“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.

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“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.

“Right Ho, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse (1934)

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“‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘may I speak frankly?'”

In 2015, I read my first Jeeves and Wooster novel, and said at the time that I’d be back soon to bathe in this ridiculous, silly and charming world. It’s only taken four years, but we’re here at last. Heading back much earlier into the canon, I alighted in 1934 at the doorstep of Right Ho, Jeeves, hoping to find it as endearing as last time. Naturally, it was a success.

Bertie Wooster is convinced that Jeeves’ mind is starting to go. This has come about firstly because his valet has taken against Wooster’s white mess jacket and declares that it needs to be got rid of, and also because he’s given questionable dating advice to Gussie Fink-Nottle, who is now stood in Bertie’s sitting room dressed as Mephistopheles. Things don’t get any simpler when Bertie gets a sudden telegram from his Aunt Dahlia summoning him to Brinkley Court immediately to chair a prize-giving at a local school. Sensing he can reunite Gussie with his girl and foist the task off onto him as well, Bertie sends Gussie in his place.

Aunt Dahlia, however, is not amused and Bertie and Jeeves find they have to head to Brinkley Court anyway when Dahlia’s daughter Angela calls off her engagement to Tuppy Glossop. Certain that Jeeves is not up to solving the problems of the heart that now face the duo, Bertie instead comes up with some plans of his own that will restore peace and order to his friends and relatives. Unfortunately, of course, Bertie is an ass, and he really should just leave things to the ever-capable Jeeves…

As last time, I’m staggered that these books are not more prominent on my radar, which is entirely my own fault. Jeeves as a name has entered the global vocabulary as the last word in butlerdom (which is unfortunate given he’s a valet, not a butler), and while the vast majority of his dialogue is simply repeats of “Indeed, sir?”, “Yes, sir” or “Most agreeable, sir”, somehow every single one appears to have its own nuance and the beauty is in the subtext. Jeeves is far too professional to ever openly admonish or disagree with his master, but you know exactly what he’s thinking at any time. Perhaps he is vastly intelligent, but I actually would wager that he’s of just a slightly above average intelligence, heightened by the fact that everyone around him is an idiot.

Wooster is naturally one of the biggest idiots in literature. He’s a well-meaning idiot, kind and thoughtful and always concerned with doing the right thing and making everyone around him happy, there’s no question on that. It’s just that he’s not terribly good at it, prone to speaking without thinking, jumping to the wrong conclusions, and saying things without any real acknowledgement that he might not be speaking as plainly as he thinks. His style is unique, funny and his unstoppable use of abbreviations is hilarious, and I particularly loved: “Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.” Is this simply an English embarrassment at mentioning sex and gender, or is Bertie’s head so full of idle thoughts all rolling over one another, he simply doesn’t have time to complete each one?

The secondary characters shine, too. Gussie Fink-Nottle is basically Boris Johnson, just with an obsession with newts, and Aunt Dahlia is fiesty and full of energy, despite her advancing years and not afraid to threaten Bertie with physical violence, while at the same time letting him know that she does love him. The book as a whole is just a pure joy from start to finish, with a daft plot that gets wrapped up perfectly once Bertie is out of the way, and I loved it. I’ll try not to leave it another four years before I come back to Wodehouse.

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 Mysterious Affair At Styles” by Agatha Christie (1921)

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“The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as ‘The Styles Case’ has now somewhat subsided.”

Ninety-eight years ago this January, a book was published that changed everything. It wasn’t the first murder mystery, and it wasn’t the first bit of detective fiction, but it would revolutionise the genre, introduce one of the most compelling and loved characters in fiction, and lead to its author staking her claim as the bestselling author in history. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not just a great book because of its content, but what it stands for and what it led to. I begin my re-read of Agatha Christie the only place that is good and proper – at the beginning.

We find ourselves in England at some point during the Great War. Arthur Hastings has been invalided out of the army and is back home, at a loss, until he bumps into his old friend John Cavendish. Hastings takes up the offer of going to stay at his family’s country house, Styles, but when he arrives, things aren’t particularly rosy. Tensions are high as John’s mother, Emily, has recently remarried and her new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, isn’t particularly popular with everyone else, not lead Emily’s sons or her companion Evelyn Howard.

Things reach a head, however, when Mrs Inglethorp dies one evening, apparently having been poisoned. It seems now that several of the residents would happily have seen her dead, and no one knows who they can trust. Hastings calls in Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective of his acquaintance who happens to be living nearby with some fellow Belgian refugees. Poirot is regarded as one of the sharpest detective minds in the world, and with his fastidiousness and gentle touch, he begins investigating the murder, taking into account far too much strychnine, a suspicious doctor, a burnt will, a broken coffee cup and a smear of candle grease. Can he bring the villain to justice before it’s too late?

As the very first time we meet Poirot, this book does have a little bit of early weirdness, such as when we see Poirot run and gambol across a garden, something he’d never do in later books – particularly without his hat on. He is already an old man here, which Christie would come to regret when she then continued writing about him for fifty years. It gives a little of his backstory though and explains what he is doing in England, although none of this detracts from the plot, which, as ever with Christie, is king. I hadn’t read this one for many years, so I couldn’t remember the entire solution, but I could pick out half of it, and when you know, you can see the clues more obviously. Everything you need to know to solve it is there, but emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on the most important clues. When you get to Poirot explaining his solution at the end, he ties up absolutely every clue, be them major or throwaway lines that you didn’t take notice of, into a neat answer.

Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both world wars, and the influence of that is very clear here, as a hospital dispensary and a young pharmacist both feature somewhat prominently in the story. She naturally uses poison as her weapon of choice for her first murder, as she knows a lot about them, and would continue to do so through much of her career. The book also manages to tie in the Great War well, with even the setting providing more clues about the solution, and giving us an explanation as to why Hastings – who inexplicably is only thirty here, far younger than I recalled or the TV show suggested – isn’t currently on the front lines.

It feels neatly cyclical to be here again, as the last one I read was Curtain, which is Poirot’s final case and also takes place at Styles, with Hastings. It is a brilliant book, and the beginning of an unrivalled career. I’m so happy to be diving back into this world again. One down, seventy-nine to go…

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exercises In Style” by Raymond Queneau (1947)

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“On the S bus, in the rush hour.”

Quick review today from this classic exploration of writing from Raymond Queneau.

The plot is simple enough – on a crowded bus, a long-necked young man challenges another passenger who he believes keeps treading on his toes every time someone else gets on or off. He darts for an empty seat when one becomes available. A couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same youth being advised by a friend to add a button to his overcoat.

That’s it. But what happens next is quite remarkable.

Queneau takes this banal tale and retells it 99 times, each time in a whole new manner, be it in a different tense, from a different viewpoint, or in an entirely new medium, such as a sonnet or an official letter. In some, he plays around with word structure leading to some stories that make no sense, whereas in others he’ll adopt words to do with food, or focus solely on the smells or sounds involved in the story. Each new retelling gives us a slightly different interpretation of the story and new details filter through, building up a richly diverse story, whether it’s being told through the eyes of a poet or a Cockney.

There’s not really much more to it than that, but it’s a great thing for writers to read in particular, I think, as it shows how much narration matters. Just a slight twist and you can get almost an entirely different story depending on what you’re focusing on. An interesting experiment.

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