Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

I asked my former colleague for a copy of Reasons to Stay Alive, and it may have taken me a while, but I’ve read it — over a day, no mean feat if you’re a mum of a(nother) baby who doesn’t like to sleep unless she’s being held.

(Thanks, Mum, for holding her while I lay in bed resting to overcome a possible case of mastitis.)

To be perfectly honest, I approached it with a little trepidation. I have not felt comfortable mentioning what I’m about to mention, as I feel it is not my right to do so, but in the last few weeks I have had news of an old friend losing a battle with depression. I have been dwelling on thoughts of him — and his family who survive him — on a regular basis ever since.

If you’re suffering from the condition, it may help you to read an honest account of someone else’s experience and how they’re getting through it, I don’t know. It made me sad that my friend could have made a different decision — like Matt did — with the support of his family. But I heard he didn’t talk about it.

And so. My friend did what he did.

Matt’s (I think I met Matt Haig when Canongate published The Radleys, so it’s not pretentious that I’m using his first name. Heh) style in this book is so personal and does seem like the most genuine peek into the mind of a depressive. I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that you just need to make it go quiet by becoming nothing. But Reasons to Stay Alive gives me a clue. It helps me understand a little why my friend made that choice.

If only he had found a reason not to.

Normal life, or a tiny approximation of it

A cinema in Swindon does parent and baby screenings. I went and saw Life of Pi with a few ‘mummy friends’ (I swear I will never use that phrase again) and even though it was 10am, it felt amazing to do something kind of normal again.

I did wonder if Ang Lee would recreate the iconic jacket image, and I’m not sure if I’m glad or disappointed that he did. The film was quite obviously filmed for 3D, and there was so much CGI it was completely unreal. That said, Life of Pi is such a surreal story that it’s probably a good thing. And it makes me want to read Beatrice and Virgil again.

Some key moments were missing, but that was absolutely understandable.

It wasn’t the best film I’ve ever seen, but certainly not the worst.

(I also saw Carnage on DVD recently. Fun!)

My Friend Dahmer

My Friend DahmerJeff might be my literary soul mate. He sent me a copy of My Friend Dahmer speculatively in anticipation of my labour and delivery. I’m sure he didn’t mean to hint that I should pay attention in case Anne has dark fantasies and murderous desires as an adolescent.

I don’t read graphic novels enough. This is an excellent personal observation of Dahmer as a young man, before he started his less-than-wholesome extra curricular activities. Told from a peer’s point of view, it feels very authentic and matter-of-fact. Backderf isn’t shying from admitting to things he did that he may now be ashamed of, and he asks some serious questions of the adults in Dahmer’s life.

In One Person

In One PersonIf you don’t ask, you don’t get. So I asked the publishers if I could get a review copy of John Irving’s latest, In One Person, because I am a big fan and would (more likely than not) review it. And I got it, two days later.

Billy Dean grows up in 50s and 60s America, with a cross-dressing grandfather (who does so only while acting on stage), disapproving grandmother, aunt, and mother. He doesn’t know what to think about his own complex feelings for Miss Frost, the local librarian, and an older student at his all boys school.

We go on this journey with Billy, whose bisexuality (not a spoiler) keeps him confused and liberated at the same time. The novel travels back and forth through his life, where we meet all the important men and women he’s loved (and who love him). We also get to see the 80s — a truly horrific time for people who have (unprotected) sex with others — through his eyes.

Reamde

ReamdeMy mate Jeff has been on me to read Reamde since before Christmas. Neil bought it for me for Christmas. Jeff kept asking me, Have you read Reamde yet? Tell me what you think of it once you have! I wondered why he was so kancheong about it — we both really like Neal Stephenson, but this was a bit overkill.

And then I read it.

OMFG!

For starters, it goes back to the gaming world of Snow Crash (well — sort of): this time we are with the game’s creator Richard Forthrast, a very rich man with a colourful past who owns the world of T’Rain, a MMORPG (I think) that has taken the world by storm. There’s virtual war, virtual currency, and some Russian mafia thrown in for good measure. As well as a very large part of the story set in Xiamen.

That’s the OMFG part.

Is it really geeky that I was so thrilled to pretty much recognise every part of Xiamen he described? Even the apartment blocks — I may not know the exact streets he writes about, but I’ve definitely been down many of them. That crazy-ass wiring? It’s everywhere, you just need to get off the main tourist drag.

apartment wiring, Xiamen - photo by Neil

Neil heard me squeak with excitement when I realised the characters were going to be spending a substantial amount of time in Xiamen. And it was clear that his research trip must have been a few years ago, as the waterfront he speaks of has pretty much been fully developed and occupied (I even have an idea of which office building he must have been thinking of when talking about the safe house).

He could have been talking about the 禾祥西/东路 (Hexiang Xi / Dong Lu) area when he referred to where the Troll and Jones lived. We didn’t see 鼓浪屿 (Gulangyu) this time as we were told the number of tourists that now visit is so massive it’d be unpleasant, but he captured it very well. I wonder if he ate any muah chee while he was there. And the roundhouses! We’ve been there too! I have so many lousy photos of the roundhouses that I could have been his research assistant.

But. He said they all got stared at and people would run out to see them. I only see this happening with Zula, as the other characters didn’t seem any different from the thousands of laowai who have taken up residence in Xiamen. Caucasians aren’t a reason to gawk any more, not in Xiamen.

So that was me being anal-retentive.

What a fun novel! Loads of action, geeky stuff, extreme libertarians, guns, planes, Russians, romance — what’s not to love? Stephenson has a real flair for giving the reader a lot of information without it seeming too much like a lecture or really bad dialogue.

Needless to say, this book is going on the collector’s shelf (no child is going to get their hands on it until they understand how badly I’m going to react if any of these books are damaged) next to my Peanuts comics.

A Kind Man

A Kind Man Have you ever read a book that gave you a real sense of impending dread and heartbreak by the second or third chapter? Perhaps it’s because I am in my current ‘condition’, but I felt so stricken by Eve’s story.

Eve has met and married a man — Tommy Car — who is very kind, and they set up house together. (Tangent: a reviewer on Goodreads described its setting as Yorkshire / Northern England, but as I read it, I was thinking, this is Scotland. But anyway.) They try and try for a baby, while Eve’s sister keeps popping them out.

Finally, Eve and Tommy have a baby, but their joy doesn’t last long. Eve faces a real tug of war between her role as a wife and sister — her sister is incredibly bitter about her own lot and doesn’t hesitate to make it Eve’s issue.

Being a Susan Hill novel (I assume, as I’ve only read one other of her works), there is an unexplained supernatural element to A Kind Man, but it’s more a vehicle to further explore Tommy’s kindness.

This is a short novel, and it kind of feels to me like it’s about karma. The story has been told with economy and a lightness of touch, which probably helped me not cry, but the experience I had while reading wasn’t any less strong.

Stay Close

Stay CloseHarlan Coben is one of those authors whose books I’ve seen in all the bookshops, but have avoided because I was thinking he might end up too much like James Patterson (i.e. prolific, not very good, but begging for a film rights deal).

So when I was sent a copy of Stay Close (part of the Real Readers programme), I was a bit sceptical, to say the least. But I read the whole thing in one afternoon at a coffee shop and rather enjoyed it, in that I-have-a-day-off-and-I’m-going-to-chill-out way. It draws together a suburban soccer mom, down-and-out photographer, and police detective who are linked by an event in the past — that’s the only simple way to put it.

I’m not sure I’m going to deliberately seek out more Harlan Coben novels, but at least this first one I’ve read doesn’t make me want to spew like the time I was bored and tried to read a James Patterson book. In fact, it was pretty absorbing and fun to read — if you’re the crime fiction type, that is.

Rape: A Love Story

Rape: A Love StoryThis is one brutal novella.

It tells the story of Teena and her daughter Bethel Maguire, who are accosted one night, going home from a Fourth of July party via a shortcut. The ones doing the accosting are a bunch of young men. You can imagine what happens next.

It’s crude and takes no prisoners, but isn’t graphic. The voice, which jumped among a few characters, did (to me) reflect the emotional state of whoever was telling the story. It was profoundly affecting, yet cold.

I suggested this book to a book group, and it wasn’t received very well. It’s not exactly a cheerful nor uplifting read, I guess. But it is amazing.

Eastern Standard Tribe

Eastern Standard TribeOnly having read two of Cory Doctorow’s novels, I can’t really say if he’s going to be one of my favourite authors, but the prognosis is good.

What I’ve liked so much about what I’ve read so far is his science fiction-y view of our near future is so plausible (and so deliciously geeky). In Eastern Standard Tribe, our protagonist is a user experience expert who is also a saboteur, working in GMT but is really a double agent for EST. But then he meets a girl.

The story flips back and forth in time, over a period of a few months (I think). We know that he’s been locked up somewhere (that’s how the novel starts), and then we go back in time and meet the girl. The entire story is basically about how these two events collide.

It was fun, and if you dabble a little in cyberpunk now and again, you’ll probably like it.

Island of Bones

Island of BonesTake one middle-aged anatomist and one much-younger widow, put them together in 18th century England, and bang! A crime-fighting team. This period Grissom and Sidle (heh, they’re Crowther and Westerman) have been called in to solve the mystery of an extra body found while excavating an old tomb. The complication is, the land used to belong to Crowther’s family, who sold everything and changed his name after his brother was executed for their father’s murder, three decades prior.

I believe this is the third in a series (the interview at the end of this edition says there will be five in total). While I found the novel sufficiently diverting — I read it in a day — I’m not that bothered about reading the first two, nor am I anticipating the final two. Basically, it was fun, but not brilliant.

(In contrast, I came upon the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom by reading book two or three, then immediately went to try and find all the others that were available.)

This book was received free via the Real Readers programme.