“The Haunted Book” by Jeremy Dyson (2012)

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Happy Hallowe'en!

Happy Hallowe’en!

“When I was thirteen years old, my greatest wish was to see a Hand of Glory.”

If you’ve ever spoken to be for more than twenty seconds about Harry Potter (or even just read my About Me page), you will by now know that I am a Gryffindor. Most of the traits associated with the house are true about me. I’m occasionally self-righteous, can be arrogant, have a history of being short-tempered and am not a huge fan of authority, but Gryffindors are most well known for their bravery.

And that appears to be the one trait I’m missing.

With Halloween fast approaching, I felt it was time to get stuck into a horror book, despite my skittishness and fear of everything. However, I figured, “How scary can a book actually be? It’s just words on a page!” Turns out I didn’t count on the power of Jeremy Dyson and The Haunted Book.

If Dyson’s name is familiar to you at all, it might be because he was one of the creators of The League of Gentlemen, which should’ve been my first hint that something was untoward with this book. It opens with him talking about his love of spooks and spectres, and then being approached by a journalist called Aiden Fox who has some ghost stories that he wants turned into proper narratives for a book he has an idea for. He’s no fiction writer himself, though, so Dyson is asked to expand on the stories and give them (ironically) some life. Excited, Dyson sets about his task.

And so we’re told about a house, a beach, a recording studio and, staple of the genre, a mental asylum that all have something strange occuring around them. And as the author travels the country looking for clues, he begins to feel that he himself is being followed by something, and he begins to see strange things happening. At what he presumed would be an abandoned cottage, he is handed a book by an old man, and The Haunted Book becomes This Book Is Haunted, a different text entirely. And so the pattern continues.

As you fall deeper and deeper through layers of texts, each seeming to be connected by a particular ghost that haunts them all (each author appears to see the same one at various points), the book becomes more and more horrific. The stories themselves are nothing special, no creepier than others I’ve heard, but there’s something sinister about the tone and I think a big part of that comes from the fact that the line between fiction and reality is so blurred.

Clearly it’s fiction – clearly – and there are two reasons for that. The first is that ghosts don’t exist. And the second is that the book becomes other books later on. Oh, and thirdly (three reasons), it was in the fiction section of the bookshop when I bought it. However, something lingers. The places all seem to be real, some of the people may have actually existed, and Google brings up a few references that make one doubt the fictionality of the piece.

Without a doubt, this is one of the scariest books I have ever read. I am not a brave person, as I said, but to resort to hiding under a cushion in the middle of the afternoon, scared to look in a mirror and convinced that every single click, bang and thump of the plumbing is a spirit seemed to be a normal reaction to the stories herein. My skin prickled every few pages, as characters leapt from the text bringing their ghosts with them. And that’s to say nothing about the final few pages where the process becomes curiously reversed and you yourself are dragged heart-thumpingly realistically into the text.

If you want a bit of a scare, and want to go searching for abandoned amusement parks that don’t exist, and creatures living in forgotten corners of mental asylums, then be my guest and read this book, but it is not for the faint-hearted. And if you ever see a small figure sitting, watching you, brown hair falling across its face and wearing a tan coat, for gods sake turn around and don’t look behind you. It won’t be there if you do.

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone.

“Ordeal By Innocence” by Agatha Christie (1958)

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ordeal“It was dusk when he came to the Ferry.”

Ah, Dame Aggie. Here we are again. This time we’re in 1957 and, as usual, there has been a murder. However, there’s a twist this time – the murder took place two years previously. At the time it had all been cleared up nicely. Mrs Argyle, a perfectly nice woman who did a lot of work for charity and took care of orphaned and abanonded children after the war, had been bludgeoned to death by her son, Jacko. Of course, he claimed he’d been somewhere else at the time, but since no one could ever prove it, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It’s too late for him now – he’s died of pneumonia since – but Sunny Point, the Argyle family home, has had a visitor – Dr Arthur Calgary. He’s a polar explorer who has been away for a while but upon reading something in the papers, has realised that he can change the fate of the Argyle family: he has an alibi for Jacko. He thinks he’s doing the family a favour by turning up and revealing that Jacko was innocent after all, but instead of being greeted by jubilation (and perhaps a little resentment that he hadn’t been able to show up sooner), he and his news are not welcomed at all.

And that’s because it has caused a new question to be asked – if Jacko didn’t kill Mrs Argyle, then who did?

Much like Five Little Pigs (adapted for stage as Go Back For Murder), this novel is about a murder that happened long ago, but people are still trying to find the answer. In this clever story, Christie drums up suspense and fear among a close-knit family who were convinced that Jacko had commited the murder. They seemed to be happy with the idea – he’d always been a problem child – but the idea of suddenly having suspicion thrust upon them again causes tension.

The story takes some time to get going, and all the usual twists and turns we expect from Christie don’t tend to roll up until towards the end, and while it’s not my favourite of her books, it’s definitely interesting and I was on an entirely different train of thought to the characters. In fact, I was inventing twists far more fantastical than she did. It’s a book about not how the guilty deal with their crimes, but how the innocent deal with crimes of others, and how suspicion can destroy a person.

Rather splendid with a mix of delightful and detestable characters.

“The Universe Versus Alex Woods” by Gavin Extence (2013)

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Alex Woods

Hardly a fair fight.

“They finally stopped me at Dover as I was trying to get back into the country.”

It’s been a while since my last post but I assure you all that I have not been slacking. I’ve actually read three books in that time (although I’m only reviewing one of them), have been doing my own writing, working and attending a good friend’s wedding. But I’m back here now, happy to say that the universe has not been against me. Alex Woods cannot say the same.

Alex Woods is seventeen-years-old but he is anything but normal. Everyone in the country (and maybe the world) knows his name because he is one of only two people in all of history to have been hit by a meteorite. It shot down through the atmosphere when he was ten years old, smashing through the roof of his house and knocking him on the head, putting him into a two-week coma. Later, side effects such as epilepsy developed and he spent much of his time at home, studying astronomy and science.

He returns to school but is the victim of bullies, who – like so many bullies – are unable to understand the joy of learning and want to pick on Alex just because he’s a bit different. (There’s actually a brilliantly observed piece in here about how that is the only rule that exists in school politics: “Don’t be different”. It’s absurdly true.) On one of these occasions, Alex is chased into the garden of Isaac Peterson, an old and irritable widower. Blamed for the destruction of Mr Peterson’s greenhouse, Alex’s mother (a new age, tarot-reading clairvoyant) insists that he will do chores for the old man until his debt is repaid.

Mr Peterson opens up Alex to a new world by teaching him about Amnesty International, human rights, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut, who quickly becomes Alex’s favourite author. Their friendship begins to bloom and Alex starts finding ways to help Mr Peterson and bring him out of his shell. And just when everything seems to be going swimmingly, their lives come crashing down around them. Mr Peterson has a progressive disease that is affecting his mobility, eyesight and ability to speak. In a matter of years, maybe months, he will be unable to look after himself at all. Certain that this is not how he wants to end his life, he and Alex make a decision – they’re going to Switzerland so that Mr Peterson can die.

This quotes and reviews on the book cover promise a hilarious novel, but in that respect it certainly doesn’t deliver. There are moments of light-heartedness, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not laugh out loud funny. It’s very moving, and very heartfelt, that cannot be denied, and that is how I’m going to approach this.

The book touches on lots of big topics – particle physics, Kurt Vonnegut, astrology and astronomy – but primarily the discussion here is about death and, more specificially, assisted suicide. Alex assures us that it is Mr Peterson’s human right to decide that he wants to end his life so he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong in helping him make his plan come to fruition. I happen to agree, as it goes, and I fully support euthanasia and assisted suicide as options. It’s about quality of life, basically, and is it not potentially better to be dead than trapped in your own body, unable to move but in agonising pain. That seems cruel, to me. We wouldn’t let a dog live that way.

But I’m getting off topic.

The book is quite sweet, and there are some delightful moments within. Alex is a strange mixture of innocent and intelligent, having knowledge in the wrong areas, but he is great in that he sticks to his guns, does what he thinks is right, and knows that as long as he can justify what he’s doing, then it must be done. He is unwavering in his support for Mr Peterson’s decision, and it is a phenomenally brave thing he does to help him go through with it. While I feel he’d not be someone I’d particularly want to meet as I imagine him to be somewhat insufferable, I will nonetheless raise a drink to him.

The characterisation is a bit haphazard elsewhere. Alex’s mother seems a delight, a hard-working single parent who respects her son and isn’t about to stand in his way. Ellie sort of appears from nowhere as Alex’s friend, asking for a job in his mother’s shop. She then sort of pops up now and again for the rest of the novel, but we don’t see a huge amount of interaction. Mr Peterson himself is a very interesting character too, with a sense of purpose and a deep love of reading and culture, that has possibly been somewhat diminished since the death of his wife.

The action takes place over about six years, and obviously you can’t narrate every single day of that, but it does seem that we miss out on quite a lot. How Mr Peterson came to like Alex, for example, is barely touched upon, and their relationship just shifts quite abruptly. It all seems to fall into place a little bit too easily. Because the book jumps back and forth in time a bit as well, there doesn’t always feel a stable bedrock to the action, but this is easily ignored for the writing, which is very interesting.

Aside from the moment when Alex discusses how diversity is wrong at schools (yet brutality, cruelty, violence and holding people’s heads down toilets are all accepted), there is also a wonderful scene inside London’s Natural History Museum, a place I continually deem my favourite building on Earth. It’s described with wonder and beauty that certainly does it justice and made me want to jump on a train and go there for the millionth time.

A good book, and a super debut, but there was something lacking. I don’t think I can really explain what it was, and maybe you won’t notice it, but I definitely got that impression. Anyway, time to leave modernity behind – I’m going back to an Agatha Christie.

“What Not To Do And How To Do It” by Danny Wallace (2011)

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For anyone who has ever felt awkward. Ever.

For anyone who has ever felt awkward. Ever.

“‘Well,’ I say, trying to make it sound like an important word, an historic word.”

Everyone has that list of historical or famous people in their head that they’d love to go to the pub with and discuss the ins and outs of the world over a couple of drinks. Mine, for example, includes Agatha Christie, J K Rowling, Stephen Fry, P T Barnum and, in a category of his own, Danny Wallace.

Wallace is one of those people who is incredibly prolific, but most people still seem unaware of who he is. He’s presented a few TV shows, turns up on panel games occasionally, voices a character in the Assassin’s Creed games, but is probably most famous for his books. He is the former flatmate of Dave Gorman, a man well known for ridiculous challenges, like travelling the world to find people who shared his name, or living his life by horoscopes. This rubbed off on Wallace, who has since formed a cult simply by asking people to join him, or spending six months answering “yes” to every question he was asked.

This one, however, is simply about the awkwardness that he faces in day-to-day life. He did this once before in Awkward Situations For Men, and this is the sequel, because things haven’t stopped being awkward. Here, he’s just had a baby and that adds to further embarrassment and confusion about how to behave. The book centres around the notion of unspoken rules about the world, and what happens when people break them. For example, how are you supposed to react when someone sits next to you on a park bench, even though all other benches are unoccupied? Or what’s the protocol for when you and a stranger fall into step with one another in the street? And how many times can you ask someone to repeat something you haven’t heard before you have to reply? (Three.)

Wallace writes in a style that makes it feel like you’re just sat in the pub (much as I said I desired in my previous fantasy). He has a middle-class innocence about him, a sweetness and a desperation to make sure he doesn’t accidentally insult someone or appear racist or unfriendly. Whether he’s being made to feel bad about his lack of masculinity by a fox, or hoping people don’t think he’s incapable of pressing a lift button, Wallace tells it like it is and struggles with his Britishness to survive the horrible awkwardness of every sitation.

The title may announce that these are awkward situations for men, but they apply equally to both genders so if you’ve ever felt a bit awkward and not really known what to do (and, let’s be honest, you’ve probably felt that way at least twice today already), this book will help you realise that you are not alone.

“Next” by Michael Crichton (2006)

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"This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren't."

“This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.”

“Vasco Borden, forty-nine, tugged at the lapels of his suit and straightened his tie as he walked down the plush carpeted hallway.”

Some books sit on one’s shelf for mere moments before they are read. Some sit around for a few months before getting picked up. And then there are those that you’ve had so long they went with you to university in 2006 with intentions of being read and returned three years later still not having been opened. Next is one of those.

I’ve found that many of the books I’ve got left on my shelves to read (a number that never seems to diminish with any speed given my almost permanent presence in bookshops) are bigger hardbacks – books that I want to read, but are too big for me to relish the idea of lugging them. Still, the bullet must be bitten so I began with this one – the last novel Crichton wrote before he died.

Typically loaded with scientific jargon and the evidence of research that Crichton was famous for, the book explores almost every possible aspect of genetics. There are so many stories running through this that it is tricky at times to keep up with who’s who and what’s actually going on. Some of the stories link together, but others have characters pop up for one chapter but then are never mentioned again. There’s no rhyme or reason as to the appearance of some of the plotlines either. For example, the Vasco Borden mentioned in the very first line disappears after the prologue and doesn’t appear again for over two hundred pages.

However, there are two primary stories going on. The first is the story of Henry Kendall, a researcher who illegally introduced human genes – his own – into a chimpanzee as an experiment. That was four years ago, and now it turns out that he is the father of a transgenic chimp – a boy half-ape, half-human called Dave. Unable to let his son be put down, he kidnaps him and takes him home to live with his wife and children who, despite the strangeness of the situation, quickly accept Dave.

Meanwhile, a court rules than a company own Frank Burnet’s cells. When the cells they have in storage are contaminated, and Frank goes on the run, the company deems it their right to be able to take the cells however the want. His daughter Alex, for example, has some of the same cells as her father, and if she’s walking around with them, surely that’s theft? Alex and her son Jamie find themselves the target of some bounty hunters who are determined to get hold of those cells.

Other stories weave between these two, including an incredibly intelligent transgenic parrot who can do mental arithmetic and has a knack of repeating the wrong thing at the wrong time, a paedophile who is trying to claim that his genes mean he is not responsible for his behaviour, a researcher who accidentally gives his brother a maturity drug, a doctor who is selling on bones and genetic material without authorisation to whoever seems to ask for it, and an orangutan that has been discovered in Java and appears to swear at anyone who approaches it in fluent Dutch.

Heavy in science, and prone to confusing me with the large accumulation of characters (and the attempt to remember which ones are important and which ones don’t matter in the long run), the book certainly has its flaws, but it is by no means a bad book. Crichton’s talent for getting real research into his books add to the reality. The shocking thing is that, while parts of this are definitely fictional and there aren’t yet any chimpanzee-human crossbreeds (that we know of), much of it is real and happening right now. There are discussions about the right of gene ownership, on whether we should be playing with genetics to help humanity and other species or if it’s pretending to be God, and the idea of breeding animals so that they have corporate logos on their skin. (“This rhino, brought to you by Land Rover.”)

A book that really makes you think and what’s going on in our bodies, and would be funny if it wasn’t so damn terrifying.