“Romeo And/Or Juliet” by Ryan North (2016)

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“As we now know, William Shakespeare (1564 AD-whenever he died) was well known for borrowing from existing literature when writing his plays.”

Who remembers “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from childhood? Goosebumps did a solid range, and I had one based on a Famous Five adventure – you failed if you run out of ginger beer rations. If both dot-to-dot and colouring books got adapted for adults, then I don’t see why these shouldn’t come back too. Fortunately, Ryan North is way ahead of me, turning the classic play Romeo and Juliet on its head and letting us decide how it all plays out in fair Verona.

I’ve read this six times now, and every time produced an entirely different story. We all know the original: Romeo meets Juliet, they fall in love but their families had one another, there’s some fighting, and both the heroes die. Tale as old as him. Here, however, I several times managed to end the feud between the Montague and Capulet families without killing anyone (once within fifteen minutes of starting), somehow turned into the Nurse and took on a side quest designed like a point-and-click game, was killed by Benvolio, and even have Juliet end up marrying Orlando, who isn’t even in this play. At one point I wished to be turned into the glove on Juliet’s hand, only for my wish to actually be granted. At the beginning, you pick to play as either Romeo or Juliet, and there are options to swap between the two. You can follow through the play was Shakespeare intended, but where’s the fun in that? I still haven’t.

The best of it is that, from bits I gleaned while finding my passages, there is still so much more to explore. You can unlock a secret character to play as someone else. There are further Choose Your Own Adventure stories laced inside this one, with versions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to play. There are endings where Romeo and Rosaline end up together, Romeo and Juliet destroy Verona with robots, and at least one where Juliet doesn’t kill herself when she thinks Romeo is dead but instead kills everyone else. And yes, the original one is in here too. None of these are spoilers particularly, as I couldn’t tell you how to get to any of those endings, and there must be at least another forty or so.

While there are some mentions of the original text, either obliquely or in full, it’s mostly updated to modern slang with a very casual style, which is all the more hilarious. Romeo is a whiny teenage boy who is obsessed with love, and Juliet, wonderfully, is a muscular, weight-lifting, protein-shake-chugging bodybuilder who can totally take care of herself. From what I gathered, Romeo tends to get the gorier endings, whereas Juliet usually comes out of it alright and ends up doing something ridiculous.

It’s a really fun book, and I think you have to read it several times just to get the most out of it. What happens if Romeo doesn’t go to the party? What happens is Juliet tells Lady Capulet that she won’t marry Paris? What if the lovers abscond to Paris when Romeo is banished and entirely cut off contact with their families? It’s time to find out.

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 Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Island Of Doctor Moreau” by H. G. Wells (1896)

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“I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain.”

Some classics really enter the cultural conversation. Most people could probably give a rough summary of what happens in Lord of the Flies or 1984. Others, however, sink a little lower. We know the names, we might be able to pluck out a single detail or two, but the whole plot is only accessible to someone who has gone to the source. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those for me. Not as famous as some of H. G. Wells’s other works, the closest I’d got to it before now was a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. Time to set sail to Noble’s Isle.

Edward Prendick has survived the shipwreck of the Lady Vain, and against all odds is rescued by a ship carrying various wild animals and their keeper, Montgomery. The animal keeper nurses Prendick back to health, but after a dispute with the ship’s captain, Prendick is put ashore with Montgomery and all the animals on an island that he’s never heard of.

Here he meets the enigmatic and sinister Doctor Moreau. This name he knows – Moreau was cast out of London society for his controversial experiments and studies in the field of vivisection. Prendick is not welcome on the island and kept as far away from Moreau and Montgomery as possible, but he soon discovers that this island is not all it appears. It holds a dark and terrifying secret – Doctor Moreau has been playing God.

In the 1890s, it seems that Wells had an obsession with beasts and where humans stood in relation to all over animals. Part of this was probably down to the fact he studied under T. H. Huxley, a disciple of Charles Darwin. In several of his books of the time, he explores the differences between man and beast. In The Time Machine, we see humanity evolve into hideous creatures. In The War of the Worlds, he sees humanity destroyed by alien beasts. Here, two become one, as – and I think the statue of spoilers will cover me on a book that was published over 120 years ago – man and animal have been spliced together to create hideous monsters, neither quite one thing or the other.

All told, I was fairly disappointed with the story. I appreciate it’s “of it’s time” and all that, but there was so much more that could’ve been done with it, I felt, and it all ends on a bit of an anticlimax. Moreau is creepy, but I didn’t feel he got enough page time for us to really come to fear or loathe him, and Prendick is a classically blank Victorian hero, his abstinence from alcohol being one of his few notable traits. The Beast Men are creepy, however, with just enough information given for us to conjure up our own images but not so much that we fully understand what we’re seeing. Special mention to the sloth creature, who is unnerving in a whole other way, if not specifically scary.

An interesting tip into Victorian literature, but there is a reason it doesn’t sit at the top table of the classical canon.

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 Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

My journey through the Western canon has been sporadic. Sometimes I stumble onto something I like very much. Other times, I read Thomas Hardy. The trouble is that when everyone is telling you something is really good, it raises your expectations. You also come to think that you know the story. However, as I learnt from the likes of Frankenstein or Catch-22, what I thought I knew barely touched the surface or was wildly incorrect. That was how I felt about Rebecca – I know all about the woman who overshadowed her husband, I know about Manderley, and I know all about the terrifying Mrs Danvers. But, it turns out, I knew nothing.

Our nameless narrator begins the novel dreaming of visiting Manderley, the house where she lived with her husband, Maxim de Winter. The de Winters are now living in Europe, in exile, living a dull life, and we wonder how they got there. Skipping back through the past, we find our heroine serving as a companion for the bad-tempered and status-obsessed Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. She finds herself interested in the quiet, brooding gentleman who dines next to them every night. Mrs Van Hopper informs her that this is Maxim de Winter, who owns the exquisite country seat of Manderley and has never got over the death of his devoted wife, Rebecca. By the time the holiday is over, our narrator finds that she is to become the second Mrs de Winter, with Maxim determined to give her a more exciting life.

When they arrive at Manderley, however, things do not seem as rosy as promised. Maxim is distant and somewhat harsh, and everything about the house is reminiscent of Rebecca, with the staff – particularly the skeletal and domineering housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still determined to do things just as Rebecca did them. Trapped behind the reputation of Maxim’s first wife, our heroine tries to forge her own path and make a name for herself in this world. How can one woman retain such power from beyond the grave, and will it ever be removed?

The story is naturally about a woman seeking to find her identity, which makes it all the more ironic and fitting that we never find out what her name is. Indeed, aside from a few hints at her hobbies and appearance, we know very little about her. It is Rebecca who dominates the book, which should be obvious given she’s the title character, but it’s unusual to have a story named for a character who never actually appears. Waiting for Godot is the only other one that springs to mind. Despite not really existing, Rebecca’s personality shines through the text and it seems that no one will ever be over her death, although as the novel progresses and more is uncovered, it seems that perhaps not everything was as it seems at first glance. The new Mrs de Winter is shy and doesn’t want to tread on any toes, but when the time comes to be severe and take on a more commanding presence, she does so with aplomb.

There are, however, two real stars of the novel. The first is Manderley itself, regarded as one of the most important houses in the area, if not the country. Legend surrounds it and people clamour to be invited to one of the famous parties that Rebecca frequently held. Maxim seems less keen on them, but his apparent devotion to his wife suggests that he will let her do as she pleases to keep her happy. The second is Mrs Danvers. Almost certainly a monomaniacal psychopath, she is the one with the strongest loyalty to Rebecca. She has never got over the death and knew Rebecca for much of her life. They were close, and I’d argue that Mrs Danvers may even have been in love with her employer. She is cruel and manipulative, tricking the narrator into humiliating herself and at one point trying to convince her to kill herself. She is terrifying at first, but she certainly has a human side, too. She’s got a misplaced devotion, a resistance to change, and a fierce need to protect the woman she loved, even from beyond the grave. She is an utterly fascinating character, made all the more interesting by the fact that she only seems scary to the narrator when they are alone. As soon as she sees Mrs Danvers in the company of others, it is clear that she is not so intimidating.

I know no one’s asking me to curate the list of what “counts” on the list of canonical Western fiction, but if they did, Rebecca gets a spot without question. My advice to everyone is to head back to this and maybe some of the other classics that you think you know so well and see if maybe you weren’t a bit wrong after all.

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!

“Carry On, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse (1925)

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“Now, touching this business of old Jeeves – my man, you know – how do we stand?”

Literature is full of iconic pairings. Benedick and Beatrice, Elizabeth and Darcy, Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Thursday and Landen – all of them at their best when with one another. Jeeves and Wooster, however, are a cut above the others, having a symbiotic relationship that is for all time. It’s not a romance, and it’s not even really a friendship – this is a relationship drawn on professional lines – yet they stand together with loyalty and respect nonetheless.

Here are ten early stories about one of fiction’s greatest pairings, starting with the moment Jeeves walks into Bertie’s life and cures his hangover with a drink of his own invention. From that moment on, Bertie cannot live without Jeeves. Throughout these stories, Bertie finds himself in many a pickle, as do many of his friends including Sippy, Bingo, Bicky and Corky, and with little intellect of their own, they must routinely ask Jeeves for help. Jeeves, to his credit, always knows what to do and can always solve the problem thanks to his intelligence, wisdom, and a huge number of contacts with whom he is always in communication with. There are, as ever, a huge collection of overbearing aunts and dangerous misunderstandings in here too, and we even get to see Bertie out of his native England, with some the stories taking place in New York and one in Paris.

The collection also contains “Bertie Changes His Mind”, the only time that Jeeves himself narrates the story. It’s really funny to see things from the other side, as we get to see Jeeves as not just being an almost supernaturally good valet, but actually being incredibly manipulative, if always for a good cause. He does seem to genuinely like Bertie, and his actions are always for his own good, whether that be discouraging him from taking in children to liven up the house, or getting rid of his purple socks.

As ever, the stories are charmingly hilarious and while Bertie would probably begin to grate after a while if I knew him in real life, on the page he’s a delight. Completely able to accept that he’s a bit of a “chump” and lacking in imagination and brain power, he knows that he wouldn’t be able to cope without Jeeves. In one story, he finds himself without him for a while and realises that some men don’t have a “gentleman’s gentleman”. He genuinely can’t see how they could manage.

Jeeves and Wooster are a dynamite pairing, and each would be lost without the other. I’m still fairly new to the series and am enjoying dipping in to the back catalogue, but they are books to be enjoyed sparingly like a good glass of port at the end of the day, not knocked back like cheap vodka shots. Wodehouse is one of the few writers that can make me genuinely laugh out loud, and it’s always a delight to spend some time in the company of his characters.

Blissfully silly stuff.

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!

“Mr Bowling Buys A Newspaper” by Donald Henderson (1943)

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“Mr Bowling sat at the piano until it grew darker and darker, not playing, but with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in D Flat Minor opened before him at the first movement, rubbing his hands nervously, and staring across the shadowy room to the window, to see if it was dark enough yet.”

The murder mystery genre has been popular for a century now, but it is rare that we get a story from the point of view of the killer himself. It’s certainly not something we’ve never seen – a slew of titles from Antidote to Venom to You come to mind – but it’s a nice twist on the genre and allows us to see how (or if) they’ll meet their downfall, rather than who was responsible. Here, we meet a very peculiar serial killer indeed.

Mr Bowling has a compulsion to kill. He didn’t always have it, but it began when he killed his wife for the insurance. Now, driven by this dangerous need, he has started murdering those around him. Unable to stop, he finds that he wants to be caught, and after every murder he buys a newspaper to see if he is suspected. However, this is wartime Britain, at the height of the Blitz, and London is a confused place. All the clues he is leaving are going missing or being destroyed before they can be noted, and he becomes increasingly desperate to be discovered.

That is, until he finally meets the woman he believes he was destined to marry. Now with something to live for, he has to make sure he isn’t apprehended after all, which is made all the more difficult by the fact he’s just committed a murder in his own flat, and the block has a shocking number of nosy neighbours. Mr Bowling now has to make sure the clues disappear on purpose, or he may never get the happiness he seeks.

Henderson is one of those authors who the canon has forgotten. This despite the fact that Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper was adapted for stage and screen, and Raymond Chandler himself declared it his favourite book, commenting in his famous critical essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that he’d read it half a dozen times and was always buying copies for his friends. Henderson himself died at 41 after a short and tragic life, and not even Chandler’s verdict could keep his work in the public eye. I thought the concept sounded intriguing, and while I’m not Chandler’s biggest fan myself, it seemed sensible to trust a literary giant on what books are worth reading.

Satisfyingly, it is an interesting little novel. With humour blacker than tar and a curiously charming lead character, it gets under your skin and you find yourself liking Mr Bowling, even if he isn’t exactly the most decent chap in London. He is obsessed with class and his breeding, and is evidently “a gentleman”. This is emphasised a few times, when we see how people treat him because they think he is of a higher social standing than he might actually be. The police don’t seem to suspect him, because how could a gentleman be found guilty of murder? He’s also a womaniser, a chancer and one hell of a gambler, taking risks every day, but apparently not worried about the consequences for the most part.

It’s a fun and daft read, surprisingly modern for something published in 1943. I’m not going as far as Chandler to say I’ll read it another half dozen times, but it’s a good story to pass the time with.

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!

“Trouble On Titan” by Alan. E Nourse (1954)

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“Telegram! Telegram for Tucker Benedict!”

I picked up this book in one of my favourite London bookshops, Skoob. A paradise of second-hand books, the place is heaving with titles you’d never know about otherwise, and this was one of them. I’ve read very little science fiction of this sort, where it’s all rockets and moon colonies and the like, so adopting their spirit of adventure, I went for this one because of its slightly silly title and decided to expand my horizons.

The novel begins around the year 2200, and Tuck Benedict has been asked to accompany his father to Titan to deal with a reported case of smuggling that is causing problems in the moon’s mining colony. There have always been rumours on Earth about those who work in the mines of Titan, digging up ruthenium that is required to make life on Earth so easy and energy so plentiful. Originally a penal colony, Earthsiders believe that everyone there is an untrustworthy monster. When they arrive, however, things don’t seem to be that simple.

The current leader, Anson Torm, is dealing with the rebel faction led by John Cortell, who is sick of being treated badly by people on Earth and now threatens to blow up the whole colony and stop ruthenium production unless they get what they want. Smuggling is now the least of their worries, and with something going on that is only referred to as “The Big Secret”, whatever Colonel Benedict and Tuck do now could have huge repercussions for everyone back home…

OK, so first, I have to talk about what a product of the time this is. It’s set two hundred years from now but it was written seventy years ago, so a lot of Nourse’s view of the future is hilarious. There’s no Internet (there never is in future-based science fiction written before the late nineties), no mobile phones, no gender equality, and people still seem to use telegrams and letters to communicate. The weirdest moment of this future is when one of the characters is smoking a pipe in a restaurant. This already feels so archaic. None of this is Nourse’s fault, however. He can’t predict what’s going to happen – and actually his guess that humanity first landed on the moon in 1976 isn’t far off – but he’s so tied to his own time and place that he can’t envision these everyday things changing. There is, I think, only one female character with any dialogue, and all the women mentioned are described in terms of how they’re related to the men.

All in all, the story is a bit thin. Granted, there are no real subplots, so we’re just focusing on the main issue, but it really reads like a punchy adventure tale from a boys’ magazine of the time. The plot leaps about, people refuse to talk but others intuit what’s going on immediately. People spend a lot of time with their faces going white with fear, shock or panic. There are some nice touches, such as the reveal that Titan is home to a species of silicon-based “half-living things” called “clordelkus”. They make a couple of appearances and are described as harmless, but it’s more of a throwaway comment and no one seems that impressed at having encountered alien life. Nourse was at least thoughtful enough to make them truly bizarre.

I can’t say I was hugely captivated by the story, but it was interesting enough and a good reminder that sometimes it’s fun to dip into a genre you don’t normally deal with. And since I’ve got a science fiction project on the back burner, I should get learning how to construct them.

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!

“Bonjour Tristesse” and “A Certain Smile” by Françoise Sagan (1954)

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“This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’.”

Despite it only being a short boat ride away, I’ve never been to France. It’s not somewhere that holds a great deal of appeal for me, despite the wine flowing like water through the countryside. Besides, it’s much cheaper to travel by book. I’ve just paid two visits with this collection by one of France’s finest young writers.

In the first story, Bonjour Tristesse, we meet seventeen-year-old Cécile who enjoys a life of laziness on the French Riviera with her father, the philandering Raymond, and his new mistress, the superficial Elsa. Because Raymond has no intellectual interests, instead spending his time meeting women and socialising, Cécile in turn doesn’t show any interest in her studies, instead spending her time achieving a sexual eucducation from Cyril, the student in the villa next door.

Things change, however, when Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s mother appear at the villa. She is intelligent and cultured, and the same age as Raymond, making her a far more suitable match for marriage, and within days Elsa has been turfed out and Anne and Raymond announce their engagement. Seeing this as a threat to her lazy, privileged life, Cécile schemes with Cyril and Elsa to get Anne out of the picture, with tragic consequences.

In the second story, A Certain Smile, Dominique is a young Parisian student who embarks on an affair with Luc, the uncle of her current boyfriend, despite knowing that if his doting and very sweet wife Françoise was to find out, it would ruin their blossoming friendship. Unperturbed and acting on base instinct, the affair continues but Dominique is sure that Luc will never leave his wife, meaning more than one person’s heart will get broken as events unfold.

The Guardian, and I sense they aren’t alone, called Sagan “the French F. Scott Fitzgerald”. I’m not sure I’d go that far. There is perhaps a similarity in style, but my overall sense is that she’s a 1950s Sally Rooney. Like her, the stories are led by unlikable, selfish young women who have read too many stories and think they understand what love is. Cécile and Dominique both act without realising that everyone else around them is also human with their own emotions and failings, and one gets the impression that even when you leave them to deal with the fall out of their actions, they’re never going to learn from their mistakes.

The writing, however, is beautiful (it’s French and the French don’t do ugly) and conjures up the long days of French summers and the need to do nothing in a hurry. Despite being written sixty years ago, in many ways it feels surprisingly modern, and I suppose it just reveals that people haven’t really changed all that much, not at a fundamental level anyway. We’re all just looking for ways to stem the boredom that encroaches some days, but we may not always go about it the best way.

Of the two, I think I preferred A Certain Smile, but with both I found myself sympathising with the older female characters most of all. Anne and Françoise do not deserve their fates in these books, whereas the protagonists are, as I said, not people I want to befriend and the men are all, well, men. That’s maybe the bit that tells you more that you’re in a different era. A book like this could be written now, but must be prepared to face a backlash. It is of its time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is now, too.

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!

“The Penultimate Truth” by Philip K. Dick (1964)

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“A fog can drift in from outside and get you; it can invade.”

It’s been a very hot week and I really should have picked up something light and easy to read instead of a dystopian novel from the 1960s with a heavy political bent, but here we are. I’ve enjoyed books by Philip K. Dick in the past, so I hoped I’d get on with this one too, as it had an engaging premise. The reality, however, wasn’t quite like that.

In the future, people are crammed into underground tanks, living beneath the surface while World War III rages on the land above them. For fifteen years, the world’s population has lived like this, with daily broadcasts from government officials telling them what is happening and how the war is progressing, showing them footage of destruction and catastrophe. However, all is not as it seems.

In truth, the war finished a long time ago, and the world is at peace. Those in charge choose to deceive everyone else so they can live with great wealth and prosperity on the planet’s surface, with those who aren’t part of the conspiracy tucked away doing the dirty work and not messing everything up. Is it for the greater good, or just pure selfishness? Things begin to unravel, however, when one of the most prominent tank engineers is dying and desperately needs a new liver. President Nicholas St. James sets out on a mission to the surface in search of truth to the stories of artificial organs being used by the military. When he gets there, however, he learns that his life has been a carefully preserved lie, and he needs to work out who he can trust and fast.

Normally, I get on quite well with Philip K Dick’s work. It’s weird, sure, but there’s something engaging about it nonetheless and he sucks you in to his bizarre worlds easily. This one, however, was nigh on impenetrable. You’re thrown into the world, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the immediate submerging in a text full of neologisms that refer to technology we don’t have, means you’re already on the back foot. Yes, there is a lot in here about the state of politics and how the government will just out-and-out lie to give themselves better lives, talking about sacrifice like it’s something they have to deal with as well as the working classes, but because I’m one of the “little people”, I find absolutely nothing redeeming about these figures and found myself entirely uninterested in what they were doing or what they had to say. Fiction has always been an escape – lying, self-serving politicians is a bit too real in 2019.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because of the oppressive humidity of the last week and having argued with technology all morning and I’m taking it out on the book. But I think that overall it’s just not one of the best books available from the great man. If they taught Dick’s work in schools, they’d probably make you read this one because it’s all political and not very funny. There are much better examples of his fiction available. I don’t think this one has aged all that well, and would be better forgotten.

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!

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde (1891)

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“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

An obsession with looking youthful seems to pervade society, and has done for a long time. I’m fortunate that I don’t quite look my age and can get away with being thought of as a few years younger, but the grey hairs are coming through with increasing regularity and I already make noises when I get out of low chairs and complain about a sore back. But if you could find a way to ensure you never aged, would you take it?

Basil Hallward is an artist who has stumbled upon his greatest muse – the young and handsome Dorian Gray. It is clear he is smitten, although Dorian just sees it as a friendship. While Dorian is sitting for a portrait, he is entertained by the opinions of Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton who shares his belief that hedonism and beauty are the only things worth dealing with in life. By the time the painting is finished, Dorian is horrified by how he will age and wither but the portrait will retain his youth. Now convinced that there is nothing more important than beauty, he wishes that his portrait ages instead of himself.

He falls in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane, but Basil and Henry are both unconvinced by her ability, and when Dorian finds that her poor performance renders him uninterested in her, he cruelly leaves her. When he gets home, however, he notices that the portrait has developed a cruel sneer. When he learns that Sibyl has killed herself in grief, he sees where his life is leading and locks away the portrait. Over the next two decades, he indulges in every vice and immoral activity he can, never aging or losing one iota of his beauty. The painting, meanwhile, has not been so lucky, as every foul act and passing day makes the portrait ever more hideous, taunting Dorian from its hiding place, leading him to wonder if it was all worth it after all.

This is one of those classic novels that has seeped into the public consciousness so we all think we know the story but, like Frankenstein, it turns out some of the details have got lost or been altered by adaptations along the way. I was under the impression that the portrait just held back the years, not that it also took hold of any debauchery and evilness in Dorian’s soul, although I suppose I should’ve twigged given how terrible the portrait looks in visual adaptations. I also could not have named a single other character, but Basil and Henry are both great inventions.

The opening pages dragged a little, I felt, and I didn’t think it sounded much like Oscar Wilde was behind it at all. That is, until the dialogue begins, and then it’s unmistakable, as all his characters sound like him. He has such a great way with dialogue, capturing both deep wisdom and silly witticisms with equal talent. No one else could make a duchess declare, “If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn’t have a scene in this bonnet. It is far too fragile. A harsh word would ruin it.” His people are hilarious, which makes what’s happening in the plot seem all the darker. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, the stakes are lower and we can revel in the jokes. Here, they are interspersed with the horrors that Dorian and, to some extent, Basil are dealing with. There are other less interesting passages however, including a whole chapter dedicated to Dorian’s obsession with beauty as he collects gems and tapestries, with great long lists regarding his collection blurring in to one.

Above all, it’s a novel about beauty, youth and obsession, and perhaps contains a warning on overindulging in life’s temptations. It also brings up the Victorian belief that evil makes someone ugly, whereas we all know that appearance can have little effect on your morality. Beauty is so aspired to by many in society, and always has been (even if what is considered beautiful has changed) but the novel shows the obsession that can come from this desire, and how ugly that can be. Hedonism, also, is fine in small doses, but one must be responsible for one’s actions, and as Dorian remains untouched by his cruel and unusual habits, he begins to care less about how he affects other people.

It was Wilde’s only novel, and I do think he writes better for the stage, but also you can see this as him dealing with his own demons. Interestingly, he has apparently written himself into the novel three times over, saying of the primary characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” All in all, it’s worth a read and is genuinely quite spooky at times.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

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