“Notes On A Nervous Planet” by Matt Haig (2018)

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“I was stressed out.”

The world is moving ever faster and sometimes it feels like a struggle just to hold on. With the constant bombardment of adverts, breaking news, tweets, social media updates and fear-mongering by anyone with Internet access, it’s no wonder that rates of anxiety, depression and mental malaise seem to have risen so sharply. Fortunately, there are people who are trying to make sense of it all and give us a way to speak out about it. Matt Haig is one of the best.

A couple of years ago, Haig published Reasons to Stay Alive, a frank and moving book about his own struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and suicide. Its success was instant and profound. People across the world thanked him for his words and putting to paper the feelings they’d been struggling to articulate, as well as giving his own tips on how to improve things – or rather, showing us how he did it. He is at pains to insist he isn’t a psychological expert by any means, and his advice is merely based on things he has experienced, but sometimes that’s just a good start.

Notes on a Nervous Planet is the wonderful sequel, this time focusing more on the speed of progress in the world, how the world seems to be working to keep us miserable and anxious (happy people don’t spend money), and how best to cope with things like Twitter and Instagram. We can all make changes to our lives that might alleviate some of the worst problems.

The advice is often simple, or at least appears so: charge your mobile phone outside of your bedroom; don’t stay on Twitter if you’re not enjoying it anymore; read more often; do yoga; go outside more often. Nonetheless, I feel that it all helps. As someone who has had his own issues with anxiety and depression in recent years, it was refreshing to read via Haig’s wonderful prose that I’m not alone. It’s also important to have people talking about these things, as the more we talk about mental health, the more likely the attached stigma will drop away. It’s particularly important, I feel, to have a man talk about it. I appreciate that we live in a world that seems to assume “straight, white male” is the default and people are bored to listening to them, but generally men are told not to express their feelings and to “be strong” all the time. Robert Webb covered this in his memoirs too. This stuff needs to be said – everyone is allowed to cry, and everyone is allowed to feel.

Haig’s book is short but full of profound and charming, lyrical sentences, as well as common sense advice. It’s also raw in places, as he recounts panic attacks and times when he thought he couldn’t carry on. I, for one, am enormously pleased he has, as he’s written some of my favourite books in recent years, including The Humans and How To Stop Time.

Brilliant, beautiful, wise, and important.

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“Colour Scheme” by Ngaio Marsh (1943)

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“When Dr James Ackrington limped into the Harpoon Club on the afternoon of Monday, January the thirteenth, he was in a poisonous temper.”

I keep reading reviews that tell me Ngaio Marsh was an even better mystery writer than Agatha Christie. No disrespect meant to Marsh, but she isn’t. She’s good, don’t get me wrong, but her stories lack something that Christie’s had, although I’m not sure I would ever be able to pinpoint exactly what it was. They’re just different, and that’s almost certainly due to a difference in upbringing. This is the third Marsh novel I’ve read now, and I’m finally heading back to her homeland. It’s time to solve a murder in New Zealand.

The Claire family run a small guest house on the North Island, notable for its access to the hot springs and their curative properties. The family are having difficulty with the businessman Maurice Questing, who is determined to take over and expand the hotel himself to bring in more money, with Colonel Claire firmly under his thumb. Elsewhere, the chief of the nearby Maori tribe, the Te Rarawas, has concerns that Questing seems very interested in some of his ancestors weaponry, and there’s talk of a spy in the area who is responsible for the sinking of a nearby ship.

Things come to a head on the night of a concert held by the Maoris for their white visitors. Maurice Questing has made no friends among the staff and guests at the hotel, so when he disappears into the night and the police find evidence that he may have ended up drowned in one of the hot mud pools, there is little sympathy. It does however raise that eternal question – whodunnit? With a love triangle building, a number of suspicious figures in the frame, and the threat of fifth columnists, the police have their work cut out for them.

Being a native Brit who hasn’t left the continent, never mind the hemisphere, it is always interesting to explore another country via literature. New Zealand feels almost as much of a character here as the humans, and Marsh seems respectful of Maori culture, incorporating figures and their beliefs into her work. She is almost at pains to remind the reader that these islands were inhabited long before Westerners turned up. There are some interesting characters here too, particularly Mr Gaunt, the Shakespearean actor who has been coerced into attending the spa against his will, and now fans are turning up in droves to catch a glimpse of him.

While there is a conventional murder mystery in here, it takes a long time to kick in as Marsh lays down the numerous threads required for the final chapters and the solution to play out. While there’s no confirmation as to which character is even going to end up dead, you quickly get a good idea. Then we get the usual scenes of the suspects all discussing their movements as the police arrive. There is a final twist, but I’d seen it coming a long time before it arrived.

It isn’t my favourite of the Marsh books I’ve read so far, but not so off-putting that I’d never return to her. You can call her the Kiwi Christie, by all means, but she still comes in second place to me.

“The Witches” by Roald Dahl (1983)

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“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”

I’ve been re-reading all of Roald Dahl this year, but most of them I haven’t reviewed as they’re often too short for me to have much to say about them. The Witches, however, I have to talk about. Inexplicably, despite being a Dahl fan throughout my childhood and this battered copy sitting on my shelf for as long as I can remember, I’ve somehow never read it. I don’t really know how it slipped by me, but it’s OK, the matter has been resolved now.

The Witches is the story of a young boy who is taught all about the evil hags by his kindly grandmother, with whom he lives after his parents die in a tragic car crash. Grandmother likes telling the boy stories about witches and warning him to stay away from them. She gives him advice on how to spot a witch including the fact that they wear gloves to hide their claws, and they’re always itching their heads because of their wigs, used to hide their bald heads. On a holiday in Bournemouth, our hero discovers that he’s sharing the hotel with all of England’s witches who have gathered under the instruction of the Grand High Witch. She has come up with a plan that will rid England of all its children.

Before he can warn anyone, the boy is caught and turned into a mouse, which prompts him and his grandmother to formulate their own plan to eradicate all the witches and make the country a safer place.

I don’t think I knew anything about the plot of this one, save for the fact it contained a Grand High Witch and a small boy was the hero. I certainly knew nothing of him turning into a mouse, which arguably is one of the main features of the novel. Like in many Dahl novels, there isn’t an awful lot that really happens. The novel takes place over a short space of time and the plot is simple to grasp, none of which is a complaint. There’s still more of a plot than, say, The Twits, which always felt quite loose to me.

I have heard people say, however, that this is Dahl’s scariest book and I think I probably agree with them. The darkness is much less subtle here, with genuinely vile characters and a pair of protagonists you care about strongly. It’s creepy, and the witches are portrayed very well as malevolent and just the wrong side of odd. The fact that they have slightly different noses or feet to real humans is the sort of thing that would appeal to a child who wants there to be some fantasy in their world. The Grand High Witch is repulsive and genuinely quite terrifying – the polar opposite to the kind, warm Grandmother in the novel. The Grandmother’s inclusion is perhaps the most important aspect. Dahl explains that all witches are women, but does say, “I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely.” I presume this is so children don’t go through their young lives fearing all women or believing them to be evil – I suppose there’s a suggestion of internalised misogyny here, if one wanted to take on that aspect – so the inclusion of the kindly Grandmother is in direct contrast to the witches.

I sense that had I read this as a kid, I would’ve found it very scary, and I still do to some degree. It’s that fear of something evil lurking in plain sight, I think. Nothing is so unnerving and eerie as something ordinary suddenly becoming dangerous. A great story.

“Lost Boy” by Christina Henry (2017)

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“Sometimes I dreamed of blood.”

When books enter the public domain, it’s always an interesting moment. People suddenly have the freedom to explore the worlds and add to them, for better or for worse. Many books, will eventually spawn prequels and sequels that probably stray entirely from the plans of the original writer. The Alice in Wonderland books have been explored repeatedly, and there’s always the “companion” books to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (Death Comes to Pemberley and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively). Sometimes it’s done badly, but other times the results are very interesting and add new layers that still fit with the original text. Lost Boy explores the history of Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, and long before he ever met Wendy…

Our narrator is Jamie, one of the Lost Boys that Peter has taken from the Other Place to his magical island where the only adults are scary pirates and the children never have to grow up. It is not, however, the Neverland that we would expect. Here, the Lost Boys can and repeatedly do die, with Peter never seeming to care, instead disappearing to get some more. Jamie is the heart of the troop, actually taking time to care about the boys, especially Charlie, who was far too young to be brought across.

Peter is jealous of Charlie, and later Sal, two recruits who take away so much of Jamie’s time that he feels he’s losing his oldest friend. Their adventures become more dangerous than ever, involving the Many-Eyed (a race of giant spiders that inhabit the island), a fight to the death with an uncooperative Lost Boy, and the pirates who are even more enraged than ever when Peter burns down their camp. Jamie comes to realise that Peter is not the benevolent figure he always assumed he was. Peter has been keeping secrets for a long time, and when they start to spill out, it threatens the life he wants. Jamie, it seems, can’t stay young forever…

I can’t say that Peter Pan has ever been one of my favourite stories ever – I’ve not read the original and I’ve not seen the Disney version in a very long time – but it is certainly a world that seems to require exploring, given that it has so many unanswered questions there within it, such as where Peter came from, why Hook hates him quite so much, and the biology behind those fairies. This book serves as an interesting prequel and one I’m fully happy to accept as canonically correct. It’s hard to write about this without giving away one or two of the reveals towards the end of the book which I’m always loathe to do, but it’s quite obvious from early on – if not from the cover – that the Jamie narrating the story is (or will one day be) none other than Captain James Hook. It’s a great twist to have him as one of Peter’s young friends originally but lose his faith in his leader.

The themes of guilt, blame, friendship, belief and loss jump around one another playfully, but it’s important to note that while we think of Peter Pan has being quite a whimsical character thanks to Disney, the concept of never growing up and having young boys do battle with genuinely threatening pirates is pretty dark. Christina Henry has no problems in taking the story to even darker places, explaining exactly why Peter does what he does and how he manages to never get hurt. The Peter in this novel promises adventures that he can’t deliver, and is selfish in the extreme, with every action being done simply to make him happy. He is unwilling – or maybe unable – to give anyone else much of his time, with the exception of Jamie, who he does seem to particularly love. As the backstory of how Jamie arrived on the island unfolds, however, it reveals itself to be a very sick and twisted kind of love.

I feel it’s not a book that’s going to drop easily from my mind, and if you like delving into expanded universes, this is certainly a strong contender for the best Peter Pan based fiction. But then, I’ve not watched Hook in a long time either.

“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

Book Chat: Ste Sharp

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Ste Sharp is another one of the myriad authors working with Unbound to get his projects off the ground. Earlier this year, he achieved the funding on his debut novel, Darwin’s Soldiers, the first in a trilogy about rapidly evolving warriors. By day, however, you may not suspect him of writing something like this, being a 41-year-old IT developer for a major publisher. After years working on the technical side of book production, he’s decided it’s time to swap sides for a bit.

A family man, he lives in Suffolk with his wife and two sons, and when not writing or taking care of the family, he still finds him to paint, play guitar and sing in indie band Atlas, as well as being, what he calls, an “avid allotmenteer”. Despite this harrowing schedule which I doubt allows for much sleep, he even manages to get a lot of reading done.

I managed to commandeer a few moments of his time to ask about the books he’s currently reading and what books grab his imagination.

What are you reading at the moment?

Spring Tide: a short story collection by Chris Beckett (author of the Dark Eden trilogy and America City), which is a surprising mix of speculative and contemporary fiction. “The End of Time” blew me away!

What were your favourite books growing up?

Anything by Roald Dahl! The first book I read in one sitting was The BFG – I was totally addicted. On the other hand, I was sick over Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator after a marathon reading session during a long journey in a Talbot Horizon.

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

I guess this depends on what you class as classical. I loved the Iliad and the Odyssey, which gave some great inspiration for writing battle scenes. I had no idea how graphically detailed they were! As for more modern classics, The Grapes of Wrath would be high on my list.

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

A thought-provoking, fast-paced sci-fi paperback in a hammock in the dappled shade of an apple tree just after lunch, with a pot of coffee, which also how I’d like to pass away – preferably having finished the book first.

What genres do you prefer?

You could argue there’s only one genre – science fiction – and everything else is a sub-genre that fits inside the literally limitless boundaries of SF, but I’m sure many people would disagree. Often, what I read depends what I’m writing at the time, but I gravitate towards sci-fi and fantasy novels (nothing beats how they meld well-crafted characters with intricate plots and mind-bending scenarios) but I like to cleanse the palate with the odd historical novel every now and then (fewer robots).

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Whatever I read tends to be in the same tense as whatever I’m writing at the time. Last year I wrote a first person crime novel set in Brighton in the nineties, so I only read first person novels for ten months. Now I’m back into third person, which is way less intense and much better for head-hopping from character to character like how George R.R. Martin does in his Song of Ice and Fire novels. More importantly, the book has to entice me and make me want to know what happens next.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

The Good Immigrant taught me a great deal about the UK today and, on a personal level, how everyone has to deal with how they are perceived or judged by their physical appearance in modern society.

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

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was filled with genuinely laugh out loud stuff. The main character reminded me of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, but Australian, and the story of how he tries to find what he deems as the ‘perfect wife’ is hilarious. Definitely worth a read, along with the sequel, The Rosie Effect.

Do you judge a book by its cover?

Only if it has a so-called celebrity’s name on the front – then I may judge it harshly. Actually, a great deal of pressure is put on book covers, especially these days when many readers just see thumbnails when they’re searching for their next read. The cover for my book, Darwin’s Soldiers, is being designed right now and I have a lot of respect for the designers who manage to attract readers to a book whilst somehow distilling the themes into one image. I know a picture paints a thousand words but cover designers paint a hundred thousand words with one picture. Legends.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Today I’m going to say Cloud Atlas because of the genre switches, range of characters and pleasing structure. But tomorrow, I could easily choose another title… probably something by John Steinbeck.


You can find out more about Ste’s upcoming novel, Darwin’s Soldiers – and pledge your support – by visiting Unbound, or following Ste on Twitter: @SteSharpAuthor.