“The Man In The Brown Suit” by Agatha Christie (1924)

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“Nadina, the Russian dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again.”

It’s hard to know how to keep prefacing the Christie novels, other than to say it’s another cracker, so we’ll just press on. Today, I’m discussing Christie’s fourth novel, and first to contain none of her most famous detectives, The Man in the Brown Suit.

After the sudden death of her absent-minded but brilliant father, Anne Beddingfield heads to London to seek adventure and thrills. While standing on the tube platform at Hyde Park Corner, she witnesses a man fall onto the tracks. He’s pulled back up and a doctor appears, confirms the man is dead, and then leaves. Convinced that that was no doctor, Anne gives chase. He manages to get away from her, but drops a scrap of paper that reads: 1 71 22 Kilmorden Castle. Hours later, a woman is found dead in an empty London house. These things seem unconnected, but it turns out the first victim had in his coat an order to view the property. The only lead the police have right now is a mysterious man in a brown suit.

Desperate to work out what happened, Anne approaches a journalist with her findings, but he is sceptical of her abilities. Nevertheless, Anne soon discovers that Kilmorden Castle is a cruise ship heading to South Africa the next day. Buying a ticket, she finds herself among a number of suspicious characters and finds that she is unable to trust anyone. There’s Colonel Race, who may or may not be in the Secret Service; Suzanne Blair, a wealthy independent woman; Eustace Pedlar, millionaire owner of the house where the dead woman was found; and his two mysterious secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. When Anne’s life is threatened, she becomes convinced that “the man in the brown suit” is one of her companions, and she quickly learns that adventures aren’t so fun as they seem in books when they’re happening to you for real…

I think I’ve said before that Christie is never held up as a feminist icon, but I think this is a mistake. Here she gives us one of those spunky young girls that the twenties were terribly keen on. Anne is cut from the same cloth as Tuppence, but is shown again and again to be sharp, smart, wickedly cunning and more than capable of holding her own. She exhibits fear, but she isn’t going to wait around for a man to save her. One of my favourite moments is when she approaches the police who dismiss her as being a young woman who doesn’t know anything useful, and manages to use her scientific background to entirely flummox them and show that they are not her superiors in every way.

Although none of the major detectives turn up here, we do meet Colonel Race, who will appear in later Christie novels as a friend of Hercule Poirot. In his first outing, we get to learn more about his emotional life than we ever do later, plus this also sets up his position and background when he turns up later. The other characters are good fun, and as ever Christie intelligently lays down all the red herrings and we gleefully pick them up and run with them, only to realise too late that we’ve been going in the wrong direction. It isn’t one of my absolute favourites – the solution is just a touch too convoluted for me, and one character manages to have five or six distinct aliases over the course of the book – but it shows her chops as a thriller writer, an aspect of her work which is often overlooked.

Still one for the completists, with a few good jokes, funny observations and a good sense of peril.

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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“The Art Of Failing” by Anthony McGowan (2017)

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“I’m back working again at the British Library.”

It’s been one of those weeks where very little seems to have gone right, with the exception of polishing an opening chapter of a novel I hope to finish some time between May and the heat death of the universe. However, it turns out that I am actually having a pretty good time of it when compared to Anthony McGowan.

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered.

Among the humour, though, are some genuinely insightful and beautiful moments. My absolute favourite is when he sees a green woodpecker while eating his lunch and declares no day wasted if you’ve seen a woodpecker – or a fire engine. I also love his notion that if you were starting from scratch and getting rid of all the bad animals like lice and tapeworms, you’d definitely keep the woodpeckers. Despite all the problems that befall him, McGowan is able to draw up some wonderful insights about the natural world, modern living, and ornithology. He’s also very keen on grebes.

It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Right Ho, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse (1934)

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“‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘may I speak frankly?'”

In 2015, I read my first Jeeves and Wooster novel, and said at the time that I’d be back soon to bathe in this ridiculous, silly and charming world. It’s only taken four years, but we’re here at last. Heading back much earlier into the canon, I alighted in 1934 at the doorstep of Right Ho, Jeeves, hoping to find it as endearing as last time. Naturally, it was a success.

Bertie Wooster is convinced that Jeeves’ mind is starting to go. This has come about firstly because his valet has taken against Wooster’s white mess jacket and declares that it needs to be got rid of, and also because he’s given questionable dating advice to Gussie Fink-Nottle, who is now stood in Bertie’s sitting room dressed as Mephistopheles. Things don’t get any simpler when Bertie gets a sudden telegram from his Aunt Dahlia summoning him to Brinkley Court immediately to chair a prize-giving at a local school. Sensing he can reunite Gussie with his girl and foist the task off onto him as well, Bertie sends Gussie in his place.

Aunt Dahlia, however, is not amused and Bertie and Jeeves find they have to head to Brinkley Court anyway when Dahlia’s daughter Angela calls off her engagement to Tuppy Glossop. Certain that Jeeves is not up to solving the problems of the heart that now face the duo, Bertie instead comes up with some plans of his own that will restore peace and order to his friends and relatives. Unfortunately, of course, Bertie is an ass, and he really should just leave things to the ever-capable Jeeves…

As last time, I’m staggered that these books are not more prominent on my radar, which is entirely my own fault. Jeeves as a name has entered the global vocabulary as the last word in butlerdom (which is unfortunate given he’s a valet, not a butler), and while the vast majority of his dialogue is simply repeats of “Indeed, sir?”, “Yes, sir” or “Most agreeable, sir”, somehow every single one appears to have its own nuance and the beauty is in the subtext. Jeeves is far too professional to ever openly admonish or disagree with his master, but you know exactly what he’s thinking at any time. Perhaps he is vastly intelligent, but I actually would wager that he’s of just a slightly above average intelligence, heightened by the fact that everyone around him is an idiot.

Wooster is naturally one of the biggest idiots in literature. He’s a well-meaning idiot, kind and thoughtful and always concerned with doing the right thing and making everyone around him happy, there’s no question on that. It’s just that he’s not terribly good at it, prone to speaking without thinking, jumping to the wrong conclusions, and saying things without any real acknowledgement that he might not be speaking as plainly as he thinks. His style is unique, funny and his unstoppable use of abbreviations is hilarious, and I particularly loved: “Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.” Is this simply an English embarrassment at mentioning sex and gender, or is Bertie’s head so full of idle thoughts all rolling over one another, he simply doesn’t have time to complete each one?

The secondary characters shine, too. Gussie Fink-Nottle is basically Boris Johnson, just with an obsession with newts, and Aunt Dahlia is fiesty and full of energy, despite her advancing years and not afraid to threaten Bertie with physical violence, while at the same time letting him know that she does love him. The book as a whole is just a pure joy from start to finish, with a daft plot that gets wrapped up perfectly once Bertie is out of the way, and I loved it. I’ll try not to leave it another four years before I come back to Wodehouse.

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 Good Fairies Of New York” by Martin Millar (1992)

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“Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practising gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.”

The USA, in its modern form, is a pretty young country, as these things go. Yes, the Native Americans have a wildly fascinating and detailed folklore history, but much of it seems to be ignored and there are struggles to preserve it. Perhaps we’ve already lost a lot. It always seemed to me that the modern Americans viewed the folklore and magical history of older countries like England and Ireland with jealous eyes and sought to create their own myths and legends, idolising figures like Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett and George Washington. In this novel, Martin Millar gives America a chance to play around with a few older myths.

The novel opens with two Scottish fairies, Morag and Heather, flying through the window of Dinnie’s flat and vomiting on the carpet. The frenemy fairies accidentally found themselves in New York after boarding a plane and are bemused by this huge city and its strange ways. Unable to deal with Dinnie and his horrible personality, Morag flies to the apartment over the road to meet Kerry, a perfectly charming woman with Crohn’s disease and a desire to complete her Celtic flower alphabet.

Being good fairies, Morag and Heather decide to improve things for their human friends. They don’t count, however, on New Yorkers not having the same excitement when seeing fairies as the British and Irish do and they soon find themselves in trouble with New York’s native fairies, a large number of homeless people, and Dinnie’s abrasive landlord. Elsewhere, the fairies of Cornwall are staging a rebellion against their tyrannical king, another group of fairies have landed in Central Park and are desperately in need of some whisky, and the ghost of Johnny Thunders is trying to find his old guitar.

Despite all the claims that he’s a hilarious writer, I definitely didn’t find this one as funny as I did my last Martin Millar novel. I get the light-heartedness and that the humour is present, but it didn’t tickle me into laughing out loud once. I was impressed with the concepts, certainly, and they’re quite daft, but they suit the universe he’s created well enough that I don’t find them outlandishly funny. The other problem is that there are so many overlapping stories and viewpoints, often visited for only a paragraph or two at a time, that things quickly tangled themselves up and it became hard to develop a rapport with one character when suddenly you were jerked away to read about another, only to drop back in to meet a third on the very next page.

Some of the stuff is very interesting, though. The Celtic flower alphabet intrigues me as a concept, and I would love to have known more about that. The inclusion of New York native fairies is also great fun, as they’re not just simply American. There are Italian fairies in Little Italy, Chinese fairies in Chinatown, and Ghanaian fairies in Harlem, each with their own styles, customs and costumes. They do hang a lampshade on the fact that despite America having had a lot of Irish immigration, there don’t appear to be any Irish fairies in the city, but it does make you wonder where they are.

An interesting and fun read, but a touch too busy. With a little more focus, it could be great.

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!

Book Chat: Tim Clare

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Tim Clare is one of those people with an extraordinary amount of talent who makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. He is responsible for the award-winning memoir We Can’t All Be Astronauts, an abundance of poetry including the collection Pub Stuntman, and The Honours, a novel that deals with a secret society in the British interwar years. Its sequel, The Ice House, is out in May this year.

However, Tim first came to my attention with his excellent podcast Death of 1000 Cuts which is all about writing, and in particular the “Couch to 80K” series of exercises he ran in how to get back into writing when things seem hard or appear to have stalled. Tim’s silly but earnest style is contagious and I’ve really enjoyed doing the series and listening to him chat about the world of writing.

On top of all this, 38-year-old Tim also still finds time to enthuse over board games, swim, and be a doting father. I dragged him away from his prolific creative output for a few minutes to ask some questions about his history with books.

What are you reading at the moment?
My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi, a manga about a school for superheroes in a world where 80% of the population has ‘quirks’ – special abilities of some kind. It’s silly and well-trodden territory but tremendous fun – and the action sequences are so great!

What were your favourite books growing up?
I loved Max and Moritz, a German children’s book where two naughty boys execute a series of vicious and cruel ‘pranks’ such as strangling a widow’s chickens and filling the church organist’s pipe with gunpowder. It’s horrible, violent and everyone involved comes out of it badly.

Can you tell me some of the books currently on your “to-read” list?
I don’t have a to-read list. To be honest I just stumble through the day-to-day business of writing and occasionally grab something close to my desk in the swamp of my office. I read a bit like a wild forager. Grab whatever’s on the shelf and open.

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?
Is it about something cool? Is it good sentence-by-sentence? Does it tell me something I don’t already know? Has the author put the work in?

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?
Any of the first three, really. I was dead against ebooks till my house started overflowing with books. Not keen on Amazon’s monopoly but for books you don’t really have much affection for – especially non-fiction – or out-of-print classics it’s really handy to just be able to read off a screen.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?
Even The Women Must Fight by Karen Gottschang Turner is a really interesting non-fiction book about the 20th century wars in Vietnam and the women who fought in them. I felt admiration and sadness. It’s no great revelation that war is terrible but amazing the resolve and strength of so many people.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?
I cried reading Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. Don’t know whether I was just tired but the sweep of it and the suffering of everyone involved is pretty gruelling. It’s such a nuanced book that it’s hard to know what you feel, and what you should be feeling. I love books like that.

If you could spend a day inside a book, which would you choose?
Ooh gosh. That’s tricky, isn’t it. I’m trying to think of a story where people aren’t constantly in terrible danger. Maybe one of the Mr Men books. I’ve been reading some of them with my daughter, and they seem like fairly non-lethal environments. And weird. Deeply weird. I’d like it if I could be transformed into my own Mr Man for a day.

Which fictional character would you most like to go for dinner or drinks with?
Good Lord. Do I know they’re a fictional character in this scenario? Like, do I have knowledge of the book? By what mechanism have they come to life? Do I mention it to them, over dinner? Oh, by the way you’re a fictional character given sentience? Do they return to the book after, or carry on in the world? Like, just the fact of the meeting would utterly melt my understanding of the universe. And either all fictional characters would come to life, or by the act of my choosing this one character was given thought. Either scenario is terrifying – the latter because how could I choose? What a responsibility!

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?
Well, it’s not perfect, but I feel like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is just damn interesting and ambitious and funny. I’m so glad it found a wide audience because it’s not quite like anything else, great on the line, long, weird, nerdy, and with loads of jokes in footnotes and a rich world. It gives me hope that maybe the reading world isn’t full of hidebound pack animals after all.


More about Tim can be found on his website, or on Twitter, and his books and podcast are all available in the usual places.

“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Harcastle” by Stuart Turton (2018)

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“I forget everything between footsteps.”

One of the most difficult questions you can be asked as an avid reader is, “So, what’s your favourite book?” This must be the same problem faced by film buffs and music nerds – how are you meant to pick a favourite? As such, I don’t have a specific answer, but have about ten that I would pick out as examples of some of my favourites. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has already taken its place among their number. How best to describe it? It’s kind of like if Quantum Leap found its way into an Agatha Christie novel, via Groundhog Day. Let me try and explain.

Blackheath is a crumbling old manor house, and tonight there is to be a party where Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the hosts, will die, as she has done every day for many, many years. Our narrator, Aiden Bishop, wakes up in a body that is not his own in a large forest, with no memories of how he came to be there or what he needs to do about it now. He finds his way out of the forest and to the house, where he begins to meet other members of the household and party. After Evelyn’s death, instead of a new day breaking, the same one starts again, but this time Aiden is in a different body, while the same events play out around him.

Caught in a time loop, Aiden is doomed to live out the same day over and over again, each time in the body of a different guest. The only way to escape the loop is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder. But this is apparently not as easy as it appears when Aiden can’t change events, merely experience them from different vantages, inside a variety of hosts with very different skills and abilities. There’s also the discovery that he’s not the only one stuck in a loop like this, and he has to do his best to avoid the nefarious “footman”, who seems determined that Aiden doesn’t escape from Blackheath…

I got this book for Christmas and it naturally made its way onto the reading list, but then another friend of mine said that it was one I would love, so I raised it up the pile a little and got to it sooner than I anticipated. Originally daunted by its size and the promise of a complicated plot line, I found that neither of these were mattered. This book is the definition of a page turner, with constant twists and amazing, often beautiful, descriptions. This is an insanely good debut novel from Stuart Turton and one that has left me jealous and somewhat bereft that I’ll never be able to do better.

What a mind Turton must have to be able to weave together the timeline in such a way that we can see it play out in numerous ways and yet still be continually surprised and shocked. I was proud of myself for working out one aspect of the finale before it happened, but most of it remained out of sight, blowing my mind when it finally did all arrive. Because it’s a repeat of the same day, certain things happen out of order and we only get explanations of them in later attempts, but I don’t think there’s a single loose thread in the whole novel. I’ve also never been more grateful for a map and a list of characters in the front of the book, which I had to keep referring to for at least the first three fifths of the book, before much of it settled into my memory. Layers upon layers of mysteries and secrets surround Blackheath, and they are tied up together so neatly it feels like real magic has been achieved here.

More importantly, Turton’s grasp on the characters is phenomenal. The more bodies Aiden inhabits, the harder it becomes to remember who he is, and instead he finds himself dominated by the personalities and memories of his hosts, each one stronger than the last. Each character is fully realised and so vivid, as is Aiden’s reaction to each of them. On one day he’s inside an enormously fat man and is very aware of his own physical bulk and how the world views him. The day after, he finds himself back in a thin man and struggles to acclimatise to the sudden loss of weight. He often struggles with the morality of some of his hosts too, which is fun to see and handled so delicately that it all feels believable.

Not just one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve ever read. Do not miss out.

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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