Book Review

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

It truly takes a gifted author to write a historical fiction that not only pulls at your heartstrings but also makes you feel like you are back in that time living it through the characters. The Gown by Jennifer Robson is truly a gift that I enjoyed immensely.

This book is about survival.

While there are many themes that the author expertly covers, survival was the one that stuck with me till the very last page.

There are many books that are written about the war or during the war, but The Gown focuses on the aftermath. It focuses on how people pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild brick by brick. It is about friendship, love, creation, PTSD and a person’s legacy. The Gown takes us on this journey as each of the main characters experience life altering events that take them to places they would have never imagined.

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Synopsis:

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London 1947: A brutal winter, rationing of resources and tragic memories leaves many people feeling the harsh aftermath of World War II. Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are embroiderers working for Norman Hartell, the famous designer who has been chosen to make the wedding gown for Princess Elizabeth. Ann and Miriam, each weighed down by memories of their past, set to work on the gown for the royal wedding. They become closer, forging a friendship that will help them both during their darkest times.

Toronto 2016: Heather Mackenzie is mourning the death of her grandmother. While helping her mother go through her Nan’s things, she discovers a box with her name on it containing embroidered flowers that resemble the flowers on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Heather knows very little about her Nan’s past, but with some digging she discovers a clue that leads her to believe that her Nan once helped create the Queen’s dress. Heather boards a plane to London in search of the answers to her questions.

Themes:

I always wondered how the people living during this time were able to rebuild their lives after the brutality of WWII. How difficult it must have been for the survivors to carry the knowledge that their loved ones had died in concentration camps? How did the world heal? The Gown shows us that friendship can be the foundation of survival and moving on. The author takes us through what post-war London would have looked like through the eyes of fictional characters Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. We read about their long workdays as they stitched and embroidered the gown for the royal wedding. As we read along, we see a beautiful friendship developing between these two strong women.

The theme of survival guilt is also explored in this story as we are shown how the survivors feel guilt about roaming free in the new world while their families were brutalized and murdered. This kind of guilt is portrayed expertly in the story and it shows how breaking down the walls people put up to protect themselves and letting someone in can be the first step into acceptance of the past and moving forward.

 “It was hard, at times to ignore the disquieting voices that told her she was fooling herself, that she would empty herself into this misguided project, and when she finished, it would be to find that no one was interested. That no one on earth, apart from her, cared to know what had happened to those she loved” – Jennifer Robson

Another theme that is beautifully depicted is how art and creation have their own healing powers, not just for the creators but also for those viewing the art. The royal wedding was held during a time of despair, as if to give a spark of light to the nation that was shrouded in darkness for far too long. The Gown would become a piece of art that captures the interest of the onlookers, but also provided it’s own kind of therapy to Miriam and Ann as they worked tirelessly on it.

Overall Thoughts:

The Gown was a truly breathtaking book to read. Everything was so descriptive that it felt like I could see the scenes in my head. I could almost see Ann and Miriam hunched over their frames in their coveralls stitching the elaborate flower star designs onto the gown. I could feel the emotions they were feeling. I could feel Ann’s heartbreak, Miriam’s guilt and Heather’s loss. I also enjoyed the way the story jumped from past to present and how we learn details of Ann and Miriam’s lives through Heather’s search for answers. This book had a lot of heart and it pulled many tears from me.

In many ways, this book reminds us that when elaborate gowns are made, so much of the credit goes to the designer and hardly any goes towards the ones who worked on the embroidery. I have a newfound appreciation for all those dedicated souls who put all their time and love into the delicate details that are what makes a dress beautiful. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to Google images of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown to admire the embroidery.

Check out The Gown at Chapters Indigo.

Happy reading!

Shazia.

Book Review

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending me a copy of The Water Cure in exchange for an honest review.

 There have been quite a few feminist dystopian novels like the Handmaid’s Tale and The Virgin Suicides that have been written. However, comparing The Water Cure to those books would be wrong. In my opinion, this book stands alone as something else entirely. Yes, the book does describe a world in which being a female is considered a disadvantage, but the book reads as if it is all happening in the present. While some people may argue that this book is still considered to be a dystopian, I personally did not see that reflected in the writing. My advice? Go into this book without expectations. This will not be a book for everyone, but it is so inherently unique that I think it deserves a chance to be explored by readers.

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Synopsis:

“There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.” – Sophie Mackintosh

The Water Cure introduces us to a man named King who has created a home in an isolated territory for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia and Sky. There is barbered wire around this territory that gives clear messages of “do not enter” and “do not leave”. King does this to protect the women from the dangers and violence from the men on the mainland. King and his wife have their daughters engage in brutal therapies that are meant to make their bodies and minds strong against the toxic world beyond their barbed wires. The girls are made to believe that the men of the world will harm them and that they could become sick from the mere toxicity from their breaths.

Their carefully orchestrated life turns upside down when King disappears and three men wash ashore. They seek shelter in the girl’s home and from this point onwards everything changes. The three men, James, Llew and Gwil are mysterious and quietly take over the role of King to protect the women. We see the sisters navigate their first experiences interacting with men. We also see the bonds of sisterhood tested and how they struggle to come to terms with their new reality.

The Characters:

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Most of the story is told through Lia’s perspective. Lia is the middle child who yearns for love and finds herself drawn to one of the men washed ashore. She continuously battles over the guilt and fear of being drawn to “the enemy”, someone who could easily kill her. We are taken through flashbacks as Lia recounts rituals in which she had to hurt her sisters or kill animals in order to strengthen her body and mind. These parts were difficult to read as the author really masters how to make you feel uncomfortable. Lia’s perspective takes up the middle portion of the story, and while I did find this part to be a bit slow and dragged out, I still feel that the character development was well done. You really feel Lia’s pain and how desperately she wants to be loved.

Perhaps the most interesting character for me was the eldest daughter, Grace. We only get Grace’s perspective at the very beginning and end of the book. In my opinion, these were the best parts of the book. Grace gives us more insight into the mysterious character of King. We are told he is their father, that he protects them from the toxins of the outside world and tries to help other “sick” women. It is through Grace that we learn the truth about King and his motive. It is through her that the story finally starts to make sense and loose ends are tied.

James, Llew and Gwil are mysterious characters. Llew is the father of the young boy Gwil. James is Llew’s brother. From the very first time we are introduced to these characters, I got a sense that something was wrong. The author does not provide much information about them, and we learn more about them through their actions and interactions with the sisters. I was constantly on edge waiting to learn their motives. When everything is revealed, it was quite the surprise.

The Story:

I think the most interesting thing about this book for me is how the story is written. The author does a good job in showing rather than telling. We are not told what kind of world the women live in. Instead we are shown through the perspectives of Lia and Grace. At one point the author even does a group perspective, which I believe is an incredibly hard thing to accomplish. The author nails it! I really felt the collective emotions of the sisters in these chapters. At times I felt myself feeling lost because of the way we were given little context but a lot of description. I had to really pay attention and think through what I was reading. There were many beautiful metaphors with the use of water. The writing itself was poetic, mystical even at times.

The themes of cult mentality, patriarchy and trauma are deeply explored in the story, but again it is shown to the readers through Lia’s flashbacks and emotional turmoil. We are given more information about the girl’s childhood, their parent’s expectations and how/when they are allowed to express their emotions. The water cure was eventually explained and it left me feeling uneasy but also invested in finding out more. I was beginning to feel a bit impatient for more information but it was all eventually unraveled. While the ending did feel a tad bit rushed, I was so relieved to get the full story that I did not mind.

This was not an easy book to read. At times I felt horrified, uncomfortable and a bit impatient. I was really a mixed bag of emotions and I spent a good portion of time after I was done reading thinking about how I felt about the whole experience. I realized that all those emotions meant the author did a good job in evoking a response from readers. No matter what you feel after you’re done reading, the fact remains that you felt something. Even if the feeling was anger, frustration, sadness or discomfort. The writing makes you feel, period. This for me is a good reading experience.

Happy reading bookworms!

Shazia.

 

Book Review

Book Review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

Publisher: HarperCollins

I would like to thank HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig in exchange for an honest review.

This was an inspiring and thought-provoking book to read. It is truly refreshing when an author shares his or her personal journey with readers. To feel an author’s vulnerability in their writing is a beautiful thing and to reflect on your own life afterwards is where the magic happens.

Matt Haig is one of those authors that takes you along on his personal journey and helps you understand the lessons he learned along the way. This book explores the link between anxiety, stress and our modern world. It is not just meant for the Millennials or the Generation Y group. This book is aimed for all humans who live on this nervous planet.

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Notes on a Nervous Planet

We have come a long way when it comes to discussing mental health. However, in this book Matt points out an interesting thing that we do when people discuss their mental health issues. He discusses how people continue to say things like “You are so brave for sharing your story”. As pointed out in the book, it should not be thought of as being brave for someone to have shared his or her struggles. It should be considered normal.

I paused when I read this and thought back to all the times I used a similar phrase when reading or listening to someone’s story. It’s a completely valid point that I thought should be shared. While there were many themes in this book, I would like to discuss the three big ones that stood out for me: Technology overload, loss of connection and life overload.

Technology Overload:

We live in a chaotic, overly stimulating and faced paced world. More than ever before we are being bombarded with notifications from the overwhelming amount of apps we have on our phones. We have to comb through text messages, whatsapp messages, emails, tweets, direct messages and Facebook messenger messages. Matt describes how this can be anxiety provoking. He describes the feeling of being on high alert while waiting for text messages or when receiving new notifications. We are constantly plugged in and being distracted.

Matt acknowledges how hard it can be to distance yourself from your phone and he shares his own struggles. However, he provides useful tips on how to control social media time rather than letting it control you. He recognizes the struggles with advancing technology, but also acknowledges the positives. This book does not bash technology and blame it all for our unhappiness. On the contrary, it presents the problems we may face and provides us with advice on how to create a space to foster peace and shape the life we want.

Loss of Connection:

Matt describes how the rise of the Internet and social media makes us more connected but also physically draws us further apart. An interesting point is made about how many things that pulled us out of our homes in the past are now available on the Internet. It is also so much easier to communicate with friends and family via Skype and Facetime rather than putting all that effort into getting out into the world to meet them. Loneliness seems to be one of the side effects of social media. I loved how Matt offers readers tips on how to remain human in a world that has become addicted to cell phones. It resonated with me as I sometimes find myself scanning the the people on the bus and counting how many of them have their cell phones in their hands, myself included.

Life Overload:

Matt refers to our world as a global nervous system. We are connected in more ways than ever thanks to technology like the Internet and the telephone. I think one of the most interesting points of this book was that because we have become so globally connected, we might feel emotions collectively through this large nervous system. We feel the group’s emotions and these emotions become our own. We get reminded of a time when we got our news with the morning newspaper and the evening news. That’s it. Just twice a day.

These days, news coverage goes beyond the newspaper and CNN. It is also present in the trending topics of Facebook, discussed on Twitter, shared on Instagram and Google news offers us a plethora of news articles to comb through. There is definitely an information overload, especially when the news being presented revolves around topics that sadden or frighten us. This book explains how it can be anxiety provoking, leading us to stress more and become anxious over the impending doom that may befall on us.

My Thoughts:

This was such an enjoyable book to read. I really can’t say that there is anything that I disliked about this book. It was broken down into sections that are quick and easy to read. There are many themes that are explored through funny anecdotes, lists and short discussions. It was an honest and insightful account about how to live your best life possible in a modern world that is designed to make you feel anxious. It is about creating a space of peace for yourself, to unplug and live in the moment. I think we could all benefit from Matt Haig’s reminders and advice. Highly recommended!

Happy reading,

Shazia.

Book Review

Is There Still a Stigma Around Self-Help Books?

I notice an acquaintance, let’s call her Jane, clutching a book to her chest. It is bright yellow and I immediately recognize it.

Me: “Are you reading, “You are a Badass” by Jen Sincero?”

Jane: “Oh, yeah I am. I got it as a gift or else I would never pick it up myself. I usually don’t do self-help books”.

Me: “I loved that book! I read it twice”

Jane: “Oh really? That’s good. I hope I enjoy it. I don’t care for self-help books, but it seems funny”.

It is then that I notice the subtle signs of discomfort: her nervous laugh, the way she hides the title by holding it to her chest and how she shifts from one foot to another. Not to mention, she states she doesn’t care for self-help books twice.

This whole interaction made me wonder: Is there a stigma when it comes to reading self-help books?

I have seen it a few times over the years. Discomfort when someone sees me reading a self-help book. Sometimes it’s an eye-roll, other times I see an eyebrow raising and a few times it’s been a downright “you read that stuff?”

Well, yes I do. In fact, I love this “stuff”.

The Good News:

In the last few years, I have seen more enthusiasm related to self-help books. I have seen these books on display more often than before. I have listened to podcasts with the authors from this genre discussing their books. I have also seen these books included in popular book clubs. More of these kinds of books are shared on platforms like bookstagram and goodreads.
Chapters Indigo even has a section called “The Wellness Shop”, which features a whole array of self-help books related to self-development, meditation, coping with anxiety and alleviating stress. I have met people who asked questions about self-help books. I have had lengthy discussions about the themes and topics covered by the authors regarding mental health. This often leads to stories being shared about our personal struggles and how we incorporated teachings from these books into our lives. These are the conversations we need more of in our lives.

The Resistance:

What makes some people uncomfortable about being seen in the self-help section of the bookstore? What makes some people uncomfortable about reading their self-help books in public? Is it the idea that seeking these books is a form of weakness? Is it the fear of judgment from others?

I truly believe that people’s resistance to self-help books is basically centered on a lack of knowledge about this genre. Some people may think these books are filled with schemes. Others may think these books provide a false notion of “you will be fixed by the end of Chapter 20”. A few may even believe that there is nothing written that we don’t already know.

There may be some truth to these ideas. I’m not saying all self-help books are wonderful and contain pixie dust that will “bippity boppity boo” away all your insecurities and struggles. What I am saying is the genre itself deserves to be treated with an open mind. So next time you see someone roll their eyes or raise an eyebrow so high it looks like it’s about to shoot off their forehead, maybe try to have a discussion. Maybe ask the person why they dislike self-help books. Share why you like this particular book you are reading. You don’t have to change their mind or bring them over to your side, but sometimes a conversation can lead to openness or just a great book related conversation.

My Favorite Self-Help Books

I can’t do a blog post about this genre and not include some of my favorites.
Here are some of the self-help books that I found immensely important and life changing. I believe that for a self-help book to be a success, you need to feel a certain level of vulnerability from the author. You also have to be willing to feel your own vulnerability. Here is my top five list:

1) Good Vibes, Good Life – Vex King

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I have been gushing about this book since Christmas to everyone who will listen to me and I have no intention to stop anytime soon. Vex King is such a gifted author who shares his own life experiences and the lessons he learned along the way. I love books that promote self-love and positive vibes.

2) Daring Greatly – Brene Brown

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Brene Brown spent twelve years getting up close and personal with vulnerability. She shares her years of research and her own personal struggles with vulnerability and helps us realize that vulnerability is where courage can be found. There is so much to learn from this book as it left me reflecting on my own thoughts and experiences.

3) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

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While many self-help books and social media quotes focus solely on positivity, Mark Manson discusses the importance on how to stop being positive all the time so that we can truly become happier people. It is an interesting concept about how we need to fully feel our sad moments in order to move forward.

4) You are a Badass – Jen Sincero

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This book is badass! The author has a great way of weaving humour and real life experiences to ultimately help readers love their badass selves. Lots of laugh out loud moments and advice that makes you think about living your best life.

5) Unlearn: 101 Simple Truths for a Better Life – Humble the Poet

This book is a collection of writings and insightful quotes to remind you of your potential and ways of thinking to deal with whatever life throws your way. I loved the little lessons that were shared. This book is both insightful and motivational.

Final Thoughts:
We have come a long way as mental health awareness is being discussed more and many authors are stepping forward with their stories. Is there a stigma? I believe we are seeing less and less of it. There may always be some level of discomfort either from the reader or from the outside world. What’s important is that we keep talking about it and sharing the message from these books. Sometimes all people need is a gentle reminder of self-love from authors who want to spread their message and help the heal the world one page at a time.

Happy reading!

Shazia.