“The Diary Of A Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell (2017)

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“Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable.”

Wigtown in the Galloway region of Scotland is a town of just one thousand or so residents that would be another one of the many fairly remarkable, but historic, towns that make up the United Kingdom. As it is, it has been dedicated as Scotland’s Book Town, like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This means it has an enormous number of bookshops. One of these is simply called The Book Shop and is said to be the largest in Scotland. It’s run by a man called Shaun Bythell who isn’t quite on par with Bernard Black in terms of grumpiness, but he’s not far off. You may know him as the man who shot a Kindle and hung the remains like a hunting trophy. This is his story.

Detailing a year in the life of a Scottish bookseller, these memoirs focus on the day to day running of a bookshop housed in a centuries old building and all the problems inherent in this. There are leaky windows, disrespectful staff, misplaced novels, book purchases to be made, and that’s all before you get to the customers. Bythell is rarely judgemental towards his customers, merely observational (his words) but he does record a great number of incidents where customers are shown to probably be somewhat insane. There are those that ask him for books without knowing the author or sometimes the title, those that haggle (or even adjust the prices themselves), those who ask for things he has and then leave without them, or those who simply come in to tell him that they don’t read.

If you’ve never worked in customer service, you won’t believe a word of it. If you have, you will.

Most of all though, the book does shine through with Bythell’s passion for books. Frequently he has to visit other towns in Scotland to look through collections of books that people are selling. Sometimes all he finds is dross, or forgotten tomes covered in dust and cat hair that he could never make a profit on. Other times, he discovers rare antiquities and visibly becomes excited at meeting them. He is, naturally, a keen reader himself and has a love of not only books but the whole second-hand bookselling industry. He laments the changing ways and how modern technology – particularly Amazon – is rendering bookshops obsolete. As someone who still supports brick-and-mortar bookshops – especially independents when I can – I hope that his fears are unfounded, although truthfully I can see how much harder it is becoming to run a bookshop when everything is available online with the click of a button. Still, I find that Amazon tells you what it thinks you’ll want, whereas any true book lover knows that you can’t beat browsing physical shelves where you stumble onto something you didn’t even know you needed to know about.

A charming and hilarious book that has shoved Wigtown still higher up my list of places to visit, and also made me reconsider the available option of running one of the town’s bookshops for a holiday. I fear I’d never get any work done in a place like that … it sounds ideal.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“Uncorking A Lie” by Nadine Nettmann (2017)

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“When bottles of wine are sold for large amounts of money, they end up in the news.”

A couple of years back I tried a novel about a sommelier who solves a murder at a vineyard thanks to her extensive knowledge of wines. I decided then it seemed a bit ridiculous, but I’ve drunk a lot more wine since then and the reduction in brain cells causes me to make many bad choices. So here we are again, reading the sequel, and while I’ve built that up to sound like I’m going to hate it, I don’t.

Katie Stillwell works as a sommelier at Trentino, a fashionable restaurant in Napa Valley and lives, works and breathes wine. There seems nothing that she doesn’t know about it, and she’s now in training for her Master Sommelier exams. One of her regular customers is Paul Rafferty, a wealthy lawyer who is throwing a party at his mansion to celebrate his purchase of a $19,000 bottle of wine and invites Katie along to the tasting. The fellow party guests might not care for Katie much, but they all adore wine. When the bottle is opened and at last tasted, however, only Katie realises that something is wrong. The wine is counterfeit and not at all what the label says it should be. Before she can get to the bottom of it however, Paul’s assistant is found dead in the cellar.

Convinced that someone at the party knows more than they’re letting on, Katie confesses all to Paul and he hires her to get to the bottom of how he came to possess fake wine. Katie finds herself thrown into the murky waters of counterfeit wine and before she knows it, she’s in danger herself. She’s got to use all her skills to solve the crime, but who can she trust, and who else will end up dead?

My primary issue with the book is the same as last time. While the plot itself is quite fun and I enjoy the concept of a detective sommelier (no matter how contrived things have to become for her to get a particular clue), it is the actual writing that lets the book down. I feel it just needed another couple of rounds with an editor to tidy it up and give it a polish. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and there is strange expostion that does nothing to further the story and doesn’t need to be there. One particularly stuck out for me when it’s mentioned what sandwich Katie buys and then specifies that they likes all the ingredients in it, like we couldn’t assume that entirely pointless detail without it being said.

Katie herself is also something of a Mary Sue, apparently never being wrong about wine. I’ve got friends in both the wine and whisky industries, so I know that expert tasters exist and I know enough myself to be able to tell major grapes apart, but narrowing down a specific year or vineyard is not an everyday ability. Granted, Katie has had years of training, but it still comes off a bit too convenient sometimes. The other characters, however, are interesting and obviously have more depth to them that we aren’t always allowed to see, and the plot itself is great. I’ve read books about counterfeit art and wills before, but wine is an unusual one, and there is indeed a burgeoning criminal industry of it.

It might not be an expensive Riesling of a book, but it’s still a pretty decent house white. Uncomplicated and unusual with a sickly sweet finish.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Management Style Of The Supreme Beings” by Tom Holt (2017)

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“Dad, as is tolerably well known, is omnipotent and can do anything.”

And I return to Tom Holt. This is the third time I’ve delved into one of the extraordinary books that his unique brain has produced. I don’t know all that much about the man, but I do know that I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. He’s the sort of writer, though, that I don’t want to hurry through. He is to be savoured. Still, it was time to explore one of his more recent works, this time dealing with the bureaucracy involved in running Earth.

Dad and his son Jay are beginning to tire of being supreme beings of a planet that doesn’t seem all that bothered if they’re present or not. With plans to take retirement and fish for the rest of eternity on Sinderaan, they explore their options and end up selling the planet to the Venturi brothers. These keen and cunning businessmen have come a long way from humble beginnings growing up on Mars, but now own all several galaxies, and this Earth seems like a decent addition to their portfolio. The old guard head off, all except for Dad’s other son, Kevin, who decides to take his place among the humans he’s grown to admire.

Immediately, they make sweeping changes. Reincarnation replaces an afterlife, meaning Hell and all the current staff and residents are left to their own devices (quickly deciding that they should become a theme park), belief is total and the Venturi brothers get rid of that tiresome old “Good/Evil” dichotomy that seemed to cause so many problems. Now, you can sin as much as you like as long as you can pay for it. Blaspheming will cost you a few hundred dollars, but if you want to start a war you’re going to need billions. Faith is shaken and society is changed overnight.

But Dad didn’t give the Venturi brothers all the salient facts, because there is another god lurking on Earth. He’s ancient, something of a trickster, and no one really believes in him – at least, no adult. But take care – this mysterious figure is compiling a catalogue, checking it twice over and pretty soon, he will be coming back to town…

Whenever I’ve been asked (and it has happened occasionally) which author I most aspire to write like, I often name Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde or Douglas Adams, but really, I think it’s Tom Holt. He doesn’t waste an opportunity to throw in a joke, a pun, a ridiculous (but always startlingly accurate) metaphor, or throwaway concept that could have been a whole novel in itself. One of the giants of literary comedy, he takes a simple if far fetched premise and twists it all out of shape and into something staggeringly original. Many books have been written about God and what he really thinks of us lot down on the planet, but never before have I seen it all played out like this.

The human characters, while interesting, pale in comparison to the more supernatural ones. The gods, angels and demons and their relationships are great fun to watch play out, and they’re dealt with in daft – and yet totally acceptable – ways. The Devil (known as Uncle Nick) doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of Hell anymore, and so the whole place is run by his human assistant, Bernie. Kevin is a brilliant also-ran to “Jay”, never quite matching up to what his brother achieved, but not for the reasons you’d seem to think. The universe in general though is dense and rich like a chocolate gateaux and full of information about alien species and bizarre biologies that even Douglas Adams would have struggled to dream up, and he had sentient shades of blue and species that invented deodorant before the wheel. The whole thing is a laugh a minute.

I can’t say much more without ruining great swathes of the novel – I’ve hinted at what else is to come already – but all I can do is advise you to buy this book immediately and join me for a swim in Holt’s imagination. There’s loads of room.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Book Chat: Stevyn Colgan

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Stevyn Colgan is the perfect man to have to write an introduction about. At 57, he has lived enough lives for several people over. In his time he has been a policeman, public speaker, artist, novelist, and researcher for QI and The Museum of Curiosity. I’ve come to know Stevyn a little recently as we’ve both published our latest novels via Unbound, and he’s genuinely a really lovely chap.

His books include Joined-Up Thinking, a trivia book that theorises (and proves) that all facts are connected, and the utterly hilarious A Murder to Die For. He’s also recently become a podcaster and the first episode of his podcast, We’d Like A Word was released earlier this month. He presents the podcast about words, writing and reading with Paul Waters.

Based in the area of Britain where Midsomer Murders does most of its filming, Stevyn found a moment among the countless demands on his time to answer a few of my questions about his favourite books.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently on a mission to read as many ‘forgotten’ comic novels as I can find. Some real treasures have turned up including Eric Morecambe’s Mister Lonely and W E Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle.

What genres do you prefer?

I love literary comedy across all genres so will happily read Tom Sharpe, Jonathan Coe, Stella Gibbons, Douglas Adams, Sue Townsend, Terry Pratchett, David Nobbs, George MacDonald Fraser, Helen Fielding, John Niven…

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

The world can be a sad, tragic and miserable place. I want to read things that are uplifting and/or joyful. I want to learn. I want to go “Wow!” I want to feel better after reading. I want to smile and snigger and chuckle.

What were your favourite books growing up?

The Uncle books by J. P. Martin. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ various adventure stories on Mars, Venus or at the Earth’s core. Down with Skool and all the other Molesworth books by Willans and Searle. Asterix the Gaul. Any books with dinosaurs in them.

Have you read any books translated from a foreign language and how did you find them?

Probably not enough. On the whole it’s been a positive experience from the Asterix the Gaul books (the late Anthea Bell was a genius translator) to Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared. Or should I say, Hundraåringen som klev ut genomfönstret och försvann?

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

I’m lucky that I’ve met most of the authors who influenced me. But top of the list of people I haven’t met and would have most liked to is P. G. Wodehouse.

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

I love the feel and smell of physical books and have a library of over two thousand. But it’s the words that count and I read more than I could ever find storage for, so a Kindle is a godsend too. If it’s a book I love it doesn’t matter what form it takes

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

Pretty much all of them. I read maybe two or three books per week in the ratio of 2:1 non-fiction to fiction. I’m always learning and always smiling. It’s hard to single out any particular books but Sir Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds was amazing, as was Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics, and Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up?

Somewhere quiet, warm, comfy, well-lit, with a big mug of hot black Earl Grey and a thick slab of fruit cake.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

No idea. Maybe Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. The most perfect blend of humour, travel writing and pathos.


You can find Stevyn all over the Internet: on Twitter, on Unbound and on his podcast’s website.

“Dinner For Two” by Mike Gayle (2002)

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“Apparently (at least, so she told me) it all happened because her best friend Keisha had to stay behind after school for hockey practice.”

Despite the sheer number of books on my shelf that I’ve still not read, when it came to picking one over the weekend, I couldn’t seem to get my head around any of them. As such, I retreated into one I’ve read before. Mike Gayle, as I’ve said before, is one of my favourite writers, and his chatty, confessional style is very easy to absorb.

Music journalist Dave Harding is very happy with his life. He’s got a good job, a nice flat and is happily married to Izzy, the woman of his dreams. Everything seems brilliant, but his biological clock is ticking and Dave finds himself eager to start a family. Izzy, however, doesn’t seem so bothered. His life changes dramatically, however, when the magazine he works for folds and he is persuaded to take up the role of agony uncle for a teenage girls’ magazine.

He soon finds that he actually quite enjoys answering the problems of confused teenagers, and he’s a natural at giving relationship advice. He even begins written a column about how men think for Izzy’s ladies lifestyle magazine. But then he receives a letter from a thirteen-year-old girl called Nicola that stands out from the rest. She tells Dave that he is her father – and she’s got the evidence to prove it…

I didn’t remember much about this one but know I hadn’t read it since university, so at least ten years ago. As ever, it’s funny and warm, but it’s definitely not my favourite. When Dave learns that he has a daughter, he begins seeing her but neither of them inform the other most important people in their lives – namely her mother and his wife. Although obviously done for drama and to allow tension to build, in reality this all just seems a bit insane. It’s hard to be fully sympathetic with Dave when we are watching him lie to his wife and while he doesn’t actively ask Nicola to keep him a secret, he also doesn’t do anything to encourage her from telling the truth. Nicola is portrayed as a pretty good teenager, and the constant reminders of Dave – and others – that she’s a good kid don’t ring hollow, as she clearly is, although we’re only seeing things through his eyes.

In general though, it retains Gayle’s brilliant voice and the characters are otherwise wonderful and fully realised. He has a way of making you care about these people, without using a single ghost, alien or vampire. His stuff is real, and you almost feel like the events happened to someone you know personally. He doesn’t shy away from the realities of growing up and the complications surrounding relationships. We’ve all got histories, but they don’t all turn up on the doorstep long after you’ve left them behind. A pleasing read and a firm reminder that I’m doing the right thing in returning to his old books.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Zen In The Art Of Writing” by Ray Bradbury (1994)

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“Sometimes I am stunned at my capacity as a nine-year-old, to understand my entrapment and escape it.”

I’ve long admired Ray Bradbury. One of the true genius writers of the last century, the man had a mind like no other and was capable of dreaming up the most remarkable fantasies, all of which felt as real as they did spooky. Having been struggling with writing lately, I thought it was about time I gave myself a lecture on why I fell in love with it in the first place. But then my friend bought me this for my birthday and I figured, well, no point in lecturing myself when I can get Bradbury to do it.

This slim collection of essays written over thirty years or so detail Bradbury’s experiences with writing. Far more proficient and disciplined than I am (and probably ever will be), he explains how he took to writing a thousand words a day and could polish off short stories in a matter of hours once he’d got the central conceit. Famously, the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 was written in nine days on a rented typewriter at his local library. He wrote long lists of nouns that could serve as titles. THE CROWD. THE ATTIC. THE CARNIVAL. THE OLD WOMAN. THE VELDT. A vast majority of these would later grow into some of his most famous novels and short stories, and it seemed he always had an idea and a willing audience. He sold dozens of stories to magazines before he was a full-time novelist. It’s inspiring.

Throughout though, he never once seems to prescribe his success to luck and he’s not arrogant about it. He admits that he works hard – and he shows that working – but he never seems to lose his passion for writing. Not only does he praise the virtues of zen (work – relaxation – don’t think), he also talks with appropriate joy about zest. You have to love what you’re doing, or no one will want to read it. It’s the kind of thing I really needed to hear recently as my third novel struggles to take shape on the Arctic whiteness of a Word document. He is one of those brave figures who knows his own mind and isn’t bothered by peer pressure, as shown when he explains his childhood love of Buck Rogers and how he was prepared to lose friends over it. The final part of the book is a collection of poems, which even I – as a poem-sceptic – enjoyed.

Bradbury only died in 2012 after an impressive life filling the world with mystery, fantasy, horror and truths, as well as being one of the central figures responsible for bringing science fiction into the mainstream. What he has to say about writing is important, and I defy anyone who has read his work to not think he’s an incredible talent. If no one else, anyone who considers themselves a fiction writer should read these essays. If anything, you may just feel a bit less alone.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Real-Town Murders” by Adam Roberts (2017)

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“Where we are, and where we aren’t.”

Last time I met Adam Roberts’ writing, we were sinking fast towards to an ocean floor that never seemed to arrive. I didn’t even register this was the same author until about halfway through. I should’ve cottoned on sooner, as once again he’s created a strangely unsettling world where everything is just a bit off and you’re never going to get everything explained.

In the near future, private detective Alma has been called upon to solve an impossible murder. In a car-making factory where everything is automated and human contact is minimal, a body has turned up in the boot of one of the new cars, stone dead with his lungs and heart mashed up. Watching the security footage, it seems there is no way a body can have been inserted into the car at any point of its construction, and yet there it is. Alma promises to take the case, but is chased off it by a mysterious figure called Michelangela. Much as it would have been nice to have the money, Alma has more pressing things to worry about, such as her partner Marguerite whose genes have been hacked with a disease, and only Alma can administer the cure, once every four hours.

But while most of the world remains oblivious to this murder, trapped as they are in the fully immersive Shine – the Internet’s entirely virtual successor – some people are keeping an eye on the Real, and Alma soon finds that she’s involved in something much more sinister than she first realised. Before she can really register what’s going on, she finds herself shunted from police custody, hospital and back home again, with her only goal being to keep Marguerite alive. She’s entirely off the grid now, as if she onswitches back into the feed for even a second, the authorities will be able to track her down. Then again, they know where she has to be every four hours. The hunt is on…

So, trying to explain a future world and all the technology that encapsulates is sometimes part of the fun of writing, although it’s possible to get bogged down in specifics. Here, I don’t think we often get specific enough. Granted, to have the characters stop and explain to one another what the Shine is, or how people stuck in it for months at a time used mesh suits to exercise their muscles would break the reality. We never get to enter the Shine, though, so we don’t know exactly what it is, although I got the impression it’s a full VR world that the user can build themselves and live in their own private paradise. Similarly, all the people we do see have constant feeds surrounding them, and it’s not exactly clear how these work. I ended up assuming it was a Google Glasses kind of technology, but it could just as easily be some kind of brain implant, or even a product of the environment.

Some aspects are a little far fetched, but then I suppose all good science fiction has something that makes you think that this really is the future. Drones, self-driving cars, VR, these are all fine, but it’s actually the more mundane parts I disliked. The story takes place in R!-town, which was once known as Reading, but had rebranded for tourism. Apparently so had other towns nearby – sWINdon and Basingstoked!, for example – and even the country is now known as UK!-OK! It’s stuff like this that takes me out of it, as it seems too silly. The one aspect I did really like though was the the White Cliffs of Dover have been carved like Rushmore with the faces of famous Brits, leading to a bizarre and surreal scene in which the characters scale Shakespeare’s face and take refuge in his nostril.

Honestly, I found the concepts of the future more interesting than the actual murder case. The solution, while ingenious in its own way, actually felt a bit like a cop-out. The text also gets a bit repetitive at times, with characters repeat conversations with one another, or drop in exposition we already know. Something else I must praise though was the way that people speak when they meet in the real world. Alma and most of the others have normal speech patterns, but people who live mostly in the Shine and have only dropped out for a while tend to mix up words, repeat themselves, stumble over syntax and are prone to spoonerisms. It’s a neat little touch.

An intriguing and distressing future where privacy is a thing of the past and people never have to go outside. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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