“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Harcastle” by Stuart Turton (2018)

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“I forget everything between footsteps.”

One of the most difficult questions you can be asked as an avid reader is, “So, what’s your favourite book?” This must be the same problem faced by film buffs and music nerds – how are you meant to pick a favourite? As such, I don’t have a specific answer, but have about ten that I would pick out as examples of some of my favourites. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has already taken its place among their number. How best to describe it? It’s kind of like if Quantum Leap found its way into an Agatha Christie novel, via Groundhog Day. Let me try and explain.

Blackheath is a crumbling old manor house, and tonight there is to be a party where Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the hosts, will die, as she has done every day for many, many years. Our narrator, Aiden Bishop, wakes up in a body that is not his own in a large forest, with no memories of how he came to be there or what he needs to do about it now. He finds his way out of the forest and to the house, where he begins to meet other members of the household and party. After Evelyn’s death, instead of a new day breaking, the same one starts again, but this time Aiden is in a different body, while the same events play out around him.

Caught in a time loop, Aiden is doomed to live out the same day over and over again, each time in the body of a different guest. The only way to escape the loop is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder. But this is apparently not as easy as it appears when Aiden can’t change events, merely experience them from different vantages, inside a variety of hosts with very different skills and abilities. There’s also the discovery that he’s not the only one stuck in a loop like this, and he has to do his best to avoid the nefarious “footman”, who seems determined that Aiden doesn’t escape from Blackheath…

I got this book for Christmas and it naturally made its way onto the reading list, but then another friend of mine said that it was one I would love, so I raised it up the pile a little and got to it sooner than I anticipated. Originally daunted by its size and the promise of a complicated plot line, I found that neither of these were mattered. This book is the definition of a page turner, with constant twists and amazing, often beautiful, descriptions. This is an insanely good debut novel from Stuart Turton and one that has left me jealous and somewhat bereft that I’ll never be able to do better.

What a mind Turton must have to be able to weave together the timeline in such a way that we can see it play out in numerous ways and yet still be continually surprised and shocked. I was proud of myself for working out one aspect of the finale before it happened, but most of it remained out of sight, blowing my mind when it finally did all arrive. Because it’s a repeat of the same day, certain things happen out of order and we only get explanations of them in later attempts, but I don’t think there’s a single loose thread in the whole novel. I’ve also never been more grateful for a map and a list of characters in the front of the book, which I had to keep referring to for at least the first three fifths of the book, before much of it settled into my memory. Layers upon layers of mysteries and secrets surround Blackheath, and they are tied up together so neatly it feels like real magic has been achieved here.

More importantly, Turton’s grasp on the characters is phenomenal. The more bodies Aiden inhabits, the harder it becomes to remember who he is, and instead he finds himself dominated by the personalities and memories of his hosts, each one stronger than the last. Each character is fully realised and so vivid, as is Aiden’s reaction to each of them. On one day he’s inside an enormously fat man and is very aware of his own physical bulk and how the world views him. The day after, he finds himself back in a thin man and struggles to acclimatise to the sudden loss of weight. He often struggles with the morality of some of his hosts too, which is fun to see and handled so delicately that it all feels believable.

Not just one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve ever read. Do not miss out.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Murder On The Links” by Agatha Christie (1923)

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“I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: ‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”

Christie is always associated with having her detectives solve crimes in large English country houses, but we’re only two books into the Poirot series and she’s already broken that … by having us visit a crime scene in a large French country house. Establishing much more of the sort of writer she would become, The Murder on the Links is a speedy, moving take on the murder mystery.

On his way back to London, Captain Hastings meets a young woman on a train who has lost track of her sister. Instantly smitten, Hastings chats with her throughout the journey, but when they depart, she only gives her name as “Cinderella”. Realising he’ll never see her again, Hastings instead finds Poirot who has just received a letter from a Paul Renauld in northern France, who is convinced that his life is under threat. Wasting no time, Poirot and Hastings leave for France, but upon arriving at the man’s villa, they find they are too late – Renauld is already dead.

His body has been found in an open grave on his under-construction golf course, wearing a coat that’s too big and carrying a love letter. Apparently stabbed in the back, no one can account for his movements, except his wife who was gagged and bound by two assailants who dragged her husband off into the night when he wouldn’t tell him “the secret”. Poirot decides to do right by the man and stay to solve the case, which isn’t made any easier by the arrival of Monsieur Giraud, a young French policeman whose methods stand opposed to those of Poirot, leading to an unofficial contest between the two men to solve the murder first.

And that’s when the second body shows up…

The book seems primarily to reinforce the kind of detective that Poirot is, focusing on psychology and motive, rather than physical clues. Giraud, the French detective, is very much a Holmesian figure, believing that the answers lie in discarded match heads and specific types of cigarette ash. He openly mocks Poirot’s suggestion that a piece of lead piping or some footprints in a flower bed could be of any use to him, apparently simply because they’re too big. Poirot, however, admits that there’s no point him looking for tiny things as he wouldn’t be able to tell one kind of soil or ash from any other. Poirot, naturally, solves the case before Giraud, who returns to Paris with his tail between his legs. The reader is left in no doubt that the Sherlock Holmes style of detection will not play a part in Christie’s works. Although it could be seen as Christie insulting Doyle, I think it’s actually some gentle mockery, as the two both liked and respected one another’s novels, and Doyle had long been established as a mystery writer. Christie merely was, I think, marking the change as she began her career and Doyle ended his.

Similarly, Christie realises that she doesn’t need a Watson figure in all her books, as Hastings was originally introduced to be. Although this is not the last time that we see him, her original plan to have him narrate all the Poirot tales does not come to fruition and she shows this by ending the novel with Hastings finding a wife and therefore having something to distract him so he can’t be at Poirot’s beck and call at all times. He will return several times, especially in the early years, and he’s always a joy when he does. Here, he adds a good deal of comic relief, being sharp in some ways but utterly dense in others, driven by his emotions. This complements Poirot, who uses logic in almost everything he does.

As ever, the clues are liberally sprinkled throughout and you can see how you should have been able to work it out by the end, although perhaps a couple of them require a bit of reaching to solve. The evidence is all there though, you just have to know which specific bits of dialogue, exposition and description you’re meant to be picking up on. And that’s not always easy.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Furthest Station” by Ben Aaronovitch (2017)

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“Jaget said he’d been watching this documentary on TV about the way people learn to track animals.”

I’ve been away from Peter Grant’s London since 2017, and what better way to ease myself in with the novella that fits into the continuity but doesn’t require much time to get back into. Much of the action here, however, takes us out of London and right to the very edge of the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground, which stretches out much further than many people realise.

A series of abusive attacks have taken place on a Tube train between Harrow-on-the-Hill and Baker Street, but anyone who reports them forgets they happened minutes later and is surprised when the police calls them to follow up. Sergeant Jaget Kumar knows when something seems fishy on the magnitude of a whale shark, so summons in Peter Grant and Inspector Nightingale of the Folly, the branch of the Met Police that deals with “the weird stuff”.

Accompanied by his genius troublemaker of a teenage cousin Abigail, Peter begins searching the Metropolitan Line rolling stock, finding several ghosts haunting the trains and stations, many of whom seem desperate to pass on a message but are having trouble locating someone who will listen to them. When the ghost of a small girl tells Peter a story about a princess trapped by an evil man, he becomes convinced that someone has been kidnapped, and so sets off to Chesham, the furthest station out on the London Underground…

Aaronovitch is a great writer and his style is what I aspire to, with breezy, silly lines and jokes in between the more serious aspects of the story, leading to a fun and funny romp through a world he clearly enjoys writing. The characters of the river goddesses are much diluted here with just a few mentions and a short appearance on-page for one of them, and frankly I’m not saddened. I enjoy the Rivers, but there is so much more of London to explore. The rest of the cast are still great fun – Abigail is rapidly becoming my favourite character – and Aaronovitch manages to produce a completely multicultural London without it feeling laboured, tokenistic or obligatory. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and many works seem to neglect this aspect of it. Here, it’s part and parcel.

The magic continues to not overwhelm the story, and while it’s sad that in some respects we don’t get to see Peter learning new spells and abilities, constantly falling back on his knack of producing a ball of light as his primary magical flourish, it’s clear that he is slowly learning more things. I sense that given Abigail’s speed at picking up her other studies, she will be more powerful than him in a book or two from now and perhaps there’s even a plan for a spin-off series of YA books with her at the helm. There’s a lot about her that she and Aaronovitch still aren’t telling us and I look forward to finding out what’s there.

A quick, easy read with a few good laughs and some fun ideas.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Ten Little Astronauts” by Damon L. Wakes (2018)

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“Even before the alarm began to sound, Blair knew in his gut that something was wrong.”

I’m normally against remakes. I’m one of those people constantly screaming at the publishing industry and Hollywood that it needs to have some new ideas, not just keep throwing out rehashes, remakes, reimaginings, retellings, repeats … People need to take more risks. There are, of course, exceptions. Some films with literary backgrounds actually do turn out very well (see Stardust or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), and sometimes an author can take a classic (Hamlet) and give it a new entertaining twist (The Lion King). In Ten Little Astronauts, Damon L. Wakes takes Agatha Christie’s crown jewel, And Then There Were None, and gives it a sci fi flavour.

The U. N. Owen is a spaceship that has long departed Earth and is now hurtling through the void to a new planet for humanity to colonise with four thousand bodies preserved in suspended animation. Ten astronauts are awoken mid-journey, something that is only supposed to happen if there’s an emergency on board. It seems that something has gone wrong with the computer system. Then they find the body.

Trapped in interstellar space, trillions of miles from home and with no chance of rescue, the ten astronauts must deal with the fact that one among them is a murderer. With no way of being sure who it is, they agree that they can’t go back to sleep until they’ve worked it out. But then more of them die, and as the bodies pile up, so does the tension. They just have to hope that the little grey cells work just as well in space…

As a premise, it works wonderfully. The original novel is of course one of the finest examples of mystery writing in history, with ten people isolated on an island and killed off one by one. The “closed circle” plot is common in the murder mystery genre, and here it’s dialled up to eleven, with the characters entirely isolated from everything and everyone else. Although occasionally erratically paced, the tension ramps up perfectly and you begin to question your own thoughts, because as soon as you think you’ve worked out what’s going on, the rug is pulled from under you and things prove to not be as they seem. A stellar retelling.

The book also contains a second short story, Six Years Stolen, which is another science fiction crime story set in a future where people no longer require sleep. Some specialised police officers – known as sleeper agents – do still sleep as we do, but it renders them with better cognitive faculties and speedier reactions, meaning that sacrificing a third of their life to sleep is beneficial. The whole thing is apparently based on a pun in the term “sleeper agent”, and I applaud Wakes for managing to pull off an interesting, intelligent story around it that feels curiously believable. I enjoyed it as much as the first story.

If you want a quick, thrilling read, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of this clever and unusual story.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Night Of Camp David” by Fletcher Knebel (1965)

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“Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth.”

I’m not someone who wants to use his platform to discuss political opinion, but in reading a wide variety of novels, sometimes it’s inevitable. In this book, I found myself at the heart of the political system.

Senator Jim McVeagh gets the feeling that his political career is about to get a boost when, after a gala dinner, the President himself, Mark Hollenbach issues an invite for Jim to attend a private meeting at Camp David. When he arrives, Jim becomes uncomfortable when the President reveals that a joke he made during his speech earlier in the night about wiretapping was actually in earnest. It gets worse when he begins to display true paranoia and is convinced that “they” are out to get him.

Unsure what to do, Jim confides in his mistress, Rita, who shares her own story of instability from Hollenbach. Jim attempts to raise the subject with some others high up in Washington, but all that does it make people convinced that he’s the one with the mental illness, and he begins to spot the Secret Service are on his tail night and day. Suddenly, the life he saw as the future vice president is shattered as the President begins to share more of his secret plans, and Jim becomes convinced that the the most powerful man in the world has gone mad – but who is going to believe him?

First published in 1965, the book was at the time pure escapism. Knebel wrote many political thrillers, but this one appears to have dropped out of sight for the last fifty years. In 2018, Vintage announced they were going to publish it again and it has definitely struck a nerve in today’s political climate. Proving to be remarkably prescient, the novel includes early mentions of there being no such thing as “true facts” because it implies the existence of “false facts”, which obviously can’t exist. And yet doesn’t that just resonate with the cries these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”? There’s also a moment where the President plans a meeting with the Russian premier, and the main characters argue that the meeting cannot be allowed to go ahead. Again, timely.

Being of its time, the book is notable for its lack of female characters, with I think only four ever getting any speaking roles: Jim’s wife, his daughter, his mistress, and a secretary. This is not a political landscape where women are present, and probably not even welcome, and with a twenty-first century mindset, their absence is very obvious. Women are never even mentioned as political figures, with many conversations using “men” to describe everyone in the room or who may be of relevance at that moment.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, then this is surely something that you’ll enjoy. As a Brit, my knowledge of the American political system is pretty shaky and I don’t necessarily understand all the titles and roles in play here, but the tension racks up well enough that I also don’t think it matters completely. The dialogue is occasionally quite dense, but not impenetrable, and it does deal with very real and important issues of mental illness, responsibility and power. While interesting and loaded with food for thought, maybe it is a little far fetched. I mean, can you really imagine a mentally unstable, paranoid halfwit being elected to the most powerful office in the world?

Exactly.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!