“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

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“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde (1891)

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“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

An obsession with looking youthful seems to pervade society, and has done for a long time. I’m fortunate that I don’t quite look my age and can get away with being thought of as a few years younger, but the grey hairs are coming through with increasing regularity and I already make noises when I get out of low chairs and complain about a sore back. But if you could find a way to ensure you never aged, would you take it?

Basil Hallward is an artist who has stumbled upon his greatest muse – the young and handsome Dorian Gray. It is clear he is smitten, although Dorian just sees it as a friendship. While Dorian is sitting for a portrait, he is entertained by the opinions of Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton who shares his belief that hedonism and beauty are the only things worth dealing with in life. By the time the painting is finished, Dorian is horrified by how he will age and wither but the portrait will retain his youth. Now convinced that there is nothing more important than beauty, he wishes that his portrait ages instead of himself.

He falls in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane, but Basil and Henry are both unconvinced by her ability, and when Dorian finds that her poor performance renders him uninterested in her, he cruelly leaves her. When he gets home, however, he notices that the portrait has developed a cruel sneer. When he learns that Sibyl has killed herself in grief, he sees where his life is leading and locks away the portrait. Over the next two decades, he indulges in every vice and immoral activity he can, never aging or losing one iota of his beauty. The painting, meanwhile, has not been so lucky, as every foul act and passing day makes the portrait ever more hideous, taunting Dorian from its hiding place, leading him to wonder if it was all worth it after all.

This is one of those classic novels that has seeped into the public consciousness so we all think we know the story but, like Frankenstein, it turns out some of the details have got lost or been altered by adaptations along the way. I was under the impression that the portrait just held back the years, not that it also took hold of any debauchery and evilness in Dorian’s soul, although I suppose I should’ve twigged given how terrible the portrait looks in visual adaptations. I also could not have named a single other character, but Basil and Henry are both great inventions.

The opening pages dragged a little, I felt, and I didn’t think it sounded much like Oscar Wilde was behind it at all. That is, until the dialogue begins, and then it’s unmistakable, as all his characters sound like him. He has such a great way with dialogue, capturing both deep wisdom and silly witticisms with equal talent. No one else could make a duchess declare, “If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn’t have a scene in this bonnet. It is far too fragile. A harsh word would ruin it.” His people are hilarious, which makes what’s happening in the plot seem all the darker. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, the stakes are lower and we can revel in the jokes. Here, they are interspersed with the horrors that Dorian and, to some extent, Basil are dealing with. There are other less interesting passages however, including a whole chapter dedicated to Dorian’s obsession with beauty as he collects gems and tapestries, with great long lists regarding his collection blurring in to one.

Above all, it’s a novel about beauty, youth and obsession, and perhaps contains a warning on overindulging in life’s temptations. It also brings up the Victorian belief that evil makes someone ugly, whereas we all know that appearance can have little effect on your morality. Beauty is so aspired to by many in society, and always has been (even if what is considered beautiful has changed) but the novel shows the obsession that can come from this desire, and how ugly that can be. Hedonism, also, is fine in small doses, but one must be responsible for one’s actions, and as Dorian remains untouched by his cruel and unusual habits, he begins to care less about how he affects other people.

It was Wilde’s only novel, and I do think he writes better for the stage, but also you can see this as him dealing with his own demons. Interestingly, he has apparently written himself into the novel three times over, saying of the primary characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” All in all, it’s worth a read and is genuinely quite spooky at times.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” and “Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator” by Roald Dahl (1964 & 1973)

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I’ve put these books on the same post today because they’re the same series. Also, one of them I have very little to say about, and the other I don’t have enough time to say all I would like. Enjoy!

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (1964)

“These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr Bucket.”

We all know this book, and we all agree that the original film was better than the latter (all except Roald Dahl, who despised it). This is of course the story of young Charlie Bucket who wins a coveted golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the most wonderful place in existence. Accompanied by Grandpa Joe, he tours the factory alongside greedy Augustus Gloop, spoilt Veruca Salt, competitive gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde and telly addict Mike Teevee, and together they all learn a few lessons about being good people.

Willy Wonka is, of course, the stand out character of the whole piece, both charismatic and insane and as ever with Dahl, the book is darker than one remembers. While the scene of Charlie and Grandpa Joe stealing fizzy lifting drinks was created for the film, the creepy boat ride remains in tact, and we even see what has happened to the children as the result of their misbehaving inside the factory.

It’s hard to know what to say about the book, really. It’s joyous and fun and silly, and one of the cornerstones of the children’s literary canon and is packed with morals and very daft jokes. The sequel, however, is quite something else.

Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator (1973)

“The last time we saw Charlie, he was riding high above his home town in the Great Glass Lift.”

I’d somehow never read the sequel before, but knew it was weird. Dahl’s hatred of the original film version of the first book that I mentioned above meant that he refused to ever give anyone the rights to the sequel. This was actually a good move, if not for the reasons he did it.

Picking up where the last book left off, Willy Wonka, Charlie and his family are all inside the Great Glass Elevator, hurtling ever higher into the sky, until they go so high they punch through the atmosphere and end up in orbit around the Earth, approaching the Space Hotel USA, the first orbital hotel in history. Mistaken by the American President as being aliens and/or terrorists who are trying to destroy the hotel, Charlie and his companions must do their best to avoid being arrested or worse, killed.

Aboard the hotel, however, they find that aliens have already set up shop there, so Willy Wonka uses the elevator to save the people heading for certain doom, before returning to Earth when he reveals another invention – a chocolate that makes you young again, an idea that very much appeals to Charlie’s ancient grandparents who haven’t been out of bed in twenty years…

Really, this is two stories in one. First, we have the adventure in space, and then the adventure with the chocolate of youth, Wonka-Vite. All of the action takes place over a few hours, which would be mad enough if not for the fact this is also the same day that Charlie visited the chocolate factory, meaning that this is perhaps the busiest day the poor lad has or ever will experience. It’s not a bad thing that this book has sort of been lost to history as while there are a couple of good jokes and daft Dahlian ideas present, mostly it’s a melting pot of all the other ideas he had but obviously didn’t know what to do with.

The inclusion of the American President and his staff are particularly bizarre, and full of weird puns and jokes that seem to be there just to pad out the text. It’s also dated badly, with some particularly racist overtones during a few scenes – and none of them involving the Oompa-Loompas, miraculously!

Probably best forgotten – let’s just stick to the original in future.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of growing up, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Exercises In Style” by Raymond Queneau (1947)

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“On the S bus, in the rush hour.”

Quick review today from this classic exploration of writing from Raymond Queneau.

The plot is simple enough – on a crowded bus, a long-necked young man challenges another passenger who he believes keeps treading on his toes every time someone else gets on or off. He darts for an empty seat when one becomes available. A couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same youth being advised by a friend to add a button to his overcoat.

That’s it. But what happens next is quite remarkable.

Queneau takes this banal tale and retells it 99 times, each time in a whole new manner, be it in a different tense, from a different viewpoint, or in an entirely new medium, such as a sonnet or an official letter. In some, he plays around with word structure leading to some stories that make no sense, whereas in others he’ll adopt words to do with food, or focus solely on the smells or sounds involved in the story. Each new retelling gives us a slightly different interpretation of the story and new details filter through, building up a richly diverse story, whether it’s being told through the eyes of a poet or a Cockney.

There’s not really much more to it than that, but it’s a great thing for writers to read in particular, I think, as it shows how much narration matters. Just a slight twist and you can get almost an entirely different story depending on what you’re focusing on. An interesting experiment.

“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

“Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn (1968)

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“Mankind consisted of 128 people.”

Earth has been invaded by aliens so many times in fiction. On most of those occasions, whether first contact is friendly or not, we are equals of a sort, in size, shape and intelligence at least. But what if aliens were to come to Earth that were so enormous, they didn’t even notice humans were here, and just dominated the planet thanks to sheer size alone. What would happen to humanity then? Of Men and Monsters explores this idea.

Eric the Only is a boy in his society of Mankind, but today is the day of his Theft, and if he’s successful, he will come back to be declared Eric the Eye, meaning he’s a full man and able to mate. Under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas the Trap-Smasher, he pledges to steal not food or an item usable by Mankind, but a Monster souvenir. He flees the burrows for the first time ever and makes his way across the treacherous landscape inhabited by the giant Monsters to complete his task.

But when he gets back home to safety, he finds that a rebellion occurred, led by his uncle, as those who want to use Alien-Science tried to rise up against the traditional methods of Ancestor-Science. Now an outlaw, Eric the Eye goes on the run, stumbling across another tribe in another burrow. He joins their number and soon he begins to learn the truth about who he is, where he lives, and what the Monsters are.

You can’t help but think about The Borrowers with this novel. The difference is, of course, that humans haven’t actually changed their size, it’s just that the aliens that invaded were so huge that, to them, humans are merely vermin, living in the walls of their houses like cockroaches or mice, stealing food and potentially spreading disease. The use of scale is impressive, but it’s difficult to imagine something like this. I kept imagining the Monsters to be our size and the humans to be small, but then you get a reminder that if the humans were to go outside, rain or trees would also look tiny compared to the invaders.

It’s clever in it’s use of detail, or rather lack of it. Because the humans can only see on a different scale, they cannot adequately describe the Monsters – we know they are grey, with six legs, tentacles around their necks and small heads – and their technology seems bizarre. Human technology is now quite primitive, with people using spears, but there is evidence of higher technology. For example, when Eric’s name “the Eye” is chosen, it is done so via a mystical Record Machine, which seems to be a television displaying old infomercials.

The human societies that have built up are the most interesting aspect of the novel, even if the individual characters are quite flat. Eric’s tribe, Mankind, call themselves that because they believe they are the most superior of all the tribes. The men are all warriors and thieves, the women have knowledge of healing and history. Days and nights are measured simply by when the tribe’s chief goes to sleep and wakes up, and there is a strict hierarchy. We meet other societies living in the same wall (that’s how huge these buildings are) who have different ways of doing things, and at one point we see humans who have come from the building next door, and they may as well be a whole new species.

It feels like it should be a quick read, but I got bogged down in it trying to work out what some of the technology was, before realising that the Alien-Science is a lot like Gary Larson’s “Cow Tools” – there is no human equivalent. Or maybe there is but it’s being described in such an unusual way that we don’t notice? There’s a satisfying ending, at least, with the realisation that of all the species of vermin on our planet, humans may just be the most successful of them all…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet an entirely different race of aliens as Dexter, who sees himself has the last single person on Earth, flees his home, along with his friends, to escape the invasion. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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