“Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas” by Adam Kay (2019)

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“Christmas is the pine-scented, tinsel-strewn timeout where, like it or not, everything just … stops.”

This is Going to Hurt was a proper game-changing book of the last decade. Adam Kay’s diaries of when he was a junior doctor in the underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated NHS made us all sit up and take notice of what we’d been taking for granted for too long. With humour and powerful emotion, he showed us what the realities of being a doctor were and the book, quite rightly, became a huge bestseller. Because of the popular demand, a sequel was inevitable, and this stocking-sized book details some extra bits of his diaries, this time focusing on the six Christmases he was working.

Using just as much humour, Kay regales us with further stories of his time on the ward, including the romantic turkey dinner in the staff room, making decorations out of medical equipment, why gaffer tape is not the best thing to embalm yourself with, how to behave when the Health Minister pays a visit, and what to get a colleague you hate when you draw them in the Secret Santa. It’s not all humour, though, as he also talks about the difficulty of talking about death, the emotional maelstrom caused by a miscarriage, and how the job surgically removes your social life.

There’s not much else I can say, really, just that you should read this. And you should read his other book too, if you’re one of the seven people who hasn’t. Heartbreaking, hilarious and honest in equal measure, it will open your eyes to the reality of working one of the most demanding (and rewarding) jobs in the world.

All hail our NHS – we’d never survive without it.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Tropic Of Serpents” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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“Not long before I embarked on my journey to Eriga, I girded my loins and set out for a destination I considered much more dangerous: Falchester.”

In 2015, I began reading about the adventures of Lady Trent – at the time Isabella Camherst. Living in an world that is not unlike our Victorian era, she is a scientist with a passion for studying dragons. Despite the reservations that her society has about women adventurers, she manages to forge her own path and come out from the shadow of her husband and the male scientists that surround her. At last, I return to her memoirs, beginning the new year inside the pages of the second volume, this time detailing her adventures through a jungle known as the Green Hell.

Since returning to Scirland, three years have passed and Isabella is becoming restless. Desperate for another adventure and not finding motherhood to her liking – it’s particularly tough given her son looks exactly like her deceased husband – she plans a quest to Eriga, war-torn continent where her people have economic interests in the iron mines. When those with more power than her declare she must leave sooner than expected, she heads off with Thomas Wilker, a companion from her previous journey who doesn’t necessarily approve of her methods, and Natalie Oscott, a young woman with an inventor’s mind who loathes society’s rules even more than Isabella does.

In the land of Eriga, things are more turbulent than perhaps the Scirlanders realised. With several cultures and countries clashing over territorial disputes and the Scirling government focusing instead on building dams and mining iron, Isabella and her team find themselves guests at the palace, where the society’s leader asks her to bring back some dragon eggs while she’s off studying them. The group move off into the swamps, with local guides to assist them, and in there they find out not only a good deal about the native dragons, but also the people who have very different customs to the ones they’re used to. As Isabella learns more about dragons and alternate ways of living, she learns even more about herself and what she’s truly capable of.

The Eriga of the novel is clearly meant to be based on Africa, with white colonialists turning up to do their business, often with scant appreciation for what the natives think or want with them. The illustrations within the book – purported to be by Isabella herself – highlight the “otherness” of these people to her, and she clearly comes from a country where black people have yet to make any mark. One photo shows tribesmen who seem to have a definite Zulu basis. The world building is interesting and Brennan has clearly put a lot of thought into these things, but one can get so bogged down in trying to remember which culture is battling which and what all the countries are called that it can slow down the narrative a little. As with last time, the most interesting bits are when she is dealing directly with dragons, and these passages are not as common as one may like.

Nonetheless, Isabella remains an interesting character. She is the epitome of those female Victorian explorers like Gertrude Bell who struck out into the wilderness to study the world, paying no heed to the blustering men they left behind. Natalie is fun, too, being someone who has absolutely no interest in marriage or society’s norms. Thomas Wilker, in contrast, makes for a great foil, and it is wonderful to see he and Isabella reach a certain understanding and come to like one another, rather than simply tolerate the others presence. Isabella is fearless, ambitious and formidable, and she makes a credible heroine. She is not someone I would like to be on the other end of an argument with.

The third book is already on my shelf, so I doubt I’ll leave it so long this time to get to it. The adventure will continue soon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Down And Out In Paris And London” by George Orwell (1933)

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“The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning.”

As someone who has long worked in customer service, currently funding my wine and book purchases being a barista and waiter, I’ve long had a sense of community with those seen at the bottom of the pile by many others in society. I’ve never been someone with a high-flying corporate job, or a role that brings in buckets of cash, and in some ways maybe that’s for the better, although there are definitely advantages to having money. One of my colleagues, however, was reading Down and Out in Paris and London which goes into great detail on what it’s like to be on the fringes of society, and so I was inspired to finally pick up by copy too and explore.

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

It is the people living on society’s fringes that make this story so great. The one that particularly struck me was Bozo, a London screever, who is perhaps the only person in the book to say that poverty doesn’t matter, because you’re still free inside your head. Unlike most of the others, he has time to still study and is very literate and educated. Although Orwell rarely looks down on those in the same situation as him – and indeed, the book ends with him saying that his time in poverty has taught him never to judge those who end up there – there is a sense that he considers himself more educated and more of a “gentleman” than others. In one London doss house (“spike”), someone learning that he’s had money in the past gives him special privileges. With Bozo, he actually gets taught some things, however, as the screever is a keen astronomer, whereas Orwell admits he hadn’t even noticed before that stars were different colours. Oscar Wilde famously said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Maybe Orwell has spent too long face down in his washing-up water.

Ultimately, it’s quite a tragic book. Orwell escapes poverty eventually, and his experience, while horrific, is temporary. The book shines a light on those who live like this for years, decades, or even their whole lives. There are people who find cigarette butts on the pavement just for the tiniest hit of tobacco, those who have eaten nothing but bread and butter for months, and men wandering the streets with a plethora of diseases that they cannot afford treatment for. It’s a remarkable book and one that should be read by everyone, whether or not they have felt the harsh reality of poverty. It’s especially vital reading now, given that we seem to live in one of the richest societies in the world but have a ridiculously high poverty level. Our governments could learn a lot from this, and not from Orwell’s other works as they seem to have done previously.

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 take a look!

“Drunk Folk Stories” by Beans on Toast (2018)

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“If this book is going to start anywhere, then it should start at Glastonbury.”

Music is something that, broadly speaking, has passed me by. Obviously I’m not saying I don’t like music – I think a fondness of some kind of music is a universal human trait – but I’m not someone who pays much attention to what’s going on or particularly worships musicians. The exception is Frank Turner, who is nothing short of a genius. Through him, I encountered Beans on Toast, and although I don’t know much about his work, my sister is a big fan and I like him enough to have swiped this book from her coffee table when I was visiting her flat.

Drunk Folk Stories contains ten true tales from Beans’ (real name Jay McAllister) life as he forms his first band, discovers Glastonbury and the world of punk music and class A drugs, and becomes the man we know today. In this book we learn the story of how he and his friends accidentally took ownership of a pub, how he survived a car crash on his way to support Kate Nash at a gig, why you shouldn’t wear camouflage shorts in Barbados, and why the funniest thing he ever said was probably more racially insensitive than he’d like it to be.

Packed with humour and warmth, the book is an honest, open look at what it’s like to be obsessed with music and what the beginnings of a career as a musician may look like. We learn the stories behind some of Beans’ wonderful songs like “MDMAmazing” and “The Children of Bedford”, and experience what it’s really like to fear losing your voice, to visit a festival by yourself with no tent, money or food, and why you should always check how many children are on stage with you when you decide to treat the crowd to an old pub game of your invention…

A quick read, but curiously delightful.

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 Diary Of A Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell (2017)

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“Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable.”

Wigtown in the Galloway region of Scotland is a town of just one thousand or so residents that would be another one of the many fairly remarkable, but historic, towns that make up the United Kingdom. As it is, it has been dedicated as Scotland’s Book Town, like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This means it has an enormous number of bookshops. One of these is simply called The Book Shop and is said to be the largest in Scotland. It’s run by a man called Shaun Bythell who isn’t quite on par with Bernard Black in terms of grumpiness, but he’s not far off. You may know him as the man who shot a Kindle and hung the remains like a hunting trophy. This is his story.

Detailing a year in the life of a Scottish bookseller, these memoirs focus on the day to day running of a bookshop housed in a centuries old building and all the problems inherent in this. There are leaky windows, disrespectful staff, misplaced novels, book purchases to be made, and that’s all before you get to the customers. Bythell is rarely judgemental towards his customers, merely observational (his words) but he does record a great number of incidents where customers are shown to probably be somewhat insane. There are those that ask him for books without knowing the author or sometimes the title, those that haggle (or even adjust the prices themselves), those who ask for things he has and then leave without them, or those who simply come in to tell him that they don’t read.

If you’ve never worked in customer service, you won’t believe a word of it. If you have, you will.

Most of all though, the book does shine through with Bythell’s passion for books. Frequently he has to visit other towns in Scotland to look through collections of books that people are selling. Sometimes all he finds is dross, or forgotten tomes covered in dust and cat hair that he could never make a profit on. Other times, he discovers rare antiquities and visibly becomes excited at meeting them. He is, naturally, a keen reader himself and has a love of not only books but the whole second-hand bookselling industry. He laments the changing ways and how modern technology – particularly Amazon – is rendering bookshops obsolete. As someone who still supports brick-and-mortar bookshops – especially independents when I can – I hope that his fears are unfounded, although truthfully I can see how much harder it is becoming to run a bookshop when everything is available online with the click of a button. Still, I find that Amazon tells you what it thinks you’ll want, whereas any true book lover knows that you can’t beat browsing physical shelves where you stumble onto something you didn’t even know you needed to know about.

A charming and hilarious book that has shoved Wigtown still higher up my list of places to visit, and also made me reconsider the available option of running one of the town’s bookshops for a holiday. I fear I’d never get any work done in a place like that … it sounds ideal.

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 Art Of Failing” by Anthony McGowan (2017)

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“I’m back working again at the British Library.”

It’s been one of those weeks where very little seems to have gone right, with the exception of polishing an opening chapter of a novel I hope to finish some time between May and the heat death of the universe. However, it turns out that I am actually having a pretty good time of it when compared to Anthony McGowan.

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered.

Among the humour, though, are some genuinely insightful and beautiful moments. My absolute favourite is when he sees a green woodpecker while eating his lunch and declares no day wasted if you’ve seen a woodpecker – or a fire engine. I also love his notion that if you were starting from scratch and getting rid of all the bad animals like lice and tapeworms, you’d definitely keep the woodpeckers. Despite all the problems that befall him, McGowan is able to draw up some wonderful insights about the natural world, modern living, and ornithology. He’s also very keen on grebes.

It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

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!

“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

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