“Down And Out In Paris And London” by George Orwell (1933)

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“The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning.”

As someone who has long worked in customer service, currently funding my wine and book purchases being a barista and waiter, I’ve long had a sense of community with those seen at the bottom of the pile by many others in society. I’ve never been someone with a high-flying corporate job, or a role that brings in buckets of cash, and in some ways maybe that’s for the better, although there are definitely advantages to having money. One of my colleagues, however, was reading Down and Out in Paris and London which goes into great detail on what it’s like to be on the fringes of society, and so I was inspired to finally pick up by copy too and explore.

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

It is the people living on society’s fringes that make this story so great. The one that particularly struck me was Bozo, a London screever, who is perhaps the only person in the book to say that poverty doesn’t matter, because you’re still free inside your head. Unlike most of the others, he has time to still study and is very literate and educated. Although Orwell rarely looks down on those in the same situation as him – and indeed, the book ends with him saying that his time in poverty has taught him never to judge those who end up there – there is a sense that he considers himself more educated and more of a “gentleman” than others. In one London doss house (“spike”), someone learning that he’s had money in the past gives him special privileges. With Bozo, he actually gets taught some things, however, as the screever is a keen astronomer, whereas Orwell admits he hadn’t even noticed before that stars were different colours. Oscar Wilde famously said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Maybe Orwell has spent too long face down in his washing-up water.

Ultimately, it’s quite a tragic book. Orwell escapes poverty eventually, and his experience, while horrific, is temporary. The book shines a light on those who live like this for years, decades, or even their whole lives. There are people who find cigarette butts on the pavement just for the tiniest hit of tobacco, those who have eaten nothing but bread and butter for months, and men wandering the streets with a plethora of diseases that they cannot afford treatment for. It’s a remarkable book and one that should be read by everyone, whether or not they have felt the harsh reality of poverty. It’s especially vital reading now, given that we seem to live in one of the richest societies in the world but have a ridiculously high poverty level. Our governments could learn a lot from this, and not from Orwell’s other works as they seem to have done previously.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

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“Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick (2016)

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“A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods…”

Time travel feels like it’s been a mainstay in popular culture since the dawn of time, but the concept didn’t really get going until the publication of H. G. Wells’ world-changing novel The Time Machine. I’ve covered my favourite books regarding time travel already, but I thought it was high time I did a little more research into the whole thing, which led me to Time Travel: A History.

In this fascinating and fairly comprehensive tome, Jame Gleick pulls back the curtain on time travel and explores it from every angle, studying the stories that have used it and changed the way we think about it, as well as then looking at the philosophy and physics of the concept and how humans have attempted to travel in time already. Gleick attempts to define time and get to grips with what it actually is, as well as taking a look at the problem of paradox (and why you shouldn’t try to kill your grandfather), what happens when you meet yourself, whether or not travelling to the past or future would be better, and what exactly we mean when we say “now”.

The implications of time travel are enormous. While physics still hasn’t been developed enough to allow it, many scientists believe that technically there is nothing in the laws of the universe that forbid it. Philosophers, however, have now spent many years wondering what time travel can tell us about free will – is the future already written and waiting for us to explore, or are we making it up as we go along? From Rip Van Winkle to Doctor Who, Gleick checks in with everyone who had something to say about time, including H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Aristotle and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While the whole book is a cavalcade of trivia and theory, some of it more interesting than others but all of it still mesmerising, the more interesting chapters actually arrive when he discusses things that seem a little unrelated, but are actually spot on. One chapter tries to understand the metaphors we use for time. Is it like money (we do save, waste and spend it, after all) or more like a river (it flows). And if it is a river, what are the banks? Can we get out? Elsewhere, he explores how language simply doesn’t have enough tenses to deal with time travel, or why not every language assumes the future is ahead of us and the past is behind. A particularly intriguing chapter takes a look at time capsules and how humanity has been trying to communicate with an uncertain future for decades.

A must-read for anyone with a science fiction bent, or just anyone who has longed for a TARDIS of their very own.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Question Time” by Mark Mason (2018)

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“It’s on nights like this that the pub feels even more womb-like than usual.”

I love quizzes. I’ve long had a desire to consume as much trivia is humanly possible – one of my school reports notes that I have an “unstoppable thirst for knowledge” – and often the only place is comes in useful is in the corner of the pub, two wines down, as the chap behind the bar says, “Round one, question one…” I don’t profess to be a particularly popular person, but I’ve had people beg me to join their team. My knowledge is shallow but broad, and often obscure. At one point, I could claim to have won every pub quiz I’d ever taken part in, but unfortunately after a few slightly lower finishing positions, I’ve had to adapt this to say that I’ve never lost one (i.e. never come last). I also tend to write my family a quiz most Christmases, which usually ends in an argument as they all say, “Well how are we meant to know that?” Look, sorry, it’s not my fault you don’t know there are 336 dimples on a regulation golf ball, or that the capital of Uruguay is Montevideo.

I’ve read Mark Mason before, a few years ago enjoying his excellent Walk the Lines, in which he travels the whole of the London Underground network on foot, peppering his journey with endless trivia. I figured that a book specifically about quizzes would give me even more, and I wasn’t wrong. Broadly speaking, it’s about Mason’s travels around Britain, stopping in at all kinds of quizzes along the way. He visits the World Quizzing Championship, a quiz machine in a pub, a recording of radio music quiz Counterpoint, and speed quizzes in Edinburgh bars. All through his journey, he is attempting to answer the one question that still has him stumped: “What makes the perfect quiz question?”

Alongside this quest, however, Mason simply explores towns and cities of Britain, including Edinburgh, Southampton, Oxford and Nottingham, and doles out endless streams of trivia, sometimes about the places he’s visiting but often not. In another’s hands, this could get dull and reduce the whole endeavour to a book best dipped into when on the toilet, but it doesn’t falter once. As a trivia junkie myself, some of it I knew, such as Mr Bump’s Norwegian name (Herr Dumpidump), and which British monarch is the only one who has had their DNA taken (Richard III), but there were hundreds of other titbits I had no idea about. The Spitfire plane was originally going to be called the Shrew, Alaska has the second highest number of national parks in America after California, and that the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones, which I knew to be Europe’s biggest bookshop, has eight miles of shelving.

Question Time is a supremely interesting look at the world of quizzing and the kind of people who do it, especially those that manage to make a living out of it. Although there aren’t many celebrities in the field, we still cross paths with Kevin Ashman, one of television’s Eggheads, spot Paul Sinha of The Chase across the room, and take part in a quiz hosted by Jack Waley-Cohen, the senior question setter on my favourite TV quiz show, Only Connect. We also get to see a quiz hosted by the QI elves, who’ve taken the podcast world by storm with their spin-off show No Such Thing as a Fish. Although there is definitely a certain type of person who gets really into the act of quizzing, there does seem to be something unifying and universal about the “sport”, and the tradition of trivia is as alive and well as it ever was. People are just curious, and we all like the challenge, it seems.

It’s also inspired me once again to try and make my way to the other side of the microphone and host one myself. If you know of an opening, give me a shout.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Zen In The Art Of Writing” by Ray Bradbury (1994)

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“Sometimes I am stunned at my capacity as a nine-year-old, to understand my entrapment and escape it.”

I’ve long admired Ray Bradbury. One of the true genius writers of the last century, the man had a mind like no other and was capable of dreaming up the most remarkable fantasies, all of which felt as real as they did spooky. Having been struggling with writing lately, I thought it was about time I gave myself a lecture on why I fell in love with it in the first place. But then my friend bought me this for my birthday and I figured, well, no point in lecturing myself when I can get Bradbury to do it.

This slim collection of essays written over thirty years or so detail Bradbury’s experiences with writing. Far more proficient and disciplined than I am (and probably ever will be), he explains how he took to writing a thousand words a day and could polish off short stories in a matter of hours once he’d got the central conceit. Famously, the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 was written in nine days on a rented typewriter at his local library. He wrote long lists of nouns that could serve as titles. THE CROWD. THE ATTIC. THE CARNIVAL. THE OLD WOMAN. THE VELDT. A vast majority of these would later grow into some of his most famous novels and short stories, and it seemed he always had an idea and a willing audience. He sold dozens of stories to magazines before he was a full-time novelist. It’s inspiring.

Throughout though, he never once seems to prescribe his success to luck and he’s not arrogant about it. He admits that he works hard – and he shows that working – but he never seems to lose his passion for writing. Not only does he praise the virtues of zen (work – relaxation – don’t think), he also talks with appropriate joy about zest. You have to love what you’re doing, or no one will want to read it. It’s the kind of thing I really needed to hear recently as my third novel struggles to take shape on the Arctic whiteness of a Word document. He is one of those brave figures who knows his own mind and isn’t bothered by peer pressure, as shown when he explains his childhood love of Buck Rogers and how he was prepared to lose friends over it. The final part of the book is a collection of poems, which even I – as a poem-sceptic – enjoyed.

Bradbury only died in 2012 after an impressive life filling the world with mystery, fantasy, horror and truths, as well as being one of the central figures responsible for bringing science fiction into the mainstream. What he has to say about writing is important, and I defy anyone who has read his work to not think he’s an incredible talent. If no one else, anyone who considers themselves a fiction writer should read these essays. If anything, you may just feel a bit less alone.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Art Of Failing” by Anthony McGowan (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Golden Age Of Murder” by Martin Edwards (2015)

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“On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in darkness to perform a macabre ritual.”

Crime fiction has held a key spot in book sales for decades, now. Changing tastes may have seen a switch from detective stories in English country manors to blood-soaked thrillers on the mean streets of New York, but at their heart sits the puzzle that people still clamour for. It was in the 1920s and 1930s, however, that detective fiction took off in a big way, with figures like Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley and Ngaio Marsh enjoying incredible fame and success with their detectives. But they were far from the only ones, and their novels were not as cosy and conventional as many people now believe they were. The greatest detective writers of the age needed an outlet, and together they formed the Detection Club, an exclusive London society for all the luminaries of the genre. This is their story.

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am an enormous fan of murder mysteries, particularly those of the Golden Age, and this book was therefore an inevitability for me. It explores the history of the club and discusses the world of detective fiction when it was at its peak between the two world wars. Combining literary criticism, true crime, biography and trivia, Martin Edwards – the current President of the Detection Club – takes us into the society’s inner workings to meet and mingle with the superstars of the age and learn about their lives, all of which seemed just as fascinating and mysterious as their novels.

Top of the class, of course, sit Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and, naturally, Agatha Christie. Each of them remains well known today, but they were all fascinating people with murder on their minds. Each of them also took a secret with them to the grave, and in the case of Christie and her disappearance, the puzzle yet to be resolved. But while much of the biography focuses on these three superstars, we also get to spend time with others of the group including G. K. Chesterston, partners in writing and matrimony G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Baroness Orczy, E. C. R. Lorac, Val Gielgud and even, perhaps surprisingly, A. A. Milne, who wrote one detective novel that was deemed brilliant enough to allow him membership. We also get to experience second-hand the initiation ceremony of the group which involved a skull with glowing red eyes and a solemn oath that promise not to make use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.

The book uncovers not only the mysteries of this group, but also does away with all stereotypes and assumptions made about the genre from people who clearly have never read any. Many of the books are these days labelled “cosy crime”, a term I’ve definitely used too, but when you look properly, there is absolutely nothing cosy about these. Across thousands of novels, the authors discussed everything from religion and the death penalty, to extramarital sex, fetishes, suicide, Nazism, justice, and feminism. They get typified as being uptight, conservative members of society and while some of them definitely were, their numbers included many people on the political left. Some were university educated, others had had no official schooling at all. Some were wealthy, others struggling. Some shy and retiring, some gregarious and gossipy (I’m looking at you Christianna Brand). Among them, all they had in common was a love of writing detective fiction.

It’s a heartwarming book in many ways, as Edwards delves into the relationships between the members of the Detection Club, he uncovers evidence that they all had a strong bond with one another, referencing one another in their books, jumping to each others’ defence when they got a bad review, and even collaborating to write books together to raise funds for the club. They enjoyed discussing murder together, sharing ideas, and trying to solve true crime cases that the police had failed to find answers to.

This book is really quite something and, as Edwards himself says, it’s impossible to cover everything about these people and their projects, but it’s nonetheless a pretty comprehensive introduction. With something interesting on every page, rare photographs, and some genuinely funny stories and phrases too (a particular favourite is, “…Agatha Christie, a quiet, pleasant woman who was easy to read unless you wanted to know what was going on in her mind.”) it’s a real treasure for anyone interested in crime, either factual or fictional.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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