“The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” by Allison Hoover Bartlett (2009)

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“At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan linen sack and a good deal of mystery.”

If you are a book lover and ever find yourself in the vicinity of King’s Cross, London (assuming non-pandemic times), I urge you to drop into the British Library. The reading rooms and the knowledge you’re sharing space with every book ever published in the UK in the last few hundred years are enough, but there’s also the Treasures Room. Here you’ll find some truly remarkable literary gems including an original copy of the First Folio, the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and the only surviving copy of Beowulf. Surrounded by such magic, it’s easy to wonder what it would be like to own such rarities. For some people, however, this goes beyond a mere thought exercise.

John Gilkey is notorious among sellers of antiquarian books. A continual thief, he has used dud cheques and falsified credit card information to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of literature over several years. Allison Hoover Bartlett learns about him after finding herself in possession of a stolen four-hundred year old German book on botanical medicine, and developing an interest in the world of antiquarian book theft. Discovering that more books are stolen than any other kind of art, she gets in touch with Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” who has been working for years to return stolen books to their owners and get the thieves locked up. His particular obsession is Gilkey, whom Bartlett eventually meets and interviews, only to learn that he is not your usual bibliophile. Soon, she is drawn into a world of book lust and obsessive collecting that is insightful, tense, bizarre and entirely true.

While the collectors and sellers are all interesting people, it is Gilkey who really stands out as someone very unusual. He is absolutely unable to tell himself that what he’s doing is wrong, believing that it’s the sellers fault for pricing him out of the market. He acts as if it is his god-given right to own these books, and it doesn’t matter how he goes about doing it. He is working the system, and it’s all fair because he wants them. The gymnastics of logic he is performing are quite something. Allison Hoover Bartlett doesn’t portray him as a straight-up villain, and at times even seems to have some admiration for the sheer bravado of her subject, but I don’t think at any point she considers him doing the right thing. No one would, I’d wager. He’s a curiously beguiling man, though, with an obsession for collection but no apparent appreciation for anything he is collecting. I don’t recall at any point him mentioning a book he’s actually read – he just wants the status that comes with owning them. Little is made of his psychology, but I suspect there is some emotional instability here.

If anything, you realise that if you’re not somehow involved in the antiquarian book industry, you’re in a mug’s game. Although the chances of finding something truly rare are small, and you’re always at risk of people like Gilkey, the money involved here is absolutely staggering. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – only twenty-three years old at time of writing – can be worth around $30,000 as only five hundred were printed. Even a first edition of The Cat in the Hat is worth around $9,000, and if we go back further, an copy of the first trade edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be worth anywhere up to $100,000. Signed copies can swell prices even further, while the loss of a dust jacket can reduce the book’s worth to one tenth of its value. Staggering amounts in anyone’s book.

This truly is a world of people who love books, and I’m one of them, but quite sadly none of them ever seem to get read. They are collected as historical artefacts, and while I agree that books should be kept, preserved and treasured as they are links to previous eras, it is quite sad that they never get to live out their intended purpose. That’s beside the point though. This is an absolutely stunning work of non-fiction, fascinating and suspenseful, and anyone who loves books would get a kick out of it. Because haven’t we all wondered what we’d do if we found a Hemingway first edition at the flea market?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Library Of The Unwritten” by A. J. Hackwith (2020)

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“Books ran when they grew restless, when they grew unruly, or when they grew real.”

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”. I share in this hope. An eternal afterlife will only be tolerable if I’ve got access to everything ever written. For every book that has been written, however, there are dozens that have not. In this novel, we head down to the Library of Hell and explore the Unwritten Wing, where everything that was never written is stored.

Claire Hadley is the current Librarian of the Unwritten Wing, home to all the books that were unfinished by their authors. Her job is to protect, repair and organise them, as well as keep an eye on the restless stories who sometimes materialise in the form of one of their characters and have to be wrestled back between the covers before they get too real, or worse, escape into the real world.

When one of these heroes does escape and heads to Seattle to meet with his would-be author, Claire must go up to retrieve him, accompanied by the ex-muse Brevity, and the demon courier Leto. On Earth, however, things do not go according to plan. Hero has no intentions of coming quietly, Leto begins having memories of being a human and wondering how, when, as far as he knows, he has always been a demon, and the angel Ramiel is hunting down the Librarian under the impression that she possesses the Devil’s Bible, an unearthly tome that could rewrite everything that defines Heaven, Hell and Earth.

The trouble is that the book lacks something and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a fascinating concept, but it feels like it’s been somewhat wasted. Despite being a book about imagination, inspiration and unwritten books, the characters don’t seem all that inspired. I love the idea of a failed muse, and Brevity is a compelling, sympathetic character. (Also, does her failing explain why novels are sometimes too long?) The others, however, still lack a certain something. Claire feels like a character we’ve seen dozens of times before; an angry woman who only moves the plot on by shouting at it. The angels feel ill-defined too, and at no point do I feel entirely clear on what the goal is. The worlds explored are quite fun, though, and it seems that most – if not all – of the afterlives that humans have dreamt up exist here, including a traditional Hell and the Valhalla of Norse mythology. There’s also a brilliant duelling scene in which combatants fight with words that become physical and can only be stopped by naming the author that is being quoted. That’s a really fun idea.

Maybe it’s more about how I’ve been feeling lately, but I found myself zoning out of the text repeatedly, unable to focus. As I said, perhaps that’s a fault of mine, but perhaps it’s not a good sign that a book can’t keep me within its grip and not have me be easily pulled from the pages. I kept returning and realising I had no idea what was now going on. The resolution, while interesting, is also somewhat rushed and leaves a few things unanswered (not necessarily a bad thing) but, again, there feels like several huge missed opportunities in what could have been achieved. I’ve since seen that this is the first of a potential series, so perhaps things will be expanded on in the future, but I don’t feel eager to return and find out. The writing itself is competent and sharp, but the plot veers wildly, the characters feel inconsistent and there’s no real threat hanging over any of it, and you know where it’s going from the start.

This wasn’t intended to be such a negative review, because I still read it and enjoyed it in places, but now trying to pick out specifics seems hard. The concept remains solid, I just don’t think it was explored in the right way or with the right people.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“A Book Of Book Lists” by Alex Johnson (2017)

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“This is a book of book lists.”

I never really understood that cliche of making a habit of looking in someone’s medicine cabinet when you first visit their house. What I do believe in studying, however, is people’s bookshelves. You can tell a lot about people by what books they own, and sometimes even more by how they’re arranged, how well-thumbed they are, and what sort of topics take centre stage. And as John Waters said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Sage advice.

In this book, Alex Johnson explores the bookshelves of the rich and famous, as well as taking a look at lists of books in other unusual situations. Have you ever wondered what books line the shelves in the apartment in The Big Bang Theory? Do you know which books are allowed into Guantanamo Bay’s library? Have you ever wanted to peek at the libraries of Richard III, Marilyn Monroe or Osama bin Laden? What books are on the university reading list if you study English in Mississippi? If these sound like questions you want answers to, then this is the book for you. Combining simple lists and beautifully impressive trivia, Johnson takes us on a journey through some of the most unusual libraries in history, from the mythical Library of Babel, to the books that were burnt by the Nazis.

He also tackles more eclectic lists, delving into the world of books more generally. One list gives all the titles that Ernest Hemingway rejected before settling on A Farewell to Arms. Another tells us what the astronauts on the ISS have at their disposal. Elsewhere, we look at the books already declared “future classics” and even which titles line the shelves of countless Billy bookshelves in IKEA stores across the globe. One of the most interesting topics is that of the Future Library, a collection of never-before-published stories that are being kept in a vault to be opened in 2114. Authors are asked to contribute a new piece that won’t be seen until the next century. Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell were the first to contribute, and every year a new literary figure is picked. It makes me kind of sad that, barring some remarkable advances in science, I won’t be around to see them. (In 2114, I would be 126, so don’t think I’m suggesting an early death.)

Quite silly, but also an insight into the history of literature and the books we love, this is definitely one for any bibliophile to consume. It may even inspire you to expand your own shelves. After all, what do yours say about you right now?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Guest Cat” by Takashi Hiraide (2014)

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“At first it looked like low-lying ribbons of clouds just floating there, but then the clouds would be blown a little bit to the right and next to the left.”

Being the biggest reader by far in my family, it is unusual to receive a recommendation from my sister about what to read. Nevertheless, she’s related to me, so her taste isn’t bad and when she does suggest something, I know she’s usually talking sense. This brings me to The Guest Cat, another journey into the weird and wonderful world of Japanese literature.

It’s 1988, and a couple in their thirties live in the suburbs of Tokyo, with not much left to say to one another. One day, however, things change when a small cat invites herself into their home. Chibi becomes their guest, a tiny spark of beauty that infects the rest of their world, lighting things up and giving everything a new, fresh appearance. The couple also find their relationship blossoming as they share stories of Chibi and learn to love her curious ways. But then something happens and everything changes again.

This will be a short review because there isn’t a whole lot to say about the book. Like many Japanese stories that have made their way into an English translation, it is a story where not very much happens, there is an obsession with cats, and the writing itself is beautiful. The author, Takashi Hiraide, is more prominently a poet, and that very much shows here. The descriptions of the narrator’s little house and the behaviours of the adorable Chibi are stunning, and you get quickly dragged in to this tiny world, a slice of life tale where we see a scene from the lives of some very ordinary people. There isn’t much more to say than that.

A lovely gem of a novella.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The QI Book Of The Dead” by John Lloyd & John Mitchinson (2009)

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“The first thing that strikes you about the Dead is just how many of them there are.”

I love a bit of trivia, and lockdown has definitely been an opportunity to use that muscle with the amount of quizzes we’ve all been doing. This book has, somehow, been sat on my shelf since its publication but I’ve only just got around to it, maybe because it’s quite a big hardback and I’m not having to carry it around at the moment. Never mind, we got here at last – a series of short biographies about some of history’s most interesting characters.

Obviously, being a creation of the team behind QI, these biographies aren’t arranged in a way we might be used to. Rather than dividing people up by their career, nationality or era, they are collated instead in ten more esoteric ways. Get ready to be introduced to…

  1. People who had absent, abusive or difficult fathers (Sigmund Freud, Ada Lovelace)
  2. People who had a positive outlook (Mary Seacole, Edward Jenner)
  3. People with unstoppable ambition (Genghis Khan, Mary Kingsley)
  4. People obsessed with sex (Tallulah Bankhead, Giacomo Casanova)
  5. People with curious diets (John Harvey Kellog, Henry Ford)
  6. People who had bodies that turned against them (Florence Nightingale, Daniel Lambert)
  7. People who had pet monkeys (Catherine de Medici, Frida Kahlo)
  8. People who were lifelong impostors and liars (Titus Oates, Princess Caraboo)
  9. People who died with no money to their name (Emma Hamilton, Karl Marx)
  10. People who were obsessed with the afterlife (Ann Lee, William Blake)

There is no real distinction made between people who are internationally famous and changed the very way we live, such as Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci, and those who have been forgotten by history like James Barry and Moll Cutpurse but had fascinating lives nonetheless. The book is, of course, a treasure trove of trivia, loaded with interesting nuggets to throw out at anyone who enjoys learning something interesting but not necessarily useful. Doesn’t life just feel a little bit brighter, however, knowing that General Antontio de Santa Anna was not only President of Mexico eleven times, but also invented chewing gum, and that great explorer Mary Kingsley used to march into the villages of uncontacted tribes shouting, “It’s only me!”

Some of the most interesting figures here are the ones who have slipped entirely from the cultural conversation, or are remembered for one single thing. William Morris may have revolutionised interior design but history doesn’t so much record the fact he was once offered the role of Poet Laureate, and that Mary Seacole paid for her journey from Jamaica to England by selling pickles from a suitcase. Catherine the Great’s life was far more exciting than even the rumours suggest, and Alexander von Humboldt should be remembered for far much more than giving his name to a species of penguin. People are endlessly fascinating, and this is just a small collection of the people that humanity threw up along the way to now.

If you always wanted to know that Casanova’s memoirs finish mid-sentence, and Florence Nightingale spent more than half her life confined to bed and wrote 14,000 letters then, well, you know those now. But there are dozens more things to learn here. An excellent book to dip in and out of.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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“It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.”

There are three non-fiction books that I think should be compulsory reading. The first is Sara Pascoe’s Animal. The second is Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. This is the third.

In this pioneering book, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge explores the history of British race relations and the racism inherent in every system of the country, also dealing with the intersectionality of it aligned with gender and class. Exploring the notion of white privilege, racism in the workplace, the rise of the far right and stereotypes, she tackles the subject head on, taking no prisoners. Personally, I found it quite uncomfortable at times, but that’s a good thing. It’s uncomfortable in all the right ways, making white people realise quite how much the world is stacked in their favour.

Particularly fascinating is the brief history given on the position of black people in our history. While the civil rights struggle of the USA is well-documented and taught often, for some reason we do not discuss our own struggles with racial divides. I say “for some reason”, but it’s because every country likes to portray itself as noble and heroic, and I don’t think any are quite so keen to do this than Britain. For this reason, many people grow up unaware of the struggles of the black community in Britain, and in just one chapter of this book I have learnt more about the British civil rights movement than I did in seventeen years of formal education. It is shocking how recent so many of the dates are. It’s even worse when you consider that things are still not equal. The media – a predominantly white industry – still has considerable bias over people of black and minority ethnicity. We have created a story for the nation where “racism happened somewhere else”, when one look on Twitter or the debates that raged around the Brexit saga proves that this is far from the truth.

My only issue is that I would’ve liked some more concrete statistics. When discussing, for example, how the system is stacked against young black people in education and such, Eddo-Lodge explains that black people are continually at a disadvantage in how they are treated in schools, graded, and are given fewer opportunities than their white peers. I’m not saying I don’t believe her, because I’m certain this is the case due to deeply embedded white privilege, but it would have been interesting to see the specific statistics to emphasise the point, rather than relying on vagaries like “greater proportion” and “many more times” and such. I appreciate that the book is aiming to be accessible to a wide audience so it doesn’t want to get too bogged down in these things, but I feel that these are important points and they should be spelt out. I will be doing my own research off the back of it though to get the disparity figures.

That aside, it’s a powerful, sharp, smart and uncomfortable read. I’m one of those people who claims to not be racist, but there is no denying that by being white I have certainly been granted opportunities others have not. Food for thought, and essential reading in these tumultuous times.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Future Of Another Timeline” by Annalee Newitz (2019)

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“Drums beat in the distance like an amplified pulse.”

The global conversation is seemingly in unison right now. Everyone is either arguing that they should all have the same rights in whatever country they live in, or they’re somehow holding on to outdated, nasty and horrible views that suggest people should be treated differently based on something like race or gender. It staggers me that we still have men’s rights activists who apparently believe that treating women the same as them is somehow making their life worse. Or white people who complain they’re being maligned by the phrase “Black Lives Matter”, missing the point that black people simply want to share the safety that they experience, rather than being gunned down by murdering cops for doing something innocuous like walking down the street. In fiction, these problems can be solved with a time machine, but here in the outstanding The Future of Another Timeline, we see how the technology could also exacerbate the problem.

Tess is a time traveller currently living in 2022 but devoted to rewriting the timeline to give women equal rights to men. She doesn’t quite live in our world – here, abortion is illegal in the USA, and Harriet Tubman was elected to the Senate – but things are not looking good, because every time she and her fellow Daughters of Harriet attempt to change the timeline to improve the lot of women, a group of men’s rights activists are also pouring down the timeline to make everything worse. Tess realises that things need to get a lot better quickly when she meets Morehshin, a woman from the distant future where women have it even worse, with men having taken control of their genetic make up, turning them into nothing more than a glorified queen bee. Tess makes her way downstream to 1893 at a turning point of history where she can bring about the end of the tyranny of men.

Elsewhere, in 1992, Beth is struggling with her teenage years. Her father is intensely changeable and she never knows what she’ll be in trouble for next or why, and her mother doesn’t stand up for her. All that keeps her sane is her best friend Lizzy and her love of punk rock bands, including the overtly feminist Grape Ape. After one concert, however, they witness their friend Heather getting raped, and the girls pile on, killing the rapist. Horrified by what they’ve done, Beth retreats into herself a little and vows it can never happen again. Lizzy, however, seems to have developed a taste for blood, and is prepared to kill any man who wrongs them or any woman. Beth isn’t sure that murder is the best course of action, and must tear herself away from her oldest friend.

And what does any of that have to do with Tess?

I found the time travel here really interesting. It only works from five specific locations in the world – Canada, Indonesia, India, Mali and Jordan – and appears to be something entirely natural, a certain glitch in geology that allows for wormholes to be opened. You can only travel back to previous times and while not everyone is able to access the Machines, time travel is a known technology and is taught in schools. Scientists and philosophers in this universe discuss the nature of time travel, free will, paradoxes and multiverses and are yet to reach a consensus on how history changes – is it down to one individual, or must there be a mass change?

The characters, too, are interesting and good fun. We mostly alternate between Tess and Beth, with occasional interruptions from other characters, who are each female or non-binary. Indeed, if it’s diversity you want, then it’s here and metered out perfectly. One character, C.L., uses gender neutral pronouns, and another of the Daughters of Harriet is a transgender woman. They’re fun characters who are not defined by these traits, and it’s always refreshing to see a queer person whose story does not revolve around the fact they are queer.

One wonders if perhaps the constant shifting in the timeline from the travellers is what is causing Beth’s father to be so changeable. Beth’s transgressions of the rules are often small, such as one day her father insisting that shoes are to be worn in the house at all times, and other days shouting at her that she must never wear shoes inside. Her father is certainly mentally ill, but one wonders if the ever-changing timeline has an effect too. Other things do change, as we see. After loving Grape Ape for years, they are later erased from the timeline, and when Beth undergoes an abortion after unprotected sex with her boyfriend, the story is told to us twice, once in a world where abortion is illegal, and once where it isn’t. Both times she tells the story as if that is what really happened, when we know that it’s just what happened in that timeline. Messing about in time produces a ripple effect, and we can never be sure what will change.

A beautiful, fascinating read about a world so close to ours but wildly different in many ways. One can only hope we are moving towards a better future in reality, too.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Lord Edgware Dies” by Agatha Christie (1933)

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“The memory of the public is short.”

What I find when it comes to re-reading all the Christie novels is that I often think I remember the solutions. Lord Edgware Dies, it turns out, I haven’t read since 2012, so it’s one of the handful that aren’t on the blog yet. I thought I remembered it really well, and was content to settle down and see how it was done, rather than worrying about who the killer was. Unfortunately, it turns out my memory was not quite as good as I thought it was.

After a night at the theatre seeing the latest show by celebrated comic Carlotta Adams, Poirot and Hastings run in to Jane Wilkinson, the air-headed and selfish Lady Edgware. She accosts Poirot after the performance and asks him to go and visit her husband, Lord Edgware, and try and convince him to divorce her so she is free to marry a Duke she has been courting. Curious, Poirot follows through with the request but is surprised to learn that Lord Edgware wrote to Jane months ago to say he was willing to allow the divorce. Later that night, Lord Edgware is found dead in his study, stabbed in the neck.

The case at first seems easily solved. Jane Wilkinson was seen entering the house just before the murder occurred, and the police are ready to arrest her for murder. The difficulty is, there are twelve people who were at a dinner party elsewhere in London which was happening at the same time as the murder – and Jane was in attendance. Besides, why should she want to kill her husband when he’s already given her the one thing she wants? As Poirot uncovers more and more deceptions, he begins to unravel how one woman could be in two places at once, and who really did the murder.

Still one of the smartest, in my opinion, Lord Edgware Dies plays with the concept by having the solution appear immediately obvious. All the while you’re dancing around it wondering why Poirot can’t see it too (even though you know he would do), the truth is hiding behind a series of increasingly devilish red herrings, misdirections and bluffs. Hastings and Japp are both on good form, and Poirot is constantly having to change his theories. Even he seems a little more stumped than usual here, and it is in fact an idle comment he hears on the street that directs him to the correct solution.

The killer is a fascinating character, and even after being caught, they still insist on writing to Poirot to explain exactly how it was done, being proud of their actions rather than showing any remorse. Indeed, their final words are to wonder whether they will be immortalised in Madame Tussauds. The suspects are all a slightly unpleasant bunch, with a number of them being egotistical performers, the story being set against a backdrop of actors and the theatre. Unfortunately, this seems to be one of the Christie novels that never saw an editor’s pen in later years, with several references to Jewish people being greedy and one use of a swear word that feels especially inflammatory given the news this week. Oh dear. We can only mutter “of it’s time” and not dwell. No one’s claiming Christie was perfect, but as times and attitudes moved on, she did go back to some of her earlier works and change details like this, having learnt better. It’s jarring when they remain.

Nonetheless, a fun and interesting puzzle.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Dream London” by Tony Ballantyne (2013)

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“Crunch crunch crunch.”

Many of the world’s finest cities are built on grids: New York, Barcelona, San Francisco, Paris, parts of Edinburgh and much of Rome. London, however, is not quite like that. With so many dead ends, cut-throughs, alleys, curves and very little regulation regarding street naming, there’s a theory that it’s been built like that specifically to confuse tourists. Or maybe it’s just to slow down any army that returns to take its nations stuff back from the museums. Dream London take this to a whole new level, and as I’m really missing my visits to the capital this week, it seemed a good place to spend a little time.

Dream London is not the London we once knew. The city changes a little bit every night, and the people change a little every day. The parks have disappeared, the Thames is now an impassable mile-wide waterway, the towers are gaining new floors with alarming regularity, and you never know if you’ll wake up to find your house next to a pub or a train station, or even if your house still exists. No one knows why this is happening, and have even less idea of how to stop it. Enter, Captain Jim Wedderburn. A former soldier, he left the army and is now struggling to make ends meet in this twisted version of his old home. He looks after a cohort of prostitutes and does his best to keep out of trouble, but Dream London has a way of making you into someone new.

Wedderburn’s fame is large, and when two rival factions seek him out for help against one another, he finds himself torn in two. Does he follow the Cohort into the legendary Angel Tower, the thousand-storey skyscraper that seems to be the centre of the changes, or does he join Daddio Clarke and his army of captive followers who all possess eyes on their tongues and send foul-mouthed little girls in to do the dirty work? Elsewhere, Dream London has given Wedderburn his fortune and he learns that he will soon betray one of his friends, and another will betray him. There’s no escape, the parks are getting bigger – even if no one can access them – and something terrible is coming. But this is a city where nothing is ever the same two days running, so how on Earth can it ever be put back together?

With shades of Neverwhere and Jasper Fforde abounds, this is a riotous romp through a fictional London that still seems oddly familiar. This must be what it’s like to be a first-time visitor to the city, with roads and train stations that come and go as they please, an inconsistent skyline, and people everywhere only out for themselves. Dream London seems to slowly be sinking back into a place of Victorian values, where workhouses exist and women are relegated mostly to either selling sex or cleaning floors. It’s not a bad life for everyone, but it very much depends who you are. Ballantyne does amazing work at spinning this mythical city on the page and bringing it to life. The complications of trains that never take you where you want, least of all out of Dream London, the obsession with eggs of the people who live near the fabled Egg Market, and the astounding reveal of who is behind it all are strokes of genius.

One of my favourite inventions is the Angel Tower, which is hiring people to rewrite the laws of the universe. On the Writing Floor, whatever is written becomes fact and shifts the city into a new shape. Anything from here that then gets moved to the Contracts Floor is immutable and unchanging. The Numbers Floor is the most interesting, however. There are no prime numbers in Dream London, and so Wedderburn is hired to prove this. When looking at the numbers, his mind begins to be affected by the city and he realises that there are other numbers between the numbers we know. As of now, seventeen has always been two times green. This is beautifully followed with the chapter titles, which insert the colours (and one two occasions, mere sensations) into the running order. A madcap idea that is executed with true skill.

Sharp, interesting characters, a well-defined world, and some utterly believable silliness. What isn’t to love about this?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Crudo” by Olivia Laing (2018)

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“Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married today.”

I did the rare thing this week of giving up on a book that I wasn’t enjoying, and instead plunged headfirst into this novella about the end of the world.

It’s 2017 and Kathy is about to get married. She is worried, however, by the state of the world, with right wing governments taking office, the UK paralysed by Brexit, climate change is out of control, and anyone can lose everything with one wayward tweet. Nonetheless, she is determined to make her marriage work. Olivia Laing constructs a snapshot of a fleeting moment, capturing one hot, horrific summer in the early 21st century, as she asks if there is any point in learning to love when everything’s about to end.

The book is entirely set in 2017, and frequently mentions news stories of the time, with Kathy feeling the world is ending with every new story she hears. It’s only three years later that I’m reading it, and yet it seems like an entirely different world already. As the story progresses we see the world come to terms with the election of Trump, the President’s firing Bannon and Comey, the early repercussions of the Brexit vote begin to get felt, Jeremy Hunt denying trying to sell the NHS off, and the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire. Each seemed an earth-shattering story at the time, and while the fallout from each trundles on today, it’s remarkable to think how many tragedies we’ve been through in the last few years.

Kathy’s story, laced through these events, is one of falling love. A survivor of breast cancer, she has finally found someone she loves enough to get married at the age of forty, although we learn later that her husband is twenty-nine years older than her. It is believed that narrator is based on Kathy Acker, who is not someone I knew so I probably missed a good deal. Acker, however, died in 1997, so while our author here shares the same name and published books of identical titles, it isn’t the real one. This is obviously some literary allusion that went far above my head, although I don’t think it’s necessarily any worse for not understanding. The writing is too charged with emotion, juxtaposing falling in love with the fall of civilisation in one of the most tumultuous periods of recent history. Some of it stings a bit too close to home as the world around us becomes messier and madder and it makes you ask fundamental questions about why and how we bother carrying on as if there is some future we’ll be save in. I guess we just have hope there is.

The perfect novel to consume on a hot day, and a stark reminder of how quickly the world can change.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

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