Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

39690383Verdict: Fascinating portrait of a fascinating life.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Published by Text Publishing, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off.

This is an incredible portrait of a deeply complicated woman – and I adored it. Sandra Pankhurst owns a company specializing on trauma cleaning (after suicides and violent crimes but mostly for people with hoarding tendencies). Sarah Krasnostein followed her work for months and tells in alternating chapter of Sandra’s clients and her own, tumultuous life.

Sandra, who was born as Peter, adopted by a deeply dysfunctional and abusive family, married young and had two children before leaving her family. She is a deeply complicated person and a completely unreliable narrator as she freely admits to having forgotten large parts of her life due both to her own trauma and drug abuse. Krasnostein manages to painting a wonderful portrait nonetheless. I especially admire that she let Sandra be contradictory and difficult without trying to paint a coherent picture: because Sandra’s life does not lend itself to coherence and her contradictions are fascinating. She is able to extend an utmost sympathy to her clients, while at the same time being callous in the way she talks about her ex-wife, who she left without any financial assistance and who had two raise her two sons on her own. She was part of the LGBTQIA-scene before it was legal and now supports conservative politicians. She is empathetic and lovely to people she hardly knows and has not spoken to people she was close with in the 70s in decades.

My favourite parts were in the present, following Sandra and her empathy while dealing with her clients. I appreciated the way in which Krasnostein painted vivid pictures of very difficult living situations while avoiding sounding voyeuristic. The women Sandra became has my utmost respect even if she has done some horrible things to get there. Her life story is an interesting and in parts harrowing one, and it is a story that is well worth knowing.

The audiobook is extremely well done and I cannot recommend it high enough. The narrator, Rachael Tidd did a wonderful job letting Sandra come alive in my ear. I think the excellent narration lifted this book to a definitely four-star read for me.

Lastly, I do feel the need to point out that this book contains some seriously harrowing scenes; there is one rather lengthy and detailed rape in the middle of the book that might be triggering for some readers.

 

Mini-Review: Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

32021926Verdict: Lovely.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by Penguin, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong. Exquisitely crafted, revelatory, and full of the crack comic timing that has made Mara Wilson a sought-after live storyteller and Twitter star, Where Am I Now? introduces a witty, perceptive, and refreshingly candid new literary voice.

I am a huge fan of celebrity memoirs; I know this is not a particularly cool thing to admit, but I enjoy them a whole lot, especially on audiobook read by the author. This memoir by Mara Wilson was no exception: it is wonderfully honest, lovely, and was just an altogether nice reading experience. I personally did not grow up watching Matilda, as such I do not have a personal connection to Mara Wilson. But I follow her on Twitter and find her online presence really lovely, which was enough for me when I was looking for a new audiobook to listen to.

In her memoir, Mara Wilson writes both about her career as a child star and about her struggles with OCD – the latter of which I appreciated a whole lot. Her honesty was really great and I think is important to change the way we think and talk about mental illness. She also writes about her grief for her mother, who died really young and whose influence can be felt throughout this book – her mother seems to have been a wonderful person and Mara’s loss can be felt greatly.

One of my favourite essays in this book was her essay on Robin Williams, written shortly after his death. Here her empathy shines really bright and it brought me to tears.

Altogether I really appreciated this book and if you are looking for a lovely audiobook, this one might just be for you.

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

25079993Verdict: Heartbreaking and hilarious.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memor

Published by Vintage, 2012

Find it on Goodreads.

This memoir is the chronicle of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser drawer; about growing up in a north England industrial town in the 1960s and 1970s; and about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can guide us when we are lost. Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I do not know why I haven’t picked up a Jeanette Winterson book earlier. I loved this a whole lot and cannot wait to read more of her books. Jeanette Winterson tells the story of relationship with her mothers; both her biological mother and her adopted mother. I listened to her tell this story on audiobook and I cannot recommend this highly enough. Winterson infuses the story with her wry tone and wit and it was just a wonderful listening experience.

The family she is adopted in are conservative to no end and especially her mother (who she almost exclusively calls Mrs Winterson throughout the book) is often horrible to her. Listening to Jeanette Winterson detail the abuse she suffered would have been unbearable if she didn’t manage to always infuse her story with a sense of optimism. This sense of reflection was what struck me the strongest about this book. While Jeanette Winterson does not have everything figured out by a long shot, she is eloquent and wise and often deeply funny and this made this memoir a joy to read.

I will now definitely have to read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, a semi-fictional account of Winterson’s life to see how she transformed her suffering into wonder.

Review: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

34661506Verdict: Highly entertaining, but not without its flaws.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Crime

Published by Orenda Books, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

It’s 1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who took that fateful trip and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby.

It’s 2017. Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult Internet figure.

While looking for a new audiobook to listen to, I saw that this one is narrated by a whole cast of people – and I had just seen a positive review for this book that had been on my radar for a while, so it did seem like fate. And for the most part I had a lot of fun listening to this. Given that the book is told in podcast format, I do think that listening to it was the best idea.

Modelled after podcasts such a Serial, this book tells the story of a group of friends and the sudden death of one of them. The idea behind the podcast is that the story will be told from six perspectives and the audience can form their own opinion. I loved this. Each new voice added another layer to the story and fleshed out the characters. I found the story highly entertaining and sped through it fairly quickly. The main narrator does his job wonderfully and the whole experience was super immersive. I will definitely be checking out the next books in the series.

But even though I had a lot of fun listening to this, I also didn’t think it was without its flaws. I saw the twist coming miles away (and I am not a prolific crime reader) and I am not so sure I find it all that convincing. Additionally, the characters were all god-awful people, which would be fine if the narrative didn’t time and time again excuse their behaviour with “teenagers being teenagers” – those people were just assholes, nothing to do with their age at all.

Another problem I had were some of the voice actors whose accents didn’t always work for me. I also found some of the sentence structures awkward when written allowed which makes no sense given that the book was supposed to be made up of podcast transcripts.

Review: The Gender Games by Juno Dawson

35681935Verdict: Hilarious, heartwarming, wonderful.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Two Roads, July 2017

Genre: Memoir, Audiobook

Find it on Goodreads.

Why we are all being messed up by gender, and what we can do about it.

‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ are the first words almost all of us hear when we enter the world. Before our names, before we have likes and dislikes – before we, or anyone else, has any idea who we are. And two years ago, as Juno Dawson went to tell her mother she was (and actually, always had been) a woman, she started to realise just how wrong we’ve been getting it.

Gender isn’t just screwing over trans people, it’s messing with everyone. From little girls who think they can’t be doctors to teenagers who come to expect street harassment. From exclusionist feminists to ‘alt-right’ young men. From men who can’t cry to the women who think they shouldn’t. As her body gets in line with her mind, Juno tells not only her own story, but the story of everyone who is shaped by society’s expectations of gender – and what we can do about it.

Featuring insights from well-known gender, feminist and trans activists including Rebecca Root, Laura Bates, Gemma Cairney, Anthony Anaxagorou, Hannah Witton, Alaska Thunderfuck and many more, The Gender Games is a frank, witty and powerful manifesto for a world where what’s in your head is more important than what’s between your legs.

In short: I loved every second of this. I adored the warmth, the humour, the pop culture reference, and how very very positive this was. I listened to the book as read by the author and I can only recommend this. Juno Dawson brings an absolute wonderful joy to this memoir that I just really needed.

Compared to other memoirs I read in my month of reading mostly memoirs, this was lighthearted and fun. This does not mean that Juno Dawson does not have a lot to say, which she does, brilliantly so. She just refuses to use a narrative of sadness for her own journey and I am glad. Coming out stories are not always awful and that gives me hope.

I agree with a lot of Juno Dawson’s thoughts on gender – and that felt nice because I am often the most radical in my social circle. I wasn’t at university (not by a long shot) but back in my small town and with in-laws who are very much of the opinion that boys and girls are fundamentally different and that girls should always wear pink (I am exaggerating, of course, but only a little) I do sometimes feel a bit weird. So listening to somebody who so very eloquently has similar thoughts was absolutely lovely.

I am around the same age as Juno Dawson and as such really appreciated a lot of her pop culture references a whole lot; I mean I was always going to love a book that references Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I just had so much fun listening to this. Please do check this one out if you haven’t already.

Review: The Child Finder – Rene Denfield

36264514Verdict: Oh I liked this. But, evil

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Harper, 2017; listened to on Audible

Find it on Goodreads.

Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight years old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.

Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl too.

As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?

I very rarely read crime novels or anything that might be considered “Thriller”, but this book came so highly recommended that when I saw it on Audible, I downloaded it on a whim. And I am so glad I did. I have talked elsewhere on the not so brilliant reading month I had and how I had promised myself to finish the books I had started before choosing another but for this I am glad to have broken my own promise.

Written in lyrical language steeped in the words of myths and fairy tales this is a crime novel that I can wholeheartedly recommend. The atmosphere Rene Denfield has created here was my absolute favourite part of the book. I adore the way in which she builds her world around the fairy tales she references while never losing its base in reality. This is a deeply unsettling book under the beautiful language; there is violence here barely hidden under euphemisms; and I thought this contrast worked really well. The violence and horror of child abduction is never sugar-coated but it is also not gratuitously violent. I was figuratively glued to the page and just could not stop listening, even though big parts of the mystery at heart are no mystery to the reader.

There were, however, some parts that did not quite work for me. Most importantly, I found Naomi a little bit underdeveloped, especially when compared to the snow girl. The Love story did not work for me either, but this is probably just a me thing (I read books with love stories at the centre even rarer than crime novels).

At the heart, this is a book about survival, about resistance, and about the importance of human contact. Naomi and B are different sides of the same coin but with vastly different experiences and narratives. I adored this.