Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)


Immersive and convincing historical fiction: A Pearl for My Mistress by Annabel Fielding


Both Hester and Sophie are trying to escape. Hester dreams of travelling. She has left her family and her home, abandoning her working class vocabulary and Northern accent to become the perfect lady’s maid. Sophie longs for independence, to free herself from the rigid shackles of her aristocratic upbringing. In trying to escape, they find each other. But it’s 1934 in England, so can their relationship survive the threat of war, financial instability, and slander?

A Pearl for My Mistress Annabel Fielding.jpg

When I began this book I imagined it would be an easy read; your average romantic novel. How wrong I was. This book is so much more than a love story. Yes, the pace nips along nicely and the story is totally immersive, but the historical context adds great depth and intrigue, and the prose is beautiful, elegant, and expressive.

This book is not merely set against a backdrop of the 1930s, but is completely immersed in the time. Fielding’s writing is so evocative that it’s easy to imagine every last detail of life in 1930s England. A Pearl for My Mistress is clearly thoroughly researched, and the historical context is effortlessly intertwined with the plot. Fictional narrative merges with real-life events and characters, moving seamlessly from intricate details of high society life and working class drudgery to broader political themes. While the details are intricate and informed, they never overpower the story. The political climate of the era is profoundly complex, and so the book benefitted from a range of viewpoints. I imagine Lucy, given her support of the Blackshirts, is a somewhat divisive character, but her motivations are perfectly justified, even, at times, sympathetic.

My only gripes were very minor—the commitment to telling the story in the voice of both Hester and Lucy meant some immersion was lost when they were together and the reader had to jump between the two perspectives. I was sad, too, that Hester faded a little into the background towards the last third of the novel.

There’s so much to love about this book: the vividly described historical context, the convincingly flawed characters, the sensual, sentimental, and oh so relatable descriptions of love (which Fielding describes beautifully as like “velvet”). I also loved Fielding’s descriptions of writing and reading, and the power of words and legends to inspire and even control. Fielding’s passion for the era and for the writing process itself is infectious. This is no simple romance, but a story about misplaced trust, self-destructive behaviour, and how characters can survive and thrive against manipulation on a personal and political scale.

Favourite quotation: “Lucy Fitzmartin lay in the darkness, feeling absolutely no inclination to sleep. Her mind was ablaze with stories, with thoughts, with possibilities. She could feel the spectres of a thousand plots at her fingertips. Words flared up in her head, colliding and intertwining with one another, forming sentences and paragraphs of the stories yet to be written. Now she had someone to read them.”

Annabel Fielding, A Pearl for My Mistress (HQ Digital, 2017)

Thank you to Annabel Fielding and HQ Digital for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney

I loved the concept of this. Take one unexplained event from the life of a literary genius, add a splash of fact and a generous dose of fiction, and bake, until the resulting mix has increased in size and scope a hundred times over. The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire follows three disparate characters and their intertwining lives in early 19th-century London. Tuah, an ex-slave; Anne, a prostitute; and a young Thomas de Quincey. Weaving through the story, dealing out pleasure and pain in equal measure, is the ominous presence of opium.

Brian Keaney The Alphabet of Heart's Desire

I was really excited to read this, having been introduced to Thomas de Quincey’s work while at university. I haven’t read ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (which inspired this novel), but I loved his morbid satirical essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’. In preparation for this I tried to look up my study notes, but all I could find was an elusive reference to it in an essay on the poetry of Browning. Disappointing for me now, but no doubt at the time I thought my passing reference was very witty and intellectual.

The narrative is told from the perspective of each of the three main characters. Each character has an individual, if slightly contrived, voice. Tuah’s speech is peppered with the Bible verses introduced to him by the ship captain who taught him to speak English. Anne’s speech is full of the grammatical idiosyncracies one might expect from your run-of-the-mill 19th-century street urchin. She is a street urchin with learning, however, and every word that might be considered too erudite for her is italicised. I found this a little distracting, but I think it emphasises that however much she may learn the ways of the upper classes, she will never leave behind her impoverished roots. While Thomas might use those words naturally, for her they come from a world beyond her own. She cannot forget it, and neither can we.

The characters themselves are well developed, and while they do give a cross section of 19th-century society, they do not feel stereotyped. By far my favouite character was Archie, whose philosophy and wit were sunshine among the clouds. I thoroughly enjoyed his conversation with Tuah about reading having “cured” him of his hunchback. Seeing Tuah’s puzzlement, he responds, “You are tempted to point out that it is still there…Literature is the great leveller…for when I read I stand as straight and true as any man.”

The writing is good and often wryly funny, although I was rarely completely absorbed by it. The highlights are certainly the descriptions of early 19th-century life in London. Particularly the more unpleasant aspects. Racism, child sex, rape, torture. Keaney certainly doesn’t shy away from describing these in vivid, macabre detail, confronting the reader with the gritty reality we are often all too happy to ignore.

For me, the pacing felt a little off. I enjoyed exploring the backstories of each of these characters, but wasn’t fully invested until Thomas and Anne finally meet. It was a shame not to spend more time with this and the fall-out of their relationship. Since the consequences of this are not explored, the ending comes abruptly and is a little anti-climactic.

An enjoyable read for fans of literary historical fiction but this didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Favourite quotation: “he lay down flat with his ear to the ground and listened. At first it was no more than a whisper, like the sound of the wind breathing through the sedge beside some ancient and forever sunless sea. But gradually the murmur grew and Thomas knew it then for what it was: the footsteps of all those who had ever walked, or ever would walk upon the face of the earth. He listened harder, knowing there was a meaning in those endlessly changing patterns, if only he could understand it.”

Brian Keaney, The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire (Holland House, 2017)

Thank you to Brian Keaney and Holland House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Mind-altering and vocabulary-expanding: Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon

When Diana Hunter dies during interrogation, Mielikki Neith is charged with uncovering what happened. When Neith opens the record of interrogation, she expects to be able to experience Hunter’s consciousness essentially as if it were her own. A routine investigation. But inside Diana’s mind she finds four others, none of which should be there.  

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway.jpg

Of all the novels I’ve read this year, Gnomon is by far the most ambitious, conceptually and stylistically. Nick Harkaway is surely the intellectual love-child of M.C. Escher and Umberto Eco.

I find it nearly impossible to describe Gnomon. It’s a thriller, a mystery, dystopian (or utopian?), literary, verging in moments on academic. It’s the story of a society governed by The System, where everything from your neighbours to your washing machine monitors and reports you. It’s the story of a woman, Neith, an inspector. It’s the story of Diana Hunter, novelist, rebel, victim. No, it’s the story of both of these, and an Ethiopian retired-artist-turned-games-designer, a Roman alchemist, and a Greek banker. And a shark.

This is an important book. It’s a book about surveillance, individuality, race, free will, identity. It cannot help but deal with current political and social issues because it is a novel that, for all its magical realism, deals with the real world.

The story unfolds through various interweaving narratives (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). Narration shifts through various third person and first person voices, and yet each voice is so distinct that you never have to wonder whose story you’re reading now. What are these separate narratives? Are they past lives? Are they a history of how the current society developed? Are they narratives constructed by Hunter’s dying mind?

Tension ebbs and flows, and the pace is relatively sedate, with long explorations of mythology, politics, catabasis, and steganography. Yet once you read the end of a narrative you find yourself desperate to know what happens to that character next. It’s impossible to race through this novel, not least because you have to keep pausing to look up words, and yet it’s also impossible to stop reading. Frequently I found myself emerging, gasping for air, shocked by whatever revelation and just unfolded in my mind.

Ultimately I love that the whole book could be construed as a metaphor for reading. It’s about the alchemy that occurs when someone else’s words arrive fully-formed in your brain. That magic of interpretation, ultimately of adoption, as the story you read is weaved into your own narrative, your own identity.

Gnomon makes you work hard but the payoff is beyond worth it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Favourite quotation:

“[T]his is a real possible future. It’s not a nightmare, it’s a truth. It already exists in the overlap of our technologies and our fears. It only needs the right flow of events for us to act the dream and make it real. Imagine how safe it would feel to know that no one could ever commit a crime of violence and go unnoticed, ever again. Imagine what it would mean to us to know—know for certain—that the plane or the bus we’re travelling on is properly maintained, that the teacher who looks after our children doesn’t have ugly secrets. All it would cost is our privacy, and to be honest who really cares about that? What secrets would you need to keep from a mathematical construct without a heart? From a card index? Why would it matter?” (loc 3107-3113)

Nick Harkaway, Gnomon (William Heinemann, 2017)

Thank you to Nick Harkaway and William Heinemann via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

Graham Holderness examines the faith of Shakespeare’s plays and life. He offers a Protestant reading of a number of Shakespeare’s plays, utilising his extensive knowledge of Christian texts and historical context.

The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

It’s been well over a year since I last read a book about Shakespeare. During research for my Masters dissertation, I devoured every book about early modern theatre I could lay my hands on. After a much-needed break, it was a joy to return to Shakespeare criticism with such an accessible and informed book as The Faith of William Shakespeare.

Holderness begins by outlining the theory of the English Reformation. It’s concise and informative, an excellent breakdown of an extremely complex topic. I found myself wishing I had read this overview while studying the early modern period, and I will certainly be returning to it for a refresher course.

Holderness follows this with an analysis of faith as presented in a selection of the plays. His analysis takes the play, and the world of the play, as a whole, honing in on specific instances in which faith is explored. As he explains,
“Shakespeare’s plays are creative unities that need to be seen or read as a whole. If there is a religious vision in Shakespeare, it will be found not in isolated references and allusions scattered throughout his work, but in the overall structural design…This book takes the play as the basic unit of religious thought and feeling…”
Much of his analysis takes the form of identifying “echoes” within the play text of Protestant and Anglican religious texts. These echoes are sometimes quite vague, and sometimes very detailed. They are as often echoes of sense and philosophy as they are specifically linguistic echoes.

I particularly enjoyed his chapter on The Merchant of Venice, which investigates the presentation of Shylock. His exploration of mercy through the interaction of Portia and Shylock was especially convincing. His chapter on genre on King Lear was excellent. He rightly acknowledges that King Lear moves between Romance, fairy tale, history, and tragedy, and Holderness cleverly uses this to justify a Christian reading of the play. He ultimately claims the play’s philosophy is Calvinist, although I felt this conclusion was abruptly made with just a few paragraphs of explanation. Perhaps Holderness assumes that we read the chapter with Calvinism in mind, but bringing this in earlier would have made the conclusion more convincing. His chapter on The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as reworkings of earlier tragedies has a huge amount of potential, but ended before being fully developed. I would have liked to read more on this.

While The Faith of William Shakespeare deals with complex ideas, it is very accessible. The book assumes the reader does not have an extensive knowledge of either the religious context or the plays themselves. Since Holderness is looking at the plays as a whole, some of his book is spent paraphrasing plots. I was concerned this might be frustrating with plays I knew particularly well, but it rarely detracted from the analysis and was useful in the plays I was less familiar with.

The Faith of William Shakespeare bucks the current trend of arguing for Shakespeare to be a Catholic or atheist, and instead sets out to prove he lived his life as a Protestant. Holderness acknowledges that the plays are a poor route to knowledge of Shakespeare’s life, but they are also the only evidence really available. Often his readings are broadly “Christian” rather than specifically Protestant (or Anglican, or Calvinist, or Lutheran), which sadly works against his “Shakespeare is a Protestant” argument. However, just because I did not end the book convinced that Shakespeare or his plays were Protestant, does not mean this was not an enlightening and interesting exploration of one of the key issues in Shakespeare criticism.

Favourite quotation: “The feather does not stir, and yet she lives, ‘a soul in bliss.’ In an agnostic or atheist reading this is the delusion of an old man desperate to keep his dead daughter alive. In a Christian reading, assured that Cordelia’s sacrificial death, like the death of Christ, has the power to ‘redeem all sorrows’, Lear may die in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life. This, finally, may be the happy ending that is continually trying to get out of this bleak and nihilistic tragedy.”

Graham Holderness, The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Books, 2016)

Thank you to Graham Holderness and Lion Books via NetGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Fantasy with a healthy dose of reality: Court of Twilight by Mareth Griffith

Ivy is not having a good week. She’s just lost her job at the Eirecom call centre. Strange men are loitering outside her flat. And now, her reclusive, plant-obsessed flatmate has disappeared, and Ivy might be the only person who can find her.

Court of Twilight Mareth Griffith.png

Blending contemporary life with ancient mythology, Court of Twilight is an inventive fantasy novel set in modern-day Dublin. The book follows 20-year-old Ivy, newly unemployed, as she searches for her flatmate. Along the way she relearns everything she thought she knew about fairytales.

The success of Court of Twilight hinges on the characterisation of Ivy. Thankfully, Ivy is convincing and extremely relatable. She is doggedly determined, and takes everyday and otherworldly challenges in her stride. I love the blending of normality with fantasy here—Ivy is as likely to be hunting for a new job as she is hunting down fairytale life forms. There’s a grounded realism you don’t often experience in fantasy novels.

Occasionally Ivy is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to acknowledging the magic being revealed around her. But just because I know Ivy’s in a fantasy novel, doesn’t mean she does. I expect magic around every corner, but she’s more worried about how annoyed her flatmate will be if she kills of all her plants. I loved Ivy’s relationship with her flamate, Demi. These are not sisters who have sworn to defend each other until death. They’re two people who have been thrown together by circumstance, whose friendship has slowly blossomed in spite of their various idiosyncrasies. But Ivy won’t let anything or anyone stop her from helping Demi.

Characterisation elsewhere was also strong. Each person has their own individual agenda, and even the characters we like the most act questionably. There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity, which makes Court of Twilight an arresting and unpredictable read. There’s a level of threat beyond classic “good versus evil”, which was refreshing. Pacing is leisurely, but this was never a problem for me, particularly as the build up to the denouement was excellent.

Everything about this felt new and imaginative—the concept of the novel as a whole, the kind of threats faced by the characters, the concept of the fantastical elements. I never knew where it was going and I’m desperate for the sequel so that my questions can be answered.

Favourite quotation: “Ambrose, for his part, didn’t look terribly happy, either…Then again, Ivy had never seen Ambrose in anything remotely close to a pleasant mood. Perhaps being irritable was simply a permanent feature, like a receding hairline, or a bulbous nose.”

Mareth Griffith, Court of Twilight (Parvus Press, 2017)

Thank you to Mareth Griffith and Parvus Press via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.


Innovative magical textbook: Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Owen Macready is your average 13-year-old boy. In fact, he prides himself on his averageness: average grades, average looks, average life. When Owen obtains a magical spell book, however, his life becomes anything but average. He must keep the book safe from the evil Euclideans and mafia henchmen, protect his friends, and try to bring his family back together.

Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Boy finds spell book, boy finds he can do magic, boy must fight evil in order to save the world. It’s been done before, you might think. But Sorcery for Beginners, like its protagonist, is far from average. The book is formatted as a textbook, so that the reader can learn magic along with Owen. Owen’s story is presented as a case study, demonstrating the practicalities and pitfalls of learning magic, and the values expected of magical candidates. Accompanying the case study there are instructions for spells, diagrams, and tidbits of trivia.

It’s a clever way of presenting a classic good versus evil story in a refreshing way. The illustrations and typography by Juliane Crump are fantastic—I especially love the pages outlining how to do spells, and the images of the Codex Arcanum. The trivia asides are often very funny:
Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence has not been proven (or accepted) by the world at large. It is but one of many so-called Arcane Fields, which include Sorcery, Alchemy, Time Manipulation, Paranormal Studies, Inter-Dimensional Travel, and Cryptocartography. Each is deserving of its own easy-to-read help guide, but I do have a life, you know. (p.402).
Occasionally, however, both trivia and illustrations were a little distracting. I found it off-putting that sometimes the illustrations do not match up with what is described in the text (on pp.359-360, for example, a “line of dark figures” is replaced with a helicopter in the illustration). When in a particularly tense sequence, having to break the flow of the story to read an informative footnote broke my sense of immersion. This could have been helped by having more trivia towards the beginning of the book, and less at key plot points.

The plot itself is action-packed with plenty of excitement to keep you reading. The prose is lively and accessible, and the characters engaging and relatable, especially Owen and Perry. I particularly enjoyed the imaginative spell-casting, which combines some sort of Tai Chi-inspired somatic movements with magical objects and incantations in various languages.

There were a number of formatting issues in the kindle edition I read, which I understand have now been resolved.

Overall, a hugely enjoyable read, ideal for fans of Eoin Colfer and Lemony Snicket.

Favourite quotation: “Old English is an early form of the English language that was used by residents of Great Britain between at least the mid-fifth century and the mid-twelfth century. Its alphabet was comprised of runic letters and pre-dated Latin. To read it is to be amazed that the Brits ever learned how to communicate.” p.28.

Matt Harry, Sorcery for Beginners (Inkshares, 2017)

Imaginative and unpredictable: Keith Rosson’s Smoke City

This book is mad. And I mean that in the best way. I don’t think I’ve read anything this imaginative or unpredictable in a long time. Smoke City has three interweaving narratives. Fistly, we have the story of Mike Vale, a self-destructive, alcoholic, washed-up artist. Secondly, we have Marvin Deitz, an unassuming record shop owner, who’s trying to convince his therapist he only has one week left to live. Finally, we have the mysterious spectres (smokes) who are appearing all over the country – silent, insubstantial, vaguely ominous. By the way, Marvin is also the reincarnation of Geoffroy, the man responsible for the death of Joan of Arc. The book traverses the 15th and 21st century, as we learn about Geoffroy’s experiences of executing and torturing: “The prisoners themselves became interchangeable. Bodies were interchangeable. There was little to differentiate one man from the next; such was the raw honesty of the flesh.”

Smoke City Keith Rosson

I spent much of the first part of the novel wondering how on earth all of these rather disparate storylines would weave together. Even though I was unsure of where the story was heading, I felt in safe hands, as Keith Rosson’s writing is just fantastic. It’s not every author who can cover the topics of death, torture, and art, and do so in a way that’s lyrical and vivid. His descriptions of the troubled lives of Mike, Marvin, and Marvin’s previous life, Geoffroy, are raw, brutal, and honest. In these two (two and a half?) characters, we have some of the least appealing protagonists I have perhaps come across. A reincarnated torturer and executioner. An artist whose reliance on alcohol has lead him to betray himself and those closest to him. And yet Rosson’s brilliance is in getting the reader to empathise with these characters, even cheer them on their way.

When those storylines finally weave together, it’s eminently satisfying. Everything finally makes sense. Of course this book is about a failed artist, ghosts, and a reincarnated executioner. What else would I want to read about?

Favourite quotation: “I was intimately familiar with death and its equations. I had long been intimate with the stilled architecture of the corpse. The decay, the sugary-sweet stink of it all, the odor like a mixture of shit and rotten fruit. The primacy of rotted meat. The simple subtraction of animation pulled from a body, a face. Doing all I had done throughout the centuries, I knew death. I wanted it. I sought it, courted it. And yet none of that mattered when I stepped onto the fourth floor. There, I raged against death, I leaned snarling against it.”

Keith Rosson, Smoke City (Meerkat Press, 2018)

I received a free advance copy of this book via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. 

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop Veronica Henry.jpeg

Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whippman

A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)