“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

“Bats In The Belfry” by E. C. R. Lorac (1937)

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“As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort!”

My re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue is almost upon us, and I’ll be kicking off with it as soon as 2019 rolls around. For now though, I turn to another writer from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a woman who has almost entirely been forgotten until the British Library dug her up again for reissue – E. C. R. Lorac.

At the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s cousin, talk naturally turns macabre between some of the guests. Young Elizabeth Leigh comments that there’s a game she’s played at her club – they take turns to suggest the best way to hide a dead body. Everyone seems content to join in, not taking it very seriously, but apparently all keen to share their theories. A short time later, Bruce is called away to France on urgent business, it seems that that’s the last anybody sees of him.

But then his suitcase and passport show up in a crumbling Notting Hill artist’s studio. There’s still no sign of Bruce himself, but there are many secrets that seem to be surrounding him. His friend Neil Rockingham was meant to see him in France, but he never turned up. Bruce was once a respected novelist, but has fallen on hard times, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of his actress wife Sybilla. His young charge, Elizabeth, would love to be married to Robert Grenville, but it’s yet to be allowed. And then there’s the difficult issue of the strange artist Debrette, who might just have been blackmailing our missing man. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is put on the case and begins to learn more about the Belfry and quite who had the most cause to see Bruce Attleton disappear…

This novel, like apparently all of Lorac’s work (her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) slipped through the cracks of literary history but it’s no sad thing that she’s been rediscovered for the modern era. While her characters don’t particularly stand out as greats of the genre, they’re distinct from one another, and Inspector Macdonald is a very fine policeman and a man I would trust wholeheartedly. Other characterisation is still quite clever though, making use of tropes and ideas that perhaps a lesser author would have done something obvious with. Debrette, for example, has an enormous and distinctive beard, which would be quite useful as a disguise should someone be pretending to be him. But are they?

Actually, it’s London itself that sticks out most of all. It’s a very real version of the city in the thirties, with thick fog and people hidden round every corner. Not much has changed in eighty years in fact, as best indicated when Macdonald makes a comment that it’s quicker to walk through London than take a bus during rush hour.

A fairly good example of the genre, with the clues neatly seeded and all there for you if you’re paying attention – the early conversation about how best to dispose of a body becomes particularly prescient – and one that I’m pleased the British Library has dug up from the archives. Long may they continue to do so.

“Still Life With Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins (1980)

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“If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.”

No, it hasn’t taken me eleven days to read a book, but I appreciate that the blog has been quiet for a while. Before the book I’m about to review, I also read Joined-Up Thinking by Stevyn Colgan which, while excellent, was a book of random trivia and difficult to review without merely repeating back all he’d written. There’s also been a lot of drinking and watching Christmas films going on – ’tis the season, after all. But I’m here now with one final pre-Christmas review, for one of the oddest books of the year.

Still Life With Woodpecker is inexplicable. Here, we meet Princess Leigh-Cheri, who is living with her parents in Seattle after they were kicked off of their European throne and sent to live in exile. Leigh-Cheri maintains an interest in environmentalism and being a good person, and seeks to attend Care Fest in Hawaii, to hear Ralph Nader speak and find out more about the state of the world. The king and queen allow it, providing she takes along their one remaining servant, Gulietta, an old woman who doesn’t speak any language understood by the family.

While in Hawaii, the centre where Care Fest is supposed to be held is bombed by the Woodpecker, an outlaw actually called Bernard Mickey Wrangle, who has been responsible for a spate of bombings over the last couple of decades, yet has never been caught. Leigh-Cheri performs a citizen’s arrest on him, but before she can turn him in, she finds herself falling in love with him, bonded primarily of the fact they both have bright red hair. The two swiftly fall into a heavily sexual relationship, and when Bernard is finally arrested for his crimes and sent to solitary confinement, Leigh-Cheri returns to Seattle to do exactly the same, locking herself away in an attic with no furniture and painted-over windows, where the considers a packet of Camel cigarettes and begins to philosophise over the nature of pyramids, choice, bombs and love…

Despite the weirdness of the plot that feels a bit like it was constructed from a random generator (and I don’t knock that because that’s pretty much exactly how my first novel came to be), it somehow all works and is above all hilariously funny. Robbins has a way with words, puns and bizarre similes that is on par with Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams and Tom Holt, and they don’t let up. It’s intelligent and bonkers in that perfect measure that’s so hard to do, and the surrealism is just spot on – weird but not so much that it overwhelms the story and takes over.

One of the ongoing themes (aside from the difference between a criminal and an outlaw, or what is to be done about all the redheads) is the question of how love can be made to last. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but Robbins does manage to wax somewhat poetically on the subject, pointing out the differences between lust and love, and even comes up with a half-decent and poignant explanation on what exactly it is that causes love to disappear from a relationship. It never gets too schmaltzy though, as it’s liberally peppered with incredibly graphic sex scenes that are almost hilarious in their construction and not in the least sexy.

Very weird, but hilarious and curiously moving.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” and “Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator” by Roald Dahl (1964 & 1973)

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I’ve put these books on the same post today because they’re the same series. Also, one of them I have very little to say about, and the other I don’t have enough time to say all I would like. Enjoy!

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (1964)

“These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr Bucket.”

We all know this book, and we all agree that the original film was better than the latter (all except Roald Dahl, who despised it). This is of course the story of young Charlie Bucket who wins a coveted golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the most wonderful place in existence. Accompanied by Grandpa Joe, he tours the factory alongside greedy Augustus Gloop, spoilt Veruca Salt, competitive gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde and telly addict Mike Teevee, and together they all learn a few lessons about being good people.

Willy Wonka is, of course, the stand out character of the whole piece, both charismatic and insane and as ever with Dahl, the book is darker than one remembers. While the scene of Charlie and Grandpa Joe stealing fizzy lifting drinks was created for the film, the creepy boat ride remains in tact, and we even see what has happened to the children as the result of their misbehaving inside the factory.

It’s hard to know what to say about the book, really. It’s joyous and fun and silly, and one of the cornerstones of the children’s literary canon and is packed with morals and very daft jokes. The sequel, however, is quite something else.

Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator (1973)

“The last time we saw Charlie, he was riding high above his home town in the Great Glass Lift.”

I’d somehow never read the sequel before, but knew it was weird. Dahl’s hatred of the original film version of the first book that I mentioned above meant that he refused to ever give anyone the rights to the sequel. This was actually a good move, if not for the reasons he did it.

Picking up where the last book left off, Willy Wonka, Charlie and his family are all inside the Great Glass Elevator, hurtling ever higher into the sky, until they go so high they punch through the atmosphere and end up in orbit around the Earth, approaching the Space Hotel USA, the first orbital hotel in history. Mistaken by the American President as being aliens and/or terrorists who are trying to destroy the hotel, Charlie and his companions must do their best to avoid being arrested or worse, killed.

Aboard the hotel, however, they find that aliens have already set up shop there, so Willy Wonka uses the elevator to save the people heading for certain doom, before returning to Earth when he reveals another invention – a chocolate that makes you young again, an idea that very much appeals to Charlie’s ancient grandparents who haven’t been out of bed in twenty years…

Really, this is two stories in one. First, we have the adventure in space, and then the adventure with the chocolate of youth, Wonka-Vite. All of the action takes place over a few hours, which would be mad enough if not for the fact this is also the same day that Charlie visited the chocolate factory, meaning that this is perhaps the busiest day the poor lad has or ever will experience. It’s not a bad thing that this book has sort of been lost to history as while there are a couple of good jokes and daft Dahlian ideas present, mostly it’s a melting pot of all the other ideas he had but obviously didn’t know what to do with.

The inclusion of the American President and his staff are particularly bizarre, and full of weird puns and jokes that seem to be there just to pad out the text. It’s also dated badly, with some particularly racist overtones during a few scenes – and none of them involving the Oompa-Loompas, miraculously!

Probably best forgotten – let’s just stick to the original in future.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of growing up, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“The Third Wheel” by Michael J. Ritchie (2019)

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“The room is perhaps eight feet square.”

Back in 2014, I published a novel. Now, I’ve done it again. There is no stranger feeling that seeing something you created for sale out in the world, but last time it was just an e-book. This time round, I’ve gone full paperback, and that’s truly bizarre, to be able to hold the physical copy of something that for a long time just existed in your head. This post obviously isn’t quite a review, but to keep the format, here’s what The Third Wheel is about.

Dexter is fed up. All of his friends are getting married, settling down, moving in together and growing up, and he’s being left behind with no one to hold hands with and only his ginger tom, The Great Catsby, for company. It’s not that he’s jealous of their relationships, it’s just that he thinks there’s more to life than wrapping yourself up with one other person for eternity.

But after a wedding that ends in drunken disaster, Dexter’s world – and everyone else’s, come to that – is shaken when aliens make first contact. Now faced with the prospect of imminent destruction and no practical skills whatsoever, Dexter and his friends, including sunshine optimist Ruby, science fiction geeks Jay and Kay, hard-nosed pragmatist Priti, and no-nonsense Gavin, set out on a mission to survive in this new world.

So I’m not actually going to review a book I wrote, but I’m afraid I am going to talk about it and why you should buy it for a little bit. I’m hoping that it’s something really different, as I’ve become somewhat tired of the entertainment market being saturated with remakes and retellings of the same stories. I’m not claiming that I’ve invented something brand new here – a first contact story is hardly unique – but I’ve tried to make something that doesn’t follow traditional rules. I’ve subverted the notion that science fiction always seems to have heroes who somehow possess just the right skills and knowledge.

Mostly, however, I’ve done away with the romantic subplot. This is one of my biggest bugbears about modern media – the insistence that no matter the genre or plot, there always has to be a romance somewhere in it, often detracting from the main story or simply weakening it. That was actually the original seed of the novel – a story in which a romantic subplot wasn’t possible. I confess that your opinion may vary as to whether I’ve been entirely successful in this aim, but hopefully I’ve subverted it and played with the trope enough for you to accept that this is a rare book in that respect. I’ve attempted to write about friendships, as I think truly that platonic relationships get a hard rap in fiction and we don’t get to read enough about them. Like Dexter, I don’t believe that we’re all destined to find “the one”, and I struggle with society’s insistence that we all belong in pairs. I’m a full person by myself, and so is Dexter. On the other hand, I hope that the novel doesn’t seem to be an attack on romantic relationships. I’m a fan, of course, I just don’t think they’re for everyone.

The novel is a curious blend of typically English humour and dark scenarios, but I think they mix well together and allow for a deep novel packed with emotional punches. I’ve done my best to create a large cast of unique personalities so that you find yourself rooting for everyone, but accepting that none of them are perfect. Dexter is perhaps something of an unreliable narrator, but that plays in to the theme I had of life never giving you all the answers. Yes, you almost certainly will have questions by the end about things that don’t get cleared up, but like life, it’s messy. However, if you want a few answered, read on past the acknowledgements for a few bonus chapters that fill in some of the gaps, showing scenes that occurred when Dexter wasn’t around to narrate.

If you want to pre-order the book prior to its release on January 17th 2019, you can do so at Amazon or Waterstones, and doing so will give them an indication of demand, so it would really help me if you could. It is available as both a paperback and an e-book. I really hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please let people know on social media and use the hashtag #TheThirdWheel to spread the word. If you’re not already, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more information.

Right, better get on with the next one.

“Scythe” by Neal Shusterman (2016)

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“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.”

Death is the ultimate certainty. While some scientists believe that the first person who will live to be over 150 is already alive right now, the time will come eventually. Many books, especially novels, have been written on the subject and I think despite many of us having a primal fear of death, we also have a curious fascination with it. But what if there was no more death? What would happen to the world? In this novel, Neal Shusterman explores the concept.

Once upon a time on Earth, people got sick or injured and died. But that hasn’t happened for hundreds of years, now. When the Cloud evolved into the hyper-intelligent Thunderhead, it learnt what was best for humanity and took over the running of the planet, dismantling governments and corporations and leaving people with equality, health, happiness and eternal life. For once in fiction, its motives were genuine. But there were a group of humans who decided that there still needed to be a small measure of population control in place, thus the scythes were born.

Selected at a young age for training, you can only become an apprentice scythe if you have absolutely no desire to kill, or “glean” as it’s now known. When Citra and Rowan both independently stand up to Scythe Faraday and question his methods, they are both employed as his assistants and begin to learn the art of killcraft, as well as the ins and outs of the Scythedom, the one group of people that the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over as they act above the law. Bound to their studies, the two of them begin to learn the ways of the scythe, despite their own protests. Choosing who to glean is just the start.

But then, at a conclave of all the MidMerican scythes, attention is thrust upon them and there is some debate as to whether a scythe can take on two assistants. The choice is made – Faraday can have two assistants, but only one will gain the robe and ring of a scythe … and their first task will be to glean the other…

I was obviously curious enough about this book to make the purchase, but as someone who is somewhat wary of Young Adult fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out well or be disappointing. On the sliding scale, however, I’d pop this higher than The Hunger Games (to which is appears to be frequently compared) but maybe not quite as good as the Chaos Walking trilogy. The world is richly developed and the lore and history behind it is explained to us by the use of diary entries from various scythes, it being one of their rules that they must keep a journal. This is a world where death still happens regularly from accidents, but unless you’ve been gleaned officially by a scythe, you are taken to a reanimation centre and brought back to life. Death here is merely a hassle, not an ending, but people still fear it and crave the blessing of the scythes for immunity. The Thunderhead may have done away with politicians and crime, but corruption still exists here, as it seems to wherever there are humans. The scythes are treated as above the law, and the Thunderhead cannot interfere with them.

The concepts here are great fun, despite the darkness at the heart of the novel, and I enjoy a future where no one knows what murder is as death isn’t seen as a crime, and that because people are broadly speaking on an equal footing, there’s no need for theft and so on. Even religion has faded away in a world not obsessed with the afterlife, and instead been replaced by tonal cults, who worship sounds and smells.

The characters that inhabit this story are intriguing too, and while it’s quite obvious from the outset which way it’s going to go, there are a number of surprises along the way that kept me hooked. As I said, one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that you must have absolutely no desire to do it, as anyone who enjoys killing would be wrong for the role. Scythes are respected and admired, as well as feared, and each has their own methods by which they glean. Interestingly, gleanings are not always bloodless and kind – you are just as likely to be beheaded, stabbed or shot than you are poisoned or drowned. Scythes must work to a quota that vaguely relates to the death rates in the Age of Mortality.

Really, I’m a sucker for great worldbuilding and Shusterman has that here in spades. The ending sets up for the rest of the series, and I’ve already put the sequel in my basket on Amazon. I look forward to returning to these characters.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and failed relationships, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2015)

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“4 Conflicting Parts of Himself Darren Jacobs Attempts to Ignore as He Tries to Ask a Particular Eleventh-Grade Girl for a Really Big Favor on Friday, April 25, at 10:38 a.m.”

I’m one of those people who loves lists. I write lists for everything – books I’ve read, films I need to watch, things to buy, errands to run. I’m also one of those who adds things to lists just to cross them off to make myself look productive. Every list I write begins “Write list”, simply so I can cross that off immediately. However, I can’t say that it had ever crossed my mind to write a novel entirely in lists. It’s too late now anyway – Todd Hasak-Lowy has beaten me to it.

Darren Jacobs is your average, awkward fifteen-year-old living in Chicago. He’s had a terrible year, with his parents divorcing, his brother moving away to university, and his best friend leaving the state. He’s also still hopelessly single. Things reach a head when Darren learns that the reason for his parents divorce is that his father is gay. Unwilling to deal with the fallout, or put up with the long drive to Ann Arbor to visit his brother Nate with his dad, Darren instead approaches one of the cool girls at school, Zoey Lovell, and asks if she’ll give him a ride to the bus station so he can go alone.

It’s only when the bus stops along the route that Darren discovers Zoey came along too, and the two unlikely companions find themselves with Darren’s cool brother Nate exploring the drug-laden world of university. Darren isn’t sure if Zoey is now is girlfriend, or even if she wants to be, and when she disappears, he starts to wonder if any of it ever happened. That one daring weekend, however, will have consequences for everyone that make it clear it really unfolded…

Were it not for the unique style of this novel, I think I would have been far less generous in my thoughts about it. Without the structure of everything being written in lists, it’s your classic “awkward American teenager meets a manic pixie dream girl and joins a band” sort of thing, although not without charm. Zoey doesn’t interest me much as we’ve seen her type too many times before, but I am fond of the Jacobs family, particularly Nate, the older brother. Yes, he’s something of a cliche too, but I find him and his relationship with Darren particularly engaging. I can’t recall off the top of my head many stories that focus on sibling relationships – and even fewer on positive ones – so that makes a nice change.

The novel’s real charm, of course, comes from the unique trait of it being written solely in lists. They run the gamut of listing emotions, memories, dialogue and reasons for things happening to simply rings of a telephone, fingers, letters and items in a bag. One page simply has “5 Months That Have Passed” and listing them, rather than just saying “Five months passed…”, another lists “8 Best Things Darren Ever Built out of Legos, in Chronological Order”. In this style, we jump back and forth through the timeline and learn about Darren and his world in an interesting, if somewhat academic way. It’s very easy to read though, and while I’m not sure it would work for most genres or stories, it fits perfectly here. The lists themselves are not referenced until towards the end when there is a comment about whether the lists we give ourselves in life are good or bad, so even though the book is entirely lists, they never feel intrusive.

An intriguing take on story structure that saves and enhances a tale we’ve, admittedly, probably read before.