“Lost For Words” by Edward St Aubyn (2014)

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lost-for-words“When that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire had approached him about becoming Chair of the Elysian Prize committee, Malcolm Craig asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer.”

I’ve always been skeptical about literary prizes. As one of the characters in this very book says;

Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent.

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve read some phenomenal books that seem never to have been given a moment’s attention by those who worship Literature with a capital L, and also slogged my way (often only ever part-way) through novels that have been honoured with massive awards – I’m looking at you, The God of Small Things. Anyway, Lost for Words is a satire on the world of literary prizes and seems to enjoy showing how ludicrous the whole thing is.

The book leaps around to see the world through various characters including the judges for the coveted Elysian Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the world, some of the writers, and others in their orbits. What we see is a nest of interlocking, often tense, relationships, as everyone has a goal besides ensuring the book they want is the winner. Characters include Katherine Burns, a writer who breaks hearts habitually and is always courting at least three partners; Sam Black, an author who is in love with Katherine; Vanessa, an academic who is not convinced by the literary merit of all but one of the nominees; John Elton, an agent who may just have thrown away the biggest book in history; and Indian author Sonny who is convinced that his novel The Mulberry Elephant will take the world by storm, if only he could get someone to take a look at it.

Lost for Words parodies the fact that some people seem to think that anything is art, and that if you get people to analyse anything enough, they will find all sorts of hidden meanings in it that probably reveals more about themselves than the artist. The book that wins the Prize (a decision that isn’t reached until two minutes before the announcement) is obvious from quite early on, but it’s still a good ending and you find that in this context you don’t mind, although had such a book won the Booker Prize in our world, you’d be miffed.

It’s a quick read, and quite biting towards the industry, but it makes some fair comments about the nature of art, criticism, fame, celebrity, and post-modernism. It’s not the sort of book that will spark many memories for me even a year or so down the line, but it’s not bad.

“Nod” by Adrian Barnes (2015)

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Sweet dreams aren't made of this...

Sweet dreams aren’t made of this…

“It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.”

I like sleep. I don’t nap, something that many people find odd, but come the night time, I rather like drifting off and emerging seven or eight hours later (theoretically) refreshed. On the occasions that I don’t get enough sleep, I become incredibly grouchy, which isn’t unusual among us humans. Because while science still can’t tell us exactly why we sleep, there’s no doubt that we absolutely need to. After all, terrible things happen to those who don’t sleep, as Adrian Barnes discovers in his novel, Nod.

Paul is an etymologist who shuns most of society and sits at home writing his books, his primary source of social contact being his girlfriend Tanya. One morning, after Paul has had a wonderful dream, Tanya says that she didn’t sleep at all – didn’t even feel tired. Paul spends the day working, and it’s only when Tanya returns home that it turns out that pretty much no one slept at all. Maybe one in ten thousand people the world over managed to sleep that previous night. The pair watch the news into the evening where theories are spouted and a second sleepless night for the population passes.

On the third day, society begins to crumble.

Paul is one of the rare Sleepers, and with a lack of sleep, most of the population have begun to enter a state of psychosis and within a matter of weeks, they will all be dead. Paul must survive while watching Tanya fall to pieces in front of him, and soon the old world is replaced with a new one, with Paul as an unwilling prophet at the helm. Welcome to the Land of Nod.

The book spans a mere twenty-four days – that is how quickly this end of the world scenario takes place. It’s incredibly terrifying, seeing people very quickly lose their humanity and go mad. This is the apocalypse on steroids; a faux-zombie tale on fast forward. While Paul isn’t painted as a particularly nice man, somewhat self-absorbed at first, and used to his way of doing things – he is not a man who much likes change it seems – he appears to gain humanity while everyone around him loses it. The thought of having to live as the only sane man in a world gone crazy is torture that no one deserves, and it quickly becomes unclear whether it would be better to be a Sleeper or one of the Awakened.

Despite the horror and creepiness of the story, it is absolutely beautiful. Barnes writes like his words are being woven into a patchwork quilt, and there isn’t a dropped stitch or lose thread in it. There are many reflections on what it is to be human, an emphasis on our physical bodies and how there isn’t much more to us than that, and of course what happens to a world where everything is upside down and one of the fundamentals we’ve always taken for granted has been taken away. The images are vivid and the tension and terror are palpably real.

The author’s note at the back says that Adrian Barnes was diagnosed with brain cancer six months before its release, with a 1% chance of survival. I can’t find anything online to confirm it, but it would appear to be that he has departed this world by now, unless he has been phenomenally lucky. I hope he has. He draws some parallels at the end between living with that tumour that robbed him of some of his favourite things, and living in a world without sleep. It adds another layer of unbearable sadness to the novel.

A very poignant, terrifying look at humans at their least humane.

“The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins (2015)

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the-girl-on-the-train“There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks.”

Like many people I am a frequent user of trains … that is when there isn’t a strike on, nothing’s cancelled and there aren’t any leaves on the line. (I’m a Southern rail user, can you tell?) I’m also a nosy git, so if I’m not reading on my journey, which I often am, I find myself staring out of the window, looking into people’s gardens, wondering about those who live there. The writer in me conjures up all sorts of stories for these residents, and a little part of me has always wondered – what if one day I saw something I shouldn’t? That’s the set up for Paula Hawkins’ bestselling thriller.

Rachel Watson commutes back and forth to London every weekday, and in that time has begun to fantasise about some of the people she sees in their homes and gardens along the route. She is particularly obsessed with a young couple she has nicknamed Jason and Jess, since she doesn’t know their real names. She loves looking out for them, seeing them so in love. Also, if she’s focused on them, she doesn’t have to look four doors down to see the house where her ex-husband Tom is living with his new wife Anna and their baby.

One morning, though, Rachel sees something unusual going on in the garden. The next day there are reports that Megan (the real name of Jess) has gone missing after a row with her husband, Scott (Jason). As the police start searching for clues and Scott gets called in for questioning, Rachel begins to sense that she is the only one who can help, but given her current position as an alcoholic who keeps harrassing Tom and Anna, it doesn’t seem that anyone is going to take her seriously. Time ticks by and Rachel realises that she has to be more than just the girl on the train.

This book sold hugely and I was intrigued in it for a while before actually getting round to it, but it turns out that I thought I knew what it was going to be about. In my head, I’d rehashed it as a modern retelling of Agatha Christie’s 4:50 to Paddington, which it isn’t, although there are definitely some similarities. I won’t go into exactly what Rachel sees, but suffice to say that the novel basically boils down to being a murder mystery with five suspects, each of whom seems as likely as the other thanks to the three narrators, Rachel, Megan and Anna, all being entirely unreliable. Rachel is an alcoholic who suffers from blackouts, Anna sees the world through her hatred of Rachel, and Megan is telling us the events that lead up to the fateful day, but only the ones she seems to consider important.

All three women share certain other traits, as well as unreliability. They are each deeply flawed – Rachel is destructive, jealous and a poor judge of character, Megan is flighty, haunted and stubborn, and Anna is selfish, vain and unable to see what she doesn’t want to see. The male characters are nicely developed too, but it is the women here who really stand out. No one, with the possible exception of the other central figure, therapist Kamal Abdic, is a particularly pleasant person, but that’s life. There are very few angels in this world, most of us are broken and bruised in one way or another.

Some people I spoke to about this book called it predictable, some with real disparaging tones, but I actually found it quite the opposite. I was well over three quarters of the way through before I’d worked it out, which wasn’t much before the characters did. Thanks to the story being told non-chronologically, and having the characters all know different things (and be in varying states of sobriety), the clues and red herrings are satisfyingly mixed up and the traps are there to be walked into. I thundered blindly into several of them.

The ending is sudden, shocking and satisfying, making for a great trifecta, and as with all good books, there’s a sense of hope and continuation at the end. I don’t get quite why all the hype, I’ve read better, but it’s a hugely enjoyable read and more than a little full of tension and terror.

All aboard!

“Dublin Folk Tales” by Brendan Nolan (2012)

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dublin“It is very hard to be a storyteller in Dublin for everyone has a story to tell if you will but listen.”

Earlier this year I read Sussex Folk Tales, which was exactly what it said on the tin. About this time last year I was in Dublin and picked up this addition to the series because, well, I like a story.

As in the Sussex book, it lists a number of stories that have survived down through the ages that took place in and around Ireland’s capital. Most of them seem to take place more recently than those from Sussex and are far more focused on people than on fantastic creatures. Granted, there are a few about ghosts, pig-faced women, and monstrous creatures that stalk and kill through the streets at night, but the vast majority look at some of the city’s more eccentric residents.

Some of the characters here are well known, like Molly Malone, and it seems Dublin has hosted numerous famous people from the annals of history such as St Valentine and Little John, of Merry Men fame. Most of them, though, are just ordinary people. There’s Bang Bang, a simple-minded man who would pretend to shoot city residents with a key, delighting when they joined in and shot back or pretended to die. There’s the unsolved murder of Sarah Kirwan who may or may not have been drowned by her husband, the tales of headless coachmen who came to claim the bodies of the dead, the legend surrounding the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and the story of the coal that seemed to produce a miracle, and the Devil’s personal visit to the city’s Hellfire Club.

The stories aren’t ordered by area or age, but form a mixed bag of stories both entertaining and interesting. Dublin is a beautiful, colourful city and it is tales like this that will ensure it remains so. Just a short review today, but if you like Ireland, tall tales or spooky events, give this a go.

“The Pottermore Trilogy” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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hogwartsIf there’s one thing we can say about J. K. Rowling (and there are many things, many of which I don’t agree with), it’s that she is one of the finest world-builders of all time. While there are some suggestions that she makes up things on the fly – and maybe a couple of things she has – it always seemed very clear to me that there was a plan in place from the beginning. When you read back and notice Sirius Black getting a name check in the first chapter, two whole books before he turns up, or see the innocuous mentions of the Vanishing Cabinet long before it comes into its own in the sixth book, it’s obvious that she knew a lot more than she was putting in the books.

With the advent of the website Pottermore, we were promised more information on some of the series’ characters and concepts, and she certainly delivered, although you’ll never please all the people all the time and there’s much call for information on main characters like Sirius Black and Neville Longbottom, whereas we’ve often ended up with that on blink-and-you’ll-miss-them characters like Celestina Warbeck and Professor Kettleburn. Nonetheless, if she has this level of information on those characters, she must be able to produce massive tomes on some of the core characters. However, even some die-hard fans found it hard to navigate through the site to get their hands on the new information, so it’s now here and available to us all. While the information is free to read on Pottermore, the three new ebooks, which I’m dubbing here the Pottermore trilogy but have no official grouped title, are cheap to download and contain a little extra too. They were released yesterday and by the time I’d finished breakfast this morning, I’d read them all. The full titles of the three are:

  • Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide
  • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists
  • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies

The first listed is, as you’d expect, all information about the school itself, telling us more about the Hogwarts Express and the creation of the hidden platform at King’s Cross, the Sorting Hat, the ghosts, the grounds and some of the school’s more peculiar artifacts such as the Mirror of Erised. The second, Power, details information about the Ministry of Magic (including a list of all Ministers) and those who seek or have been granted great power of one kind or another, including Umbridge, Slughorn and Quirrell. Peeves is also discussed in detail here, simply I think for the purposes of alliteration in the title. The final book, Heroism, is primarily about some of the most important and influencial secondary characters, McGonagall, Lupin and Trelawney, but also has some extra information about things associated with them, such as werewolves and seers.

Are the books worth getting? Yeah, sure. There isn’t a great deal of extra content unfortunately, but we get the full guide on how to become an Animagus, and find out more about Slughorn’s history. If you’re a die hard fan, then of course they belong in your collection, but as I said above, most of the information is available on Pottermore for free. People seem to be slating Rowling for now charging for it, but the original hasn’t been removed, so it’s still completely accessible for everyone. No one is making them buy these books.

I personally love the extra information she has stored up about her world, and I always get excited when there is anything extra revealed. There were rumours once of an encyclopedia about everything, but if these books teach us anything it’s that that is going to be one enormous book. And if it ever emerged, I’d devour the thing in one sitting. Until that day, we shall make do with these rather brilliant little bonus books.

“They Came To Baghdad” by Agatha Christie (1951)

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Baghdad“Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.”

People go on about how travelling broadens the mind and that if you don’t travel you only read one page of the world’s book and a lot of other stuff like that. It’s not for me, though. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge those who like it. Do what you do! But for me, I find it far more comforting to travel by book. There’s none of that tiresome waiting around at airports, you don’t need vaccinations, and there’s no problem trying to understand the language … unless you’re reading Kafka in the original German, of course. No, give me a quiet corner and a book and I’ll travel that way. I’ve spent the last week, for example, in Iraq.

Chrisite is once again here playing with international intrigue, doing away with a murdered body in a quaint English village in exchange for something a bit bigger. With the Cold War looming, things are tense between Russia and the USA, and talks are planned to try and broker an arrangement for peace. They will take place in Baghdad. But hidden within the Middle East is an underground organisation that plans to sabotage the talks.

Meanwhile, young Victoria Jones has just been fired from her latest typing job and while consoling herself with a sandwich in the park, she meets the curiously handsome Edward. He seems just as smitten with her, and admits that he is off the Baghdad the following day with the professor he works with. Both young things are sad that their affair must end before it’s even had a chance to get started, so Victoria becomes determined to find her own way to Baghdad, despite knowing nothing about it. She is a girl keen for adventure, and a new one begins when she indeed finds a way to her destination.

But once she’s there she’s in trouble. She can’t find Edward, has no money or prospects, and then as if things couldn’t get any worse, a man dies in her hotel room. As he slips away from life, he utters three words – “Lucifer … Basrah … Lefarge”. Victoria quickly finds herself embroiled in an adventure far bigger than any she could have imagined.

Whenever Christie goes big, I find myself slightly less interested. While there’s no doubt she could do the bigger plot lines as well as the smaller murder mysteries, I generally prefer the latter. This one takes a while to get going – there’s no death until about halfway through – but things move rapidly from that point onwards. Christie seems mostly to be using the novel to tell us what she knows about the Middle East. Her second husband was an archaeologist and Christie often accompanied him on his digs, meaning she had first hand knowledge of this part of the world and the customs. This does not go to waste, and has been seen in others of her novels too, including Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. It definitely adds sparkle and colour to the writing.

The only character of any particularly memorable note is Victoria Jones, a natural-born liar who manages to get herself out of any tricky situation thanks to her quick mind and ingenuity. While she might go giddy for a man so quickly, she’s definitely no damsel in distress and can more than take care of herself. Otherwise, this isn’t one of her best books for characterisation. Nonetheless, it’s a fun romp through the world of secret agents and secret political discussions which feels like a bit of an interesting change from Christie’s usual fare.

Anyway, time to read myself into a new location. I’ll be in Dublin if you need me.

“The Murdstone Trilogy” by Mal Peet (2014)

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Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

“The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbellows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.”

Tolkien has a lot to answer for. Without his huge success writing about elves, dwarves and journeys across sprawling landscapes to find or return some sort of jewellery, there wouldn’t be such a market for these sorts of books. The Fantasy genre, in name alone, implies that anything is possible in this world, and yet it seems that over and over again the same sort of story is played out. Having recently just got back into playing Skyrim,  it’s particularly on my mind right now. But, as I say, these books sell, and this is a tale about what happens when they reach the upper echelons of popularity.

Philip Murdstone has had a fairly successful career writing Young Adult books about overly sensitive boys, but recently the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market and his newest offering was barely noticed. His agent, Minerva Cinch, has a new idea for him. Seeing the change in the tide, she suggests he try and write a fantasy novel, or even better a trilogy, as readers can’t seem to get enough of that sort of thing. There’s only one slight problem – Philip hates fantasy.

Now told that he has to write a fantasy novel if he wants to reclaim his earlier success, Minerva sends him off with an outline of what such a novel should contain. All the tropes are there: a sword with a funny name, an evil overlord and his ugly minions, a hero from a shire on the very edge of the Realm, a McGuffin that needs to be acquired at all costs. Philip doesn’t know where to begin. However, while staggering home from the pub one night, he meets Pocket Wellfair, a Greme from another Tolkienesque world, who shares with him a story of such wonder and majesty that before he can blink, Philip is the internationally famous and wealthy author of Dark Entropy.

But now the world wants the sequel, Philip can’t seem to do it without Pocket’s help, and Pocket is far more interested in getting the Amulet back to his homeland, and if he can destroy Philip’s testicles at the same time, then all for the better. The Murdstone Trilogy must be completed: humanity is hungry for the sequel. Philip must make a pact with Pocket to save his own life.

This is a brilliant and darkly funny take on the fantasy novel, both playing with the concept and the very notion of the genre’s existence and predictability. The writing style is reminiscent in many ways of the fantasy novels being discussed. Set in Devon, there are few places more perfectly suited to represent the wonder of a Middle Earth like world. Philip, however, can’t see that, and laments how difficult it is to invent a fictional world, in between listing details of local folklore, describing people in the village in a way that would fit into his novel, and reeling off the unusual place names that make up his environs. It also mocks authors in general, and shows that we’re all a bit fraudulent and worried that one day the switch that powers our imaginations will turn off.

Philip is a fun character, if rather sad and pathetic. It’s hard to say how much he’s based on Mal Peet himself, who similarly made a career writing YA fiction, before switching to this adult offering. He, unfortunately, died the following year, which made me feel guilty that I’d discovered him too late. Minerva is also brilliant; a modern creature unsuited to the fantasy genre, but with a name that suggests otherwise, and the mad locals of Flemworthy, the local town, are of great comedic value. They indeed wouldn’t look out of place in a pub the heroes travel into. They even have local nicknames that suit them.

The ending left me a little disappointed, but it’s a nice twist nonetheless and allows for the genre to do something different. It’s further a reminder that I’d rather read books like this than actually have to wade through The Lord of the Rings. Good fun, and very clever.

I’ve never been into writing sword & sorcery, but my own book has more than its fair share of myth and magic. Download The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or wherever else you get your ebooks and check it out.

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