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Louise Douglas – In Her Shadow

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Three’s a crowd.

Publisher: Bantam Press (Random House)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-593-07021-5
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 8th April 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Ellen drowned and Hannah has never got over it. The event haunts her still, twenty years later. When she starts to see Ellen in places that reference their past together as friends, as well as at her work place, Hannah wonders if it’s time to go back for therapy. But there’s something nagging at her, and, illusion or not, she feels it’s time to finally discover what happened whilst she herself was in Chile.

In Her Shadow is Douglas’s beautifully written fourth book. It’s a lot slower in pace than the author’s previous work, The Secrets Between Us, but the pace is warranted and it gives Douglas a lot of time in which to explore the themes she chose to include. Likewise the plot is fairly predictable, and this appears to be intended so that you focus on the ‘right’ things.

The book sports an unreliable narrator who presents a fantastic opportunity for the reader to really delve into what’s going on. Hannah is quite obviously unreliable from the very start and with good reason – during the chapters where the adult Hannah looks back on her childhood you’re inevitably presented with a child’s view of life. Where Hannah says that Ellen is a drama queen, where she says that Ellen is too lucky, beyond a couple of choice quotations (that of course could be coloured by jealously themselves), it is apparent that Hannah isn’t seeing reality. Hannah, once good friends with a boy called Jago, becomes the third-wheel when she introduces Ellen to the ‘circle’. That she is, in a way, third wheel, is true, but she is very wrong about the friendship in general.

What is most interesting, as the reader reads on and learns just how wrong Hannah’s thoughts of Ellen are, is that it’s Hannah who is better off. Due to Hannah’s unreliability, the reader can see for themselves not only the truth, easily, but also explore the way jealously affects people, and the extent to which it can destroy a person. And it is exactly because Hannah is too young to know what’s she’s doing that she enables you to see what’s really going on. Because she does not understand what she sees, she ends up telling you the reality just as much as her erroneous thoughts. Indeed it’s intriguing to think that whilst the first-person generally means less knowledge of others, usage of the third-person in this book would ironically have led to less knowledge of Ellen.

And so Douglas shows us just how much perception can play in the construction of opinions. Of course we all know this, but by using a child and making what’s actually going on a horrendous abuse, the author really hones in on it. And it shows how children will latch on to what works for them – a father who hugs his child when their own parent doesn’t, means he must be a good person and that his daughter is lying. Hannah isn’t mature enough to recognise dangerous obsession and abuse; she sees what’s on the surface.

It’s not a spoiler to say that abuse and mental illness is the heart of this novel. Throughout the reader is presented with the questions – is this man violent? Is this man interested in young girls? Is he mad? There is also Hannah’s mental stability to consider. Jealousy is of course an issue in itself but in her case it’s intertwined with anxiety, fear, and regret. Perhaps it makes Hannah feel better to confine her feelings of guilt to the same box as her jealousy – it’s easier to push bad memories away if you believe the person was awful.

Hannah also has an issue with identity – the boy who kissed her becomes her brother, Hannah isn’t happy in her career, and her parents, though supportive, are not the affectionate kind.

This is where the slow-pacing makes the most sense – in that at first you might find it slow without reason, but as the book continues you see why Douglas has opted to use it. There is just so much to consider. Douglas wants you to really understand Hannah, to see what she thinks and how she got it wrong, to see what her life is really like, and as the book progresses you realise that perhaps it’s not ‘just’ that Hannah was wrong about Ellen, maybe Hannah isn’t as good a person as you thought. Is she misguided, is she led by her lack of information? And what on earth will she do to make things right? There are no huge shocks in this book, no big climax. There isn’t supposed to be.

In Her Shadow is a book with a main character you may not completely like but who you can relate to; you will find yourself rooting for her to learn the truth. There are many injustices and misunderstandings here and it is not a simple case of age making someone wiser. The book does end relatively quickly, and one plot thread in particular is wrapped up in a couple of pages and not particularly satisfactorily, but there are no threads left hanging.

In Her Shadow is a wonderful study of personality, mentality, and its extremes. It may make you want to praise it to the hills or it may not – either way it’s likely you’ll find it difficult to put down.

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Why I’m Closing My Facebook Page

Facebook's logo

After much time spent considering, I’m closing my blog’s Facebook page. Admittedly I don’t spend much time on Facebook. I prefer the real-time interaction Twitter provides and even though I often forget to visit Pinterest, I prefer the reason d’etre of the visual network.

However my reasons for finishing with Facebook aren’t about preference. There are three reasons. The first is that I’m getting bored of being locked out of my account due to ‘suspicious activity’. Perhaps if I had thousands of likes on Facebook I would understand this, but I have a grand total of 23. I rather suspect that what is truly happening is that Facebook has taken issue with the changing nature of IP addresses and decided it means that various people are trying to sign in when really it’s me every time. After a couple of ‘confirm who you are’ attempts that worked, I now have to ‘explain what I was doing when it happened’. After doing this once and finding myself having to repeat just a couple of weeks on, I see it as time wasted. I could be having a conversation about books on Twitter instead.

I expect that the 23 followers I have on Facebook likely subscribe to the blog, or follow me on Twitter and so on. And this leads me to my second reason for opting out – since Facebook changed their foremost consideration to paid advertising, very few followers of any Facebook pages whose editor isn’t spending money are seeing any updates. Reports vary but the numbers of followers seeing updates are very low across the board, as low as 1%. This means that if you’ve a few thousand followers, perhaps a few dozen are seeing your updates. If you’d bought followers, then obviously, like Twitter’s purge of spammers, it’s not such a bad thing. But it’s surely not right when a person who decided to follow your page sees no updates from that page.

My third reason is that whilst I understand Twitter and Pinterest, I’ve never really known how to make Facebook different other than to spread posting across all three social media accounts and thus seem to be online only sporadically. My Facebook posts inevitably end up being similar or the same as my tweets, and though I could always work on my knowledge of Facebook, this reason is simply just another reason – the other two reasons already made the decision for me.

So from now on I’m concentrating exclusively on Twitter and Pinterest. I may use time saved from Facebook to work on my Booklikes account or I might just spend more time on Twitter.

Have you thought of giving up a social network/have you actually given one up?

Greg McKeown – Essentialism

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Less is more.

Publisher: Crown Business (Random House)
Pages: 246
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-804-13738-6
First Published: 15th April 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th April 2014
Rating: 4/5

McKeown discusses the essentialist way of being (choosing only those options in life and work that will get you closer to your goal and forgetting those that distract you and use up time).

Essentialism is a relatively short and informative book, which whilst a little repetitive and high in case studies, succeeds in suggesting why McKeown’s thoughts are of use.

The author urges us to do the opposite of common working practises. He says to take on only a few tasks and excel in them, rather than to try and do everything. He notes a good night’s sleep as essential, in happy contradiction to the idea that a sleepless worker is a hero. And he recommends actively saying ‘no’ when we want, instead of saying ‘yes’ to what we actually don’t want – those things that will ultimately waste our time. He includes tales from his own life in a way that simply teaches, never preaches.

(It is an interesting concept when you think about how bloggers initially feel they should say ‘yes’ to every request, and how they can become better bloggers by being more in control of what they want to read and discuss, when they are more selective.)

McKeown recounts a conversation he had with a person who remarked that we are no longer bored. We have phones that text and can access the Internet whilst we’re in a queue, for example. No longer being bored is of course good, but McKeown notes the fact that it means we have less, even no, time for thinking.

It is interesting to consider McKeown’s values, what he hopes we’ll adopt. To view it as a list it reads as a holiday plan – time to think; less to do; more sleep; not being so busy; time for play and leisure; done is better than perfect. McKeown’s focus on quality is key to his argument. Discuss with your boss if a task given to you won’t get done, make time for your family. It’s intriguing to note that the author’s method of working means spending more time thinking about options than you would, but he discusses how planning saves time in the long run.

Overall the book is a good read and full of value, but there does come a point where you feel he could have applied ‘less is more’ to his content. He starts to repeat information, which may fit his thoughts on routines helping memory but isn’t necessary in a short book. There are a few too many stories where it would’ve been better to simply carry on discussing strategies. The book isn’t particularly well-written but that’s not important in regards to its purpose. This said, fewer instances of non-classic media being called classic, fewer uses of the word ‘classic’ in general, would have rid the book of its slight ‘name-drop’ atmosphere.

Essentialism provides a thorough grounding in a better way to live and work. It will best suit those who already have thoughts in mind to change, though almost everyone will find it of use in some way.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Next Stop Procrastination (Pilot Post)

A photo of Shibam in Yemen

This photograph was taken by Will de Freitas.

Like, I expect, everyone who uses the Internet, I often come across interesting or downright fascinating articles. I’ll read them and not know what to do next. Will my family be interested if I bring the subject up at the dinner table? Is it the sort of information my friends would be interested in hearing or reading? I used to post such articles to Twitter, and I know a fair few people read them, but after a while I felt it was verging on spamming, whether it actually was or not.

I stopped. And I miss it because sometimes you come across something you just know is interesting generally.

So this post is an experiment. I’ve compiled a list of interesting articles and pages I’ve come across over the last week, and I’m sharing it here for your perusal. They’re not all about books but I hope you’ll like them anyway. Let me know what you think of this post idea – if you like it I may consider turning it into a semi-frequent feature, say once every few weeks.

The links

The Manhattan of the Desert – A brief introduction to the high-rise town of Shibam in Yemen, dating back to the 1500s. Life Edited is a company that aims to make life compact so their angle is economical and environmental.

Solar Charging Ereader – An option to consider when the battery inevitably dies? These instructions require patience and slicing through the device, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Before finding this I learned the unfortunate fact that some Kobos have their batteries glued in. I’m hoping mine lives a long life!

Egg Storage, Freshness & Food Safety – Want to know how to store those leftover eggs whites/yolks? This post sums up the options. This link is the result of a yoke-only carbonara earlier this week.

People Matching Their Bodies to Book Covers – Admittedly the placement of the covers aren’t perfect in this one, but it’s worth a quick look, especially if you liked the concept of holding a photo of a location at the location itself.

Potato Side Dishes – This is a gallery linking to many different ideas. I loved it from the first one, but to borrow a phrase from author Shannon Stacey, the jalapeño roasted potatoes sound like potato wedges of doom (tough, but a lot of fun!)

What has piqued your interest on the Internet lately?

Peggy Riley – Amity & Sorrow

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When one marriage leads to another.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Hachette)
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-755-39436-4
First Published: 1st March 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2014
Rating: 3/5

When the fire started burning down her polygamist community, Amaranth took her two daughters and escaped. Happy to marry and comfortable with her growing family, if uneasy about the ceremonies, Amaranth was glad to defend her people as women left and those living nearby took an interest in what was going on. But after her good friends leave and her husband draws their daughter too close, the first wife knows she and her daughters must leave, too.

Amity & Sorrow is the story of the plight of a mother who has become too used to her life. Interestingly, it is not so much about the plight of her daughters, which is the reason for some of the issues.

There is just something ‘off’ about the book. The cult is presented fairly well, but the writing style doesn’t fit the subject. Even though the reader knows the cult is bad, and has the details to imagine the situation, the literary style of writing distances you from it. The story may include the information, but it doesn’t truly try convince you of it, even if you are convinced.

It’s interesting to look at the choice the author made as to where the mother and daughters would end up. On the one hand you have them crashing the car into what many would see as a backwards place – a farm worked by only a couple of people; an ancient television set; a rarely-used petrol station; a lack of modern technology despite its day. What this choice means is that the family have little opportunity to see what life is like for the vast majority, to get used to the ‘new’, and to rehabilitate. This in turn means that the book lacks any big moments in the plot besides those in the flashbacks and at the end, and that whilst they escaped you might not feel as though the women will truly live life to the full, especially as Amaranth seems happy to remain in the first place they find.

But on the other hand, this lack of modernity, this lack of computers (other than one instance in a town) and so forth, mean that the family are eased into the world. It means that the changes in Amaranth especially (the girls will be discussed in due course) are slow and she has time to get back to life as it was when she was a member of society. You see more of her adjustment than you would if she’d found herself in Silicon Valley, or the like, where the change would have been immediate but only on the surface for its suddenness. Beginning in the middle of nowhere in a place more familiar in lifestyle, there is perhaps less of a chance she’ll return to the husband who brainwashed their daughter.

The sisters, Amaranth’s daughters, Amity and Sorrow, were born on their father’s land and therefore their reaction to their mother’s escape is, if not in words, that she has kidnapped them. Sorrow especially wants to return; she is the sister most brainwashed by her father, the cult’s leader. It is in Amity, the less extreme of the two, that the reader gets to see the most progression. Amity is more open to change, and whilst it may seem a little too fast a progression at times, Amity’s growth makes up for the little growth otherwise.

It is in Sorrow’s experience, specifically, that the story lies, and it’s also in her life that the potential dissatisfaction with the ending is to be found. She is not as developed a character as the others, in fact it could be said that she is a plot device; yet without her Riley wouldn’t have been able to explain her points. Sorrow was impregnated by her father, who had sex with her, having brainwashed her so much that she believed it was important and right that she and her father ‘make Jesus’. Whilst not commented on in the text itself, there is the obvious theme of consent running throughout the book. Incest itself is discussed.

And because it is this event that wakes Amaranth to the reality, finally, (if even then late in the day), the story continues on with Sorrow’s extremist beliefs taking what amounts to the biggest element of the book. Sorrow is always looking for a way back, because she doesn’t know any different and she is at an age where she won’t listen to her mother, especially not a mother who has left her, Sorrow’s, glorious father. The issue here is that whilst Sorrow’s extremism is believable, the extent to which she is, to all intents and purposes, encouraged, is not. Amaranth spends very little time with her daughters, even though, as the one person in the three who knows about the real world, she should have been helping them. Instead she starts to make a life for herself by herself.

A warning here to anyone who doesn’t want to read too many details: the ending of the book needs to be discussed because of what it effectively does, and will be in this paragraph. Amaranth, though obviously scared and still suffering from the manipulation and abuse under her husband, shows, in leaving the cult, that she still has her wits about her. She knows what is right and wrong both in regards to her own beliefs and the world at large, and she takes her daughters away from their father. Due to this escape, it is hard to believe that in the real world, such a woman would ultimately leave her daughter back at the cult’s land together with the father, after having tried and failed to convince the daughter to return with her to their new home. Maybe she would leave her temporarily while she went to the police for help, but leave her there for good? You can’t say that due to the possibility for danger, as the daughter is very unstable, it is best she stay away from Amaranth and Amity – the girl has had no chance to change and the handful of days during which there was space to influence her were not enough. At worst there are places she could be sent away for care. Perhaps Riley is showing us just how brainwashed and scared someone can become, but given everything that Amaranth does and thinks beforehand, the conclusion is not at all sufficient.

Where Amity & Sorrow gets it right is in the small things – the wondering about the changes to the world since Amaranth left it; the comparisons of dress and its relation to sexuality; the overall consideration of religious cults; to some extent, Amity. But with its poor choice of voice, underdeveloped characters, and the knowledge the reader will be left with when it’s over – the knowledge that what you’ve read is very wrong on a completely different level to the basic wrongness of the cult – one would be hard-pressed to recommend it for its story. You could try to come up with an explanation for the ending, but this is one book for which the ending is impossible to make right.

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