April Books List / Reviews

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

April Books List / Reviews
Last month, I took part in a non-fiction book challenge to only read memoirs, autobiographies and biographies which proved to be rather interesting as I don't often read them. Here's a round-up of what I read:-

(1) Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters
Non-Fiction / Biography / Homelessness: "The story of a friendship between a reclusive writer and illustrator and a chaotic, knife-wielding beggar whom he gets to know during a campaign to release charity workers from prison."

Memoirs and biographies are usually the privilege of the rich and the famous, so it's interesting that a writer would want to nitpick through the gritty details of a homeless person's life and write a biography of sorts for them, but I'm very glad that Alexander Masters took on the challenge. This book is a warts and all insight into the life of Stuart Shorter, told in reverse from the present day and winding its way back to his childhood, and it makes for some very difficult reading. Stuart's life was plagued by addiction, mental illness, crime and subsequent imprisonment, homelessness, and sadly child abuse (the latter of which may or may not have been a precursor to the events that later unfolded). It's a depressing series of events to have to live through, but the present day Stuart saw a man coming back from the brink of misery and trying to change his life for the better.

The relationship between Alexander Masters and Stuart Shorter is both entertaining and bittersweet, as Alexander can see the many causes and effects of Stuart's behaviour, which at times are frustrating to those on the outside trying to help him. But there's also the other side to Stuart - the one that wants to help others (as so clearly demonstrated in his campaigning for the release of Ruth Wyner and John Brock back in 1999), the one that sees the positive when others only see the negative, and the one that is desperately trying to get his shit together after years of chaos. 

I've seen and worked with many Stuart's during homelessness outreach projects that I've been a part of via Shelter and Citizen's Advice, so I was able to identify a lot with Alexander, but the book also helped me to see the world through Stuart's eyes as well. Highly recommend it to anyone working with the homeless or studying social work / social policy etc. [4/5]

(2) Experience by Martin Amis
Non-Fiction / Autobiography: "One of the most gifted and innovative novelists of his generation, Martin Amis writes with candour about his life, and looks intimately at the process of writing itself." 

Picked this up on a whim from the library - I wouldn't necessarily include Martin Amis in my 'favourite authors of all time' list, but I've read a couple of his books and whilst I've found some hit and miss, I can appreciate that the man can write some good prose.

Experience is Amis' autobiography and it provides the reader with a thoroughly intimate rummage through Amis' family closet of skeletons (a murdered cousin and a love/hate relationship with his famous father to name but two), inter-spliced with some hilarious and depressing recollections from his teenage years and adult life. It's witty but it's long and it does have a tendency to drag on and become too pretentious in a couple of places throughout the book. If you've read more than two Martin Amis books and like memoirs in general, you may want to give it a go just to find out more about the man behind the words.

(3) A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle
Non-Fiction / Memoirs / Travelling: "Peter Mayle and his wife did what most of us only imagine doing when they made their long-cherished dream of a life abroad a reality: throwing caution to the wind, they bought a glorious two hundred year-old farmhouse in the Lubéron Valley and began a new life."

Provence and the south of France has always appealed to me, so my wanderlusting self eagerly reached for this book. A Year In Provence sees Peter Mayle relocate to a very old farmhouse and experience what it's really like to live in one of the most desirable parts of Europe. 

Mayle diffuses the 'dream' quite quickly though, as the man doesn't realise he's born and instead chooses to moan about the most insignificant things at times. However, if you can get past it (it's difficult but bear with it), he does describe quite beautifully and vividly what I would consider are the positives of living in Provence (even if Mayle himself disagrees); the incredible food, the copious amounts of wine, the slow, relaxed pace of life, the long evenings where you can do absolutely nothing and then do nothing the next day, the glorious countryside and the quaint perks of small villages. I just wish this book had had a more appreciative author! [3/5]

(4) Forget You Had A Daughter by Sandra Gregory
Non-Fiction / Memoirs / Prisons: "Following two years of living abroad in Thailand, Sandra Gregory suddenly became desperately ill and as her medical bills began to mount, her bank account dwindled. In exchange for $2,000 she agreed to carry 89 grams of heroin to Tokyo for a friend, but before she even boarded the plane she was caught by Bangkok Airport security and ultimately sentenced to 25 years inside the infamous Lard Yao prison."

Sandra Gregory's honest account of her time served in the notorious 'Bangkok Hilton' prison is both gritty and highly emotional as you would expect from any kind of prison diary/recollections. Her sentence was brutally harsh for the crime that she committed, and the book details her experience from the initial arrest at the airport, to the final royal pardon and her release, including an eye-opening section on the time she spent at Holloway when she was allowed to return to the UK.

The title of her memoir is taken from a message she sent to her parents which I felt was so poignant, "Forget You Had A Daughter", because for Sandra, it was easier for her to mentally understand and cope with what was happening if everyone she loved also disappeared. Heartbreakingly sad, but an interesting read nonetheless. [4/5]

What have you been reading lately?

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  1. I read Sandra Gregory's book years ago and thought it was a fascinating (if scary) read. You should read Hotel K and Snowing in Bali by Kathryn Bonella.

    1. It is scary! Thanks for recommending those, will definitely check them out :)


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