“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“How To Find Love In A Bookshop” by Veronica Henry (2016)

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Where better place to look?

Where better place to look?

“He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago.”

There are few places quite as wonderful as a bookshop, from the enormous five-storey flagship branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, to the tiniest second-hand place in the sidestreets of Edinburgh. Hatchards, Daunt and its like are enormously influential places, so it’s no surprise that plenty of books exist about bookshops. Penelope Fitzgerald had a bittersweet bash, and Robin Sloan gave the environment a funny, fantastic airing. It’s Veronica Henry’s turn now, and she’s taken the magic of bookshops to a new level.

Emilia Nightingale has rushed back to England to be at the bedside of her father, Julius, who is dying. Her final promise to him is that she will return to the bookshop, Nightingale Books, that he has run for the last thirty years and keep it going in his memory. Unfortunately, she discovers that her father hasn’t had his eye on the ball, and the shop is losing money hand over fist. It might always have been full of people, but half the time they came in to chat with the charming and kind Julius, rather than buy anything. Emilia must decide whether to keep the shop open or sell off the property to the money-grabbing Ian Mendip who wants the land to expand his empire.

The small town, however, is full of residents who want the shop to stay, but few of them are quite what they seem. Sarah is the lady of the manor, looking forward to her daughter’s upcoming wedding and hiding a painful secret that she can’t tell anyone. Bea has moved to the countryside from London for a better life, but the monotony and boredom is driving her mad. Jackson has never read a book in his life, but now is determined to start so he can bond with his young son and prove to his ex that he’s capable of being a good father. June nurses heartbreak that is decades old. Thomasina is a chef crippled by shyness and desperate to talk to the cute guy at the cheese shop. And Dillon is contractually obliged to keep his place.

The fact that this book has so many characters does wonders for it. We learn enough about each of them to really feel for them and want them to find the happiness that they each seem to deserve. They’re not perfect, which makes them even more so. You learn to love these people despite their flaws. The stories weave together neatly and while Emilia is the central figure, she’s not the most interesting one, and the book soon spirals out from being her story to being the story of many. I love a book that reminds you that we’re all part of one another’s stories, and no one is going through this madness alone.

I only have issues with a couple of moments of characterisation. Thomasina is apparently shy, but this for the most part is an entirely informed quality, as every time we see her, she seems confident. Talking to a stranger in the bookshop and setting up a two-person restaurant in her own home are not the actions of a shy person. Indeed, the first major part she has in the book is reading at Julius’s memorial, a task that seems to immediately do away with the trait she’s most linked to. I’m also not totally sure how to feel about Jackson and his ex, Mia. Jackson supposedly was kicked out after becoming feckless and not helping out with their son, but later he’s shown to be paying maintenance without having been asked, and is desperate to take Mia back despite saying how much she’s changed. For such a nice guy, he can be a bit of a dick. He redeems himself by the end, though.

While it might just be because I’m a bit emotionally unstable at the moment anyway, I did shed a tear or two in the final chapter. As is only right in a book of this kind, there are happy endings all round, and they feel deserved. It’s a book that feels like a nap in front of the fire – warm, comfortable and familiar. As much as there is a lot of human love in the book, of all different kinds, it’s really a love letter to books and to bookshops. Books are so important, and anyone who doesn’t read them just hasn’t found the right one yet. Henry’s passion for the medium is highly pronounced.

A nice little addition is that every few chapters there’s a list of books recommended by one of the characters. Thomasina, for example, lists books about food, and Dillon gives us books with particularly notable servants. This is the kind of book that will only cause you to add further to your reading lists. Devour this book and give yourself some cheer.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“The Book On The Bookshelf” by Henry Petroski (1999)

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bookshelf-book“My reading chair faces my bookshelves, and I see them every time I look up from the page.”

Although I started this blog in 2013, I started keeping track of what books I was reading at the beginning of the decade, in 2011. I read sixty-six books that first year, which feels paltry compared to the ninety-five I got through last year. But this book here is particularly special as this review marks the five hundredth book I’ve read this decade – so far. It feels impossible, and yet, it feels about right. I debated for a while about which book deserved the accolade of such a comfortable and pleasing round number, but there seemed to be only one real answer to that – a book about books.

More accurately, I suppose, Henry Petroski’s book is actually about something most people don’t even consider – bookshelves. Oh yes, books about stationery and fake languages now seem almost mainstream compared to this level of specificity. Here, Petroski is discussing the history of how humanity has stored its texts, from the earliest scrolls and clay tablets up until the modern era (well, 1999 anyway). He covers the evolution of books from scrolls and codices to the invention of the printing press, discusses how books were read in monasteries and what happened when they became more widely available to the general public, makes a study of studies and some of the world’s most famous libraries, as well as then discussing the engineering know-how required to build bookshelves that don’t sag, allow plenty of light to show off the books, and eventually developed wheels to make the most of the space. He ends with a look at how people treat books – with a particular look at bookmarks – and then the appendix lists a variety of ways to store your books, whether by author name, size, colour, order of purchase, enjoyment level or any other method.

Like a badly made bookshelf, it sags a little in the middle as the topic is fairly dry, but it’s full of enough hugely interesting facts to keep any bookworm going. One of the oddest things he discusses is that, well into the 1500s, books were stored with their spines facing inwards, and before that they would all be chained to the shelves so they couldn’t go missing. Petroski is clearly a man who loves books and seems to have a particular interest in their treatment throughout the centuries. Books have always held a kind of reverence, or so it seems, and people have spent a lot of time and money on ensuring the best way to store and display their libraries.

Obviously, given that the book was written in 1999, there is little in it about the development and proliferation of the Kindle and its ilk. At the time he was writing, it becomes clear that e-books are already in existence but in a very minor way, so he speculates a little on what may happen, suggesting that eventually bookshelves will have fewer and fewer books on them until they resemble the old carrels of the medieval period where a student would sit at a desk to read the book without having to move it. History moves in circles, of course. It would be interesting to see an update to this book and get Petroski’s take on these new developments.

It all made me very aware that my bookshelves are in little order. An author will have all their books clumped together, in general, though looking up I can see it’s untrue of Ben Aaronovitch and Patrick Ness immediately. Agatha Christie has a shelf all to herself, of course. I have one wall that is entirely bookshelves, as well as two more long shelves on another wall, a bookcase against a third, and then two more piles of books on my desk. Books now lay horizontally on top of their vertical colleagues who came first, old and new rub covers with one another, and everything’s a little bit too dusty as, as has always been the case, books are dust magnets. I haven’t counted in a while, but this lot coupled with the boxes in the attic add up to around one thousand books.

So, let’s raise a glass to this milestone of five hundred books, five hundred adventures and five hundred tales that have all had a hand in making me the man I am today. Here’s to the next five hundred.

“One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing” by Jasper Fforde (2011)

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thursdays-missing“Everyone remembers where they were when the BookWorld was remade.”

Where does one even begin on this week? Fearing, and later seeing, the worst news of 2016 so far – and it was up against some pretty stiff competition – meant that I had to take refuge inside fiction, and where better than back inside Jasper Fforde. Continuing on the Thursday Next series, this is the sixth installment, possibly my favourite one, so be prepared for spoilers out the wazoo and to not understand anything if you’ve not read the others in the series. Though, in fairness, even if you have read them this still might not make much sense.

First up, the BookWorld doesn’t look like it used to. In the previous novels it’s been just the Great Library and characters jump from book to book. Now it’s been remade, and Fiction Island is just one of hundreds. The island is divided up into genres with the Metaphoric River running through them all, from Dogma in the north to Adventure in the south. This alone makes the book far more enjoyable and funny, as the books are now neighbours and people get around by public transport. There are a lot more jokes and concepts to mine from this, and mine them Fforde does. Anyway, the plot.

This book isn’t narrated by the Thursday Next we’ve grown to love over the last five books, but instead by the written version. Although she failed her Jurisfiction entrance exam, when not being read in her own series and dealing with the troublesome cast there, she works for JAID, the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Division under Commander James “Red” Herring. When a self-published book, The Murders on the Hareng Rouge, comes down over Thriller, Thursday discovers that all the ISBN numbers have been scrubbed from the remains. Realising though that she’s just there to declare the case closed, she does so. However, she discovers soon after that the real Thursday Next is missing, and suddenly the downed book seems a bit more suspicious.

Accompanied by her clockwork butler Sprockett, whom she has recently saved from inside Conspiracy, and somehow equipped with the real Thursday’s Jurisfiction badge, written Thursday sets about finding out what has happened to her real self. But this is a Fforde book so we also have to contend with a brewing war between the genres of Women’s Fiction and Racy Novel, a lack of raw metaphor, a brief jaunt into the real world to find out more about Thursday’s absence from her husband Landen and the never-ending party on Fanfiction Island.

The idea of a geographical BookWorld is perhaps my favourite idea in here, as it entirely alters the way things work and, as I said, allows for all new jokes. The book also now contains a map of the new island, which is itself crammed with jokes. The genres of Racy Novel and Comedy border one another with the sub-genre of Bawdy Romp as a buffer zone; the Streams of Consciousness are literal; and there’s even a tiny island dedicated to MPs Expenses, a fiction if ever there was one. Another excellent joke scene is a minor one but features a support group for literary siblings who can’t live up to the popularity of their more famous brothers and sisters. They include the Mediocre Gatsby, who makes a living driving taxis, Rupert Bond who remains a virgin, Sharon Eyre, Tracey Capulet and Nancy Potter. You can work them out for yourselves.

Fforde also seems oddly prescient here, as if he knew something we didn’t. A major plot point is that the Racy Novel genre, on the banks of the Innuendo River, is trying to make itself more respected and gain a bigger readership. The following year, Fifty Shades of Grey was published, followed by hundreds of copycats trying to ride the coattails of its success. Seems that he knew something was going on. Because the book, like First Among Sequels, is set considerably later than the earlier books, we also get many more Harry Potter jokes, as well as a dig at the popularity of sexy vampires.

It’s also great to see a fictional character drop into the RealWorld for the first time and have to deal with such troublesome things as breathing, gravity, and conversations that serve no purpose to the plot. It’s also a chance to meet Square from Flatland, and learn a bit of what’s going on out there, which continues some gags from the last books and sets up some more ideas that will return in the next. This book is mostly set in the BookWorld, as indeed the next will focus primarily on the RealWorld.

As ever, Fforde weaves magic and I can’t believe I’m nearly done with Thursday again. But it’s a wonderful reminder that even in times of utter turmoil and trouble, books will be there to see us through the worst of it. Have faith.

“First Among Sequels” by Jasper Fforde (2007)

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first_among_sequels“The dangerously high levels of the Stupidity Surplus was once again the lead story in The Owl that morning.

It’s been a while, for both myself and Thursday. I left her fifteen books ago and she returns here in the fifth book of the Thursday Next series, and things are a little different. As ever, there will be some spoilers in here for people who haven’t read the first four, though if you do feel like starting in the middle for absolutely no sensible reason, here would be the best place to start.

The book opens fourteen years after the end of the last one, and things are very different. Thursday Next is now 52 and still happily married to Landen, with three children, the perpetually lazy and smelly cliched teenager Friday, the phenomenally intelligent Tuesday, and the quiet, unsociable Jenny. SpecOps has been mostly disbanded, leading Thursday and her former colleagues without official work, so now they run a carpet fitting shop. Except this is just a cover – they’re still dealing with the “weird shit” that the regular police won’t touch. And this is a cover too – Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction, deep inside the BookWorld, where her own stories have now become books that she’d rather distance herself from. As ever in Fforde’s world, there are a lot of threads here.

Firstly, Thursday has to mentor her fictional selves, the hyper-aggressive and violent Thursday1-4, star of the first four Thursday Next books, and the hippie, museli-loving rewrite of the fifth, Thursday5. Secondly, she has to convince her son Friday to join the ChronoGuard where he is meant to become the most successful operative of all times, but he’d rather be playing in his band and sleeping in until midday. With the End of Time approaching, never has the phrase “running out of time” been more apt.

Thirdly, the government are introducing the idea of reality television into books, suggesting that they should be rewritten with people choosing how they want the story to run and which characters they want to kill off. With Pride and Prejudice up for first adjustment, there are a lot of worried people. It may be true that fewer people are reading than ever before, but surely this isn’t the way to get them back into literature? And then of course there’s the discovery that Sherlock Holmes has been killed, and there’s the possibility that a serial killer is running free through the pages of the BookWorld.

More than ever, the book is loaded with hilarious exposition, scenes that seem pointless and sometimes are just there for the humour, but other times load up some highly important information without you noticing. The book is notable for several reasons. One of these is for the greatest time travel twist I’ve ever seen in fiction. I won’t ruin it here, but it’s something that has to be seen to be believed and makes me laugh out loud. In fact, several concepts here are wonderful. Joining the time travel debacle is the idea that TK-Maxx isn’t a discount clothing store, but in fact a prison where criminals are kept in stable time loops, aging but unable to do anything more than live out the same few minutes for years on end.

Where was I? Notability, right. If it seemed unusual enough before that Thursday was a heroine in her mid-thirties, here she’s in her early fifties, and still kicking arse and taking names as much as she ever used to, even though her back is starting to hurt and she’s not quite as quick as she once was. An action heroine in her fifties? You don’t get that in Hollywood. Another reason why these books are sheer perfection. Fforde messes around with intertextuality, goes meta to greater extremes than displayed anywhere else, and yet all the nonsense still works with great humour and serious intelligence. There’s even a jaunt into an Agatha Christie novel in here, and because the books are now set in the early 2000s rather than the 1980s, there are references to more modern characters, including Temperance Brennan and Harry Potter (the latter being unable to attend a couple of scenes due to issues of copyright law).

I’m aware that my posts about Thursday Next and Jasper Fforde are little more than giddy fanboying, but frankly I don’t care. Read these books and join me in my madness – you won’t regret it.

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