Robyn Reviews: The Midnight Library

Some books just speak to you. They seem to access a part of your soul that you weren’t even aware of; that you didn’t even know you needed. This is one such book. I’ve read other books by Matt Haig but none have affected me in the way that this did. I’m speechless. Everyone should read this. Everyone needs this magic in their lives.

This is a book about life, in all of its messy perfection. It’s a fantasy novel, in a way, but it also feels more real than most contemporary fiction. It’s almost impossible to review because it’s impossible to capture the feeling that it gives you – and you only get to experience a book for the first time once. I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone. I’ve rarely read a book and felt so profoundly moved.

“We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite.”

The Midnight Library is an in-between place, somewhere between life and death. The protagonist, Nora, wants to die; her life has gone in a completely unexpected direction and she no longer has the will to keep herself alive. But instead of dying, she finds herself in a library of endless possibilities – a library where she can live out every other possible life, all the lives that could have happened if she had made different choices, from the large to the small. As she explores all of her other lives, Nora comes to profound realisations about her own – and what it means to be alive.

Matt Haig is known for his self-help books, and whilst this is fiction it has threads of those self-help books running through it. I suspect part of why I love this is that I read it at the perfect time – when I was in exactly the right frame of mind for it. Those who don’t like their books to be too ‘preachy’ may not enjoy this – but I imagine that most will appreciate the cleverness of the story and how well it gives its message.

There are no perfect things in life, so of course this isn’t a perfect book. But it comes close. I encourage everyone to read this book – read it, and seek joy in the small moments that make up humanity.

“It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn’t make and the work we didn’t do and the people we didn’t marry and the children we didn’t have… but it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself.”

 

Published by Canongate
Hardback: 13 August 2020

Book Review: Reasons to Stay Alive

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Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig, chronicles the author’s experience of crippling anxiety and depression, and how he emerged from his worst period of disintegration changed but better equipped to cope with these debilitating conditions when they recur. Although he had the good fortune to have a loving partner and family to support him throughout, the feelings he shares and the advice he gives are sound even for those who do not have such privileges. He acknowledges their worth but still had to deal with this himself.

Starting with the onset of his illness, in Ibiza in 1999, he takes the reader through why he did not commit suicide but instead went back to his parents’ home in Nottinghamshire where he was barely capable of leaving the house for months. He talks of how others view the depressed, and how the sufferer views himself. There is the fear of madness, the monstrous scenarios imagined and how real they feel, the slowness of time as he battled to get through each hour of each day.

The author did not find that medication helped but gradually built up an arsenal of weapons to enable him to fight in a way that better suited him. He eschewed all drugs, including alcohol. He took up running, yoga and meditation. He read voraciously and started to write. He gradually faced his demons, sometimes retreating but then returning a little stronger to try again.

Although this is a dark and difficult subject it is presented in a way that gives hope. He survived. He can now see that the worst periods do end and that there is the possibility of good times in a future that itself once appeared an impossibility.

“Depression is also… Smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it.”

In looking back he believes that he is richer for the experience, however high the toll of his suffering. What he describes as his thin skin enables him to feel the good in life as well as the bad. He appreciates what he has and knows that, when the black feelings return they will pass.

Mental illness is prevalent yet still carries stigma. Books such as this serve to remind sufferers that they are not alone, that many have suffered and gone on to live lives containing many worthwhile moments. It suggests things that may help but more than that it reminds us that all things must end, that we should sip and savour the bottle of wine that is our allotted time.

“We are alone, but not alone. We are trapped by time, but also infinite. Made of flesh, but also stars.”

Highly recommended to anyone who suffers mental illness or who knows a sufferer. I suspect that covers just about everyone.

 

Gig Review: Matt Haig in Bath

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On Monday evening, not so fresh off the plane from Belfast, I made my way to the City of Bath for a literary event that I just couldn’t miss, despite being exhausted from my long weekend away. The wonderful Toppings Bookshop were hosting Matt Haig, author of The HumansA Boy Called Christmas, and the book he had come to talk about that evening, Reasons to Stay Alive. This had been on my wish list for some time so I was eager to buy myself a copy and to meet an author whose twitter feed I follow avidly.

Toppings host many author events, often in local churches or other larger venues, but this one was to be held in the bookshop itself, just one of the reasons I had been so keen to attend. The constraints of space would ensure a more intimate experience. Arriving early I picked up a very welcome glass of wine and settled down in a front row seat. As the shop started to fill up and extra seating was put in place I realised how lucky we were that the event had not been moved elsewhere to accommodate the crowd.

I had not read the book but knew that it was non fiction and dealt with the author’s personal experiences with depression. He started his talk by outlining how this illness had come out of nowhere, suddenly, viciously. He mentioned the support he had been given by his family, and the failure of medication to deal with his particular symptoms. He read to us an early chapter of the book which brought to life how close he had been to death.

Obviously he did not die. The second half of the talk focused on the positives to have come out of his experiences. He believes that having a thin skin means that he can feel more and that this is a good thing. He has heightened appreciation, can recognise and empathise with other’s struggles. He knows now that the worst episodes of mental illness will eventually pass, even if they may also return. From what I have heard of his book he says this all much more cogently than me so do go read it!

After sharing another chapter from near the end of the book Matt asked for questions from his audience. This part of the event was not what I had expected. Instead of asking about his writing, or about other’s reactions to the book, the questions focused on how to help people the audience members knew who were suffering mental illness. Perhaps Matt is used to this, he certainly dealt with it gently. I wondered why these people did not seek out experts in the field rather than asking for solutions from an author, albeit one who has experience of these issues.

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I had purchased a signed copy so did not feel the need to join the lengthy queue which snaked around the shop at the end. I should, perhaps, point out that the wine glasses in the picture above were not Matt’s. He had talked of his decision to cut back on many of the lifestyle drugs it is common to imbibe and throughout the evening sipped only on water.

I made my way to the train station and was updating my twitter feed with a picture of the event when I noticed that Matt had entered the lounge and was also tapping away on his phone. I had just tagged him and was entertained by the thought that we were communicating via social media whilst within feet of each other. I decided to talk to him.

What is the protocol for this? An author travels to a city, performs at a bookshop, and then leaves to catch the train home. Sitting in the station is someone who was at the event. How do they feel about a stranger sitting down opposite and talking as they both wait for the train?

I have no idea what Matt thought. He was gracious, answering my questions and indulging in idle chat as we waited for the five or so minutes until our train was announced. As we moved to the platform he made it clear that he would not be sitting with me. I had never intended to impose myself on him in this way. Perhaps it was my social anxiety kicking in and I read too much into his words. He had mentioned that he was still adjusting his body clock after a long haul flight so was probably exhausted.

I noticed as I moved away from him that a young girl approached to let him know how much she enjoyed his books. I hope that he felt flattered by the kindly meant attention. I have since posed the question of protocol on a Facebook Group I belong to, Book Connectors, which exists to bring bloggers and authors together. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, that authors wish to talk to their fans.

As I made my way home I pondered social etiquette and expectations. I had wondered at the audience members looking to Matt for answers to problems in their lives. I had looked to him for some small measure of friendship when he knew nothing about me. I wonder how he saw us.

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Reasons to Stay Alive is published by Canongate Books and is available to buy now.

 

 

Book Review: A Boy Called Christmas

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A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, is the spirit of the season wrapped up inside the covers of a book. It is funny, poignant, mischievous, magical and joyous to read. It provides all the warm fuzzies without ever descending into schmaltz.

The protagonist, Nikolas, is a woodcutter’s son living in Finland more than a hundred years ago. He and his father, Joel, are very poor, subsisting on berries, stale bread and soup made from foraged mushrooms. When a hunter appears unexpectedly at their remote home offering untold riches if Joel will join him on an expedition to the dangerous north, Nikolas is left in the care of his cruel aunt. Even hungrier now, desperate and unhappy, Nikolas counts the days to his father’s return. When he does not reappear the boy determines to follow in the woodcutter’s footsteps and search him out.

The dangers Nikolas encounters and the friends he makes on his adventures offer explanations for many of the traditions now associated with the festive season. We learn how reindeer fly, why presents are placed in stockings, how crackers save lives, and the origins of the naughty and nice lists.

The author slips in many points to consider about humanity, greed, and how grown ups seek to justify their selfishness. He also reminds us of the joy of giving, the value of a clear conscience, and the power of hope.

If I had read this book years ago then I would not have told my growing children that Father Christmas was not real. Why limit life by accepting what others regard as impossible?

“An impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand yet…”

This is a book that deserves to appear in every stocking on Christmas Eve. I have no doubt it is destined to become a perennial festive favourite with child and adult alike.

Book Review: The Humans

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The Humans, by Matt Haig, uses the story of an alien visiting earth to explore what it means to be human. It is perceptive and funny if a little idealistic, suggesting that there is hope for the world despite humankind’s propensity for greed, selfishness and acceptance of state sponsored violence.

The story centres around Professor Andrew Martin, a Cambridge academic who has solved the Riemann hypothesis, a mathematical problem that will lead to great technological advancement for the human race. As a result of this he is killed and his body taken over by a Vonnadorian, an alien from a planet where life is based around maths, logic and rationality. It is the Vonnadorian’s belief that humans would cause damage to the cosmos if they succeeded in mastering space travel. The alien’s mission is to kill all who have been made aware of the professor’s discovery.

A mission to planet earth is seen as a punishment and is undertaken with little prior knowledge. As a result the alien in Andrew Martin’s body spends his first few hours wandering naked around Cambridge whilst he learns the language and customs of the place. It is the insightful observations that he makes as an outsider looking in which give this book its strength.

Having encountered the police and the medical authorities the professor must then navigate family life, a family that he is tasked with killing. As he observes first hand the neglected wife and teenage son, who believe that Andrew is acting so strangely due to a mental breakdown, he begins to understand more about the human psyche. Despite his best efforts he finds himself empathising with their struggles and thereby puts his mission at risk.

The author touches lightly on so many aspects of humanity’s foolish behaviour. I particularly enjoyed the observations on how News became more interesting to humans the closer it got to home, especially when he quipped that social media is the ideal as it could be filtered to report only that which directly affected the user. He gently mocked efforts at recycling, and the time humans devote to pursuits that make them feel worse about themselves.

Despite the obvious human defects noted, the alien begins to question his orders and the supposedly perfect way of life he had enjoyed back home. In discovering poetry, music and human love he comes to understand that not everything can be logically explained. It is not just clothes that are used to mask what is underneath but also words and actions. So much of what may be observed on a human is a disguise, culturally ingrained as appropriate behaviour yet serving only as a mask.

This is an easy and entertaining book to read. Its gentle tone allows the reader to take as little or as much of the philosophy behind the observations as they wish. It is undemanding yet invites the reader to think about their everyday behaviour. It suggests that the world can become a better place not by destruction but by recognising the damage that humans cause to themselves and others by action and inaction, and by changing the way that they as individuals behave.

 

Authors and Book Bloggers

On Friday the author and blogger, Matt Haig, tweeted

There then followed a twitter storm that lasted several days.

Some agreed with the points he subsequently made, some disagreed. There was much vehemence and a fair few hurt feelings on show. From what Matt said he also received some disturbing private messages. We all know that social media can turn nasty.

I followed the debate with interest and felt personally affronted by two strands:

  1. There was a suggestion that some book bloggers simply wish to receive free books.
  2. There was a suggestion that bloggers promote books without discernment.

I put a lot of time and effort into reading and then writing honest reviews. I do it because I love books and I want to talk about them, to share my opinions with like minded others. When I enjoy a book I want to support that author in whatever way I can.

From the discussion there was a suggestion of disparagement.

It is obviously true that writing a book takes a great deal more effort than reading it and then writing a review, but that was not the main point of this discussion.

What really grabbed my attention was the original topic, that authors do not value reviews if they are always positive, that they want to see some negative reviews of their work.

This has not been my experience so I weighed in.

I started to follow this twitter storm because personally I provide my honest opinion of a book and sometimes that is negative. Negative reviews are much harder to constructively create than positive and that effort then gets ignored. Publicists and authors are not going to promote an opinion of their book that is less than enthusiastic.

Another author came back to me with this:

 

I rarely hate a book (such a strong word) but I did empathise with the hurt. I have been there, facing up to criticism of my carefully crafted words. It does not feel good.

It is understandable that authors want the fruits of their extensive labours to be well received. To try to argue that authors want to see negative reviews though? Hmm.

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One of the books that I read recently did not impress me. The plot was compelling but a good book requires more: a captivating writing style, comprehensible structure, convincing character development, readability, realism. I gave my opinion and the review sank to the bottom of my blog.

The author subsequently released a sequel and, curious to know how the plot continued, I requested a copy for review. I was refused. Rather than ignore me the author was kind enough to explain that, as I had not appeared to enjoy the first book, she felt that I was unlikely to enjoy the second. She also provided some constructive criticism of my reviewing style which I have since taken on board.

This author saw no point in submitting a book for review if the review was likely to be negative. To me this made sense. Negative reviews are not going to be used by publicists so why provide a free book?

Another thread in the Matt Haig twitter storm discussed the fact that book bloggers only want to read books that they will enjoy.

Before reading a book a reviewer cannot know exactly what it will be like. However, from the blurb there are certain types of book that I will never request (for me these include light romance or erotica). There are plenty who choose to read these genres but I do not. Life is short. Why spend time reading a book that is unlikely to appeal in order to write a review that is likely to be negative and will therefore be ignored?

Another thread bemoaned the book bloggers who endlessly promote books. Guys, this is why we do it! If I love a book then I will shout it from the rooftops, again and again. I only truly love a handful of the dozens of books that I read but as I tend to review a lot of books by less well known authors I want to play whatever small part I can in getting them noticed by a wider audience.

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Matt sounded a little down about many of the comments made in response to his tweets. He wrote this blog post to clarify his thoughts: A blog about blogging.

At the end of the day a book review is the opinion of one reader. Writers tend to be sensitive souls who want their creations to be loved. Not all books are good, and no book is going to be considered good by everyone.

Matt, I see what you were trying to say but there was too much in this discussion that I could not agree with. Authors may want to see more negative reviews, but not it would appear of their own books.

A well written review, positive or negative, can be useful and that is why they are read. As Joanne Harris tweeted: