“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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“What The Hell Did I Just Read” by David Wong (2017)

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“It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck.”

Not for the first time, I’ve stumbled into a series in progress, but it didn’t seem to matter so much here. David Wong has been on my radar for years thanks to his novel John Dies at the End, which I’ve always found an intriguing title but I’ve never got round to reading. Instead, assuming this was a standalone, I’ve somehow skipped ahead to the third book in the series, crashing headfirst into a world that would terrify Stephen King and greatly amuse Douglas Adams. Strap yourself in.

John, Dave and Amy have just fled from Them. They’re not entirely sure what it is They wanted, but at a guess it’s the vial Amy has just tossed into the river. Not long after, John and Dave receive a call about a missing child, but the circumstances surrounding it are above the pay grade of any of the police and seem much more in the line of these two, who specialise in the unusual, the supernatural and the downright weird. The child, Maggie, appears to have been abducted by a seedy character, but no one can agree on what he looked like or if he even existed.

As the three seek out the missing girl, they learn that another child has gone missing too, this time from a trailer park. When the boy turns up in Dave’s apartment, claiming that it was Dave who abducted him, things are only going to get worse. Our heroes find themselves dealing with a collection of creatures that can alter memory and perception, allowing them to hide in plain sight and causing you to forget they even exist a split second after you were looking directly at them. More children disappear, but there’s some debate as to where they’ve gone, and John and Dave are convinced they need another sample of their special “Soy Sauce” that helps them to see the supernatural. It’s a shame they threw their last vial into the river. As the body count rises, shady organisations close in on the town, and a creature dubbed the BATMANTIS??? goes from being an urban legend to a terrifying reality, the story heads down a very dark path indeed…

I can only assume the previous books in the series are of a similar vein, and perhaps I’d have got more from it had I read them, but it doesn’t seem to need much in the way of backstory. The characters are introduced with enough detail to give you an idea of who they are, and the narration shifts from Dave’s first person tale to events in the third person from Amy and John. All three characters have distinctive voices. Amy’s parts focus on the feelings and emotions of the characters, are much more empathetic and contain no swearing, while John’s are hyperbolic, over-exaggerated and frequently laced with sex and gratuitous violence. As such, it helps add to the confusion of the story. We’re never totally sure what’s going on, who we’re meant to believe, or if anyone is worth believing at all.

Wong’s imagination is quite something. There are some creatures straight out of the darkest pits of horror here, and I do have to worry a little about his sanity. While the book is genuinely hilarious and full of great one-liners and stupid gags, it’s also scary as all hell. It’s laced not only with supernatural creatures with uncanny abilities and too many teeth, but also with genuine horrors of human child-snatchers, and the terror of losing your mind. It’s a world that’s easy to immerse yourself in thanks to the conversational style and constant action, but afterwards you just feel like you immersed yourself in a tepid swamp rather than a bubble bath.

Wong weaves plot points together neatly, too, with things that seem trivial and inserted just for a cheap gag later becoming pivotal. It does all tie up pretty neatly by the end – although the gaps I have might, again, just be because I’ve not read the earlier ones – but it’s the sort of book that you allow some things to keep hanging. After all, we still don’t really know what happened…

I don’t know what the hell I just read, but it was very good nonetheless.

“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

“Mostly Harmless” by Douglas Adams (1992)

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“The history of the Galaxy has got a little muddled, for a number of reasons: partly because those who are tyring to keep track of it have got a little muddled, but also because some very muddling things have been happening anyway.”

Every year I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve tried to have a specific series to be re-reading. In 2013, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then in 2014, all of Douglas Coupland. 2015 was Harry Potter, 2016 went to Jasper Fforde, and 2017 didn’t actually have a theme and was just a few old favourites I wanted to rediscover. This year, I set myself the task of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and since it’s only a trilogy of five, I’ve already done it. Fittingly, the 42nd book I read this year was Mostly Harmless, which feels just about perfect. Don’t panic – my waffling introduction ends now. The next paragraph gets to the point.

Mostly Harmless picks up at an unspecified point beyond the end of the last book. Arthur Dent is scouring the multiverse (or rather, the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, as multiverse doesn’t quite explain what’s going on) for any sign of Earth, but is routinely upset to find that it doesn’t exist, or does but in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ford Prefect has returned to the headquarters of the Guide and breaks in as to avoid the expenses department who would like a word. He finds things have changed rather a lot since he was last here. And elsewhere, Tricia McMillan is starting to wonder if her career as a television presenter is a satisfying compromise to the opportunity she didn’t take to join Zaphod Beeblebrox on his spaceship.

Except, as we know, she did. Only not in this universe. On this version of Earth – where the primary difference appears to be that clover here usually has four leaves and a three-leaf clover is lucky – she went back for her bag and Zaphod left her behind with nothing but frustration and a sense that she was meant to be so much more. She gets a second chance, though, when aliens land and take her to the planet Rupert, just beyond Pluto, to ask how astrology works. Meanwhile, Ford is fiddling his accounts in ways previously unseen by the galaxy, and Arthur appears to have finally found somewhere that he isn’t entirely miserable. That is, until our Trillian turns up and informs him that he’s a father, which is awkward as they never even got around to sleeping together. As everyone gathers together for one final time, Arthur realises that this really is the end – for now at least.

While still funny, surreal and one of the cleverest books in the known universe, there’s definitely a bleak streak throughout this one. Everything feels a little more futile, and ending cannot be described as happy, however you slice it. Adams admitted later that he was having a difficult time personally when writing this book, and it shows. He had, apparently, always planned to restore whatever passes for order in the series at some time later, but his untimely death in 2001 put paid to that. Although a sixth book has been published, I won’t be reading it for now. I sense that no matter how good the imitation, it won’t be quite right.

The book is also the most uneven of the series. Zaphod and Fenchurch are both missing – the former’s absence is not explained, and there is a throwaway line regarding the latter – and the plot threads don’t necessarily all tie up quite as well as we’re used to. It ends rather abruptly and we never properly get a chance to savour the final events. There are, however, more female characters than ever, some interesting philosophy, and an underlying message about the importance of home and trying to find one’s place in the universe.

I’m sure that Adams would’ve given us a lighter sixth book, but it is what it is. All in all, it’s still a great book, better than I remembered, and I love some of the concepts. Arthur is still an angel, and I would love to take him out for tea, just to give him a bit of normality. Whatever happened next though, including the real reason that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, are buried along with Adams in Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been to see his grave, and I advise any fan to do the same. There’s a beautiful tradition, though. In life, Adams claimed he could never find a pen when he wanted one, so it’s now the done thing to take one with you and leave it for him at his grave.

And if that touch of madness doesn’t sum up the wonderful man and his incredible books, then I don’t know what does.

“So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” by Douglas Adams (1984)

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“That evening it was dark early, which was normal for the time of year.”

Continuing the oddest trilogy in history, I’ve hitchhiked on a Vogon spaceship, eaten out at the end of the universe, and discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Only one thing left to do – thank everyone for the seafood. Ready? On we go.

By his count, Arthur Dent has lived the last eight years of his life travelling around the galaxy, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a group of insane aliens. It’s a surprise to him, therefore, when he arrives back on Earth about six months after the planet and everything on it was destroyed. He’s not sure whether he’s imagining it or not, but there are pubs and cups of tea, so he’s not complaining. He might, however, not be the only person on the planet who thinks something is wrong. He meets (and instantly falls in love with) Fenchurch – a girl so named because she was conceived in a queue at Fenchurch train station – who is considered mad by her family because she’s convinced that the hallucinations of yellow spaceships everyone endured six months ago weren’t fake.

Elsewhere, Ford Prefect is haring through the galaxy trying to find his old friends, Marvin the Paranoid Android is on his way to find God’s Final Message to His Creation, Wonko the Sane continues his attempts to live outside the Asylum, and lorry driver Rob McKenna is becoming increasingly irritated that it never stops raining – on him at least. As Arthur tries to get back to normality and begin a relationship with Fenchurch, it’s surely only a matter of time before the universe comes knocking again. Besides, where did all the dolphins go?

After three books spent haring around the universe, it’s almost comforting to final return to Earth. Zaphod and Trillian are both entirely absent, and Marvin only turns up towards the end, meaning the focus is entirely on Arthur and his very human quest for companionship. Adams mocks his previous methods of avoiding the topic of whether Arthur has a sex life by giving us a full insight into what he gets up to, although still described in his brilliant use of extremely surreal metaphors. There is something much more accessible here though. While all the books, really, are about humanity and the struggle every living thing must go through just to make it to the next day, here the problems are more grounded in reality. Arthur is a simple man. He never wanted to be a galactic hitchhiker, so he’s thrilled to be back at home.

While all good – it was much better than I remember it being – the best scenes are when Arthur teaches Fenchurch how to fly (a skill he picked up in the last book) and the journey to see God’s Final Message to His Creation, which they actually manage to find and it’s exactly what it should be.

Blissful, joyous stuff. Which is just as well, as next up is Mostly Harmless and from what I remember, it’s not exactly the cheeriest book…

“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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