Review: ‘The Geography of Bliss’ by Eric Weiner

Not something I would usually read, but on recommendation I picked up Eric Weiner’s ‘The Geography of Bliss’ hoping that – at the very least – I would come out of it with an idea of where to holiday in the future.

Technically I did, there are places I would love to explore as a result of Weiner’s cross-country ramblings, but it’s only the geography part that was fulfilled – ‘bliss’ seemed lost in the ether somewhere. But then, there’s a huge debate behind the question as to whether it was ever locatable – but that’s a question beyond a review!

‘The Geography of Bliss’ is fascinating; once you get past the excessive quoting of psychological and literary scripture, its engaging to see how on earth you go about finding happiness, something which a lot of us attribute to being within us, and not in a location as such. The anecdotes arising from Weiner’s travels are fascinating and well-told; anecdotes are often subject to being hideously boring when they don’t involve us, but Weiner’s brevity of style and humour allow him to escape this pitfall.

I have to say, that was the overwhelming joy of Weiner’s work; he has a sardonic, witty style that makes you laugh and groan in response to his humour. His background as a reporter also helps; his tales and exploits are tinged by personal bias, rather they are written for the objective public. He makes his work accessible by forgetting about himself, using his involvement as almost a vessel for our entertainment and intrigue. It’s a skill I haven’t come across in many first person texts, and what makes this book thoroughly engaging.

‘The Geography of Bliss’ won’t actually give you the answer to happiness, but it will give you an entertaining ride on the way to figuring out what and where it might be, and is certainly worth stopping in place for to enjoy and ponder about at your own leisure.

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Review: ‘Touching the Void’ by Joe Simpson

This is another example of me doing things back to front: I watched the film version of ‘Touching the Void’ a few years ago, without considering that there was a novel out there. Several years and a career in teaching later, I’m now teaching this text to a year eleven class, and whilst they might complain about it, I was absolutely enthralled.

Joe Simpson’s story is a bit difficult to get into, I’ll grant you: the technical jargon alienates the reader who isn’t a climbing fanatic, and unless you’re willing to work past it to get to the bigger picture, I can see why it would be hard to enjoy (or think you can endure) this book. However, it is beyond worthwhile detouring past this bit of powder-snow, because the substance underneath is gritty and worth gripping on to.

I think what I loved most about Simpson’s recounting of the events on Siula Granda were the greater themes underneath it: of human survival, courage and relatable endurance. Nothing is sugar-coated: Joe doesn’t add divinity or impossible mental and physical strength to his tale, instead he tells it how it happened, and it is this reality which is most gripping. The bare bones of the story is what makes it intense: it stands on its own merits, instead of relying on language to bulk it up and turn it into a fictional feat of heroics. It relies purely upon the accident one man encounters, and the events that occur following this: his humanity is the most fascinating part. This is particularly evident towards the end of the novel. Simpson doesn’t dwell on his recovery, the scarring he must have received both physically and psychologically. No, he remains focused on the point of the text. The notion of survival prevails, but once he is safe the novel ends. In one way this is slightly frustrating: as a person who enjoys knowing the mindset of others and how they function, I would have loved to have seen how Joe coped with the ramifications of his survival. However, I cannot deny that this means Simpson stays true to the course of his novel. He remains on the path he set himself, and ends as he began: at the bottom of the previously unclimbed mountain, wondering what the future holds.

The only semi-fictional part comes with Simon’s accounts: these were actually written by Simpson, based on what Simon told him. Personally, I think he does this well. The prose is markedly difference and it doesn’t appear to reflect Joe’s own personal struggles. I don’t think I’d have actually realised it was the same man writing both parts if I hadn’t found out afterwards.

Speaking of Joe’s struggles, one part I found particularly poignant was his descent according to ‘the voice’. We all have those little motivators, something inside us which speaks to us, so it’s a process which is particularly accessible on many levels: success, drive, perseverance…The text expands to cover a wide ground of themes that every reader can identify with on some level, and it is this component which causes the text to connect with readers.

I could witter on about Simon’s role: was he right to cut the rope? Did he have the right to make that decision? And so on and so forth, and I think it’s a question that’s exceedingly difficult to answer unless you have looked death in the face, so the argument becomes circular. I’d rather end with the focus remaining on the novel’s contents: its persistant hope in the face of defeat, and its message that life is not a straight line, that the end isn’t as easy as we think it might be, and that life is worth fighting for. Despite my reservations on the specialist subject involved in this text, Simpson actually created a narrative that speaks to people from all walks of life, and it is this that makes ‘Touching the Void’ connect Simpson to his readers across the void between experiences.

Review: ‘Anybody Out There’ by Marian Keyes

I feel like I’m getting into Marian Keyes’ work a bit late, but it’s definitely a case of better late than never. It’s a pretty difficult book to review without giving things away though, so if you don’t want to know then don’t read on!

‘Anybody Out There’ is a touching, heartbreaking yet reaffirming novel based on how the tragedy of a young woman goes through the stages of grief to eventually find that, despite life going on, memories are always out there.

Personally, I found it fairly easy to guess at what had happened to Anna Walsh, the Ireland girl living the dream in New York. My friends, however, all had different (and inaccurate) theories over the mysterious circumstances behind Anna’s battered state and return to Ireland, including the idea that she was the victim of domestic abuse. What I loved about Keyes’ hints at the devastation behind Anna’s gradual recovery and clamour to return to the Big Apple was that it didn’t feel like she was purposely hiding information. Instead, it felt as though we were living through Anna, going through her denial and her coping mechanisms in order to follow her path from physical to psychological recovery.

Having this punctuated with the lives of Anna’s family and friends also aided this: Anna is seen to be coping amongst life, not separately to it, and as such her recovery becomes all the more challenging in the face of the ever-changing world around her. The notion of her first wedding alone, her friend having a child amidst her loss, and the comic relief of Helen’s attempt at espionage were all interweaved in the fabric of Anna’s journey, allowing Keyes to contextualise the notion of recovery instead of unrealistically isolating it. As such, it becomes a relatable novel.

Equally, Anna’s desperation to contact her husband, Aidan, is also incredibly heart-breaking, and Keyes’ inclusion of psychic worlds ironically sticks within the realms of reality to maintain the honest and emotional reality of grief. The visits to the Church of Spiritualist Communication highlight how well Keyes used Anna’s search for a method of talking to Aidan. The temptation must have been there, to have Anna communicate with her husband through a psychic medium, but resisting this allowed the novel to maintain its credibility, instead using the others within the support group to guide Anna towards her resolution. The group’s disbandment at the end of the novel shows this clearly: they were all props to help one another through the grieving process, and the transformation that Anna sees in Mitch during and after her attendance of these sessions is equally demonstrative of this. I must say though, despite Anna being denied psychic visitations from Aidan, the final scene with the butterfly is a welcome romanticised break from reality, closing the novel on the premise that death isn’t the end, and that somebody really is out there to watch over those they leave behind.

The only bit I really struggled to comprehend was Anna’s anger over Aidan’s son. Thinking about it afterwards, it seems like Anna’s anger is displaced onto Aidan’s son, when really she is angry at him being taken from her. But still, it is only with hindsight that I really considered this as her motive, and as such her issue with Aidan’s son feels a little contrived. However, because it is never singularly at the forefront for long periods, this is easily remedied by the rest of the plot.

The concept that resonated most with me from ‘Anybody Out There’ was the idea of Aidan, not Anna, being frightened and alone. Anna’s pleas that he wouldn’t like being dead were some of the most poignant of the novel, mostly because everyone wonders about life after death. The idea of the unknown being fearful for those left behind is not uncommon, and Anna’s concern for her husband’s wellbeing even after he is gone is beautifully written. The end certainly reconciles the notion of questioning if anyone is out there with the idea of continuation: life cannot be continually marred by death, otherwise the world would cease to function. Instead, Anna Walsh teaches us that it is possible to continue, and that the end is not the end, but the beginning of a new part of our lives.

Review: ‘The Truth About Melody Browne’ by Lisa Jewell

I’ve always loved Lisa Jewell’s novels, so I was counting down to being able to read her latest offering, ‘The Truth About Melody Browne’, after my exams.

It’s a beautifully crafted story based around Melody, who lost her memories of her childhood after a fire at her home. After a chance encounter with a hypnotist, memories start to reform, and Melody discovers she’s been completely unaware of who she is for twenty-four years.

By basing the plot around rediscovery, the twists and turns are fully justified and not just the product of an author attempting to push you towards the edge of your seat. Instead, ‘Melody Browne’ takes you on a shared journey, incorporating readers within the story by allowing them to discover things both with and before Melody herself. As such, her story becomes the story of any of us: who really remembers their childhood and the impact it’s unknowingly had on who we are today? Melody’s journey, therefore, becomes increasingly significant with each revelation, and draws you through the book with its tantalising teasers about the real Melody and her repressed self.

A well sung Melody...

The only thing that bothered me were occasional slips in style: sometimes characters came out with things that didn’t seem to suit them, or the situation around them. This was more towards the beginning of the novel so maybe it was just working you into the plot, but towards the end when Melody confronts Gloria, it all seemed a bit too theatrically crafted, although the surrounding description was able to slightly justify Melody’s dialogue. I found Stacey quite hard to digest at times as well, but that’s probably because she’s more of a prop than a character in her own right, and she served her purpose quite well, although this is unlike Ben who was both prop and his own person.

Finding Ken at the end as well split my opinion: on one hand, it was a beautiful way to tie Melody’s newfound life together in a bow, but at the same time I felt Ken should have remained this mythological creature, which could have been achieved by leaving his role in the Epilogue as a silent embrace. Giving him words seemed to deflate his importance somewhat.

However, these very minor issues brushed aside, ‘Melody Browne’ was a thoroughly lovely read. Lisa Jewell showed how the innocence of childhood is directly connected to the building of a protected adulthood, and that the smallest details can alter our entire perception of the world. This was particularly poignant with Melody and Jane’s respective mothering: Melody’s protection of Edward was born out of Jane’s debilitating fear of loss, and it was incredibly poignant to see Melody overcome her fears, unlike the tragic end Jane faced. Tragedy became subconscious behavioural patterns, and it was incredibly emotional and fascinating to watch the roots of this behaviour become unearthed. ‘Melody Browne’ is a touching novel, filled with the mystery of knowing who we really are, and the life-affirming moments where you realise anything really is possible.

Review: ‘Library of the Dead’ by Glenn Cooper

What started out as an impulse purchase to pass a train journey has ended up as an intensely riveting read: Glenn Cooper’s ‘Library of the Dead’ follows the precedent set by other historical-modern crime-thriller crossovers in creating an intense environment within the novel that propels you towards the psychologically intriguing conclusion.

 I’ll admit, I started off skeptical: here’s another author trying to emulate Dan Brown and the like, and other attempts to do so have never ended well (S.J.Parris’ ‘Prophecy’ springs to mind). Lesson learned, though: it’s not only Dan Brown who can pull off Da Vinci-esque plots.

It starts off with a serial killer, sending his victims postcards with their date of death on. But this is where simplicity ends: the postcards are a power-play, the killer is fate, and the past begins to take a new shape in FBI Special Agent Will Piper’s uncovering of the truth behind the omniscient killer.

First thing’s first: this book is set in a man’s world. Women are objects by which you reach the men, and a gauge for levels of sanity or otherwise in the men. However, I’m no feminist: to be frank, the novel works because it is a male world. It is this world which allows Will’s personal demons to become subsumed by his passion, allows Mark to unravel in his increasing erratic extravagance, and allows Octavus’ line to continue unimpeded. In short, women are objects, but I don’t think the novel loses anything through this, because it is the status as objects that allows the mystery to unravel, as the women signal the male determination to reach the long-awaited conclusion.

The blending of history with the present is a major strength in ‘LotD’. At first, throwing Churchill, President Truman, Area 51 and the like seems a bit contrived, and again I couldn’t help comparing it to Dan Brown, where history seamlessly links the past and present. However, continuing to read the novel shows how Cooper has cleverly manipulated history and perceptions of it to show the depths of deception lurking within multiple governments. The best example of this is the idea behind Area 51: the idea that the public was fed a lie but made to think that the truth had been unwittingly exposed was brilliant. The public become entangled in a series of lies that they believe are true and lies they didn’t even know existed. The truth, essentially, is hidden in plain site: everyone knows about Area 51, everyone believes a conspiracy regarding UFOs occurred, but no one looks beyond the exterior and sees the truth within.

I also loved the ominous ending to the novel. Whilst the knowledge of pre-determined fates causes harmony for Will and his family, the revelation of the significance of BTH (‘beyond the horizon’) dates in the final chapter mars this happiness. The reader is left in a psychological quandry: how does one live in the present knowing the future is set? What would the real ramifications of this information be? Cooper does the right thing in not even attempting to address the cause of Octavus’ supernatural foresight, instead leaving it to readers to speculate, and become more involved in the novel’s premise that life is for the living.

The only slightly jarring note was Mark: why did he decide to stake his place in the world by creating a killer, then use it on an insurance scam? The Doomsday killer, in short, was just a propeller to reach the Library, and a damn good one at that, but the story behind the killer was slightly lacklustre. But then, money is power, and for Mark this power was attempting to erase his dissatisfaction with his life. So maybe it is plausible, it just jarred slightly with the fast-paced nature of the rest of the novel.

Definitely a must for (sorry to align it to this again…) Dan Brown fans, as this is one novel that (finally!) lives up to the precedent left before it, and I will definitely be checking out Cooper’s other novel, ‘Book of Souls’, in the near future. Well, that’s if my date isn’t already written out in the library…

Review: ‘The House At Riverton’ by Kate Morton

This is one of those books that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for years, and I finally decided it was time to dust it off and give it a read. And I was so glad I did.

Kate Morton’s book is built around secrets that we can guess at, and that are implicitly obvious, and it is this intricate weaving of truth into the history that Grace is narrating that make the plot compelling. What I think is most attractive about these hints is that they take actions in different directions: at one point, Grace talks of how history is never truly static, because one account can alter another and add dimensions previously unseen, and it is this basis that ‘The House At Riverton’ is reliant upon. One person’s suicide is another person’s personal tragedy, one man’s jumpiness is another man’s shell shock, and one girl’s invisibility is actually a guise for omniscient knowledge.

The idea of Grace having reached 99 years old without dispelling the secrets of Riverton is one of the most beautiful elements of the plot. It means she is still unseen yet incredibly important: the film crew, the staff at Riverton when it becomes a tourist destination, even her own children, fail to recognise that Grace’s input changes history as it is known. The only thing that niggled at me slightly was in Part Four, where Grace is telling us how Hannah felt, and it’s an issue faced by many a first-person narrative, as you have to question how the narrator knows how others felt. However, it didn’t temper the pace of the story; if anything, moving towards Hannah quickened the pace in order to bring events to their haunting climax. What I missed slightly was Emmeline: she went from being the runt of the trio in The Game, to the sophisticated and beautiful socialite, but we only witnessed this transformation objectively, and although implicitly we are aware of Emmeline’s mentality, it would have been nice to see her as an individual.

One of the major strengths of the novel was its socio-historical descriptions. The condition of servants, the roles within a household and most poignantly, the First World War, were all described without over-indulgence: information was available but not forced on the reader, and as such it flowed with the story instead of being clunkily added in, as so many other novels have done. This particularly did justice to Alfred and Robbie, moulding their horrifying experiences into the British setting to highlight the continuous struggle they faced every day. The conflict between social roles and the internal disconcordance with these represented the novel perfectly: underneath the polished exterior of rank and hierarchy lay turmoil and devastation that the surface pushed away in an effort to deny its existence.

The interconnected nature of the various plot strands also worked in favour of the novel, as every character and situation had a destination. One of the more touching elements of this was the revelation that Grace finally found Alfred and was able to just be with him, without obligation or reprisals, and I think this is the point at which I started to well up! Equally, Marcus’ anticipated return was well-timed, as the story was able to both finish and be continued by Marcus and his writing, providing a brilliant circularity to the novel’s end by exposing the importance of a former house and Lady’s maid. Equally, Mr Hamilton and Mrs Townsend welcoming Grace back to Riverton was wonderfully poignant, as her journey was able to end where it began. This climaxed in Grace’s story only being complete with her death: the secrets stayed with her until the end, and only in death was she able to rejoin the house at Riverton.

The ending had me in floods: the misunderstood history, the union of two sisters being cemented only by their separation, and the opportunities denied by history were all written with such sensitivity that it was impossible not to be swept along in the tide of emotions. What made this even more impassioned was that it was all grounded in reality: the romanticism, the social situations, and the potential alternative lives were all genuine. Nothing was overdone and overkilled; everything felt natural, and it is for this reason that you end up feeling like you are stood alongside the characters, revelling in their triumphs and crying alongside them with their defeats. ‘The House at Riverton’ is a beautiful book, and one that haunts you with the realisation that history can never be fully known.