“The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington (2019)

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“It’s a grand old flag, it’s a high-flying flag…”

Escapism remains the key reason I read, and sometimes you’ve just got to head off the planet altogether.

In the 2030s, Sally Jansen was the darling of the new space race. Heading off into the blackness of space to be the first person on Mars, there was no one who didn’t know her name. But then something dreadful happened. The expedition went wrong, they never made it to the Red Planet, and after China got there first, interest in the planets began to dwindle. NASA found their budget slashed year on year and now there’s no astronaut programme at all. In 2055, however, something changes.

An enormous object, disobeying the rules of momentum, has appeared in the solar system and everyone who’s studied it has reached the same conclusion: it’s an alien spaceship. What it wants and who is piloting it remains a mystery, and humanity suddenly finds itself desperate to get up there and intercept it before it gets any closer, because it’s heading for Earth and will be here in a matter on months. Jansen, as the only person left with any astronaut training, it called out of her reclusive retirement and asked to complete one more mission, alongside a general in the space force, an astrobiologist and the scientist who found the object in the first place. With barely any time to train and very little concrete knowledge available, the crew must head out into space again to make first contact. But what they find out there is nothing like they imagined, and will change absolutely everything.

First contact is a recurring idea in fiction – even I’ve had a bash – but it’s possibly never been quite as eerie as here. I’m not going to go into much detail about it because it would ruin the latter half of the book, but it’s a really nice idea, if absolutely terrifying. Tense and foreboding, the whole book feels pretty claustrophobic, as all stories set aboard spaceships should. There are a lot of references to how big everything is, and how small humans are, which is neat and never quite lets you forget that you’re not on Earth anymore.

The characters do occasionally run into stereotypes, such as the technology billionaire (NASA are competing with private space companies now), the grizzled military general, and the scientist who is obsessed with her work, and I’ve seen some people complain about this facet of the book, but I enjoyed them so, as ever, it’s down to individual taste. I did find myself caring for most of the characters at least, so that’s always a good sign. As always with books set in the future, I do love to see how society and technology have moved on. By this point, smartphones have been replaced by devices that are usually worn as nose studs or earrings, which beam images directly onto the retina, and there’s even a mention at one point that sleep is no longer necessary. We don’t get much detail, as there’s no one new here who’s eyes we can see the world through. It’s all taken for granted. Wellington himself admits that this is a pessimistic future, where NASA in particular has been relocated (after some non-specific flooding of the old buildings) and any rockets left behind are now museum pieces. Nevertheless, it’s always interesting to look at someone else’s idea of the future.

Very tense and chilling, a real page-turner.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“Cockerings” by Stevyn Colgan (2021)

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“A warning bell began to clang.”

Lord knows the world needs more funny books these days. Stevyn Colgan is part of the cure, and he deserves far more plaudits than he gets. We return for the third time to South Herewardshire, where we’ve already solved a murder and uncovered a monster. This time, the circus has arrived.

Shapcott Bassett is a picture postcard of an English village, stuck in a time where the butcher has thick arms, the policeman is respected but incompetent, and the vicar is clueless and toothy. This is all down to Lady Marcheline Cockering (pronounced Corring), the dominating aristocrat who, along with her greedy brother Berkeley, owns the village and the surrounding area. Nothing happens there without her knowledge or say so. Berkeley, however, is less devoted to the cause and enjoys winding his sister up. This time, he has told Benelli’s Circus that they can set up on one of the fields on Cockering land.

Benelli’s, however, is not exactly the greatest show on Earth. The owner, Ben Ellis, has had enough of the venture, and given there isn’t anyone in his cast under the age of fifty-nine, the circus has certainly seen better days. Now lumbered with arthritic acrobats, dipsomaniac clowns, aged ballerinas and one incontinent elephant, he is desperate for his circus days to be over. After a failed attempt at arson, he winds up in hospital where he meets Berkeley Cockering, and between them they come to a mutually beneficial arrangement that can hopefully give both of them what they want – all the while accidentally confusing DS Brian Blount, who has still never really recovered from his previous South Herewardshire failings.

The book is filled with jokes and silly observations that are nothing short of genius. The fact that the circus is only called Benelli’s because people kept mistaking the name “Ben Ellis” is a wonderful gag. Colgan’s mind works like few others active today, and once again he has managed to write a book that is artfully plotted at the same time as being laugh-out-loud hilarious and sharply satirical. The characters are rich and in anyone else’s hands would lean too far into cliché. Here, the stereotypes are absorbed, chewed and spat out again, providing a new twist on old favourites. The whole thing reads like an Agatha Christie novel that’s been invaded by a technicolour nightmare. Miss Marple would run screaming.

The central characters are great fun, with many of them showing unexpected depth. I especially enjoyed Marcheline struggling with the realities of the modern world, Ben Ellis being the least capable criminal ever, and Blount determined to claw back some respectability as a policeman. Really, his subplot is that of a man slowly losing his mind. The circus acts are also good fun, with all the traditional roles warped to fit a bunch of septuagenarians with nowhere else to go. It’s written with love and great joy, with plenty of scope for Colgan’s love of wordplay, puzzles and puns.

I know Colgan has struggled with the difficulty of getting his comic novels to a wider audience, and I feel for him immensely, as he’s on par with Douglas Adams or P G Wodehouse at times. As fashions change, there does seem to be a gap in the market for comedy crime now, and I strongly hope it isn’t too late for him to rise up and take his place at the top table. Let’s not keep slathering the shelves in celebrity-penned books, eh?

A dazzling page-turner. Brilliant stuff.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“I Capture The Castle” by Dodie Smith (1949)

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“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

There are various books considered classics that have entirely passed me by. While there’s still not much of a chance of me finally sitting down with Dickens or Thackery any time soon, I am more willing to dip into the slightly more recent ones. Thus, I’ve only gone back seventy years this week to read Dodie Smith’s bestseller I Capture the Castle, about which I knew nothing aside from the opening line.

In a crumbling castle in the Suffolk countryside, Cassandra Mortmain and her family live in poverty, having sold off all their finery and furnishings and living on the most meagre meals they can rustle up. Cassandra keeps a diary detailing the exploits of the castle’s residents, including her beautiful, bored sister Rose, her glamorous stepmother Topaz, her eccentric father who suffers from writer’s block, and the house help Stephen, so is very handsome and very in love with Cassandra. When Simon and Neil, two American brothers, move into the neighbouring estate – and first encounter Cassandra in the bath – it shakes their stagnant lives into action.

Now with the possibility of money on the horizon, Cassandra sets about ensuring that Rose will marry Simon, the heir to a large fortune, while she herself fends off advances from both Neil and Stephen, unsure as to whether she wants their attention or not. Cassandra records the events of the year with brutal honesty and she grows up, learns more about herself and the world, and tries to encourage her father to begin writing again.

I always worry with older books that the humour will have dated and they’ll be very dry, which is a horrible attitude really as it implies I think our ancestors didn’t know how to laugh. Of course they did. Satisfyingly, the book is hilarious in places, as well as being incredibly moving. Cassandra is a great narrator and writes well (although we’re told her poetry is dire) and without sugar-coating any of the negative aspects of her life. She’s fun company, and while she helps everyone around her escape the humdrum and find something better to do with their lives, there’s a suggestion that it’s really she that needs rescuing. One hopes that beyond the pages she does manage to make something of her life.

The characters all feel real, despite each having a slight sense of the cartoonishly absurd. Mortmain, the vacant patriarch, is perfectly silly with a rather strange backstory, and while he’s an absent father, the familial relationships are made up for by the fraternal bonds between Cassandra, Rose and their brother Thomas, as well as how they get on with Topaz, the young second wife of Mortmain. She, too, is a very specific type of woman. She has no artistic talent of her own, so feels her only purpose is to serve as a muse to people around her.

A charming, fun exploration of an unusual family and the usual explosive emotions of growing up. Lovely stuff.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig (2020)

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“Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.”

Matt Haig’s work continues to dominate the book charts, and it’s easy to see why. His latest offering, The Midnight Library, is another instant modern classic.

Nora Seed is at her lowest ebb. Her cat has just died, she’s been fired, and her brother seems to be ignoring her. Hitting rock bottom, she decides to end it all and takes an overdose. Death, however, is not what she expected. She arrives in a huge, limitless library where the only other person present is Mrs Elm, her school librarian. Mrs Elm explains that each book contains an alternate life that Nora could have lived. This is a time to undo all of her regrets and step into a new life where she did things differently.

As Nora begins to traipse through these other lives, she finds ones where she kept up her swimming lessons and made it to the Olympics, one where she followed through in her plans to become a glaciologist, and another where she stays with her brother’s band. As she leaps from life to life, trying them on for size, she begins to wonder about happiness, regret and what living is really all about. But each life she sees changes her attitude and soon the stability of the library is less certain, and she must make a decision…

Matt Haig’s work often touches on mental health, living many lives, and appreciating the small things we often take for granted. All of that is here in abundance. The concept is strong, and fun (even if there are some questionable liberties taken with the nature of infinity) and Nora is a character you really want to get behind. As someone else who feels their life is stagnating a little and is struggling to find a way out, I really enjoyed her company. It’s a fascinating idea to be able to see your alternate lives, and I whipped through the pages.

The writing is beautiful and loaded with gorgeous lines, many of which Haig has shared on his social media, but there’s a great depth to it similar to that of How to Stop Time. I know he has his detractors, but I happen to think he’s one of the finest writers we’ve got today, with some great wisdom and a genuine desire to make the world a little bit of a better place. I know I’m not the only person he’s saved. An entirely imaginative world, I loved the concept and how one small change can affect so much else. Seeing Nora have to learn who she is in every new life she stumbles into is fun as well, giving her endless opportunities to learn what her new favourite drinks are, what nicknames she has, and who she’s dating. Some lives are tragic, some seem perfect on the surface, but there’s nothing if not a wide variety of options available.

If you’ve not read Matt Haig yet, it really is time to start.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“The Windsor Knot” by S. J. Bennett (2020)

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“It was an almost perfect spring day.”

Fiction is littered with detectives, be they London gents with photographic memories, Belgian refugees, fussy old women in small villages, aristocrats just killing time, or schoolgirls with a taste for justice. There has never been one, however, like the detective presented in The Windsor Knot.

The morning after a party at Windsor Castle, everyone is recovering from the festivities over breakfast when the news breaks that the piano player from the previous evening has been found strangled in his bedroom. This news shocks everyone, not least Queen Elizabeth II, who hates the idea of something so nasty happening at her precious Windsor. Not entirely convinced that the police and MI5 are heading down the right track with their belief that the death involves a Russian sleeper agent, the Queen directs her new private secretary, Rozie Oshodi, to do some digging.

Because this is not the first mystery the Queen has tried to solve. Her hands are tied, however, and she must use subterfuge and gentle persuasion to get what she wants. As Rozie begins to uncover secrets all over London, the Queen pieces together the events of that night and finds herself coming to a very different conclusion. But if word got out that the Queen was solving murders, no one could imagine how the public would react. The Queen and Rozie are now bound together, but still kept apart by protocol, as they work to bring the killer to justice.

There’s no pretending that Richard Osman’s success hasn’t led to publishers all now clamouring for comedy crime, despite claiming even just a few short months before that there was no market for it. The Windsor Knot, therefore, seems to have arrived exactly at the right time. Alright, it’s not explicitly humorous, but the concept is quite funny. The idea of the Queen solving crime is great fun, and there is a natural difficulty added in that she can’t go running around interviewing people herself or hunting for clues because she’s elderly and, well, the Queen. This is dealt with in a way that seems believable, and allows the book to tell a story that doesn’t require a change in history to have happened. Since the palace never does comment on the Queen’s private affairs, who’s to say if this really happened or not?

I thought it was particularly bold of Bennett to hold Russian intelligence, and particularly Putin himself, as a key suspect in the case, as such an idea feels a little risky somehow. However, one of the other nations involved is simply “an allied country” and we don’t find out any more than that, suggesting she has limits as to who she’ll speak ill of. Elsewhere, the characters all feel fleshed out, not least the Queen. Although not entirely from her point of view, we get to sit inside her head a good deal, and nothing feels especially out of place with her public persona. She is portrayed as shrewd, intelligent and possessing an incredible memory, all of which I’m happy to believe. Bennett is clearly a fan of Her Majesty. Other members of the family appear in passing, with Prince Philip having the biggest role, and it’s nice to see him back, even if just in print and a good deal softer than his public image often suggested.

Rozie, the Queen’s private secretary, is great too, and allows for some diversity in a world that had the potential to be entirely wealthy, straight and white. Although it’s clear she has faced some sexism and racism in getting to her post, she has not let any of it daunt her and is a strong female character to rival the Queen herself. It also does a good job of justifying the Queen’s ability at being a detective; “She sees things other people don’t see – often because they’re all looking at her.” It’s such an interesting concept, and I look forward to exploring more of it, with a second book due out later this year.

If you’re after a silly story but also a murder mystery that works, I highly recommend this.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“Soupy Twists” by Jem Roberts (2018)

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“AMERICA – Hollywood Boulevard, Tuesday 25 October 2016, 2:30pm PST.”

The comedy landscape is littered with duos. From the anarchic styles of Lee & Herring, to the classic comedy of Morecambe & Wise, via the sheer surrealism of Reeves & Mortimer, and the wackiness of French & Saunders, we love to see good friends teaming up to make us laugh. Fry & Laurie are a key part of the progression, even though they’ve not performed together for many years now. In his revealing biography, Jem Roberts gives us the history of two of comedy’s greatest names.

Beginning with their separate childhoods, Roberts gives us all the ins and outs of Fry and Laurie as they grew up and started to become who we know today. The book runs chronologically, which I guess is no surprise, then giving us information about their days at Cambridge where they met, how they broke television, their time on A Bit of Fry & Laurie (this forming the main bulk of the book), and then what they’ve been up to since (Hugh becoming a blues singer and accidental sex symbol; Stephen turning into a National Treasure and the country’s most trustworthy voice).

I found the book leans ever so slightly (although perhaps this is just me) to giving us information about Fry, but then again he is the one who has been more in the public eye, I would imagine. While Laurie continues to be a bankable star and very popular, he doesn’t have Fry’s omnipresence, as he’s not really on the chat show circuit or a player of panel games. However, since Fry has written a number of memoirs now and is quite open about his life, there are fewer surprises here than on the sections about Laurie, about whom I knew much less.

The discussions about the creation of such shows as ABOF&L, Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster are really absorbing and as I’m a comedy nerd myself, it’s great to see behind the curtain and find out how it all came about. Also, it doesn’t hurt that there’s barely a person in comedy who they didn’t work with or don’t know. Already at university with the likes of Emma Thompson, Jan Ravens, Sandi Toksvig, and Tony Slattery, as time goes on they brush up against Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Paul Whitehouse, Alexei Sayle, Victoria Wood, Eddie Izzard and John Bird. As their careers go from strength to strength, they seem to tie together so many strands of the entertainment world that you begin to wonder if any of it would have happened without them there.

As a bonus, in the back of the book are a slew of scripts from previously unseen sketches. I haven’t read them yet as I’m saving them for when I’m in particular need of a gut-wrenching laugh, but if they’re anything as good as those that appeared in the sketch show, I can’t wait. Soupy twists!

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“Some Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White (1933)

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“Helen realized that she had walked too far just as daylight was beginning to fade.”

I know I keep saying it, but I need to stop reading creepy books. Anyway, here we are again.

Helen Capel has taken the position of lady-help in a remote country house inhabited by the Warren family. While they’re an unusual bunch, not least the short-tempered and bedridden matriarch Lady Warren, she is enjoying her work for the most part. When she learns that a murderer is on the loose, however, she begins to worry, as the four murders so far have all been of young women, and they seem to be getting nearer and nearer the house, with the killer becoming increasingly bold.

With news that the most recent murder has taken place just a short distance away and the body of a young maid found in a neighbour’s garden, Professor Warren decides to shut up the house for the remainder of the night, informing them all that no one is allowed in or out, and no door or window is to be opened, no matter who is outside. But as the characters begin to disobey, Helen can’t help but feeling that the killer is much closer than any of them suspect…

Genuinely, this is one of the most tense things I have ever read. Although not a classic horror, it plays up many of the tropes and all takes place on the typical “dark and stormy night”. While most of the story is from Helen’s point of view, we do occasionally learn things that she can’t possibly witness, but we never get the full story, leading to tension ratcheting up even higher. All of the characters have questionable traits, from Lady Warren (who might not be as bedridden as she lets on) to Nurse Barker (who only arrived that day, and cannot confirm her identity), and you really feel for Helen as the net seems to close around her.

The safest, most trustworthy characters are written out until the number of people available dwindles, and with no one allowed in, once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. Helen’s only chance of rescue is on the other side of the front door, but so too might be her end. Incredibly atmospheric, with characters that leap off the page with the smallest amount of description, White has created something truly fascinating. The solution is not unguessable, but it’s also satisfying and occurs just when the tension can’t possibly get any higher, having been spectacularly built up.

A forgotten gem, and not one to read on stormy nights alone.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“Leave The World Behind” by Rumaan Alam (2020)

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“Well, the sun was shining.”

Surely all of us, from time to time, wonder about how we’d react if the world ended. If the economy failed, industry collapsed, people died, zombies rose up, or nuclear war was unleashed, what exactly would we do? Curiously, last year we seemed to almost get a taste of the beginning of such a thing, and with the ongoing pandemic and the continued climate change related news stories, the concept all feels a little too close to home. Leave the World Behind is one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read about the end.

Amanda and Clay are on holiday with their teenage children, Archie and Rose. They’ve rented a house in the forest on Long Island and plan to spend their time in the peace and quiet, reading, swimming, enjoying the silence, and catching up with each other. After only a couple of peaceful days, however, there is a knock at the door. Outside, they find GH and Ruth, the owners of the house. They’ve never met, having arranged it all over email, but the new arrivals are seeking shelter. They tell of a blackout in New York, and Amanda and Clay quickly discover that their phone and television signal has gone.

There’s now a tension in the house. With no way to check these people are really who they say they are, can they be trusted? What has really happened in New York? As anxieties rise and everyone begins to speculate on things they can’t possibly know the answer to, they all have to wonder if they’re safe together. And then the first noise splits the sky and it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong.

Although the first few pages are idyllic in their setting, there remains a foreboding sense of anxiety over them because, you know, you’ve read fiction before. A happy family on a picturesque holiday does not a good story make. The first knock on the door and the arrival of the homeowners is chilling, and everything goes downhill from there. Alam is masterful in playing up the unknowability of the situation, because when the world ends we won’t necessarily have all the answers and know why. Here, the families are so close to the action, but have no way of being sure of what’s going on. The lack of knowledge makes the whole thing even more terrifying. We are so used to being in constant contact with the world thanks to our phones, social media and twenty-four hour news alerts. Despite the characters knowing very little, Alam does a good job of feeding in some extra information for us, the readers, all of which only adds to the dread and sympathy we feel for the characters.

I’ve been trying to read less depressing things while the world is such a mess, but I’m glad I made an exception here. It’s a beautiful book, very grounded in our world, even with the fictional events. It’s written so effortlessly (which means it actually probably took an enormous amount of work to be this good) and reads smoothly, with you always wanting to keep turning the page, hoping and praying that things will be OK. Every incident feels real and like it happened, if not to you, then to someone you know. You’re as much there as everyone else.

Darkly sinister but thoroughly gripping.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“A Closed And Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers (2016)

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“Lovelace had been in a body for twenty-eight minutes, and it still felt every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up inside it.”

With things as bad as they are on Earth right now, it’s no wonder I chose to escape into space. I finally return to Becky Chambers Wayfarers series, and not a moment too soon. I’d been worried that, having been so long since the first one, I would have forgotten all that I needed to know and who everyone was, but it turns out that while the books are set in the same universe and share some overlap in characters, they all work on their own, so I don’t think I missed too much.

The story picks up at the end of the first book, with the Wayfarer’s AI, Lovelace, having illegally been put into a kit that resembles a Human body. Lovelace struggles at first with no longer having omniscience and the ability to look in many places at once, coupled with an inability to tell a lie, and doesn’t want to get her Human friends Pepper and Blue in trouble. Adopting a new name of Sidra, she begins to learn more about what it’s actually like living among other people, and even makes a friend of her own, the Aeluon tattoo artist Tak.

The other half of the story is that of the cloned child slave, Jane 23, who many years ago escaped from the robot-run factory where she and her fellow clones sorted scrap for a wealthy Human society. Until she got away, she’d been unaware there were other people out there, or even what a planet was. She had never even seen the sky. Finding an abandoned ship run by an AI known only as Owl, Jane begins learning about the size of the universe and plotting her escape to finally find herself.

As before, Chambers proves her chops at world-building, here constructing an entire universe populated by alien races, all of which seem entirely believable. This is a society where, while there probably is war and xenophobia, it isn’t the central driving force, and instead we see a peaceful future where races live together, understand and respect one another’s differences, and blend their cultures together. Like with Ursula K Le Guin before her, she does interesting things with aliens and how their biology affects their culture. There is a particular emphasise at times on gender, most fascinatingly described with the Aeluon race, who switch between any of the four genders of their species at different times of life. Tak, therefore, sometimes has male pronouns, sometimes female, and sometimes neutral (xe/xyr, in this case), all of which are universally understood and respected by all races. With the current news cycle often filled up with stories of transphobia and gender expression, it feels very timely.

Unlike many stories in the space opera genre, this one does away with the big race-against-time plot, the journeying across vast distances, laser beams and robot wars. Of course these things have their place, but it’s refreshing to see something so character-driven in the genre. The characters themselves, despite their fantastic origins, feel fully dimensional, and are people you want to get to know and root for. Chambers manages to pack all that in among a world that genuinely excites. It’s also refreshing to have a space opera saga where Humans exist, but have no particular power or skillset that elevates them above the others. If anything, and I said this for the previous book too, it seems they’re only there because there are so many of them.

Although I don’t think everything needs to be adapted for screen, I would be so intrigued to see a Netflix series based on these books, allowing Chambers’ imagination to run even more riot. A wonderful book, with much to say about family, friendships and community.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1965)

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“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.”

I love a good murder story, as well you know, but these days my interests lie far more with fictional deaths and real ones. While undoubtedly interesting, I think I burnt out a few years ago when every fifth podcast seemed to be about unsolved crimes. There’s only so many times you can hear these stories, and the truth is what really makes a good story is a great resolution, and unsolved crimes just never give you that pay off. Yes, of course it’s remarkable to hear how people have got away with crimes, but really we all want to see justice achieved.

In Truman Capote’s extraordinary non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, we get to the bottom of one of the worst crimes of the last century. On a November morning in 1959, the four members of the Clutter family were found dead in their homes, each tied up and shot through the head. A well-respected and liked family in their Kansas hometown, no one could comprehend who would want to kill them, and especially not in such a grisly manner. With absolutely no motive visible and no clues as to who was responsible, detective Al Dewey knew he had his work cut out, as locals began to suspect one another and trust begins to erode. When a clue finally comes from an unlikely source, however, Dewey finds himself on the trail of two killers who have done the unspeakable and might just get away with it.

I knew a little about the original story, but nothing about the perpetrators, so it was interesting to see the truth of how they did the deed. Of course, because it’s a “non-fiction novel”, it’s not necessarily clear as to exactly which bits are true and which details have been invented. Capote, however, spent several years researching the case alongside Harper Lee, and his work is held up as an important document.

The writing is remarkable, and it is a great way to tell the story. First we see what happened to the Clutter family on the last day of their lives, and get to know them and their position in town, all of which makes it all the more tragic when they are killed. This is sometimes the issue with some fictional murder mystery stories – if we haven’t seen enough of the victim before their death, it’s harder to care about them. Capote makes sure we care. The rest of the book follows Dewey’s attempts to bring the criminals to justice, how the town reacts to the murders, and what happens to the killers once they’re tracked down.

It’s so well written, and aside from a few choice words and turns of phrase, has barely aged since publication, still being as relevant, readable and insightful as it ever was. By its very nature, it’s quite dark and not going to be a laugh-a-minute sort of tale, it nonetheless grabs you and holds on tight throughout.

Not only do I review things, but I’ve also written books too! If you fancy a blackly comic tale about the end of the world via an alien invasion, then try The Third Wheel. If you want some trivia and to test your grey matter, try my quiz book Questioning Your Sanity. I hope you enjoy them!

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