“The Diary Of A Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell (2017)

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“Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable.”

Wigtown in the Galloway region of Scotland is a town of just one thousand or so residents that would be another one of the many fairly remarkable, but historic, towns that make up the United Kingdom. As it is, it has been dedicated as Scotland’s Book Town, like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This means it has an enormous number of bookshops. One of these is simply called The Book Shop and is said to be the largest in Scotland. It’s run by a man called Shaun Bythell who isn’t quite on par with Bernard Black in terms of grumpiness, but he’s not far off. You may know him as the man who shot a Kindle and hung the remains like a hunting trophy. This is his story.

Detailing a year in the life of a Scottish bookseller, these memoirs focus on the day to day running of a bookshop housed in a centuries old building and all the problems inherent in this. There are leaky windows, disrespectful staff, misplaced novels, book purchases to be made, and that’s all before you get to the customers. Bythell is rarely judgemental towards his customers, merely observational (his words) but he does record a great number of incidents where customers are shown to probably be somewhat insane. There are those that ask him for books without knowing the author or sometimes the title, those that haggle (or even adjust the prices themselves), those who ask for things he has and then leave without them, or those who simply come in to tell him that they don’t read.

If you’ve never worked in customer service, you won’t believe a word of it. If you have, you will.

Most of all though, the book does shine through with Bythell’s passion for books. Frequently he has to visit other towns in Scotland to look through collections of books that people are selling. Sometimes all he finds is dross, or forgotten tomes covered in dust and cat hair that he could never make a profit on. Other times, he discovers rare antiquities and visibly becomes excited at meeting them. He is, naturally, a keen reader himself and has a love of not only books but the whole second-hand bookselling industry. He laments the changing ways and how modern technology – particularly Amazon – is rendering bookshops obsolete. As someone who still supports brick-and-mortar bookshops – especially independents when I can – I hope that his fears are unfounded, although truthfully I can see how much harder it is becoming to run a bookshop when everything is available online with the click of a button. Still, I find that Amazon tells you what it thinks you’ll want, whereas any true book lover knows that you can’t beat browsing physical shelves where you stumble onto something you didn’t even know you needed to know about.

A charming and hilarious book that has shoved Wigtown still higher up my list of places to visit, and also made me reconsider the available option of running one of the town’s bookshops for a holiday. I fear I’d never get any work done in a place like that … it sounds ideal.

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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“The Management Style Of The Supreme Beings” by Tom Holt (2017)

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“Dad, as is tolerably well known, is omnipotent and can do anything.”

And I return to Tom Holt. This is the third time I’ve delved into one of the extraordinary books that his unique brain has produced. I don’t know all that much about the man, but I do know that I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. He’s the sort of writer, though, that I don’t want to hurry through. He is to be savoured. Still, it was time to explore one of his more recent works, this time dealing with the bureaucracy involved in running Earth.

Dad and his son Jay are beginning to tire of being supreme beings of a planet that doesn’t seem all that bothered if they’re present or not. With plans to take retirement and fish for the rest of eternity on Sinderaan, they explore their options and end up selling the planet to the Venturi brothers. These keen and cunning businessmen have come a long way from humble beginnings growing up on Mars, but now own all several galaxies, and this Earth seems like a decent addition to their portfolio. The old guard head off, all except for Dad’s other son, Kevin, who decides to take his place among the humans he’s grown to admire.

Immediately, they make sweeping changes. Reincarnation replaces an afterlife, meaning Hell and all the current staff and residents are left to their own devices (quickly deciding that they should become a theme park), belief is total and the Venturi brothers get rid of that tiresome old “Good/Evil” dichotomy that seemed to cause so many problems. Now, you can sin as much as you like as long as you can pay for it. Blaspheming will cost you a few hundred dollars, but if you want to start a war you’re going to need billions. Faith is shaken and society is changed overnight.

But Dad didn’t give the Venturi brothers all the salient facts, because there is another god lurking on Earth. He’s ancient, something of a trickster, and no one really believes in him – at least, no adult. But take care – this mysterious figure is compiling a catalogue, checking it twice over and pretty soon, he will be coming back to town…

Whenever I’ve been asked (and it has happened occasionally) which author I most aspire to write like, I often name Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde or Douglas Adams, but really, I think it’s Tom Holt. He doesn’t waste an opportunity to throw in a joke, a pun, a ridiculous (but always startlingly accurate) metaphor, or throwaway concept that could have been a whole novel in itself. One of the giants of literary comedy, he takes a simple if far fetched premise and twists it all out of shape and into something staggeringly original. Many books have been written about God and what he really thinks of us lot down on the planet, but never before have I seen it all played out like this.

The human characters, while interesting, pale in comparison to the more supernatural ones. The gods, angels and demons and their relationships are great fun to watch play out, and they’re dealt with in daft – and yet totally acceptable – ways. The Devil (known as Uncle Nick) doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of Hell anymore, and so the whole place is run by his human assistant, Bernie. Kevin is a brilliant also-ran to “Jay”, never quite matching up to what his brother achieved, but not for the reasons you’d seem to think. The universe in general though is dense and rich like a chocolate gateaux and full of information about alien species and bizarre biologies that even Douglas Adams would have struggled to dream up, and he had sentient shades of blue and species that invented deodorant before the wheel. The whole thing is a laugh a minute.

I can’t say much more without ruining great swathes of the novel – I’ve hinted at what else is to come already – but all I can do is advise you to buy this book immediately and join me for a swim in Holt’s imagination. There’s loads of room.

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 Art Of Failing” by Anthony McGowan (2017)

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“I’m back working again at the British Library.”

It’s been one of those weeks where very little seems to have gone right, with the exception of polishing an opening chapter of a novel I hope to finish some time between May and the heat death of the universe. However, it turns out that I am actually having a pretty good time of it when compared to Anthony McGowan.

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered.

Among the humour, though, are some genuinely insightful and beautiful moments. My absolute favourite is when he sees a green woodpecker while eating his lunch and declares no day wasted if you’ve seen a woodpecker – or a fire engine. I also love his notion that if you were starting from scratch and getting rid of all the bad animals like lice and tapeworms, you’d definitely keep the woodpeckers. Despite all the problems that befall him, McGowan is able to draw up some wonderful insights about the natural world, modern living, and ornithology. He’s also very keen on grebes.

It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

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!

“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!

“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

“Still Life With Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins (1980)

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“If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.”

No, it hasn’t taken me eleven days to read a book, but I appreciate that the blog has been quiet for a while. Before the book I’m about to review, I also read Joined-Up Thinking by Stevyn Colgan which, while excellent, was a book of random trivia and difficult to review without merely repeating back all he’d written. There’s also been a lot of drinking and watching Christmas films going on – ’tis the season, after all. But I’m here now with one final pre-Christmas review, for one of the oddest books of the year.

Still Life With Woodpecker is inexplicable. Here, we meet Princess Leigh-Cheri, who is living with her parents in Seattle after they were kicked off of their European throne and sent to live in exile. Leigh-Cheri maintains an interest in environmentalism and being a good person, and seeks to attend Care Fest in Hawaii, to hear Ralph Nader speak and find out more about the state of the world. The king and queen allow it, providing she takes along their one remaining servant, Gulietta, an old woman who doesn’t speak any language understood by the family.

While in Hawaii, the centre where Care Fest is supposed to be held is bombed by the Woodpecker, an outlaw actually called Bernard Mickey Wrangle, who has been responsible for a spate of bombings over the last couple of decades, yet has never been caught. Leigh-Cheri performs a citizen’s arrest on him, but before she can turn him in, she finds herself falling in love with him, bonded primarily of the fact they both have bright red hair. The two swiftly fall into a heavily sexual relationship, and when Bernard is finally arrested for his crimes and sent to solitary confinement, Leigh-Cheri returns to Seattle to do exactly the same, locking herself away in an attic with no furniture and painted-over windows, where the considers a packet of Camel cigarettes and begins to philosophise over the nature of pyramids, choice, bombs and love…

Despite the weirdness of the plot that feels a bit like it was constructed from a random generator (and I don’t knock that because that’s pretty much exactly how my first novel came to be), it somehow all works and is above all hilariously funny. Robbins has a way with words, puns and bizarre similes that is on par with Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams and Tom Holt, and they don’t let up. It’s intelligent and bonkers in that perfect measure that’s so hard to do, and the surrealism is just spot on – weird but not so much that it overwhelms the story and takes over.

One of the ongoing themes (aside from the difference between a criminal and an outlaw, or what is to be done about all the redheads) is the question of how love can be made to last. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but Robbins does manage to wax somewhat poetically on the subject, pointing out the differences between lust and love, and even comes up with a half-decent and poignant explanation on what exactly it is that causes love to disappear from a relationship. It never gets too schmaltzy though, as it’s liberally peppered with incredibly graphic sex scenes that are almost hilarious in their construction and not in the least sexy.

Very weird, but hilarious and curiously moving.

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!

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

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