upon Destiny’s Song is published independently and you can find more information here

At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook review

Continuing my recent binge of anything non-fiction is an essay collection by author Isham Cook. At the Teahouse Café is about China, where Cook has been living since the 90s. The topics within the collection are far-ranging, from everything from the firewall to music to medicine and even dating.

Cook begins his collection by discussing the pitfalls that many travel writers fall into, especially when talking about a culture foreign to themselves. How does one capture an entire nation into one book?  This was a particularly fascinating opening as it wasn’t a topic I had considered a great deal before, and it revealed some of the reasons why Cook compiled these essays together. As someone who has never been to China, I found At the Teahouse Café interesting yet was also aware that this is purely Cook’s perspective and experiences through the preface.

The essays themselves vary greatly; not only in content but in style. Some are more serious, tackling big topics whilst others are more tongue-in-cheek or satirical. This helps to stop the collection becoming too predictable and staid, and certainly the unpredictable element of what was coming next made me read on. My favourites were when Cook was being satirical, as seen in the essay titled ‘The question of breeding (why foreign men get the ‘ugly’ Chinese girls)’ which obviously explores dating and relationships. It helped keep the topics interesting as well as injected the book with humour. Throughout Cook explained Chinese culture and its differences with the West in a succinct and understandable way. You come away from the collection feeling you know more about the country than before. Or at least, I did.

At the Teahouse Café is ideal for anyone who wants to learn more about China. I think this would be recommended who know very little, rather than those who have visited the country before. A really enjoyable essay collection.

At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom is published independently and you can find more information here.  

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold review

The title The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper sums up this nonfiction nicely. Rubenhold narrates the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly, from their birth to those fateful days in 1888. Along the way, she also explores Victorian society as a whole.

Rubenhold’s extensive research means the women’s voices are reclaimed and their stories told. She doesn’t look down on them for their choices, and also doesn’t leap to conclusions, unlike the police operating in Whitechapel. Instead, she explores the reasons why a woman might become destitute in Victorian London. The reliance on alcohol (many of the women here suffer from alcoholism), the lack of jobs for the working class, the belief that destitute women and prostitutes were essentially the same. All these factors contributed, and it was in turns fascinating and horrifying reading about the conditions the women faced. It was an interesting reading experience: I wanted the women to better the lives, to get a lucky break, whilst knowing how their lives ended. Whilst Jack the Ripper is barely mentioned in The Five, his presence lurks within every page.

Yet Rubenhold doesn’t focus on their deaths – for example, the gruesome pictures of their bodies are omitted, replaced with images or drawings of them whilst alive. They are, of course, mentioned, but it is ultimately the women themselves that take centre stage. And this idea Rubenhold also explores: that the perpetrator is often the one in the limelight, rather than the victims. This is especially true for Jack the Ripper. Books, documentaries, movies, even video games have featured him as a prominent character, with the women often sidelined or reduced to mere corpses – and this fascination with criminals extends even today. This idea gave me pause and made me think of my own interest in true crime and why discussion seem to centre around the person committing the crime, rather those it is happening to. Rubenhold also links this idea with violence against women and how that is perceived, both in Victorian London and today. The linking between past and present was very effective and highlights problems today within our discussions of violent crimes.

The Five isn’t only for people interested in the Jack the Ripper case, but also those wishing to know more about Victorian society. Rubenhold goes into depth about subjects like workhouses, family dynamics, even laws or societal norms which affected women in a negative way. It is an interesting, though sobering, read and has made me question a lot of the assumptions I held regarding these women and their killer.

The Five is published by Doubleday and you can find more information here.

The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es review

Many people will remember Bart Van Es’ nonfiction memoir The Cut Out Girl winning the Best Book of the Year at the Costa Book Awards back in 2018. Slightly shamefully, I have only now just got around to it. Van Es looks back at his family history; particularly during the Second World War when his grandparents would hide Jewish children. One girl, Lien, came to live with them and regard them as her family. Yet years after the war, something happened that made Lien and the Van Es family cease contact. Now, Lien’s story is told in full about what happened during and after the war.

The structure of this book was cleverly done and really added to the reading experience. The chapters flit between present day in 2017 and the 1940s. This gives the reader a glimpse into Lien’s life growing up in wartime Netherlands, but also lets us learn more about Bart, his motives in writing this book, and his research. He doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics; indeed, I found his self-reflection brutally honest at points. It made him an endearing figure along with Lien. Her narrative provided a personal touch, her narrative focussing on her experiences whilst Van Es provided the larger context on what was happening.

With memoirs or biographies such as this, especially with the author a relative of the people he is writing about, there might be a tendency to be biased, or present a rosier picture than was real. But Van Es was completely fair to everyone mentioned in the book, and he helps you understand the motivations behind their actions. Whilst I did not agree with everything that Lien or the Van Es family did, it was understandable and I was sympathetic to their plight. It made the later scenes all the more heart-breaking: you can see where both parties are coming from but because they can’t communicate their feelings, they struggle to understand one another. I came away from The Cut Out Girl viewing them as flawed people.

Van Es’ descriptions were beautifully written, and made me long to visit the Netherlands to witness the scenes for myself. His writing was really evocative and helped me picture what was happening. He also handles sensitive subjects with a delicacy and sensitivity. He is obviously diving into a distressing subject matter; discussions of war as well as sexual abuse and suicide are mentioned, which might upset some readers so caution is advised. Yet these topics are never sensationalized and treated with the seriousness they deserve.

2019 was an excellent year for me in terms of non-fiction, and with The Cut Out Girl it looks like 2020 will be the same. This is such a well-crafted, expertly written book that I will be pushing into the hands of my family and friends. Despite the grim subject matter – and there were plenty of moments that made me well up – The Cut Out Girl is ultimately an uplifting story about the power of family. Highly recommended.

The Cut Out Girl is published by Penguin Random House and you can find more information here.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore review

My first review to kick off 2020 is Kate Moore’s non-fiction work, The Radium Girls. We follow two groups of women, one in Newark, New Jersey and the other in Ottawa, Illinois, who during the First World War worked in factories painting watches and military dials. The substance they used contained radium and the girls were taught to place their brushes in their mouths in order to point them. At first, the job is lucrative and glamourous, until the women slowly start becoming sick with mysterious illnesses. It is discovered the radium in the paint is settling within their bones and is slowly killing them. However, when their employers deny this, the women are left with no choice but to take them to court.

Moore sheds light on a little-known period of US history in an engaging and lively manner. Her writing is very evocative, capturing the initial excitement of the factories and the mood at the time. She also doesn’t shy away from going into depth the disturbing and heart-breaking effects the radium had, and the accompanying photos are at times hard to look at. Yet Moore breaks down medical jargon and complicated laws with ease, making the book very accessible. It is also compulsively readable. At times the book read like a courtroom drama, and there were plot twists at the end of chapters some thriller writers would have loved to come up with.  They seemed so ridiculous and implausible to be true, and the fact they were just added to the frustration felt on the women’s behalf.

The women are centre stage in the book, with Moore going into depth before and after their illnesses. There are quotes from the women as well as their family and friends; letting them tell their story which companies had been trying to suppress. It felt like Moore was giving these women the chance to speak, giving them a platform where they could share what has happened. Admittedly, at the beginning I was a little unsure: there were so many women affected, and with some having similar names I was worried I wouldn’t keep up. But the more the book progresses, the more I developed an attachment to them and it was a non-issue. I didn’t want the book to end as I had become so engrossed in their different journeys.

I would highly recommend The Radium Girls, even if you are not necessarily a non-fiction reader. It is a fascinating, powerful story, and one a lot of people should hear, told in a concise, effective manner. If all my books are as good as this in 2020, I will be a very lucky lady.

The Radium Girls is published by Simon & Schuster and you can find more information here.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy review

The Chernobyl disaster has captured the public imagination in recent years. Video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was released in 2007 to critical acclaim and spawned two other games. Earlier this year the HBO miniseries Chernobyl seemed to be what everyone was talking about (as usual, apart from myself, as I still haven’t seen it. One day I will get Sky Atlantic!), and also caused an uptick in the amount of tourists visiting the site. And last year, Serhii Plokhy’s book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, scooped the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. In his preface, Plokhy says ‘this book is a work of history – in fact, it is the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster from the explosion of the nuclear reactor to the closing of the plant in December 2000 and the final stages in the completion of the new shelter over the damaged reactor in May 2018’ (pg. xiv).

Plokhy successfully places the disaster in historical context, not just the immediate aftermath but also looks at the history of the town of Chernobyl. Going back to the time of the French Revolution, he succinctly describes key events in the area, helping the reader to understand the historical background of the place. This is all done by describing the views that the director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station is seeing whilst taking a car journey back to Pripyat – a very effective technique, as not only are readers given historical information but learn more about the man.

This is another thing that Plokhy does extremely well – he never loses sight of the lives affected by the disaster. He provides countless interviews from victims to widows to politicians. It gives the book an emotional heft it might otherwise not have had, as whilst the scientific passages were interesting I wasn’t quite as captivated by them. But then, perhaps others might be more interested in the science behind it. The descriptions of the families affected were truly sobering and heartfelt; they very much emphasised the human cost of the disaster.

He has also done a lot of secondary reading; there is an extensive bibliography at the back of the book. There are other books, newspaper articles and even YouTube videos mentioned that help to illustrate his points. It has clearly been well-researched, and Plokhy has given me a lot of additional reading to sit through. Near the end, Plokhy asks a question: Could a disaster like Chernobyl happen again? It is up to the readers to decide, and the reading list provided seems an excellent place to start attempting to answer that question.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is a well-written, well-researched book following the events of the disaster and the subsequent aftermath. For those wishing to learn more about the fateful night on 26 April 1986, or (I imagine) fans of the recent TV series. An informative, thought-provoking read that never forgets the human cost.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy is published by Penguin Books and you can find more information here.

 

 

 

The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek by Kathleen Schmitt review

Hi everyone! Sorry, it has been a while since I posted a review – my life has been a bit hectic. But I am finally back and reviewing Kathleen Schmitt’s memoir, The Best That Can Happen. Once, Kathleen jokingly suggested that she could ride a horse from Illinois to Arizona. Fast forward a few years later, and she is preparing a cross-country trail on horseback along with her beloved dog Country Boy.

Schmitt is a very engaging writer. She describes the landscape and people she meets on her journey really well – it is easy to picture them. Her own personality comes through very strongly and that was one of the main features I enjoyed about the book. Not only are you going on this journey across the United States and learning about the country, but it feels like you’re going along with a friend. Schmitt writes as though she has known her readers for years, and that stops the book becoming dry or boring. She is also incredibly candid and open about her experience which helps the narrative. As a reader you become engaged very quickly.

Yet the biggest draw for me was her relationship with her animals, in particular her horses and dog. It is clear how much she loves them, and the passages where she discusses them made me smile, to the point I became more interested in their relationship than any human one in the book. Her passion for horse training also positively shines through – another reason why Schmitt is such an engaging writer. It is hard to be bored listening to someone discuss a topic they adore. My highlight in the book is when she first gets Country Boy, and how their relationship developed. It was a sweet, funny chapter and the perfect example of Schmitt’s love and passion shining through.

Overall, The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek was an enjoyable read, both funny and interesting in turns. Schmitt herself is a very likable, engaging narrator which helps to draw the reader in and make them continue reading. If you’ve ever fancied taking a trip around the US, this might be the book for you.

The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek is published independently and you can find more information here.  

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah review

In 2017 I first read Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime. I highly enjoyed the book then, and now two years later, I thought I would see how I feel now. Born a Crime explores Noah’s childhood as he grows up as a mixed-race child during apartheid. Kept indoors to prevent being taken by the police, Noah fondly remembers stories about his family and friends, about school life and attempts to make money. Meanwhile, apartheid crumbles and South Africans are left to deal with the aftermath.

Noah’s stand-up routines are a mixture of personal anecdotes and remarks on personal affairs, and Born a Crime is the same. Noah is equally engaging on paper as on stage in front of an audience. Some of his stories, in particular the time he was a part of a DJ and dance troupe, had me in stitches. He mercilessly pokes fun of himself and the whole construct of apartheid and racism – not necessarily the cheeriest subjects, but he is able to highlight the ridiculousness of it all and laugh. Another subject that is tackled is domestic violence. Noah is incredibly candid about this period in his life, and his brutal honesty was both uncomfortable and necessary. Even in 2019 violence against women in South Africa is prevalent, as the president Cyril Ramaphosa admitted in September. Hopefully change will come.

Yet Noah is not the main focus of the story – his mother, Patricia, seems to be the primary driving force behind the book. It is obvious how much Noah adores and respects his mother, and the influence she has had on them. Their relationship was very beautiful to read, even when it was being tested. Ultimately, that is what Born a Crime is about. Whilst racism, domestic violence, and the shadow off apartheid loom heavy over the events depicted in the book, it is really about a mother and son.

If you are a fan of Trevor Noah, then I think you’ll love Born a Crime. Some stories are repeated from his comedy specials so will be familiar to some, but the new ones more than make up for them. It is also an engaging, accessible read for those who may know little of apartheid and want to. Noah doesn’t sugar-coat life under that system of segregation, but he explains it in a way that people unfamiliar with it will understand. Born a Crime remains a funny, thought-provoking read.

Born a Crime is published by John Murray and you can find more information here

Goddess by Anthony Summers review

Hi everyone! As some people might remember, earlier this year I went on a bit of a Marilyn Monroe binge. I read both Blonde and Marilyn and Me in fairly quick succession, and it seems I still I can’t get enough of the actress. Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, unlike the two previously mentioned works, is non-fiction and Summers discusses her life from her dysfunctional childhood to her death and the conspiracies surrounding it. It is obvious that Blonde takes inspiration from Summers’ book, and it was interesting comparing the two.

Summers has won the Gold Dagger for crime non-fiction twice, and has also written books on Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. Clearly then he is interested in crime, as if that wasn’t already apparent when reading Goddess. Monroe’s affair with the Kennedys, as well as her death in 1962 and the various theories floating around it, take up nearly half of the book. Summers interviews witnesses, cross-examines statements, even gathers previously unseen documents for the book. His meticulous research, plus an obvious passion for his subject, makes the book compulsively readable, and I often caught myself devouring pages into the wee hours of the morning. He breaks down the events of that fateful day so minutely it is hard to argue with his conclusions at the end (despite his use of some questionable witnesses and his printing of an autopsy photo which seemed tasteless).

At times however, I wondered if the subject he was passionate about was ‘the death of Marilyn Monroe’ rather than Monroe herself. Whilst Summers has obviously researched her life and career, it doesn’t have the same energy and liveliness as later chapters. He seems to write about her purely so he can get to her death and discuss that, with a mere nod at her work and turbulent life. An example is the section about The Misfits. This was Monroe’s last completed film, and during the filming her third marriage to Arthur Miller was falling apart. Yet in Goddess it is only discussed for 9 pages, which seems slight given what was happening on set – namely the marriage breakdown and Monroe being blamed for production halting. I felt more information could have been added to these segments, giving the reader a much fuller picture of the actress.

That isn’t to say Goddess isn’t enjoyable. It really is, and Summers’ writing style makes the book very accessible – especially when Monroe becomes entwined with political figures and the mafia. Summers breaks down the sometimes confusing web so anyone with no knowledge at all of the Kennedys and the mob can understand it. Also, when Summers hits his stride in the later chapters it is clear the awards are well deserved, the book reads like a tight, well-crafted thriller. Yet I keep coming back to a quote from Monroe herself, from a telegram to Robert Kennedy. In it she mentions ‘earth bound stars’ and concludes: ‘After all, all we demanded was our right to twinkle’. I feel focussing more on her life and career, rather than primarily on her death, might be a better way to fulfil that demand.

Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe was published by Orion Books and you can find more information here.