“You” by Austin Grossman (2013)

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“So what’s your ultimate game?”

Video games are a good way to spend some down time in between books, I find. I’m not an avid gamer by any means, but I play occasionally, usually something like the Portal series, or The Sims, which is an excellent game to binge on now and then. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Civilization IV lately. I like a big, sprawling world where you don’t necessarily have to follow a prescribed path. Some people like simply shooting everything in sight. Games are big business, and in Grossman’s novel, You, we see just how much.

Russell has dropped out of his life path of becoming a lawyer and has applied for work at Black Arts, a video game company run by his old high school friends. With limited knowledge of how it all works, and relying on their loyalty to give him the job, he finds himself soon embroiled in creating the newest game in Black Arts portfolio, a fantasy epic where “anything is possible”.

However, it soon finds that there’s a bug in the system – one that seems to crop up now and then in all of Black Arts’ games, from their fantasy stories to the science fiction games. There’s a sword, the Mournblade, that is programmed to drive the user’s character into a killing frenzy until they themselves are killed too. Unsure as to where the code for this game-destroying sword is, Russell must go through the last twenty years of games, as well as recalling the real events surrounding the birth of the franchise. The deeper he gets, the more he realises that this glitch may have ramifications for far more than just the next installment of the game.

I think I’d misjudged what this book was going to be about, and had in my head something along the lines of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Much of it is Russell playing through the various games that Black Arts have created. They all have the same heroes, just in different guises, regardless of genre, and each new one allows you to import the data from the previous one, meaning the same character can be played through for years. The fantasy games are basically Skyrim, but perhaps even more detailed, but most video game genres are present here, with the series spreading across the Commodore 64, through first person shooters, empire-builders, puzzle games and sandbox. In actuality, the games generally sound like they’d be quite fun to play.

On the other hand, the novel is mostly set in the second half of the 1990s, and we all know that computer graphics actually looked like then, so it’s quite sweet to have them getting excited over the quality, when not even Tomb Raider has arrived yet. As the story progresses, though, it becomes hugely entangled in itself, jumping around in time and in and out of the games too. Sometimes the real world is being narrated, other times it’s the in-game events. To confuse things further, Russell begins hallucinating the characters in his real life as they come to him in his dreams. Trying to keep up can be a bit of a mission.

I didn’t much feel there was a particularly good pay off either. By the time we got to the conclusion, I’d rather run out of interest, so the big reveal was lost on me. The mystery isn’t adequately solved, and with the character responsible for the glitch having been dead since the start of the novel, there’s no real explanation of what he was doing. I’ve read Grossman before, and you can’t argue the fact that he’s an interesting and unique writer, but there’s something just a tiny bit lacking from his stories. I think he overreaches himself, personally.

As for my ideal game? It combines aspects of Pokemon, The Sims, Theme Hospital, Portal and Civilization, but what you actually have to do in it is beyond me. I suppose one day I’ll find something…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton (2014)

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“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.”

I’m very poorly-travelled in the real world, preferring to do my travelling via literature. As such, I’ve never been to Amsterdam in reality, although I keep stopping in. In just the few years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been there on a stag weekend, hidden from Nazis with Anne Frank, and on one occasion just stopped in for dinner. I returned again this week, but it’s an Amsterdam I’m not familiar with from my readings. For this review, we’re stepping back in time.

It’s 1686, and Nella Oortman, an eighteen-year-old from a small village has arrived at a large house in Amsterdam where she is to live with her new husband, the rich trader Johannes Brandt. Nella is unfamiliar with the ways of the city, but is prepared to do her wifely duty. Her new husband, however, is vague and distant, and hardly seeks her out for conversation. His sister, the stern Marin, is anything but friendly so the best welcome she receives is from Cornelia, the maid, and Johannes’ black manservant, Otto.

Johannes, however, realises that his new wife is bored and purchases for her a beautiful doll’s house, and Nella sets about finding a craftsman to make furniture and dolls for it. She is shocked, however, when the furniture that arrives from her mysterious benefactor matches perfectly the furniture in her new house. Indeed, even the dolls are exact replicas. And then more parcels begin to arrive, with other things for her doll’s house that she didn’t request. It seems that the maker, the miniaturist, knows something that Nella doesn’t, and when the house’s many secrets begin to spill out, she isn’t sure if the miniaturist is sending a warning or a threat.

As much as I read pretty much anything, there probably is a certain pattern to what I read, and The Miniaturist at first glance seems like it’s going against that pattern. It doesn’t feel very “me” but something about it obviously stirred interest in my gut when I found it on a second-hand stall at a train station platform. It’s sat on the shelf for about two years, but then when I started it I was instantly captivated. The characters are vivid in their description, and the whole novel is permeated with a strange sense of foreboding. Like Nella, you wonder what is going on, who this miniaturist is and what they could possibly want with the family, and what secrets are being kept from the wider world.

I was sympathetic to Nella immediately, but I was particularly taken with the character of Marin. She is foreboding and unpleasant, but her manner hides something else and she becomes something else. Indeed, everyone inspires pity, but for very different reasons. With a couple of exceptions maybe, sugar plantation owner Frans Meermans being one of them. Amsterdam is painted as a living, breathing city, but one where there are always eyes watching everything that happens, a fact emphasised by the doll’s house figures, each laced with secrets that the maker could not possibly have known.

I was oddly moved by the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been reading a little less lately due to a vain attempt to catch up some other media I’d been ignoring, but this was the first book for a couple of weeks I’d purposely set aside a little more time to read, not just using train journeys to plod through it. A charming and special novel, it is a simple story told beautifully and I’m pleased to have added it to my pool.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

“The Last Family In England” by Matt Haig (2004)

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“Dogs like to talk.”

Broadly speaking, if we’re sticking with the insistence that you can split the population into “dog people” and “cat people”, I fall down unapologetically on the side of cats. I’ve nothing against dogs at all – I will always fuss over a dog if given the opportunity, and some of my friends have utterly adorable dogs – but if I had to have one of the two, I’d opt for a cat. However, this weekend I read a book about dogs. Or, more accurately, a book narrated by a dog.

Prince is a black Labrador, the central point of the Hunter family. He ensures that he upholds the Labrador Pact, a solemn oath sworn by all Labradors to keep the Family together for the sake of all humanity. Prince keeps a careful eye on Adam and Kate, and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte. But not all is well in the land of dogs. Some of the other breeds, led by the Springer Spaniels, have turned against the old ways and now seek out a hedonistic lifestyle, rather than trying to protect a Family. Prince, however, is earnest in his insistence that the Pact must be upheld, and he’s mentored by Henry, an old Labrador who knows a thing or two about it.

Things take a turn for the worse in the Hunter household, however, when Simon, an old friend of Adam’s, moves back into the area, and Adam finds himself tempted by this man’s wife Emily. What only Prince can detect, however, is that Simon’s scent seems to be on Kate an awful lot since his return too. Their dog, a Springer Spaniel mongrel called Falstaff, is determined to lead Prince astray, but Prince knows his duty. He must keep the Family together so he can help save humanity. Duty over all…

This is Matt Haig’s first book, and already there are the hallmarks of the supremely honest and magical writer he is today. A lesser author would have dogs speaking to one another in English when humans were out of earshot, but here, all the sniffs and tail wags and barks that dogs make constitute a language of their own. Dogs can smell emotion on one another, and on humans, and use wagging as a way to do anything from communicating annoyance with their own kind to calming down a potentially explosive situation in the family home. The book is centered around a nuclear family seen from a slant, which seems to be a common theme in Haig’s work. The Radleys features a family of suburban vampires, and The Humans deals with an alien taking over one of the family roles. Haig has an amazing way with truthfulness, and isn’t afraid to bring up the nastier aspects of humanity. Looking at them through the viewpoint of a dog makes them all the more interesting.

The dogs are really the stand out characters here, with none of them being anthropomorphised any more than necessary. They have their own codes and systems, chiefly the Labrador Pact, and each of them makes for good company, even if they do broadly subscribe to cliches (Labradors are loyal, Rottweilers are aggressive, etc). That would be my only complaint on that front, and you can even make a good case that that doesn’t ring true for the whole tale, but I can’t go into that more without spoiling things. The humans are vastly flawed, as all good characters should be, with Hal and Charlotte typical teenagers and Adam and Kate the struggling parents, trying to cope with their responsibilities as parents while their relationship seems to be breaking down, a process that appears to be speeding up thanks to the interference of Simon and Emily.

The novel’s ending is beyond heartbreaking, and really rather a brave option to have chosen. In context, it makes sense, but there remain many unanswered questions that we aren’t allowed to know answers to. The family will continue to make their mistakes, and Prince has learnt that perhaps the Labrador Pact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you if you’re prone to crying easily, but it remains a raw, beautiful and tragic tale. I adored it.

Good boy.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

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