“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson (2015)

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“No, no. I insist you stop right now.”

I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to talk on the subject of mental health. I’ve never had therapy or been diagnosed with anything, although if I was going to be I’m pretty sure anxiety tops the list, followed by narcissism, although I’m not sure if that’s actually a mental illness or just me failing to yet realise that I’m not the centre of the universe. Many people I know and love, however, make it through their days dealing with all manner of things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ages ago – so long in fact that I thought it was even prior to the existence of this blog, but no, actually, it’s there in the first year. Five years later, here’s the sequel. I was introduced to her work by my sister, and I bought her this second collection for her birthday last year. In it, Lawson continues her exploration of her struggles with her mental health. She has anxiety, depression, insomnia, agoraphobia, and a whole bunch more, but she seems to be someone who, for the most part, truly enjoys life.

The book’s title comes from her decision to be “done with sadness” and instead be so vehemently happy that it freaked out the people who didn’t think she should be. It became a movement on Twitter and her blog. The book itself is then a collection of essays, stories and recorded conversations that detail both her, quite frankly, insane life, and her deepest struggles with her own mind. Among other things, she goes to Australia to meet koalas while dressed as one, gets anonymously sent a box of cat skins, undergoes marriage therapy with her eternally-patient husband Victor, loses all feeling in both her arms, recalls her father’s lessons in catching catfish, tries to achieve a “better face”, has gallbladder surgery, and shares her thoughts on how air travel can be vastly improved with the use of occasional blunt weaponry.

But in among the madness, there are some deeply moving and honest chapters. She describes how it feels to have depression, how anxiety can overcome her in hotel rooms while she’s travelling, promoting her first book. She talks honestly and brutally about how she feels like a failure and a fraud, how, despite her apparent attitude for lust for life, she’s often struggling to stay afloat. It’s a remarkable piece of work, as hilarious as it is heartwarming. You can’t help but love her, nor indeed her husband who, despite being her regular sparring partner, loves her wholeheartedly and would do anything for her, except leave his office door unlocked when he’s in a conference call.

The style is breezy, and Lawson has a habit of wandering off on bizarre tangents, misunderstanding situations, getting herself into those odd situations in the first place, and trying to cope with the long silences her therapist leaves. You’ll also learn perhaps a little more about both taxidermy and possums than you ever thought you wanted, but you won’t care. It’s a journey and while it might not have any seat belts and be entirely off road, you’re going to have the ride of your life.

It’s a wonderful book, and a call to arms in some ways. We should all try to be furiously happy – go big, or go home.

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“The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe” by Douglas Adams (1980)

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“In the beginning the Universe was created.”

Way back in my early teenage years (which feel now like a hazy memory as a milestone birthday approaches with alarming speed), I discovered Douglas Adams, quite by accident. I had borrowed one of the book’s from the school library, and it happened to be The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yep – I didn’t even start at the beginning. I didn’t even know there was a beginning to start at. Ergo, I came to the series in the wrong order, which somehow feels apt and irrelevant. There are spoilers below, but they too don’t feel particularly relevant.

Restaurant picks up about two hours after the ending of Hitchhiker’s, with Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android being pursued by a Vogon spaceship that has orders to kill Zaphod. With the ship’s computer using all of its power to work out quite how to make tea at Arthur’s request, there seems to be little they can do to escape, until Zaphod suggests a seance and calls on the help of his great-grandfather. The irritated and irritable relative performs some jiggery-pokery and now Ford, Arthur and Trillian are left on the ship, while Zaphod and Marvin have vanished.

They have, it turns out, been transported to the publishing headquarters of the titular guide. Zaphod has received instructions from himself to meet with a man called Zarniwoop, who in turn has a quest to seek out the Ruler of the Universe. The plot zigzags through the universe taking in deserted planets, angry robot tanks, delayed shuttle flights, a Total Perspective Vortex, a colony of telephone sanitisers and hairdressers, but all culminating in one of the most amazing experiences of all time – dinner at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Like the first book, there’s a lot of philosophy in here. The biggest debate of all comes during dinner when they encounter the animal they’re about to eat, and it happily suggests which parts of it are the tastiest. Arthur has massive problems with this, while the others all seem to be OK with it. Arthur thinks its barbaric to eat an animal that wants to be eaten, but when it’s pointed out to him that surely this is better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten, he is somewhat forced to backtrack.

The universe is once again packed with bizarre races, species and characters, many of whom exist solely for a throwaway joke, such as the Jatravartids who have over fifty arms each and “are therefore unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel”. Adams is again funny, sharp and surreal, but I’ve come away with one thought that I’m sure I’ve never properly dwelt on before – the universe seems to be entirely inhabited by men. Trillian is the only female character that I think I can name at the moment (and we don’t really get another until Fenchurch turns up in either book three or four, I forget which), and while she appears in quite a lot of scenes, she has about five lines in two hundred pages. Most of the other aliens that appear that have certain genders are all male. I am a feminist, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever noticed quite how unbalanced this whole thing was until now. It feels like Trillian is there more because she’s mentioned a lot, and has a bigger role in the 2005 Hitchhiker’s film, but really, she’s not given the page time she deserves.

It is a great novel, nonetheless, but looking back now I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first one, although exceptions can be made for the scenes at Milliways, the character and concept of Hotblack Desiato, and any time Marvin pops up to share in his misery. I also realise that it’s at this point my memory in what happens with the rest of the series fails me. I’ve got a few notions, but from here on in, I’ll be going in pretty much blind. Wish me luck!

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

I’m repeatedly on record on this blog saying that I’m not a particular fan of child narrators. However, when the narrator sounds enough like the age they’re supposed to be, then I have less to complain about. However, Ian McEwan has taken the premise to its logical extreme here and, oddly enough, it works. In Nutshell, the narrator is perhaps a unique voice in the literary canon: he hasn’t yet been born.

Our protagonist is still a few weeks off his birth day, but he’s keeping himself entertained by listening to and learning from the world around him. He’s discovered that his mother is called Trudy. He’s also discovered that John (her husband and his father) doesn’t live with them anymore. Trudy does, however, spend an awful lot of time with Claude, John’s brother. It also soon becomes painfully clear that Trudy and Claude are plotting something, unaware of the witness that listens to every word and is the innocent implicated party in the whole plot.

You could take the premise of this novel in one of two ways – either to say that the whole thing’s ridiculous, or to just go with it and enjoy the wry humour of the unborn child who has a mastery of philosophy and prose that I can only dream of. It’s explained that Trudy listens to a lot of podcasts and news stories, all of which the baby also hears, and so he has become vastly informed about the state of the world, knowing not only that he lives in London, but also having a basic understanding of many of the socioeconomic factors governing twenty-first century Britain. His style is engaging and somewhat comical, yet also moving and profound and packed with debate on right and wrong, crime and punishment, gender, parenthood and modernity.

The whole thing is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with the hero’s mother and uncle plotting against the father. I’m not clear enough on my Hamlet to know quite whether it’s a direct lift or not, but there feel like there are definitely enough similarities to assume that it’s a retelling. McEwan sparkles as usual, although I’ve not read very much of his catalogue. The premise is wonderfully unique and I think helps give it a bit more nuance, excitement and fun. One of the funniest ongoing jokes is that Trudy hasn’t quite given up drinking while she’s pregnant, and as such, the foetus is something of a wine snob before it’s even born, being able to detect the grape being imbibed even without hearing it said. Part of the novel style of the book comes from the fact that sight, smell and taste are all but impossible to use as senses, meaning the book relies heavily on sound and, interestingly, touch.

It’s a fascinating experiment and it’s really paid off. There’s a satisfying ending that still somehow leaves you wanting to know more, and the writing simply sparkles. Ingenious.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Illywhacker” by Peter Carey (1985)

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“My name is Herbert Badgery.”

This week I did something that I haven’t done in years – I gave up on a book. I’m unfamiliar with Peter Carey’s work, but Illywhacker has been sat on my shelf for years, waiting for the right moment to be read. Maybe I chose the wrong moment after all, I don’t know, but I do know that when it’s taken me a week to read the first third of a book, something is wrong. Someone asked me this week, “Well, why are you continuing then?” and, frankly, I was struck by that. People have asked me before and I’ve always said that I’m too far in now, that it has some redeeming features, or it’s not very long, but this time, giving up seemed the only option. Thus, I present a review of the first third of Illywhacker.

Herbert Badgery is an Australian confidence trickster who has had a long and interesting life. We meet him as he begins to reminisce about that life, leaping into the time he was selling cars in Victoria, but had visions of being an aviator and bringing the first Australian-built aeroplanes to the world. Moving in with a kind family, he begins to get feelings for their young daughter, which are apparently reciprocated when she accosts him on the roof one day. The rest of the novel’s first part details their marriage, their passion for aviation, and what happened as they both got to know one another better. From then on, I can’t say.

I think my trouble stems from the books insistence in it being a “dazzling comic narrative” when, actually, it’s not all that funny. Oh sure, the situations are surreal and unusual, but that’s not the same thing. I need to stop being lured into books simply because they tell me that they’re funny. So often I end up disappointed or bemused. The writing itself is quite good, and there’s an interesting narrative path being taken, but it just didn’t captivate me enough to want to hang around for nearly six hundred pages.

The main character, Herbert Badgery, has one interesting trait – he’s telling this story towards the end of his life when he’s 139-years-old – and otherwise I found little about him that gripped me. Some of the characters around him, his wife Phoebe, and her former lover Annette, are quite interesting, but their stories are wrapped up in Badgery’s own, and only he and Carey seem to think his story is one worth telling.

Perhaps the novel gets better, I can’t say. Perhaps I would have fallen in love with the character as time went on, but I simply don’t have the will right now. I might return to the book one day, because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, but right now I need something that’s going to excite me a little more after a couple of sub-par books. Stylistically pretty good, but very much lacking in a coherent, engaging plot.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levy (2013)

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“The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man.”

Some people (including Michele Roberts in her introduction to this collection) say that the short story fits our age better than longer narrative structures because we now live in a world where we have short attention spans and can’t or won’t commit to anything that takes up too much time. I think this is nonsense, given that the average length of a film these days seems to be about two and a half hours instead of ninety minutes. In truth, the power of the short story is that it reveals quite a lot about you as a writer. I’ve certainly written more short stories over the years than I have novels, but I find them a lot harder. You have to be so economical with your prose that I think it quickly shows up if you’re not very good at them.

Deborah Levy’s collection falls somewhat flat to me. I haven’t read anything else by her, so I can’t compare this to her other works, but I wasn’t that keen. Each of the ten stories has a European flavour, and focuses on someone who is struggling somehow in the modern world, but most of their problems are most definitely of a “first world” nature. In “Pillow Talk”, a man has an affair while on holiday, leading to a tense reunion with his girlfriend. In “Vienna”, a recent divorcee sleeps with a new woman. The most interesting is “Cave Girl”, in which a young woman radically changes her appearance and personality, leading to a change in the dynamic of her relationship with her brother.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but my overall opinion was that the stories are just an act of sheer pretension. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the actual writing is good, but the stories are inspiring and feel oddly detached from anything real. I see that they are representative of “people scared of not seeming cool” as described by Michele Roberts, but that’s not something I really relate to. (Not because I’m cool, but more because I’m quite uninterested in what people think of me.) She also says the stories force us to question our places in the world, but I felt no such compulsion. Instead I just found myself slightly irritated by everyone and unsatisfied by most of the endings. I enjoy it when a story ends with an unanswered question, but here I found that even if there was a question being asked, I wasn’t totally sure often what it was, nor did I have much interest in finding the answer.

Intriguing and some very nice uses of language, but you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“The Twitch” by Kevin Parr (2013)

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“I’m not certain whose head I can see the top of, bobbing rhythmically into view about the low brick wall by the potting shed.”

I like a bit of nature spotting, and there is something particularly endearing about watching birds. I’m not someone who’s going to be haring up to some remote coast to get a glimpse of a curlew, but I’m quite happy to sit and watch them in the garden. Our garden isn’t particularly big and we only really get collared doves, jackdaws and blackbirds popping in. My grandparents have a plethora of feathered visitors from blue tits to woodpeckers in their garden, and when I was at university, I lived not far from a colony of wild parakeets. It’s the birds of prey that really do it for me though. I still get a lurch of excitement when I catch sight of a kestrel or a buzzard. For some people, however, this is more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life.

Edward Banger took up twitching a couple of years ago under the tutelage of his friend Mick. It’s January and time for the annual competition to see who in the club can spot the most birds in the coming year. Edward is determined to break the record and be crowned the champion, but he’s got some stiff competition from rivals who have been doing this a lot longer than him and seem to be using knowledge granted to only the group’s “inner circle” to bump up their tick lists.

After a couple of his rivals die in strange circumstances that Edward may or may not have been intentionally responsible for, he begins to realise that the best way to win would be to bump off the others and make sure they won’t be around to compete. Becoming obsessed with ticking off every bird on the list, he begins to spend his life on the road, letting his job fall by the wayside and ignoring his home life with his wife and two daughters. Around him, he cannot see what is happening to his life as he’s a man on a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of him achieving his goal. Nothing.

Edward is an appalling human being, and steadily gets worse as the novel progresses. He has such little interest in his family that when one of his daughter’s mentions she can drive, he admits he didn’t even know she’d had a test. The obsession that consumes him is one that is probably a genuine issue for some people, but I can’t imagine being this enamoured by anything. While everything does crumble around him, it’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for him as he’s pretty much brought on all of his issues himself. He’s not entirely irredeemable, though, despite being a murderer. He has a sweet – but increasingly strained – relationship with his younger daughter Nicola, and he’s portrayed as having a good turn of phrase, meaning he’s quite a funny man. But he’s selfish beyond all sanity, and his friends are hardly the most pleasant company.

I also found it odd that, despite many high-profile members of his twitching club all dying in strange circumstances, the finger of suspicion never seems to point at him, and indeed, no one ever seems to find it particularly odd, giving the impression that this competition is such a big deal that it’s quite common for three or four of the twitchers to die every year. There are also a few plot threads that seem to be leading somewhere and then never do. For example, Edward says he is terrified of gulls, and yet we never really find out why and nor is there any payoff to this.

It ends rather abruptly with a lot of unanswered questions and I’d certainly be intrigued to find out quite how he managed to restore order to his life and what happened, but I guess he’ll just continue being an obnoxious git until he’s snuffed out in a tent. It’s darkly funny and quite interesting, but there’s only so many bird names I can read before they all start merging into one. A nice concept though, and a great look at how obsession can make anyone do things they never thought they could do.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

Book Chat: Anwen Kya Hayward

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Cardiff-based PhD student and author Anwen Kya Hayward is my inaugural interviewee in this new blog feature. Her passion for literature and mythology has led to her penning a novella called Here, the World Entire giving an alternate interpretation to the Medusa myth, which I ranked as one of the ten best books I read last year. When not obsessing over mythological heroes or with her nose in a book, she can be found baking or, and I quote, “gently touching cats’ noses until they do the blinking thing and an unbreakable bond of trust is formed”. I quizzed her on some of her favourite and most memorable books.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am only on page two of my current read, so there’s not a whole lot I can say about it! It’s Nowhere to be Found, a novella by South Korean author Bae Suah. All I know is that it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, but a very compact one, following the noteworthy events throughout the life of an unnamed narrator. I’m aiming to read ten books by female authors of colour in January – you’d be surprised at how difficult it is to find books that aren’t by white authors until you actually specifically look for them – and this is number eight.

What were your favourite books growing up?

Listen, it was Enid Blyton’s entire back catalogue. I’m not proud of it. I held tea parties in my garden with my dollies and supped lashings of ginger beer with them. I pretended that the oak tree down by the stream was the Faraway Tree. I ate cucumber sandwiches. Then I grew up and learnt about things like ‘why golliwogs are bad’, and reassessed my entire world. Still like ginger beer, though.

Which fictional character would you most like to go for dinner with?

Oh man, can you even imagine going to dinner with Voldemort? I bet the waiters wouldn’t dare bring your food cold or late. You’d get the best service in the entire restaurant. Definitely Voldemort.

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Honestly, I’m kind of a fanatic for books. I’m not what you could describe as ‘choosy’. However, I prefer either smaller books or weighty tomes; go hard or go home. I like a book that I can finish in one sitting or completely live inside for a month. I also tend to go for books written by authors who are underrepresented in the literary community; authors of colour, disabled authors, LGBT+ authors, etc. I think it’s important to read books written by those whose voices have not historically been amplified, and if we show the publishing world that it’s not an insurmountable risk to publish books by marginalised voices, then hopefully the tide will turn.

A book with fewer than ten Goodreads ratings is probably an instant win, too. It’s like discovering a new planet.

What genre(s) do you prefer to read?

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. Give me a book about pirates, or rebels in seventeenth century France, or Roman senators, and I’ll probably lap it up.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl contains one particular scene involving a demonic twin which gave me nightmares and made me shower with the door open for about a week, just in case a monster crept into the bathroom with me and I needed a quick escape. The book itself isn’t a horror – and I’m not easily scared, even when it comes to horror media – but it has some deeply unsettling passages, and that one really got to me.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

I feel personally attacked by this question, because I read a book last week that had me practically bawling in a Caffè Nero: Trail of Broken Wings, by Sejal Hadani. Broadly, it’s a semi-autobiographical account of a family marred by their abusive father, and the novel uses multiple perspectives to show how abuse ripples through the lives of those it touches. Some of the lines were so heart-breaking that I had to highlight them. It’s truly the kind of book that lives in you once you finish it, as corny as that sounds.

It also helped me understand my own family a great deal; my grandfather was raised by an enormously abusive man and we still feel the effects of it today. Seeing something I knew so well rendered so beautifully in fiction really got to me.

If you could spend a day inside a book, which one would you choose?

So, probably not the safest or sanest answer, but it would be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Imagine being surrounded by that level of change! We live in a world that always seems to be changing for the worst, spiralling downwards and downwards towards a ceaseless void of bigotry and doom, and the world of Metamorphoses isn’t like that. It’s a world changing towards progress, towards civilisation and self-awareness, and sure, a lot of people end up getting turned into trees or bears or goats, but the overarching message is one that I can get behind. Avoid the gods, though. At all costs, avoid the gods.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up? Where, when and what?

Honestly, it’s a long train journey in the evening. I have to travel a lot; my university is based in London and my partner lives near Bath, whereas I am located quite happily in Cardiff and don’t drive, so there are a lot of train journeys in my week. There’s nothing else you should be doing on a train. No laundry, no cooking, no cleaning your cat’s sick out of the rugs. It’s guilt-free reading at its best.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Not so impossible for me – it’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell. It’s just an absolute masterclass in narrative voice. Cottrell’s protagonist is deeply flawed but reflective of that part of us that we all like to pretend doesn’t exist; the neuroses, the bodily functions, the complete lack of self-awareness. On top of that, the plot absolutely floored me. The revelation at the end made me put the book down slowly and just sit still for a long while. If I can ever write a book with a voice half as strong as Helen Moran, I’ll die happy.

You can purchase Anwen’s first novella Here, the World Entire via the link, or follow her on Twitter: @kyatic.

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