Chapter 38: Book Reviews – Marian Keyes, L.S. Popovich, Richard E. Grant, DID We Write and Terry Pratchett
Having found time to do some reading recently, I have written reviews of Again, Rachel?, The Arden, A Pocketful of Happiness, The Revelation and Guards! Guards! by the above authors. If you have read them, let me know what you think.
Again, Rachel? by Marian Keyes
This book is the sequel to ‘Rachel’s Holiday’, which was first published in 1998, and which blew me away when I read it eight years ago. In that, the titular character develops addiction problems and ends up in rehab, and though I remember few details of the book (owing to my own somewhat broken brain at the time; read Dancing With Disorder for more of an idea of what I was going through) I remember that I came away from it feeling like it was one of the best fictional insights into the mind and lifestyle of an addict, and that the characters within the book, both inside and outside of the rehab centre, were written both realistically and fantastically well.
Though my memory of the details of the original was somewhat sketchy, it didn’t take long before ‘Again, Rachel?’ was helping me remember the things I thought I’d forgotten. Whereas the first book was about the descent into addiction and the overcoming of the denial of Rachel, in this sequel, set twenty years later, she has worked herself into a head therapist role at the rehab centre she was once a patient of. The way she coaxes truths from her clients and helps them break their walls down is brilliant, and the story of her life outside of the rehab centre is very engaging. It sounds cliché, but I could barely put this book down. I was rooting for Rachel far more than I do with most characters of stories – perhaps, as someone who has struggled with addiction myself in the past, because I see a lot of myself in her – and I empathised with her struggles so much. For the first 90% of the book, this was an incredible story, and I feel a lot of people will enjoy the ending.
For me, though, the ending was horrible. I don’t want to give spoilers, because it is still a relatively new release, but it felt cheap and unearned. Indeed, it almost served to undermine the incredible growth shown by Rachel throughout the two novels, and I can’t understand Keyes’s thinking behind ending it the way she did. And yet, I can see how so many people would like it, and I wonder if that’s the reason she went the way she did with it. I’m someone who looks for the good in everything, and I’m one of the few people on the planet who enjoyed the way Game of Thrones ended and thought it made sense, so I’m not the hardest person to please. The ending to ‘Again, Rachel?’ though, I just felt it was a real shame how the events transpired, and just a bit more courage could have elevated a very good book into an all-time classic.
Like I say, it’s an ending I think a lot of people like. Even if you end up not liking it, I really feel you should read both ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ and ‘Again, Rachel?’, because they are fantastic insights into the minds of addicts, and the stories are told with humour, warmth, kindness and compassion. They may not be perfect, but they are better than almost anything else of the same theme, and they are well worth your time.
The Arden, by L.S. Popovich
When The Arden came to my attention, I was unsure whether to read it, given it’s not a genre I normally read. My uncertainty grew during the opening, as I found some of the writing to be unnecessarily verbose, slowing the pace down and obscuring the points being made. I also found the narrator to be quite an unlikable character. I’ve known far too many people like Kaneda in real life, the sort of smug stoner-atheist youth who read a little about something and become so certain of everything, the type who think Bill Hicks is the height of philosophy and who would drown in their own cynicism if they weren’t so full of hot air, and the bitterness he had towards the world was somewhat tedious. His friend, Gypsy, seemed equally cynical, with only the third character, Gray, offering me an initial character to hang my hat on.
Knowing I was tired and perhaps a bit grumpy, and that the book was a genre I don’t normally read, I forced myself to keep reading to give it a proper chance. Once the characters met The Arden, the book really got going. Popovich’s real strength is giving life to a world, creating a vivid landscape that sucked me in and kept me reading. The characters Kaneda meets along the way are varied, each one offering a different perspective on the world and on life. Though Kaneda didn’t win me over, I can imagine younger readers than myself would identify with him quite well. Irrespective on my thoughts on the character, The Arden wormed its way into my spirit, keeping the pages turning and my interest growing. It’s a story that builds and builds, one packed with humour and philosophy, and the conclusion proves very satisfying.
That I finished it in one sitting is testament to the skill of Popovic, and to the quality of the world created in The Arden. I’m glad I stuck with this book, despite my initial misgivings, and it’s one that will linger in my thoughts for some time to come. Indie books are often overlooked due to a perception they are somehow lesser than traditionally published books. If you give it a chance, The Arden will challenge that perception.
A Pocketful of Happiness, by Richard E. Grant
This book is the actor Richard E. Grant’s journal over the last year or so of his late wife’s life, before she died of cancer. It sounds like a grim read, but it is in fact one of the most poignantly beautiful books I’ve ever read. What shines through every single page is just how much he and his wife loved each other, their mutual strength and courage in tackling such a profoundly difficult situation, and the sheer joy Grant finds in life, both his professional life as an actor and his personal life as well. From his career anecdotes where his unabashed fandom of the people he works with and meets – Barbra Streisand, in particular – and the films he works on is so endearing, to the intimate, incredibly open manner in which he discusses the impact of caring for the love of your life through to their eventual death, his sheer gratitude at the blessings he has experienced is beautiful.
This book, I feel I cannot do it justice. I came away from it more deeply in love with my partner, and resolving to work harder to show her that love. I was blown away by the honesty and heart displayed within these pages, and when I went to Grant’s social media pages for the first time afterwards, what struck me was just how much of them are dominated by his wonderful smile. This is honestly one of the sweetest, nicest and most powerful love stories I have ever read, one of a humble man from Africa who got to live his wildest dreams and cherished every moment, good or bad. A Pocketful of Happiness isn’t a long book, and the way it is structured makes even the difficult entries easy to read. I wish Mr. Grant and his family every happiness in the future, because he comes across as a thoroughly decent person. I hope my partner and I can still feel the love Grant and his wife shared in 35 years’ time, and I hope you read this book. I urge you to read it, because you will be glad you did.
The Revelation, by DID We Write
This book follows the journey of a person through the discovery that they are in fact multiple people within one body, the fight to get diagnosed officially and the trials and tribulations that come from such a startling and disconcerting realisation as to the nature of their existence. Dissociative Identity Disorder is perhaps the most misunderstood and hard-to-fathom of all disorders, with Hollywood films and the wider media sensationalising the condition for dramatic effect and limited literature on the disorder itself from those who experience it. DID We Write – the author name for the collective that believed for so long she was one person – uses The Revelation to try and change that, and I feel they are successful in their aim.
This isn’t a traditional story, nor a medical textbook. It’s essentially a journal, one that compiles blog posts, social media posts, poetry and commentary. It is not a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, nor is everything left tied up in a neat little bow. Instead, the authors bleed onto the page, and it is the sense of raw emotion that encapsulates everything within this book. It is not an easy read, with the jumping between authors and the liberally-sprinkled poetry discombobulating and occasionally disruptive. However, rather than detracting from the book, this style serves to put you in the head of a DID system in a way a more traditionally-written story simply cannot replicate. You lose track of who is writing, despite the variety of fonts and stylistic choices to attempt to separate the authors. The fusions and separations of the personalities is confusing, and to attempt to follow more than the ‘main’ actors is very difficult. There was more than one time when I wished it had been written in an easier-to-follow manner, with the ‘narrator’ personality taking full control.
And yet, having completed the book, I find myself wondering if this was, in fact, the only way it could have been written. Had it been a traditional style, I would have felt great sympathy for the authors. Instead, I come away feeling empathy and compassion, and with a far greater understanding of just how difficult their life must be to make sense of. The book invites you into the mind/s of a DID system, asking you to be the lead character – the host. Then, it assails your mind with the mania and confusion that Amber Ainsworth – the individual who became the collective – endures every day. If it’s hard for us to read, knowing it only demands three hours of our time and we can walk away at any moment, imagine how much harder it must be to live this book permanently; to feel as though you are losing your mind, to endure such a startling discovery and then, when you have an answer that makes sense of it all, to feel that you are doomed to be stigmatised and forever. The juxtaposition between the joy of understanding and the fear of what that understanding brings permeates every page, and when you close the book for the last time, you are left torn between wanting the authors to find peace, but knowing that them doing so will involve immense pain and grief.
When I began The Revelation, I hoped the author would be cured of this condition, and could somehow find a way through it. When I ended it, I felt more that it is in fact the world that needs to change, not the author. For them to be ‘cured’ of their condition, then the people they are closest to in the world would have to die. I don’t know if that is a price worth paying, and I believe the focus should be on finding a way for people with DID to exist safely in the world, rather than bringing an end to the condition. I understand Dissociative Identity Disorder better for having read this book. It is not an easy read, but it is a worthy one, and that is perhaps far more important.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett is someone I’ve been wanting to read for a while, because I thoroughly enjoyed his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on Good Omens and everybody raves about Pratchett. I asked my future mother-in-law which of his vast collection she would recommend, and she recommended I read Guards! Guards! Now, maybe years of hearing Pratchett hyped so much created an unrealistic sense of expectation, but I found it quite hard to get into this book. I found his tendency to distort the dialogue – with spelling mistakes and bad pronunciations - for effect quite irritating, and though I can see what he was going for and why people might like it, the sheer amount of it early on made the first part of this book somewhat of a chore to read. I also found his tendency to make everything into a punchline detracted from the gravity of the story, and brought it down somewhat. Going back to the expectations thing, I thought I was going to be reading some classic fantasy with good amounts of humour interspersed, much like the aforementioned Good Omens, but instead it felt more like I was reading a Monty Python sketch. I actually stopped reading the book for a while around the halfway point. I read Ad Hominem by Eric Gay instead, and I enjoyed that much more than I was enjoying Guards! Guards!, as it got the humour-seriousness balance much more to my liking.
Had it not been for giving my future mother-in-law my word I would give it a chance, I probably wouldn’t have finished Guards! Guards! However, I did not want to let her down, so I persevered. And, truth be told, I’m glad I did. I read the second half of the book in one sitting, so it definitely engaged me more as the story went on, and I found myself much more engaged with the characters, in particular the fantastic Vimes. I got the feeling, though, that Pratchett did not respect any of the characters he wrote in this book. I once read Neil Gaiman describe Pratchett as an angry man, whose anger at the state of the world and the people in it permeates all his writing, and I definitely see where he was coming from. But, again, perhaps that preconception of Pratchett and his writing has affected my view of this book. Part of me wishes I had gone into it blind, though with someone as respected and famous as Pratchett, that’s not really possible.
I’m not really a fan of giving ratings for things, but the best way I can summarise this book is that, for me, it was a nine out of ten story with seven out of ten execution, due to the choice to go for cheap laughs rather than emotion at key points. I also think it would’ve been a ten out of ten Monty Python film. Overall, I found myself underwhelmed, but the way it engaged me in the second half of the book – once my expectations had been lowered and I was no longer expecting greatness – leaves me wondering if I would’ve enjoyed it more had I been in a different mindset going in. I also feel my experience was somewhat diminished by having just started writing my own fantasy story, and therefore finding myself analysing everything I was reading with a student’s eye, rather than just sitting back and enjoying the ride. As such, I am going to give Pratchett another shot, most likely with the book Mort, and see if I come away from that with a revised opinion of his work. I hope I do, and I expect I will.
"One of the most insightful works I've read on mental health problems in men ... very well-written and a real page-turner. I would recommend it to anyone.
Dancing With Disorder
"It communicates a deep understanding of troubled individuals who suffer from the challenges of mental disorders ... Courageous, wise, humorous and thought-provoking ... an easy-to-read, surprising and subtly moving chronicle.
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