“What The Hell Did I Just Read” by David Wong (2017)

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“It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck.”

Not for the first time, I’ve stumbled into a series in progress, but it didn’t seem to matter so much here. David Wong has been on my radar for years thanks to his novel John Dies at the End, which I’ve always found an intriguing title but I’ve never got round to reading. Instead, assuming this was a standalone, I’ve somehow skipped ahead to the third book in the series, crashing headfirst into a world that would terrify Stephen King and greatly amuse Douglas Adams. Strap yourself in.

John, Dave and Amy have just fled from Them. They’re not entirely sure what it is They wanted, but at a guess it’s the vial Amy has just tossed into the river. Not long after, John and Dave receive a call about a missing child, but the circumstances surrounding it are above the pay grade of any of the police and seem much more in the line of these two, who specialise in the unusual, the supernatural and the downright weird. The child, Maggie, appears to have been abducted by a seedy character, but no one can agree on what he looked like or if he even existed.

As the three seek out the missing girl, they learn that another child has gone missing too, this time from a trailer park. When the boy turns up in Dave’s apartment, claiming that it was Dave who abducted him, things are only going to get worse. Our heroes find themselves dealing with a collection of creatures that can alter memory and perception, allowing them to hide in plain sight and causing you to forget they even exist a split second after you were looking directly at them. More children disappear, but there’s some debate as to where they’ve gone, and John and Dave are convinced they need another sample of their special “Soy Sauce” that helps them to see the supernatural. It’s a shame they threw their last vial into the river. As the body count rises, shady organisations close in on the town, and a creature dubbed the BATMANTIS??? goes from being an urban legend to a terrifying reality, the story heads down a very dark path indeed…

I can only assume the previous books in the series are of a similar vein, and perhaps I’d have got more from it had I read them, but it doesn’t seem to need much in the way of backstory. The characters are introduced with enough detail to give you an idea of who they are, and the narration shifts from Dave’s first person tale to events in the third person from Amy and John. All three characters have distinctive voices. Amy’s parts focus on the feelings and emotions of the characters, are much more empathetic and contain no swearing, while John’s are hyperbolic, over-exaggerated and frequently laced with sex and gratuitous violence. As such, it helps add to the confusion of the story. We’re never totally sure what’s going on, who we’re meant to believe, or if anyone is worth believing at all.

Wong’s imagination is quite something. There are some creatures straight out of the darkest pits of horror here, and I do have to worry a little about his sanity. While the book is genuinely hilarious and full of great one-liners and stupid gags, it’s also scary as all hell. It’s laced not only with supernatural creatures with uncanny abilities and too many teeth, but also with genuine horrors of human child-snatchers, and the terror of losing your mind. It’s a world that’s easy to immerse yourself in thanks to the conversational style and constant action, but afterwards you just feel like you immersed yourself in a tepid swamp rather than a bubble bath.

Wong weaves plot points together neatly, too, with things that seem trivial and inserted just for a cheap gag later becoming pivotal. It does all tie up pretty neatly by the end – although the gaps I have might, again, just be because I’ve not read the earlier ones – but it’s the sort of book that you allow some things to keep hanging. After all, we still don’t really know what happened…

I don’t know what the hell I just read, but it was very good nonetheless.

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“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

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“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

“Danny The Champion Of The World” by Roald Dahl (1975)

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“When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.”

I was expecting to be reviewing a collection of supernatural stories by Rudyard Kipling this week, but I struggled to get into them and in a new policy of not forcing myself to read something I’m having a hard time with, I decided to read the short stories in between other novels and so found myself back in the imagination of Roald Dahl.

Danny grew up with only his father, William, who he worships without question. His young life is happy, spending his days helping his dad fix cars, working at their petrol station, and living in their tiny gypsy caravan on the outskirts of a small village. When he’s nine years old, however, his life takes an interesting turn. He wakes up to find that his father is gone and, feeling scared and alone for the first time in his life, he is unable to sleep until his father returns from out of the mist. It’s then that his father reveals a secret – he is a pheasant poacher.

Having not indulged in his hobby since Danny was born, the temptation has grown too much for William and he is determined to once again steal some pheasants from the land owned by the vile Mr Hazell. His old methods don’t appear to work very well anymore, and the keepers in the woods have become more savvy to old tricks. But Danny has a trick up his sleeve – one that will very likely change the face of poaching forever…

The biggest takeaways for people about this book, I suppose, is about the importance of family, and it seems particularly to be a love letter to fathers everywhere. Danny and William have a very affectionate, sweet relationship and it can’t fail to make you smile. They clearly enjoy one another’s company and completely adore each other. Danny is originally shocked to learn that his father – and indeed every other adult in the village – has a dark secret, but it’s definitely a moment of growth for him, and one that most of us experience at one time or another. It can be quite a moment to learn that the heroes that we’ve been looking up to, particularly our parents, are infallible and perhaps not always on the right side of morality. Danny almost seems to grow up in that moment, and while he still knows when something is right or wrong, he’s able to see in a few more shades of grey.

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that this one more than ever plays up the links between all of Dahl’s worlds, as William tells Danny all about the BFG, the dream-catching giant who runs above the hills with his suitcase and blowpipe. This story is written seven years before The BFG would become its own story, so one wonders if Dahl had it planned all along, or he took the notion from this book later on. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, the peach rolls across the countryside demolishing a famous chocolate factory. There is definitely a thread running through his work that seems to imply they’re all somewhat linked. Danny even lives only a few miles from where Matilda grows up, although at the time of this publication, her story is still thirteen years away. Perhaps Danny’s school is Crunchem Hall before the Trunchbull took over?

Danny is a funny little book – the policeman’s dialogue is particularly well-observed – and my edition seemed off somehow, until I realised a few pages in that in my edition the illustrations aren’t by Quentin Blake. It’s not quite Dahl without him. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. It differs to most of the other stories, lacking in a magical or fantastic element, and being one of the few books to include a stated moral, and the content is particularly weird given that it’s about a father teaching his son how to commit crimes, but it still works. It’s probably the most forgotten of Dahl’s novels, and unfairly so.

If you’ve bypassed this one, turn around and come back. You’ll thank me.

“Not Working” by Lisa Owens (2016)

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“There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.”

I, unfortunately, have a great deal of experience with the horror of late-twenties unemployment. I’m not going to go into it here – partly because it’s very boring, partly because I don’t want to – but Lisa Owens has done an incredible job of capturing the struggle in her novel Not Working.

Claire Flannery has just quit the job she hated with plans of finding the perfect job and one that she really wants to do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what that is. Sleepless nights begin and she struggles to get to grips with the job market and dealing with her judgemental friends and family who try to be supportive but have limited patience. It also doesn’t help that her grandfather has just died and at the funeral, Claire made an ill-advised comment and now her mother isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Claire has disgraced the memory of the deceased.

As Claire tries to work out exactly what she wants to do with her life, she begins to clash with long-term boyfriend Luke, her grandmother, several friends who are settling down with unsuitable partners, and her former colleagues. Desperate not to head back to square one, she wishes she could work out what she wants to do with her life, other than entering competitions on the Internet and sitting around in her pyjamas. But maybe it’s when you stop looking for things that life gets easier…

Owens is particularly good at capturing the minutia of life, from observations about people on public transport, to the silly little conversations we have with our nearest and dearest. There’s a great moment where Claire recites a text message from her father, complete with bad grammar and sudden switch to capital letters halfway through a word. She is also incredibly (and somewhat horrifically) skilled at pointing out a painful truth with a single line. I found myself somewhat stunned when I found one of my thoughts written down as if someone had crawled into my brain and dug it out while I’d been pretending it wasn’t true. (It was “I wish I liked myself a bit more, and wine more than a bit less.”) There’s also the thought many of us have probably had about how jobs aren’t necessarily as we imagine them to be: “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” But the absolute killer, the thought that I’ve had but never been able to put into words, was thus:

What’s wrong is, I would tell them, if I could be bothered, were anyone even interested, but they wouldn’t understand, so what’s the point? But … what? Oh yeah, what is wrong with ‘her’ – i.e. me – is, I’m the spare human in the world. If you counted everyone up, I’m the one who’d be left over, the one who does nothing, only takes, always takes things, a drain on everyone, completely pathetic like the poor old – poor old thing, the poor old wooden spoon, floating in the dirty sink…

Ouch.

Despite the truth pills, it’s actually a very wonderful book – raw and honest and very funny. I’m not the first to say similar, but imagine the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones had had a child, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Owens doesn’t shy away from the stigma attached to being unemployed as an adult, and how everyone around Claire reacts feels very real. And yet, she also is great at talking about how many of us want to find the thing we’re really good at or really want to do, but unfortunately we don’t always know what that is.

A great little read, but prone to hitting a bit too close to the bone.

“Ivy & Abe” by Elizabeth Enfield (2017)

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“I’m aware of him looking at me.”

Most, if not all, of us spend parts of life wondering “what if…”. We think about how different our lives would have been if we’d gone to different universities, met different friends, or made different choices. Perhaps one of the most pressing of these questions focuses on the nature of soulmates. If there is one person out there for each of us, then does it matter when we meet them? Elizabeth Enfield takes a look at this premise in the sweetly moving Ivy & Abe.

Ivy Trent and Abe McFadden are soulmates, that much is clear, but is there a right time to meet them? Told from vignettes of Ivy’s life, this novel recreates their first meeting over and over again, every time at a different age and in a different situation. From 1965 to 2032, there are several versions of how they met. Perhaps it was when Ivy was widowed and not much looking forward to a future alone. Maybe they met as teenagers on a French holiday. Maybe they were both already married to other people, and didn’t expect the affair. Or perhaps they meet just fleetingly, for five minutes, and nothing ever happens.

This is a charming book, with an awful lot of heart. Ivy and Abe are both beautiful creations and it is fascinating to see their lives play out in numerous ways. I found myself every time hoping that this would be the right timeline, but they don’t always end in happiness. It seems that there really is a “right time” to go along with the “right person”. Ivy and Abe’s relationship is pretty much always, for the most part, loving, at least. Abe is a classic gentleman, and Ivy is very sweet. Both of them, in every timeline, have hardships to deal with that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Ivy’s mother, for example, is chronically ill, and her early death casts a shadow over her later life, and this in turn will also affect how Abe fits into her puzzle.

Despite all the timelines being separate, there are a few overlapping themes in them. Ivy and Abe both end up in the same careers, both suffer great tragedy, and they are always nice people. To tie them together, though, there is often a mention of déjà vu, and a frequent recurring element is a lorry containing hay bales and someone being concerned that they don’t look safe. Sometimes this concern is justified and relevant; other times it’s just mentioned in passing.

I was curiously struck by a note in it that resonated in this week’s return of Doctor Who. Our new Doctor, played wonderfully by Jodie Whittaker, gave a speech in the first episode of the series about how, as people, we evolve and change over time, never forgetting who we were, but not feeling tied to being that person for our whole lives. This is definitely a theme in this book, as the characters are slightly different people at different ages, and circumstances around them perhaps make them do things that other version wouldn’t have done. Like it or not, we are – at least partly  – products of circumstance and environment.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of the book, lest I give away some of the sweeter moments, but it’s definitely one worth reading and Enfield is one to watch. She creates rich characters in a detailed world that makes itself clear that this is our world, with a number of scenes set around important times and trends of the era she’s dealing with.

I like a book that makes you think, and this one will leave you pondering about your life for some time.

“Darwin’s Soldiers” by Ste Sharp (2018)

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“Private John Greene of the Royal Fusiliers stumbled through the dim forest with the Lewis light machine gun held tight across his chest and his khaki bags strapped across both shoulders.”

War! Huh! What is it good for? Well, interesting fiction, for one thing. The fictional world seems to be at war almost continuously, but who can blame it when it’s been created by a species that has spent much of history perfecting the art of killing its own members. Darwin’s Soliders brings together an eclectic mix of history’s fighters to create a unique and compelling new novel.

John Greene is fighting in the Great War, missing his son Joe, and wishing he wasn’t sat in a trench, stinking of rat shit, as gunfire whistles overhead. And then suddenly, he isn’t. He finds himself on a strange hill, facing a white obelisk and all around him are hundreds of others, but they aren’t the rest of his regiment. He’s here with members of every major army in human history, from Aztec to Zulu, via Viking, Spartan, Babylonian, Mongol, Celt, Amazonian, and even wars that haven’t yet happened in his timeline.

The carving on the obelisk gives them a message – this new army has fourteen days to reach the silver gates, where they will apparently achieve victory. But first they need to solve the problem of working together, as each of them has a particular set of skills. And things get more complicated as they begin their trek through this strange new world and they begin to develop unusual abilities, be they extra limbs, sonar, or telepathy. As they get deeper into this strange situation, they discover that they aren’t the first beings to have been brought here, and it isn’t just the environment that wants to kill them…

Ste Sharp, like me and my second novel, crowdfunded this book via Unbound, but it’s publication was an inevitability, as someone would’ve picked it up eventually. The concept alone is amazing and while I’m not generally someone who reads much about war, I was curious as to how this would play out. It’s like one of those idle Internet questions – “Who would win in a fight between a Viking and a Roman?” – but played out for real. The literal evolution of the characters to gain new abilities that help them in warfare is also useful, and Sharp clearly enjoyed giving everyone superpowers. They are also explained away quite nicely, such as one character’s new ability to see sonar being due to a growth in his sinus cavity.

The amount of research in this book is absolutely staggering. While Sharp includes some of his own creations, such as soldiers from the future, mushrooms that allow for communication between races, and a Celtic tribe that didn’t exist, and, of course, all the aliens, much of the information is factually correct as he has studied the methods and weaponry of everyone from the Japanese samurai to the explosives experts of World War Two. This all brings the novel to life and drags you deeper inside it. The other races he’s created too are all superbly rich in their description, and none of them are just humanoid rip-offs of our species, but instead run the gauntlet from cat-people and robots to indescribable lobster-like beasts with too many eyes and claws and not enough empathy.

The pacing is unstoppable and even from the opening, there’s no farting about and we’re immediately on that hill, surrounded by soldiers, sharing in their confusion. Much of the rest of the novel centres around combat and there are few books more action-packed than this. It’s a hefty tome, but entertaining, never particularly dragging. It ends on a neat note that sets up the promised sequel – and I for one already can’t wait to get my hands on it.