Five Minute Review: Reasons To Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

Five minutes to type up one review. Wait until that second hand reaches twelve and…we’re off!

Reasons To Be Cheerful (hereafter Cheerful) by Nina Stibbe is the comedic novel set in 1980s Leicestershire. The plot revolves around Lizzie, an 18 year old who is recruited as a dental nurse in a practice and follows her antics as she works in her new position, working under the demanding (and quite often racist/xenophobic) JP Wintergreen as boss. As part of the job Lizzie also gets the use of a onsite flat, offered at a heavily subsidised rent. This opens the story up for several subplots featuring her work and personal life as Lizzie tries to navigate adulthood, including her co-worker’s attempts at getting pregnant, her fledging relationship with well known ‘weirdo’ Andy Nicolello and learning to drive.

Despite the occasional darker moments, Cheerful has all the hallmarks of a British comedy. The underlying humour is there throughout, even if at points it has an awkward edge. You know the characters you’re meant to root for, and those who are (at best) jerks. Given it’s central focus, I didn’t find the details of the dentistry too gory (surprisingly I found the prologue the hardest bit to read!)

If I had to be critical, I’d comment that a lot of the 1980s references were lost on me (I was born in 1992) and a subplot story about a three-legged dog didn’t make much sense to me (in my mind it didn’t add to the plot). However, with a few surprise twists and turns, on the whole Cheerful is an easy and enjoyable read to work through. It wasn’t until afterwards I realised this is actually the third book in a series, however I was very easily able to read this as a stand alone and not be held back by lack of character knowledge from Stibbe’s previous work.

**

Five Minute Review: Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Simple premise, five minutes to type up a speedy overview of a recent read. Lets do this.

Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown by Lorna Martin

(Amazon sales link here)

The Sun describes this title as “Bridget Jones with knobs on” and initially you can see why. Like Bridget Jones, Lorna works for a national paper, has multiple calamitous oversees trips (hints of Edge of Reason) and experiences tonnes of supposedly awkward mishaps. This is setup against a background of counselling where gradually Lorna comes to unearth and overcome personal challenges, from deep-rooted peer envy to relationship closure.

Expect a lot of monologues in this book. I didn’t have a problem with the first-person narrative but took issue to her friends who all happen to be phycologists. The author knows a bit about the topic and goes to almost unbearable lengths to use it. I ended up skimming these segments when girly nights out with countless bottles of wine turned into soapbox-speeches on the pros of Freudian methodology.

I also struggled with the approach with wooing the love interest. Two examples (of many) include this 35 year-old woman writing lengthy, one sided, emails about her life and then shocked when he doesn’t reply and another interaction where she bluntly states he can only get her number if he acquires it from a friend. Only a week later (and sans calls) does she internally ponder her tactic. I’m left questioning why the author feels the need to labour this storyline beyond the realms of realistic.

Not the ending I was expecting and, to be honest, a little bit disappointed by this title. It tries to be Bridget Jones in Glasgow but somehow never makes it out of the starting block.

UPDATE: I’ve just done some digging and discovered this is actually a true account of the author’s own experiences in therapy. Awkward…

Five Minute Review: What the F*** is Normal?! By Francesca Martinez

Do you like the cushion? Yeah, me too. I thought that when it came to summing up this book it struck the right balance between deep and pretentious. Okay, so five minutes to review a recent read. Lets go.

What The F*** is Normal?! is an autobiographic affair by the comedian Francesca Martinez. Born with cerebral palsy, but waging a one-woman campaign to rename it to simply “wobbly”, Martinez gives a first-hand perspective of growing up with a disability in 1980s/90s Britain. Making light out of what are often very bitter or bleak encounters, Martinez takes us through the various stages of her life that have shaped her into the woman she is today. In one instance Martinez describes with mild humour an experience with a GP who doesn’t know how to handle the author’s disability. Reading the account for first time you feel frustrated and even a bit angry that this scene could have possibly played out so recently over something so small as a sore ankle. This is an author that has been through a lot at every stage of her life. It made me wonder whether society’s attitudes towards disability is much improved now, or whether as an able-bodied person I’m just unaware of the difficulties faced by millions each day.

Martinez also devotes a portion of her autobiography to re-educating Western culture. Never shy of a challenge, Martinez addresses the very real issue of consumerism and how it can damage our own self-respect. Simply put, depression of the masses fuels the yachts of the few. Despite being bullied by similar types in Secondary School, the author reaches out to the popular teenagers of today to stop worrying about appearances and embrace body confidence instead.

What The F*** Is Normal?! is an autobiography that ticks all the boxes; easy to read, humorous but also a fascinating study. All by a comedian who is not afraid to challenge disability stereotypes and poke fun at one of the great taboo subjects of modern culture. In the subtly of a true comedian, Martinez points out that ultimately life could be worse. After all, one could be starving in Africa, aborted in the womb…or even a pot of hummus.