Tuesday, 20 March 2018

A Review of Things A Bright Girl Can Do

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a book by Sally Nicholls. Evelyn Collis, May Thornton and Nell Swancott are three very different girls who all get caught up in the women's suffrage movement in some way. However, the Great War looms in the 1910's, and women find themselves working jobs that used to be the sole realm of men. Between working, studying, peace movements and romance, campaigning for the vote falls by the wayside.

The women's suffrage movement didn't take up as much of this book as I thought - more of it deals with the First World War and the effects it had on women's rights and families in Britain. It's still a very good look at the lives of young women in the mid-1910's.

Evelyn is rich and wants to go to university. She's also ignorant of world events, a lot of which comes from her being forbidden from reading papers. Her interest in the women's suffrage movement seems to come more from a place of annoying her parents. However, she ends up the one most involved with the Suffragettes over the course of the story, actually going to jail and through hunger strike. May means well, but she is brash and speaks without thinking. Being raised by her mother in a house of modern ideals and non-violent activism, her views are different from others of her time. This contrasts and makes her clash with Nell, a working class girl, who does what she must to keep her family alive. It's also nice to see positive relationships between men and women in a book about women's suffrage.

This book looks at the intersection between the suffrage movement and class, and points out that at the time women were fighting, not even men's suffrage was universal. It also looks at LBGT issues, but not linked so much into the movement. May and Nell begin a relationship, and Nell could be trans, although they lack the vocabulary to describe it properly. This does lead to what we'd consider misgendering and deadnaming with a minor character.

Historical fiction can sometimes seem slow, by necessity, as it required so many details. However, the chapters here are short, and that helps keep the pacing up. I would have liked to have seen Evelyn interact a little more with May and Nell. I would have also liked to see more on the intersection of race with the women's suffrage movement.

I would recommend this book to people with an interest in the Suffragette movement and those who want to read historical fiction but aren't sure where to start.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

A Review of Eliza Rose

Eliza Rose is a book by Lucy Worsley. It is also known as Maid of the King's Court. Elizabeth Rose 'Eliza' Camperdowne is the heiress to a noble family in Tudor Derbyshire, which have however fallen on hard times. The weight of upholding the family falls upon her finding a rich man to marry. When Eliza finds herself encased in the King's court, it seems like a possible outcome. But with her cousin, Katherine Howard, playing her own game, will Eliza manage to catch the eye of one of the men at court?

Well, any book that attempts to shed new light on a historical woman treated unfairly by history is alright with me. Katherine Howard is not one of the more well-known of Henry the Eighth's wives, so learning more about her was interesting to me. This isn't a book about female friendships, but of two women coming to understand each other, despite their differences.

Katherine Howard was the fifth wife, the order of which is Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. The fates of all six of them are taught to me as they are to all British schoolchildren, but I don't know how well known they are to non-Brits. Can you spoil known history? Just to be on the safe side, spoiler: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. /spoiler

Eliza, who is completely fictional, is the only child of a noble family, and as such, a lot of the pressure to support the family falls to her. While she understands this, she is also headstrong. I find it interesting in historical fiction to read about women who are determined to do what is expected of them by society. A lot of them rebel rather than do their duty, and while that is awesome, it doesn't represent the experience of most women from the time. Many of her actions come from her need to secure herself a good match as the only way to support herself in life. She's also not always perfect - she quickly learns that bragging about her family's wealth is not the way to make friends. However, she is not the most interesting character in her story. That would be Katherine Howard. She's flirtatious and flightly, bold and brash. Friendly when she wants to be, and cruel when she doesn't. Her actions - and the actions of Eliza - make perfect sense from a woman in their time.

I also should say that while Eliza complaining that her willowy figure and red hair is unattractive can seem odd to modern readers, in Tudor times it was women with a more fuller figure who were favoured.

As for the romance, it was the one point when the book fell flat. Eliza treated Ned pretty badly, at some points. As I could see her narration and knew her reasoning, I didn't resent her for it. But I couldn't see why Ned would still have the same level of devotion to her, at least not without a conversation between them when she explained things.

Please read the ending of the book, where Worsley explains why she wrote it, for extra information. I'd also like to direct you to in interview with Worsley conducted by the Telegraph here.

The book starts with a 12-year-old Eliza, but she grows up quick, ending the book at nearly 20. There are a few situations more suited to older readers over the course of the book, as well. You know, even though that interview above keeps calling it a children's book, it's quite firmly YA. There's nothing wrong with children's books, adults can still read children's books, not every children's book is suitable for all children, and many children get a lot out of reading adult books.

Recommended to people with an interest in Tudor history!

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

A Review of The Fandom

The Fandom is a debut novel by Anna Day, who brought to life an idea Angela McCann submitted to the Chicken House Big Idea Competition. Violet and her brother Nate, along with her best friend Alice, are huge fans of something called The Gallows Dance. Their other friend, Katie, is just along for the ride. However, at a convention, they find themselves sucked into the world of the story. Violet has to take the role of the protagonist and steer the story to it's pre-written conclusion.

Ah. Oh dear.

I don't enjoy disliking books. I much prefer to read a book and be able to point out things about it I liked. I think it's also nice to be able to tell others to read a book, because I enjoyed it. However, I also must be honest, and I didn't like this one.

And that's a shame, because the concept was good. I'm not saying it was original or unique, but I think it's the first time it's been done specifically based to YA dystopian fiction? This means that Day can parody the conventions of the genre. Things like the way love interests always have silly names, an unusual but pleasant scent and the way their eyes are described. I'm not sure if things I am pointing out where meant to seem overdone for that very reason, in fact.

Under a cut because it's a negative review, for spoilers, and it became long. The style of this one is different to my normal reviews, too.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

ADHD and Me

I've been meaning to do a blog on ADHD, and why I think I might have it, for a while. After mentioning it in my last book review, I decided it was time to write this post. First, I should mention that there are two types of ADHD - hyperactive and inattentive - and the combined type. I seem to be mostly inattentive with some combined elements.

My ADHD has never been officially diagnosed. I thought I should start with that. I'm in adult education, and I saw the school special educational needs officer about it. After listening to my story, and watching my behaviour, she agreed it was likely. My behaviour while talking to her was a constant subconscious and involuntary flipping of my phone case. Open, shut. Open, shut.

She gave me some books on the subject to take home and go over with Mum. I read the list of symptoms out to her, and she agreed with many of them. One thing she said was that as a child, I could never stay with one activity, I used to 'flit' from one to the other. So we made an appointment with the GP, and he referred me to a mental health service. Of course, mental health services on the NHS do take time to get through, and when I finally got my referral, it was just after Mum had died. It no longer seemed important.

I'm going to go through a list of symptoms that I have, and how they relate to ADHD. It doesn't mean that everyone who has these symptoms has ADHD - I don't even know for sure that I do - but surely that means there's nothing wrong with me taking on board some of the coping mechanisms if they work for me. This is why the increased access to information on mental health that we have in this day and age is a good thing.

Even before fidget spinners were invented, I always needed something to do with my hands. I've broken more necklaces than I care to admit by swinging the chain around my fingers because it was the closest thing to hand. I used to take pens apart for something to do, which inevitably lead to losing the springs and my parents getting annoyed that they now didn't work. My fidget spinner gets a lot of use.

I've struggled to make friends. The ones I do have I've met under unusual circumstances, or have known all my life. I was bullied a bit growing up and miss social cues. I speak without thinking and blurt things out. This can go two ways with people with ADHD. Either they have lively, bubbly personalities that allow them to make friends easily, or they find it hard to relate to their peers. People with ADHD can be shy, quiet. I daydream often in conversation, which means I miss things that are said.

I'm a chronic procrastinator. I often procrastinate things I want to do. I've been meaning to write this since this time last year, to give an example! I'm also disorganised, and it takes me a while to make sure I have all the right tools together to do some work. Homework was often forgotten or left at school. As a reasonably intelligent person, I was able to hide my lack of work with excuses and looking interested. I was the one with my hand up in class, which was actually a coping mechanism to keep my mind on the subject by giving it something to do. Nothing made my mind wander like my classmates taking five minutes to answer a question I knew. And then suddenly, oops, missed half the lesson. But as soon as work required a decent bit of revision, my grades tanked. And I often start something with the best of intentions, but get distracted and never manage to finish. And it can be hard for me to pull away from one activity to start another. I'll think "I'll start in five minutes" and before I know it, three hours have gone by.

Keeping my room tidy is an exercise in futility. The best I can do is put things away every few days, and give it a good clean if people are coming around. If I put something down, especially if it's small, there's a good chance I'll have to go hunting again for wherever the hell I put it.

I was actually given some special educational needs classes growing up. One for hand-eye co-ordination. Speech and language was recommended, but my parents said no, I'd grow out of that. There was one in Secondary School to make me socialise better with the class, because nothing makes a teenager more accepted by her peers than singling her out. Dyslexia was suspected, since I often misspelled words. But my reading was fine, advanced for my age in fact. My misspellings are often more because my mind tried to process the second part of the word before it was finished with the first one, so letters would be swapped around. I remember autism/Asperger's being mentioned, too. One of my teachers suggested I got tested for a vague 'something' but nothing came of that because he never specified, so my parents didn't know what it was.

I hyperfixate. The best example I can find of these growing up is Pokémon and Harry Potter. My need to know everything I possibly could about these worlds, and when I wasn't actively engaging with them, I was researching them. My wandering mind in class was often thinking of one of these two subjects.

The way I read is certainly odd. I read fast out of necessity, otherwise I have a tendency to get bored with the material. I skim several passages, often with the result that I have to go back and reread because I missed something. And I'll often read a few pages, then stare out the window, than a few more, than look at my phone for a while. But it's a method that works for me, and I'm happy with it.

There's a good few times I got into trouble as a child which I think might have been related to it. When I was four, we went into the school hall for my first PE lesson, and there was an uncovered piano that I made a beeline for. I used to 'play' one round at a relatives. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to, surely? Mum used to retell it saying the teacher said I had been "really naughty." I'm not sure if this one is anything to do with ADHD, or just being four years old. Later, I got in trouble for blurting out "It's a spider!" in Charlotte's Web. Not sure how much this was a spoiler, considering there was a spider on the cover. There was the time I was in trouble at eleven for drawing on a spelling test, because how dare you show any sort of creativity in school.

There was one time I found a little scrap of paper under a chair at school - I was about seven - and picked it up and ripped it into progressively smaller pieces. The teacher was talking, and I seem to remember the subject was the religion of Islam, although my memory may be slightly faulty. The teacher told me to pick it up and put it in the bin, then stand at the front and tell the class what I've learnt about Muslims. I repeated almost her whole lecture back to her. "I've learnt that their holy book is called the Koran, and they worship at a mosque. I've learnt that the women often cover their hair..." It was like by engaging my subconscious mind on something mindless, my conscious was better able the process the information.

I have so many novels that I started writing and never finished. Textbook having many projects simultaneously on the go. The longer I spend away from one, the harder it is to get back to it.

I act impulsively - bad financial control is how this one presents itself. I'll walk into a shop not meaning to buy anything and come out with something that I really don't need. Especially bad around books. And sometimes if there's nothing in the house I think 'oh, I'd like to go and buy myself some chocolate' followed by 'but you really don't need to' but it can be hard to shake the idea. Although I can monitor this one somewhat now I am aware of it.

I find it hard to sleep. I used to stay awake longer than I should, playing video games. When I actually went to bed, I toss and turn for ages. I'm better at monitoring when I actually go to bed now, but going to sleep is another matter. It still takes me a good few hours to get to sleep. It can take me several hours more than anyone else in the room. And if I'm sleeping in the same room as someone else, forget it.

I don't actually get bored easily because I switch from one activity to the other a lot. I am quite good at keeping my own mind occupied when left to my own devices. If I'm in a situation where I have to sit still and concentrate for long periods of time, my mind will wander, but often I won't get bored because of what I'm thinking about. If a task is repetitive and mindless and I have to keep on it for a long time, then I may get bored.

I can almost run a checklist. Bad handwriting? Check. A temper? Sometimes. Impatient? Check. Difficulty following instructions? Check. Procrastinating, especially when a task is difficult? Check. Often dropping a task before it is completed? Check. Forgetfulness? Check.

Like I said, I don't know for sure that I have it, but similar coping mechanisms seem to work. Just understanding my symptoms went a long way to allowing me to control them. I am not on any sort of medication, but I've heard it can work amazingly well for people. Fidget spinners are brilliant while I am relaxing at home, saving other items from going missing. Writing down appointments as soon as I can is huge - I forgot times of my own exams in school. Making sure I get into a habit - phone goes there, glasses go here - helps me to know where they are. I often turn up places early, because my time management is bad. I start tasks I need to do first and get them done, before I reward myself with something I like doing. I also like to go for a walk in the morning - exercising, especially outside, is recommended - it wakes me up and makes me feel prepared for the day. If there is anything I need to take with me, I put it somewhere where I can't miss it - I like the front door handle.

ADHD is often undiagnosed in girls, because they don't fit the stereotype of someone with ADHD, and girls learn to hide symptoms to fit in with adult expectations earlier. The inattentive subtype can be hard to spot, too. The quiet girl at the back of the class who's often looking out the window instead of working may display a few symptoms. If you think you might have it, do your own research, and ask someone who's known you since childhood where they think you fit.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A Review of Goodbye, Perfect

Goodbye, Perfect is a book by Sara Barnard, the author of Beautiful Broken Things and A Quiet Kind of Thunder. Eden McKinley has been best friends with Bonnie Wiston-Stanley since they were eight. Bonnie is a straight-A student but Eden struggles with schoolwork. When Bonnie runs away with her boyfriend, Eden is dragged into the police enquiry and media circus that follows. But her small lies of omission start to add up, and Eden questions if keeping Bonnie's secret is the right thing to do.

I think the best way I can describe this is that it reads like a grown-up Jacqueline Wilson novel. A lot of serious issues are discussed over the course of the book, including the way society treats teenage girls for their mistakes and keeping secrets. The idea of keeping secrets is drilled into us from birth, but some secrets are not good ones. There are secrets that are worth telling an authority figure/parent/someone you trust about, because they're necessary for the safety and welfare of yourself and others.

Eden is amazingly different for a book protagonist. She's not a fan of school, nor does she read a lot. She has dyslexia and is often considered one of the problem students. She was adopted after being in foster care for a while, because her mother was neglectful. But she likes to garden, she discovered her interest in it when she was adopted by the McKinley's. Because of Eden's background, family being not just blood is a constant theme. Carolyn and Bob are amazing and the exact kind of parents I want to be. Raising two children from foster care, they did need to be creative. There's also Valerie, their older biological daughter, who is trying so hard and Eden can't see how much she's trying. Daisy is Eden's biological sister, and she had ADHD and dyscalculia. As someone with "strongly suspected" ADHD myself, I did appreciate this, but I don't want anyone to assume that Daisy is a representation of everyone with ADHD. It was also good to see a protagonist in a safe, steady relationship from the beginning of the book.

I feel like I should mention something of Bonnie in this section, but Bonnie doesn't always feel like a fully realised character, instead of a plot device. While she's book-smart, she's not wise, lacking street-smarts and common sense. You find out over the book that Bonnie isn't as perfect as she seems. One of the big themes is that people do not normally have the perfect life they might appear to. In fact, the point where I connected more with Bonnie is when Eden explains how she's not actually always nice. But for much of the book, Bonnie is just the reason why the plot happens, instead of a character herself.

Some of the comments online about Bonnie were awful, and serve as a reminder to us that we should watch what we post online - we never know who might read it. Especially something like this, where friends and family are likely to search. Her relationship is never romanticised, but other people perceive it as such.

Also, Eden likes gardening. As in the Garden of Eden, I see what you did there. Her little sister, who she'd do anything to protect but also finds annoying, is called Daisy.

Another issue this book discusses is the labels we are given at school. Eden is 'easy' even though she hasn't had sex often. Bonnie is the nerd who no-one expected to do something like this. Eden and Daisy are both labelled as a 'problem' and 'difficult' and if that's all you expect to see when you look at a student, that's what you'll see and what's to prevent them from starting to live up to their labels?

My only criticism is a minor plot hole. Why didn't Eden think to google the name of the cat cafe immediately? It should be instinctive to most teenagers. Also, for a video game that you would play together, Portal is not the best pick. The first Portal game was singleplayer only. It's possible that Eden was playing, and Connor was looking over her shoulder. But the use of together implies multiplayer. It's possible that they were playing Portal 2, and Eden doesn't care to specify. But Portal is a puzzle game, and is not the sort of game where you could play it over and over again. Once you can solve the puzzles consistently, it loses it, because you don't get a new experience.

I would recommend this book to older teens and above who can appreciate the deeper themes. It was also nice to look back on my GCSE years, especially that hectic exam period.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

A Review of Undercover Princess

Undercover Princess is the first book in The Rosewood Chronicles series by Connie Glynn, who is also know as Noodlerella on YouTube. Lottie Pumpkin has been accepted to the prestigious Rosewood Hall on a scholarship. She's always had her head in the clouds, and a love of fairytales. So it might be fate that she ends up rooming with Ellie Wolf, who happens to be the Princess of Maradova.

Look, I'm easy to please. If your book is about royalty, I'll at least give it a chance. Bonus points if it's also about princesses.

Rosewood Hall isn't a school for royalty, exactly. It's a posh boarding school, for all intents and purposes. It does well with students who are exceptional, have the potential to be exceptional, or whose parents are paying for the school in hopes it will make them exceptional. High-ranking politicians, Olympic athletes, famous people of stage or screen - in short, exceptional in their respective fields, even if they aren't always household names. It actually fills a unique niche, giving readers a fictional school they may actually want to attend. I can't remember this being a thing since Harry Potter, and Rosewood Hall is distinct in that it does keep to mostly normal lessons.

I did like Lottie. I liked her love of fairytales - she reminds me of me. I felt at first there was a lot of telling and not showing. Lottie's circumstances at the school are stated to be exceptional, and there's nothing extraordinary about her. However, as the book goes on, she displays deduction skills and a level of quick thinking that weren't apparent at first glance. Ellie is very much a cookie-cutter rebellious princess. There's not a lot to say, but I would like some character development of her either accepting her role as a way she can change things, or having the courage to reject it altogether. Binah reads like an exaggerated parody of the "smart people use big words" stereotype. It did get on my nerves after a while. Most of the rest of the cast here aren't distinctive enough to be worth mentioning.

I wasn't sure how anyone could mistake a princess with a wild reputation with shy and anxious Lottie, even if they did think she was putting it on. Especially when Princess Eleanor Wolfson was hiding under the name Ellie Wolf. Brilliant disguise.

So was I the only one to think there might be something between Lottie and Ellie? Lottie feels jealous when Ellie hangs out with another girl, and Ellie sings a song for her about a Princess and her portman/partizan who were close as more then friends.

I was actually curious about both the terms, portman and partizan, so I looked them up. I can't find any reference to portman being used as a specific term for someone who disguised themselves as a royal to protect the royal. Any googling just got me a list of Natalie Portman films in which she played royals. I realise Glynn did make up the concept of partizan, but I was curious if maybe it was an ancient word for a soldier in any language. I did understand that neither are in common use or would be accepted practice today, but I was curious if there was any historical context to either of them. It seems more like Glynn invented the terms. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is something to bear in mind.

The writing style could use a little work. I'm being nice, because it is, at least, readable. Sometimes the sentence structure is odd, and the dialogue makes it hard to tell who is who. The passage of time, and therefore the pacing of the book, is jumpy, too. We spend the majority of the book in the time between September and Christmas, but we seem to jump from the 9th of January to summer in about two chapters.

I'd like to know a bit more about the country of Maradova. It's near Russia, used to be part of the British Empire so it speaks English, that I can buy. But surely Russian is still commonly spoken? What did it do in the Second World War? What's the capital city called? Any famous monuments? Is it part of the EU, does it use the Euro?

Look, it's not going to change the world, and it's not going to be studied in literature classes 100 years from now. But reading is 90% context. For a fun, relaxed afternoon it was good. And if you're going on holiday to, oh I don't know, DisneyWorld or something, it's an easy read that also fits in the theme.

I recommend this book as one to bridge the gap between MG and YA. The protagonists are fourteen, older than most middle grade but younger than a lot of young adult, and it's written in an easy reading style.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Six Foods Brits Should Try in America (And Four You Can Skip)

One of the good things - in fact perhaps the best thing - about America is the sheer variety of foods and cuisines on offer. Anyone who thinks it's all burgers and fries probably hasn't been to the States! With so many different people who have immigrated and bought their own food cultures with them, it's bound to be varied. For the purposes of this list, I will keep it to foods that can be defined as broadly American, with some regional Southern specialities. Also didn't include steak/burger/fries/hot dog etc. Most of these things are easy enough to find in most parts of the world nowadays, and the purpose of this list is to tell people about things they might not have considered.

1. Corn dog - if you only ever try one stereotypical American food, make it one of these. A hotdog style sausage on a stick, deep fried in a very smooth, crispy batter. If you've ever had a battered sausage from the chippy, you have the idea. The batter is perhaps a little sweeter than I first expected, but it's still a nice savoury snack.
2. Grits - I know, I know. This one surprised me too! I assumed I was going to dislike grits before I even tried them. I'd read about fictional characters disliking them, and from the name I thought they would be gritty. They're actually really creamy, smooth. The best think I can compare it to is soup. I said to one of my friends that it would be good in wintertime, which lead to a joking "Sorry, what's that?" since he's from a hotter state. They do need a little extra seasoning to bring out the flavour - salt, pepper or butter - the ones I had came with cheese on top.
3. Proper BBQ - Americans really do have a good handle on doing BBQ. They keep the meat juicy and tender, and apply the right amount of sauce. Anything with the word "rib" in it is always a good idea from a specialist BBQ place. Pulled pork sandwiches are also neat. However, if you're not used to them, I have to remind you to watch your portion sizes! If you're coming from anywhere outside of the States, you probably aren't used to so much food.
4. Funnel cakes - deep fried sweet batter, topped with icing sugar. What's not to like?
5. Pumpkin pie - Americans do sweet pies well. See if you can't get your hands on canned pumpkin - foreign section in the supermarket or Amazon - and try it yourself! Most come with a recipe, or you can find one online, and they're not too tricky to make.
6. Chicken and waffles - the sweet and savoury mix works really well here. Americans are known for their odd food combinations, but when they find something that works, it really works.

These are four American foods I found didn't live up to the hype. I still recommend trying them out of curiosity to see what the fuss is about, but they aren't on my list of foods I seek out when I'm over there. The thing with a lot of these foods is that they're not actually bad, per se, but are just strange to my tastes.

1. White gravy - if my American friends knew this was on my list, they'd never invite me back. Sorry guys, but I just don't get it. It has very little flavour, and when it's on top of something like fried chicken that really needs a flavourful sauce, it doesn't do anything. Don't even get me started on the thing you call biscuits and gravy. Those aren't biscuits and that is not gravy!
2. Hershey's chocolate - if you're used to Cadbury's, Hershey's tastes awful. I'm sorry, but it's just a fact of life. It literally tastes of vomit. Which is possibly because of the presence of butyric acid in it.
3. Cinema popcorn - they put melted butter on it. The butter makes the popcorn go soggy. Popcorn is supposed to have something of a bite to it. Mixed sweet/salty from a UK cinema is way better.
4. Bacon - It's a tiny strip mostly of fat, cooked until it shrivels up so that it's no longer there. Wait until you go home, and have bacon with a proper amount of meat on it. I have no idea how Americans are obsessed with this when their bacon isn't even good.

There's my list! It's harder for me to figure out this list in reverse, since I don't really know what would appeal to American tastes. I was trying to get an even five and five, but I ended up with six and four. Do you have any suggestions or anything you think I've missed from this list?