“The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” by Allison Hoover Bartlett (2009)

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“At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan linen sack and a good deal of mystery.”

If you are a book lover and ever find yourself in the vicinity of King’s Cross, London (assuming non-pandemic times), I urge you to drop into the British Library. The reading rooms and the knowledge you’re sharing space with every book ever published in the UK in the last few hundred years are enough, but there’s also the Treasures Room. Here you’ll find some truly remarkable literary gems including an original copy of the First Folio, the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and the only surviving copy of Beowulf. Surrounded by such magic, it’s easy to wonder what it would be like to own such rarities. For some people, however, this goes beyond a mere thought exercise.

John Gilkey is notorious among sellers of antiquarian books. A continual thief, he has used dud cheques and falsified credit card information to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of literature over several years. Allison Hoover Bartlett learns about him after finding herself in possession of a stolen four-hundred year old German book on botanical medicine, and developing an interest in the world of antiquarian book theft. Discovering that more books are stolen than any other kind of art, she gets in touch with Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” who has been working for years to return stolen books to their owners and get the thieves locked up. His particular obsession is Gilkey, whom Bartlett eventually meets and interviews, only to learn that he is not your usual bibliophile. Soon, she is drawn into a world of book lust and obsessive collecting that is insightful, tense, bizarre and entirely true.

While the collectors and sellers are all interesting people, it is Gilkey who really stands out as someone very unusual. He is absolutely unable to tell himself that what he’s doing is wrong, believing that it’s the sellers fault for pricing him out of the market. He acts as if it is his god-given right to own these books, and it doesn’t matter how he goes about doing it. He is working the system, and it’s all fair because he wants them. The gymnastics of logic he is performing are quite something. Allison Hoover Bartlett doesn’t portray him as a straight-up villain, and at times even seems to have some admiration for the sheer bravado of her subject, but I don’t think at any point she considers him doing the right thing. No one would, I’d wager. He’s a curiously beguiling man, though, with an obsession for collection but no apparent appreciation for anything he is collecting. I don’t recall at any point him mentioning a book he’s actually read – he just wants the status that comes with owning them. Little is made of his psychology, but I suspect there is some emotional instability here.

If anything, you realise that if you’re not somehow involved in the antiquarian book industry, you’re in a mug’s game. Although the chances of finding something truly rare are small, and you’re always at risk of people like Gilkey, the money involved here is absolutely staggering. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – only twenty-three years old at time of writing – can be worth around $30,000 as only five hundred were printed. Even a first edition of The Cat in the Hat is worth around $9,000, and if we go back further, an copy of the first trade edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be worth anywhere up to $100,000. Signed copies can swell prices even further, while the loss of a dust jacket can reduce the book’s worth to one tenth of its value. Staggering amounts in anyone’s book.

This truly is a world of people who love books, and I’m one of them, but quite sadly none of them ever seem to get read. They are collected as historical artefacts, and while I agree that books should be kept, preserved and treasured as they are links to previous eras, it is quite sad that they never get to live out their intended purpose. That’s beside the point though. This is an absolutely stunning work of non-fiction, fascinating and suspenseful, and anyone who loves books would get a kick out of it. Because haven’t we all wondered what we’d do if we found a Hemingway first edition at the flea market?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“A Book Of Book Lists” by Alex Johnson (2017)

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“This is a book of book lists.”

I never really understood that cliche of making a habit of looking in someone’s medicine cabinet when you first visit their house. What I do believe in studying, however, is people’s bookshelves. You can tell a lot about people by what books they own, and sometimes even more by how they’re arranged, how well-thumbed they are, and what sort of topics take centre stage. And as John Waters said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Sage advice.

In this book, Alex Johnson explores the bookshelves of the rich and famous, as well as taking a look at lists of books in other unusual situations. Have you ever wondered what books line the shelves in the apartment in The Big Bang Theory? Do you know which books are allowed into Guantanamo Bay’s library? Have you ever wanted to peek at the libraries of Richard III, Marilyn Monroe or Osama bin Laden? What books are on the university reading list if you study English in Mississippi? If these sound like questions you want answers to, then this is the book for you. Combining simple lists and beautifully impressive trivia, Johnson takes us on a journey through some of the most unusual libraries in history, from the mythical Library of Babel, to the books that were burnt by the Nazis.

He also tackles more eclectic lists, delving into the world of books more generally. One list gives all the titles that Ernest Hemingway rejected before settling on A Farewell to Arms. Another tells us what the astronauts on the ISS have at their disposal. Elsewhere, we look at the books already declared “future classics” and even which titles line the shelves of countless Billy bookshelves in IKEA stores across the globe. One of the most interesting topics is that of the Future Library, a collection of never-before-published stories that are being kept in a vault to be opened in 2114. Authors are asked to contribute a new piece that won’t be seen until the next century. Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell were the first to contribute, and every year a new literary figure is picked. It makes me kind of sad that, barring some remarkable advances in science, I won’t be around to see them. (In 2114, I would be 126, so don’t think I’m suggesting an early death.)

Quite silly, but also an insight into the history of literature and the books we love, this is definitely one for any bibliophile to consume. It may even inspire you to expand your own shelves. After all, what do yours say about you right now?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The QI Book Of The Dead” by John Lloyd & John Mitchinson (2009)

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“The first thing that strikes you about the Dead is just how many of them there are.”

I love a bit of trivia, and lockdown has definitely been an opportunity to use that muscle with the amount of quizzes we’ve all been doing. This book has, somehow, been sat on my shelf since its publication but I’ve only just got around to it, maybe because it’s quite a big hardback and I’m not having to carry it around at the moment. Never mind, we got here at last – a series of short biographies about some of history’s most interesting characters.

Obviously, being a creation of the team behind QI, these biographies aren’t arranged in a way we might be used to. Rather than dividing people up by their career, nationality or era, they are collated instead in ten more esoteric ways. Get ready to be introduced to…

  1. People who had absent, abusive or difficult fathers (Sigmund Freud, Ada Lovelace)
  2. People who had a positive outlook (Mary Seacole, Edward Jenner)
  3. People with unstoppable ambition (Genghis Khan, Mary Kingsley)
  4. People obsessed with sex (Tallulah Bankhead, Giacomo Casanova)
  5. People with curious diets (John Harvey Kellog, Henry Ford)
  6. People who had bodies that turned against them (Florence Nightingale, Daniel Lambert)
  7. People who had pet monkeys (Catherine de Medici, Frida Kahlo)
  8. People who were lifelong impostors and liars (Titus Oates, Princess Caraboo)
  9. People who died with no money to their name (Emma Hamilton, Karl Marx)
  10. People who were obsessed with the afterlife (Ann Lee, William Blake)

There is no real distinction made between people who are internationally famous and changed the very way we live, such as Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci, and those who have been forgotten by history like James Barry and Moll Cutpurse but had fascinating lives nonetheless. The book is, of course, a treasure trove of trivia, loaded with interesting nuggets to throw out at anyone who enjoys learning something interesting but not necessarily useful. Doesn’t life just feel a little bit brighter, however, knowing that General Antontio de Santa Anna was not only President of Mexico eleven times, but also invented chewing gum, and that great explorer Mary Kingsley used to march into the villages of uncontacted tribes shouting, “It’s only me!”

Some of the most interesting figures here are the ones who have slipped entirely from the cultural conversation, or are remembered for one single thing. William Morris may have revolutionised interior design but history doesn’t so much record the fact he was once offered the role of Poet Laureate, and that Mary Seacole paid for her journey from Jamaica to England by selling pickles from a suitcase. Catherine the Great’s life was far more exciting than even the rumours suggest, and Alexander von Humboldt should be remembered for far much more than giving his name to a species of penguin. People are endlessly fascinating, and this is just a small collection of the people that humanity threw up along the way to now.

If you always wanted to know that Casanova’s memoirs finish mid-sentence, and Florence Nightingale spent more than half her life confined to bed and wrote 14,000 letters then, well, you know those now. But there are dozens more things to learn here. An excellent book to dip in and out of.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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“It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.”

There are three non-fiction books that I think should be compulsory reading. The first is Sara Pascoe’s Animal. The second is Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. This is the third.

In this pioneering book, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge explores the history of British race relations and the racism inherent in every system of the country, also dealing with the intersectionality of it aligned with gender and class. Exploring the notion of white privilege, racism in the workplace, the rise of the far right and stereotypes, she tackles the subject head on, taking no prisoners. Personally, I found it quite uncomfortable at times, but that’s a good thing. It’s uncomfortable in all the right ways, making white people realise quite how much the world is stacked in their favour.

Particularly fascinating is the brief history given on the position of black people in our history. While the civil rights struggle of the USA is well-documented and taught often, for some reason we do not discuss our own struggles with racial divides. I say “for some reason”, but it’s because every country likes to portray itself as noble and heroic, and I don’t think any are quite so keen to do this than Britain. For this reason, many people grow up unaware of the struggles of the black community in Britain, and in just one chapter of this book I have learnt more about the British civil rights movement than I did in seventeen years of formal education. It is shocking how recent so many of the dates are. It’s even worse when you consider that things are still not equal. The media – a predominantly white industry – still has considerable bias over people of black and minority ethnicity. We have created a story for the nation where “racism happened somewhere else”, when one look on Twitter or the debates that raged around the Brexit saga proves that this is far from the truth.

My only issue is that I would’ve liked some more concrete statistics. When discussing, for example, how the system is stacked against young black people in education and such, Eddo-Lodge explains that black people are continually at a disadvantage in how they are treated in schools, graded, and are given fewer opportunities than their white peers. I’m not saying I don’t believe her, because I’m certain this is the case due to deeply embedded white privilege, but it would have been interesting to see the specific statistics to emphasise the point, rather than relying on vagaries like “greater proportion” and “many more times” and such. I appreciate that the book is aiming to be accessible to a wide audience so it doesn’t want to get too bogged down in these things, but I feel that these are important points and they should be spelt out. I will be doing my own research off the back of it though to get the disparity figures.

That aside, it’s a powerful, sharp, smart and uncomfortable read. I’m one of those people who claims to not be racist, but there is no denying that by being white I have certainly been granted opportunities others have not. Food for thought, and essential reading in these tumultuous times.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Faulks On Fiction” by Sebastian Faulks (2011)

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“It’s a while now since anyone referred to the main character of a novel as the ‘hero’.”

The world of literary criticism can be a fun one to spend a little time in. Although it is not always wise to project realistic values, morals and behaviours onto fictional characters (the current fad for declaring every sitcom character from Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge to having some kind of mental illness is a little tiresome), it can be interesting to think of them as they are beyond the page. We get to spend so little time with some of these people, it’s nice to dig a little deeper for a while. British literature is a great place to start, with some of the most famous fictional characters in the world nestled in its pages. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know the names Sherlock Holmes or James Bond? In his book, written to accompany a 2011 TV series of the same name, author Sebastian Faulks analyses twenty-eight of the most famous characters in British literature via four archetypes: heroes, villains, lovers and snobs.

First up, he dives into the heroes, exploring the first hero of British literature, Robinson Crusoe, along with minx Becky Sharp, anti-hero John Self, and the hero who fails, Winston Smith. When he discusses lovers, the takes on – of course – Mr Darcy and Heathcliff, but also studies Constance Chatterley and Nick Guest. The snobs archetype is perhaps the most interesting, including such luminaries as the etiquette snob Jeeves, intellectual snob Chanu Ahmed, and brand snob James Bond. Finally, he ties things up with the villains, including Fagin, Steerpike and Barbara Covett.

I vaguely remember the show from the first time around, and it was nice to revisit the characters again – I’ve read a few more of these stories since then, too – with some interesting insights. There are indications, however, that time has moved on, and I wonder if we would see some of these characters in the same light now. One point that shows how we changed the culture we consume is when Faulks seems to believe it’s impossible to imagine a television series getting a budget for 14 episodes of an hour long. The Golden Age of Television has apparently yet to start.

The quality is variable, with some chapters going into intense and interesting detail on the character as a whole, with others focusing more on the whole plot, and in the James Bond section, most of the chapter is taken up with Faulks talking about how he came to write a Bond book of his own. Granted, it does tie up nicely and explains the character a little more, but it feels a touch self-indulgent. I suppose in 2020 people would complain about the lack of diversity (only seven of the characters discussed are women, and just one is explicitly a person of colour) but I don’t think you can actually hold that against him here. He has picked several of the most interesting and well-known characters in these four archetypes, and it so happens that most of them are men. Could he have selected Elizabeth Bennett instead of Mr Darcy? Perhaps, but truthfully it is Darcy that has permeated the culture more so than Elizabeth. Similarly, the central character picked from Oliver is Fagin, rather than the title character. The selection through the ages and genres is pretty good, although as ever there is a focus on the “canon” and more literary fiction, with a slightly begrudging dip into fantasy (Gormenghast) and dystopia (1984). If you wanted a better selection, I suppose you could have undone the fact that Dickens and Austen both get two characters selected, but then again they are perhaps the most influential novelists in English. The Jeeves chapter stands out above the rest for me, as Faulks adopts Wodehouse’s style to talk about him.

An interesting look at some of fiction’s finest. Of course it’s a little subjective, but then again all fiction is, so you can’t fault it for that.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“London’s Labyrinth” by Fiona Rule (2012)

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“My journey into London’s underground labyrinth began on a warm July afternoon, in the leafy communal gardens that lay behind the red-brick walls of a mansion block in west London.”

Since we currently can’t explore the real world, I am even more grateful for the existence of books. They not only allow you to explore places you may know well, but also those that you are less likely to be able to get access to – and I don’t just mean Hogwarts or Mars. It’s time to head to London and take a look at what’s going on beneath the surface.

Fiona Rule takes us on a journey beneath London’s facade to explore the world beneath. It’s a tour through the enormous and efficient sewers created by Joseph Bazalgette (which still function as well today as they did in the 1800s), the birth of the world’s first underground railway, and the secret bunkers that held the government during the bombings of the world wars. Along the way we learn how the Tube led to the creation of the British Transport Police, the worst acts of terrorism ever committed on the network, why there are so many abandoned government offices, and see the use of the tube stations as bomb shelters.

My dad is somewhat preoccupied with the question of why, given we’ve excavated so much of London’s sub-surface, the city hasn’t just fallen in on itself, and I increasingly see his point. It seems remarkable today that there was ever a time when we weren’t using the area under any of our cities, but now London is propped up above miles upon miles of tunnels, ferrying trains, people, electric cables, sewage, and even rivers across the metropolis. Rule takes us to bits of the capital that we never see, explaining with a simple, if occasionally dry, touch how this subterranean world works. I like to think I know a lot about this sort of thing, but I had no idea that Bazalgette was building his sewers at the same time as the District Line was trying to be installed, and everyone spent the best part of a decade in each other’s way, as great piles of soil blocked busy streets and routes had to be altered to accommodate both projects.

Elsewhere, we learn about some of the worst accidents that ever occurred underneath London, including the 7/7 bombings, the fire at King’s Cross Station, the crash at Moorgate station, and the death of many trying to build Brunel’s tunnels under the Thames. We discover the Post Office Railway, which transported everyone’s letters and parcels across the city until 2003, and the legendary Necropolis Railway, which took coffins and mourners out to a cemetery on the edge of the city when everything got too crowded within the border.

It’s a fascinating look at a world that most of us take for granted and only see a small portion of.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“On Writing” by Stephen King (2000)

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“I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club.”

There are some essential books that should be on the shelf of every writer. Strunk and White’s inimitable The Elements of Style is one of them, and I also make a big noise for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Robert McKee’s Story. Another that people swear by, and I can’t believe I’ve only just got round to, is Stephen King’s On Writing. At last I’ve joined the ranks of the sensible and can see why they hold it in such high esteem.

Part-memoir and part-writing guide, this book is something quite unique. In the first half of the book, King tells us about his childhood and his path to publication. It’s not comprehensive by any means, as he himself admits, but it picks up on all the major points of his life, from childhood illness, his brother’s teenage newspaper, his first foray into seeking publication, his alcoholism and drug dependency, his marriage, how he got the idea for some of books including Carrie and Misery, and his mother’s death.

He then launches in to a discussion all the tools writers should have at their disposal – vocabulary, grammar, style – and then he gives us his advice. He admits, rightly, that while he might not be the greatest writer in the world, he’s published enough to know a thing or two about it. He is certainly an authority, and you don’t sell as many as him without knowing a thing or two. He explains how to use adverbs, why there’s nothing wrong with “said”, how the main way to be a better writer is to be a better reader, how to show not tell, create three-dimensional characters and realistic dialogue, and even covers how to get agents and publishers interested in your work. Every bit of advice is sensible and I agree with almost all of it – no two writers will have exactly the same opinions. But you have to trust a man who has produced so many great novels. Along the way, King also introduces us to some of his favourite writers and how they have perfected the things he’s talking about, bringing us into the worlds of Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and J. K. Rowling.

The final part of the book, which in some ways would be worth the price of purchase alone, details the time in 1999 when King was hit by an out-of-control van and was nearly killed. I knew this about his history, but the story of his injuries and recovery are absolutely mind-boggling. Quite frankly it’s a wonder that he can walk, and it’s a testament to what geniuses doctors are. While obviously not necessarily directly relevant to how one writes a good book, it’s none the less a study in itself of how to tell a story to get the best reaction, whether he meant it to be or not.

If you are a writer, or have any intentions of being one, then this is a vital read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“I’ll Be There For You” by Kelsey Miller (2018)

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“On September 22, 1994, NBC aired the pilot episode of a half-hour comedy now titled Friends.”

As the world gets weirder and scarier, it is time for people to retreat into something comfortable. A good book, a beloved album, a funny film. Some things are just comforting, and I can bet you anything that with all that’s going on right now, there’s a surge in people turning on Friends and hiding in that familiar coffee shop for a while. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I’ve dipped my toe in with this book about the history of the TV show that became a global phenomenon.

I’ll Be There For You is a potted history of Friends, the ten-season behemoth of a sitcom that made household names out of six rising comedy actors. There are few people left (especially of a certain generation) who haven’t seen at least one episode, and its effect on global society was unprecedented, influencing fashion, language and even the rise of the coffee culture. (It may not have invented coffee shops, but in 1994 when the show first aired, they were still uncommon.) The book runs from the writers, Kauffman, Crane and Bright meeting and the show’s tricky beginnings with casting, to a few years ago where it was undergoing a pop culture resurgence and the cast couldn’t go anywhere without being asked about a reunion.

Some of the focus is a bit odd. There is a lot of talk about how much the stars were earning, their salary negotiations, and what the network was paying for the show. I assume this is all there because, in my experience, the Americans are far more comfortable and willing to talk about money than the British. They’re details that, for me, take the shine off the magic of the show. It feels odd to spend so long focusing on that but then not tell us how they acquired some of the guest stars, or talking about audience reaction to some of the smaller plots. Indeed, in 240 pages there isn’t a single mention of Gunther, which seems odd as surely his increased role in the show would merit some kind of inclusion.

There is, however, an awful long of hand-wringing to justify the problematic aspects of the show. I’m someone who believes you have to judge things in the time that they were made, and there’s no point looking at Friends through the eyes of someone living in 2020 because attitudes have changed an awful lot in this century already, so you can’t expect characters (and it’s important to remember that these people are fictional) to have the same values as us now. There is no denying that, by today’s standards, there are more gay jokes in the show than we’d be comfortable with now, not to mention the problematic treatment of both Chandler’s transgender father or “Fat Monica”. Miller interviews people from minority backgrounds and they don’t seem too bothered, on the whole, by these jokes, adding that at least there was a transgender character. When you’re a minority, you take what you can get. It’s hard to know where to fall on some of these issues. After all, the show did like making gay jokes, but it did also include a gay wedding (even if it didn’t let the two brides kiss on screen).

However, it’s still interesting and a great insight into how a TV show gets made and then stays on the air for a decade. While Miller seems to have just combed through interviews from other people to pull her quotes, she has original research as well, which saves it from just being a long Buzzfeed article full of copy-pasted tweets. If you’re a fan of the show, it’s worth a read, but don’t expect to come away with too many new reveals about it.

Whatever problems the show had, it remains one of the most beloved series of all time and still has a lot of heart, giving us all something to share in. We’ve all had that time when our friends become our family and sadly it eventually disappears. It’s still important. And if nothing else, we can all get behind the one burning question the show left us with: How did Monica afford that apartment?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“How Fiction Works” by James Wood (2008)

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“The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.”

I saw someone on Twitter the other day declaring that “everyone can write”. This was in a discussion about how much one should pay a copywriter to work for them. I argued, “Everyone can type. Not everyone can write.” I like to think of myself as someone who can write (and I’ve managed to write a blog for seven years and publish two novels, so there must be something in this) but I’m still learning and I don’t think we ever finish improving. Fiction is a complicated business and in his book, James Wood pulls back the curtain and exposes some of the secrets of the craft.

The book is simply Wood exploring various aspects of fiction writing, including narrating, detail, character, form, language, dialogue and realism. He explains the limits of first or third person narration, how to hide the author from the text and how to expose him, how to bring a character to life with a simple maxim, why flat characters often lead stories and round ones sit in the background, the difference between plot and form, and how to use a unique metaphor in a way that won’t put the reader off.

This is one of the best books about writing I think I’ve ever read. Full disclosure, there is a lot of emphasis on literary fiction and I’ve not read most of the titles he talks about (life is still too short for me to bother with Tolstoy), but the points he makes are universal. Wood summons up examples of authors working magic, as well as producing some of his own, and showing what work a single word can do in a sentence, or why some metaphors work better than others. He gives examples of things not working, too, and manages to explain why and how they do or don’t work. He is a man who understands all of this.

It’s a niche book and probably only of interest to writers, although I should imagine most hardcore bibliophiles would be able to get something from it too. I’m curious to see how if my writing will change if I start looking at it through the lenses he suggests. And will I start reading differently too? Maybe. A fascinating foray into fiction for anyone who likes to see the secret cogs and gears of grand machinery.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas” by Adam Kay (2019)

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“Christmas is the pine-scented, tinsel-strewn timeout where, like it or not, everything just … stops.”

This is Going to Hurt was a proper game-changing book of the last decade. Adam Kay’s diaries of when he was a junior doctor in the underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated NHS made us all sit up and take notice of what we’d been taking for granted for too long. With humour and powerful emotion, he showed us what the realities of being a doctor were and the book, quite rightly, became a huge bestseller. Because of the popular demand, a sequel was inevitable, and this stocking-sized book details some extra bits of his diaries, this time focusing on the six Christmases he was working.

Using just as much humour, Kay regales us with further stories of his time on the ward, including the romantic turkey dinner in the staff room, making decorations out of medical equipment, why gaffer tape is not the best thing to embalm yourself with, how to behave when the Health Minister pays a visit, and what to get a colleague you hate when you draw them in the Secret Santa. It’s not all humour, though, as he also talks about the difficulty of talking about death, the emotional maelstrom caused by a miscarriage, and how the job surgically removes your social life.

There’s not much else I can say, really, just that you should read this. And you should read his other book too, if you’re one of the seven people who hasn’t. Heartbreaking, hilarious and honest in equal measure, it will open your eyes to the reality of working one of the most demanding (and rewarding) jobs in the world.

All hail our NHS – we’d never survive without it.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

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