A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
(Me)
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.

My Top 10 Books of 2016

 

About this time last year I revealed my Top 10 books of the year (check what they were here). I enjoyed doing it so much, that I’m going to do it again this year. One little rule – I’m excluding all the Harry Potters because otherwise my Top four would be dominated by him,.

 

Like many TV clip shows at the end of the year, you’ll have seen most of this before, but there is also some brand new content to keep you interested – as well as the drama of a countdown.

 

We’ll start – as is often traditional in Top Ten countdowns – at Number Ten…

 

  1. This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

 

A story about the construction then the subsequent demolition of the relationship between Daniel and Claudette. We witness all the moments around the big arguments and the big decisions, and the characters are richer for it. The ending seems inevitable, but it makes it even more satisfying when we get there.

 

  1. The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley

 

A deeply mysterious book, one that describes the cold, wet countryside of England so well, that I feel cold even thinking about it now. What’s it about? It’s hard to describe. A pilgrimage of sorts to the eponymous Loney, an attempt to cure the protagonist’s brother. But it has an ending that stays with you.

 

  1. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

 

A retelling – or in my case, just the telling – of the story of Lizzie Borden. A brilliant piece of writing that presents the facts of the case, plus some suppositions to help the reader come to their own conclusion to what happened on that August day. Fascinating and creepy in equal measure. Definitely one to keep on the bookcase for a re-read.

 

  1. Seven Ways We Lie – Riley Redgate

 

A bit of a guilty pleasure, and am a bit surprised to see it so high up my list for 2016. It’s a fluffy and throwaway story about an American high school and a rumour that rockets around its corridors. I found it very funny, and a great bit of escapism from some of the heavier fare I usually read.

 

  1. Mad Girl – Bryony Gordon

 

One of two non-fiction books on the list…  It’s a book about mental illness, specifically Bryony Gordon’s, but also about YOURS because it’s hard to read about Bryony’s experiences without comparing and contrasting with your own. Some bits make you feel better, some bits make you feel worse, but you’ll come out of this book knowing yourself a bit more (gosh, that sounds American). If you read this and don’t recognise yourself in any of it, then you’re lucky – but hopefully, you’ll understand the rest of us a little bit more.

 

  1. And I Darken – Kiersten White

The tale of Lady Dracul, a take on Vlad the Impaler. A Game of Thrones style epic that pulls you into the politics of a country a million miles and a million years away from where you are. I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series.

 

  1. The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

 

A tough one – because this is real life. My biggest problem when it comes to Non-Fiction, I either don’t care because there’s no sensible narrative (spoiler, there is no sensible narrative in real life) or I care too much because ‘this really happened, damn it!’. This definitely falls into the latter – with the tragic story of a girl growing up coping with the result of a tragic accident involving her brother.

 

  1. The Stranger In My Home – Adele Parks

 

The only title on my list this year that I haven’t done a full review for, so here’s a mini one, right here.

 

I read this back in August, and the main reason for not writing a review is that I didn’t know what to say that I’ve not said about Adele before. This is her first contemporary novel since The State We’re In, which is one of my all-time favourites (And FYI, I’m still waiting for a movie adaptation?), and it tells of a couple who learn that their only daughter may in fact not be theirs.

 

Is everything as it seems? Tense in places, it builds to a wholly surprising but satisfying ending. This is my favourite thing about Adele’s writing. You’re sure you know where it’s going, yet you know there must be something else to it, and there is always something else to it, but until it happens you have absolutely no clue what it is. The clever bit, though, is that it makes perfect sense.

 

This is Adele’s take on the domestic noir genre that The Girl on the Train spawned, but there is more weight to this, more investment in the characters and much less reliant on a cheap twist. Currently only available in e-book, it’ll be released as a real book in January

 

  1. Hex – Thomas Olde Heuvelt

 

A book that starts off as normal as any other, but soon descends into gothic horror. It blends the contemporary world with the ritualistic world of the past and slowly builds it from a calm acceptance to a complete breakdown of civilisation that leaves both hero and anti-hero in a state of shock.

 

  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

 

I called this way back at the beginning of the year. The sheer poetry of the writing alone was enough to make me fall in love with it, but the characters and plot drag you along with it. There’s no more that can be said that I haven’t already said. Just go and read it.

 

 

 

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

 

This is a difficult review for me to write, partly because it’s a non fiction book, and most of the stuff I read is fiction.

 

But also partly because this is a hugely personal book for Bryony Gordon, one that will strike a chord with many readers, including me.

 

Gordon suffers from OCD. She has done for most of her life. Like most people who suffer from a mental illness, she is vulnerable to other mental illnesses as well.

 

Mad Girl tells the story of her OCD, from the early signs through to diagnosis and ultimately learning to live with it.

 

At the same time, she is partying hard and taking drugs, living what seems to be typical London media lifestyle, which combined with her mental illnesses causes some problems.

 

Bryony manages to explore her own mental illness without descending too much into sentimentality. Perhaps it’s because she’s been writing professionally years without revealing the truth, keeping it guarded.

 

Perhaps it’s because when she’s no experiencing one of her episodes, she’s like everybody else and she can’t imagine thinking the things she thought, or even doing the things she did. It’s like she was somebody else.

 

As a result, what we get is a guarded insight into her thoughts. We are a viewer to her episodes. She manages to tell us about them, without us actually experiencing them.

 

Fiction would bring us into the moment, we would experience the feelings with the protagonist. If Gordon did that, we’d likely be weeping along with her.

 

Perhaps thankfully, she doesn’t do that. This is real life, not fiction, and that makes it infinitely sadder, infinitely more distressing. If we were truly able to experience it along with her, we’d all be writing our own books afterwards.

 

The statistics on mental health illnesses are alarming. 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental illness over the next year, which is why books like this are important. They do two things.

 

You might be suffering from a mental illness and think that you’re alone, that what you’re experiencing is completely unique. This book will help you realise that what you’re feeling isn’t abnormal, that you’re not alone.

 

At the same time, you’ll realise that while things can get worse, they can get better.

 

If you’re not suffering from a mental illness it helps you understand what it’s like to have a mental illness.

 

Bryony Gordon manages to say everything I’ve wanted to say – about mental illness, and everything else as well. A comment was made at the bottom of one page, which caused me to go off on a mini rant. When I finally turned the page, I discovered that Gordon had almost word for word written that rant down.

 

I may hire her to follow me round to tell you what I’m thinking. She know exactly what it is, and she puts it so much more eloquently than I. Go read.

 

Mad Girl scores 4 out of 5 and is published on the 7th June.