“The Iron Bird” by Robert Woodshaw (2019)

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“Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I am a lappet-faced vulture, dear.”

Being one of those people who has a passing knowledge of the classics but hasn’t read most of them, it may come as no surprise that I’ve never actually read Animal Farm. Of course, I know what it’s about and I’ve actually seen a film version of it. As we all recall, it is an allegory for communism as told through a group of farm animals. Robert Woodshaw has taken the principle, shaken it out and injected a sense of modernity with The Iron Bird, the story of the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher as told through the lives of a group of zoo animals.

During the Second World War, young Bel-imperia Pinch, a lappet-faced vulture with dreams of being educated under the wise owls of the Cloisters, finds herself working begrudgingly for her undertaker father, assisting in his role as undertaker of Hesper House and Zoological Gardens. The fledgling knows there must be more to life than burying the dead, and when she meets someone who informs her that she will one day be greater than Chartwell, the elephant seal currently serving as Prime Exhibit, she prepares to develop a core of iron to achieve her goals.

Meanwhile, in 2010, an increasingly fragile Bel-imperia sits in a rarely-seen cage at the zoo, still taking audiences from curious animals and one particularly nosy human writer who wants to know all about her life. A new scent-marking contest is underway in the zoo and the incumbent Prize Exhibit, Ebenezer Bull, a half-blind rhino prone to charging in without thinking, is having his position threatened by the new leader of the Order of Carnivores, the slick smooth-coated otter Dale FitzClarence. Bel-imperia is sure that her time to return to the ranks is nigh, but with her health failing and her mind going, it will be a challenge.

Robert Woodshaw manages to bring what could be a very silly idea to life with great aplomb. Fast-paced and packed with superb characterisation, it’s an example of how to write animals without making them too human. Granted, they can do things that many animals can’t such as write, vote or perform religious ceremonies, but they’re all still done through the eyes and abilities of animals who have their own rules, culture and society. Here, it’s not impolite for a mother bird to regurgitate dinner for their chick, and carrier pigeons are used as the postal service. The novel has its own internal logic, and that’s often all I require.

Woodshaw also does a great job at translating politicians into animals, each one perfectly representing their human counterpart. The three major political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – find themselves populated by carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, respectively. From Gordon Brown’s blind rhino, to David Cameron’s slick otter, and even Boris Johnson’s purposely-dishevelled polar bear, the characters feel rich and good fun, even if the people they’re portraying are less than sympathetic. Other jokes regarding this I particularly liked are the subtle nod to the sheep and goats of Norn Iron Farmstead, a reference to the Troubles of Northern Ireland (“Norn Iron” being exactly how “Northern Ireland” sounds in the appropriate accent) and the fact that the zoo’s equivalent of the House of Lords is populated by extinct creatures, a reference to the average age in the Lords.

Of course, questions are raised regarding how the animals are able to move so freely around the zoo, why dinosaurs and dodos still manage to exist but no human seems to have noticed, how the Prize Exhibit always gets to move into Dower House which appears fit really for humans rather than any of their kind, but somehow none of it matters. You just go with it and it all adds to the humour of the piece. While it is funny, and Woodshaw makes sure to use as many references to real world political parallels, often just as passing references (I’m sure there are many I didn’t get), it’s also curiously moving, and like in the film The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep played Thatcher, you find yourself sympathising with her, even though she is, at the very least, one of the most divisive figures in recent British history.

The novel is a brilliant allegorical tale that should be a key text for anyone interested in recent history. I know I’m someone who complains that there aren’t enough new ideas these days, and many might think that the parallels to Animal Farm here means this counts as a “rehash”, but I happen to disagree in this case. In a lesser writer’s hands, perhaps this wouldn’t work so well, or would be more derivative. I couldn’t do it. Woodshaw has produced a book that sparkles with wit and warmth, and that’s not easy to do when you’re writing about a woman who, according to many, lacked basic human empathy.

Wonderful, thoughtful stuff.


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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“Z” by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

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“Picture a late-June morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume – same as I would wear that evening.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of the play The Lost Generation, a three-hander about the tumultuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. Long a fan of their hedonistic lifestyles if not their writing (I’ve still never read any Hemingway or Mrs Fitzgerald, and only a couple of Mr Fitzgerald), I was inspired to finally pick up Z, which tells the story from Zelda’s point of view.

Not long before her eighteenth birthday, fun and flirty Zelda Sayre meets the handsome and confident F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s 1918 and Scott is about to head off to join the war in Europe, meaning Zelda isn’t sure whether to accept his sudden offer of marriage, even though she knows she’s never felt like this about another man. When the war ends, Scott stays after all and just two years later, the two are married and begin their journey to define a generation.

As Scott gains success and recognition for his writing, Zelda finds herself living in his shadow and her once exuberant personality and zest for life begins to wane. They drink too much, they argue, and Scott becomes increasingly controlling and obsessed with his new friend Ernest Hemingway, who Zelda can’t stand. There is some happiness and love in their relationship, but very little stability, and Zelda must work out who she is in this modern world and reclaim her own independence once more. As they pass through various cities and countries, with Scott always working on the next novel (read: drinking heavily), the couple – along with their daughter Scottie – begin to change and we wonder if their lives are as glamorous as history has recorded.

As it’s based on the true story of Scott and Zelda, how it ends is a foregone conclusion, but I won’t reveal it here in case you don’t know what befell them. We hear a lot about the Fitzgeralds as the couple who made the 1920s what it is. They are a symbol of the Jazz Age, Prohibition and the excesses of the interwar years. Myth states that he was worshipped as a literary idol, and she flirted her way through the entire Western world, but the version presented here by Fowler is much different and far closer to the truth. Zelda was hamstrung by Scott’s ego and he dominated her life, dissuading her from following her own goals of being a professional dancer because they didn’t fit in with what he wanted to do. Perhaps this is par for the course given that at the time men did have much more say in relationships than women, but Zelda is not your average 1920s woman (considered by many to be the “first flapper”) and doesn’t like being corralled and beaten into submission. And yet, on a couple of occasions where Scott’s abuse turns physical, Zelda still seems prone to blaming herself.

Scott, himself, was prolific and wrote stories for magazines and screenplays for Hollywood, but his novels were few and far between and he didn’t really achieve the success and introduction to the literary canon until after he’d died. Because the story is from Zelda’s perspective, it’s hard to know if Scott’s monstrosity has been played up or is an accurate reflection of his personality, because he comes across as singularly unpleasant. He is selfish and domineering but simultaneously thin-skinned and weak, breaking down in tears whenever things don’t go his way or he doesn’t get to be the centre of attention. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, there are people that say Scott ruined Zelda’s life, but also those who say that Zelda ruined Scott’s. I know which side I come down on, easily.

It is nice for Zelda to be thrust into the spotlight for a change. She also wrote a novel, Save the Last Waltz, and was a great painter and dancer, but to this day she struggles under the reputation of simply being “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife”. It’s fantastic and fascinating to see her given some agency and learn about the tragedy that she went through.

A compelling and startling exploration of the Jazz Age and how history likes to put a neat gloss on everything.

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!

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney (2018)

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“Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.”

Last year, I read Conversations with Friends which a friend had been gently nagging me to have a go at. I ended up enjoying it much more than I thought I would. This was not the end of the nagging however, as then attention was turned to Sally Rooney’s second novel. So here we are.

Connell and Marianne live in the same small Irish town, but have very different backgrounds. Marianne lives in a large house with her mother and brother, and Connell’s mother cleans for them. Despite this difference, the two begin a friendship of sorts, although Connell is so concerned that people at school will judge him for talking to weird friendless Marianne that he keeps everything about it a secret and doesn’t speak to her in public. When the relationship becomes sexual, the two find themselves incredibly compatible, but Connell’s pride threatens to ruin everything.

Over the next five years, at university and out the other side, they continue to weave in and out of one another’s lives and beds, their relationship constantly changing, yet somehow still being the one constant in their lives. As they grow and change and learn more about themselves, it seems that no matter what they do, they are continually drawn back to one another, for better or for worse.

Perhaps inevitably because it’s by the same author, but I found myself having many of the same feelings about this one as I did Conversations with Friends, although I think I slightly prefer that one. Rooney’s writing continues to sing, with its curiously poetic quality. Although there were fewer lines in here that jumped out at me and struck me in that bit of the brain that thinks, “That’s exactly it”, there is still something utterly compelling about it all, and the characters feel real in ways I can’t really fathom. In terms of plot, not much happens, and yet we are drawn deeply and fully into this small world where we find ourselves sitting alongside these people. Part of me wanted to dislike them both, and yet I can’t. That’s not to say I particularly want to be friends with them, but I don’t dislike them.

I guess the biggest compliment I can pay the book is that I could have read another two hundred pages of it, at least. Perhaps after a while the idea would have grown stale, but when it finished I just wanted to know what happened next. That’s not to say that it ends badly, it doesn’t, and the ending emphasises the cyclical nature of life and in particular the relationship between Connell and Marianne.

It’s going to stick with me, and I can’t say that about everything I’ve read. I wonder if this is the beginning of a long and plentiful career, or whether Rooney will rest on her laurels with these two brilliant novels.

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 Last Romeo” by Justin Myers (2018)

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“I felt disoriented, and a bit peaky.”

The vast majority of my friends are coupled up, co-habiting and/or married now, so as one of the few singletons they know, any movements in my (by choice non-existent) love life are keenly dissected. They are amused by things like Tinder, having never had to use it, and freely admit that if they were suddenly single again, they’d have no idea how to meet someone new. The dating scene has changed rapidly in the last few years. Internet dating became the norm, and then apps took over again. We swipe and decide it doesn’t matter if we reject that face, because here come fifty more. You’d think we’d all be bored of it all by now, but no, people want to keep talking about love and dating like it’s shameful to want to be single.

Celebrity journalist James is thirty-four and his six-year relationship with the gym worshipping Adam has just ended. He moves into a new flat and nurses his pride, not helped by the fact he hates his job and his best friend has just announced she’s off to Russia for a new job. Before she leaves, however, she encourages him to get back on the dating scene, which he does, recording the details of all the dates in an anonymous blog, One More Romeo.

As James meets a plethora of attractive, strange or just inappropriate men, the blog begins to gain traction and he’s soon got a small but devoted following and a chance to write a column for a big magazine. Naturally, it all goes tits up when he tells his followers about his night with a closeted Olympian and the post goes viral. Now finding himself in the middle of a social media shit storm, James begins to wonder if he can ever get back his old life and undo the damage…

This is one of those books where the main character just lacks something. He seems almost too good to be true, constantly described by others as nice and handsome and kind, but a lot of the things that prove it take place off the page, so it’s very much a catalogue of informed traits. What we see of him is quite shallow, vain, desperate and nasty. He doesn’t think about what he’s doing and becomes entirely selfish. He gets worse from there on in, arguing with his Olympian beau about why he should come out and not listening to the other side, and neglecting his godsons and friends to the point of injury and forgetting birthdays. Although the main premise is about him being two characters, it seems a bit too literal at times. His personality jars and the two halves don’t quite fit together. It’s perhaps an idealised version of what the author wishes his life was like. The secondary characters have a bit of fun to themselves, but no real agency, most of them existing solely for James to bounce his dialogue off.

Generally though, I wasn’t entirely put off by it. The jokes are thick and fast and Myers has an astounding way with metaphor and analogy that I’m actually a bit jealous of. His descriptions of people are witty and they usually feel solid enough, even if their personality lacks. There are also a couple of moments where he so accurately nails what it’s like to be single in today’s society – such as feeling like you’re always intruding on other people’s times – that my heart hurt. It also has some interesting stuff to say about coming out, and in general with how we identify. It is, really, a book about who we are and the face we choose to show the world. Anonymity may have some benefits, but there are drawbacks too. The same is shown to be true of fame. The Internet has allowed us to throw even more masks on, hiding behind cartoon avatars, Instagram filters and witty bios.

Although I’m sure some people would argue it does nothing to work against stereotypes that pervade regarding gay men, in general it’s not a bad book. I think its heart is in the right place, even if James’s isn’t, and there are some decent lessons to be learnt here if you choose to acknowledge them.

“Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy (2009)

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“Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.”

Life is an endless series of choices. We find ourselves an endless number of futures ahead of us, and then the decisions we make whittle down the options, but there will always be more. Left or right. Buy or sell. Stay or go. Hide or seek. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in time travel fiction, the heroes are always so concerned that any actions they make in the past might affect the future, but we never seem to pause in our own present to realise that the decisions we make now are making big changes in the future. There’s no time travel in this book, however, just simple people with big decisions to make.

Meloy’s book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which centre around a person who has reached a figurative crossroads in their life and need to decide what they’re going to do about it. Chet Moran is worried that he’ll never see Beth Travis again, unless he does something about it. Aaron needs to decide whether or not to continue his relationship with his tiresome brother George. Naomi has to choose what action she takes when her friend confesses that she thinks her husband is having an affair. And Everett and Pam have got to make up their minds regarding the strangers they found in the snow.

Some of the same themes recur over and over, and there is definitely some repetition of situations, with affairs and relationships between parents and children, but they all feel real and raw. The silliest one, and probably my favourite, is “Liliana”, which is about a man who finds his grandmother alive and well on his doorstep, despite her death and autopsy two months previously. It turns out that her death was all something of a “misunderstanding” and so she has returned to check up on him and his family. Many of the other stories are quite tragic, such as “Travis, B.” which is about a young man struggling with feelings of love for the first time and not having the ability to do anything with them, or “Red from Green”, which is about a father failing to stop the molestation of his daughter and how their relationship drifts apart afterwards.

Curiously candid and not overly flowery, the stories are short and punchy, and I think all of them left me with a sense of wanting to know what happened next. Intriguing little nuggets of fiction that tap into those bits of being human that we don’t always like being tapped. Worth a read if you’re after something quick.

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 Possession Of Mr Cave” by Matt Haig (2008)

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“Of course, you know where it begins.”

I’ve been a big fan of Matt Haig’s work since I first read The Humans. I’ve since worked through most of his adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, but I realised that there were a few of his earlier works that I’d not got to yet, so here we are. Haig has become a loud and important voice in the world of mental health, and I think some people only know him because of his memoirs, such as Reasons To Stay Alive. I think sometimes his fiction gets lost behind this, which is a dreadful shame, as he’s one of the finest writers working today.

Antiques dealer Terence Cave has suffered three great losses in his life. As a child, his mother killed herself. As a young man, his wife was murdered. And now, he’s just seen his son, Reuben, die in a terrible accident. All he has left is his daughter, Reuben’s twin, Bryony, a teenage girl who is beginning to find her place in the world. Cave begins to realise that he must protect Bryony from the outside world, whatever the cost.

As Cave’s rules become more and more draconian and he goes to more extreme lengths to keep Bryony in line and away from a boyfriend he deems unsuitable, it appears that Reuben has some unfinished business, and Cave realises that the word “possession” has more than one meaning…

So, here’s the really weird thing. When the supernatural elements began to kick in, my first thought was, “Oh, this is something a bit different from Haig – all his other stuff has been pretty normal,” but then I realised how wrong I was. He’s written about aliens, vampires and immortality, and narrated a novel from the point of view of a dog. This is his magic. He makes the really weird stuff seem totally plausible and normal. How he does this, I can’t quite be sure, but it’s certainly a very special talent.

The novel is, at its heart, a story of obsession, and the troubles of fatherhood. There’s no denying that Terence Cave has been through some horrific things in his life, but I’m not sure that any of them excuse his behaviour. I was reminded at several points of You, a Netflix series that I recently watched that has similar themes of obsession and desperation. (If you’ve not seen it yet, I would strongly recommend that, too.) Cave is not necessarily a likeable narrator, but he’s certainly beguiling and you find yourself drawn into his sticky web of lies and paranoia. I’ve no idea what it’s like to raise a teenager, but Bryony certainly seems pretty realistic, and you do sympathise with Cave’s frustrations as his daughter grows away from him.

A moving and magical novel from one of the masters of the speculative fiction genre that will keep you gripped until the final page.

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!

“Concrete Island” by J. G. Ballard (1974)

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“Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.”

They say that no man is an island (except for the Isle of Man, of course), but even in this world that is more connected than it has ever been, it’s still possible to feel alone, surrounded by people who don’t understand you or maybe don’t even notice you’re there. Coming from an island nation myself, I do wonder if all that living apart does something to a society’s psyche. Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Cuba … they often have some of the most interesting and unique histories. But we’re not here to talk about natural islands – this one is entirely man made.

Robert Maitland is driving out of London at just over seventy miles an hour when his front tyre blows out and his car smashes through a crash barrier and down into a patch of grass, ignored by every motorist who passes by on the three motorways surrounding it. He manages to pry himself from his Jaguar and clambers back up the embankment, hoping that he’ll get picked up. But there’s nowhere here to stop, or at least no one willing to do so. Still in shock, he considers making a break for it, but he’s hit by a car before he has a chance and tumbles back down onto the traffic island, cut off some his old life – his wife, his mistress, his job, his friends… Now he is a resident of this concrete island and he needs to work out how to get off. Will he end up here forever? And is he even the first person to have made it onto this forgotten land?

An allegory for how we’re all really, at the end of the day, on our own, and selfishness remains an endemic problem of humanity (unless I’m entirely missing the point), the novella sees Ballard deal with the constraint of having all of his action take place in one very small area. With very little dialogue, Ballard is tied to letting the world tell the story. Maitland initially seems to have very limited resources, but I do feel that there’s a cheat when he discovers the remains of the buildings that used to stand here and finds that some of the basements are still in working order. In fact, the whole island itself is much larger than I had gathered from the premise, which again feels like a cheat.

There’s little characterisation for Maitland, too, and we never really find out all that much about him, save the facts he’s a rich businessman and has two women in his life who may or may not be aware of one another. A lot is left vague, and actually some of that works, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for him. The premise as a whole is a little far fetched, too. I’m not against a weird plot – not by any means – but it’s hard to believe that not a single person sees him down there. Even if they thought he was a tramp, surely a police car or concerned motorist would double check? Ballard is at pains to make sure Maitland can’t just walk across the empty roads at night by giving him an injury, and like the island and its surrounding roads, it all feels a little too artificial.

Robinson Crusoe for the modern era – a weird story with some interesting ideas behind it.

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!

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