“The Wimbledon Poisoner” by Nigel Williams (1990)

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“Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife.”

Wimbledon, to most people around the world, is simply the place where the tennis happens. If you’re of a certain age, you may also associate it with the Wombles, the rodent rubbish collectors of the common. This fairly affluent area of south London became central to three of Nigel Williams’ books, known as The Wimbledon Trilogy. This suburban murder mystery is the first.

Forty-year-old solicitor Henry Farr is having something of a mid-life crisis. He has realised that his life has devolved to containing nothing but an unhappy marriage, a demanding daughter, an unfulfilling job, and weekend visits to Waitrose. The only thing that makes him happy is writing his magnum opus, The Complete History of Wimbledon, and even that has lost some of its lustre after it was rejected by a publisher. He manages to put most of the fault on his wife, Elinor, and decides that he needs to kill her. He debates strangling, electrocution and pushing her off a cliff before realising that his method should be poison, and before he knows what’s happened, he’s bought some thallium from the chemist and is smearing it onto that evening’s chicken.

However, Elinor is in one of her “moods”, and rejects dinner after all, much to the annoyance of Henry. Unfortunately, friend and local doctor Donald has popped in for dinner and eats the chicken instead, which proves to be his last act. Furious that his murder attempt has failed – and saddened by the death of his friend – Henry decides to make a second attempt. Soon, his friends and neighbours begin falling like dominoes and things begin to get out of control as he continues to fail in killing his wife. He needs to stop, not least because DI Rush from over the road has begun hanging around more often than usual, and Henry is sure that his taciturn nature is just a front for what he really suspects is happening in their quiet neighbourhood…

Suburbia is broadly assumed to be a very boring place indeed. It is a place between the city and the country where people have gone to raise families and absolutely nothing exciting happens at all. Therefore, in fiction, the suburbs are incredibly thrilling places, with all sorts of things going on in them, from wizards and vampires hiding among the normal people, to every other resident being a murderer. Williams really plays up the smallness of the situation, with Henry knowing everyone in the street and discussing them only in terms of their nickname and house number. We all have people in the street that we don’t really know the names of, but refer to as things like Jungian Analyst with the Winebox or Unpublished Magical Realist. Some of the names are brilliantly obscure and make little sense, their reasoning lost to time which feels very real. I think all of the action takes place in Wimbledon and it becomes the key focus of the novel in many ways.

Henry isn’t especially unlikable, but then again, not many of the characters are. You don’t wish any of them dead, sure, so you still have some empathy as the list of the dead grows, but you’d also be hard-pushed to find a solid reason to bring them back again. Of their time, while some of the characters have embraced feminism and environmentalism, most of the others are still small-minded, racist, sexist and unwilling to engage with modern society. I’ve recently binge-watched the entire series of Ever Decreasing Circles, and you get the same feeling of a “little England”, where everyone should be obliged to be white, straight, in steady employment and part of the local cricket team. Of course, at least there none of them were trying to kill each other (as far as we know).

The ongoing madness and the escalation of murders is done very well, and in some ways the book is a classic farce. Yet, as it becomes more objectively ridiculous, it stays engaging and still feels real. It’s effortlessly funny and it doesn’t need to reach far for the jokes, simply relying on observation and the interaction between the characters. We definitely need more comedy novels these days and while the likes of Jasper Fforde and Stevyn Colgan are doing their best, the wider publishing world seems to have little interest. The British are obsessed with murder and we pride ourselves on our humour – why are books like this not held in higher esteem or considered “worthy”? A mystery for the ages.

In the meantime, I recommend this delightfully dark and silly comedy of manners.

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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Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019

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I’ve just had the enormous pleasure to spend four days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have long-adored the city, but had never visited the world-famous festival before, so this was quite literally a dream holiday. The city remained as beautiful as ever, with the added bonus that everywhere you turned, there was a remarkable talent (or a shameless exhibitionist) on display. As my friend said, “There’s not a single room in Edinburgh they’ve not crammed something into, is there?” And she’s right. We plodded around theatres, pubs, comedy clubs, spare rooms in bar basements and even the Student’s Union building in search of entertainment, and boy, did the city deliver. Since this is a blog all about reviews, it seems only fair to then discuss, if only briefly, every show I saw on my whistle stop visit, starting with…

Best of the Fest: Daytime

We decided to open with a show that would give us a taster of the sort of thing to expect from the week. With a rotating cast of comedy and music acts, you never know who you’ll be seeing in the spiegeltent on the day. Our MC was drag act Reuben Kaye who burst onto the stage with great energy and introduced us to comedian Marlon Davis, comedy troupe Pamela’s Palace, sketch-performing duo Max and Ivan, and dancers Noise Boys. All great fun, the middle two involving audience interaction (important tip for Edinburgh: unless you’re a confident sort, don’t sit in the front row or on an end), but probably it was Reuben who stole the show. His flyer contained a review saying he was like a hybrid of Liza Minnelli and Jim Carrey, and it’s very hard to dispute that. I’d recommend a “Best of the Fest” to anyone, like me, who is new to it and wants to get a taste of the thing.

Cordelia and Dimple: Buffet

In the spirit of there not being a single empty room during the Festival, we dived into a tiny room beneath the City Cafe, around the size of my bedroom, where maybe fifteen people were sat for Dimple Pau and Cordelia Graham. Due to the smallness of the room, it was an intensely intimate gig where I was sat but a foot from the performers. Had they not been funny, this would have been very awkward, but fortunately they were. Dimple shared stories of her home life, where her parents strict adherence to veganism has meant she has to lie about her own lifestyle, and Cordelia points out the struggles of having a mother who quotes Shakespeare all the time. When Cordelia, however, complained that she wanted to write a book but would never get round to it, she asked the audience if any of them had ever published a book. Basically, what I’m saying is, thanks for letting me plug my novel in a very minor way at the Fringe!

The Daily Ceilidh

This was not so much a show as an experience, but it’s worth mentioning because it still appears in the brochure and was enormous fun. Held in the awesome Stramash bar, throughout the Fringe the bar hosts a new band and a ceilidh every evening. For those who don’t know, a ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) is a traditional Scottish folk dance and is fast, frantic and, I discovered to my immense pleasure, fun. Had I been alone, there was no way I would have taken part, but after watching a few dances, my friend and I joined the crowd and got stuck in. I don’t think I’d realised that “dance in a ceilidh” was on my bucket list until it happened.

Zoe Lyons: Entry Level Human

I’ve been a big fan of Brighton-based comedian Zoe Lyons since she first started appearing on TV, so she was high on my list of people I wanted to see. As a big fan of comedy, I was also aware of the Gilded Balloon as a big Edinburgh location, and it was a thrill to be in there, too. Zoe’s set was fast and enormously witty, with talk on why computer experts all sound a bit adenoidal, why we all become a bit more “Brexit-y” as we get older, what makes flies able to get into a window but not out of one, the problem with Deliveroo, and the dangers of travelling to very conservative Muslim countries as a lesbian. (Spoiler: the problem isn’t what you think.) I love her even more than I did before – an absolutely stellar show and one of my favourites.

Mark Watson: I Appreciate You Coming to This and Let’s Hope For the Best

When he appeared on Taskmaster, Greg Davies insisted repeatedly that Mark looks like a heron. Having now seen him in person, I can only agree. His terrible posture is made up for by his absolutely incredible material, made all the more impressive that this show is a “work in progress”, meaning it’s not actually finished yet and he’s just testing jokes and routines to see how they work for a final show to go on tour later in the year. Mark manages to be wonderfully self-deprecating but also comes across as a genuinely nice man who is just a bit wound up and only thin because he lives life at a level of anxiety that his body can’t keep up with. There was talk of his recent divorce, why he’s a bad parent, his attempts at learning to drive, and how to deal with the responsibility of being in the exit row of a plane. But given the nature of the show, what he talks about another night might be entirely different.

Ben Van der Velde: Fablemaker

Speaking of a different show every night, we come to Ben Van der Velde. I’m already a big fan as the podcast he co-hosts, Worst Foot Forward, is one of my absolute favourites, so I was determined to catch him at the Fringe. Based entirely around crowd work, of which he is surely one of the masters, he finds out about his audience and weaves their stories into a single narrative with an astounding memory of names and details. Because of this reliance on the crowd, every show is entirely different, but Ben manages to keep the audience on-side and any digs at them are tongue-in-cheek and he never oversteps the line to direct offence, no matter what he’s actually saying. And, as a bonus, we had a nice chat after the show as well and he was just as charming off stage as on.

The Thinking Drinkers: Heroes of Hooch

If a show is advertised where you get given drinks while you watch it, you know I’m going to be there. The Thinking Drinkers are Tom and Ben, two alcohol experts who have the mantra, “Drink less, drink better”, which is solid advice. The show takes the form of both a set of comedy skits and a Ted Talk about the history of alcohol, as we explore how it came to be and who has loved it since. Focusing on “heroes of hooch”, the pair touch on the alcohol-fuelled exploits of the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and even God. Throughout, the audience are handed drinks and taught how to taste them. We knocked back beer, gin, rum, whisky and Gran Marnier as the show became more hysterical. It’s kind of like QI, but down the pub.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare

Is this a pint I see before me? The opposite of the previous show, here the audience aren’t given alcohol, but we instead see a performance of Macbeth where one of the cast has been drinking for hours before the performance begins. This time round it was Banquo who had been on the lash (six beers and quarter of a bottle of gin) and thus began one of the most anarchic performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered. While the rest of the five-person cast gamely tries to complete the play, our Banquo (who also took on the role of Lady Macduff and one of the witches) stumbled through her words, was encouraged to drink further by the audience, and at one point even kicked Macbeth in the face. The rest of the cast hilariously incorporate any mistakes into the play, and it was one of the maddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s what William would have wanted.

Are we not drawn onward to new erA?

We decided we had to get something highbrow in, and the reviews of this show from Belgian troupe Ontroerend Goed were amazing, so we decided to snatch up some tickets. Experimental theatre at its most experimental, this show sees a first act take place entirely in reverse with even the dialogue happening backwards, making it sound like you’re watching The Sims on stage. The actors destroy a tree, litter the stage with plastic bags and build a statue. At the halfway point, they realise that they have destroyed their world, and the second act sees exactly what happened the first time but forwards instead. How do they achieve this? That’s not my place to say, but it blows the mind, and things take on a different take when seen the other way around. A haunting and intelligent piece about climate change and environmental disaster.

Agatha is Missing

You thought I’d manage to get through the whole experience without somehow involving Agatha Christie, did you? Please, I’m not an amateur. In this one-woman show, we meet Miss Clarissa Marbles of Scotland Yard, who is attempting to solve the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance. Everyone in the room is a suspect, but we also get a chance to submit our own solutions and see if we can work it out. Relying heavily on audience participation, suspects and witnesses are called up out of the crowd, sometimes selected by Marbles, but sometimes simply by previous players. Shows like this only work if the audience are into it, and while most people gave it a good go, others were clearly dazzled by the lights and couldn’t handle the pressure. I’m not saying I could do any better, but when there’s nothing for the host to bounce off of, it means some lines fall a bit flat. Prudence Wright Holmes, however, the single performer, is absolutely wonderful and fully embodied the hilarious role, from her abhorrence regarding anything modern or immoral, to her tuneless singing of the national anthem.

Geeks, Stand Up

This was another free show we decided to pop in on and give a chance to as the concept seemed interesting. The premise is simple enough: four geeky comedians get to come on and talk about things they are passionate about but are a bit too niche to include in their usual set. I was a bit worried this might mean an hour of Star Wars or Avengers talk that I didn’t understand, but the spread was wide, with the MC taking on the superhero stuff (and finding the audience taking the opposite point of view for almost everything he said), and the other four joking about basketball, online homophobia, archaeology and professional wrestling. A decidedly mixed bag, the absolute stand out was 19-year-old Andrew White who tackled homophobia and did jokes about being the only single person in his hometown and not being a stereotype because he can’t dress well. He also included some of his “failed” observational comedy, including the bizarre but honest question, “Why do you never see a little branch of Asda?” Very true, and funny simply by the conceit of not being funny at all. Fortunately, he knows this, and he’s very much in on the joke.

Phil Wang: Philly Philly Wang Wang

Phil’s rise to the top of the comedy pile seems to have been meteoric, but we sure are glad to have him. In his highly-polished show at the Pleasance (another one of those fabled Fringe institutions), he discusses getting older and how this has impacted his farting habits, when it’s OK to impersonate another race’s accent, male contraception, and how Tinder is the quickest way to gain friends but not actually have any sex. Sweet and very endearing, he is great at balancing egotism and self-deprecation. I particularly enjoyed the quip, “People try to call me a minority, but I’m half English and half Chinese. I’m both majorities.” This, he explains, means that whichever side of the world ends up taking over, he’ll be fine.

Alex Love: How to Win a Pub Quiz (British Edition)

Hosted by Alex Love, this one saw the first half of the performance involve a stand-up set, and the second half contained a pub quiz, mostly based on things that Alex had discussed. It was a nice concept, and Alex had a few good moments, but the show unfortunately stalled a couple of times, particularly when team names were recorded and points were added up. Alex did his best to fill the gaps, and some of the questions were very clever, relying on red herrings and trip-ups from his earlier stories, such as talking about Tim Peake or Loch Ness, but then asking questions on similar topics where the answers were actually Helen Sharman or Lough Neagh. A good quiz, but could have benefited from being hosted more like one, rather than with the audience in rows.

Stuart Goldsmith: Primer

Another show I went to because of a podcast, and another work in progress. Stuart Goldsmith hosts The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, in which he interviews other comics about their careers and processes, and whenever he’s released a stand-up set alongside it, they are also hysterical. His new work in progress show was similarly brilliant. His notes were up on the side of the stage alongside him, and it was charming to see him work through them, as well as leave audio notes for himself on his recording of the show. Topics included how you change as you get to know your romantic partner better, how to perform acts of terrorism on the cheap, the large population of fairies in his nearby park, and the incredible story of the time his family stole a car. Incredible stuff, and I hope I get to hear the final show at some point.


And that’s it! Fourteen in four days is pretty heavy going. I already plan on going back for next year, for longer hopefully, but I think a day of rest in the middle would be very necessary. If you’re in Edinburgh and are looking for suggestions, I hope some of these have helped. And if there is anything you saw that you think I should know about, please let me know! It’s astonishing how many thousands of performances there are and I wish there was time to do them all. As it is, my first Fringe experience was absolutely wonderful and I consider myself very lucky to have seen such great shows.

For those uninterested in this stuff, don’t worry. Book reviews will continue again in the next few days.

Six of the Best … London bookshops

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London has an enormous literary history. From the days when Chaucer was pounding the streets, all the greats seem to have found their way here. Shakespeare had his theatre on the south bank. Dickens lived there and turned the city into a character of its own. Agatha Christie called it her home for much of her life, and along with many of the other detective writers of the era, founded a club for them to meet and socialise. To this day, it is an absolute haven for book lovers. I do apologise for the London-centric focus of this post, but I just felt I had to discuss the best bookshops in this great city.

The British Library is the beating heart of London’s literary body. By law, the library receives a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, meaning mine are in there too, which is probably my proudest achievement. It also contains a very charming bookshop, but really this is just a bonus. All bibliophiles should stop in here, because their collection is remarkable. Where else can you see the Magna Carta, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notes and Jane Austen’s writing desk?

Daunt Books gets an honourable mention, just for being so damn beautiful. There are a number of branches across London, but the first and most impressive is the Marylebone branch. Notable for its long oak galleries, large skylights and William Morris prints, it takes the breath away. It specialises in travel books, but caters to many other needs, too, and has in the last decade also begun publishing its own books. If it’s travel-based books you’re really after, however, I suggest Stanfords in Covent Garden, which will cater to your every whim.

I also can’t not mention Foyles, which to many people is the London bookshop, and the first place to stock my novel on its shelves. The company was founded in 1903, and gained a reputation for “anachronistic, eccentric and sometimes infuriating” methods of bookselling, but these have simply served to make it famous. The flagship store in on Charing Cross Road, but there are several smaller ones around the city. The most famous owner was Christina Foyle who had control of the company from 1945-99, implementing many of the wacky business practices that made it so notable, including the fact that customers had to queue three times to purchase anything because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash, not allowing orders to be taken over the phone, and the truly bizarre decision to shelve books by publisher rather than author or even title. Famously, in the 1980s, rival bookshop Dillons ran an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Foyled again? Try Dillons.”

Where is the heaviest concentration of bookshops in London, however? There are so many streets in the city dedicated to specific things – Denmark Street for music, Saville Row for high-end fashion, Hatton Garden for jewellery – there just has to be one for books. And there is. It’s called Cecil Court (informally dubbed “Booksellers’ Row”) and can be found near Leicester Square, linking St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross. A small street with Victorian fronted shops, it has existed since the seventeenth century, and now houses around twenty second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, . It holds another singularly cool claim to fame: Mozart lived there for four years.

The city has also seen the loss of some of its finest bookshops over the years. Murder One (1988-2009) was a shop specialising in “hard-to-find and collectable crime, mystery, romance and science fiction literature.” It was the first UK bookshop to specialise in crime and mystery, and was at its opening in 1988, the largest “genre” bookshop in Europe. It closed in 2009 when the owner retired, but still exists online as a mail order service. Elsewhere, we have lost Silver Moon Bookshop (a feminist bookshop that was later folded into Foyle’s), the Poetry Bookshop (1913-1926) which did exactly what it says on the tin and sold hand-coloured rhyme sheets for children, and Henderson’s, founded in 1909 and otherwise known as The Bomb Shop, that was known for selling and publishing radical left and anarchist writing. It’s sad to have lost so many specialists, but we’ve still got plenty to explore.

And so here are six of the best bookshops to visit London:

Skoob

If you like browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, then Skoob is for you. A basement shop near Russell Square, this paradise of the printed word houses over 55,000 uncatalogued books, meaning you never know what you’re going to stumble up against. Primarily it is a place for academic textbooks, but there is all manner of fiction here too, and I’ve spent a good deal of time browsing the shelves, especially those (pictured) dedicated to the famous orange paperbacks from Penguin. There’s also a section of their green paperbacks, all of which are crime novels. The Bloomsbury institution even offers its own gift vouchers, and promises that all books are priced at half (or less) of what they would be new. It’s a genuinely thrilling place to explore, right in the heart of that most literary corner of literary London.

Gay’s the Word

Speaking of Bloomsbury, we come to the most specialist shop on the list. Gay’s the Word is the only specialist LGBT bookshop in the whole of England. Founded in Marchmont Street in 1979 by gay socialist group, the Gay Icebreakers, the bookshop has since become a cultural cornerstone for London’s queer community. In 1984, Customs and Excise took it to be a porn store instead of a bookshop, and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock, including titles like The Joy of Gay Sex and works by Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. It was the meeting place for the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1984-5, who’s story is told in the amazing film Pride. The bookshop continues to go from strength to strength and is a vital stopping off point for anyone who wants to branch out from reading the same old straight, white men. Sitting on the shelves of this shop are many authors who have been sidelined, but are worth checking out.

Waterloo Bridge Book Market

You would imagine that a bookshop that is permanently outside would be a bad idea in Britain, given this country’s tendency to be somewhat wet, but an ingenious solution has been found that means this bookshop can open every day, whatever the weather: put it under a bridge. Open every day until seven (sometimes earlier in the winter) whatever the weather, despite being on the main thoroughfare of the Southbank, it has somehow remained one of London’s best open secrets. It has a wide range of paperbacks and hardbacks, including some collectables. There is something for everyone here, from children to crime nuts, romantics to fantasy lovers. as well as extras like beautiful book-based art prints. Like all good bookshops, the emphasis is on the shop’s browsability, a term I’ve just devised. It doesn’t matter how inclement the weather, if I’m in the area, I have to have a quick browse of the tables, and have picked up several rare and unusual books here.

Word on the Water

I only stumbled across Word on the Water last year and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It is one of the most unique bookshops in London as it is found on a barge. Before it acquired permanent mooring, it used to move to a different spot in the canals every two weeks, but it now has dropped anchor just behind Granary Square at King’s Cross for the foreseeable future. Founded in 2011, it is certainly one of London’s quirkiest bookshops and sells both new and used books. The roof of the barge has also become the perfect place for any number of events including interesting talks, live music, readings and poetry slams. It’s very quickly become one of my favourite places in London to spend time.

Hatchards

In Britain, you know somewhere is going to excel in quality when it’s used by the Royal Family. Founded in 1797, and trading from the same location since 1801, it claims to be the UK’s oldest bookshop. It holds three Royal Warrants, a sure sign of its quality. There is something about the shop and its decor that sends you back in time, despite the modern books on the shelves. It is a haven of peace in Piccadilly, and hosts regular signings and events with authors. It is the kind of place where you get the sense the booksellers really have read everything on sale. If you head a few paces down the road, you come to the final entry on our list.

Waterstones Piccadilly

Given the sheer number of bookshops in London, it might seem odd to then pick the market leader for this list instead of a small independent, but I’m afraid I simply can’t go without mentioning it. This is the bookshop in London I have spent the most time in, and is an absolute haven for any bookworm. It is reputedly the largest bookshop in Europe, and it has the statistics to back it up. 200,000 titles are sold across six floors and eight miles of shelving. Along with the books, it also contains two cafes, a bar, and a Russian Bookshop. Housed inside a 1930s art deco building that is Grade I listed, it’s the kind of building, like the Natural History Museum, that would look great whatever you put in it.

There are, of course, numerous other branches of Waterstones in the city, each with their own quirks. The Tottenham Court Road branch is the “hipster” cousin, with exposed walls and pipes, as well as one of the funniest business-based Twitter accounts ever. The Gower Street branch is another one that stretches over five floors, and has reading nooks, skeletons manning one of the tills, and an art gallery. In the Bromley store, you’ll find a lot of events catering for children, and the Islington branch has its own fish tank. Tim Waterstone, the company’s founder, said he wanted to create a company that was big but felt small, with very knowledgeable staff, comfortable surroundings, and masses of choice. I think we all agree that he’s done that. Of course we must support the independent shops, but there is something  magical about Waterstones that has ensured its survival and success.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde (1891)

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“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

An obsession with looking youthful seems to pervade society, and has done for a long time. I’m fortunate that I don’t quite look my age and can get away with being thought of as a few years younger, but the grey hairs are coming through with increasing regularity and I already make noises when I get out of low chairs and complain about a sore back. But if you could find a way to ensure you never aged, would you take it?

Basil Hallward is an artist who has stumbled upon his greatest muse – the young and handsome Dorian Gray. It is clear he is smitten, although Dorian just sees it as a friendship. While Dorian is sitting for a portrait, he is entertained by the opinions of Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton who shares his belief that hedonism and beauty are the only things worth dealing with in life. By the time the painting is finished, Dorian is horrified by how he will age and wither but the portrait will retain his youth. Now convinced that there is nothing more important than beauty, he wishes that his portrait ages instead of himself.

He falls in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane, but Basil and Henry are both unconvinced by her ability, and when Dorian finds that her poor performance renders him uninterested in her, he cruelly leaves her. When he gets home, however, he notices that the portrait has developed a cruel sneer. When he learns that Sibyl has killed herself in grief, he sees where his life is leading and locks away the portrait. Over the next two decades, he indulges in every vice and immoral activity he can, never aging or losing one iota of his beauty. The painting, meanwhile, has not been so lucky, as every foul act and passing day makes the portrait ever more hideous, taunting Dorian from its hiding place, leading him to wonder if it was all worth it after all.

This is one of those classic novels that has seeped into the public consciousness so we all think we know the story but, like Frankenstein, it turns out some of the details have got lost or been altered by adaptations along the way. I was under the impression that the portrait just held back the years, not that it also took hold of any debauchery and evilness in Dorian’s soul, although I suppose I should’ve twigged given how terrible the portrait looks in visual adaptations. I also could not have named a single other character, but Basil and Henry are both great inventions.

The opening pages dragged a little, I felt, and I didn’t think it sounded much like Oscar Wilde was behind it at all. That is, until the dialogue begins, and then it’s unmistakable, as all his characters sound like him. He has such a great way with dialogue, capturing both deep wisdom and silly witticisms with equal talent. No one else could make a duchess declare, “If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn’t have a scene in this bonnet. It is far too fragile. A harsh word would ruin it.” His people are hilarious, which makes what’s happening in the plot seem all the darker. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, the stakes are lower and we can revel in the jokes. Here, they are interspersed with the horrors that Dorian and, to some extent, Basil are dealing with. There are other less interesting passages however, including a whole chapter dedicated to Dorian’s obsession with beauty as he collects gems and tapestries, with great long lists regarding his collection blurring in to one.

Above all, it’s a novel about beauty, youth and obsession, and perhaps contains a warning on overindulging in life’s temptations. It also brings up the Victorian belief that evil makes someone ugly, whereas we all know that appearance can have little effect on your morality. Beauty is so aspired to by many in society, and always has been (even if what is considered beautiful has changed) but the novel shows the obsession that can come from this desire, and how ugly that can be. Hedonism, also, is fine in small doses, but one must be responsible for one’s actions, and as Dorian remains untouched by his cruel and unusual habits, he begins to care less about how he affects other people.

It was Wilde’s only novel, and I do think he writes better for the stage, but also you can see this as him dealing with his own demons. Interestingly, he has apparently written himself into the novel three times over, saying of the primary characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” All in all, it’s worth a read and is genuinely quite spooky at times.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“The Iron Bird” by Robert Woodshaw (2019)

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“Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I am a lappet-faced vulture, dear.”

Being one of those people who has a passing knowledge of the classics but hasn’t read most of them, it may come as no surprise that I’ve never actually read Animal Farm. Of course, I know what it’s about and I’ve actually seen a film version of it. As we all recall, it is an allegory for communism as told through a group of farm animals. Robert Woodshaw has taken the principle, shaken it out and injected a sense of modernity with The Iron Bird, the story of the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher as told through the lives of a group of zoo animals.

During the Second World War, young Bel-imperia Pinch, a lappet-faced vulture with dreams of being educated under the wise owls of the Cloisters, finds herself working begrudgingly for her undertaker father, assisting in his role as undertaker of Hesper House and Zoological Gardens. The fledgling knows there must be more to life than burying the dead, and when she meets someone who informs her that she will one day be greater than Chartwell, the elephant seal currently serving as Prime Exhibit, she prepares to develop a core of iron to achieve her goals.

Meanwhile, in 2010, an increasingly fragile Bel-imperia sits in a rarely-seen cage at the zoo, still taking audiences from curious animals and one particularly nosy human writer who wants to know all about her life. A new scent-marking contest is underway in the zoo and the incumbent Prize Exhibit, Ebenezer Bull, a half-blind rhino prone to charging in without thinking, is having his position threatened by the new leader of the Order of Carnivores, the slick smooth-coated otter Dale FitzClarence. Bel-imperia is sure that her time to return to the ranks is nigh, but with her health failing and her mind going, it will be a challenge.

Robert Woodshaw manages to bring what could be a very silly idea to life with great aplomb. Fast-paced and packed with superb characterisation, it’s an example of how to write animals without making them too human. Granted, they can do things that many animals can’t such as write, vote or perform religious ceremonies, but they’re all still done through the eyes and abilities of animals who have their own rules, culture and society. Here, it’s not impolite for a mother bird to regurgitate dinner for their chick, and carrier pigeons are used as the postal service. The novel has its own internal logic, and that’s often all I require.

Woodshaw also does a great job at translating politicians into animals, each one perfectly representing their human counterpart. The three major political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – find themselves populated by carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, respectively. From Gordon Brown’s blind rhino, to David Cameron’s slick otter, and even Boris Johnson’s purposely-dishevelled polar bear, the characters feel rich and good fun, even if the people they’re portraying are less than sympathetic. Other jokes regarding this I particularly liked are the subtle nod to the sheep and goats of Norn Iron Farmstead, a reference to the Troubles of Northern Ireland (“Norn Iron” being exactly how “Northern Ireland” sounds in the appropriate accent) and the fact that the zoo’s equivalent of the House of Lords is populated by extinct creatures, a reference to the average age in the Lords.

Of course, questions are raised regarding how the animals are able to move so freely around the zoo, why dinosaurs and dodos still manage to exist but no human seems to have noticed, how the Prize Exhibit always gets to move into Dower House which appears fit really for humans rather than any of their kind, but somehow none of it matters. You just go with it and it all adds to the humour of the piece. While it is funny, and Woodshaw makes sure to use as many references to real world political parallels, often just as passing references (I’m sure there are many I didn’t get), it’s also curiously moving, and like in the film The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep played Thatcher, you find yourself sympathising with her, even though she is, at the very least, one of the most divisive figures in recent British history.

The novel is a brilliant allegorical tale that should be a key text for anyone interested in recent history. I know I’m someone who complains that there aren’t enough new ideas these days, and many might think that the parallels to Animal Farm here means this counts as a “rehash”, but I happen to disagree in this case. In a lesser writer’s hands, perhaps this wouldn’t work so well, or would be more derivative. I couldn’t do it. Woodshaw has produced a book that sparkles with wit and warmth, and that’s not easy to do when you’re writing about a woman who, according to many, lacked basic human empathy.

Wonderful, thoughtful stuff.


Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

Six of the Best … Constrained Writings

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Writing a novel is bloody hard work, and I would be wary of anyone who said it was easy. I’ve done it twice – there’s a third on the go – and I honestly wonder how I manage to do it at times. However, there are some people who simply aren’t content with just writing a novel. They want to make it harder. Today, we’re talking about constrained writing.

Constrained writing is a literary technique that sees the writer bound by a condition that forbids something, or ensures a particular pattern. One of the most famous of these constraints is a “lipogram”, where a particular letter is forbidden. This seems easy when the letter in question is Q or J, for example – Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven actually features no Z but this doesn’t appear to have been intentional – but to really challenge oneself, you can ban the use of a much more common letter. Or the most common letter of all – E. Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel by Ernest Vincent Wright which was published in 1939 and doesn’t use the letter E at all. Annoying for him, however, there are two in his name. The opening paragraph is as follows:

If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

The thing I find oddest about lipograms is that you think they’ll sound nonsensical, but actually they often read just fine. Unfortunately for Wright, eagle-eyed readers have discovered a few E’s in the book. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive task, and inspired a similar project that I’ll discuss below. Lipograms, however, are not the only type of constrained writing available. There’s of course it’s opposite, the anitlipo, in which each word must contain a specific letter, although I couldn’t find any novel-length examples. For completions sake, a sentence or work containing all the letters of the alphabet is called a pangram. Since most works do this without any effort, the challenge here is to produce the shortest possible, the current record (involving no abbreviations) is the twenty-eight letter sentence, “Jived fox nymph grabs quick waltz”. More on these below.

Alliteration, as we all remember from language lessons, is when a series of words all begin with the same letter or subset of letters, and are difficult to do over prolonged works, although the best one I’ve found is below. Perhaps you would rather not constrain yourself based on letters, but on something apparently more esoteric, like word length. Pilish is where the number of digits in consecutive words match the numbers of pi. Mike Keith wrote a short story called “Cadaeic Cadenza” which used the first 3,835 digits of pi. The novel Not A Wake got to 10,000 places, and is the longest verified pilish work in existence. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can remove an entire aspect of language. In 2004, the French novel Le Train de Nulle Part was written by Michael Thaler and doesn’t use a single verb.

Just when you think you’ve reached a point where it seems they’ve made it difficult enough for themselves, along come authors like Jerzy Andrzejewski and his novel The Gates of Paradise, which contains just two sentences. The novel is about 40,000 words long and the second sentence contains four of them. Or how about Never Again by Doug Nufer, in which no word is used more than once.

And then there are the really tricky ones. Bilingual homophonous poetry is where a poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time by only using homophones. “One syllable article” writing is unique to the Chinese language, using words that are all homophones of one another, meaning it looks normal written down, but spoken aloud will produce a single sound over and over. A particularly famous example is The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, which has 92 characters, all with the sound “shi”. It doesn’t even have to be words: Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang doesn’t use a single comma.

If you feel like trying this out for yourself, then actually it’s a great bit of fun and it can be an interesting writing exercise. The website Quadrivial Quandry is perhaps a good starting place, as it uses the mandated vocabulary style, giving you four words a day to try and incorporate into a single sentence. And no, they’re not easy words. Alternatively, pick a random letter and try and remove it from a page of writing. You could also have a go at twiction, writing stories that can fit into a single tweet (which used to be much more of a challenge when the 140 character limit was in place). Ready that thesaurus!

And so, here are six of the best constrained writing books!

Ella Minnow Pea

In Ella Minnow Pea, we decamp to the island of Nollop, just off South Carolina, where the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is preserved on a memorial statue to its creator, Nevin Nollop, and is taken very seriously by the island’s people. When the letter Z drops off the statue, the government ban its usage. This doesn’t affect too much in society, but then the Q drops. And then J. Then D. As letters disappear from the sign, so too they disappear from the novel which is made up of a series of letters between residents, and before too long the islanders find themselves in a position where they can only use the letters L, M, N, O and P. Someone else needs to come up with a new pangram, and fast.

Author Mark Dunn is someone who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, having also written the novel Ibid, which is composed entirely of the footnotes to a work that has been lost. Much of the humour of Ella Minnow Pea comes from the characters altering the language to suit the new rules. While sometimes they just simply remove whole words, other times they change spellings (when F is lost, they begin to spell “after” as “aphter”, for example), and the fear of being found using a banned letter is very real, with themes of totalitarianism and freedom of speech beautifully explored in a unique scenario. Because of its emphasis on language, I therefore find it surprising that it has since been turned into a musical and, as of 2019, a film is in the works. This is, I think, the first constrained writing novel I read, and as such the one I hold in the highest regard. It’s funny, twisted and very unusual.

A Void

A Void by Georges Perec is one of the most famous lipogrammatic novels in the world, but what makes it even more impressive is the frequent translations. Originally published in 1969 in French as La Disparition, the novel follows a group of friends who are trying to find their companion Anton Vowl, but the novel doesn’t contain a single letter E (except the four unfortunately found in his name). At around three hundred pages in length, this is a particularly awesome accomplishment, and I struggled to do it just in my short review of the book, so I can’t imagine the pain of doing it for a whole, fully-functional novel. It was finally translated into English in 1995 by Gilbert Adair, but his was not the first attempt and three other translations – called A Vanishing, Vanish’d! and Omissions all exist.

The book has since been translated into various other languages, with every translator imposing a similar rule on themselves. Because E is such a prevalent letter in many languages, that’s usually the one that gets removed, but the Spanish version removes the A, Russian the O and Japanese the I. In 1972, Perec penned a novella called Les revenentes which uses E as the only vowel. He joked that he used up all those that he’d saved during the writing of La Disparition. This, too, was translated into English with the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.

Alphabetical Africa

Ages ago an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism … anyhow, Albert advocated assisting African ants. Ants? All are astounded. Ants? Absurd.

Something strike you as odd about that? That’s a paragraph from the opening chapter of Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa. The first chapter sees every word beginning with A. In the second, words beginning with A and B are both allowed, and so on. It all starts to sound kind of normal by about chapter nine when words beginning with I get introduced. In the middle, everything is allowed and then, starting from Z, the primary letters disappear once more. It sounds difficult enough, but when you consider that many basic words can’t appear until really late in the text (“the” in chapter 20, “what” in chapter 23, “you” in chapter 25), it seems impossible.

Despite all this madness, a plot still shines through about a journey through the African landscape, an invasion by Zanzibar and torture by Queen Quat. Because of the limitations, some of the plot can be predicted, such as knowing when Zanzibar’s troops will arrive and when Queen Quat will have to disappear from the narrative, but it doesn’t make it any less absurd and wonderful.

Eunoia

Christian Bok’s Eunoia (named for the shortest word in English to contain all the vowels) is perhaps the strangest on this list, as it does the opposite of A Void but five times. Each of the five main chapters uses one vowel each, which allows each letter to showcase its personality, as they all produce startlingly different sounds. Here are five sentences, one from each chapter, that reveal what a mad project this is…

A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.

He engenders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms.

Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script.

Dons go crosstown to look for bookshops known to stock lots of top-notch goods.

Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust funds plus slush funds).

Bok gives himself further rules, too. Each chapter is about the art of writing, must avoid excessive repetition of words and use as many as possible (the postscript says 98% of available words are used) and the letter Y is entirely banned too, so it can’t serve in its part-time position as a vowel.

And if that wasn’t mad enough, in the final chapter called “Oiseau” (the shortest word to contain all the vowels in French) contains further insanity, including a poem called “Vowels” where the only letters available are those in the word vowels, a lament to the letter W, and a list of all the words in English that contain no vowels at all. This is perhaps the most ambitious constrained writing project here, if not ever.

let me tell you

All of these books are obviously hampered by a limitation of the words they can use, but what if we bring it down to the words used by one person specifically. In let me tell you by Paul Griffiths, we get the story of Hamlet but from the point of view of Ophelia – but only using the words that Shakespeare gave her in the original text. Opening with “So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know…”, she discusses her love for her father, and her confusion regarding the Prince of Denmark himself, all the while increasingly feeling like she needs to escape the narrative she’s trapped in. With such a restricted vocabulary, the novel takes on musical qualities as words reappear over and over again in different contexts. This concept is so great, I wonder if I couldn’t be applied to other fictional characters – the smaller the role, the tougher the challenge.

Green Eggs and Ham

Dr Seuss was famous of books with simple language and catchy rhyme schemes, but perhaps his most famous title was written as the result of a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf. Following on from The Cat in the Hat which used 236 different words, Cerf bet Seuss that he couldn’t complete one with even fewer. Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960, with just 50 different words used in the whole text. Despite this stringent limitation, by 2001 it had become the fourth-best-selling English language children’s hardcover of all time, and by 2014, over eight million copies had been sold.

And for those who are really curious, the 50 words are:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

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