“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!

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“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!

“A Short History Of Drunkenness” by Mark Forsyth (2017)

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“Before we were human, we were drinkers.”

My fondness for alcohol is well-documented. The best job I ever had was working, briefly, for a spirits magazine which involved perhaps an inordinate amount of tasting different tipples. But I also found the world of alcohol fascinating, rather than just loving the fact it’s so readily available and easy to drink. In this book, Mark Forsyth reveals what we’ve always known – humans are a species that are very fond of their drink and always have been.

Racing through history, from the first farmers to American Prohibition, Forsyth explores not just what humans have been drinking all this time, but also how, why, when and with who. We (in Britain at least) associate alcohol with evenings and the weekend in particular, although pretty much any time after noon when we’re not at work seems acceptable. This hasn’t always been the case. In the Middle Ages, Sunday morning was the time to get drunk, and the Romans and Vikings were at it pretty much all the time.

The book is packed with fascinating facts about the history of boozing, covering all the major types of alcohol including ale, beer, mead, wine, vodka, whisky, gin and cocktails. We learn about how alcohol was never meant to find its way to Australia (a plan that got as far as Plymouth), that in London, gin was once served out of dead cats, why you originally had to drink ale through a straw, and even how alcohol may have been responsible for the entire of civilisation. After all, hunting and gathering is all very well, but it takes time to brew beer, and you can’t do that when you’re constantly on the move.

As well as being incredibly interesting, the book is also very funny. Forsyth is open about the fact that he doesn’t understand all the science behind how alcohol affects us, nor even some of the history that doesn’t directly relate to booze, but he does know what he’s talking about when it comes to popping the cork or opening a cold beer. With wit and humour, he dashes away the rumours that Prohibition was a failed crusade, explains how to get served in the Wild West, and why the saloon of the movies never existed in reality, shows that the Egyptians loved to get drunk and partake in orgies in their temples, and that even the Middle East failed to curtail people’s alcohol intake, despite strict laws against it.

As he says, humans have been drinking since before we were human, and it changed our path forever. And I for one am not sorry about that at all. Cheers!

“Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies)” curated by Scarlett Curtis (2018)

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“I didn’t know I was a feminist until I was fifteen.”

A few years ago, I found myself at a picnic for people interested in the newly formed Women’s Equality Party. A woman was going around with recording equipment, asking those present – mostly women, but more than a few men, too – about their views on feminism. After my female friends and girlfriend at the time had given their answers, I was asked, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” My response was quite a simple, “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” She noted that a lot of people still weren’t, and I guess for the first time it struck me that I really couldn’t understand why people didn’t believe in sexual equality.

I come from a matriarchal family, for one. The vast majority of my friends are, and always have been, women. I’ve worked for twelve years, but until this year, I’d never had a male boss. Most of my teachers (and certainly most of the better ones) were women. I was born in 1988, when there was a female Prime Minister, a queen on the throne, and Kylie Minogue was top of the charts. I’d never for a second doubted that women couldn’t do anything that men could. I never understood how people could say that women weren’t clever, when most of my friends graduated with better degrees than me. I was saddened when people said women weren’t funny, as it meant – in my eyes anyway – that they’d never seen any of Victoria Wood’s work. Or probably actually met any women at all. But we’re still fighting, and it’s insane.

It’s not as clear-cut as that, though. Sure, there might again be a woman in Downing Street, and the queen might still be on the throne, but are they actually doing anything for the betterment of women? You’d hope so, but it rarely seems to be the case. Oprah appears to be the most worshipped woman in America, yet why are her fellow women still treated less fairly? It’s baffling. But this is a book review blog. So on we go.

This book is a collection of short essays and poems from a wide swathe of the female population regarding their journeys through life as women and what feminism means to them. Contributors include Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Bumble (the dating app where only women can instigate conversations), the newest Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, a very furious Keira Knightley, a hilarious Lolly Adefope, the inspiring Alaa Murabit and Youtube sensation Zoe Sugg, to name a few. Even Bridget Jones gets into the swing of things, as Helen Fielding gives us some new entries from the famous diaries as Bridget looks back at the nineties and wonders why she put up with everything she did from Daniel, Mark and many other men.

A powerful treatise that should immediately make its way into the hands of every woman and man on the planet, the book covers topics of women in the workplace, periods, the ever-present threat of attack, beauty standards, the tampon tax, female genital mutilation, parenthood and pregnancy. Evanna Lynch talks about worrying if she’s going to leave a bloodstain on the casting director’s couch when she stands up. Kat Dennings relays an alphabet of ways her mother thinks women can get kidnapped. Scarlett Curtis gives us the answers we need to the questions people ask when they don’t understand feminism. Jameela Jamil explains why men should be included in the battle, and how to get those who still don’t identify as a feminist to do so.

Curtis has done great work by gathering up these diverse voices, and it was a pleasure to read every single page, even if some are tougher to get through than others in their brutal honesty regarding what women have had to put up with for millennia. Let’s hope that feminism will soon be a thing of the past – by which I mean that we won’t need a word for it, because it’s just how things are. It’s vital reading because we can all be doing better. I know I’m not perfect by any means in this area, but I like to think that I treat people of all genders with the same respect, and I don’t judge on something that is, ultimately, pretty trivial. But I’m always learning and happy to be doing so. We need everyone on the same page, and I can’t think of a single reason why sexual equality shouldn’t be normality.

Do I consider myself a feminist? You bet I do.

“The Trip To Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing (2013)

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“Here’s a thing.”

Earlier this year a friend let me borrow The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which tells the stories of loneliness behind some of the greatest artists in history. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an earlier book of hers – The Trip to Echo Spring – which focuses on authors and their reliance on alcohol. As a writer who enjoys a glass of wine or six, it’s a topic close to my heart. In this book, Laing travels with width of the United States to explore the places inhabited by six of America’s greatest writers and their struggles with alcohol – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, and the poster boys for drunk authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Combining biography, literary criticism, travel writing and a treatise on the effects alcohol has on the body, Laing builds up a picture of these six men and the struggles they went through. My immediate confession is that while I’m aware of the impact they had on the literary scene, I’ve only read two of them – Fitzgerald and Cheever. I know enough about them all to be able to appreciate who they were, however, and the book helps fill in a lot of their, often tragic, backstories.

Laing travels, usually by train, around the USA, taking in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, St Paul, and Port Angeles, all places that meant something to our heroes. She explores their early lives, the relationships they formed, how they came to develop alcohol addiction, and which ones made it through the other side, and which ended their own lives over it. There are some poignant moments, including John Berryman struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, Cheever suffering from poverty in Manhattan, and Raymond Carver having marriage and fatherhood thrust upon him while still a teenager.

It is Fitzgerald, however, that shines for me. Perhaps because I know most about him and Zelda, but whatever misfortunes befall him, he can’t help but appear faintly ridiculous. Once, someone walks in on him in his room wearing several layers in an attempt to sweat out all the gin – while still drinking gin. Elsewhere, he drives around in a car with no roof in the rain until he decides he’s got pneumonia and has Hemingway take him to a hotel and promise to take care of his wife and daughter when he’s dead. Laing adds that a “few whisky sours put a stop to this nonsense”, and Scott and Ernest are out drinking again within hours.

Laing also uses personal experiences in the text, mentioning her mother’s lover Diana who was an alcoholic for many years, but has since become sober. Despite the humour of Fitzgerald, The Trip to Echo Spring is pretty sombre and a reminder that alcohol is indeed a poison and not to be messed about with. Like in The Lonely City, however, she shows how these people used their flaws and vices to create some of the greatest work in history, and she does a good job of exploring the relationships between alcohol and the written word. A thoughtful and interesting piece.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

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