“Surfeit Of Lampreys” by Ngaio Marsh (1941)

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“Roberta Grey first met the Lampreys in New Zealand.”

With no Agatha Christie mysteries to fill my brain with, I have turned my attention to others from the Golden Age to find another author I can indulge myself with. My exploration somehow took me to the other side of the world with the New Zealander Ngaio Marsh.

The Lampreys are a large, sprawling family noted for being mildly eccentric but generally harmless. Their ignorance regarding the worth of money, however, comes to be an issue when they find themselves approaching bankruptcy once more. Head of the family Charles Lamprey intends to ask his miserly, rude brother Gabriel for a loan, but the evening doesn’t go to plan and before the night is out, Gabriel has been killed.

The police are called and begin to question everyone who was in the house, including Charles and his wife, the six children, the victim’s widow, the servants and Roberta Grey, a family friend who has only just arrived from New Zealand to spend some time with the Lampreys. With apparently everyone as a potential suspect with much to gain from the death of the old man, Inspector Alleyn must conduct his interviews and work out who is telling the truth and who is manipulating the facts to protect themselves – or maybe someone else.

Given this is only my first dip into Marsh’s oeuvre, it’s hard to say quite how she compares to others of her generation, but she’s certainly got something. The book does take a little while to get going but the language isn’t particularly florid or difficult. The main focus is given over to the solving of the crime, though, and while there are a couple of subplots regarding how some of the characters feel about one another, they don’t really come to the forefront and overshadow the primary story. I can’t say if I would have benefited from reading earlier novels featuring Inspector Alleyn, as he seems quite established here already, but I like him as a detective. He seems capable, able to think laterally and adjust his method of questioning depending on who he’s interviewing, be it the young son, or the unbalanced widow.

Like in many novels, the children don’t always speak like children, but then again it was a different time and around this era children seemed to have to grow up faster. Plus it’s a high-class family, so things are always different among the aristocracy – as a working class chap myself, I can only imagine. On the whole though, it’s a sharp, funny, tightly-plotted novel and I shall definitely be returning.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over 90% funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Place That Didn’t Exist” by Mark Watson (2016)

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“They had left Heathrow on a morning so gloomy it could have passed for dusk, and now ten hours later it was the opposite: a blue-purple night that felt like day.”

For both the reasons that I don’t care much for travel anyway, and that my Scottish ancestry means my tan is a lovely shade of tomato ketchup, Dubai has never much appealed to me as a destination. Building a city in the desert may have worked for Las Vegas, but the UAE is undoubtedly a more conservative country, and there doesn’t seem to be a year go by without a Westerner being thrown in jail or threatened with execution for doing something that goes against the moral standards of Dubai. It feels like an odd place, and Mark Watson emphasises that enormously in his novel, The Place That Didn’t Exist.

Tim Callaghan is a junior creative at an advertising company who has been flown out to Dubai to assist in the filming of a new ad campaign for poverty charity, WorldWise. He is hypnotised by the city with perma-blue skies, the world’s best customer service, and buildings that look like they’ve been dropped from the future into the early 21st century. He, like many visitors, comes to believe that everything here runs so perfectly that nothing could possibly go wrong.

However, this belief is quickly removed when a few days later one of the crew is found dead in his hot tub, and the surrounding circumstances are more than a little mysterious. In fact, Tim suddenly realises that he doesn’t know anything that’s going on. He keeps hearing snatches of conversation that suggest there are secrets hidden that he doesn’t know about, and absolutely everyone is on edge, even before the death. Soon, Tim feels Dubai is turning against him, and he comes to the slow realisation that everything seems too good to be true because it is.

I’m familiar with Watson’s work as a comedian, and I suppose I expected something in a similar tone with his novels. As it is, this feels a very different beast indeed, which is by no means a complaint, merely a lovely realisation that he’s even more talented than I first thought. It’s not a particularly funny book, although there are some amusing scenes, particularly featuring the sweet but slightly hapless Tim trying to deal with conflicting slang and people who treat advertising like they’re curing cancer, but it is very engaging. The world gets under your skin, tickling that part of your reptile brain that knows something is wrong, but you can’t work out what it is. It’s set in 2008, during the global financial crash, so things in Dubai are even more precarious, as the people and money that all flooded in are beginning to seep away again.

The charity Tim is working for is one that is trying to expose the vast gulf of inequality that separates the rich from the poor, and this is a theme that appears throughout the novel. The world created for tourists and the very wealthy Emirati is being serviced, cleaned and kept afloat by society’s poorest, some of whom are technically not even apparently considered human under UAE law due to their nationality. Dubai has created a “perfect world” that is eerie in its perfection, where nothing is quite what it seems and once you scratch the surface, you discover it’s just a veneer. The setting, plot and characters all reflect one another in these terms, and you can never be fully sure how you’re meant to feel about anything or anyone.

Creepy, insidious and unreal, but very, very good.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson (2014)

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“Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara.”

The march of progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. We take the technology of today – smartphones, the Internet, cars, even flushing toilets and electric light – for granted, never much giving any consideration for the things that our ancestors would have found remarkable. Sometimes it takes millennia for ideas to produce tangible results – rarely do changes happen overnight – and it often takes a lot of people to make something happen. Take your watch, for example. That’s not just the product of a watch scientist, or something like that. The fact that you have a reliable timepiece on your watch is thanks to people working in the fields of computing, electromechanics, chemistry, dynamics and astrology. Steven Johnson takes a look at some of the greatest innovations in human history in this astounding book, How We Got to Now.

Johnson explores the six inventions and discoveries that revolutionised humanity: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound recording, germ theory, clocks and the light bulb. Each of these innovations helped the human race progress in truly extraordinary ways, changing the world over and over again. Many of history’s best and brightest also show up here including Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Galileo Galilei, as well as several others that time has unfairly forgotten such as Frederic Tudor who was the first person to transport ice to the Caribbean, or Charles Piazzi Smyth who all but invented flashbulb photography. While some of the stuff seems simple, there are some things brought up that I’d never really given much thought to but seem obvious in retrospect. For example, fire was pretty much the first human “invention”, or at least the process of creating fire. And yet, despite fire being a key source of heat and light, we didn’t manage to take control over cold temperatures until well into the Industrial Revolution, and there was little more advanced than a candle to help us see at night for millennia.

The book’s real beauty comes from the fact that Johnson reveals how certain technologies had ripple effects into other areas of humanity’s development. The discovery of germ theory would eventually lead to both Coronation Street and the bikini; it could be said that air conditioning led to the election of Donald Trump; the invention of the mirror allowed the Renaissance to happen and changed people’s ideas of their place in society; a swinging altar lamp in an Italian cathedral would begin a path that led to Sputnik; and radio would chart a course to both the civil rights movement and Hitler’s fascist regime. The book notes that many ideas come into existence at a certain time because it’s just time for them to exist. Often the same invention or discovery will be announced by several different people at the same time. Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, but he helped perfect them, and Darwin was one of several scientists who had worked out evolution and natural selection within the same decade or two. New ideas spring from old ones. For example, a person living in 1650 can’t conceive a refrigerator because the associated technologies aren’t available, but once they are, it seems almost inevitable that it would happen.

Johnson appears to be a natural weaver of true stories, and the writing, while occasionally heavy on the science, never feels too out of reach for the layman. The tales are engaging, fascinating and the sort of thing that make you want to instantly go up to other people and say, “Did you know…?” Even things that you might at first think could be dull topics, such as the chlorination of swimming pools, or how fibre optics are made are incredibly interesting, given what they then led to. It’s a very interesting guide to the most important ideas in science, and I for one am incredibly enchanted.

And while only a little thing, one of my favourite discoveries was that Captain Birdseye was a real person – his first name was Clarence.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai (2016)

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“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

I like the themes of alternate histories. Everything that has happened, had it happened another way, would probably have set the world off along a path unlike the one we currently have. Some of those would turn out better for us, some not. Interestingly though, we focus a lot on the what ifs of the past, not really considering that every single thing we do in the present is changing the future. This is all the past to someone, after all. But before we get too bogged down in the philosophical aspects of this, on with the review!

Tom Barren lives in 2016, but not the one we are familiar with. In his timeline, on July 11th 1965, the physicist Lionel Goettreider unveiled a machine that produced unlimited energy. Over the next fifty years, humanity had developed the future that our ancestors dreamt off, complete with moon bases, flying cars, food pills, teleportation, eternal peace and universal comfort. Tom’s father, the remote and rude Victor Barren, is now proposing the first experiment with time travel, sending a team back to the very moment that the Goettreider Engine was turned on, the most important moment of human history. But when Tom sleeps with the lead chrononaut, Penelope Weschler, the night before the mission and she is discovered to be pregnant, the plans are ruined and Penelope kills herself. Faced with heartbreak and access to a time machine, Tom does what anyone would do – something very stupid.

However, upon arriving in 1965, his visit does not go unnoticed by the universe, and he boomerangs back to 2016 to find that everything is changed. His father is much friendlier, he has a sister he never knew, and he’s now apparently a notable architect instead of a walking disappointment. Gone are the technological advancements – he’s landed in the universe we would recognise as our very own. He seeks out Penelope and finds her, although it’s not the same her, and now he has to make a difficult choice. Should Tom stay in this imperfect world where he can experience love and be a success, or go back to the perfect utopia where the world was at peace, but he was miserable?

Uniquely among time travel fiction, to my knowledge at least, Elan Mastai deals with the real issue of the science. Travelling in time also requires travelling in space, as not only is the world rotating on an axis and orbiting the sun, it’s also tearing through the vast expanses of the universe so if you travel back to the same spot, the planet will be miles away. Hell, misjudging your landing by a few inches can render you embedded in a sofa or solid ground. Mastai could easily handwave this, but he has a solid bash at explaining the science on how to solve these issues. How accurate they are or how likely it is that they’d work, however, I don’t know for sure – I’m an arts student – but the science feels solid enough that I’m happy to accept it. The whole thing becomes a lot more believable, even more so because explanations are given in too much detail to make you lose interest. As Tom says, he doesn’t understand the mechanics behind the time machine or the Goettreider Engine anymore than most of us would be able to build a microwave or television from scratch.

Like pretty much all of my favourite writers, Mastai’s real skill lies in his ability to build a world. The alternate utopian 2016 is explored in vivid detail, with Tom explaining how he takes for granted that absolutely everything is recycled, there’s no need for war or even, really, to break any laws, and he’s never eaten an unripe avocado. When he arrives in our timeline, there are a few scenes of him struggling with the mundane, such as actually having to open doors with a handle, or having to remember how to write by hand. Mastai could easily have spent far too long exploring the specifics of our world and explaining why they’re shit, but we already know about our world, so he skips playfully over it and lets us imagine Tom’s views over the rest. Towards the end of the novel, we also see a third timeline and while it only appears for a brief chapter, it too is incredibly evocative.

While it’s fun to read about time travel and alternate dimensions, it is nice to come up against something that asks, “No, seriously, how would this work?” Despite being on the hard end of the science fiction scale, it still retains a sense of whimsy and it’s good for a chuckle, despite some of the events being really rather harrowing. It’s nice to have my faith in the genre bolstered every once in a while, and this has certainly done that.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Misery” by Stephen King (1987)

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“umber whunnnn”

While hardly the most uplifting novel on my shelf, I found myself drawn to Stephen King. Maybe the title reflected my mood this last week or so, and it certainly hasn’t helped change that. And yet I’m actually not really complaining, because I think even if I’d been the happiest man on the planet, Misery would’ve brought me down a peg or six. When he’s bad, he’s really bad, but when he’s good, there’s no arguing with the fact that King is one of the planet’s finest writers.

Paul Sheldon has been pulled from the wreckage of his car on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road by Annie Wilkes, a woman who lives in an isolated cabin and claims to be his number one fan. She is particularly fond of his Misery series, and the fifth instalment is released while Paul is under her care. However, when she discovers that Paul ended the book by killing Misery off, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s livid.

Paul, however, is reliant on her care, as his legs are broken and it’s clear she hasn’t told anyone else that he’s there. Annie comes up with a plan – Paul must save Misery from the grave and write Annie her very own novel. If he doesn’t, well, Annie will punish him. Soon, Paul learns the truth about Annie’s past, and he realises that he’s in a lot more danger than he first thought. He’s now writing to save his life…

The novel’s real genius comes from the fact that it manages to remain captivating despite having, for the most part, just two characters and a single room as the setting. While not an out-and-out horror, it’s horrifying enough and serves as one of the most interesting thrillers I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve seen the film and think you know what’s going to happen, it’s worth reading because from what I’ve picked up, there are some huge differences. Annie is a stunningly vile creation who appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet King still ensures you feel some kind of pity for her, or maybe that’s just me being a bit more sociopathic than is normal. Paul’s characterisation flips between him being quite weak and easily cowed, but also determined, and yet it still somehow works. His goal is self-preservation, and he goes about it however he can.

The novel is also in many ways a discussion on the art of writing. Someone wiser than me described it as the book King wrote to stop other people becoming writers, and you can see why. If I was famous to the degree of Paul, I’d definitely be looking over my shoulder for my “number one fans”. There is talk within of the use of deus ex machinas in storytelling, with it all being explained in interesting detail. It’s notable that King has said the book was based around his experiences with drug addiction, with Annie representing his addiction and Paul being himself, struggling with withdrawal and dependence. Many aspects of the novel can be seen as allegorical, such as Annie removed or destroying parts of Paul’s body being a metaphor for writers having to edit their work and cut away bits that they liked.

As I said, maybe this isn’t the right book to read when you’re already not feeling your perkiest, but it’s nonetheless a really good read. Claustrophobic and scary, despite the insanity of the action it somehow remains far too real and none of it actually feels too far fetched, which perhaps makes the whole concept even worse. A fascinating look at mental illness, addiction, and, perhaps oddly, the power that literature has over people. Possibly, despite everything else, I believe that Misery is a love letter to books and writers, although one written in blood on the back of an overdue utility bill.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Top 10 Books of 2017

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So, that was 2017. What a mess, both globally and personally. The world seems to be falling apart at the seams with increasing speed. 2016 had set the bar so low it was impossible to think that things could get any worse, but Christ did 2017 deliver. But I’m not going to focus on the negatives. There were some good things too.

There was an impressive solar eclipse over the USA, the Doctor regenerated into a woman for the first time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle shone as they announced their engagement, Blue Planet II stunned us all with its visuals, there was an awkwardly hilarious cock-up at the Oscars, people refused to sit in silence and took to the streets to make their voices heard, Australia legalised same-sex marriage, Alabama elected a Democrat, and honeybee populations increased. As for me personally? Edinburgh welcomed me back with open arms once more during one of my lowest ebbs, Unbound took a chance on me and gave me a platform to crowdfund my second novel, I finished reading Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and visited her grave to say thank you.

And, of course, there were still books. I achieved a personal best this year, making my way through one hundred books, but now leaving me with a lot of bigger novels and hefty hardbacks for this year. Nonetheless, there were some crackers, so here are my ten favourite books from the last twelve months – in no particular order.

(As a side note, if you purchase any of the books here via the links I provide, I get a little bit of money, so thanks in advance!)

1. Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Poirot is taking a well-earned holiday at a hotel off the Devon coast, but as ever, murder is never far behind him. Arlena Marshall, a famous and beautiful actress is making heads turn all over the island, but within a matter of days she’s found dead on the beach, strangled. The killer must be among the hotel’s guests, but it seems that almost everyone has a motive. The vicar believes that Arlena is evil; Arlena’s step-daughter Linda has no love for her husband’s new wife; or did her husband finally have enough of her and her flirtatious ways? Fortunately, Poirot is on hand to try and solve the case.

While it doesn’t seem to have the same level of fame as Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, this really is one of Christie’s best. With all the typical elements – dead body, furious relatives, isolated location, sunny weather – it marks her out as being one of the greatest plot-smiths ever, a fact we all know by now anyway. The solution is neat and there are so many red herrings in here that you could open a fishmongers. It’s a real classic of the genre, and from Christie herself.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

2. The Radleys by Matt Haig

The Radley family seem to be perfectly normal. Sure, they’re a little quirky, but there’s nothing wrong with slapping on thick sun tan lotion every time you step out of the house or being allergic to garlic. One night, teenage Clara is attacked by an unwanted pursuer and hits back, leading to a grisly death. She and her brother Rowan then discover the family secret – they’re vampires. The transition to this new reality begins smoothly, but when their uncle Will turns up, things begin to fall apart. After all, you have to invite a vampire into your home, but once you do so, it’s very difficult to get them to leave again.

While most everyone else spent the year discussing Haig’s How to Stop Time, which I did also enjoy very much, I found myself much preferring this one. The macabre humour is brilliant and while vampires are occasionally seen as overplayed now, he handles them with joy here and fits them into the modern world seamlessly. As with all the best books, it’s about the truth of being human, which is often shown very well through those that aren’t. Despite the gore, it’s very sweet.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

3. The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

David Smith was once the most admired sculptor in America. He was a young talent who could do no wrong; that is, until his creativity dried up. Now stagnating and unable to produce anything, he is desperate. So desperate that he makes a deal with Death – David can now sculpt any material with just his hands, but he will die in 200 days. To make matters more complicated, he’s just fallen in love…

I’m not the biggest reader of graphic novels, but there was something about this one that blew me away. The plot of a creative person struggling with creation is something I can totally get on board with – I have written painfully little in the last year – and the artwork is simply stunning. I would go so far as to say that it couldn’t have worked as a straight novel; seeing is everything with this one. A brilliant tale of obsession, carelessness and art.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I try and only have books that were new to me in the top 10, but I usually fail. This year I failed twice because I dipped back into two of my favourite novels of all time. Never Let Me Go takes us to a boarding school with a curious curriculum and a set of students who seem to have very little idea about what awaits them in the real world. As we follow Kathy and her discovery of what purpose she and her classmates including Tommy and Ruth have been born to do, we find ourselves in a twisted version of Britain where humanity took a very dark turn.

It had to be on this list, really, because it is one of my favourite books of all time. An insidiously terrifying novel that begins as something quite innocent and quaint but soon devolves into something truly horrific. Nonetheless, like The Radleys, it is once again about being human, but this time with a focus on creativity, the nature of the soul and rights of an individual. So many questions remain unanswered that you’ll wish there was more of it, but it’s actually perfect as it is. A true modern classic.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

5. Wonder by R. J. Palacio

August Pullman has Treacher Collins syndrome, which gives him an appearance considered unusual by most people. He prefers to hide away under his astronaut helmet and has so far been home-schooled to protect him from bullies. His parents decide that he should go to middle school, but once there it seems that no one can look past his face, and children’s honesty is not always well received.

Above all, this is a novel about not taking things at face value, and kindness. Peppered with acts of kindness and with more nice characters than nasty on the whole, the book shines. I began reading it with my usual trepidation when faced with a child narrator, and while August’s voice – and those of others who share their point of view – feels a little too adult, he’s a charming and lovable boy, and you can’t help by feel affection for him. I can almost objectively state that this is a Good Book, as my mother read it and loved it too, and she doesn’t read anything. Another heartwarming tale about humanity being, usually, a force for good.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

6. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

Sneaking into the top ten as the last book I finished in 2017 is the memoirs of doctor-turned-comedy-writer Adam Kay. This novel features excepts from his diaries during the six years he spent working for the NHS. They are in turn hilarious and heart-breaking. Kay is able to perfectly balance the nonsensical questions and demands of his former patients with genuine pathos and sympathy for their problems.

It’s definitely not a book you want to read while you’re eating dinner, and many of the stories will probably never leave you (for better or for worse) but there are few more honest looks at the men and women in white coats who we too often take for granted. Kay doesn’t shy away from the truths of long hours, personal sacrifices and bodily fluids and the book is laced through with laughs, although he definitely knows when to be serious. A joyous, and very important, read.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

7. Here, The World Entire by Anwen Kya Hayward

Medusa is known by many of us as the mythological embodiment of a bad hair day. Athena cursed her and replaced her golden locks with live snakes, as well as ensuring that anyone she looked at would immediately turn to stone. Perseus is the hero who has been tasked with going to meet her and entice her from her cave, but Medusa is lonely, not stupid, and she’s not so keen on the idea. The two get to know each other, and we learn what really happened to Medusa.

It’s just over eighty pages long, but contains so much intrigue, originality and, above all, passion. Hayward is wonderful at describing the unusual, as Medusa rarely describes anything she can see given that she lives in a dark cave, so much of her story is told based around what she can hear. It’s a skill to turn a monster into a sympathetic character, but Hayward does it. I fortunately know her a little, so know how much she loves her subject, and this is immediately obvious from this novella. An intriguing way to spend an afternoon.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

The second reread on my top ten is this Mitch Albom novel. It opens with the death of fairground maintenance worker, Eddie. He arrives in the afterlife to find how things work here. Everyone who dies meets five people in heaven who will explain their lives to them. They may know them, they may not, but they all had an important impact on the deceased’s life. Eddie begins an adventure, as he learns the true meaning behind his life and the impact he had on others in turn.

Albom is a beautiful writer and this book had stuck with me for years, reemerging just when I needed it as all good books do. Economical and easy to read, the story is haunting and while tragic in places, it’s also a tale of hope, love and how no one is insignificant. I love the concept of us all being connected to one another, and it’s played out magically here. It’ll break your heart, but you’ll find you don’t mind.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

9. Dead Writers in Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies

Sticking with the theme of afterlives, Foster James has woken up in a rehab clinic with no memory of how he got there. Assuming he’s been thrown in by another ex-wife or ex-friend, he gets on with it but when he’s punched by Ernest Hemingway during a group therapy session, he realises that it might not be as simple as that. Now confined to a rehab centre filled with some of the most messed up figures in literature including Dorothy Parker and William Burroughs, he must make the best of it. When the writers all discover that animosity between the two head doctors may threaten the existence of the centre, however, they put their egos aside to help solve the issue.

A hilarious take on the classical canon, with excerpts from the recovery diaries of some of history’s drunkest as they struggle on in this new world. It’s a really sharp and smart novel that’s endlessly quotable and knows what it’s doing. OK, the ending is a little shaky, but there are some great twists and the characters are superb. If nothing else, you’ll come out the other side knowing a good deal more about these figures who were all somewhat larger than life.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

10. Curtain by Agatha Christie

Yes, fine, I know two Christie novels is probably excessive, but I couldn’t make up my mind between the two, and anyway, it’s my list.

Curtain is the final Poirot novel. Christie takes her hero back to Styles, the country house that was the setting for his first adventure, but he is old, ill, and loyal friend Hastings isn’t sure if he’s not losing control of his little grey cells when he becomes convinced that someone in the house is a murderer. For Poirot, this is the culmination of his career, if only he can get Hastings to see what he can see before it’s too late…

Making full use of her passion for psychology, Christie weaves another one of her genius tales here, bringing the saga to a pleasing, if tragic, end. It is one of her best, no question, but it’s definitely the one that has to be saved for last, and I was pleased I had. The friendship between Poirot and Hastings is a delight, although it’s clear they’ve not seen one another for a long time, and the final solution is inspired. Once again, Christie proves that no one does it better, or probably ever will.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

2018 is already promising to be a somewhat better year, at least personally, with some really fun, amazing events to come, even if one of those is a major milestone birthday I’m quietly dreading. Hopefully my second book will reach funding this year too, and will begin to find its way to a bookshelf near you. As for my reading list? It’s as long as ever. There’s no new Christie mysteries this year, of course, but I’m planning a return journey through the oeuvre of Douglas Adams and Roald Dahl among a whole host of new titles. Let’s hope for a little more joy and peace this year – I wish you all a happy, happy twelve months.

Once more from the top…

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979)

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Don’t Panic.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

I always try to start the year with something I’m going to enjoy, be that something optimistic, magical, or heartwarming. Given the mess that 2017 had left me – and most of us, to be honest – in, I was taking no chances. It was time to dip back into the works of one of the greatest writers ever.

This is the story of Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has woken up on a Thursday morning with a terrible hangover to find a series of bulldozers in his garden, filled with workmen who want to demolish his house. Arthur does his best to halt them by laying down in the mud, but his plans are foiled by the arrival of his best friend Ford Prefect, who demands they go to the pub. Once there, Ford reveals that he’s not from Guildford, but actually from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the world is going to end in about twelve minutes. Making sure Arthur knows where his towel is, Ford hitchhikes off the planet and onto one of the Vogon ships now orbiting the Earth, seconds before the whole planet is wiped from existence.

Now entirely homeless, Arthur is given a crash course in interplanetary travel as he finds himself in some very odd company: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the psychopathic and two-headed President of the Galaxy; Marvin, the manically depressed robot; Trillian, a fellow human who he once met at a party and entirely failed to get off with; and Slartibartfast, whose name doesn’t actually matter. Zaphod drags the team along on the hunt of the legendary planet of Magrathea, in search of the answer to the Ultimate Question – the answer to life, the universe, and everything…

Douglas Adams had that perfectly magical skill of making brilliantly complicated concepts and plots seem easy. He was infamous for his inability to meet deadlines (he always said he enjoyed the whooshing sound they made as they passed by) but thank god he buckled down for long enough to give us this book, and the rest of the series. The writing is superbly tight, funny on every page, and yet also somehow all a little bit terrifying. The technology may be bizarre, and the aliens may be unusual, but broadly speaking the themes are very familiar. Above them all, though, sits the question, “What is it all about?” Much of the second half of the book focuses on answering the meaning of life, and the answer we get, now famous throughout our world, is pleasingly mental, and yet tantalisingly indecipherable. I think I agree with Slartibartfast’s assessment of the whole thing: “I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remove that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

Adams is also legitimately one of the funniest writers we were ever lucky enough to have. From his excellent, surrealist metaphors (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), and his comments about the nature of beauty and wonder (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”), to his attempts to explain the universe in simple terms (“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), there’s not a single joke that falls flat here, nor any wording that seems out of place. His creations too, such as the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drive, beautifully and simply solve typical narrative problems of the genre with pure madness, and yet they’re so good you don’t pause to question them. Never stop to think too hard about an Adams’ novel. They make sense, but only if you’re totally on board.

I already can’t wait to get back into the remaining four books in the wildly misnamed trilogy.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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