Matt Haig’s new book offers advice on how to stay sane in a mad world

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

‘I am keenly aware that the oft-used approach of pointing out a list of advantages of modern life, such as health and education and average income, does not help. It is like a wagging finger telling a depressed person to count her blessings because no one has died. This book seeks to recognise that what we feel is just as important as what we have. That mental wellbeing counts as much as physical wellbeing – indeed, that it is part of physical wellbeing. And that, on these terms, something is going wrong.’

Rates of stress and anxiety are rising. A fast, nervous planet is creating fast and nervous lives. We are more connected, yet feel more alone. And we are encouraged to worry about everything from world politics to our body mass index. How can we stay sane on a planet that makes us mad? How do we stay human in a technological world? How do we feel happy when we are encouraged to be anxious? After experiencing years of anxiety and panic attacks, these questions became urgent matters of life and death for Matt Haig. And he began to look for the link between what he felt and the world around him.

In 2015 Matt Haig released his bestselling Reasons to Stay Alive, a fantastically honest account of his experience with mental ill health. Notes on a Nervous Planet is a kind of follow-up, though it focuses less on Haig as an individual and more on society at large.

Haig takes on some big, scary subjects here, from how long it will take for our jobs to be taken over by robots, to the despair and anxiety created by 24/7 news. In fact, the first few chapters are so full of doom and gloom you might be tempted to put the book down. But in amongst Haig’s damning takedowns of everything from shopping centres to magazines, there are bright flashes of hope, offering a kind of guidebook on how to stay sane when 21st century life is getting you down. Sections on why you should be glad you’re not a robot and why really no one cares about what your face looks like but you, are both funny and reassuring.

The format of the book makes it very accessible and easy to read, as all the chapters are very short. The succinct essays and insightful lists make it the perfect book to dip in and out of, and to come back to time and time again.

Haig doesn’t set out any perfect solutions on how to change the world or slow the inevitable march of time towards ever smarter technology. Instead he offers easy-to-follow snippets of advice to help you feel less alone and better able to cope with the parts of modern life that might be getting you down.

This book is for anyone who has ever scrolled through Instagram and felt depressed because their lives aren’t like the perfectly framed and filtered images on the screen. It’s for anyone who has ever looked in a mirror and hated what they saw. It’s for anyone who has ever been made to feel like a cog in a machine in their workplace, rather than an actual individual. It’s for anyone looking for a little bit of hope in a world that often seems as though it’s going mad.

Many thanks to Canongate for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Feminist fairy tale reinvents the story of The Little Mermaid

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

‘So she crossed the ocean and came to the place where there was land. The mermaid spent many days watching the people on shore and the ones who came out to the sea on boats. Always, always she was careful to avoid the hooks and lines and cages and nets, because she had found her freedom and she loved it, and she would not be bound to someone else’s will again.’

Once there was a mermaid trapped in the net of a fisherman. She evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore and for many years they lived as husband and wife. Stories of this strange and unusual woman travelled, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in selling the strange and unusual. His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.

Last year I picked up Christina Henry’s Lost Boy, not expecting a great deal from it, but it fast became one of my favourite books of 2017. Henry’s latest book, The Mermaid, lacks the emotional punch of Lost Boy, but is still an interesting and enjoyable read.

The main problem with this book is its use of fairy tale language and tropes to establish the characters. This meant that all the characters in The Mermaid lack the complexity to make you care about what happens to them. Levi in particular never felt like more than a few loosely collected characteristics – his only real job was to be there for Amelia (the mermaid) to fall in love with. There was great potential with P.T. Barnum – a man ‘with a cash register in place of a heart’ – but he never became more than a stock villain.

The writing is riddled with clichés and isn’t atmospheric enough to conjure a feeling of the time it was set in. Attempts at creating original similes and metaphors tended to be jumbled and confusing, and the story in general was repetitive and dull; it lacked any driving force to keep me engaged.

Despite its lack of intriguing characters, Henry explores some interesting ideas. Amelia is a wild being who struggles to fit in with humans. Though she appears to be human, when others find out what she really is they tend to view her as an animal, a creature who should be kept behind bars.

Henry also uses Amelia’s otherness to explore the position of women in the 19th century, who were treated like property and expected to be subservient to their husbands. Amelia dares to question the rules that keep women confined – physically in corsets, and socially by forcing them to be obedient.

This book certainly has its flaws, but for those who enjoy feminist fairy tales it has a lot to offer.

Many thanks to Titan Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

New book releases July 2018

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

Rates of stress and anxiety are rising. A fast, nervous planet is creating fast and nervous lives. We are more connected, yet feel more alone. And we are encouraged to worry about everything from world politics to our BMI. After experiencing years of anxiety, Matt Haig began to look for the link between what he felt and the world around him.

Matt Haig is a wonderful writer and I’ve loved everything he’s written so far, both fiction and non-fiction. His latest book is a follow-up to his fantastic book Reasons to Stay Alive, and promises to offer hope in a world gone mad.

Release date: 5th July

 

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

1857. Audrey Hart travels to the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the communities there. But the crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead, spirits who take the form of birds.

Mazzola returns with her second novel after the success of her debut, The Unseeing, in 2016. I’m always interested in books that explore folk and fairy tales, so this sounds right up my street.

Release date: 26th July

 

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Miryem is the daughter of a moneylender, but her father is too kind-hearted to collect his debts. They face poverty, until Miryem hardens her heart and takes up his work in their village. Her success creates rumours she can turn silver into gold, which attracts the fairy king of winter himself. He sets her an impossible challenge – and if she fails, she’ll die.

Novik is a hugely popular fantasy author and in this, her latest novel, she puts a dark spin on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin.

Release date: 12th July

 

Witchmark by C.L. Polk

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations. Magic marked Miles Singer from the day he was born. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man. When Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark is exposed, he must put his freedom at risk to investigate a murder.

This is one of the most highly anticipated debut fantasy books of 2018, and is said to combine intrigue, magic, betrayal and romance.

Release date: 1st July

 

The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

Inside the Dead Letters Depot in East London, William Woolf is one of 30 letter detectives who spend their days solving mysteries: missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, lost address labels, torn packages – they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts and unheard confessions. When William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’, his work takes on new meaning.

This book promises to continue the trend of ‘up-lit’ (optimistic and uplifting books) that have gained such popularity recently.

Release date: 12th July

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Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Louis Thorn and Haruto ‘Harry’ Yamada – the Eagle and the Crane – are the star attractions of a daredevil aerial stunt team that traverses Depression-era California. The young men have a complicated relationship, thanks to the Thorn family’s belief that the Yamadas – Japanese immigrants – stole land from them. When one of the stunt planes crashes with two charred bodies inside, the ensuing investigation struggles when the details don’t add up.

A few years ago I read Rindell’s brilliant 1920s novel The Other Typist. Her newest book returns to the same setting but with a very different story. Hopefully this book will have the same pin-sharp characterisation.

Release date: 3rd July

 

All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth

Charlie Calloway has a life most people would kill for. A tight knit family. A loyal set of friends. A fast-track to whichever college she chooses. But Charlie isn’t interested in what most people want. She’s a Calloway. She’s special. And she’s been taught to want more. So when she’s invited to join an exclusive secret society, her determination to get in is matched only be her conviction that she belongs there. But behind the mysterious façade is a history of lies which unravels everything Charlie thought she knew, including the story behind her mother’s disappearance 10 years ago.

This new novel has been described by Entertainment Weekly as ‘what you would get if you combined The Secret History with Cruel Intentions’, and sounds like it would be a perfect beach read.

Release date: 12th July

 

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook. First there was the car accident – two girls dead after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Two girls killed by the man next door. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they’d lost. That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But some people in the town know more than they’re saying.

Bestselling author Kara Thomas’s new book has been called ‘sharp, brilliantly plotted and totally engrossing’, and promises to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Release date: 31st July

 

Contagion by Erin Bowman

After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission. When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project – including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what happened, they discover that some things are best left buried.

This new novel from critically acclaimed author Erin Bowman has been called ‘pulse-pounding, hair-raising, utterly terrifying’, and is the first in a duology.

Release date: 24th July

 

Testament by Kim Sherwood

Eva was always closest to her grandfather out of all her family. So when he dies, she’s hit by the loss of the questions he never answered, and the past he never shared. It’s then she finds a letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have uncovered the testimony he gave after his forced labour service in Hungary, which took him to the death camps. But there is a deeper story that Eva will unravel – of how her grandfather learnt to live afterwards.

Sherwood is the winner of the Bath Novel Award and her debut has been called ‘compelling, moving and ultimately uplifting’ by author Heather Morris.

Release date: 12th July

Historical fiction novel is perfect for Game of Thrones fans

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

‘I could have hung on that cliff all day, if they hadn’t broken my fingers. My hands have always been strong, but when bones crack, there is no true anchor, not even for an ocean of rage. Yet I clung on for a time even so. Near the end, as I glared at them without pleading or begging, all their laughter and mockery died away, which gave me some small satisfaction. That little crowd of men and women stood around the edge, just waiting for me to fall. They watched me hold on to crumbling earth with torn and swollen hands and yet remain to spite them.’

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day. At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

Conn Iggulden is a hugely popular historical fiction writer, known for his series depicting the rise and fall of empires. In this standalone novel, he has turned his attention to the creation of England as one united country, shown through the eyes of Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury and was later canonised as a saint.

In Dunstan, Iggulden has created a fascinating character whose actions don’t necessarily give the impression of a holy man. Instead of being humble and devoted to prayer, he is ruthless and unlikely to worship anyone but himself. Iggulden excels at creating a character who does terrible things in pursuit of what he wants, and yet we find ourselves rooting for him anyway.

At a young age Dunstan is taken by his father to live in a monastery. There he is bullied by other boys, but also begins piecing together the aspects of his character that will later see him become advisor to a number of English kings. Iggulden also offers fascinating explanations for the supposed miracles that later saw Dunstan canonised as a saint.

The book bears many similarities to Game of Thrones, with its delicate political machinations interspersed with scenes of battlefields and bloody murder. Each character is fully fleshed out and intriguing enough to warrant their own standalone novel.

The writing is brilliant. Iggulden knows when to show us detail and when to stand back and let the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination. There are also flashes of humour to alleviate the often dark subject matter.

The one problem I had with this book was its treatment of women. You could argue that the misogynistic opinions presented throughout the book are the views of the main character, who after all was living in the 10th century when attitudes were very different. But I found it incredibly frustrating that Dunstan dismisses all women as being easily corrupted and likely to corrupt the men in their life in turn. We are shown no examples of women with any redeeming qualities, and this became extremely tiring, especially considering the strength and variation in Iggulden’s male characters.

There are a few moments when the pace of the book slows to a crawl, and the ending felt very rushed, but overall this is an engrossing and fascinating book, with a brilliant main character and enough tension and intrigue to keep you reading long past your bedtime.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

International bestseller explores loneliness and the supernatural

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

‘All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned the water to light.’

In 1920s Alaska, Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding. Is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

The Snow Child is an international bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but now that I’ve done so I can’t really see what all the fuss is about.

This is a strange book of two parts. On the one hand you have Jack and Mabel struggling with the reality of their new life in Alaska, eking a living from the harsh land with its long winters and mosquito-ridden summers. On the other hand, you have the couple’s encounters with a mysterious little girl who no one else has ever seen, and who may or may not be real.

Personally I much preferred the former. Ivey really excels at describing the harsh but beautiful Alaskan wilderness. She also excels at describing the fraught loneliness that has come to envelop her two main characters, the gaps that have opened up between them even when they live in such close proximity to each other. It was this that I wish she had focused on, rather than introducing vague elements of the supernatural, which only served to distance me from any empathy I had felt for the characters.

I never warmed to the character of the eponymous snow child. Maybe that was Ivey’s intention, but it meant that my mind started to wander whenever I read any scenes with her in them. Her presence is never fully explained and some half-hearted attempts at a back story only serve to make things more confusing.

There isn’t a whole lot that happens in terms of plot, either. Several times I found my eyes running ahead on the page, seeking some excitement, but unfortunately there was little to keep me engaged, especially as it was clear almost from the very beginning what was going to happen at the end.

New book releases June 2018

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Once there was a mermaid trapped in the net of a fisherman. She evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore and for many years they lived as husband and wife. Stories of this strange and unusual woman travelled, until they reached the ears of a man whose business was in selling the strange and unusual. His name was P.T. Barnum, and he’d been looking for a mermaid.

Last year I read Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and fell in love with her thrilling, atmospheric style of writing. Her newest release is a historical fairy tale based on the ‘real’ Fiji Mermaid of Barnum’s American Museum.

Release date: 19th June

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

In the autumn of 1615, scandal rocks the Jacobean court when a celebrated couple are imprisoned on suspicion of murder. Some believe she is innocent; others think her insane. He claims no knowledge of the murder. The king suspects them both, though it is his secret at stake.

This new novel by historical fiction author E.C. Fremantle has been described as ‘a Jacobean Gone Girl’ – what more do you need to know?

Release date: 14th June

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny.

This portrait of life inside a women’s prison sounds both fascinating and funny, and is sure to appeal to fans of Orange is the New Black.

Release date: 7th June

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

Two years after people’s shadows start disappearing – and with them, their memories – Ory and his wife Max have escaped by hiding deep in the woods. They have settled into their new reality, until Max loses her shadow. Knowing the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up.

This science fiction book from debut author Peng Shepherd has been called ‘exciting, imaginative, unique and beautiful’ by bestselling author Darin Strauss.

Release date: 28th June

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Louise is struggling to survive in New York. Juggling a series of poorly paid jobs, she dreams of being a writer. And then one day she meets Lavinia. Lavinia invites Louise into her charmed circle, takes her to the opera, shares her clothes, her drugs, her Uber account. Louise knows this can’t last forever, but how far is she prepared to go to have this life?

This kind of idea has been done a thousand times before by different authors with varying degrees of success, but Social Creature has been described as ‘a Ripley story for the Instagram age’ and I just can’t resist the sound of that.

Release date: 14th June

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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

When Harriet Westaway receives a letter telling her she’s inherited a substantial bequest from her grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers. There’s just one problem – her real grandparents died more than 20 years ago. But she knows the cold-reading techniques she’s honed as a seaside fortune teller could help her con her way to getting the money. Once she embarks on her deception, there is no going back.

This new psychological thriller from the author of The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10 sounds deliciously dark and creepy.

Release date: 28th June

Still Lives by Maria Hummel

Kim Lord is an avant-garde figure, feminist icon and agent provocateur in the LA art scene. Her ground-breaking new exhibition is comprised of self-portraits depicting herself as famous, murdered women. As the city’s richest art patrons pour into the Rocque Museum’s opening night, all the staff hope the event will be enough to save the historic institution’s flailing finances. Except Kim Lord never shows up to her own gala.

This intriguing novel asks important questions about art and representation, and how society objectifies and victimises women.

Release date: 5th June

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life – wife of a respected judge, mother to a beloved son, mistress of a beautiful house in Dublin. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. A secret Lydia’s son, Laurence, is about to discover.

From the bestselling author of Unravelling Oliver, this novel about a Dublin family whose dark secrets and twisted relationships are suddenly revealed sounds like the perfect read to get caught up in this summer.

Release date: 12th June

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

1945. London is still reeling from the Blitz. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow more convinced as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends. But are they really what and who they claim to be?

From the author of The English Patient comes this thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire, set against the backdrop of World War II.

Release date: 7th June

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

The President is missing. The world is in shock. But the reason he’s missing is much worse than anyone can imagine.

This unusual new book is said to contain details only a President could know, and the kind of suspense only James Patterson can deliver. Expect to see it being read on beaches all over the world.

Release date: 4th June

Brilliantly bonkers murder mystery

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

‘Thirty seconds. That’s how long I hesitated when I first spotted her and that’s how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision, thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.’

It is meant to be a celebration but ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book since its release earlier this year. It’s on the ‘must-read books of 2018’ lists in Stylist, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. It’s been described as ‘Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror’ – and I loved each and every second of reading it.

It boggles belief that this is Stuart Turton’s debut novel. He writes with great confidence, creating such an intricate plot I can only imagine the amount of planning that must have gone into it. Any of the myriad small details could prove to be the key to unlocking the case, so it’s vital that you pay attention.

The story takes place in a familiar setting – a crumbling country house in the 1920s, which has more than a few shades of a Victorian haunted house as well. But the story itself is anything but familiar. Turton takes the murder mystery and the locked room thriller and turns it on its head, creating something entirely new and original.

The cast of characters is large but each one is vividly crafted so you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. Although our main character is technically several different people, there is enough consistency to make you empathise with him and care about what happens to him. Interestingly, each of his hosts threatens to overwhelm the original Aiden; they get stronger with each new body he inhabits, until he can barely distinguish himself from the person he is currently wearing.

Although the main mystery is the question of who murders Evelyn Hardcastle, there are many other mysteries that will need unravelling before the book is done, and each one is just as clever, complex and interesting as the last. The pace never lets up, so each time you pick this book up you’ll feel the need to take a deep breath before plunging back in – and once you do so, you won’t want to put it down again.

There might be times when you have to go back and read over a certain passage just to make sure you know exactly what’s going on, but in a book this brilliantly complex, that’s a small price to pay – especially as you’re bound to have loads of fun reading it.

This is a fantastic book with a brilliantly clever plot. It’s completely and utterly bonkers, but in the best possible way. I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.