“House Of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

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“This is not for you.”

There are some books that pass into legend as being unlike anything else. House of Leaves is one of those. It has sat on my shelf for years at this point, daring me to pluck up the courage to explore it. As much a work of art as a story, it begs to be read, even though you know it’s not going to be easy. Given everyone else seems to be using quarantine as a time to get through those books they’ve been putting off forever (a lot of people are struggling through Middlemarch as we speak), it was literally now or never.

Johnny Truant, an LA tattoo artist, has discovered a manuscript in the apartment of a dead man called Zampanò that is an academic study of a film called The Navidson Record. Truant is unable to find any evidence of the film’s existence, however, and many of the references that Zampanò alludes to don’t exist either. Truant shares the whole study with us, interjecting with his own footnotes and edits.

The bulk of the text focuses on The Navidson Record, a film made by photojournalist Will Navidson, who has recently moved into a new house in Virginia. With cameras set up in every room, he intends to use the move as a project to reunite his strained family relationships, but the house has other ideas. Upon returning home one day, the family discover a closet that wasn’t there before they left. Upon further analysis, Navidson discovers that the house is a quarter-inch bigger on the inside than the outside. Calling in his brother and some friends to examine this irregularity, Navidson soon decides that they should enter this new closet, only to find that it leads to an impossibly huge labyrinth, all in black, that changes and warps constantly and seems to have no end. Compelled to document his findings, Navidson begins to construct the film that will make him famous, but there will be costs and dangers that he cannot yet dream of.

Whew. I freely admit that there was a lot of skim-reading taking place here. While the bulk of the story – that of the house and the Navidson family’s relationship with it – is what drives the narrative, none of it is as simple as that. Truant leaves a lot of footnotes, sometimes explaining some specific of Zampanò’s text, or sometimes talking about what’s happening in his own life. Some of these footnotes run on for multiple pages, and it quickly becomes clear that he is not a reliable narrator by any means. I skimmed a lot of these as I didn’t find his story as interesting as the main one, so I admit I may have missed out on some things. Nonetheless, I feel I got the gist.

The piece is as much a work of art as it is a story, and as my friend suggested, it seems to be pushing the idea of what a novel is or can be. Arguments can be made as to whether it worked or not given there is nothing else like this, but I think, while the story is good – and genuinely terrifying – it is the style that people keep returning to this book for. Every contributor has their own font, which is mesmerising for a start, and I’ve already mentioned the long footnotes, but there is so much more going on here. Some pages contain just a few words, others contain overlapping threads, with six different strands of story or footnote tied together, arriving in text boxes or upside down. Some bits require a mirror to read, others will need you to flip the book upside down. Sometimes the text mirrors the action of the story, such as moving up the page when a character is climbing, or shrinking to a tiny area in the middle of the page when Navidson is crawling through a small gap. There are transcripts and interviews, snatches of music, scientific explanations on mythology or science that seem to serve little purpose. Some pages are missing, others have text crossed out, and in the lengthy appendices, there are drawings and photographs to corroborate the evidence of this film and house that may or may not exist. Danielewski is some kind of mad genius and this book is truly the work of someone either incredibly intelligent or frighteningly mad. Some call it a horror story, others a romance, but all that seems certain is that anyone who comes into contact with this house in any way – including just reading about it – has their own interpretation.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, but I’m also not in a hurry to return. The house changes you.

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!

“Rules For Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson (2020)

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“The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormat.”

Some books fit you better than others, but once in a blue moon a book comes along that makes you think it must have been written for you and you alone. As soon as I saw the premise of Rules for Perfect Murders a few months ago, I knew that this was one of those times. I had to have it. Expectations were high as I made my way into the novel and settled in for the fun.

Malcolm Kershaw, owner of Boston’s famous Old Devils mystery bookstore, has had a call from the FBI, and soon meets Agent Gwen Mulvey who wants to ask him a few questions. In 2004, Malcolm wrote a list for the shop’s website about what he declared fiction’s eight most perfect murders. Now it seems that someone is using the list to perform the murders for real. The evidence is at first slim, and the deaths seem unrelated, but when it turns out that Malcolm knew at least one of the victims, it seems that maybe Mulvey is on to something.

As Malcolm gets more involved in the case, we find out more about his past, why he still sells crime fiction despite having long given up reading it, and which murder the killer will use as inspiration next. It becomes increasingly clear that he is being taunted, but he has no idea who would want to do this. The killer must be stopped before they managed to reenact all eight murders, but how can one predict such a thing?

Firstly, if you intend to read this book, I would suggest you go in blind and don’t read any further. I will try and avoid spoilers, but some are inevitable to discuss it. Secondly. Well. What a phenomenon. Swanson throws us right into the story, with a number of the murders having already happened, and the sense of dread – helped along by the chilling and bitterly cold Boston winter that the story is set in – immediately ratcheted up high. Malcolm is a fascinating narrator, somewhat unreliable at times, but he knows full well what he’s doing. Quite early on you think you know exactly where it’s going, especially if you’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, but the rug is pulled out from under you as soon as you think you’ve got it, leaving you fumbling for clues once more.

The choice of using real life murder mysteries as the basis is inspired, and it’s not a new concept. On a few occasions, murderers have be caught and later discovered to have Agatha Christie novels on their shelves with passages underlined. The eight books selected intrigued me too, and I think had I not read any of them, I would have been less inclined to read the book. Of the eight, I’d read four, and it’s just as well because the book does not go easy on spoilers, and outright ruins the twists of several of the greatest murder mysteries of the last hundred years. The four I had read are The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie), The Red House Mystery (A. A. Milne), The Secret History (Donna Tartt) and Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith). The four I hadn’t were Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley Cox), Double Indemnity (James M. Cain), The Drowner (John D. MacDonald) and Deathtrap (Ira Levin). It’s a good list, but for me, I think you’d have to include the likes of Quick Curtain (Alan Melville), And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, again) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley Cox, again). I appreciate the mix, though, and it’s great to see a wide variety, as well as a good selection of murder methods and the disparate motives that seem to be set up. Like all the best murder mysteries, it plays out like a macabre game of Cluedo. This is a perfect example of how to play with the genre, explore it in depth, and do the whole thing knowingly. Swanson is a master.

Absolutely incredible stuff from someone who completely understands the genre.

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 Last” by Hannah Jameson (2019)

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“Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.”

I never learn. Why did I think it was a good idea to read another dystopia during the rise of an international virus that the media are touting as the scariest thing ever? And why did I think that the same book would be a sensible thing to read while staying in a hotel alone all weekend, when it’s also a thriller set in a hotel? Suffice to say, my imagination ran away with me and I did very little actual reading in the hotel, although my podcast consumption shot up. It’s over now, so it’s time to review The Last.

While Jon Keller is staying in a remote hotel in Switzerland, the world ends. Major cities across the planet are hit by nuclear weapons and the Internet quickly goes down. Many people flee from the hotel, hoping to make it somewhere safe, but a handful stay behind. Jon is one of twenty survivors now holed up in the hotel. As a history professor in his previous life, he takes it upon himself to make a record of the end of the world. Fifty days after the bombs dropped, he finds a body.

Convinced that one of the group is a murderer, Jon sets about interviewing the other survivors, not all of whom want to join in with his theorising. As the days pass, suspicion grows and Jon finds that the vital clues he needs are going missing. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and tensions flare as the final pocket of survivors work out how they’re going to stay alive in the long term. But things get worse when they get evidence that they might not be the last people after all. They might not even be the only people in the hotel…

This is one of the tensest books I have read in a very long time. The end of the world is tragically believable, although we never find out exactly who began the bombings, it never seems to matter. The stakes are high and feel real, and you are wrapped up in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel, with no idea what is happening outside. The events of the first day of the end of the world are revisited a few times, as Jon and others remember more and more about it. It’s almost funny when one of the fleeing guests deadpans, “Scotland’s gone”. Is this how we’ll be if it ever happens? The use of social media comes into play as well, from the opening line. For most of the novel, the characters don’t have Internet access, but when they do get some they learn that some people did indeed live-tweet the apocalypse.

The characters are a rich and varied bunch, with some getting a lot of page time and others just shining for a cameo, based on how much Jon speaks to them. He is, however, an unreliable narrator, consumed with toothache and a sense of self-importance. You can’t fault his drive regarding his desire to solve the murder, but there’s another part of you that wonders if he’s just going mad. There’s a sense of insanity about him and an obsession that sees him doing anything to distract from thinking about his wife and children. At first you believe him, but even as a reader you begin to doubt him as a narrator – is all of this just in his head? The others, particularly student Tomi, doctor Tania and head of hotel security Dylan, are shown only through Jon’s eyes, so we don’t know what prejudices he’s putting on to them. We see them as he interprets them, so we can’t know for sure if they really are acting in the way he says, or if it’s just paranoia. From what we do see, however, many of them do seem to be acting suspiciously, but the suspense keeps on ratcheting up and characters motivations seem to change day by day.

I’ve said this before, but I think I need to say it again. Until the news perks up and it doesn’t feel like we’re living in the end days, I really need to stop reading dystopian fiction, especially when it’s this visceral and real. An amazing book, but consumed by a bruised mind. I don’t want to put anyone off, because it’s a brilliant read, but take care.

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!

“The Death Of Mrs Westaway” by Ruth Ware (2018)

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“The magpies are back.”

I long for the day someone appears and hands me a big cheque informing me that I’ve won or inherited a lot of money and life will be a bit easier now. That kind of thing only happens in fiction though, and is the catalyst for the events of The Death of Mrs Westaway.

Harriet “Hal” Westaway is a young woman with a problem. Orphaned at eighteen and now three years on reading tarot cards on a Brighton pier and never quite knowing where the next rent money is coming from, she has had a very difficult and lonely life. She’s also now at risk of physical harm as she’s being stalked by a threatening loan shark who knows where she lives and isn’t afraid to mention the fact he’s broken bones before. Survival seems impossible, until she gets the letter. According to a lawyer in Penzance, her grandmother has died and left her a substantial estate.

There’s a slight problem though – Hal’s grandparents have been dead for decades. It’s clear that the letter has come to the wrong person, but Hal is desperate and with her years doing cold readings on people, she seems perfectly suited for conning her way into an inheritance she isn’t entitled to. The choice she makes will change everything, and before long she’s embroiled in a family that has more secrets than she ever thought possible. She just has to make sure no one finds out hers…

It’s a rollercoaster of a novel and just when you think you’ve got the hang of where it’s going, there’s another lurch to the side and you’re disoriented once again. The world is rich and haunting, the characters flawed but interesting and there’s a smoothness to the prose that means you find for every time you sit down to read one chapter you find you’ve read five instead. It’s moreish. It all feels very real too – with the exception of the fact that here Brighton’s West Pier still exists (a beautiful and touching inclusion) – and the honest, simple details that ground it in the real world make the paranoia and tension that build through the novel even more chilling. Throughout there are a lot of questions and we are left to make up our own mind, like Hal. And as any of us know, the mind is a dangerous thing and nothing will always be scarier than something.

I have a couple of questions left at the end regarding plot points that don’t get resolved and it’s one of those books that left me thinking, “But what happened next?” I don’t think Ware needs to do a sequel at all, but it would be interesting to know how everyone’s lives were changed after the events of this novel. A fascinating, tense 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 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!

“You” by Caroline Kepnes (2014)

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“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.”

It is quite amazing how naturally we seemed to take to social media as a species. Granted, a lot of us have become more savvy in recent years and maybe don’t feel the need to “check in” to every location or update the world on every change in mood. After all, you never know who is watching. You came to me originally in the form of a series on Netflix that I devoured. It was just the right type of creepy, and my friend who also loved it bought me the novel. I thought it was time to dive back in.

Joe Goldberg is immediately struck when Guinevere Beck walks into his bookshop. She’s beautiful, flirtatious, and intelligent, and Joe knows that he is meant to be with this woman. Luckily for him, she has an unusual name and a very public social media presence, so finding her again will be a piece of cake. After he saves her from being hit by a train on the subway, Beck finds herself attracted to Joe as well, and they begin a delicate courtship.

There are other problems around them, however. Joe has the bookshop to run, and Beck’s life is complicated. There’s Benji, the guy she keeps hooking up with despite knowing he’s no good for her, and Peach, the wealthy best friend who is somehow related to J. D. Salinger but likes to keep the specifics secret. In fact, she likes to keep a lot of secrets, and has Beck on a short leash. Beck can’t help but run off to these people whenever they call, so Joe decides he has to intervene to make sure that he and Beck can be together. He’s already stolen her phone – he now wants to steal her heart.

But neither Joe or Beck are quite the people the other thinks they are, and soon the “relationship” becomes a tangle of lies and deceit as they try to work out what they want and how to get it. And Joe in particular will stop at nothing to achieve his happy ending…

Although pretty much everything that happens in the book also happens in the TV show, the adaptation has a lot of extra stuff. Most of that revolves around further acts that Joe performs that he thinks are “romantic” but any sane person would see as “psychotic”. However, both he and Beck get further characterisation in the show and their extremes are muted, giving them far more shades of grey than the novel allows them. In the book, it is much harder to see Joe as having any redeeming features at all. He is a single-minded sociopath with no boundaries, little empathy and a terrifyingly selfish outlook on the world. Beck on the other hand is probably a good deal nicer in the show, and in the book has more issues and flaws. This is another one of those books where it’s just a lot of horrible people doing horrible things to each other, but I didn’t dislike it for that. Sometimes I do, but sometimes the writing is just too good. It’s a very fine balance to achieve, and I don’t think it’s one I could ever articulate. What makes an unpleasant character someone you want to read about? I don’t know.

The writing sings, though, and it’s a rare foray into a second-person narrative – always a tricky thing to pull off – where everything we experience is from Joe’s point of view, but he’s constantly talking to Beck, often applying his own interpretation of her actions and emotions to suit himself. It’s an insidious book that gets under your skin and unsettles you. It might also make you think again about sending that tweet. You never know who’s reading…

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!

“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

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 Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor (2018)

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“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Given the state of the world, fiction always serves as a grand, eternal escape, but one would imagine I’d be wanting to fall into something soft and funny that acts as a welcome distraction. As it is, I find myself inside the creepiest thriller I’ve read in a long time. Despite the subject matter, I can’t recommend it enough.

In 1986, Eddie was just twelve years old. He was pretty normal, spending time with his friends Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey and Nicky in their average town. That was, until he saved Waltzer Girl’s life. This is perhaps the beginning of the story, although he can’t be entirely sure. It was certainly then that he met the albino teacher Mr Halloran. It would be later that he and his friends began drawing chalk men, and later still that the chalk men began appearing on their own. It was before the body was found, however. That was when it all came to an end.

In 2016, Ed, now a teacher himself and doing his best to hide from the past receives a letter in the post that threatens to bring everything back to the forefront of his mind. When Metal Mickey reappears in his life, too, things seem particularly nasty. Mickey wants to write a book about what happened back in 1986 and wants Ed’s help in filling in the gaps. Because it turns out that the police were wrong all those years ago. Mickey knows who really killed her, and now Ed sees that he’s got to dive back into the past and relive the worst years of his life in order to get the answers the world has been missing for thirty years…

It’s been a long time since I devoured a book so quickly. It is the very definition of gripping, and keeps you enticed until the very last page before it finally lets go of your lapels and throws you back into reality, confused and scared. The fact the narrative switches between the two time periods in roughly alternating chapters means we pick up the story in the wrong order, but references are often made to things that will happen in the future, or happened in the past that we’ve not seen yet. As such, the jigsaw begins to come together, but we must have lost the box with the picture on it, as it never seems to get any clearer. If anything, I found it much easier to work out what wasn’t going on than what was.

It’s the kind of story that, in the wrong hands, would be bland, boring and tiresomely predictable. As it is, Tudor manages to produce a masterful example of the genre, filled with exactly the right levels of unease, tension, bluff and pathos that is required. The characters are rich and interesting, and even when it feels like it’s leaning too heavily on coincidences and chance, she somehow gets away with it and there is an answer for everything. I’m wary to say too much about this book, as to speak too openly about it will remove much of the tension and might untangle some of the twists before you get to them. Most, you’ll never see coming.

I guess, really, the book is all about questions and answers, memory and secrets. It reminds us that in seeking out the truth, sometimes we find out things we’ve always wondered about, and other times we learn things that we simply wish we’d never uncovered. As Fat Gav says, conjuring up a vivid mental image, everyone has secrets and everyone has an arsehole, but some are just dirtier than others.

Beware the past – it is not the place it once was.

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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