“Breakfast With The Borgias” by D. B. C. Pierre (2014)

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“Technology is the way, the truth and the life.”

I was probably attracted to this book by the title. Although I really don’t know very much about the Borgias, as a family dynasty I find them oddly magnetic, and most of that is due to their bloodthirsty reputation that has passed down through the centuries. A rotten lot; the father bribed his way to become Pope, his son was the real life version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and his daughter was famous as a poisoner. And yet they still all seem to be slightly more pleasant than the characters herein.

Zeva Neely is stood on a train platform in Amsterdam, waiting for the arrival of her teacher and lover, Ariel Panek. When he doesn’t show, and makes no attempt to get in touch with her to explain his lateness, she begins to worry, but has no choice but to make her way to the hotel. Ariel, meanwhile, is stuck in a taxi in Suffolk, on his way to a guesthouse. The fog has enveloped Britain so thickly that planes are all grounded and he’s going to have to spend the night in The Cliffs Hotel, the only place for miles around.

Once there, Ariel is still unable to get any phone signal and has to ask the other residents of the hotel whether he can borrow their phone. But the family present here, the Borders, are there to acknowledge a death in the family, and they make for a very odd bunch. Margot is confined to a wheelchair and has the air of a Hollywood starlet. Leonard is convinced that his plan to turn his pub into a working museum will be a success. Jack is glued to his game console. Olivia is young, beautiful and broken, but seems more sane than anyone else in the building.

But it’s only when Ariel meets Gretchen that he realises something is really wrong about this place. He has to get out, and fast.

Billed as a horror novel as part of the Hammer portfolio of novels to compete with the classic “Hammer horror” films, I’ve first got to say that the book lacks any real sense of what it’s clearly going for. I’ve tagged it appropriately to be kind, but while there are several words I could use to describe it – “creepy”, “claustrophobic”, “commonplace” – I’d never really consider this a horror novel. Actually, truth be told I hadn’t even realised it was until I got to the end.

The twists are signposted so much that when they arrive there’s not so much a sense of shock and release of tense build-up as a shrug which makes you go, “Yeah, obviously.” I wrote a short story myself a couple of years ago (not one that has ever troubled a publisher, mind) which had a weirdly similar premise, involving a man lost in the wilderness and finding himself in the only inhabited place for miles around. Although the endings were starkly different, it wouldn’t have taken much to have given either of these the other ending.

The trouble is that to make a book really ramp up the drama, you have to give a shit about the main characters and feel their jeopardy as you go. As it is, Ariel isn’t an especially engaging protagonist. The first chapter isn’t even from his point of view, and by the end of that I’d already decided I didn’t like him. He’s also partial to declaring what twists are happening, leaving the reader with no chance to work things out for themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, but executed poorly. Sinister environments, creepy characters but lacking any real tension.

“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.

“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

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“Roger Sheringham took a sip of the old brandy in front of him and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table.”

During the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, dozens of authors tried their hands at writing murder mysteries. When Anthony Berkeley published this one, he attempted to subvert a genre that was saturating the market and yet was nowhere near being over. Agatha Christie had only published eight of her books by this time; Ngaio Marsh was yet to publish anything. However, the tricks and tropes of the genre were well-established, and so people were already playing with the conventions. Here, Berkeley does it with serious aplomb.

The murder in question here is that of Joan Bendix. Devotedly married to her husband Graham, they seem to have an ideal life, until a box of chocolates drops into their life. Joan is killed by poison hidden within the chocolates, and the police, led by Chief Inspector Moresby, are at a loss to explain who killed her. It seems, after all, that she was never to be the intended victim, as the chocolates had originally been delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather. Disinclined to have a sweet tooth, he passed the chocolates onto Graham Bendix and he in turn gave them to his wife as a gift.

Stumped, Moresby calls upon his friend Roger Sheringham, who leads the notable group the Crimes Circle, a motley crew of amateur detectives who love nothing more than discussing crime and murders. Each is given exactly the same details that the police have, and sent out to test their skills – can they, in the space of a week, solve the crime that has plagued the police? The six amateurs – including a crime novelist, a dramatist and a lawyer – set about their task, but when all six of them return with six entirely different solutions, how can anyone be sure who the real killer is?

Berkeley does a great job at bringing up the fatal flaw in detective fiction. In most stories, whatever importance the detective hero ascribes to an object or clue is taken at face value and it is assumed that he is correct. The characters here, quite wonderfully, display that any clue can be taken in any number of ways. There are only three obvious clues here – the box of chocolates, the wrapping they came in, and the accompanying note sent to Pennefather – but the characters manage to construct whole theories based around these items.

Each theory is actually entirely compelling and believable, and it’s remarkable to see each character bring forward their solution, only to have it torn down by the next one. Each uses different methods, focuses on different aspects of the case, and comes up with an entirely different killer. Members of the Circle themselves are accused, and one of the characters even manages to build a watertight case against himself, thus showing the readers that anything can be “proven” if you look at the facts in a certain way.

Even more wonderfully, at the end of the original book, it becomes clear who really had the right answer, but that was then. In the 1970s, writer Christianna Brand who knew Berkeley penned her own ending, changing the outcome to a seventh villain. And in the new edition I have, published by the British Library, contains a brand new, never-before-seen ending written by the current president of the Detection Club, a very real version of the Crimes Circle that, over the years, was presided over by such luminaries as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As such, with each new chapter we are given a new solution, meaning the book now contains eight alternative theories, each which could potentially have led to an arrest if used alone.

It is an outstanding piece of work, occasionally dry due to the language, but funny and clever enough to keep my attention. Anyone who loves a good mystery will find something to appeal to them here. In fact, I would compare it a little to the podcast Serial. Several of my friends listened to it and, with our own backgrounds in different fields, we each came up with different ideas as to what really happened.

A remarkable novel.

“The Last Family In England” by Matt Haig (2004)

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“Dogs like to talk.”

Broadly speaking, if we’re sticking with the insistence that you can split the population into “dog people” and “cat people”, I fall down unapologetically on the side of cats. I’ve nothing against dogs at all – I will always fuss over a dog if given the opportunity, and some of my friends have utterly adorable dogs – but if I had to have one of the two, I’d opt for a cat. However, this weekend I read a book about dogs. Or, more accurately, a book narrated by a dog.

Prince is a black Labrador, the central point of the Hunter family. He ensures that he upholds the Labrador Pact, a solemn oath sworn by all Labradors to keep the Family together for the sake of all humanity. Prince keeps a careful eye on Adam and Kate, and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte. But not all is well in the land of dogs. Some of the other breeds, led by the Springer Spaniels, have turned against the old ways and now seek out a hedonistic lifestyle, rather than trying to protect a Family. Prince, however, is earnest in his insistence that the Pact must be upheld, and he’s mentored by Henry, an old Labrador who knows a thing or two about it.

Things take a turn for the worse in the Hunter household, however, when Simon, an old friend of Adam’s, moves back into the area, and Adam finds himself tempted by this man’s wife Emily. What only Prince can detect, however, is that Simon’s scent seems to be on Kate an awful lot since his return too. Their dog, a Springer Spaniel mongrel called Falstaff, is determined to lead Prince astray, but Prince knows his duty. He must keep the Family together so he can help save humanity. Duty over all…

This is Matt Haig’s first book, and already there are the hallmarks of the supremely honest and magical writer he is today. A lesser author would have dogs speaking to one another in English when humans were out of earshot, but here, all the sniffs and tail wags and barks that dogs make constitute a language of their own. Dogs can smell emotion on one another, and on humans, and use wagging as a way to do anything from communicating annoyance with their own kind to calming down a potentially explosive situation in the family home. The book is centered around a nuclear family seen from a slant, which seems to be a common theme in Haig’s work. The Radleys features a family of suburban vampires, and The Humans deals with an alien taking over one of the family roles. Haig has an amazing way with truthfulness, and isn’t afraid to bring up the nastier aspects of humanity. Looking at them through the viewpoint of a dog makes them all the more interesting.

The dogs are really the stand out characters here, with none of them being anthropomorphised any more than necessary. They have their own codes and systems, chiefly the Labrador Pact, and each of them makes for good company, even if they do broadly subscribe to cliches (Labradors are loyal, Rottweilers are aggressive, etc). That would be my only complaint on that front, and you can even make a good case that that doesn’t ring true for the whole tale, but I can’t go into that more without spoiling things. The humans are vastly flawed, as all good characters should be, with Hal and Charlotte typical teenagers and Adam and Kate the struggling parents, trying to cope with their responsibilities as parents while their relationship seems to be breaking down, a process that appears to be speeding up thanks to the interference of Simon and Emily.

The novel’s ending is beyond heartbreaking, and really rather a brave option to have chosen. In context, it makes sense, but there remain many unanswered questions that we aren’t allowed to know answers to. The family will continue to make their mistakes, and Prince has learnt that perhaps the Labrador Pact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you if you’re prone to crying easily, but it remains a raw, beautiful and tragic tale. I adored it.

Good boy.

“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.

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