“Concrete Island” by J. G. Ballard (1974)

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“Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.”

They say that no man is an island (except for the Isle of Man, of course), but even in this world that is more connected than it has ever been, it’s still possible to feel alone, surrounded by people who don’t understand you or maybe don’t even notice you’re there. Coming from an island nation myself, I do wonder if all that living apart does something to a society’s psyche. Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Cuba … they often have some of the most interesting and unique histories. But we’re not here to talk about natural islands – this one is entirely man made.

Robert Maitland is driving out of London at just over seventy miles an hour when his front tyre blows out and his car smashes through a crash barrier and down into a patch of grass, ignored by every motorist who passes by on the three motorways surrounding it. He manages to pry himself from his Jaguar and clambers back up the embankment, hoping that he’ll get picked up. But there’s nowhere here to stop, or at least no one willing to do so. Still in shock, he considers making a break for it, but he’s hit by a car before he has a chance and tumbles back down onto the traffic island, cut off some his old life – his wife, his mistress, his job, his friends… Now he is a resident of this concrete island and he needs to work out how to get off. Will he end up here forever? And is he even the first person to have made it onto this forgotten land?

An allegory for how we’re all really, at the end of the day, on our own, and selfishness remains an endemic problem of humanity (unless I’m entirely missing the point), the novella sees Ballard deal with the constraint of having all of his action take place in one very small area. With very little dialogue, Ballard is tied to letting the world tell the story. Maitland initially seems to have very limited resources, but I do feel that there’s a cheat when he discovers the remains of the buildings that used to stand here and finds that some of the basements are still in working order. In fact, the whole island itself is much larger than I had gathered from the premise, which again feels like a cheat.

There’s little characterisation for Maitland, too, and we never really find out all that much about him, save the facts he’s a rich businessman and has two women in his life who may or may not be aware of one another. A lot is left vague, and actually some of that works, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for him. The premise as a whole is a little far fetched, too. I’m not against a weird plot – not by any means – but it’s hard to believe that not a single person sees him down there. Even if they thought he was a tramp, surely a police car or concerned motorist would double check? Ballard is at pains to make sure Maitland can’t just walk across the empty roads at night by giving him an injury, and like the island and its surrounding roads, it all feels a little too artificial.

Robinson Crusoe for the modern era – a weird story with some interesting ideas behind it.

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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“How To Talk To Girls At Parties” by Neil Gaiman (2016)

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“‘Come on,’ said Vic. ‘It’ll be great.'”

This is just a quick one here for a very short book. I’d read the short story of this in Neil Gaiman’s 2006 collection Fragile Things already, but it was oddly memorable and I was intrigued by this visual retelling.

It’s the 1970s, and two teenagers, Enn and Vic, are on their way to a party. Enn doesn’t want to go because he’s crap with girls, and Vic does because he’s a natural when it comes to pulling. When they arrive, Enn is swiftly abandoned because Vic has gone off with Stella. Deciding to follow his friend’s lead, however, he begins talking to a few of the girls. Unfortunately, they’re not quite the girls that the boys were expecting…

Short but incredibly engaging, the plot is snappy and Enn a likeable protagonist. On a personal note, I have a bit of a thing for women who look like they know when the universe is going to end (i.e. Natalie Dormer), or could kick my arse (i.e. Natalie Dormer), and the book is full of them. As is often the case with Gaiman, you can’t ever be really sure what’s real and what isn’t, and no proper explanations are given related to what happened at the party.

Similarly, it is in keeping with his themes of magic realism, the unknown, and normal people getting caught up in really weird scenarios. Plus the illustrations are utterly charming and beautiful, penned by twin artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. I’m unfamiliar with their work, but they have a beautiful style and the characters jump off the page and beckon you to join them. A really joyous, if creepy, read.

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.

“Postern Of Fate” by Agatha Christie (1973)

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postern“Books!” cried Tuppence.

This is the final book Agatha Christie wrote, although it was not the last to be published. It is also the final part of the Tommy and Tuppence series, the rest of which can be found elsewhere on my blog, specifically here, here, here and here. As mentioned there, this series follows the exploits of married couple Tommy and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford as they grow up and grow old, from their early twenties in the first book to their mid-seventies as they are now, making them the only Christie characters to age in time with the real world. These books are not murder mysterys so much as detective thrillers and spy stories, and while Christie is usually pretty good at whatever she attempts, but here … well, look, I’ll explain after a synopsis.

In the fifth outing for Tommy and Tuppence, they have just bought a new house in the little village of Hollowquay and find themselves struggling with all the problems that come with moving house. There are electricians ripping up floorboards, a garden to tame, and people’s possessions left behind that need sorting. Tuppence takes a shine to a few boxes of childrens books in the attic and when going through some old favourites seeking out memories one day, comes across some red underlinings in one of them. The previous owner hasn’t, however, underlined whole words or phrases, just single letters. When added together they spell out a singular, unmistakable message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally.” Not one to ever let a mystery pass her by, even in her advancing years, Tuppence begins asking around the village for anyone who may have known who Mary Jordan was.

Tommy soon finds himself caught up in Tuppence’s questioning and seeks out his old friends and contacts who, all still being impressed with how he and his wife so hugely helped the war effort two books ago in N or M?, are happy to point him in the right direction to seek out the right answers. But it soon becomes apparent that they might be lifting stones and prodding sleeping dogs that should all have been left well alone. Because even if it has been sixty years since Mary Jordan was killed, the killer remains at large…

There’s no beating about the bush on this one – it simply isn’t very good. One has to remember that at this point Agatha Christie was eighty-two years old and even at the time the reviews were mostly negative. Sure, some people were happy with it, but others note that Christie was clearly showing her age. The characters and their conversations meander and repeat, and things that seem like they have easy answers take ages for the characters to sort out. Tommy and Tuppence seem to forget what they say to each other a few times, and there’s a lot of dialogue repeated before much action takes place. In fact, it’s actually been suggested that the style here is indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease, despite Christie never being officially diagnosed with it. Going, I think, a bit too far, The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English says that Christie has lost “her grip altogether”.

Perhaps it’s intentional. Perhaps the fluffy, confused style of the novel is supposed to represent the aging minds of Tommy and Tuppence as they have less of a firm hold on their world. Perhaps these are just the thoughts of someone trying to convince himself that there’s no way Christie could’ve written a bad book. Truth is, while I think Christie was marvellous for a good many decades, at the end there, her age defeated her. She died three years later, having never written another book.

The star of the book, incidentally, is the Beresford’s Manchester terrier, Hannibal. Portrayed as a hugely intelligent dog who, in the end, is repsonsible for saving the day and being a wonderful comic hero.

Obviously, it’s a shame that Christie’s skills had become somewhat less acute by the end of her life, but given that I’ve read about sixty of her novels by now and this is the only one I’ve come across that’s had me disappointed, I consider that a win. She had a sparkling, incredible career, and while this one might be more forgettable than some of her others, there’s no denying that she was one of the most talented wordsmiths in history and we were lucky to have her for as long as we did. The Queen of Crime, long may she reign.