“Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips (2007)

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“One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.”

It’s not been long since I last delved into Greek mythology, but I couldn’t resist another visit so soon, but this time in a very different world. I actually first read this book in 2008. I was at university, and for my screenwriting class had just begun working on a pitch for a sitcom involving the Greek gods living undercover in modern London. A week later, I found this novel in Waterstones – a story of Greek gods living undercover in modern London. I ensured I finished my work before reading this one so as to not accidentally just copy it even more, but naturally found that it was done much better than mine was.

It’s been centuries since the Greek gods were respected and revered, and they now find themselves squashed together in a small north London house which has seen better days. Apollo (god of the sun) has been caught turning a mortal into a tree like he always used to, so Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) make him swear to do more harm to a mortal for ten years – a blink of an eye in god’s terms. Aphrodite, however, decides to give him further punishment with the aid of her son, Eros (god of love). While recording the pilot for his TV psychic show, Apollo is struck by one of Eros’ arrows of love and falls in love with a demure, innocent mortal.

Things go from bad to worse when the mortal, Alice, begins working as a cleaner at the gods’ house, and Apollo is determined that she is the true love of his life. Alice, however, doesn’t reciprocate, as she’s too caught up on her would-be boyfriend Neil, a polite engineer who’s too scared to make a move. When Alice rejects Apollo’s advances, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead our heroes down into the Underworld in an effort to prevent the end of the world.

Phillips does an incredible job of blending the gods into the modern world. It’s established they’ve been living in London since the 1600s – arriving sometime between the drop in house prices from the plague and the increase again after the 1666 fire – and each of them has been given a role that suits them well. Dionysus, for example, here runs a nightclub and is a DJ. Apollo is a TV psychic, Aphrodite is a sex-line worker, and Artemis is a professional dog walker. How the mighty have fallen. Phillips also has done her research and makes use of the gods lesser-seen aspects. Hermes is, of course the messenger god and the one who guides people to the afterlife, but she also gets good mileage out of the fact he’s also the god of coincidence and money. Artemis is a sexless prude, but simply because she’s the goddess of chastity.

As I’m sure I’ve said before, the reason I love the Greek gods is because they’re all so like us. They’re manipulative, angry, selfish, bitter and so very human for a race of non-humans. Seeing them struggle with modernity is particularly good fun, but Phillips adds in aspects I would never have thought of. Eros, for example, has become a Christian, and the idea of a god worshipping another god is especially funny. He seems to be using it to work through his guilt, but also laments that he never got a chance to meet Jesus at the time. The others are less keen on Christianity, as it’s Jesus that’s the main reason no one believes in them anymore. The moral characters, Alice and Neil, are also great creations, and both oddly remind me of people I know. They’re hugely reserved and are clearly both in love with one another but too fearful to make a move and admit this. They are, in essence, the polar opposites of the gods.

Despite the generally fluffy and light attitude of the novel, there are also some very dark moments to be had, putting it on par with some of the original myths. The gods have a very different set of moral codes to humanity. They’ve always been free and easy with incest (in the second chapter, we see Apollo having sex with Aphrodite and the text acknowledges they are aunt and nephew), but there’s also a scene where Apollo tells Alice he wants to rape her, and doesn’t seem to understand why that would be a problem. Apollo is hugely self-absorbed. I’d say that he thinks the sun revolves around him, but it pretty much does, as that’s his deistic domain.

Will I ever return to writing this sort of thing? Yes, probably. My set up is vastly different, with a focus on different characters in the pantheon. Plus, there are so many re-tellings of the Greek myths that it’s not like they can’t all exist together. Still, this is one of the funniest and smartest around, so I highly recommend it if you’re into this sort of thing.

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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“The Goddess Of Buttercups And Daisies” by Martin Millar (2015)

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“The agora was always busy.”

If I was ever to acquire a time machine, I’d head straight back to Ancient Greece. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in the country now even, I just really love so much of what I read about the place. Most of that, granted, is the myths, monsters and gods, all of which – we assume – didn’t actually exist, which is a shame. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to dive back into that world now and again, so I did.

Playwright Aristophanes is panicking. He’s lost the funding for his next big comic play, the props aren’t funny enough, and he’s constantly being pestered by Luxos, the self-proclaimed best lyric poet in Athens. The fact that Athens has been at war with Sparta for years isn’t helping matters, but Aristophanes is convinced that his play will help change people’s minds and bring about peace. But he wasn’t counting on Laet, a goddess of strife and discord. When she enters a room, everyone in it immediately makes the worst possible decision, and it’s tearing Athens apart.

Athena, the city’s goddess, sends the Amazon Bremusa down to Athens to hunt down Laet and scare her off. She enlists Metris, a permanently happy water nymph who claims to have inherited her mother’s powers to restore happiness and order to nasty situations. However, when it turns out that the only power she actually has is to make buttercups and daisies grow wherever she walks, the problem suddenly doesn’t look so easy to solve.

Will Luxos ever get an audience for his poems? Can Aristophanes ensure his play is a hit and win first prize at the Dionysia festival? And can Metris and Bremusa save the day, without getting distracted by such mundane trivialities as love and revenge?

The novel is a blend of reality and fiction. Aristophanes was a real playwright and the play he’s putting on, Peace, really does exist and is still occasionally performed. In turn, Athena was, of course, really one of the gods, and Bremusa was one of the Amazon women. However, other characters have been inserted into the narrative that are of Millar’s own creation, including Luxos the poet and Metris, the titular goddess.

What Millar does well, though, is to seamlessly blend the mortal world and that of the gods and divine beings together so that they exist in perfect harmony. My favourite thing about the Greek gods has always been that they were so petty and so human in their flaws, meaning that when they meet, real narrative magic happens. In this novel, as in many set at the time, the gods are taken as fact, and indeed few people are ever truly surprised to learn of a deity or nymph walking among them. They have some interesting powers, and are probably the most engaging characters in the book, but that might just be me and my love of mythology. Some of the human characters, particularly Aristophanes and Luxos, are fun too, but most others don’t get enough page time to be fleshed out particularly.

It’s quite funny in places, but a very broad humour.However, Greek humour was broad – much is made of the fact that the play will be deemed a failure if the comedy penises aren’t big enough – so the style fits the era.  It’s also a comment on satire, with Aristophanes’ plays mocking important figures of the time like an ancient Dead Ringers. A jolly little book, worth spending an afternoon with.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, 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 two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

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“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

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What’s the catch?

“It was love at first sight.”

In my ongoing mission to see if reading the classics makes me a better person, I come roaring down the runway to meet Catch-22, said to be, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest American novels of the last century. Despite knowing it spawned a phrase from its title and that it featured army pilots, much else of the detail had escaped me.

Captain Yossarian is a pilot assigned to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. He’s furious because people keep trying to kill him, which may have something to do with the fact it’s the height of the Second World War. He is desperate that he should return home alive but his officers keep upping the number of missions he has to complete before he can go. The only way out is to declare he’s crazy, but there’s a catch. Catch-22 in fact.

If he refuses to fly the missions, then he must be sane, so he has to fly them. If he accepts the missions, he’s obviously crazy because only a madman would want to fly during a war, and he doesn’t have to do them. That’s one hell of a catch. Surrounded by friends and enemies – some of whom are on the same side – Yossarian must find a way to keep his head while losing it and make it out of the war alive, without sacrificing another friend. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as everyone is plotting to keep themselves safe too.

28-year-old Captain Yossarian is the main character and is determined to survive the war, eventually refusing to fly anymore, but it’s hard to say that there are any minor characters. Most chapters take the name of a character and show their involvement in the unfolding drama. The list of characters is enormous but includes: Colonel Cathcart (who continually raises the number of missions the men have to fly), Doc Daneeka (self-obsessed medical man), Milo Minderbinder (who is running a syndicate and only does things if they gain him a profit), Nately (who has fallen in love with a prostitute), Scheisskopf (who is obsessed with parades), Clevinger (who disappears on a flight one day), Major —— de Coverley (who is feared but rarely seen), Major Major (who can only be visited while he’s out of his office), General Dreedle (who is apathetic towards war unless the men fight and die on demand), Nurse Duckett (who sleeps with Yossarian), Hungry Joe (a pervert and photographer), Orr (a bomber pilot who always crashes), McWatt (who seems crazy because he has remained sane), Sergeant Towser (de facto head of the squadron),  and Chief White Halfoat (a Native American whose family had to keep moving because they always settled where oil was found). That’s barely half of them. It’s an amazing cast and everyone feels nicely sketched out and there aren’t any superfluous cast members. It’s just a task remembering who’s who and who outranks who else. I need a diagram.

The confusion of characters is compounded by the fact that the story doesn’t follow a strictly linear path, and jumps about in the timeline showing the same events from different angles. Personally, my favourite characters are Yossarian, Major Major and Chaplain Shipman, and would happily have taken a story just about those three.

A primary theme of the novel is paradox. Aside from the central one of being too mad to fly, every other page seems to contain someone making a statement and then saying the opposite immediately afterwards, either forming a joke or sometimes to highlight the insanity of the world they inhabit. Early on we see a character described as, “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” Nately at one point declares, “Anything worth living for is worth dying for”, only to be told in return, “Everything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.” People adopt one another’s personas and illnesses in hospital to confound doctors and keep themselves in there longer and away from the planes they have to fly. The world here is a complicated mess where people are brought up against their superiors for not doing things, mediocrity is applauded and dead people are thought to be alive and the living are considered dead.

Frankly, my biggest issue comes down to the novel’s length. Yes, it definitely is funny, but I’d got the joke by about 150 pages in, and my edition clocks in at over 500. That’s a lot of extra time spent on something I thought we’d already covered. However, in saying that, it needs the ending it has. Towards the end, the jokes and lighthearted mood is stripped away and we see the true horror of war for what it really is. War is, after all, not a joke, and the stark reality of it hits you in the face like Orr being hit in the head with a woman’s shoe.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, and I can see why it’s lingered. Heller has done something pretty cool here, but rather unlike anything I’ve read before.

“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

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chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.

“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

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nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

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