“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.

“Feed” by Mira Grant (2010)

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“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.”

Fiction is laced with creepy creatures, and it’s always fun to see an author mess around with them. This year so far I’ve already dealt with vampires, monsters, gorgons and fairies, so it’s time to turn my attention to zombies.

It was 2014 when it all began. We’d cured the common cold and eradicated cancer, but something far more severe was released in the process – the Kellis-Amberlee virus, or as we may be more familiar with it, the “zombie virus”. In 2040, we meet Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings who work as journalists, one of the most respected professions in this new world. But as much as humanity survived, so did the zombies, and the world has been changed forever.

Via their popular news website, the Mason siblings have just learnt that they’ve been selected to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Ryman, a Republican who seems to have a genuine shot at being the country’s next leader. Following him across the country with their third member of the team, the technophile Buffy, they get to the heart of American politics and do their best to spread the truth about Ryman and his campaign to everyone else. Things start to unravel, however, when there’s a zombie outbreak at one of his conferences, and then another at his wife’s ranch, which ends up killing their daughter. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and late addition Rick are on-hand to find out what happened, but end up uncovering a lot more than they bargained for.

Most notably, I felt, Grant does something that almost no other zombie fiction seems to do – it acknowledges previous zombie fiction. It always struck me as strange in zombie films and books that no one seems to know how to handle these creatures, suggesting that George Romero, Simon Pegg and their like never produced any zombie fiction and, indeed, they never existed in the mythology either until that moment. Here, it’s stated that George Romero is considered an international hero, as his movies allowed everyone to have the upper hand when zombies appeared. There are a few twists on the nature of the disease too. Grant goes into scientific detail about how the virus started and what it does to the body, and it’s noted that only people who died after the virus’s release reanimate, so there weren’t scenes of graveyards coming back to life, which probably allowed for the invasion not to lead to the end of the world. However, any mammal that weighs over forty pounds can be infected with the virus and become a problem. Because of this, most of the human population is now vegetarian, with it being unsafe to keep cows, sheep and pigs anymore. It also implies there are zombie whales roaming the oceans, which definitely needs exploring.

Grant’s worldbuilding is impressive. She takes into account how society would have to change with these events having happened, going into detail on hazard levels, cities that have been abandoned (the entire of Alaska is a no-go area now), how security and communication technology improved, what happened to religion, and most importantly how people’s view of the media changed. The reason that bloggers are now considered so worthy is that when the news broke, unofficial news blogs were already running information on how to defeat the zombies before the mainstream media were even admitting there was a problem. It has some rather prescient parallels to how the media is already being viewed, with many people seeming to get their news online instead, although not always from reputable sources. New slang is also introduced, such as dividing up the journalists into different factions; for example, Newsies report unbiased fact, and Irwins (named after the crocodile hunter, one presumes) like to get into the field and experience zombies up close.

However, Grant has a habit of getting bogged down in the minutia. It’s established very early on that security levels are ridiculously high, with blood tests and retinal scans being compulsory to enter any building, and often to leave them too. However, there are frequently long, slightly repetitive passages going into detail on all these scans and checks, despite the fact we’ve seen them all only a few pages before. Some of the dialogue is repetitive and phrases occur over and over again, such as Shaun always being described as liking to poke things with sticks. I also panicked towards the end that Grant was going to whip out a dues ex machina and make me want to drop the book into the water butt, but it was handled with such deft aplomb that I almost found myself applauding her.

Impressively for a zombie tale, the zombies don’t even feel like a major plot point. Very rarely do we have the protagonists dealing with them first hand; they’re merely part of this world, but one you forget at your own risk. It’s nicely done in that it’s not over the top, and the main story is really the presidential election, with themes embedded that we can totally understand. While it definitely has its problems, they aren’t related to plot at all, and it’s an inventive, exciting and really rather impressive introduction to what may well prove to be an engaging series.

“Adorkable” by Sarra Manning (2012)

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Probably not a dense space opera, eh?

“‘We need to talk,’ Michael Lee told me firmly when I stepped out of the makeshift changing room at the St Jude’s jumble sale, which was actually four curtained rails arranged in a square, to have a good preen in front of a clouded mirror.”

If it’s not already clear, I will read practically everything and anything. Drama and dystopia, fact and fiction, horror and history, crime and classics, thriller, mystery, short stories, doorstoppers, biographies and books of lists and everything in between. This does occasionally, therefore, include chick lit and young adult literature, the former of which I often enjoy, the latter of which I rarely do.

So, with the assurance to myself that I read everything in order to give as many people as possible a suggestion of something to read, I set myself off reading Adorkable. It was actually a present from a good friend, and I’ll come totally clean right now – I thought I’d have to lie about liking this book because while reading it I had many strong emotions, and not all of them positive. However, on the whole, I don’t need to lie. I did enjoy the book. I’m not saying I don’t have complaints, but I came out of it with a fairly positive opinion.

It seems like it’s going to be a very modern boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl novel going on the blurb. A quirky, individual blog-obsessed teenage girl keeps kissing a hotter-than-hot cool teenage boy and I kind of figured that was all I was going to get. No.

Jeane Smith is a self-proclaimed dork, Twitter-obsessive, blogger and she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her. Thanks to convoluted circumstances, she lives alone at seventeen years old (my thoughts on this sort of aspect of the book are below) and dresses however she wants, is respected across the globe via her Adorkable brand and lifestyle. Michael Lee is about as mainstream as it is possible to get, doesn’t think much of Jeane and her way of life and generally does what he can to avoid her. However, their arguments become more and more frequent and soon they find that whenever they bump into each other, they end up kissing, although they’re both convinced that the other one is initiating it and that it’s all a mistake that keeps happening again and again.

What occurs is a curious love story in which both parties have very strong antagonistic feelings towards one another. This is not a story of true love overcoming all odds – this is one in which the characters have real emotions and the politics and problems of dating at the other end of your social spectrum become all too clear. It’s actually rather good. Jeane is certainly suffering with a personality disorder of some kind (her backstory leaves you in no doubt as to the cause of this) and Michael is rather vain and too busy being concerned with how his hair looks and what his friends are doing to really have any deep thoughts. They’re actually quite realistic people – you know these sorts of people.

What I can’t buy with it is that Jeane is supposed to be some kind of social media mogul. She has half a million followers on Twitter, updates her blog daily, runs a company called Adorkable which sells various “cool and offbeat” products, was noted by the Guardian as an influential teenager, lives by herself, and is frequently invited to speak at conferences around the world getting paid tens of thousands of pounds a time to do so. She’s friends with rock stars, attends New York soirees and gets drunk despite being very much underage and seems to live entirely off Haribo and coffee.

I would’ve had a lot more time for Jeane if the book wasn’t so set on telling us how bloody wonderful she is all the time. There obviously are these success stories on the Internet, but Jeane seems like an impossibly extreme example. There seems to be a good deal of a Mary Sue about her. However, there is far more too her than that. She might not be a particularly likeable character, but she’s definitely three-dimensional, even if it takes a long time for us to see that third dimension. The love story appears halted almost instantly. On the first page, she describes how the whole school thinks Michael Lee is the hottest guy in the world, and I immediately thought, “Ah, she’s just going to start fawning over him now” but instead she is just rude to him and refuses to accept him as someone worthy of her time. Clearly, that changes, but it does add an extra layer to the whole thing.

The strangest thing about the book, maybe, is that Jeane never once mentions Tumblr, and she is the sort of girl who would be over that website like a rash. Much is discussed via the medium of Facebook and Twitter, both of which are valid social networking platforms, but for what Jeane seems to be trying to achieve, Tumblr would make far more sense. Of course, she may well use it but given that every other website from Etsy to Gawker is mentioned, it seems a curious omission.

Once you get over the excessive use of “obvs”, “blates”, “totes” and “whatevs”, there is actually quite a sweet story in here. I flipped and flopped so much over it, sometimes mid-chapter, because something would happen that would cause me to scoff in its ridiculousness, but then it would become heartfelt and real again afterwards. It’s an interesting read, with some beautiful observations about friends and family, and the Tumblr generation would, I feel, certainly enjoy it, but it’s by no means perfect and there are many things I would’ve done differently. The ending is nice, but weaves its way there in such a curious pattern that I thought I was going to detest its finishing line. I didn’t, not at all.

It’s not great literature, but it’s better than some stuff I’ve read for young adults. It talks about sex in that matter-of-fact way that the kids seem to these days (Christ, I sound old) but maybe Manning is trying to hard to be cool. In many respects, then, she should take a leaf out of Jeane’s book and embrace her inner dork.