“The Man I Think I Know” by Mike Gayle (2018)

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“You’re stopping my dole money?”

Mike Gayle has long been one of my favourite writers. With a tone that always sounds like he’s just telling you a story over a pint, and a sharp turn of phrase, his books are lined up for a re-read sometime soon, as only a couple of them are on the blog so far, which means it’s been a long time since I read his earlier books, and I think they’re all worth talking about. Let’s focus today, however, on his newest book, The Man I Think I Know.

Danny and James haven’t seen each other for many years – not since their time together at one of Britain’s most prestigious boarding schools. Every student who attends ends up curing a disease, serving in government, making big headlines, or generally just being a complete success in whatever field they chose. And yet our heroes are entirely at odds with this. Danny has just had his dole money cut off after failing to find work yet again, and James has had to move back home with his parents after The Incident that changed his whole way of life.

When James’s parents go on a much needed holiday, James is booked into a care centre for the duration, where he meets Danny who now works as a carer. Trouble is, when he introduces himself, Danny says he doesn’t recognise him. This is a lie. The two men form a strange bond. In James, Danny finds someone who doesn’t think he’s a hopeless waste of space. In Danny, James finds someone who treats him like the man he used to be before The Incident, and not as a fragile patient. Desperate to get out from his parents’ home, James offers Danny the chance to move in with as his live-in carer. What happens next will change both of their lives for the better.

In my experience, media focuses far more on romantic relationships than any other, with family coming second, and platonic friendships a long way down the list. Even rarer are stories about male friendship. Mike Gayle is one of the few writers who has tapped into this market and writes brilliant stories about men growing up and trying to maintain friendships. This is perhaps his most tender, with the relationship between James and Danny front and centre of the story. They are both single thirty-somethings who have been dealt an unfair hand by life, although in very different ways.

Gayle sympathetically writes about ABIs (acquired brain injuries), which is what James is now suffering from, and it’s clear he’s done his research into this world. In the chapters narrated by James, it is clear from his way of speaking that The Incident had a profound affect on him, and while we aren’t treated to any scenes of him before his ABI, indications of who he was do slip through. James is a great figure as he also destroys the harmful stereotypes some people have about those with mental illness. As James reminds us throughout, people treat him differently because he has difficulty walking and talking, but inside he is still intelligent, ambitious, and capable of telling jokes. This is an important thing to never lose sight of in the real world, as too often we judge on appearances. Danny is also very compelling. Perhaps at first it’s easy to write him off as someone unworthy of our sympathy as most of his problems seem to have been caused by his own failings, but as the story unfolds, we learn the tragedy at the heart of his existence and cheer him on as he picks himself up and finds some direction in life.

Gayle’s usual warmth, wit and charm are all present in this book and I’m far from the first to heap praise on it this year, but I’m more than happy to add my name to the list of fans. A very engaging read.

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“Want You Dead” by Peter James (2014)

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“Karl Murphy was a decent and kind man, a family doctor with two small children whom he was bringing up on his own.”

The Peter James series about Brighton detective Roy Grace rolls on, with Want You Dead being the tenth instalment. In the hands of a lesser author, the series could be getting tired by now, and yet here we are, with me finished and wanting to get hold of the next one. We return to Brighton’s criminal underbelly to meet with an obsessed stalker.

Red Westwood had left a dull relationship and tried online dating, where she met the rich, charming and handsome Bryce Laurent. He seemed too good to be true, but while her family and friends had reservations and told her to be careful, she blindly ignored them, until it was almost too late. Bryce became violent and jealous, and eventually, after Red’s mother had hired a private detective to prove that Bryce’s history was a tissue of lies, Red kicked him out. Bryce, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight. Red might be under police protection, but Bryce is determined to destroy everything she loves in the city: her new boyfriend, her favourite restaurant, her old car…

Red is now stuck in a nightmare she can’t wake up from, and despite the restraining order, Bryce seems to know everything about her, and is becoming more and more unhinged with every passing day. The spate of arson across Brighton doesn’t go unnoticed by Roy Grace and his team, however, and when they discover that Red is the link between the murder of Karl Murphy, the fire at a swanky bar, and the incident at an old block of flats that leads to the death of one of the police force’s finest sergeants, they pull out all the stops to see that Bryce is stopped. And on top of that, Roy really just wants to get married and have his honeymoon in peace, but crime doesn’t stop just because you’ve got a flight to Venice booked…

Starting out a little slower than usual from James, the emphasis – for the first half of the novel at least – is firmly on Red and her life. We know from the off that Bryce is responsible, so the mystery here is more how the police will capture him, rather than who is starting all the fires. Bryce Laurent is one of the most villainous characters in perhaps any crime novel in recent years; mentally unbalanced and damaged by an abusive childhood and an obsession with fire. He’s an egomaniac with a nasty temper, and will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he is owed. Roy and his team are on fine form here, too, and for a while it seemed like a run-of-the-mill entry into the series, but I should’ve prepared for more – as ever. With the death of one of the characters we have grown to know and love over the last ten books, and the return of another Roy hoped he’d never see again, it’s all change here and promises drama for the next book in the series.

James’s style is as readable as ever, with characters and scenes leaping off the page, particularly given any reader who has made it this far has is now very familiar with the characters. There are some huge tragedies awaiting in this one, so brace yourselves if you’re regular readers. It’s also worth noting something that I don’t think I’ve dwelt on too much before on these books – they are incredibly dark. The criminals are not those you’d find in an Agatha Christie – these are some proper bastards with evil minds and broken moral compasses. Ingeniously written, and you sometimes have to sit back and admire that Peter James – who otherwise seems a charming and friendly man – can create such odious characters and incredible scenarios.

Keep ’em coming.

“Misery” by Stephen King (1987)

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“umber whunnnn”

While hardly the most uplifting novel on my shelf, I found myself drawn to Stephen King. Maybe the title reflected my mood this last week or so, and it certainly hasn’t helped change that. And yet I’m actually not really complaining, because I think even if I’d been the happiest man on the planet, Misery would’ve brought me down a peg or six. When he’s bad, he’s really bad, but when he’s good, there’s no arguing with the fact that King is one of the planet’s finest writers.

Paul Sheldon has been pulled from the wreckage of his car on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road by Annie Wilkes, a woman who lives in an isolated cabin and claims to be his number one fan. She is particularly fond of his Misery series, and the fifth instalment is released while Paul is under her care. However, when she discovers that Paul ended the book by killing Misery off, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s livid.

Paul, however, is reliant on her care, as his legs are broken and it’s clear she hasn’t told anyone else that he’s there. Annie comes up with a plan – Paul must save Misery from the grave and write Annie her very own novel. If he doesn’t, well, Annie will punish him. Soon, Paul learns the truth about Annie’s past, and he realises that he’s in a lot more danger than he first thought. He’s now writing to save his life…

The novel’s real genius comes from the fact that it manages to remain captivating despite having, for the most part, just two characters and a single room as the setting. While not an out-and-out horror, it’s horrifying enough and serves as one of the most interesting thrillers I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve seen the film and think you know what’s going to happen, it’s worth reading because from what I’ve picked up, there are some huge differences. Annie is a stunningly vile creation who appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet King still ensures you feel some kind of pity for her, or maybe that’s just me being a bit more sociopathic than is normal. Paul’s characterisation flips between him being quite weak and easily cowed, but also determined, and yet it still somehow works. His goal is self-preservation, and he goes about it however he can.

The novel is also in many ways a discussion on the art of writing. Someone wiser than me described it as the book King wrote to stop other people becoming writers, and you can see why. If I was famous to the degree of Paul, I’d definitely be looking over my shoulder for my “number one fans”. There is talk within of the use of deus ex machinas in storytelling, with it all being explained in interesting detail. It’s notable that King has said the book was based around his experiences with drug addiction, with Annie representing his addiction and Paul being himself, struggling with withdrawal and dependence. Many aspects of the novel can be seen as allegorical, such as Annie removed or destroying parts of Paul’s body being a metaphor for writers having to edit their work and cut away bits that they liked.

As I said, maybe this isn’t the right book to read when you’re already not feeling your perkiest, but it’s nonetheless a really good read. Claustrophobic and scary, despite the insanity of the action it somehow remains far too real and none of it actually feels too far fetched, which perhaps makes the whole concept even worse. A fascinating look at mental illness, addiction, and, perhaps oddly, the power that literature has over people. Possibly, despite everything else, I believe that Misery is a love letter to books and writers, although one written in blood on the back of an overdue utility bill.

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. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.

“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness (2015)

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We can't all be the Chosen One.

We can’t all be the Chosen One.

“On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.”

Every good story needs a hero. The Buffy Summers, Harry Potter or Darren Shan of the piece who has to save the world (and often just the school) from imminent destruction from the Villain of the Week. But there are only so many zombies, ghosts or dark lords to defeat, so not everyone gets to do it. This is a story about those who aren’t chosen. These are the characters who, rather than wanting to save the world, just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up or any of their friends being used for a sacrificial ritual. After all, what was Hogwarts like if you actually attended all your lessons and never had to smuggle dragons out the castle or do battle with giant snakes?

Our narrator is Mikey, a high school senior with OCD who is struggling with growing up, the friendships that may be about to end, and his unrequited feelings for his friend Henna. Along with his sister Mel, a recovering anorexic, and his best friend Jared, who happens to be a quarter God, he’s counting down the days until the school year ends and he has to leave his pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere.

He has problems, but they’re mostly ordinary. Jared is keeping a secret from him, Henna seems to have developed a crush on the new boy Nathan, Mikey’s mother’s political ambitions are perhaps getting in the way of letting them have a united family, and to cap it all, Mikey’s OCD is getting worse again. Still, at least he’s not one of the indie kids. They’re the kids who keep getting involved in the strange events around town. Years ago it was zombies, or vampires, but this time the town is at risk from Immortals who glow with a blue light and are killing anyone in their way. But that’s not Mikey’s story – he just hopes no one blows up the school before he can get his diploma.

This is such a cool concept for a story. Yes, there is a massive threat to the town, and possibly the world, but this time we’re not going to be part of it. Every chapter opens with a brief summary of, basically, what we would see in that chapter if we were following the hero indie kids, but then will cut to a very ordinary event with Mikey and his friends. They sometimes brush up against the fantasy story, but they’re not directly connected. This adds so much to the world of fiction, and brings home again the notion that we are all the heroes in our own stories, but every single one of those stories are connected. Some people have to save the world, and some just have to survive the consequences.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, the story details much about the nature of family and friends, especially the family we construct from our friends and how that’s different for everyone. Patrick Ness writes with such warmth and sweetness that you can’t help feel for Mikey, Mel, Jared, Meredith, Henna, and the rest of them with their struggles. Jared is particularly interesting, as I love the idea of someone who just “happens to be a God”, but he doesn’t really let it affect him when he can help it.

A wonderful, funny and sweet novel about growing up, feeling unloved, struggling to move on, and why sometimes it’s best not to be at the heart of the action.

“The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson (2011)

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Psychopath-Test

Get ready to suspect everyone…

“This is a story about madness.”

I’ve never read Jon Ronson before but his reputation naturally has not escaped my attention. He’s famous for his previous books Them (a look at society’s extremists) and the curiously titled book The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was later turned into a film. He is skilled at finding the most bizarre sections of our culture and turning the microscope to them.

The Psychopath Test is billed as “a journey through the madness industry”. I had never considered madness to be an industry particularly but given how many psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists, schizophrenics, psychopaths, sociopaths and Big Brother contestants there appear to be these days, I suppose it is. And once you’ve got the people out of the way, you get to find a list of all the mental disorders that seem to exist and you can be sure that you’ve got at least seven of them.

However, the book focusses are more on the aforementioned psychopaths and makes use of the eponymous Psychopath Test, a twenty point checklist that is used to diagnose people as psychopaths. It mentions several personality traits that are common among people who can be labelled as psychopaths, such as irresponsibility, glibness, manipulative, pathological lying and early behaviour problems. There is also always said to be a lack of empathy, being constantly detatched from horror in the real world.

Ronson interviews a collection of very colourful individuals, both those diagnosed with disorders and those who perform the diagnoses. There’s a young girl who died because she was being given pills to cure her of a mental disorder that she didn’t have. There are the Scientologists who believe that psychiatry is a complete waste of time. There’s the man who spends his free time posting out curious manuscripts to notable scientists. There’s the woman who was a guest-booker for television, ensuring that she people ready to appear on programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor who were just the right level of mad.

But two stories stand out. The first is the curious world of David Shayler. Click the link if you want a fuller picture of him but in short, he was an agent for MI5 who (among other things) failed to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi, was prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act and went on the run in France to escape trial. He was eventually brought to justice, and slowly appeared to be going mad. It is the latter part of his life that is central to this book. He began to claim that no planes had ever hit the Twin Towers, that the 7/7 bombings was an inside job and later informed the world that he was the Messiah. Ronson interviews him a few times to find out if he is a psychopath.

The other very powerful story is that of Tony who pretended to be insane to get out of a prison sentence and ended up stuck in Broadmoor for twelve years, unable to convince any of the staff that he was sane. It’s an incredibly amazing story of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” as everything he does is used as evidence of his madness.

It’s a good read for any armchair psychologist, and although there’s no big training session involved like Ronson goes on to become a psychopath-spotter, the full list of personality traits is included, as well as other ways to spot them. In fact, I even found myself relating to several points on the list. However, the book clearly states that if you are able to identify with the list, you aren’t a psychopath. How true that is, I don’t know.

Still, in the mean time you can begin to look at your neighbours in a new light.