“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

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“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

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 take a look!

“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

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 White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga (2008)

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white-tiger“Neither you nor I can speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.”

I don’t have much truck with many awards, and I usually find that whatever ends up winning an Oscar, Man Booker, Emmy, Brit, and so on, I’ve never seen, read or heard. One of my friends thinks this is because I like to shun things that are popular, but that doesn’t take into account my obsessive love of Harry Potter, among other things. I think generally it’s because the sort of books and films that win these awards generally never really appeal to me. They seem to have been created for the award and the award alone.

In particular, the Man Booker Prize is something that I’ve never really paid attention to. I have, however, read three of them. Well, two and a bit. I started The God Of Small Things at university and despised it, giving up after a few chapters. I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it. And this brings us to the third Man Booker Prize winner I’ve ever read – The White Tiger.

This is the tale of Balram Halwai who grew up in a poor caste in a dirty village of India. Despite his caste being sweet-makers, his father was a rickshaw puller, having had his destiny stolen from him. Attempting to make something of himself, Balram is employed by a local rich man and his family, and becomes their driver.

Balram is a honest, hard-working servant who comes to struggle with his position. He realises that the caste system once so prevalent in India has been replaced by a much simpler one – the haves and have nots. He sees himself as a white tiger, a rare beast that comes along once in a generation and cannot be tamed. His employers begin asking more and more terrible things of him, and as things come to a head, Balram decides to do something drastic to free himself from this life that he doesn’t believe he deserves.

The framing device is that the story is told over seven nights in a letter to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. This seems odd, but Balram is keen to tell Jiabao about how India is a country full of entrepreneurs and go-getters. Whether Jiabao ever reads the letter, or even receives it, is never disclosed.

There are so many themes running throughout this story. There’s an ongoing battle for Balram’s independence and his insistence that he is not like other men, which for the most part he isn’t. He discusses the political situation in India, although he doesn’t necessarily get all the ins and outs of it, and he is aware that the people are locked in, what he terms, a “rooster coop”. That is, no one can escape alone from the position they are in, and no one else is going to help them do so. It’s also a tale of globalisation, with Balram’s master Ashok being a fan of America and New Delhi being full of strip malls, call centres and hotels that are all only there because of Western development.

Like Lucky Jim, oddly enough, the biggest theme though is perhaps class. Balram notes that people either have big bellies or they do not, declaring that the divide between the rich and poor is stronger than ever, and hugely obvious to anyone who’s looking.

It’s a darkly funny book, biting and caustic towards the situation in India, and it opened my eyes to what things are like there. Balram is fairly likeable, even with his final acts (corruption is another ongoing theme, one that he first dislikes and later comes around to understand), but I never quite understood how old he was meant to be. It’s never explicitly stated, so in my head he is in his twenties, but may well be older.

Overall, the book served to prove to me that just because it won a Man Booker Prize, it doesn’t mean I should write it off as something I wouldn’t like. It’s a smart book, a brilliant debut and well deserving of a place in modern literature.

“Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes” by Cory O’Brien (2013)

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zeus“So everybody knows Zeus is the king of the gods right?”

Some people look at the myths and legends of old and go, “I can’t believe anyone used to believe that!” But be wary, because two thousand years from now the people of the future could well be saying that about the religions we’ve currently got going on.

Most people have some knowledge of a couple of the myths of old, because they’re still with us all over. Two major film characters at the moment are called Thor and Loki; the Mayan calendar messed everybody up a few years ago (how’s the end of the world going, by the way?) and the names of Greek and Roman gods are on pretty much everything – we even named our planets after them. But the reason they’re still not common knowledge to all is, I think, because in their original style and language, they aren’t exactly accessible. Enter Cory O’Brien and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, a fully modern update of some of the more famous tales of world mythology.

O’Brien takes us through a whistle stop tour of the myths of many cultures including Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Japanese, African, Chinese, Sumerian, Native American and even those that the modern USA have already invented for themselves. I will also say at this point before anyone turns against the book for assuming, say, “African mythology” is one single thing, O’Brien notes that there are many, many mythologies of Africa, and he’s just picked the stories he likes best.

But these are very, very modern retellings. They’re full of swearing, slang, tangents, modern references and sheer insanity. He laughs at names like Uranus, calls out characters on their stupidity, and isn’t afraid to get filthy quickly. For example, Zeus is introduced as “just cruisin’ around, right, pickin’ mortal women to bone”, and Loki is referred to as “the god of being a needless prick all the time”.

The story titles are also wonderfully descriptive. How spider god Anansi beat Death has the clickbait title, “Local Father Discovers Immortality with This One Weird Tip!”; the Greeks get stories like “King Midas is: GOLDFINGER” and “Narcissus Probably Should Have Just Learned to Masturbate”, and I don’t think I even need to describe the content of, “Noah Is on a BOAT”.

The final chapters bring it right up to date, with tales of America’s founding fathers, Scientology, and the current scientific theory of how the universe began.

Probably the most interesting thing about it is simply that you quickly realise that a lot of the early mythologies have a surprising amount of things in common. Both the Greek and Japanese tales involve a woman getting trapped in the underworld after eating pomegranates, trees of life are plentiful, and most of them have a great flood at some point or another. Are these coincidences, or was there early contact? Or, perhaps, there is some truth in what is said…

The style is fun, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly, although I must admit that all the creation myths are pretty interesting, and it’s fun to compare and contrast. It’s also great to see some of the lesser known mythologies like Sumerian and Mayan be played with. Also refreshing is the inclusion of Judeo-Christianity, showing both that it is merely a mythology and, particularly when written in this style, just as insane and unbelievable as what the Greeks came up with.

A fun and peculiar introduction to world mythology that is definitely not safe for anyone with a nervous disposition. But, then again, the myths never really were.