“The Place That Didn’t Exist” by Mark Watson (2016)

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“They had left Heathrow on a morning so gloomy it could have passed for dusk, and now ten hours later it was the opposite: a blue-purple night that felt like day.”

For both the reasons that I don’t care much for travel anyway, and that my Scottish ancestry means my tan is a lovely shade of tomato ketchup, Dubai has never much appealed to me as a destination. Building a city in the desert may have worked for Las Vegas, but the UAE is undoubtedly a more conservative country, and there doesn’t seem to be a year go by without a Westerner being thrown in jail or threatened with execution for doing something that goes against the moral standards of Dubai. It feels like an odd place, and Mark Watson emphasises that enormously in his novel, The Place That Didn’t Exist.

Tim Callaghan is a junior creative at an advertising company who has been flown out to Dubai to assist in the filming of a new ad campaign for poverty charity, WorldWise. He is hypnotised by the city with perma-blue skies, the world’s best customer service, and buildings that look like they’ve been dropped from the future into the early 21st century. He, like many visitors, comes to believe that everything here runs so perfectly that nothing could possibly go wrong.

However, this belief is quickly removed when a few days later one of the crew is found dead in his hot tub, and the surrounding circumstances are more than a little mysterious. In fact, Tim suddenly realises that he doesn’t know anything that’s going on. He keeps hearing snatches of conversation that suggest there are secrets hidden that he doesn’t know about, and absolutely everyone is on edge, even before the death. Soon, Tim feels Dubai is turning against him, and he comes to the slow realisation that everything seems too good to be true because it is.

I’m familiar with Watson’s work as a comedian, and I suppose I expected something in a similar tone with his novels. As it is, this feels a very different beast indeed, which is by no means a complaint, merely a lovely realisation that he’s even more talented than I first thought. It’s not a particularly funny book, although there are some amusing scenes, particularly featuring the sweet but slightly hapless Tim trying to deal with conflicting slang and people who treat advertising like they’re curing cancer, but it is very engaging. The world gets under your skin, tickling that part of your reptile brain that knows something is wrong, but you can’t work out what it is. It’s set in 2008, during the global financial crash, so things in Dubai are even more precarious, as the people and money that all flooded in are beginning to seep away again.

The charity Tim is working for is one that is trying to expose the vast gulf of inequality that separates the rich from the poor, and this is a theme that appears throughout the novel. The world created for tourists and the very wealthy Emirati is being serviced, cleaned and kept afloat by society’s poorest, some of whom are technically not even apparently considered human under UAE law due to their nationality. Dubai has created a “perfect world” that is eerie in its perfection, where nothing is quite what it seems and once you scratch the surface, you discover it’s just a veneer. The setting, plot and characters all reflect one another in these terms, and you can never be fully sure how you’re meant to feel about anything or anyone.

Creepy, insidious and unreal, but very, very good.

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 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Madness” by Roald Dahl (1944-1977)

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“Louisa, holding a dishcloth in her hand, stepped out the kitchen door at the back of the house into the cool October sunshine.”

Roald Dahl is best known for his subversive and dark children’s novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The Witches, populated usually by useless and abusive adults and children who were always capable of outwitting them. Far fewer people are aware, however, that he also wrote extensively for adults. This is the first time I’ve ever delved into his adult work and, unsurprisingly, it’s quite dark. Yet, it’s still somehow not quite as dark as some of his more familiar works. Here’s the collection Madness.

Each story features someone who has gone a bit mad in one way or another. The opening story, “Edward the Conqueror” tells us of a woman who rescues a cat that she’s convinced is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt and her husband who is jealous of all the affection the cat is now receiving. “The Landlady” is a quick tale of a woman running a B&B who doesn’t seem to ever want her guests to leave. “William and Mary” is the story of a man who dies of cancer but has his brain (and eye) kept alive by a scientist friend while the rest of the body is peeled away, and the reactions of his widow. These are not stories for the especially faint of heart.

The story “Pig” is actually probably the one that most felt like the Dahl I knew, and yet is also probably the darkest of the lot. In it, we find a young boy called Lexington who is raised by an elderly aunt to be a vegetarian. After her death, he makes a visit to New York for the first time where he tastes pork and declares it to be the finest food he’s ever eaten. In his desperation to get more and learn how it is cooked, he is very quickly led astray. Despite the content, the tone is very light and breezy.

I was less taken with the stories “Katina” (set in Greece during the Second World War) and “Dip in the Pool” (set aboard a cruise ship), although both were still compelling enough to hold my attention. Like sketch shows though, short story collections can always be a bit hit-or-miss, and these come from throughout Dahl’s career. Still, it’s been an interesting look at insanity from the minds of one of the oddest writers the planet produced. I have a funny feeling I’ll be buying up the other collections too.

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.

 

“Curtain” by Agatha Christie (1975)

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The end of an era…

“Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience, or feeling an old emotion?”

The exact date I first picked up an Agatha Christie novel is lost to me now; it was before I had started recording everything I read. 2009, most likely, as I was just finishing university and it was a lecture there that had inspired me to finally pick up one of her novels. It was Death in the Clouds, and I was hooked from the very first moment.

The world has changed since then, but my admiration and love for Christie and her work has only grown. I’m feeling very sentimental today because with this review, I have reached an end – having finished Curtain, I have now read all of her mysteries. Curtain is particularly notable. She wrote it during the Second World War, to be published in case she was killed during the war. She survived, but the book stayed locked in a safe until the 1970s. It was finally revealed to the world and told everyone how the story of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings ended. She died a year later.

In this novel, the setting is a familiar one to her fans. It is set in the country house of Styles, which was the key location in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is now a boarding house. Hastings has been summoned to visit his dearest friend, Poirot. The famous Belgian, however, is not in a good way. Confined to a wheelchair, crippled with arthritis, and prone to heart problems, he is nearing the end of his life. Poirot, however, notes that all his little grey cells are still in tact, and has one final mission – he is at Styles to prevent another murder, as one of the other guests seems to be something of a serial killer. Hastings is employed as the detective’s eyes and ears, to study the residents and work out not only who the killer is, but who is going to be the next victim.

It’s a mixed bunch, as is usual for a Christie novel, including the Luttrells, the old couple who now run Styles and are usually bickering; the quiet birdwatcher Stephen Norton; researcher Dr Franklin and his hypochondriac wife; Hastings’ own daughter, the headstrong Judith; and Mrs Franklin’s nurse, the no-nonsense Nurse Craven. Poirot claims to know who the killer will be, but decides it is safer if Hastings isn’t told. The two must try and prevent another murder from happening, but an accident changes everything, and now they’re all definitely running out of time…

The plot is all we’ve come to expect from the Queen of Crime, but even more so. It has apparently been a long time since Hastings and Poirot have seen one another, and indeed, the readers hadn’t seen Hastings for quite some time now. It is wonderful to have him back, as he is easily one of the most charming and well-bred men in fiction, and such a sweet modest fellow compared to the arrogance of Poirot. The characters are all finely realised and it’s tragic to see Poirot in the state he’s in. The solution is inspired – I was wrong, as ever – and provides an utterly incredible end to the series. Given that the books Christie wrote towards the end of her life were, it’s fair to say, not her finest, it’s a thrill to get a snatch again here for her at the height of her powers. There will never be another like her.

It’s not really the end, of course. I’ve not read her romance novels, or her poems. There are still plays to see, adaptations to get hold of, and her autobiography still sits on my shelf awaiting consumption. But the mystery novels are at the core of who Christie was and the work she did. I’ve finished now, and I know for a fact that this isn’t the end – I’m coming back. They’re not all recorded on the blog for a start! You can only do these things for the first time once, though, and this has been an incredible journey.

So, as I say my goodbyes to the worlds that Agatha Christie created, I raise a glass to Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite; to Mr Parker Pyne; to Ariadne Oliver; to Miss Lemon, George, and Inspector Japp; to Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race; to Tommy, and to Tuppence; to Captain Hastings; to Miss Marple; to Hercule Poirot; and, of course, to Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie herself. This has been the adventure of a lifetime, and to quote Poirot himself: “They were good days. Yes, they have been good days…

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.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

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. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Breakfast With The Borgias” by D. B. C. Pierre (2014)

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“Technology is the way, the truth and the life.”

I was probably attracted to this book by the title. Although I really don’t know very much about the Borgias, as a family dynasty I find them oddly magnetic, and most of that is due to their bloodthirsty reputation that has passed down through the centuries. A rotten lot; the father bribed his way to become Pope, his son was the real life version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and his daughter was famous as a poisoner. And yet they still all seem to be slightly more pleasant than the characters herein.

Zeva Neely is stood on a train platform in Amsterdam, waiting for the arrival of her teacher and lover, Ariel Panek. When he doesn’t show, and makes no attempt to get in touch with her to explain his lateness, she begins to worry, but has no choice but to make her way to the hotel. Ariel, meanwhile, is stuck in a taxi in Suffolk, on his way to a guesthouse. The fog has enveloped Britain so thickly that planes are all grounded and he’s going to have to spend the night in The Cliffs Hotel, the only place for miles around.

Once there, Ariel is still unable to get any phone signal and has to ask the other residents of the hotel whether he can borrow their phone. But the family present here, the Borders, are there to acknowledge a death in the family, and they make for a very odd bunch. Margot is confined to a wheelchair and has the air of a Hollywood starlet. Leonard is convinced that his plan to turn his pub into a working museum will be a success. Jack is glued to his game console. Olivia is young, beautiful and broken, but seems more sane than anyone else in the building.

But it’s only when Ariel meets Gretchen that he realises something is really wrong about this place. He has to get out, and fast.

Billed as a horror novel as part of the Hammer portfolio of novels to compete with the classic “Hammer horror” films, I’ve first got to say that the book lacks any real sense of what it’s clearly going for. I’ve tagged it appropriately to be kind, but while there are several words I could use to describe it – “creepy”, “claustrophobic”, “commonplace” – I’d never really consider this a horror novel. Actually, truth be told I hadn’t even realised it was until I got to the end.

The twists are signposted so much that when they arrive there’s not so much a sense of shock and release of tense build-up as a shrug which makes you go, “Yeah, obviously.” I wrote a short story myself a couple of years ago (not one that has ever troubled a publisher, mind) which had a weirdly similar premise, involving a man lost in the wilderness and finding himself in the only inhabited place for miles around. Although the endings were starkly different, it wouldn’t have taken much to have given either of these the other ending.

The trouble is that to make a book really ramp up the drama, you have to give a shit about the main characters and feel their jeopardy as you go. As it is, Ariel isn’t an especially engaging protagonist. The first chapter isn’t even from his point of view, and by the end of that I’d already decided I didn’t like him. He’s also partial to declaring what twists are happening, leaving the reader with no chance to work things out for themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, but executed poorly. Sinister environments, creepy characters but lacking any real tension.

“The Last Family In England” by Matt Haig (2004)

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“Dogs like to talk.”

Broadly speaking, if we’re sticking with the insistence that you can split the population into “dog people” and “cat people”, I fall down unapologetically on the side of cats. I’ve nothing against dogs at all – I will always fuss over a dog if given the opportunity, and some of my friends have utterly adorable dogs – but if I had to have one of the two, I’d opt for a cat. However, this weekend I read a book about dogs. Or, more accurately, a book narrated by a dog.

Prince is a black Labrador, the central point of the Hunter family. He ensures that he upholds the Labrador Pact, a solemn oath sworn by all Labradors to keep the Family together for the sake of all humanity. Prince keeps a careful eye on Adam and Kate, and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte. But not all is well in the land of dogs. Some of the other breeds, led by the Springer Spaniels, have turned against the old ways and now seek out a hedonistic lifestyle, rather than trying to protect a Family. Prince, however, is earnest in his insistence that the Pact must be upheld, and he’s mentored by Henry, an old Labrador who knows a thing or two about it.

Things take a turn for the worse in the Hunter household, however, when Simon, an old friend of Adam’s, moves back into the area, and Adam finds himself tempted by this man’s wife Emily. What only Prince can detect, however, is that Simon’s scent seems to be on Kate an awful lot since his return too. Their dog, a Springer Spaniel mongrel called Falstaff, is determined to lead Prince astray, but Prince knows his duty. He must keep the Family together so he can help save humanity. Duty over all…

This is Matt Haig’s first book, and already there are the hallmarks of the supremely honest and magical writer he is today. A lesser author would have dogs speaking to one another in English when humans were out of earshot, but here, all the sniffs and tail wags and barks that dogs make constitute a language of their own. Dogs can smell emotion on one another, and on humans, and use wagging as a way to do anything from communicating annoyance with their own kind to calming down a potentially explosive situation in the family home. The book is centered around a nuclear family seen from a slant, which seems to be a common theme in Haig’s work. The Radleys features a family of suburban vampires, and The Humans deals with an alien taking over one of the family roles. Haig has an amazing way with truthfulness, and isn’t afraid to bring up the nastier aspects of humanity. Looking at them through the viewpoint of a dog makes them all the more interesting.

The dogs are really the stand out characters here, with none of them being anthropomorphised any more than necessary. They have their own codes and systems, chiefly the Labrador Pact, and each of them makes for good company, even if they do broadly subscribe to cliches (Labradors are loyal, Rottweilers are aggressive, etc). That would be my only complaint on that front, and you can even make a good case that that doesn’t ring true for the whole tale, but I can’t go into that more without spoiling things. The humans are vastly flawed, as all good characters should be, with Hal and Charlotte typical teenagers and Adam and Kate the struggling parents, trying to cope with their responsibilities as parents while their relationship seems to be breaking down, a process that appears to be speeding up thanks to the interference of Simon and Emily.

The novel’s ending is beyond heartbreaking, and really rather a brave option to have chosen. In context, it makes sense, but there remain many unanswered questions that we aren’t allowed to know answers to. The family will continue to make their mistakes, and Prince has learnt that perhaps the Labrador Pact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you if you’re prone to crying easily, but it remains a raw, beautiful and tragic tale. I adored it.

Good boy.

“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

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“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.

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