“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“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.

“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

“Shades Of Grey” by Jasper Fforde (2010)

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Not everything is black and white.

Not everything is black and white.

“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.”

I often get asked, as you might imagine, what my favourite book is. This is like asking an Olympic runner which leg they’d most like to have cut off, or a mother which of her children she’d save from a burning building. But, generally, if I don’t want to get into a debate about how books are hard to compare to one another, I refer to this book, Shades of Grey, as my favourite book of all time. Unfortunately a very similarly titled novel has dwarfed this one, which is a shame, because this novel deserves far more praise than that one.

In this book, we are hundreds of years in our future, where the world is very much unlike it was before. Centuries ago, there was a moment in history known now only as the Something That Happened. Now, society runs on a rulebook that seems to owe a lot to private schools of our era: towns are governed by Prefects, cash has become merits, meals are communal and everyone wears a uniform. Some of the rules make no sense – no spoons can be manufactured, for example – but they are treated with utmost authority. This is a world where they have a system of human responsibilities rather than human rights, where everyone is expected to do a certain amount of Useful Work in their lifetime to make them of value to the Collective.

But I’m missing out the most important aspect of this universe. In this future, social hierarchy is decided by your colour perception. Everyone can only see one colour – red, blue, yellow, green, orange or purple – and everything else appears grey to them. Everything from your social standing, the jobs you can have, and who you can marry depends on what colour you can see and how much of it. This is a world where colour comes before all else.

Our hero is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is sent with his father to the small town of East Carmine where he is expected to learn humility and conduct a chair census. Before they arrive even, in the nearby town of Vermillion, Eddie and his father, a doctor (or Swatchman) find a man who has collapsed in a paint shop. He appears to be a Purple – the most respected group of the Colourtocracy – but Eddie realises that he’s wrongspotted – he’s actually a Grey; someone with no colour perception whatsoever. This is a huge breach of the Rules, but what does it mean?

Arriving in East Carmine, Eddie meets Jane, a Grey with a cute nose and a penchant for punching anyone who mentions it. Eddie is immediately smitten, but also concerned that he’s sure he saw her in Vermillion … but there’s no way she could have got there and back so quickly. Trying to avoid being killed by her, he encounters the rest of the village, including the officious and arrogant Yellow, Courtland Gamboge, the conniving and self-preserving Red, Tommo Cinnabar, and the vile and spoilt Purple, Violet DeMauve who wants to marry him to make her blue-end Purple redder again in her descendents. All Eddie wants to do is to conduct his chair census and return home to so he can marry Constance Oxblood and inherit the stringworks. But he’s started asking too many questions, and he doesn’t like the answers. It seems that Eddie is realising that things aren’t always black and white…

Eddie and Jane

I don’t know how to get across how much I adore this book. Imagine if Douglas Adams had written 1984 and you’re halfway there, sort of. The idea of building a society on colour perception is mad, but is it any madder than any other sort of society we’ve tried? All the ideas here are genius, from the implications of how life must be when you can’t see the full spectrum, to having a world run on school rules. Because there are so many unanswered questions in Eddie’s life, we can’t get the full picture either.

Like all Fforde’s work, it’s a book that’s impossible to explain in simple terms. He throws in so many concepts and lets you get on with it, always with remarkable results. Alongside the Colourtocracy, we also have the idea of synthetic colour, a British landscape full of elephants, giraffes and ground sloths, a belief that good table manners are about the most important skill you can possess, the distribution of postcodes that no longer seem to represent their original locations, fear of swans and lightning, and an Apocryphal Man, who doesn’t exist (and more’s the pity if you forget that). It’s a wonderful, fantastic mish-mash of ideas and yet it all works. The characters are fully rounded and believable, and there’s so much material here. It’s also home to the aforementioned Courtland Gamboge who, while an odious character, is one of my favourite people in fiction for reasons I can’t quite explain.

The only flaw in this book? The cliffhanger. It ends promising two more in the trilogy, but we’re in our sixth year of waiting now, and I’m getting antsy. Having now bought this book for several people and had them fall in love with it, it’s become almost joyful for me to see the horror on their face when they realise there’s still no sequel. Fforde has promised them for ages, but the last I heard the next one in the series, when it does finally materialise, is going to be a prequel.

Don’t let that last bit put you off – this is one of the most hilarious, wonderful, intelligent books in existence. I’ve read it three times now in the last six years, and every time I find something new. This is literature at it’s finest, and you will not be disappointed. It’ll also leaving you sort of wishing that you could experience this world for a bit, take your Ishihara, and find out what colour you are…

“The Way Inn” by Will Wiles (2014)

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way inn“The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”

Although I’m not much of a traveller, I am familiar with hotels. Actually, I quite like them. Mostly, though, I end up in budget hotels of the Travelodge or Premier Inn variety, and am always struck by the similarity that exists between the chains, regardless of where you actually are. The homogeneous nature of them is somewhat comforting, but also more than a little creepy. They can feel like non-places, buildings that you don’t really belong in, and can never feel quite at home.

The Way Inn introduces us to Neil Double, a professional conference-goer. His company serves a singular purpose – if you don’t want to waste working hours at a conference, but still want to know what gets said, Neil goes in your place, making notes, reporting back, and doing all the face-to-face business himself. This time, he finds himself at a conference for conference organisers, staying in another comfortably familiar branch of the Way Inn hotel chain.

However, after attending a few stalls and talks, he discovers that his cover is blown, and the conference organiser, Tom Laing, is not impressed by his new business model, which he claims will lose them ticket sales if one man can do the work of many companies. Banned from the conference, a dejected Neil returns to the hotel. Maybe he’ll get to sleep with that woman, if he could just remember her name, or maybe he’ll find that mysterious redhead he once encountered in a Way Inn in Qatar. He’s seen her once this weekend, and he thinks she works for the hotel. She seems far more interested in the hotel artwork than him, though.

After a restless night’s sleep, and with no conference to attend anymore, Neil begins to explore the hotel further and soon he finds himself stumbling into a mystery so huge and so strange that he could not even have begun to believe it. His life is about to be blown all out of proportion as the art-loving woman starts making him question his own reality. Who paints all those pictures in hotels? Where does one buy clock radios by the thousand? And just what would happen if you exited your hotel room and, instead of turning left towards the lifts, you turned right, deeper into the hotel?

This story actually takes on a conceit I’ve had for ages about these sorts of places and runs with it to places far better, funnier, scarier and greater than I could ever have done. Wiles is a master at focusing on the minutia of the thing, and chain hotels seem to be the perfect places to emphasis the tiny details. The mirrors in the lifts to make us feel less alone; the sofas in the corridors that aren’t meant for sitting in, but instead just to make it look furnished; the courtyards that look like meditation gardens but are only used by smokers; the strange unstealable coat hangers and unopenable windows. The hotel is as much of a character as any of the humans here, and it’s one that I think all of us can relate to.

Far funnier to me though is the idea of a conference for people who organise conferences; companies that specialise in selling lanyards, tote bags or conference centres. The idea that there is an industry overseeing the meetings of every other industry is hilarious, but also almost certainly the case. The idea of Neil being a professional conference surrogate is also an entertaining one, and if the idea doesn’t already exist, then I can see it coming to reality in five or ten years. While moving from hotel to hotel to listen to speeches about things you don’t really care about doesn’t appeal to me, I daresay there would be people willing to do it, and even more willing to pay for such a service.

I spent the first third of the book hoping that it would become what I hoped it would become, and thankfully it did, and the novel you’ve ended with is nothing really like the one you began. But Wiles changes tone and genre so wonderfully that you don’t even notice, and everything seems so real and oddly familiar. It welcomes you in like the little green light that flashes on a hotel lock when your keycard is recognised, and you’re more than happy to stay for the duration.

It’s a great read, and you’ll never want to check out at the end. In fact, you might not be able to…

“This Census-Taker” by China Miéville (2016)

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census taker“A boy ran down a hill path screaming.”

China Miéville is a name that still doesn’t trip off enough tongues, as far as I’m concerned, but the reviews on his latest book all but sum up how those in the know do feel about him. He’s been called “one of our most important writers”, “incomparable” and “ambitious”, and even the great Ursula K Le Guin refers to him as “brilliant”. This is my third venture into his works, after The City and the City and Kraken, and while, yes, it is my least favourite of the three, it nonetheless is till full of magic and oddness that makes it hugely endearing. So let’s cover the plot.

Set in a poor town in the misty mountains of an otherwise undisclosed location, a boy runs from his house further up the hill down into the town by the bridge, screaming that he’s just seen something terrible. The villagers try and help him, but when the boy’s father tells them that it’s all been a misunderstanding, But the boy is sure that he saw his father kill his mother. Left alone on the hill with only his increasingly deranged father, he is trapped and finds no one will listen to him; that is, until the census-taker comes to visit.

It’s a short book, and the plot is fairly simple. Not a lot happens but, this being Miéville, there’s still a lot going on, and far more that never gets explained. We don’t get many answers to the questions we have and little is revealed that isn’t absolutely necessary. We don’t know where the story is set, the age or name of the protagonist (only two characters actually get names at all) and it’s unclear whether something magical is happening or not. These are not necessarily complaints – they make you want to keep reading.

The boy’s father is a key maker, but there’s a suggestion that this is something supernatural. People ask him for what they want, and he makes a key that helps them get it. Maybe they need wealth, or they need to escape, but they can do this with whatever key the father makes for them. Is this to be taken literally? Is there magic afoot here, or is it the misunderstandings of a small boy? We’ll never know.

It isn’t my favourite of Miéville’s books, but it’s a good starter novel for anyone who wants to read him but is daunted by his larger tomes. Dip in and find yourself caught up in his weird and wonderful style.

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