“Here, The World Entire” by Anwen Kya Hayward (2016)

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“I hear his heartbeat first.”

If you’ve been lingering around this blog long enough, you’ll know I have a particular fondness for Greek mythology. I’m no expert, but I like to keep my hand in, enjoying the stories of the heroes and gods who live their lives like a historical soap opera with added magic. Anwen Kya Hayward, is someone who knows what she’s talking about. Academically instructed up to the eyeballs in the mythological studies, Anwen and I met through social media several years ago, and I have always enjoyed her passion for her subject. I’m a lazy git, so I can’t claim now that as soon as she was published, I snapped the book up, but nonetheless, here we are. Only six months late.

The tiny novella is based around the myth of Medusa, confined to her cave after being punished by Athena for something that wasn’t her fault. Once beautiful, Medusa’s golden hair has been replaced with a nest of snakes, and anyone she looks at turns to stone. Perseus intrudes upon her quiet cave, telling her that he needs her help, and was sent by Athena to ask for it. If only she would come out and meet him…

The main narrative is interspersed with events from Medusa’s history, primarily the events that caused her to be transformed into this monster, and an incident where she accidentally wiped out a whole village with her powers. Often seen as a villain in modern interpretations of Greek mythology, it is really something to see her here portrayed with humanity, sealing herself off from the world to protect everyone else as much as herself. She knows she is dangerous and doesn’t actively want to hurt anyone else, even shouting through the cave entrance that very fact to Perseus, although acknowledging that he will die if he comes in.

As mentioned, it’s a short book but I consumed it in an hour or so, supine on a sun lounger on one of the hottest days in living memory. Hayward is economical in her language, and not a word is wasted, building up an incredibly rich and beautiful world set entirely in a cave, where neither character can look at the other. Medusa, naturally, rarely describes anything she can see, so much is made of what she can hear, using aural clues to work out what Perseus is doing outside her cave. For something written, it’s incredibly unusual and very well done.

It’s a gorgeous little read, with a real sense of tragedy about it, as we explore the inner workings of a monster’s brain. It seems to tie into my recent readings of Frankenstein and Wonder, which also deal with not judging people based on their appearance or first impressions. Medusa is sympathetic, but if you know how the old myth ends, you’ll know why that’s a difficult thing to have to deal with here. A sublime piece of work, and I look forward to more.

“A Planet For Rent” by Yoss (2001)

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“Step on up, ladies and gents, right this way!”

As we sit and watch the world slide further and further into an irreparable state of being (the only thing 2017 has on 2016 so far is the lack of deaths of icons, but possibly only because there aren’t any left), perhaps we’re all just wondering if something is going to come along and save us. The premise of Yoss’s science fiction novel is that Earth was on the brink of ecological and economic collapse, and the watching aliens (“xenoids”) who had been biding their time until it was right to make contact, instead made themselves known earlier than planned to save humanity from its own destruction. When humans did what they always seem to do and fought instead of accepting help, the xenoids nuked Africa off the face of the planet and enslaved everyone that was left. This is the state we find our home in at the start of A Planet For Rent.

Divided into seven main parts with smaller chapters of exposition in between, we now follow along behind some of the humans trying to eke out a living on the Earth without pissing off too many aliens. There aren’t many roles left for humanity now; you can become a social worker (i.e. prostitute) for the xenoid tourists, an artist, black marketeer, security worker, or if you’re talented, become an artist or athlete and have the xenoids admire you for that, if they have the capacity to do so.

The stories are loosely interconnected, with characters and events from each one being referenced throughout, and sometimes turning up in more than one. We meet basically one of each of the categories I mentioned above. Moy is a performer who kills himself nightly for the sake of art, only to be cloned back to life after each performance. Buca is a social worker who will be used as a vessel for a grodo to lay its eggs in. Friga, Jowe and Adam are trying to escape the Earth, which turns out to be an almost impossible feat. And Daniel is one of the greatest Voxl players in the galaxy, headhunted for his skills in the fast-paced sport.

As usual with books that have been translated (this one by David Frye from the original Spanish), it’s hard to know what gets lost in the transfer, but it’s a hell of a task, especially in a book containing numerous invented words for future technologies and alien races. A few mistranslations and spelling errors slipped through, but that hardly impacts the plot.

The book was very unstable in its ability to keep my interest. Some of the chapters were engaging and interesting, but others did nothing for me at all. The idea of a world where humanity has been enslaved by far richer aliens and the planet is now basically an amusement park for tourists is great, but I don’t feel enough was done with it. It’s also a good analogy for how humans have just colonised each other over the years, enslaving people from “newly discovered” countries, and supplanting the natives ways of life with their own. That is why we fear aliens or xenoids so much, because every civilisation is eventually crushed by one more powerful, and we’re just waiting for the next threat to come from outer space.

The thing that really intrigued me about this book, though, was the author himself, Yoss. Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Cuba, Yoss is not only a science fiction author, but also the lead singer in the heavy metal band Tenaz. Of the two, he looks so much like a stereotypical rocker that it feels somewhat disparate to also equate him with this book. It’s smart, and there are some great ideas in here, but I wasn’t gripped enough by it and feel that so much more could have been done with the concept.

“Problem At Pollensa Bay” by Agatha Christie (1935)

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“The steamer from Barcelona to Majorca landed Mr Parker Pyne at Palma in the early hours of the morning – and straightaway he met with disillusionment.”

I’ve been commuting via train this week which has certainly been a novel and tiring experience. Engaged in Catch-22 for the previous week, I finished and decided I needed something a bit less dense that was easier to read in the mornings when surrounded by other passengers. When in doubt, it’s always best to turn to Agatha Christie.

A collection of eight short stories, these tales bring back some old characters, as well as including two other stories with none of the usual heroes. Two tales feature Mr Parker Pyne, another two reunite us again with Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quin, and two more provide a welcome return for Hercule Poirot. The final two are gothic tales and not the mysteries we associate with Christie, but I’ll get onto them shortly.

Poirot appears in “The Second Gong” and “Yellow Iris”, the latter of which I’ve seen as a stage adaptation. The first involves the murder of a man in his study and is very traditionally Christie, and in the second, Poirot receives a mysterious phone call from a panicked woman who tells him to join her immediately at a restaurant where she feels something awful is about to happen. Mr Parker Pyne shows up in the titular “Problem at Pollensa Pay” where he’s desperately trying to enjoy a holiday without being recognised but he still ends up trying to fix an unwelcome engagement. He shows up again in “The Regatta Mystery” when a rare jewel goes missing after a prank goes wrong.

Mr Satterthwaite once again meets his mysterious friend Harley Quin first in “The Harlequin Tea Set”, in which a knowledge of genetics will help prevent a murder. They collide again, literally, in “The Love Detectives” where a man has been killed and it seems that everyone is prepared to claim they did the crime, despite none of them seeming to know how he died. All six of these stories are brilliant and charming, full of character and humour alongside the darkness and I’m almost sorry it took me so long to get around to them.

The final two stories, on the other hand, are less engaging. Involving no murder, or really any crime at all, they are gothic tales that are somewhat haunting, but not particularly engaging. “Next to a Dog” is about a young woman who needs to get married because no job she goes for will allow her to keep her precious dog, Terry, meaning she is blindly led into a marriage of convenience with a man she doesn’t love. The second, “Magnolia Blossom” also feels very familiar as a story and I may have seen an adaptation of it at some point but I can’t quite remember. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband, but dashes back later the same day when she discovers her husband’s company has collapsed and her loyalty is such that she can’t leave him on the same day as that happening. Her husband, however, then tries to use her for his own means to save his life, leading her to wonder if her loyalty wasn’t misplaced.

So, while mostly a good batch with a great collection of Christie’s finest characters, I was left disappointed by the final two tales. Still, they can’t all be winners, and you can’t begrudge her from trying some new styles every now and again. Truth is though, her murder mysteries are still the best, and nothing else can quite measure up.

Just as a quick note in case there are the sort of people reading this and get fussy about specifics, although published as this collection in 1991, I have dated it 1935, which is the date the title story was first published. The stories themselves, however, were published separately between 1926 and 1971. So there you go.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

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

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chickens“Got your nose!”

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

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

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

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

“Miss Marple’s Final Cases” by Agatha Christie (1979)

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marple-final“The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums.”

I checked back, and all the books I’ve read recently seem to have been published in the last few years. In fact, this year the blog has been very heavy with contemporary releases. I decided it was time to slip back a bit, but I only made it as far as the seventies. Thus, I bring you Miss Marple’s Final Cases, a collection of short stories about everyone’s favourite old lady.

The collection is of nine stories, seven of which contain Miss Marple and two are more supernatural in their nature and feature none of the usual characters. The final story, “Greenshaw’s Folly”, I read feeling like I’d definitely read it before, then realised I had, as it’s also in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. I covered that one there, so here’s a brief rundown on the other eight.

First up is “Sanctuary”, in which a down-and-out man is found dying in a church after weakly asking for sanctuary. When it is discovered that he had recently escaped from jail and he’s left a suitcase at Paddington station, Miss Marple and vicar’s wife Bunch set about trying to find out why he came to be at that church in particular. In the second story, “Strange Jest”, a young couple are foxed when their wealthy uncle dies having left them far less money than they thought he would. However, it seems the old man was fond of jokes, and it takes Miss Marple’s memories of an old uncle to work out where the rest of the money is hidden.

In “Tape-Measure Murder”, a dress fitter attends a client only to find that she’s dead. The local police are stumped but Miss Marple’s sharp eyes find a clue that everyone else deems unimportant that allows her to pin down the murderer. Fourth in line is “The Case of the Caretaker”, in which a young couple move to the village of St Mary Mead much to the apparent anger of the former caretaker of the house they knocked down to build their own. The new wife is convinced that a curse has been laid upon her, and it isn’t long before tragedy strikes. The fifth story is “The Case of the Perfect Maid”, which is a tale of servants, domesticity and theft as Miss Marple attempts to clear the name of a poor maid and uses her own methods to achieve things that the police, in all their wisdom, are unable to do. The sixth tale, “Miss Marple Tells a Story” is, I believe, unique among the canon as it is to my knowledge the only story told from Miss Marple’s point of view. She is regaling her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan about the time she solved a murder for her former solicitor, when a friend of his is accused of murdering his own wife.

The seventh story, “The Dressmaker’s Doll” is enough to put the creeps up anyone, telling the tale of a doll that seems to have appeared very suddenly in a dressmaker’s studio. It seems to be moving of its own accord and the women in the office cannot remember how the doll arrived, nor understand what it wants. I hate all stories of creepy dolls (it’s something that really bloody weirds me out), and this is right up there with the best/worst of them. The final new story is “In A Glass Darkly”. The narrator goes throughout being nameless, but is staying with friends when, in a mirror, he sees another guest being strangled by her lover, although when he turns around in fright, there’s nothing but a wardrobe there. Did he really see her being killed, or has he had a premonition?

Often with collections of short stories, the quality is highly variable, but here I found all the stories to be relatively strong. My favourite was probably “Strange Jest”, which had a satisfactory ending regarding the many different forms that money can take, and how some people just can’t resist a practical joke. I was least impressed with “In A Glass Darkly”, which I happen to have seen adapted for television, and don’t remember being too keen on then either. It just doesn’t feel very Christie, especially in a book surrounded by Marple stories.

Although not collected and published together until 1979, these stories were written between 1934 and 1958, and they’re a great testament to the skill Christie had, as all her work is. Despite most of the stories being less than fifty pages long, she manages to fill them with so much in the way of plot and character that even minor figures jump out of the page, and there isn’t a word wasted. As usual, all the clues are there if you’re smart enough to piece them together before Miss Marple does, and as usual, I proved that I’m not.

And so, with this final collection, I bid a fond farewell to Miss Marple  – I’ve read them all. No doubt I’ll return to them eventually, but this feels like something of a momentous occasion. Goodnight to you, Jane Marple, you will remain one of the finest detectives ever committed to paper.

“The Pottermore Trilogy” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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hogwartsIf there’s one thing we can say about J. K. Rowling (and there are many things, many of which I don’t agree with), it’s that she is one of the finest world-builders of all time. While there are some suggestions that she makes up things on the fly – and maybe a couple of things she has – it always seemed very clear to me that there was a plan in place from the beginning. When you read back and notice Sirius Black getting a name check in the first chapter, two whole books before he turns up, or see the innocuous mentions of the Vanishing Cabinet long before it comes into its own in the sixth book, it’s obvious that she knew a lot more than she was putting in the books.

With the advent of the website Pottermore, we were promised more information on some of the series’ characters and concepts, and she certainly delivered, although you’ll never please all the people all the time and there’s much call for information on main characters like Sirius Black and Neville Longbottom, whereas we’ve often ended up with that on blink-and-you’ll-miss-them characters like Celestina Warbeck and Professor Kettleburn. Nonetheless, if she has this level of information on those characters, she must be able to produce massive tomes on some of the core characters. However, even some die-hard fans found it hard to navigate through the site to get their hands on the new information, so it’s now here and available to us all. While the information is free to read on Pottermore, the three new ebooks, which I’m dubbing here the Pottermore trilogy but have no official grouped title, are cheap to download and contain a little extra too. They were released yesterday and by the time I’d finished breakfast this morning, I’d read them all. The full titles of the three are:

  • Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide
  • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists
  • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies

The first listed is, as you’d expect, all information about the school itself, telling us more about the Hogwarts Express and the creation of the hidden platform at King’s Cross, the Sorting Hat, the ghosts, the grounds and some of the school’s more peculiar artifacts such as the Mirror of Erised. The second, Power, details information about the Ministry of Magic (including a list of all Ministers) and those who seek or have been granted great power of one kind or another, including Umbridge, Slughorn and Quirrell. Peeves is also discussed in detail here, simply I think for the purposes of alliteration in the title. The final book, Heroism, is primarily about some of the most important and influencial secondary characters, McGonagall, Lupin and Trelawney, but also has some extra information about things associated with them, such as werewolves and seers.

Are the books worth getting? Yeah, sure. There isn’t a great deal of extra content unfortunately, but we get the full guide on how to become an Animagus, and find out more about Slughorn’s history. If you’re a die hard fan, then of course they belong in your collection, but as I said above, most of the information is available on Pottermore for free. People seem to be slating Rowling for now charging for it, but the original hasn’t been removed, so it’s still completely accessible for everyone. No one is making them buy these books.

I personally love the extra information she has stored up about her world, and I always get excited when there is anything extra revealed. There were rumours once of an encyclopedia about everything, but if these books teach us anything it’s that that is going to be one enormous book. And if it ever emerged, I’d devour the thing in one sitting. Until that day, we shall make do with these rather brilliant little bonus books.

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