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review 2017-06-21 17:39
Intriguing!
The Parkhurst Years: My Time Locked Up with Britain’s Most Notorious Criminals - Bobby Cummines

Bobby Cummines is a British ex-con who, during the 1970's and 1980's, served twelve years in some of the UK's maximum security prisons. He has penned a memoir of his early years of crime, his time in prison, and how he used those experiences to turn his life around. Upon release from prison, he founded a company to help people with criminal convictions reintegrate into society. A program similar to whats being tried now in America, only 30 years earlier.
Cummines pulls no punches, he is very honest about his life of crime, and what he has done and seen. No "I'm a victim of a set-up", he accepts his actions wholeheartedly.
The book is full of interesting stories and characters. The author relates his dealings with the infamous British inmates of the time. I especially liked hearing his language, and some of the terms he used that were unfamiliar to me. Screws, banged up, a bit of work, loo, bird, bum smuggler, nicking, Old Bill; the list goes on and on.
After working in US Federal Prisons for 21 years, I found this story to be very engaging. Even as different as British and American prisons are, there were still times I found myself thinking, "yeah, that happened to me, too". Cummines has a way of pulling you into what he is experiencing.
All told, this is an interesting book. I recommend it.

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review 2017-06-08 12:19
A great book for researchers of the topic and anybody curious about the history of psychiatry and psychiatric treatment in the UK in the XIXc
Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland - John R F Burt,Kathryn Burtinshaw

Thanks to Pen & Sword for gifting me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have read and reviewed several books by Pen & Sword and have commented on their great catalogue before. As you know, I’m a psychiatrist and could not resist it when I saw this book.

The authors, who are well-known for writing about genealogy, note in their introduction that when people try to trace their ancestors and find that some of them seem to have disappeared from records or be lost, a possibility worth considering is that they might have had a history of mental health problems or epilepsy. If that is the case, checking the records of lunatic asylums, workhouses and the poor law records might provide plenty of information not available elsewhere. Their book focuses on mental health care during the XIX c. although there is a chapter about the pre-nineteenth century situation (that chapter, in particular, is very hard, and the way patients were cared for at the time until new reformers came along, is scary to read).

The book is divided into chapters that revise the laws in different areas of the United Kingdom, the asylums that were built, who run them, how they worked, and always offers some case studies, that share the stories of some of those patients, for the most part, voiceless and lost to history.

Later chapters look at the life in asylums (that as a psychiatrist, I found fascinating), the staff and their work, and then at different types of patients (the criminal lunatic, imbeciles and idiots, epilepsy, general paralysis of the insane, puerperal insanity, suicide). The chapters on diagnostic and causes, and treatments were particularly illuminating for me (even though I had read of some of them, the case studies and the details brought it to life).

I started working in psychiatry in the UK in 1993 and by then many of the asylums had disappeared, but, although I’ve only ever talked to people who had worked in them in the late XX century, I’ve had a chance to visit some of those fascinating buildings (some are listed buildings now and have been transformed into apartments and offices) and some are still dedicated to caring for people with mental health disorders, although, evidently in a very different form. With the changes to the philosophy and theory of caring for people with mental health problems, the discovery of new medications and a more enlightened attitude towards learning difficulties, it is important to record and revise how much the situation has changed, and not lose sight of the history of those places and particularly of the people (reformers and especially patients). In my professional capacity I’ve heard many discussions as to the advantages and disadvantages of the different models of care, and after reading this book I have gained perspective and feel much better informed.

As I read, I highlighted many points and quotes I wanted to share, but some are so extreme (when talking about ‘care’ pre-asylums) that they put horror movies and books to shame. I did not want to sensationalise a book that is, above all, a chronicle and a study that reflects changed social attitudes and laws, and that is invaluable to anybody who wants to have a good overview of mental health care in the UK in the XIX c.  and part of the XX (a recent book about R.D. Laing reminded me that even with the discovery of new medications, some things had changed little regarding the care of the mentally ill until the later part of the XX century).

This is a good compendium of the care of people with mental health illnesses, learning disabilities and epilepsy in the XIX century, and it encompasses laws, reformers, workers, buildings, and more importantly, patients. It is a great resource for researchers looking to gain a general view of the subject and offers biographies of the main players, a glossary and bibliography. The paperback copy also has great drawings and also pictures of ledgers, buildings, patients. I recommend it to anybody looking for information on the subject, to genealogists interested in researching in depth some of the lesser known records and to anybody interested in the history of psychiatry and psychiatric care, in particular in the UK.

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review 2017-06-03 17:32
Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy, by Sarah Rees Brennan
Unspoken - Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass lives in a small town in the Cotswolds of England where the Lynburns, an old family with deep and mysterious roots in the community, have just returned. People are unhappy about it, including Kami's mother, but Kami doesn't care: she's an aspiring reporter on the trail of a story for her high school paper (founded by herself and reluctant best friend, Angela), which becomes even more fascinating (and dangerous) when she comes across an animal sacrifice in the woods.

 

Kami has a secret of her own: she has a sort of imaginary friend with whom she communicates in her mind. This (male) friend has his own problems, and the two "reach" for each other psychically in times of need. This friend, of course, turns out to be real and a Lynburn. I anticipated as much but was still surprised by whom it turned out to be and when the reveal was made. The two struggle with the reality that the other is an actual person; their strange intimacy is not always welcome. Their bond turns out to be magical in nature and tied to the Lynburns and Kami's family.

 

Threats in town escalate, and Kami's at the center. In the meantime, she's also at the center of love triangle involving the two Lynburn boys. The triangle isn't terribly emphasized, but Kami's relationship with her former imaginary companion yo-yos between easy repartee and angsty denial of feelings. It got old.

 

Somehow I didn't feel involved enough in the mystery, and the tension didn't come across as it should. In part this may be because, as in other YA I've read, the story is somewhat rushed or condensed, including the quicksilver of the characters' changing emotions.

 

There's some fine prose, one of the book's saving graces, and lots of banter. It's not quite as successful as Whedon dialog or Veronica Mars, but it can be funny. It also got to be a bit much.

 

Kami's also one of those typical YA heroines whose friends are gorgeous, and she's supposedly less pretty but still somehow at the center of a love triangle involving the new hot guy. One of the most sincere moments is when Kami observes how each of her younger brothers is a favorite of her parents', leaving her odd person out.

 

I like YA but am coming to find it has to be exceptional to even be okay for me. Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood!

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review 2017-06-03 14:03
A gentle read for those who love books set in Britain, short-stories and Blithe Spirit
The Keeper of Lost Things: A Novel - Cecily Ruth Hogan

Thanks to NetGalley and Two Roads for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although I am not sure this is ‘the feel-good novel of the year’ I’d have to agree it is a feel-good novel, although perhaps not for everybody.

The novel tells many stories, although it tells two in more detail, those of Anthony and Laura (later of Laura and her new family) and Eunice and Bomber. Although those stories are separated by forty years, they are parallel in many ways: an older man who puts an advertisement for an assistant, a younger woman —very young in Eunice’s case— who ends up becoming a personal friend of the man and whose life ends up enmeshed and entangled with that of her employer, both men’s work relates to literature (Anthony is a fairly successful writer of short stories and Bomber is a publisher), both males die leaving some sort of legacy to these women (and also asking them to fulfil their final wishes). As we read on, we might suspect that the relationship between these two stories runs deeper than at first appears, but it is not confirmed until very close to the end.

There are other important elements in the novel, which functions also as a collection of short stories, as Anthony, after experiencing a terrible loss, started to collect lost things, cataloguing them and using his study for safe keeping, in an attempt at recovering something he had lost himself. Throughout the novel, there are stories about those objects (written in italics so it is easy to differentiate them to the rest) interspersed with the two main stories. We are told, later in the book, that Anthony used those objects as inspiration for several collections of short stories, but the novel allows for several possible interpretations of what these stories really are. Are they imaginary stories? Are they the real stories behind the objects? If they are imaginary short-stories who has written them? Anthony? Somebody else? Each reader can choose whatever explanation s/he prefers and I’m sure there are more possibilities.

I mentioned the two main stories that frame the novel and the short stories within. Each chapter is told (in the third person) from one of the characters’ point of view (mostly Laura or Eunice) and this is is clearly indicated, as it is the year, because Eunice and Bomber’s story develops from the 1970s up to the current days. We get to know his family and follow his father’s illness (Alzheimer’s) that unfortunately later also afflicts Bomber himself. There are comments on movies of the period; there is the wonderful relationship with Bomber’s parents, the two dogs that share his life and an unrequited and impossible love story. Ah, and Bomber’s sister, Portia, her awful behaviour and her even worse attempts at getting her brother to publish one of her rip-offs of well-known and loved classics, that make for hilarious reading, especially for authors and book lovers. I must confess that, perhaps because their story develops over time and it has none of the paranormal elements added to the other, I particularly warmed to it. I found the depiction of the dementia sufferers (both father and son) touching, humorous and bittersweet, and although we don’t get to know Eunice well (other than through her devotion to Bomber and his life-work), she is a character easy to like and some of her actions make us cheer her on.

Laura’s story is that of somebody lost, perfectly in keeping with Anthony’s life mission. She made some questionable decisions when she was younger, married too young and her knight in shining armour turned up to be anything but. She is very insecure and full of self-doubt and that makes her a less likeable character as she pushes people away rather than risk being rejected, but she is also the one who has to change more and work harder to get out of her shell. Sunshine, a young neighbour, Down’s syndrome, also shares her point of view with the reader at times and becomes a member of the family, although she has her own too. She is less hindered by concern about what others’ might think, or what is right and wrong, and she has a special connection (not sure ‘power’ is the right word) with the objects and with the paranormal elements that later appear in the novel. Fred, the gardener, is the love interest, handsome and kind, but he seems to be there to provide the romance and second chance more than anything else, and he is not very well developed.

I’ve mentioned the paranormal elements. There is a ghost in the house and that takes up a fair amount of the book as Laura keeps trying to work out how to make things right. I am not sure this added much to the story but references to Blithe Spirit (that is being performed by an amateur theatrical group in the neighbourhood) put an emphasis on the effect the writer might have been aiming for (each reader can decide how well it works for them).

This is a well-written novel, with effective descriptions of objects, locations and people. There are elements of chick-lit (the descriptions of Laura’s disastrous date, her chats with her friend…), romantic touches, some elements of mystery, plenty of loss, death and second chances, a fair bit about literature… The whole feeling of the story is somewhat old-fashioned (and very British. I’ve lost count of how many ‘lovely cups of tea’ are prepared and drunk during the novel, and although that is partly in jest, yes, there is a fair amount of repetition, foreshadowing and signposting, perhaps unnecessary in this kind of story). Some of the references, including songs and films, will be lost on the younger generations. Everything is fairly gentle; even the bad characters (Portia) are only moderately nasty and they are the object of fun rather than being truly evil. There are gossip and misunderstandings but nothing really awful happens. No gore details, no huge surprises, no hot sex (I think you’ll have to buy Portia’s stories of Hotter Potter for that), and even technology only appears by the backdoor (people send text messages and a laptop and a website  appear towards the end, but this is not a book where characters follow mother trends).

Funnily enough, a publisher (rival of Anthony) sums up what the books he publishes should be like, thus:

I know what normal, decent people like, and that’s good, straightforward stories with a happy ending where the baddies get their comeuppance, the guy gets the girl and the sex isn’t too outré.

The structure of the novel and some of the short-stories are not at all like that, but the spirit behind it perhaps it and its charm might be lost on some readers who prefer more action and adventures and a more modern style of writing.

In summary, a gentle read, bittersweet, with plenty of stories for those who love short stories, of particular interest to lovers of books and movies set in Britain, stories about writers, the publishing world and women’s stories. It has sad moments and funny ones but it is unlikely to rock your world.

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review 2017-05-31 22:15
Excellent Alternative Fiction!
All the Way With JFK? Britain, the US and the Vietnam War - Peter Busch

Finally! An excellent alternative fiction novel that is very plausible, and no "alien space-bats" or "time shifts". Schaefer has penned a serious, thoughtful, believable novel using the event of the Dallas JFK assassination as his vehicle. What if Oswald didn't succeed in his attempt? The author uses that assumption as his beginning. His tale involves the Kennedy's, the US Government, the Cubans, the Mafia, the Russians, the Iranians, the Vietnamese, and on and on. It is told through the viewpoints of multiple people, very effectively. I don't want to give any more away of the story, but it is fantastic. And Schaefer ends the book masterfully. I finished it feeling completely satisfied.
If you enjoy great alternative fiction, or even a great fiction/mystery/thriller, I cannot recommend this book enough!

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