“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 behind 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.

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“Kimberly’s Capital Punishment” by Richard Milward (2012)

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End of the line...

End of the line…

“I found the eyeball fifteen minutes before I found the rest of him.”

This is a very difficult review to write. Y’see, I try very hard to not spoil anything about the books I review, avoiding as much as I can of major plot twists and so on, but in this case it’s going to be hard. I want to talk about everything that happens in the second half of the book, but doing so will diminish the thrill you would get from reading it yourself first hand. So really, while this is a review, I can only review half of it and throw in a few vague comments about the rest.

I hope that alone is intriguing enough to make you want to read it, because you really should.

This is the story of Kimberly Clark, a twenty-something from Teeside now living in London (known only as “the Capital” within the book). She has become bored of her life and her kind, caring boyfriend Stevie. Instead of simply breaking up with him, she starts being nasty to him, first in subtle ways and then less so, in a bid to show him that she isn’t as perfect as he claims, and maybe even to get him to break up with her.

But Stevie doesn’t break up with her. He kills himself instead.

With his death on her conscience, Kimberly sets about being a good person and filling her days with entirely altruistic deeds. She helps out the homeless, works hard for her boss, finds it impossible to say no to men who ask her out on a date, and freely doles out money to those who ask, despite having little herself. And then on page 209 everything changes and … I can’t say anything else.

I did find the book a struggle to begin with. I’ve read Richard Milward before and the book, while very smart and full of intelligent lines, both dark and hilarious, it didn’t seem like him or what I knew of him. This is a man who writes books with little attention to grammar and punctuation (Apples) or that don’t use any paragraph breaks (Ten Storey Love Song). Why was he wasting his time on some daft bint with a guilt complex? Concerned that the book was going to be a slog, I flicked ahead and saw what was coming. And it was too intriguing to leave.

Just read this, frankly. That’s about all I can say. It isn’t for the faint hearted as there are some truly, truly graphic and disturbing scenes peppered throughout the book, but Milward does a wonder with mixing the mundane with the macarbe and never once attempts to poeticise the more gruesome aspects of the human condition. Kimberly is an interesting character, but not entirely compelling to begin with, and by the end you can’t help but feel sorry for her, but some of the other characters really shine.

The book also does a great job at describing what makes London so wonderful and disgusting. It’s a backwards love letter to a city that really needs a good night’s sleep and a week or two in rehab. It’s a smart novel, definitely a modern classic of weird fiction and does its best to break all the rules of fiction writing while still maintaining complete believability. The language is wonderfully casual yet verbose and while it’s a fast-paced read, I can’t guarantee you won’t come out feeling at least a little bit sick, violated or like you’ve been hit with a high-speed brick wall.

Just read the damn thing, although maybe not while you’re eating.

For more of my own writing, my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus is available now to download from all good ebook retailers.

“What In God’s Name” by Simon Rich (2012)

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Working in Heaven can be Hell

“The CEO leaned back in his swivel chair and flicked on his flatscreen TV.”

Escaping the reign of the Nazis, I moved into a book that was far more light-hearted. I’ve said before that I have a weird addiction to books about the nature of God, as I love people’s endless takes on something we know nothing about. In this particular version, he is CEO of Heaven Inc., a company that deals with the affairs of Earth and makes sure that everything runs smoothly. However, recently he’s been phoning it in and is far more concerned with who wins sports events than answering prayers or fixing wars.

Eliza has just been promoted from the Prayers Department to an Angel in Miracles where she meets Craig, the only other person in Heaven who actually appears interested in his job. Eliza discovers that the prayers she spent so long organising have never even been touched by the CEO. Furious, she confronts him and tells him that if he’s not interested in the job anymore, maybe he should just quit.

And those simple words could spell trouble for the Earth and its inhabitants…

Simon Rich has featured on this blog already this year, and I’m fond of his work. He writes with sharpness and a brilliant sense of humour, mixing up the banal and the fantastic with such skill that it appears precision engineered. God, the CEO, is perhaps one of the sweeter versions of the character I’ve ever seen. Although clearly still capable of horrible things, he does seem to genuinely love his people. Craig is a great example of someone who has grown to love his meaningless job, and Eliza is a classically strong female character whom you want to get to know. There’s also Vince, a brash Archangel who puts on an act of bravado but scratch the surface and there’s  a lot more than that to him underneath.

There are also a few human characters here, in particular Sam and Laura. The things that the angels put them through are almost undeservedly cruel at times, but it is all for the greater good.

The novel deals with the nature of miracles and coincidence, about the abuse of power and the knowledge that our time is finite. The jokes are deft and smart, and while the story ends on a somewhat predictable note, there are some brilliant reveals along the way, in particular the explanation of what the criteria are to actually get a place in Heaven.

A frothy, easy-to-read novella with a lot of heart.