“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

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“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

“The True Deceiver” by Tove Jansson (1982)

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“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.”

With the weather finally beginning to show signs that it’s remembered what spring should look like, I inexplicably took it upon myself to dive into a book full of snowscapes. As a kid, I loved snow, but as I got older it just became more of an inconvenience. I remain somewhat enchanted by it however – especially if I have nowhere I need to be – and am always fascinated by how quiet it seems. Rain and wind both come with noise, and even a sunny day will ensure some noise as people cut lawns and have barbecues, but snow is entirely silent. It blankets the world in sheer nothingness and hides a multitude of sins, and when it thaws, who knows what may be revealed…

Katri Kling is an unusual young woman in many ways. She has no time for the niceties most people engage in, is short and sharp and seems only to have meaningful relationships with her brother Mats and her nameless dog. Anna Aemelin, an elderly book illustrator, however is respected around the Finnish village the two call home, even if no one much sees her. Katri has decided that she and her brother should live in Anna’s house, known around the village as the Rabbit House, and sets about putting her plan in motion to convince Anna she’s not safe alone.

Once in, the two women begin a strange and somewhat aggressive relationship. Neither completely comfortable in the others company and having very different views on the world means that soon it’s not quite clear who’s telling the truth. As the Finnish winter begins to move into spring, they realise that their lives have changed, but whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

The novel is written by Tove Jansson who is more famous for creating The Moomins, but there is little here to compare the two works save for perhaps a fondness for nature and open spaces. There are no earth-shattering events taking place in this novel, merely two women with very different aims and a small flurry of nosy villagers who all have their own opinions on what’s going on and aren’t afraid to share them. The snowscape setting is somewhat unnerving and there is a sort of eerie chill to a world like this. I find snow gives a sense of mystery and almost menace to a plot, and the book is chilling in more ways than one, despite the lack of extreme drama. As we all know, nothing is scarier than something. And there isn’t anything scary here – not that Jansson is writing anything that’s meant to be a horror story. In many ways it’s quite a sweet tale of loneliness and expectation. It is, however, about so much more. It’s about where we belong and more importantly it’s about truth, lies and how flexible the line is between the two.

An interesting novel – the sort that will suddenly come back to mind inexplicably on a quiet, snowy morning several years from now.

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

I’m repeatedly on record on this blog saying that I’m not a particular fan of child narrators. However, when the narrator sounds enough like the age they’re supposed to be, then I have less to complain about. However, Ian McEwan has taken the premise to its logical extreme here and, oddly enough, it works. In Nutshell, the narrator is perhaps a unique voice in the literary canon: he hasn’t yet been born.

Our protagonist is still a few weeks off his birth day, but he’s keeping himself entertained by listening to and learning from the world around him. He’s discovered that his mother is called Trudy. He’s also discovered that John (her husband and his father) doesn’t live with them anymore. Trudy does, however, spend an awful lot of time with Claude, John’s brother. It also soon becomes painfully clear that Trudy and Claude are plotting something, unaware of the witness that listens to every word and is the innocent implicated party in the whole plot.

You could take the premise of this novel in one of two ways – either to say that the whole thing’s ridiculous, or to just go with it and enjoy the wry humour of the unborn child who has a mastery of philosophy and prose that I can only dream of. It’s explained that Trudy listens to a lot of podcasts and news stories, all of which the baby also hears, and so he has become vastly informed about the state of the world, knowing not only that he lives in London, but also having a basic understanding of many of the socioeconomic factors governing twenty-first century Britain. His style is engaging and somewhat comical, yet also moving and profound and packed with debate on right and wrong, crime and punishment, gender, parenthood and modernity.

The whole thing is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with the hero’s mother and uncle plotting against the father. I’m not clear enough on my Hamlet to know quite whether it’s a direct lift or not, but there feel like there are definitely enough similarities to assume that it’s a retelling. McEwan sparkles as usual, although I’ve not read very much of his catalogue. The premise is wonderfully unique and I think helps give it a bit more nuance, excitement and fun. One of the funniest ongoing jokes is that Trudy hasn’t quite given up drinking while she’s pregnant, and as such, the foetus is something of a wine snob before it’s even born, being able to detect the grape being imbibed even without hearing it said. Part of the novel style of the book comes from the fact that sight, smell and taste are all but impossible to use as senses, meaning the book relies heavily on sound and, interestingly, touch.

It’s a fascinating experiment and it’s really paid off. There’s a satisfying ending that still somehow leaves you wanting to know more, and the writing simply sparkles. Ingenious.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Illywhacker” by Peter Carey (1985)

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“My name is Herbert Badgery.”

This week I did something that I haven’t done in years – I gave up on a book. I’m unfamiliar with Peter Carey’s work, but Illywhacker has been sat on my shelf for years, waiting for the right moment to be read. Maybe I chose the wrong moment after all, I don’t know, but I do know that when it’s taken me a week to read the first third of a book, something is wrong. Someone asked me this week, “Well, why are you continuing then?” and, frankly, I was struck by that. People have asked me before and I’ve always said that I’m too far in now, that it has some redeeming features, or it’s not very long, but this time, giving up seemed the only option. Thus, I present a review of the first third of Illywhacker.

Herbert Badgery is an Australian confidence trickster who has had a long and interesting life. We meet him as he begins to reminisce about that life, leaping into the time he was selling cars in Victoria, but had visions of being an aviator and bringing the first Australian-built aeroplanes to the world. Moving in with a kind family, he begins to get feelings for their young daughter, which are apparently reciprocated when she accosts him on the roof one day. The rest of the novel’s first part details their marriage, their passion for aviation, and what happened as they both got to know one another better. From then on, I can’t say.

I think my trouble stems from the books insistence in it being a “dazzling comic narrative” when, actually, it’s not all that funny. Oh sure, the situations are surreal and unusual, but that’s not the same thing. I need to stop being lured into books simply because they tell me that they’re funny. So often I end up disappointed or bemused. The writing itself is quite good, and there’s an interesting narrative path being taken, but it just didn’t captivate me enough to want to hang around for nearly six hundred pages.

The main character, Herbert Badgery, has one interesting trait – he’s telling this story towards the end of his life when he’s 139-years-old – and otherwise I found little about him that gripped me. Some of the characters around him, his wife Phoebe, and her former lover Annette, are quite interesting, but their stories are wrapped up in Badgery’s own, and only he and Carey seem to think his story is one worth telling.

Perhaps the novel gets better, I can’t say. Perhaps I would have fallen in love with the character as time went on, but I simply don’t have the will right now. I might return to the book one day, because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, but right now I need something that’s going to excite me a little more after a couple of sub-par books. Stylistically pretty good, but very much lacking in a coherent, engaging plot.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames (2005)

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“‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves.”

Despite, according to some, giving off the air of a man who appears to have fallen out of a Jeeves & Wooster novel, I have very little experience with P. G. Wodehouse. I’ve only read one of the novels, and just haven’t got round to getting anymore done. I’ll count this as an attempt though. Set in nineties New Jersey, this novel takes the concept and updates it, turning Bertie Wooster from a British aristocrat to Alan Blair, a Jewish American alcoholic novelist.

Alan Blair is, at novel’s opening, living with his aunt and uncle due to money issues and the fact his parents are long dead. However, they are tiring of his antics and wish him to go to rehab. Instead, Blair decides to head off to New York state to find a Jewish community to spend his time with. He is accompanied by his valet, Jeeves, who is detached enough from Blair’s mistakes to serve as the perfect butler. Intelligent, capable and just like his Wodehouse counterpart, the most competent man alive.

While seeking out like-minded company, however, Blair gets drunk again and ends up insulting a local woman, resulting in two black eyes and a broken nose. He also learns that he has been accepted to the Rose Colony, an artists’ retreat where he can work on his novel in peace with fellow creatives around him. Arriving, he finds that drinking is all but encouraged, so his plans to stay on the wagon are quickly dashed, and things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a sculptor called Ava, and determines that she is the woman of his dreams – all because she has the most incredible nose.

Blair is fundamentally an unreliable narrator, thanks mostly to his alcoholism. Indeed, it takes many pages before we even learn that he is an alcoholic, as he manages to omit the fact he drinks until it’s absolutely necessary to bring up in the plot. He’s a foolish man who doesn’t know when to stop drinking, meaning every so often he entirely blacks out and has no memory of events. He obviously thinks very highly of himself and regards himself as a cut above most other people – he insists on wearing a shirt and tie every day – but, like most writers, he’s also barking mad and wouldn’t be able to cut his toenails without the assistance of Jeeves.

However, it actually took me an absurdly long time to come to the conclusion that everyone else had probably reached a hundred pages before. I suddenly noted that Jeeves has absolutely no interaction with anyone other than Blair, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I decided that Jeeves didn’t exist. There’s actually no confirmation either way to his existence or lack thereof, so I think it’s up for grabs as to the truth. Personally I’ve settled on the side of thinking that Jeeves is an imaginative construct, used by Blair to try and get himself sorted and sober – but with very little success.

The novel’s biggest coup, however, is that despite the change in location, time and content, it still sounds remarkably like Wodehouse, which is impressive because even that man could occasionally sound like a parody of himself, and the conventions of his novels are easy targets for satire and pastiche. It’s much more graphic than Wodehouse, with a couple of very vivid sex scenes, and the language is often coarser, but on the whole you could mistake it for an alternate-universe Bertie Wooster adventure.  The metaphors and tricks with words themselves are pure Wodehouse though, and Ames has done a remarkable job. They’re funny and sharp, for example, a woman is described as having “copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that”. Five times the book cover announces via reviews that it’s hilarious, and while maybe that’s a couple too many, it is funny.

In terms of plot though, very little actually happens. Blair likes to use thirty words when three will do, and his internal monologue is the key thing here. The events of the story take place over the course of a week, but quite how Blair ended up in his situation we can’t be totally sure, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for us to wonder exactly what will happen next. Interesting and engaging, and a nice update on a genre that could be mishandled.

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.

“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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