“The Library Of The Unwritten” by A. J. Hackwith (2020)

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“Books ran when they grew restless, when they grew unruly, or when they grew real.”

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”. I share in this hope. An eternal afterlife will only be tolerable if I’ve got access to everything ever written. For every book that has been written, however, there are dozens that have not. In this novel, we head down to the Library of Hell and explore the Unwritten Wing, where everything that was never written is stored.

Claire Hadley is the current Librarian of the Unwritten Wing, home to all the books that were unfinished by their authors. Her job is to protect, repair and organise them, as well as keep an eye on the restless stories who sometimes materialise in the form of one of their characters and have to be wrestled back between the covers before they get too real, or worse, escape into the real world.

When one of these heroes does escape and heads to Seattle to meet with his would-be author, Claire must go up to retrieve him, accompanied by the ex-muse Brevity, and the demon courier Leto. On Earth, however, things do not go according to plan. Hero has no intentions of coming quietly, Leto begins having memories of being a human and wondering how, when, as far as he knows, he has always been a demon, and the angel Ramiel is hunting down the Librarian under the impression that she possesses the Devil’s Bible, an unearthly tome that could rewrite everything that defines Heaven, Hell and Earth.

The trouble is that the book lacks something and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a fascinating concept, but it feels like it’s been somewhat wasted. Despite being a book about imagination, inspiration and unwritten books, the characters don’t seem all that inspired. I love the idea of a failed muse, and Brevity is a compelling, sympathetic character. (Also, does her failing explain why novels are sometimes too long?) The others, however, still lack a certain something. Claire feels like a character we’ve seen dozens of times before; an angry woman who only moves the plot on by shouting at it. The angels feel ill-defined too, and at no point do I feel entirely clear on what the goal is. The worlds explored are quite fun, though, and it seems that most – if not all – of the afterlives that humans have dreamt up exist here, including a traditional Hell and the Valhalla of Norse mythology. There’s also a brilliant duelling scene in which combatants fight with words that become physical and can only be stopped by naming the author that is being quoted. That’s a really fun idea.

Maybe it’s more about how I’ve been feeling lately, but I found myself zoning out of the text repeatedly, unable to focus. As I said, perhaps that’s a fault of mine, but perhaps it’s not a good sign that a book can’t keep me within its grip and not have me be easily pulled from the pages. I kept returning and realising I had no idea what was now going on. The resolution, while interesting, is also somewhat rushed and leaves a few things unanswered (not necessarily a bad thing) but, again, there feels like several huge missed opportunities in what could have been achieved. I’ve since seen that this is the first of a potential series, so perhaps things will be expanded on in the future, but I don’t feel eager to return and find out. The writing itself is competent and sharp, but the plot veers wildly, the characters feel inconsistent and there’s no real threat hanging over any of it, and you know where it’s going from the start.

This wasn’t intended to be such a negative review, because I still read it and enjoyed it in places, but now trying to pick out specifics seems hard. The concept remains solid, I just don’t think it was explored in the right way or with the right people.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Next Person You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2018)

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“This is a story about a woman named Annie, and it begins at the end, with Annie falling from the sky.”

I rally against sequels a lot. More often than not they serve as a way for someone to cash in on a previously great story with a slightly worse story that wasn’t really needed. Of course there are exceptions – Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2, for example – but it’s a good rule of thumb. Sometimes we have to let stories standalone. The trouble is, of course, no story really is told in a vacuum. It links to thousands of others. Mitch Albom has used this technique to the full in the beautiful sequel to the truly excellent The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

In the original book, we focus on Eddie, an elderly war veteran who dies saving the life of a little girl. He ascends to the afterlife where he is met by five people who impacted his life and teach him a lesson he must learn from it. At the end of his novel, he takes his place in the queue to meet the girl he saved. This is her story.

Annie has just got married, but the marriage is doomed as within hours, she and her husband Paulo are in a devastating hot air balloon crash. Annie feels herself go under the anaesthetic when she gets to hospital, but she wakes up in the afterlife, meeting the first of her five people. She now undertakes the same journey as Eddie once did, meeting five people who changed her life, including the doctor who reattached her hand after it was lost in the accident, her strong, protective mother, and Eddie himself.

There aren’t many books that bring a tear to my eye, but this one certainly did. The original tale is one of my favourite books and while I’d not held out much hope, I think I’d always been curious to know what had happened to the little girl. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the idea of sonder, that feeling that everyone you meet has their own story and a life as complex as your own, but you only get to play a part in a few of them. This book, and the previous, play that up to the max. Annie is a sweet person, not perfect, but more courageous than she lets herself believe and the sort of woman I would like to be friends with. It’s nice to see Eddie again, less grizzled than we first knew him. The story is by its very nature quite tragic, but like all the best books, hope still shines through.

That’s always what goodness boils down to – hope. There is always hope. Belief in an afterlife in itself is a hopeful act, and while I’m not religious and don’t really think there is anything after “this”, there are worse things to encounter on the other side than five people with important messages.

A beautiful, powerful story. I love it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

Six of the Best … Books about death

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Death is one of the certainties of life. Everyone and everything will die, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it. While in the real world, the two constants seem to be death and taxes, in fiction it’s death and love. Every book I think I’ve ever read contains at least one death and one person in love. Today, however, with Halloween on the horizon, we’ll just be focusing on one of those.

No one knows what happens when we die. I like to imagine that whatever comes next is some kind of library. Because the answer is unknown, however, it has given writers of all stripes free reign to go wild with their imaginations. Throughout history, death has been talked and thought about, and it’s perhaps one of the main reasons we ended up with religion, as a lot of it seems to centre around what happens to us after we die. We are lucky as a society now that we rarely brush up against death. There are people dedicated to dealing with it, life expectancy is high, and hospitals and doctors are on hand when things begin to reach there end. Things were not always this way, though. In earlier times, death rates were much higher, and infant mortality was just a tragic but commonplace fact of life. People were used to seeing and dealing with dead bodies. One would guess that our ancestors were not as squeamish as many of us today may be, but we can’t really know for sure.

Death as a process is fascinating, and some scientists have even asked why it evolved in the first place. Is there an evolutionary reason for growing old and dying? Certainly there must be, or it wouldn’t have happened. Most people assume that older generations die off to allow there to be food and resources for the upcoming ones, and that seems to make the most sense to me. If nothing ever died, the world would be pretty crowded by now.

In 2011, a piece in Psychology Today even suggested that death is just an illusion. Maybe it is. This could easily just be a phase that we pass through between others we don’t remember and ones that we’ve yet to experience. Maybe we all keep going round and round. I suppose one day we will find out. For now, though, I think it is important to talk about death. Maybe not in casual conversation on the bus, but it is important not to fear it, to be able to come to terms with its existence, and to help comfort those who are dealing with it. It would be heartless to say we should just “get over it” and I don’t agree that’s the right way to go about things. Literature, as ever, comes to the rescue. By seeing something in fiction, it gives us a lens to view reality in a new way. We can understand death by how our favourite fictional characters react to it.

Let’s press on to six of the best books where death takes centre stage.

Scythe

Hundreds of years from now, humanity has managed to eradicate death. There is no more illness or injury, and the only way to die is to be gleaned by a scythe – someone who has been trained in the art of killing. You never quite know when your time will come, and there is no arguing with a scythe. The only rule is that no one would wants to be one can ever achieve the role. Citra and Rowan are two young people who both are against this normality and find the idea of murder abhorrent, but when they are both selected as apprentices to Scythe Faraday, they have no choice but to enter a new world and have their whole lives turned upside down.

A story that removes death from the world is not unique, but there was something particularly chilling and fascinating about this one. Neal Shusterman imbues the novel with great detail and a lot of lore that really makes the world, ironically, come alive. It’s a great worldbuilding exercise, and despite the potentially dark subject matter, there are some really fun moments. Without death, crime has vastly decreased as everyone lives so long as to be on a similar footing in society, and religion has faded because there’s no discussions on the afterlife anymore. The introduction of tonal cults – sects that worship sounds and smells – is one that feels very unique and is an example of what can be achieved in storytelling when you take away something as fundamental as death.

R.I.P.

There seems to be a taboo in Western society that says death is not something that we should consider funny. Granted, in certain circumstances I agree, but I’m also someone who believes there is comedy to be found in pretty much anything and that context is key. Nigel Williams is a funny writer, and he tackles death with just as many laughs in R.I.P. as he does in any of his other books. George wakes up one morning feeling absolutely fine, with the slight exception of the fact he’s dead. His mother, Jessica, has also died in the house that day, on the eve of her ninety-ninth birthday. The house is full of guests, and when it is revealed to the police that Jessica was worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen the latest will, it appears that both she and George may have been murdered, and everyone else in the family is now a suspect. Bittersweet and working as a genuine murder mystery despite being narrated by one of the victims, it’s a great look at ghosts and how our consciousness may carry on once our body shuts down for good.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

It’s rare that a novel opens with a death, but Mitch Albom manages it here. Eddie is eighty-three when, while trying to save a small girl’s life, he loses his own. He finds himself in the afterlife, where he meets five people, one at a time, each of whom had a huge impact on his life. Between them, they will help Eddie explore and explain his time on Earth, and only when he’s met them all will he be able to move on to whatever comes next. I’ve read it twice, and just bought the long-awaited sequel as well, and think it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Albom has a stunning way with words, and conjures up great images from his precision and expertise. It is a book that reminds us that while we are the protagonist in our own story, everyone else has one too, and we’re just side characters in those. All stories are interconnected and nothing happens in a vacuum.

Sum

Of course, Mitch Albom’s version of the afterlife is only one possibility. In David Eagleman’s astonishingly beautiful Sum, he presents forty possible versions of the afterlife, each as beguiling, entrancing and magical as each other. In one, we find that power over the universe was handed over to a committee quite early on in the process. In another, we don’t die until we are entirely forgotten on Earth, which means the likes of Shakespeare are still there unable to move on for good. In one you meet all the different versions of yourself, and in yet one more, you can only spend time with people you knew on Earth. Some are fun, such as becoming the actors in the dreams of the living, and some are desperately weird, such as every atom in the universe being made up of the exact same quark that is attempting to be everything and everyone, and will eventually just wind itself down. It is, without question, one of my favourite books of all time and for such a slim novel contains so many lessons and ways of looking at the world.

Mort

I’m not particularly a Discworld fan, but I didn’t think I could let a post like this pass without mentioning Mort. Terry Pratchett’s character of Death is, despite everything I feel about the series, one of the greatest inventions in literary history. Dedicated to his job and quietly fascinated by the humans he has to deal with on a daily basis, the only time I can ever really bring myself to the world is when he’s in a starring role.

The title character of Mort is unsuited for the family business, and instead gets an apprenticeship under Death himself, leaning to take souls and deal in the business of death. When Mort fails to collect the soul of Princess Keli but instead kills her assassin, he sets in motion a parallel universe that will eventually collapse and see her dead anyway. Death, meanwhile, is taking a well-earned break while his apprentice holds down the fort and is learning what it’s like to be human. Mort must seek advice from Albert, Death’s assistant and former wizard, in protecting fate and seeing the universe restored to normality. Like all Discworld novels, it’s packed with jokes, silliness and some of the most phenomenally intricate world building ever attempted. While it’s the fourth book in the series, even Pratchett himself said this is the first one he actually liked.

Duck, Death and the Tulip

Death to many is scary, and children in particular may not understand the finality of the process. Duck, Death and the Tulip is a German book by Wolf Erlbruch and has been translated into many languages. In it, a duck meets the character of Death, who has been following her all her life. The two strike up a friendship and discuss life, death and a potential afterlife. Although Death seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to directly give the duck any answers, the conversations seem to bring about a certain peace, leading to a very moving ending where the title’s tulip comes into play. It’s short and sweet and has utterly adorable illustrations. It’s one of those books that is great for children and adults alike. I didn’t discover it until I was in my mid-twenties, but it charmed me immediately. With a touch of humour, the book provides a great deal of comfort and is a vital tool for all ages.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

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“The thing was: One million years ago, back in A.D. 1986, Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.”

Earlier this year, I made my way via book to the remote Falkland Islands. This time, I’ve schlepped across South America and disembarked on the Galapagos islands the other side. With Kurt Vonnegut as my guide, I should’ve realised that this was going to be odd, but it’s been a while since I’ve read him, and I’d forgotten just quite how strange he is.

Narrated by a ghost (who happens to be the son of Vonnegut’s recurring science fiction author Kilgore Trout), Galapagos spans the eons, taking in both the year 1986 when the economy crumbled and the world as we know it ended, and a million years later – the book’s present – where the only surviving humans live on the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to suit their new habitat. The new humans are descended from the tourists aboard the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, a planned tour to the islands that Darwin made famous that never quite lived up to expectations.

While the ship was originally planning to have such illustrious passengers as Jackie Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, in the end there were just eleven people on board, including the captain, a retired schoolteacher, a con artist, a pregnant Japanese woman, a blind woman reliant on her father, and the last six members of the Ecuadorian Kanka-Bono tribe. The only other thing that survived the end of the world was Mandarax, a tiny marvel of electronics that can translate almost any language, recite thousands of literary quotes, and diagnose over a thousand diseases. As the humans evolve and adapt to their new way of life, the old ways of humanity with their society of big brains quickly fades into history, and the question is raised – are things better for it?

Vonnegut is of course one of the most wonderful writers of the last century, but as mad as a box of mushrooms. He’s on good form here, with a slightly daft premise that manages to bring up all the big topics regarding humanity and our dangerous brains. The non-linear structure works well and with the narrator existing a million years beyond most of the action, it allows him to give us the salient facts in the order he sees fit. When a character is due to die soon, they gain an asterisk before their name. At first this is sign-posted, but eventually it just happens without mention and you realise that another one is on their way out in the next few chapters.

Some of the activity is naturally far-fetched, such as the methods of artificial insemination used on the island, the speed of evolution (although arguably it is sped up thanks to nuclear fallout), the appearance of ghosts and the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife, and the sheer number of rare and unusual illnesses contained inside the few survivors, but because it’s Vonnegut it still works. While he’s somewhat vague about what exactly happens to humanity in its isolation – aside from revealing that our descendants have small brains, flippers and fur – he spends a lot of time pointing out the insanity of our modern world and the damage our big brains have done to the planet and to one another. Vonnegut goes to far to state that all the problems of humanity were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. When natural selection decides that a slim, streamlined head is more use than an oversized cranium, the brain begins to shrink and humanity returns to the water.

Vonnegut also makes a big deal about the inter-connectivity of things. The smallest things have the biggest impacts on the future, with the narrator pointing out that had something trivial not happened, then the fate of the human race would have probably been entirely different. These can be anything from someone have a specific gene, or a mentally unstable soldier breaking into a particular shop. Everything is linked – so it goes.

An interesting and somewhat creepy look at an unlikely – but nevertheless potential – future of the planet.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

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“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

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“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

“R.I.P.” by Nigel Williams (2015)

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And then one morning you wake up dead...

And then one morning you wake up dead…

“‘George!’ said Esmerelda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?'”

I’m not especially scared of death, but what will annoy me most about it is not knowing how everything turns out. But would I want to hang around and see what happens to the people I love? It’s an odd thought. However, this slightly macabre introduction is my way to getting into a novel where this exact thing happens. Let’s read on.

George Pearmain is aware one morning of his wife Esmerelda shouting abuse at him. This is nothing unusual and he finds he can’t stir, even while she stands over him telling him how useless and fat he is. In fact, even once Esmerelda leaves and goes downstairs to find George’s mother Jessica dead on the kitchen floor is he capable of moving. It’s only when Esmerelda comes back up that they both realise the truth – George is dead, too.

Other than that, he feels fine though.

The house is full of guests – it was meant to be Jessica’s ninety-ninth birthday – so all the family and a few of her friends have gathered, and there are more on the way who can’t be contacted and told to stop. The police arrive and the efficient DI Hobday becomes convinced that there is more to the situation than there first seems to be. George, now a mere spirit with limited control over his conciousness and none at all over his body, is left hovering around the house trying to piece together what has happened. It soon becomes apparent that both Jessica and George were murdered, and when it emerges that Jessica is worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen her most recent will, everyone becomes a suspect. Money will do strange things to a person.

While genuinely hilarious in places, there is definitely a dark and bittersweet taste to this novel. George is a perfectly likeable man, I found, and it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet him until he’s dead. The rest of his family, however, are horrendously vile. With no main character younger than sixty, this becomes a novel where older people turn against one another with such suspicion, hate and violence that is unseen in the younger generations. George’s siblings, boring newsreader Stephen and qualified witch Frigga, never seemed to like George much, and the feeling was almost certainly reciprocated. The most hellish of all though is Lulu, Stephen’s wife, a harpy of a woman who has a considerable celebrity presence and believes that she is better than everyone around her, partly because she once made Tony Blair cry on national TV.

Despite the comedy, and the premise that it’s being narrated by, essentially, a ghost, it also works as a genuine murder mystery. There are seven or so primary suspects and while many aspects of their personalities are played for laughs, you also find yourself starting to wonder which of them would be so callous as to do away with the harmless George, never mind his ninety-nine year old mother. George, meanwhile, begins to appreciate the life that he had, realising that his marriage was far happier than he ever thought it at the time and that his wife meant more to him than he ever told her. It is, of course, too late.

Sharp, witty to the bitter end, and full of beautiful phrases and clever characterisation, Nigel Williams has blown me away.

“More Than This” by Patrick Ness (2013)

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more than“Here is the boy, drowning.”

I was first introduced to Patrick Ness at the end of 2013 when the first of his Chaos Walking trilogy was thrust into my hands by a friend. After gulping the series down and loving every page of it, it wasn’t long before I was discussing the books with another friend and she suggested this one. I bought it last year and have only just got around to reading it (because I do that a lot). Always happy to return to an author I enjoyed, I expected to be blown away once more. Luckily, I was.

This is the story of teenager Seth Wearing and what happens after he dies. He wakes up wrapped in bandages on the front path of the house he grew up in, but hasn’t lived in for eight years not since … not since something terrible happened. The world is entirely deserted, filthy and with weeds growing out of every surface. He cannot explain how he has come to be here, given that this house is in England and was living in America, so comes to assume that this is his own personal hell. After all, the weather is very strange and only hell would send you back to the location where your worst memory took place.

Seth explores the old town, finding supplies in the remains of the shops and houses, but finding absolutely no other people. Every time he falls asleep he is plagued by dreams – bad dreams of what happened before he died, of how he led to his brother being mentally disturbed; how he fell in love with his best fiend Gudmund, but it was all taken away from him when his classmates found out. For days he believes he is all alone until he sees a van moving – the first sign of human activity since he arrived there. But when he tries to call out to the van for help, he finds himself captured by two misfits; angry, strong Regine, and tiny, enthusiastic Tomasz who insist that they are going to save his life. Seth has to work out exactly where he is and what’s going on, which is complicated when the last thing you remember before arriving in a desolate wasteland is breaking your skull against a rock.

Like the Chaos Walking series, Ness is very good at pacing. For the first hundred or so pages, there are no characters except Seth (not counting his flashbacks and dreams) but at no point does this seem a struggle. Ness is a master at cranking up the tension and the book is genuinely terrifying in parts, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. The twists keep on coming and layer after layer of secrets are revealed with such speed and timing that the book soon runs out on itself and you find yourself on the final page with a cliffhanger that will probably frustrate you forevermore. I think it will me.

Although Seth is a fairly bland character – while not a typical boy-genius YA character, he’s pretty inoffensive with nothing to mark him out as special – the small cast around him more than makes up for it. Tomasz is unerringly cheery, even in this wasteland, and his English is flawed but sweet. He’s young but has the eyes and emotions of someone much older, someone who has had no choice in the matter of growing up. Regine is another strong, female character known well in the genre, not taking any shit from the boys but still maintaining a protective, caring side when it needs to be shown. Gudmund appears a nice guy, but is perhaps anything but, which is almost a shame.

This is the sort of book that makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you can never really explain why. There’s a lot of ambiguity, particularly as to whether this is all happening in Seth’s mind or if it’s real, and even when things do get explained, you can’t always tell if that makes the situations less creepy or more so.

Frankly, this book just needs to be read, especially if you enjoyed Patrick Ness’s other books, but also if you just like something a bit smart, a bit weird, a bit creepy, and a bit fantastic.