“Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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“When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’.”

I’ve never been involved in Reddit, and to be honest, I still only have a vague idea of how the website functions, but one aspect that has become well known to me is the area of it dedicated to creepy stories. Some of the best are their “two sentence horror stories”. If you’ve never encountered these, then you can find a selection here, but be warned that they’re pretty good at sending a shiver up the spine. I mention this because it turns out that Penpal was inspired by a horror story on Reddit that Dathan Auerbach converted into a full-length novel. And boy does it retain it’s creepy beginnings. Read on with caution.

Our nameless hero is trying to piece together some memories from his childhood. It all began with a school project that went awry. Every five-year-old in the class had to release a helium balloon into the sky with their name and the address of the school attached to begin a “pen pal” relationship with someone in their community. But as the days go on and he gets no reply, our hero wonders if anyone got it at all. Until one day a response comes, but it’s just a single, blurry Polaroid. Then another one arrives. And another. And almost fifty more. So many, in fact, that he stops looking at them. But then one day he decides to take a look again and notices something shocking.

He’s in all of them.

Revealing all to his mother, she sets about protecting him from a potential threat, but there are more memories coming forward now. He remembers waking up in the woods by his house with no memory of how he got there. He remembers his best friend Josh, and the unfortunate distance that grew between them. He remembers the kitten that used to hide in the crawlspace of their house. And he remembers the terrible accident. Finally confronting his mother about it all now he’s an adult, he learns more and soon the memories begin to make sense, but perhaps it would simply have been better to forget…

This book is utterly chilling. The fact that someone is out there taking photos of a small child – and then sending them to him, no less – is terrifying enough, but all the other things that happen just make it so much worse. It’s more polished and much longer than the usual horror stories like this that gather in the cracks online – and, to be fair, some of those are excellently written already – and Auerbach laces with incredible precision a sense of unease throughout. At times you can see where it’s going, but it doesn’t soften the blow, merely makes it worse when the inevitable finally happens. I can’t even get enraged that the children don’t sound like children, because I was so involved that it didn’t matter. It just works.

For anyone who likes horror or a good thriller, this is definitely one to read, but I don’t recommend reading this one at night or in a forest – and if you decide to read it in a forest at night, then I’ve no option but to have you committed. A brilliantly executed piece of tension.

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“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

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“The thing was: One million years ago, back in A.D. 1986, Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.”

Earlier this year, I made my way via book to the remote Falkland Islands. This time, I’ve schlepped across South America and disembarked on the Galapagos islands the other side. With Kurt Vonnegut as my guide, I should’ve realised that this was going to be odd, but it’s been a while since I’ve read him, and I’d forgotten just quite how strange he is.

Narrated by a ghost (who happens to be the son of Vonnegut’s recurring science fiction author Kilgore Trout), Galapagos spans the eons, taking in both the year 1986 when the economy crumbled and the world as we know it ended, and a million years later – the book’s present – where the only surviving humans live on the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to suit their new habitat. The new humans are descended from the tourists aboard the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, a planned tour to the islands that Darwin made famous that never quite lived up to expectations.

While the ship was originally planning to have such illustrious passengers as Jackie Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, in the end there were just eleven people on board, including the captain, a retired schoolteacher, a con artist, a pregnant Japanese woman, a blind woman reliant on her father, and the last six members of the Ecuadorian Kanka-Bono tribe. The only other thing that survived the end of the world was Mandarax, a tiny marvel of electronics that can translate almost any language, recite thousands of literary quotes, and diagnose over a thousand diseases. As the humans evolve and adapt to their new way of life, the old ways of humanity with their society of big brains quickly fades into history, and the question is raised – are things better for it?

Vonnegut is of course one of the most wonderful writers of the last century, but as mad as a box of mushrooms. He’s on good form here, with a slightly daft premise that manages to bring up all the big topics regarding humanity and our dangerous brains. The non-linear structure works well and with the narrator existing a million years beyond most of the action, it allows him to give us the salient facts in the order he sees fit. When a character is due to die soon, they gain an asterisk before their name. At first this is sign-posted, but eventually it just happens without mention and you realise that another one is on their way out in the next few chapters.

Some of the activity is naturally far-fetched, such as the methods of artificial insemination used on the island, the speed of evolution (although arguably it is sped up thanks to nuclear fallout), the appearance of ghosts and the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife, and the sheer number of rare and unusual illnesses contained inside the few survivors, but because it’s Vonnegut it still works. While he’s somewhat vague about what exactly happens to humanity in its isolation – aside from revealing that our descendants have small brains, flippers and fur – he spends a lot of time pointing out the insanity of our modern world and the damage our big brains have done to the planet and to one another. Vonnegut goes to far to state that all the problems of humanity were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. When natural selection decides that a slim, streamlined head is more use than an oversized cranium, the brain begins to shrink and humanity returns to the water.

Vonnegut also makes a big deal about the inter-connectivity of things. The smallest things have the biggest impacts on the future, with the narrator pointing out that had something trivial not happened, then the fate of the human race would have probably been entirely different. These can be anything from someone have a specific gene, or a mentally unstable soldier breaking into a particular shop. Everything is linked – so it goes.

An interesting and somewhat creepy look at an unlikely – but nevertheless potential – future of the planet.

“13 Dates” by Matt Dunn (2017)

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“I fall in love with Angel the moment I see her.”

Romantic fiction has long been considered the realm of women, with people like Helen Fielding and Sophie Kinsella dominating the field. However, there are a good number of men doing their best to prop up the genre with novels from the points of view of the male characters, and often with great aplomb. Mike Gayle might be the best of the bunch, but Matt Dunn also does a good job, and I return to him again this week.

Noah Wilson has just met Angel Fallon in his local Starbucks and instantly fallen in love with her red hair, wry smile, and love of spontaneity. Unfortunately, in meeting her, he’s now found himself late for a blind date. He decides he doesn’t care and desperately wants to see Angel again, but can’t seem to track her down anywhere in Richmond. His friend Marlon helps him seek her out, with the advice that it takes thirteen dates to realise if you love someone. If Noah can just get those next twelve dates, then his future is secured – right?

The journey to true love never did run smooth though, and while Noah does manage to find Angel again, before he can confirm whether the two of them are destined for one another, they’ve first got to combat horses, jellied eels, a rock climbing instructor and more parkruns than are probably healthy. But will thirteen prove to be lucky for some?

At first, I was somewhat disappointed that it was simply a case of “awkward man meets manic pixie dream girl and she changes his life”, and while some of that is true about the story, it’s actually much more than that. Seemingly predictable, Dunn has a curious way of pulling the rug out from under you just as you think you’ve settled into the story, he changes tack and introduces something else. Some of them are somewhat cliched and contrived – but I’ve always been someone who quite likes a well-used cliche – but the story works as a whole. I can see how Angel would grate for some people though. As I mentioned above, she does fit the “manic pixie dream girl” type (and if you don’t know what that term means, think Zooey Deschanel in every film role she’s ever had) and even her name (Angel Fallon / fallen angel) feels a tad ridiculous. She’s not someone I would particularly care to meet, but then again I’m more like Noah in that I like to have a plan.

Despite my minor griping, I’ve got to fall down on the side of liking the book because it’s very funny. Dunn makes good use of awkward characters and situations, misunderstandings and people stuck in situations they really don’t want to be in. I particularly enjoy that every single person the main characters come up against who works in a public-facing role has already reached their daily quota of how much bullshit they’re willing to put up with from customers and clients, and as someone who has worked in customer services for a decade, it’s a position I strongly sympathise with. Another great line is when Noah’s elderly landlady is trying to think of the word Dignitas, she asks Noah for the name of that place where all the old people go, and he responds, “Eastbourne?” Even the minor characters get some good lines here, and the world feels richly populated somehow, even though we only meet a very few of the people in either Noah or Angel’s circles.

An interesting and funny take on the road to love. I remain convinced that Matt Dunn is a sharp talent and always worth your time.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

Book Chat: Lydia Mizon

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As a proud nerd, it can come as no shock to people that I am a fan of TV quizzes, my favourite being the fiendishly challenging Only Connect, which – if you’ve never seen it – involves finding the connections between supposedly unrelated clues, often by use of lateral thinking and having a huge reservoir of general knowledge to call upon. I was thrilled, therefore, when I managed to source not only a mere contestant but a winner of the show. Lydia Mizon was the captain of the Escapologists, the team that won the thirteenth series of the show earlier in 2018. Along with her teammates Frank Paul and Tom Rowell, she stormed to victory, surpassing the twenty-three other teams with her love of puzzles and trivia, as well as the charm and humour exhibited by her and her fellow quizzers.

Lydia, who works in university admissions when not quizzing or honing her skills in an escape room, kindly answered my questions this month on her likes and dislikes. Her hobbies include dog walking and “making Spotify playlists and never listening to them”, but she’s also a keen reader, and it turns out we have a lot of overlapping tastes. Here is what Lydia had to say about the books that have made her who she is.

What are you reading at the moment?
Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. It’s a non-fiction outlining scandals and secrets of Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1950s. One of my favourite podcasts, You Must Remember This is currently running a series fact-checking it, so I thought I’d read along. The stories are fascinating but usually not entirely accurate, and there’s some wonderful pictures of old Hollywood.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up? Where, when and what?
Holidays are when I get a lot of reading done. My best ever reading setup last year, on a poolside sun lounger in a French villa, with a nice glass of wine and my Kindle. I read A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins and the first Dirk Gently novel. It was quiet, warm and we all just sat around reading and drinking. Bliss.

What book do you think you’ve read more than any other?
The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky. As a child I was obsessed by facts and lists (which has served me quite well in the end), so many rainy weekends were spent on my parents’ bed reading through this book. I still go back to it occasionally – I have a copy in my house now. It’s very dated but you can just dip in and out.

Which fictional character would you most like to go for dinner or drinks with?
I’d go for a lot of drinks with Moira, Offred’s best friend, from The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s the kind of friend you’d want on a night out, rebellious and strong willed and loads of fun.

Can you tell me about a book that made you laugh?
Everyone probably says this- but the Adrian Mole series, especially The Cappuccino Years. The first time I read the first novel I was younger than Adrian is supposed to be, and a lot of the jokes went over my head. I went back to it a decade later and realised I probably identified a little too much with him at that age…

Have you ever seen a film that was better than the book it was based on?
The Wizard of Oz. The film is wonderful, like a warm hug. We were read the books as a child and I remember being disappointed- it felt so colourless.

Can you tell me some of the books on your ‘to-read’ list?
CAN I?! Sara Pascoe’s Animal, which I know is amazing but haven’t got round to. Persuasion, which is the only Austen book I haven’t yet read, and Norman Ohler’s Blitzed about the use of drugs in Nazi Germany. Also I think I need to get round to reading some Wodehouse at some point- every time I see any extract of his work I always think it’s brilliant but I’ve never sat down and committed myself to it.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?
Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed really left an impression on me and made me think more critically about the way I use social media. It’s such a destructive environment sometimes, especially Twitter – someone makes a bad joke, it gets retweeted a bunch of times, and someone thousands of miles away calls their boss and gets them fired. Then that stays on the Internet FOREVER.

Also reflecting on it, The Witches really helped teach me about death. The boy gets turned into a mouse, and doesn’t get changed back at the end. He and his elderly grandmother ruminate that they both only have a few more years to live and will die around the same time, and they’re okay with that. It was the first book I ever read where death wasn’t presented as frightening.

Do you judge a book by its cover?
I don’t think so, although it can contribute to the mood of a book. If I read a book, fall in love with it a bit, and then see it somewhere else with a different cover it always feels a little strange- like a friend has had a drastic makeover.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I can’t find enough superlatives to describe how much I love it. From beginning to end, it is perfect.


Lydia can be found on Twitter, Instagram, or navigating her way out of an escape room near you.

“Matilda” by Roald Dahl (1988)

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“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.”

Given that this is something like my 500th book review, it can come as no shock to anyone that I quite like reading. Matilda Wormwood, therefore, has long been one of my literary heroines. Like her, I come from a family where I am the only reader (although let’s make clear immediately that that’s about the only thing my parents have in common with hers) and so even from a young age I related strongly to her and, as I’m sure we all did, wished for our own magical powers. I haven’t reviewed every one of Dahl’s books I’ve re-read this year, but this one I felt needed to have a little said about it.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story and have somehow avoided the book, film and stage show – all of which are brilliant in their own ways – this is the tale of Matilda Wormwood, an incredibly intelligent five year old who has taught herself how to read and do complex mathematics with absolutely no help from her parents. Her mother is far more interested in bingo and her appearance than learning anything, and her father is a con man who sells used cars and believes television is all you need in life. When Matilda begins at school, she meets two new women: her kind and nurturing teacher Miss Honey, and the psychotic and violent headmistress Miss Trunchbull. As Matilda tries to find her place in the world that doesn’t appreciate her talents, she soon discovers she has another talent she’d not yet known about, and with it, she begins to do the most amazing things…

Matilda is a rare example in the Dahl canon of a female protagonist, with only The BFG¬†and The Magic Finger being female driven, although Matilda still comes out of this as being the only one with a full name. The rest are headed up by boys – Charlie Bucket, George Kranky, James Trotter, etc – who are wonderful characters for sure, but perhaps skew the opinion of Dahl being that he’s a writer “for boys”. In Matilda, he conjures up a character that teachers children – and especially young girls – that reading and intelligence are to be valued, and that there is nothing wrong with loving reading. This was an important lesson for me, and I know I’m not alone in admiring Matilda.

The book is also home to one of the very few adults in a Dahl novel who isn’t horrific. We are used to the nasty grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, the questionably moral Willy Wonka, the cruel Aunts Spiker and Sponge, and of course the odious Twits, While Miss Trunchbull serves that role here (and what a brilliant name Dahl conjured up for her), we also meet the kind, sweet and very lovely Miss Honey, a woman struggling with her own problems but never letting them interfere with her teaching. I’ve seen the joke made that because of this, she is the polar opposite of Severus Snape, who made his students’ lives hell because he let his personal life mix with his professional life too easily. All in all, it’s a very female-driven novel, with only Mr Wormwood and Bruce Bogtrotter serving as central male figures. Miss Honey is the perfect role model, and there are fewer fictional characters that young people could love more.

I last read the book in 2012, just before seeing the stage show, and like that time, I had forgotten both how young Miss Honey is (she is only twenty-three) and how little Matilda’s magical powers feature into the story. I think because the film is very familiar to me – and a lot of us of a certain generation – we tend to focus on that. I can see why the film did, because it’s a visual medium, but here the touches are smaller but all the better for it. The ending is also slightly different to the film, but this isn’t a bad thing. Again, I can see the reasons for each.

Laced with charm, wit and joy, and jammed with the usual darkness that we expect from Roald Dahl, Matilda may have been one of his last, but it’s also one of his best.

“Exercises In Style” by Raymond Queneau (1947)

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“On the S bus, in the rush hour.”

Quick review today from this classic exploration of writing from Raymond Queneau.

The plot is simple enough – on a crowded bus, a long-necked young man challenges another passenger who he believes keeps treading on his toes every time someone else gets on or off. He darts for an empty seat when one becomes available. A couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same youth being advised by a friend to add a button to his overcoat.

That’s it. But what happens next is quite remarkable.

Queneau takes this banal tale and retells it 99 times, each time in a whole new manner, be it in a different tense, from a different viewpoint, or in an entirely new medium, such as a sonnet or an official letter. In some, he plays around with word structure leading to some stories that make no sense, whereas in others he’ll adopt words to do with food, or focus solely on the smells or sounds involved in the story. Each new retelling gives us a slightly different interpretation of the story and new details filter through, building up a richly diverse story, whether it’s being told through the eyes of a poet or a Cockney.

There’s not really much more to it than that, but it’s a great thing for writers to read in particular, I think, as it shows how much narration matters. Just a slight twist and you can get almost an entirely different story depending on what you’re focusing on. An interesting experiment.

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