“All Families Are Psychotic” by Douglas Coupland (2001)

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"And Other Laws Of The Universe"

“And Other Laws Of The Universe”

“Janet opened her eyes – Florida’s prehistoric glare dazzled outside the motel window.”

All families are psychotic, and there’s no two ways about that. A lot of them look fairly normal on the surface, but scratch a little and suddenly you’ll find that it isn’t necessarily quite so hunky-dory underneath. Family, after all, is an odd thing. We choose the friends we want to spend time with, but our family members are mere accidents of birth and for whatever reason you find that you have to deal with, talk to and even love someone with whom you may have absolutely nothing in common. Sure, some families aren’t as messed up as others, but few are more messed up than the Drummond family.

For the first time in several years, the Drummond family have gathered together in Florida. They are at Cape Canaveral to see family genius Sarah blast off into space. Despite having only one hand – she is a child of thalidomide – she has survived the pitfalls of reality to become a famous success. The rest of her family, however, are a different story, and they’re all there to see her launch.

There’s the matriarch Janet, suffering with HIV and furious with the past and the way it keeps interrupting the present; Wade, eldest son and former smuggler; Beth, Wade’s puritan and deeply religious wife; Bryan, suicidal youngest child who seems to mess up everything; Shw, Bryan’s vowel-less firecracker of a girlfriend who may or may not be aborting the baby she’s pregnant with; Ted, alcoholic father with his own private struggles; Nickie, Ted’s trophy wife who just had a one night stand with Wade; and Howie, Sarah’s chipper and very boring husband.

And as if that wasn’t enough of a mess to deal with, there’s also the slight issue of Howie’s affair, a hold-up in a diner, Nickie and Janet’s sudden friendship, a trip to Disney World, a dangerous drugs baron, and a letter of significant historical importance that needs to be returned to its rightful owner immediately (or, failing that, the highest bidder). The family, once torn apart, must now come together and face their struggles, their mortality, and each other.

The Drummond family are all pretty good characters and, beneath the mess on the surface, are fundamentally decent people at heart. While Bryan doesn’t do much for me (he is probably the least developed of the characters) and Shw isn’t particularly likeable, the rest are all people you’re happy to get behind and support. The plot is haywire and all over the place, but it has the same beautiful language and use of metaphor that makes Coupland so great. So many of his previous books are about friendships or romances, so it’s nice to see one so hugely focused on family. Each is most certainly a product of their era and their upbringing – there’s a lot to be said about Ted’s treatment of Wade, Bryan and Sarah, and how it explains what each child went on to do – and it’s great to see all their differing viewpoints come together as they try and solve the problems around them.

The novel leaps between time periods, sometimes without any particular word of warning, as Janet or Wade remembers a conversation from years before while coming to terms with something in their present. It further reinforces Janet’s point that your past is not something you can escape from – your past is what you are. This feels somewhat like a recurring theme in Coupland’s work, and one that I am always interested in.

This is one of his best, and while re-reading it, so much came back to me that I’d forgotten about, but I never had to dig deep to recall the first read, meaning that this one has definitely stuck with me through the years. If you’re ever moaned about your family, then this book is definitely worth a read because it could be worse, but it’s also better than you think.

(The next Douglas Coupland book is called God Hates Japan but, since it was only released in Japan and only in Japanese, I will be skipping it, and next month we’ll just carry on with his next English book, Hey Nostrodamus!)

“Dead Air” by Iain Banks (2002)

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Dead boring...

Dead boring…

“You’re breaking up.”

This blog seems to keep coming full circle as I return to authors that I first read towards the beginning of my time here. The Wasp Factory was one of those first books and, despite myself and despite the content, I really enjoyed it. Thinking I’d try Banks again for a similar experience, I got hold of Dead Air, but the results were not to be repeated. Here comes one of those rare but sometimes necessary things: a bad review.

Dead Air is the story of Ken Nott, an opiniated leftie radio DJ whose job exists continually on a knife edge as he keeps on saying things on air that land him in trouble. Off the air, his life is just as complicated. His girlfriend Jo is becoming more and more distant, he’s just started an affair with the wife of a London crime lord, and at least one attempt has just been made on his life. This all takes place against the backdrop of September 11th, which has just happened, changed the world, and shaken up everything we knew to be safe and true.

The plot (such as it is) is uninteresting and takes so long to kick in that you really can’t get a good enough grip on it to care very much. All the actual story doesn’t happen until the last ninety pages or so. Before that, Banks has gone for the rather novel approach of forgetting to tell a compelling story to having the main character simply rant about anything and everything he chooses to, from music to immigration. It’s hard to tell exactly how much overlap there is between Ken’s views and Banks’s views, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s 100%.

Ken is not a likeable protagonist and while that sometimes works, here it simply doesn’t. He’s self-absorbed, a liar and a cheat, who seems to suffer little mental anguish for the hurt he causes other people (although perhaps, in fairness to him, he doesn’t often let them know what he’s been doing, to save them from that hurt). The other characters are flat and there simply for Ken to rant at, while they butt in with further comments to fuel his ranting. I’m not denying that the rants contain some very well-written language, because some of them do, but there are just too many of them. This isn’t a novel – it’s Banks attempting to share all of his thoughts with the world through an unpleasant mouthpiece.

Granted, there are some excellent red herrings thrown into the book and you can be certain about why something is happening, only to have the rug pulled from under you a few chapters later. However, the book overall was a disappointment. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the blurb on the novel’s back places emphasis on the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, but in actuality this is merely wallpaper to a story that’s trying very hard to be modern but already, just twelve years later, seems out of date. It claims to be a thriller, but it is not in the least thrilling.

I’m sure Banks is an excellent author – I know he can be – but this is most certainly not one of his best, and it has made me wary.

“One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” by Agatha Christie (1940)

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one-two-buckle-my-shoe“Mr Morley was not in the best of tempers at breakfast.”

Given my general propensity to read one Christie novel a month, I’ve worked out lately that I’ve got twenty-nine left to go. So it’ll be a good two and a half years yet before I’m done. Anyway, onwards and upwards, here’s the next one.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is yet another Christie that dons a title based on a nursery rhyme, giving the whole thing a bit of a creepier edge. This one opens with Hercule Poirot having to attend the dentist, a task he absolutely hates and one of the few things that makes him feel cowardly. However, the appointment is made and he attends with his usual dentist, Mr Morley. Little does he suspect at the time, though, that in just a few short hours Chief Inspector Japp will call him back to the dentist surgery. Mr Morley has been found dead, having supposedly shot himself in the head. Japp is ready to rule it as suicide, but Poirot has other suspicions.

Japp and Poirot begin to hunt down the other patients who had seen Mr Morley that morning, but even that becomes needlessly complicated when it turns out another one of them has died, possibly from an overdose of a certain drug administered by Morley himself, and another witness has vanished into thin air. The case becomes more and more mysterious, as Poirot comes to realise that this crime is far bigger than the mere murder of a dentist…

Like a few of her other books, usually the Tommy & Tuppence series, this one deals (at least vaguely) with the idea that there are far bigger crimes going on in the world than Poirot often sees first hand. There’s the implication of a shadowy network of people that are controlling the world from behind the scenes, and I’ve never been massively keen on Christie when she gets into that sort of business. I much prefer her locking a bunch of people in a house and having one of them drop dead. That said, I really enjoyed this one. It’s quick, surprising, engaging and while I was way off in my guess of who the murderer was, I was nonetheless happy with the conclusion. It shows Poirot as a little more human, struggling with the shades of grey that make up his job, rather than showing it as always being a strict black and white situation. As Poirot himself notes, he doesn’t take sides, but is merely on the side of the truth.

A smart book, and one that has made me grateful that I only went to the dentist a few weeks ago, and the next time I go I won’t have to worry about being murdered in the chair. After all, we are perhaps at our most vulnerable when sat in front of a dentist.

“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare (1599)

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Heh, heh, heh

Heh, heh, heh

“I learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina.”

Nursing a hangover, the day required a simple book that I knew the story of and thus in came the manga version of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s probably my favourite of his works, often billed as history’s first romantic comedy, and it’s the play I’ve seen performed the most frequently in one form or another. I think most people know the story, but to summarise briefly:

There are two stories going on within the play. The first centres around old flames Benedick and Beatrice, who now trade witty barbs at one another and love nothing more than winding each other up. There is little love lost between them. The second story is about Claudio, Benedick’s friend who has fallen in love with Hero, Beatrice’s cousin. However, the nasty and jealous Don John wants Hero for himself, so conspires to ensure their marriage does not go ahead. Meanwhile, everyone else conspires to get Benedick and Beatrice to admit that they actually do love each other, despite their surface-level hatred.

While Shakespeare can be a bit dense from time to time, this is probably the easiest of his plays to understand and, even to a modern audience, it still stands up humour-wise and I actually did chuckle aloud a couple of times. One of my favourite lines involves someone saying to Beatrice, “So Benedick isn’t in your good books?” and Beatrice quickly replies, “If he was, I’d burn down my study.” That’s paraphrased, of course.

Beatrice and Benedick are two of my favourite characters in the Shakespeare canon, Benedick for his amusing arrogance, Beatrice for her devout hatred of men, and both for their sharp witticisms. Don John is a scheming and nasty piece of work, but otherwise even the minor characters seem quite good fun. The play is loaded with innuendo (hell, the title alone is pure filth if you know your Elizabethan slang) but it’s a good read. Studying the plays in manga form is very interesting as it allows them to be experienced closer to the original intent, and while I’d recommend this one, if you ever get a chance to see this performed then take it. If you’re new to Shakespeare, there are worse plays to start with than this.

“Not Dead Enough” by Peter James (2007)

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There aren't enough zombie crime novels. This isn't one, either.

There aren’t enough zombie crime novels. This isn’t one, either.

“Darkness took a long time to arrive, but it was worth the wait.”

In a jarring change from a pastoral Britain ruled by toads and badgers, I’ve shifted to last decade’s Brighton to read another of my favourite authors. Despite having only read two of his books before (the two that come before this in this particular series), I am definitely a Peter James fan. The big appeal comes from the fact that all the action takes place in Brighton and the surrounding towns, which means the characters are all in places that I know well.

This is the third book of the Roy Grace series (there’s a review of the second one here), and while you don’t need to have read the first two to enjoy it, there is a story that runs through them all, some of which may go over your head if you start here. In this one, Katie Bishop has been found tied to her bed: naked, wearing a gas mask and, most importantly, dead. Murdered.

Her husband, Brian Bishop, is the primary suspect and he is quickly whisked from his golf tournament to be informed of his wife’s death. He claims that he was in London when the murder happened, but Grace, the DSI in charge of the case, thinks he might be lying. Without enough evidence to charge him, Grace and his team begin to compile a case against him, and when a second body turns up, this time with DNA evidence left at the scene, the noose tightens and Grace begins to think he’s got his man.

On top of all this, Grace’s fledgling relationship with mortician Cleo Morey hits its first stumbling blocks when his best mate Glenn moves in after being kicked out of the family home, and another friend has just called to tell Grace that he thinks he saw his wife in Munich – news that comes as a particular surprise as Grace’s wife Sandy has been missing for nine years. Should Grace go looking for her, or has he finally begun to get over her mysterious absence?

James breaks one of the cardinal rules of crime fiction in this novel, but the story is so compelling that frankly I almost forgot to care. After all, Agatha Christie broke basically every single rule there was, and that’s what makes her the Queen of Crime. If not the King, James is certainly a regal prince of some kind. I’m wary to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away, but despite the fact the book is just over six hundred pages long, it never feels like that. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve set aside extra time devoted specifically to reading. James’ style is easy, chatty and informal, despite the large amounts of official police terminology used. He’s a man who has clearly done his research. This isn’t a world where the policemen can only solve the crime after being taken off the force, but one where everything has to happen by the book and the policemen are shown as heroes, which is something we need to see sometimes these days, given the stories of police brutality you hear in the media.

James seems to have a fascination with the minutia, which is far from a complaint. Every character is introduced with a physical description and often a little bit of backstory, and it really helps build up a picture of the world we’re inhabiting, and never feels like it’s in the way. The books are most certainly set in the real world, using actual locations and a liberal sprinkling of brand names and references to modern novels and TV shows. The stories feel real, with little extra conversations and events that don’t seem to do anything to the plot, but just help make the thing feel more like it’s really happening, because in the real world people aren’t always sitting there waiting to help you, and don’t always have the right information to hand. Sure, there are a couple of coincidences within the novel, but you can overlook them because they are built up in such a way that they don’t feel contrived. Roy Grace is one of my favourite characters in fiction, and that’s no exaggeration, and you find yourself continually rooting for him, in both his personal and professional lives.

It’s taken me four years to read the first three books in this series. Why? These books are genius.

“The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

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wind“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

I was trawling the shelves last week for a new book to read, and became interested in my top shelf, which is mostly stocked liberally with humour books, trivia books, a few things from my childhood. However, my attention was grabbed by The Wind In The Willows, which I plucked down, blew dust from and immediately decided that it needed to be read. I didn’t even know I owned it, sat up there sandwiched between Black Beauty and The Swiss Family Robinson, both of which were also something of a surprise. Where the books came from is anyone’s guess, but I may have inherited them down from my mother. My copy of Willows is from 1981 and apparently cost 95p on release. Ah, inflation.

Having seen a few adaptations of the novel, I realised that I’ve never actually read the original book, a fact that needed rectifying post haste. This is the story of four animal friends – Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger – and the adventures they get up to in their forest and on the riverbank. It begins with kind and sensible Mole getting tired of his spring cleaning and heading out into the wider world. He stumbles upon the river for the first time and there he meets Ratty, a dreamer who wants nothing more than to please his friends and spend his days “simply messing about in boats”. He loves the river and his life, and soon he and Mole are spending every day together. Ratty introduces Mole to his friend Toad, a very wealthy amphibian who lives in Toad Hall, a huge, decadent mansion and, while he’s smart and very friendly, he’s also arrogant in the extreme and prone to getting obsessions that consume him fully.

The final member of the main quartet is Badger, a wise old mammal who dislikes Society and will only come find you if he wants to speak to you. He appears to run the Wild Woods with an iron paw, but he’s quite soft at heart where his friends are concerned. The main crux of the story involves Toad developing an obsession with motor cars and, after stealing one and joyriding it around the countryside, he is taken to prison, from where he must escape.

What surprised me most about the book is that it reads far more like a series of short stories. There is a central plot, certainly, but there are a couple of chapters that don’t do anything to drive the story on. That’s not to say I disliked them, but they’re a slow-paced addition to the novel. One involves Ratty (actually a Water Vole) meeting a seafaring rat who tries to convince him that the best way to live is to travel the world. In another, Ratty and Mole go to find Otter’s son, only to have something of a religious experience on the way. The book is also wonderfully illustrated, the drawings provided by E. H. Shepard, who also provided the famous illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh.

The novel is certainly of its time, and there’s nothing particularly offensive about it. There are villains, but they come into play late and aren’t much of a threat, and the four main characters are all certainly able to be described as “nice”. They do have flaws – Toad is conceited, Mole is stubborn, Badger is prone to grumpiness – but above all they want to keep one another happy. This is most surprising of Toad, who in adaptations seems to become someone that prompts questions as to why the others would bother to be friends with him. Here in the original text, Toad is shown to be generous, gregarious and intelligent, and you can understand why the others put up with him.

The strangest thing about the book is simply that the anthropomorphism is so wonky! It’s not a complaint, because it’s actually quite funny, but it does seem odd that Mole lives in a burrow (although in some human comfort) and Ratty implies that some of the animals eat one another, but Toad lives in a mansion, drives cars, is tried via human courts and is apparently big enough to disguise himself as a human. On a couple of occasions as well, Grahame mentions Toad’s hair, which … well, I still don’t know what to do with that one. You just go with it all because to question it would be to ruin the charm.

It’s a wonderful tale in a pastoral England that seems almost heavenly. Upon finishing, Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad all feel like real friends, and I will not forget in a hurry the time I have spent with them.

“The Art Of Destruction” by Stephen Cole (2006)

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art of

Creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin.

“The darkness plays tricks on you, down here.”

The modern Doctor Who books have become so hit and miss for me lately that when I approach one, I now do so with the caution of a bomb disposal squad. In particular, I wondered about this one as it features Rose who, at the time, I loved, but she has sort of faded for me since characters like Donna and Amy who I found more interesting and engaging. Nonetheless, I pushed on and found a genuinely good story.

The action takes place in Chad, Africa in the year 2118. Africa (there’s a lot of generalisation about the continent within the novel, and very little mention of the fact that there are actually 50-ish countries there) still seems to be poor and much of the land that was before seen as unusable has now undergone tests to grow food for the starving millions around the world. While there have been some successes, and genetic manipulation has come a long way, there are still troubles. A team is now working beneath an active volcano, trying to grow edible fungi.

The Doctor and Rose drop in having picked up on some alien activity, and it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Humans and assorted wildlife are being consumed by apparently living gold and turning into statues that seem determined to protect the caves beneath the volcano. Add to that an alien antiques expert, the beautiful but hidden haul of a race of artists and the incoming threat of more aliens with a score to settle, and things are about to get really messy.

Stephen Cole also wrote the Ninth Doctor novel The Monsters Inside which I read a few years ago and really enjoyed. He is one of the better writers for Doctor Who novels, unlike others. The Doctor seems far more like himself here, as if Cole has got a better grip on a character. It’s also nice to see Rose back again, despite her no longer being my favourite companion. The novel plays up the idea that Rose is the one person that the Doctor fell in love with, for whatever reason, and it isn’t a worse novel for it. The aliens are interesting, the whole concept is smart and original, but it does fall down with, as mentioned above, its continual obsession with the idea that Africa is a country rather than a continent. Also, simply because of the difference in medium, the aliens within will never be as clear or as terrifying as those on the television. Still, there are some funny gags, a lot of action and it feels like it could have been an episode in season two quite easily.

My faith in the Who books is redeemed. For now.