Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The Inheritance Games, Jennifer Lynn Barnes

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to Penguin and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Avery Grambs has her life turned upside down when multi-billionaire Tobias Hawthorne, who she has no recollection of ever having met, leaves her his fortune. The inheritance comes with one condition - she has to live at Hawthorne House with his family for one year. This might sound like a simple enough task, but she is less than welcome as the usurper of their inheritance. What follows is a race to discover why Tobias chose Avery as his heir, with plenty of twists, turns, and assassination attempts along the way.

Avery is depicted as intelligent and kind from the start. Life hasn’t dealt her the easiest of hands but she works hard and looks out for those less fortunate than herself. The Hawthornes, by contrast, have become accustomed to a life of luxury and have their share of dark secrets haunting them. Tobias’ four grandsons are exceptional, quirky, and irresistibly attractive. They come across as confident and self-assured, but there are weaknesses in their shining veneer. Avery soon comes to realise that the upbringing that made them excel at so many things also put untold pressure on them and made them ruthlessly competitive. They see Avery as their grandfather’s final puzzle for them and and she fights to be seen as a player, a person, rather than just a clue, a mystery to be solved.

She is warned that the brothers are dangerous and that she shouldn’t get too close. The mystery of Emily, their last infatuation, who passed away after spending too much time at the house, haunts them all. This strain of the novel is reminiscent of du Maurier’s Rebecca - an enigmatic former lover that continues to obsess those left behind. Never is the comparison as apparent as during Avery’s first ball when her outfit is remarkably familiar to the Hawthornes.

Hawthorne House is the mystifying heart of the novel. The sprawling estate contains not only theatres, bowling alleys, and numerous libraries, but also a plethora of hidden passageways and secret compartments. Tobias would add a new room or wing every year, resulting in an eclectic compendium of every kind of room imaginable. It simultaneously makes you want to step into the book and explore its secrets yet knowing it would keep you constantly on edge, never knowing if you were truly alone. 

An enjoyable read that will keep you guessing. The characters are interesting but their inner lives are second to the mystery. A far-fetched tale but one you can’t help but find yourself involved in, wondering who Avery can trust, and as eager for answers as the Hawthornes.

Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson


This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

When Ronson became a victim of a spambot pretending to be him, he met with the creators to ask them to delete the account. They were less than obliging, and although he didn't think he'd come off well, he posted the footage from the meeting online. He was soon pleased to discover that people took his side and began trolling the creators. The spambot was deactivated and he basked in the glow of public justice. It soon got him wondering about the impact of such public shamings, which are a regular feature of social media. Public shamings are not a new concept, but in the past they have been presided over by justice systems - the people being punished had generally broken the law. On Twitter, people’s lives were being destroyed because of ill-advised jokes or unpopular opinions. The mob might move on to the next outrage quickly but for the person being shamed it can have long-lasting effects on their mental health and quality of life.

He meets with a range of people who have been on the receiving end of public shamings, as well as those whose actions were the catalyst for other people’s disgrace. In July 2012 Michael Moynihan noticed some inconsistencies in the work of bestselling author Jonah Lehrer. He did some digging and soon found enough to discredit Lehrer, who begged him not to publish his findings. He did, and regretted it. Lehrer made a public apology in front of a live Twitter feed of people’s reactions. The event turned into a nightmarish humiliation for Lehrer. Moynihan also suffered, experiencing symptoms similar to those who have been through a traumatic event. Throughout the book, Ronson meets with those who have been shamed and have managed to rebuild some sense of normality, but with the constant terror of their story rising to prominence again. He also meets those who remained virtually unscathed and wonders what makes it so much worse for some people. 

In an attempt to find out, Ronson takes part in an anti-shame workshop in which participants attempt to let go of shame by revealing their deepest secrets. He’s not entirely convinced by this method. Later, he meets with people who have learnt how to manipulate Google search results in order to bury the stories they would like forgotten. This is useful not only for the original subject but for those who share their name who suffer by association, but these services are not cheap and therefore not available to the majority of people.

In the afterword he discusses the responses he received to the book and his own small taste of shaming when a controversial paragraph present in the proofs but removed from the final edition made its way onto social media. He considers the impact of public shamings and the way in which fear of being the subject of a pile on leads us to censor ourselves. ‘We see ourselves as non-conformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age. ... We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.’

An interesting, easy-to-read book that shows the very real consequences of the mob mentality we’ve all become so susceptible to in an age of anonymised social justice. His critique of popular case studies offers food for thought and you’ll find yourself questioning people’s motives and the damage being done to the possibility for debate and varied world views. He admits when his experiences don’t match his expectations however, such as the young man sentenced to public humiliation - walking along the side of a road with a sign proclaiming that he killed two people while drunk driving. Instead of his punishment destroying him as similar sentences did to others, he found a purpose in life, being an example to others, rather than dwelling in a pit of of guilt in a prison cell. An eye-opening book on the complexities of misdemeanours in the digital age. ‘The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.’

Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

White chocolate and raspberry bread knot

As we enjoy the last of the summer sun this bread makes a lovely use for any leftover raspberries you may have. Delicious while still slightly warm.

Ingredients:

500g strong white flour, plus extra for dusting

5g salt

40g caster sugar

8g fast-action yeast

40g butter, melted

100ml water

100ml milk

100ml mango purée (optional, if you don’t want to use this then add an extra 50ml each of water and milk)

1 egg

100g white chocolate chips, plus a handful for drizzling

200g fresh raspberries


Method:

Mix the salt and flour together in a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar and yeast.

Put the butter, milk, water, purée (if using) and egg in a jug and beat together. 

Pour into the dry ingredients and mix until a dough forms.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for around ten minutes, until smooth and elastic.

Place in an oiled bowl covered with either cling film or a damp tea towel and leave to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.

Once the dough has finished its rise, tip it back onto a floured surface and roll out into a long, thin rectangle. Sprinkle the chocolate chips across the length of the dough and then do the same with the raspberries.

Roll from the long side into a long sausage shape. If your roll seems a little thick, massaged the length of it to make it a little longer and thinner. Cut across the sausage, leaving you with two long rolls. Pinch the ends together and twist them into a knot, bringing the two ends together.

Place on a lined baking sheet and leave to rise again for 45 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 180º/160º fan.

Bake the bread for 35-45 minutes, until it’s golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

In the meantime, melt your handful of chocolates chips, either in a microwave, putting them in a microwave safe container and heating for 60 seconds or, put a heat-proof bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and melt in the bowl. Once the bread has cooled, drizzle the melted white chocolate over the loaf.



Wednesday, 9 September 2020

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner, Chris Atkins

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

In July 2016, film-maker Chris Atkins was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a tax fraud scheme used to finance some of his films. He was sent to one of Britain’s most notorious prisons, Wandsworth, where he kept a diary to help stay sane. What follows is a horrifying account that leaves you in no doubt about the sorry state of our prisons. Britain has the highest prison population in the EU and a reoffending rate of 48%. Chris Grayling cut staffing by a third during his tenure as Justice Secretary, resulting in prisoners being locked up in their cells for twenty-three hours a day, only being able to shower infrequently, and no training or education provision. 


The outdated, overly complex bureaucracy of the prison system is endlessly frustrating as well as failing in severe ways, resulting in the early release of dangerous inmates, and protracted sentences for minor offences. Atkins does his best to wade through a system that doesn’t seem to make sense even to those enforcing it, but finds that the many forms he fills in generally remain ignored.


He is desperate to gain Enhanced status which allows slightly more freedom, and ultimately aims to be made category D, which would mean being transferred to an open prison. He picks up as many jobs as he can to aid in this but admits that he benefits from his race, affluence, and education. It is disappointing to see that social inequalities in society are mirrored in prisons and, although he acknowledges the unfairness of the system, Atkins happily takes advantage of the opportunities available to make prison life more bearable.


As part of his campaign to be moved into more comfortable accommodation he trains to become a Listener, a scheme organised by the Samaritans for peer support. His Listener status allows him a more spacious cell, but the burden of caring for others in a system that makes it virtually impossible for him to help them in any practical way takes its toll. He regularly sees people self-harming and rarely has the opportunity to find out whether they made it through. He talks about the fact that the complete lack of control and uncertainty experienced by inmates has a damaging effect on mental health, not to mention the isolation. Mental illness is punished as bad behaviour, meaning that those who are suffering are likely to have their sentences extended. There is an isolation cell for those at highest risk but the small, bloodstained cell that offers not a shred of privacy or comfort only serves to humiliate and exacerbate problems. The prison experience is hugely damaging to both prisoners and officers and Atkins talks openly about his own struggles to adjust to new environments.


An interesting read that mixes personal experience with facts and figures, and manages to be funny despite its dark subject. Atkins’ descriptions of the endless noise, lack of personal space, and loss of agency gives a shocking glimpse into prison life. He discusses the huge difference made by various cellmates, some endlessly cheerful, others absolutely terrifying. Whatever preconceptions you go in with, you’re bound to discover something new and reassess your views on the role and efficacy of prisons. A manifesto for urgent reform.


Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Travellers, Helon Habila

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.


Habila’s fourth novel examines the motives and reception of a variety of migrants, condemning the hostile environment tactics of governments and reminding us all that no matter where we are from we are all human, with the same needs and desires for safety and love. The novel is split into six books, each focussing in on a different character, our unnamed narrator ever-present. The book opens with him and his wife Gina trying to hold their marriage together after a traumatic event. They have moved to Berlin temporarily for Gina to complete an art project and with the hope that it would help her husband to resume his halted academic work. She is painting a series of portraits entitled Travellers, and when he finds himself drawn to one of her rejected subjects he is thrown into a revolutionary world of activism. It soon becomes apparent that the circles Gina moves in hold racial prejudices that she either doesn’t worry about or chooses to ignore, something made impossible when Mark, an activist, joins them and refuses to bow under the pressure of social convention.


From here we see stories of exile, fractured families, and the narrator himself accidentally ending up in a refugee camp. There are heart wrenching tales of a husband repeatedly going to an arranged meeting point in the hope of seeing his wife again despite there being little chance of her having survived the journey, parents making heartbreaking decisions in an attempt to protect their children, and the constant judgment and resistance of Europeans to accept them. You can’t read this book without feeling guilt at the way governments and individuals respond to migrants. The book deals with heavy topics but the writing will capture your attention and whisk you along, completely absorbing you in the lives being portrayed.


These stories are not mere fiction, but based around the lives of people Habila met during his own time in Berlin. It shines a light on the systems that make migration so challenging and the unique loneliness of being in a foreign land, whether by choice or necessity. A searing portrayal of the lives that so often go unspoken, I cannot recommend this highly enough.


Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones