Review: The Life-changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k


First, there was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. Then, in an excellent example of action and reaction, came The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. It’s the second book that I’m reviewing – although perhaps I should have read Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering your life first.

It’s that time of year where, if you’re anything like me, you clear out the clutter. By my front door today, there are bags of clothes I don’t wear, and boxes of books that I’m not going to read again, all lined up and ready to go to the charity shop. I’ve read enough about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying that even my underwear drawer is tidy now, but what about the other, bigger drains on your life. A tidy home is of little benefit if you never get time to relax in it. In The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k Sarah Knight takes a wry look at how to declutter your life from things – and people – who drain your time, energy and money.

I think I’m fairly good at choosing what I care about and not being driven by other people’s opinions but if you find yourself saying yes then regretting it, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k is the book for you. I do sometimes say yes to invitations and regret it later, and in this book Sarah Knight encouraged you to weigh up the emotional and time costs of saying yes, as well as the financial costs.  She uses examples such as drinks with co-workers, expensive weddings and hen nights. Writing in terms of fucks given (and this is not a book for you if you flinch at the use of the word fuck), she suggests we all have a limited fuck budget and need to say yes to only the things we really care about. In the book Knight suggests how to do this without upsetting those we care about, and how to prioritise our own needs in a good way.

The book is humorous,  not endorsed in any way by Marie Kondo, and an easy read. If you’re the sort of person who is frustrated by being told to tidy, but perhaps you feel you have too many obligations and not enough time, this could be the book for you.

Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie


The Portable Veblen  is the sort of book that makes me want to give up writing. It cleverly interweaves the diverse topics of squirrels and traumatic brain injury, love and family relationships, along with a Norwegian economist to make a strong story that keeps you reading all the way though. Veblen is a 30 year old temporary medical secretary when she meets Paul, a research doctor. She is creative and alternative: having grown up with hippy parents, Paul wants to live life by the rules. Veblen queries twenty first century materialism: Paul embraces it. Despite this, they fall in love and plan to marry, but of course, being a book, the path is far from straightforward. Their quirky families and conflicting beliefs cause problems, but these are multiplied as Paul wrangles with big pharma to try to develop a new medical device that could save soldiers lives when they experience traumatic brain injury in the battlefield. Readable literary fiction, this book mixes humour with intelligence, and keeps you reading to the end.
The Portable Veblen is around £12.99 at time of writing.

 

Review: The Novel: a survival skill by Tim Parks


I’m not sure.

I was beginning to get irritated by the subjectivity of the first chapter of The Novel: A Survival Skill: The Literary Agenda, and the start of the second where the author talks about meeting JM Coetzee, but then he starts to dissect the biographical fallacy, and I wonder if he is intentionally writing in a personal and subjective manner, sprinkling ‘I’ throughout the pages. Biographical fallacy: we shouldn’t interpret literature in relation to the author’s personal life. Parks writes, “Imagination works on material that is available.”  As an author, and particularly since writing more creative works of fiction, I re-read my work wondering just how much of me it exposes.

And Parks’ book weaves in and out of the personal: a chapter about Joyce is followed by a chapter where, ‘The publisher  of this book has asked me to include a section on my own writing, to put myself in the picture. I do this with reluctance.’ The penultimate chapter on Dickens is possibly one of the most interesting parts of the book, full of details about Dickens’ personal life, and possible drivers for his plots. Parks concludes that we cannot judge a book or provide any ‘pecking order of writers’ because, as readers, our reactions are conditioned by our backgrounds too.

I’m still unsure. This is a book that is good in parts.

Review: Grief is the thing with Feathers by Max Porter

What I know now.

  1. I cried. How can one not cry all the way through a book about two small boys whose mother has died?
  2. Grief shifts. It is different every time and still the same, over and over again, through centuries and nations. We all feel grief, it seems never ending, and yet we travel through its depths until it becomes less consuming, still present. We move on, we are never the same.
  3. I don’t know enough about Ted Hughes. Or crows. Or Ted Hughes and Crow.
  4. That Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a gut wrenching, understated, sideways examination of loss.
  5. And I want to know what Max Porter is going to write next. Because the thing about throwing out conventions and sneaking up on story so it builds and twines between pages from different points of view, is that it is a hard thing to follow.

Buy Grief is the Thing with Feathers for around £7 … or do the sensible thing that Amazon suggests and invest in Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow too.

 

Review: Life and other near-death experiences by Camille Pagan


What makes a good story for you? For me, it is all about life and death, about birth and tears, about the stuffing makes up human experience. I feel  short hanged if I leave a cinema without having laughed, or cried,  or both. I remember reading Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You one Christmas Eve, tear s streaming down my face. I was sad, but I was also content because that book had transported me, because I was living a fresh human experience through the written word. An in many ways, that is what I have just experienced while reading Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan.

This is the story of a young woman hit by a double blow. Everything that she takes for granted – her relationship, her health – suddenly shifts, and she does what many of us might do in the circumstances. She takes off. Fortunately for Libby she is in a fictional world where, when she runs away to spend a month of a beach she meets a supportive older woman and an attractive pilot! Her time is full of ups and downs but by the end she is coming to terms with her changed life and ready to take on the challenges it poses.

I read this straight through on a two hour train journey, so it is a fairly quick read, but a good one. Life and Other Near-Death Experiences costs from £3.99 on Kindle and is out on 1 November.

Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Sometimes books don’t make sense until right at the end. Satin Island is one where I didn’t get it until I reached the acknowledgements!

Tom McCarthy explains that he wrote this book during a residency which, ‘I spent projecting images of oil spills onto huge white walls and gazing at them for days on end.’ It all begins to make sense …

Satin Island is told by U, a male anthropologist working for a big corporation. He is working on a project, the Koob-Sassen project, which remains opaque throughout the book as to intest and purpose, opaque to U as well as the reader.

McCarthy uses images of oil spills and stories of sabotaged parachutists from news stories in this novel, all as part of U’s ethnographic work. U tries to write a book, and fails, instead coating his walls with images from the news stories and delivering the ideas he derives from these as his contribution towards the project. He feels like he has failed, but his contribution is eventually received with accolades. And we are still unclear what he has contributed to.


In some ways, as I neared the end of this book, it made me think of Don De Lillo’s Cosmopolis. Both books submerge themselves under the surface of the corporate world,but De Lillo goes deeper, faster, and his world is more insane. I loved McCarthy’s Remainder, where you get sucked into one man’s world, sucked so deeply that you don’t realise just how insane it is until right at the end. Satin Island doesnn’t work so well for me, perhaps because U is less compelling: it is hard to write a persuasive corporate drone even if he is a drone with self-knowledge. His relationship with his girlfriend Madison seems bland and unfulfilling for him, which again makes it harder to care. This book works as an intelligent and intellectual analysis of the futility of the corporate world, but if you want a good read and a great introduction to McCarthy, try  Remainder.

Review: The Crossing by Andrew Miller and The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop


I’ve just read these two books and I think between them they do a great job of examining the challenges that becoming a mother places on self and identity. In The Other Side of the World Charlotte struggles to reconnect with the woman she was before children, and to find the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, cannot face the thought of another English winter. Set in the 1960s, Charlotte is strangely contemporary. She is a painter until she becomes a mother, twice in quick succession. The uprooting she experiences as the family emigrates echoes the way in which she herself has been uprooted. This is an atmospheric story about travelling to the other side of the world in the 60s. The writing conveys the changing identity of becoming a new mother, losing yourself and finding your changed self. The scenery is vivid and Bishop does a good job of sharing both how the male and female lead characters feel. A good read, packed with emotion, the ending challenges every mother who has ever felt that her role is too much.


The Crossing is a strange book – but well worth a read. It asks questions about identity and motherhood and running away.  The writing, the language is restrained, and some part of it seems very male as it describes Tim and Maud’s growing relationship, and the birth of their daughter Zoe. In other ways the writing reflects Maud’s character: she is presented as a career woman, a woman who is attractive without knowing it, and ultimately it questions Maud’s role and ability as a mother.

Maud’s love of sailing drives the book. Along with her career as a research scientist, sailing seems the closest she can come to have a passion, and Miller’s book really took off as I read Maud’s struggles with a storm at sea. Like The Other Side of the World, there is ambiguity in the end. Maud is no longer the same person, no longer in the place where she started. Both books acknowledge that in becoming a mother one is no longer the same. And both expose the uncertainty in becoming someone new.

 

Review: Tenacity by JS Law


I’m never going on a submarine. I mean, it’s not like it was on my bucket list, but now I’ve read JS Law’s thriller in which he conveys the close quarters and claustrophobic atmosphere so well, I’m steering clear.

Tenacity is Law’s debut novel, and it tells the story of female naval investigator Danielle Lewis, known as Dan, as she tries to untangle the suicide of ‘Whisky’ Walker on board the HMS Tenacity just days after his wife Cheryl has been attacked and killed. I downloaded the book (out now in eBook, November in hardback) after meeting James Law at the Festival of Writing where he was running a session on dialogue.

Law’s story is impressive in itself: he has risen through the ranks of the Royal Navy, starting as an apprentice and spending the latter half of his career in the submarine service. He brings his experience to this book in a positive way – plenty of authentic detail, not too much explanation for the uninitiated. I think one of the strongest points of this book is the atmosphere: Lewis’s time on a submarine is critical to untangling the plot. She is surrounded by hostile men, in a community that protects its own, against a backdrop of a hostile environment, metal walls lines with pipes, while her bunk is amongst the bombs. In that setting the whispers and suppressed violence turn into outright attacks. Lewis wraps up the case, as required by fictional detectives, but many threads are left open, and I’ll be watching out for the next in the series where Danielle Lewis moves away from the submarine setting.

Tenacity costs from £6.49 for the eBook at time of writing.

Review: William Shaw’s A Book of Scars


I love detective fiction. It’s sometimes a guilty pleasure as I tuck into an old favourite, but sometimes it’s a more challenging read, and that’s the case for A Book of Scars. This is the third in William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer series, and it’s worth starting with the first book, A Song from Dead Lips (Breen and Tozer Book 1) as the plot builds cleverly over the trilogy, even as each book stands alone.

The series starts in 1968 and moves to 1969 with a recognisable London setting, and characters that are spread across the divide that split teenagers from the older generation, those for whom everything was ‘Fab’ from those who still wore suits and polished shoes.

Sergeant Cathal Breen is in the latter group and he is forced out of his comfort zone by the death of his father in the first book, and throughout the series by  Helen Tozer who is the first female trainee CID officer in Breen’s unit.

A series of murders drive the detective part of each book: these are as well researched as the historical details. There are some fascinating elements that link some of the stories to Africa too, focussing particularly on events in Biafra at the time, and Kenya some years earlier, both of which link in to the cases that Breen and Tozer are working on.

Throughout the series Breen and Tozer’s relationship develops. There are no hearts and flowers and the end of the series sees their relationship at a stage that is perhaps of the time, with the right amount of human interest for a crime novel. And the mystery that is set at the start of book one, what happened to Helen Tozer’s sister Alexandra, grows in significance and is resolved by the end of the third book. Overall this is a great series of books, well written with good characterisation.

Review: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig


How do you write a traumatic life experience like depression? In the midst of it, picking up a pen and exploring your feelings is impossible.

Why do you write about depression? Because when you are deep within depression, it feels like no-one else in the history of time has ever felt like you … and once you have reached a place beyond depression, maybe you want to let others know about that elusive thing called hope.

When do you write about depression? When the drugs have started to work? When you feel like you’re living again? When there’s something new to say, or something only you can say, or the impulse to write it is too great and none of what you have written so far quite deals with the itch, the need, to stop other people hurting in the same way that you hurt?

I don’t think I’ve every written properly about being depressed. Much of it is a blur: the parts I remember will be hard to write and painful to share. Maybe, 13 years down the line, I haven’t yet reached that point.

Matt Haig experienced depression in his twenties, and now, around 15 years later, he had finally addressed it head on in Reasons to Stay Alive. It’s a beautiful book, pocket sized, white binding, orange inner covers, rainbows dancing across the paper outer. And inside, it’s beautiful too.

The writing takes the form of scattered pieces, part memoir, part lists, a few selected tweets, and the story builds between the short chapters and sections. I don’t always finish every book I start, for a range of reasons, but I finished this one. It’s honest. It’s compelling. And it doesn’t tell you not to be depressed.

Haig skilfully avoids the ‘them and us’ of most self help style books: he’s there, deep in the depression, he’s there again as his current self, offering help, proof of a future, and most importantly, hope. He does end with 40 bits of advice on ‘How to live’, but none of it is preachy, it’s all tempered by the fact that he admits he doesn’t always follow his own advice.

And to finish, here’s one bit from the book that I love …

Self-help

How to stop time: kiss.

How to travel in time: read.

How to escape time: music.

How to feel time: write.

How to release time: breathe.

 

Reasons to Stay Alive is an incredibly low priced £6.99 at time of writing. Well worth a read whether you have been depressed, or want to understand someone else a little bit better.