“The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson (2011)

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Psychopath-Test

Get ready to suspect everyone…

“This is a story about madness.”

I’ve never read Jon Ronson before but his reputation naturally has not escaped my attention. He’s famous for his previous books Them (a look at society’s extremists) and the curiously titled book The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was later turned into a film. He is skilled at finding the most bizarre sections of our culture and turning the microscope to them.

The Psychopath Test is billed as “a journey through the madness industry”. I had never considered madness to be an industry particularly but given how many psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists, schizophrenics, psychopaths, sociopaths and Big Brother contestants there appear to be these days, I suppose it is. And once you’ve got the people out of the way, you get to find a list of all the mental disorders that seem to exist and you can be sure that you’ve got at least seven of them.

However, the book focusses are more on the aforementioned psychopaths and makes use of the eponymous Psychopath Test, a twenty point checklist that is used to diagnose people as psychopaths. It mentions several personality traits that are common among people who can be labelled as psychopaths, such as irresponsibility, glibness, manipulative, pathological lying and early behaviour problems. There is also always said to be a lack of empathy, being constantly detatched from horror in the real world.

Ronson interviews a collection of very colourful individuals, both those diagnosed with disorders and those who perform the diagnoses. There’s a young girl who died because she was being given pills to cure her of a mental disorder that she didn’t have. There are the Scientologists who believe that psychiatry is a complete waste of time. There’s the man who spends his free time posting out curious manuscripts to notable scientists. There’s the woman who was a guest-booker for television, ensuring that she people ready to appear on programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor who were just the right level of mad.

But two stories stand out. The first is the curious world of David Shayler. Click the link if you want a fuller picture of him but in short, he was an agent for MI5 who (among other things) failed to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi, was prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act and went on the run in France to escape trial. He was eventually brought to justice, and slowly appeared to be going mad. It is the latter part of his life that is central to this book. He began to claim that no planes had ever hit the Twin Towers, that the 7/7 bombings was an inside job and later informed the world that he was the Messiah. Ronson interviews him a few times to find out if he is a psychopath.

The other very powerful story is that of Tony who pretended to be insane to get out of a prison sentence and ended up stuck in Broadmoor for twelve years, unable to convince any of the staff that he was sane. It’s an incredibly amazing story of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” as everything he does is used as evidence of his madness.

It’s a good read for any armchair psychologist, and although there’s no big training session involved like Ronson goes on to become a psychopath-spotter, the full list of personality traits is included, as well as other ways to spot them. In fact, I even found myself relating to several points on the list. However, the book clearly states that if you are able to identify with the list, you aren’t a psychopath. How true that is, I don’t know.

Still, in the mean time you can begin to look at your neighbours in a new light.

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“Endless Night” by Agatha Christie (1967)

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ENDLESS_NIGHT

Beware the curse…

“In the end is my beginning … That’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right – but what does it really mean?”

Although Christie is long associated with the twenties and thirties, the jazz age and that twee mid-war period, there’s actually fifty-six years between her first and last book. During this time, the world faced many changes and so many attitudes shifted. This one, Endless Night, is one of her last and takes place in the late sixties, a time when the young were far more open about their sexuality and women were more on a par with men.

As such, it is curious to read the quaint Christie and see characters talking about sex and referring to others as sexy. She did not approve of the changing attitudes. But that is merely an aside, it is nothing to do with the content of the novel, particularly. So, let’s get a synopsis down.

Michael Rogers is the narrator here, and the novel doesn’t include any of the usual figures from Christie’s back catalogue. Michael is a penniless waster, horrified by the idea of hard work and skipping from job to job, constantly bored and on the move. While in the small English village of Kingston Bishop one day, he discovers a house at Gypsy’s Acre, an area he falls in love with. He encounters the locals who warn him off the house, including an old gypsy woman who tells him that the land and the house is cursed and he must leave immediately.

He considers it, certainly, but then meets Ellie, a small, cute woman with hair the colour of autumn leaves and he falls in love right away. She feels the same way and when it turns out that once she reaches twenty-one, she will become one of America’s richest women, they marry, buy the plot of land at Gypsy’s Acre and hire Michael’s friend, the internationally famous architect Rudolph Santonix, to build them the perfect house and move in.

But Ellie remains worried about the curse and when some of the neighbours seem keen to remove them from the location, the curse appears to go from a fiction to a reality.

No Christie novel is complete without at least one death (in this one, we get four, although one is definitely natural causes), but they are a long time coming. In fact, you’re two thirds of the way through before the first body drops, but because of Christie’s reputation, you hang on, relishing the apprehension. Once the first body is found, the rest pile up quickly and the novel rushes to an astounding conclusion that makes the previous two-thirds of the novel completely worth it. It has one of the most incredible twists in any of her work, proving that even in her final years – she was 76 when she published this one – she still had the talents that had elevated her to her position and, if anything, they were better than ever. This is one of Christie’s personal favourites, and I can see why.

Most of the novel is more of a love story, but the clues are dropped throughout and it’s rife with red herrings. When there’s a lot of money at stake, as there is here, and a lot of dodgy family members that might not really be who they say they are, you find that you cannot trust anyone. Michael has to contend with various step-relatives, the gypsy curse and his own mother before the climax, building up a complex tapestry of lies and deceit.

Genius.

“Come Closer” by Sara Gran (2003)

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ComeCloser

Look into my eyes, don’t look around the eyes…

“In January I had a proposal due to my boss, Leon Fields, on a new project.”

Suggested by a horror loving friend and colleague, Come Closer seems to be billed as the scariest novel ever. George Pelecanos says, “days after finishing it, it has not left my mind”. Kathryn Davis says it left her “so profoundly disturbed, so terrified and sleepless”. Brett Easton Ellis even weighs in and calls it a “genuinely scary novel”.

In my opinion, the blurb oversells this book immensely.

This is the story of Amanda, a normal, content woman who lives with her husband Ed in a converted loft and has a good job as an architect for a small firm. She wants for nothing and is very happy with her lot in life. But then the pair start hearing a tapping in the walls. They assume it’s a mouse and leave it, but then Ed realises that he never hears it when Amanda is out – it can’t be a mouse.

Amanda then finds herself urged to take up smoking again, and the dog she has befriended at the train station has begun to ignore her and refuses the treats she offers it. Amanda’s life begins to spiral out of control and she finds herself unable to withhold herself from fulfilling some of her deeper desires. And then there are the creepy dreams on the shore of a red lake with a woman who calls herself Naamah…

Granted, the book spins off in a way that I didn’t at all expect, but once it had, I stopped being scared. It’s certainly creepy, and I can’t fault Gran’s writing which is precise and elegant, but I certainly didn’t find it as terrifying as I assumed I was going to. It’s a quick read for anyone who enjoys thrillers, but don’t go in assuming you’re going to get a big scare. I’d suggest that I’m desensitised to these things, but I’m not a big horror fan by any stretch of the imagination, so I don’t think it’s that. I just think there are scarier things in the world than what’s in here.

“Fragile Things” by Neil Gaiman (2006)

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fragile things

Short Fictions & Wonders

“Let me tell you a story. No, wait, one’s not enough. I’ll  begin again…”

Neil Gaiman is a genius and someone definitely worth dedicating even a little bit of time to. You might think you haven’t heard of him, but I assure you, you’ve probably brushed up against him at some point. He wrote the original books that inspired the amazing films Coraline and Stardust, he penned an episode of Doctor Who (called “The Doctor’s Wife”) and has a second episode coming up in the next series, and is responsible for such incredible novels as American Gods and Neverwhere.

He also appears to be unaware of the function of – or perhaps even the existence of – combs.

Anyway, Fragile Things is a stunning collection of short stories and poems from this master of the strange. You already knew that this was going to be a positive review, and that’s mostly because Gaiman can do very little wrong in my eyes. These “short fictions and wonders” are delightfully dark and twisty, and twisted, and so many of them seem to run like a Mobius strip, ending where they began and beginning where they ended. Everything in life is a circle and these stories are particularly good examples of that as situations repeat themselves again and again in wonderfully macarbe scenarios.

Gaiman’s use of language is spectacular and he is a man who can say a lot with very little, always able to make the reader understand what he means immediately. He is capable of writing in a variety of genres (these stories have various shifts along the lines of believability, although I think all of them contain the supernatural in one way or another) and every time he is completely gripping. If I let myself go on, I’m just going to crawl up inside him, so instead, I’m going to pick out some of my favourite stories from the collection and comment on those.

“A Study in Emerald”
I am not a Sherlock Holmes fan by any real stretch, that is, not of the original books. The BBC series is mighty fine, but I tried reading A Study in Scarlet and I couldn’t get on with it. In this version of events, Gaiman takes the basic plot of that novel and twists it into a darkly alternate United Kingdom where the the Lovecraftian Old Gods have taken over the country and our heroes are now working for the slimy and alien Queen Victoria. It uses many of the same tricks and even text of the original novel, but turns it on its head for a very surprisingly finale.

“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”
A mouthful of a title, for some very clever food for thought. Again, you aren’t entirely sure what’s going on as a writer struggles to pen his latest novel, aiming for it to be a realistic slice of life piece that will be remembered through the ages, but he keeps popping in jokes, dissolving bodies and a mention of “this night of all nights”. It’s only when a talking raven suggests that he try writing fantasy that things begin to pick up…

“Other People”
A sick and stunning look at what may be waiting for us in the afterlife, and a suggestion that physical torture is by far the preferred option between that or mental torture.

“The Problem of Susan”
Like the Sherlock Holmes tale, this one looks at The Chronicles of Narnia and tells us what happened to Susan after all the events of her young life. It seems that things were never the same again for her, but there’s still an old applewood wardrobe in her spare room. There”s a certain ambiguity over the whole thing, but only if you choose to put it there.

“Instructions”
A poem that gives instructions on what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale. Nothing more, nothing less.

There’s also a genuine ghost story, a poem about fairies, how the story of Aladdin came to exist and even a short story hidden inside the introduction. The final story is one for the lovers of American Gods, set two years after the events of that novel and seeing Shadow now holed up in Scotland facing a very bizarre proposition.

Like everything Gaiman does, a masterpiece, from the king of the creepy.

“The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall (2007)

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the raw shark texts

Just when you thought it was safe to go back…

“I was unconcious. I’d stopped breathing.”

Every so often, and with increasing frequency, I stumble across a book with an idea so great that I become consumed with jealousy that I didn’t get there first. It’s already happened this year with The Magicians and The Dinner, and now here again with Hall’s so-far-only novel, The Raw Shark Texts.

Recommended by a friend, I found my copy in a second hand store and thought I’d give it a go. Despite said friend not steering me wrong in literary choices before (he’s the reason for my small but solid fondness for Paul Auster), I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book. Basically, I didn’t think I was going to be keen. The blurb was vague, flicking through revealed cheap but attractive tricks and and I wondered what sort of thing I was getting myself in for.

I needn’t have worried.

Eric Sanderson wakes up without his memories, with no idea of where he is, how he got there, or who he is. He finds a note from himself telling him to go to Dr Randle and she will explain things to him. She explains that this is the eleventh time he’s done this, and each time he sees her, he has fewer and fewer of his memories. She also tells him not to read any letters or messages from his past selves as they may be dangerous. She also gently lets him know that his mental issues began after his girlfriend, Clio Aames, died while they were on holiday in Greece.

Eric returns to as normal a life as he can manage, just him and his fat ginger tom Ian, and a year later, he’s feeling pretty stable, busily ignoring the almost constant stream of letters and packages from his past self, putting them in the kitchen cupboard and not reading them. However, when his television tries to attack him and it becomes clear that something very strange is happening, he begins to read.

Thus begins his journey of discovery. He is being hunted by a conceptual shark, a Ludovician, a creature that exists in his mind and feeds on his memories. Life will find a way, as Darwin said, and now life has formed inside language and thought, and some of it is very dangerous. He discovers someone else who can help him, Dr Trey Fidorus, the world’s only cryptoconceptual oceanologist, and sets off to find him, taking Ian with him. From then on, things only get more and more complicated…

The idea of a conceptual shark is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful in equal measure. There is in fact and entire ecosystem of conceptual creatures, some of which we meet over the course of the novel, others that are merely discussed or hinted at. The novel uses innovative forms to really add impact to the writing, such as including diagrams, codes, letters spaced out across the page in unusual patterns and, most fascinatingly of all, a shark made of words and letters, stalking Eric and the reader through several otherwise blank pages.

The ending, annoyingly, feels a little bit flat to me, leaving a few questions still outstanding, but I can live with it. It ends on a note of hope, and the preceding events more than make up for an excellent story which involves a man determined to live forever, a cavern system made of paper and the most enchanting cat in recent fiction.

Neil Gaiman fans will get a lot out of this, but then again I think anyone can. Anyone who believes in the power of words and books the way I do will also find great comfort here.

An outstanding, beautiful, excellently-crafted read.

“The Islanders” by Christopher Priest (2011)

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The Islanders

No man is an island. Except the Isle of Man.

“I find it ironic that I should be invited to write a few introductory words to this book, as I know as little about the subject as it is possible to know.”

I am not a traveller. I do not have the wanderlust that appears to pervade every cell of every member of my generation. Australia, America, Egypt – they look nice, but I have no real hurried desire to go to them. As such, travel memoirs and guidebooks are foreign fare for me. It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up The Islanders, which is both and neither a memoir and a guidebook.

The book presents itself as a guidebook to the fictional Dream Archipelago, a huge collection of islands on an alternate planet. The number of islands has never been officially worked out as they tend to have different names in different languages, are almost impossible to navigate and there are no maps of the entire area. As such, the experts of the world simply say that there are “a great many islands” and leave it at that.

The first couple of chapters set you up, going into detail on the first islands, explaining their vague location, their climate and infrastructure, imports and exports, notable features, currency, some of their folklore and other things you’d expect from a guidebook beside. And then it all gets a bit odd.

The next chapter is more about a single expedition onto an island where the deadly thryme insect has made its home. Then there are chapters where you are given the life and times of a famous resident, or one that is a court transcript, or one that’s merely letters from a new writer to her favourite author. Once you notice that the same names keep popping up and that there appears to be an unexplained murder of a mime in several of the islands biographies, you begin to realise that this book is not at all what it seems.

Never clearly explaining at what point in history each story is set, it throws together several characters whose influence spread across the entire island, including reclusive author Chaster Kammeston, celebrated mime artist Akal Drester Commissah, tunneller Jordenn Yo, intrepid journalist Dant Willer and the mysterious, worshipped figure known only as Caurer. Their stories begin to trip over one another as they meet and avoid one another, each story shedding new light on old ones, and adding more questions to the tapestry.

Each island is unique, maybe famed for its culture, architecture, wine, or the fact it has been carved out into a huge musical instrument, and the story, such as it is, is captivating and keeps you asking questions, whether or not they’re the right ones.

I’ve never read Priest before, although in doing research on this book, I discovered that he actually set a few earlier novels within the Dream Archipelago. I don’t know if reading these will expand on the characters or locations featured, but as an individual text, it still works. The guidebook premise is interesting, but it becomes clear that the narrator has an agenda that he or she wants you to follow. After all, the Dream Archipelago is said to contain thousands upon thousands of islands of all shapes and sizes, and yet no more than fifty of them are discussed here.

Why are these ones so important?

What is going on in those towers on Seevl?

Who tried to destroy Lorna and Bradd’s boat?

The blurb on the book itself describes it as a “chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems” and that is pretty much accurate. So hop around the archipelago by all means, but you’re unlikely to come out of it the same person that went in.