“The Diabolical Club” by Stevyn Colgan (2019)

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“Joan Bultitude’s poodles were noisy, prone to biting and indiscriminate in their toilet habits, which meant that they were disliked by almost everyone who had ever had the misfortune of encountering them.”

If there are two things the English seem to manage better than anyone else (in my humble, and hyperbolic, opinion) it’s comedy and murder mysteries. Fortunately, the universe gifted us Stevyn Colgan, the love-child of Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Adams. The Diabolical Club is his second novel, and it’s as much of a riot as the first. Come with me to South Herewardshire.

As the novel opens, we find several disparate threads to deal with. First up, headmistress Joan Bultitude has just uncovered a skeleton on the grounds of Harpax Grange School, an exclusive girls’ school in the village of Nasely. Her new secretary, Phoebe Kingshaw, is actually working for Sir Giles Luscott-Whorne, an MP with whom she is also having an affair. Giles has sent her there to find any dirt she can on Bultitude, as Harpax Grange is his family’s old home and he wants it back. This is complicated enough, but there’s also been a resurgence lately in sightings of the Shaggy Beast, a wolf-like creature with an engorged penis that is said to stalk Black Dog Woods.

When Phoebe does find something at Harpax Grange that she considers to be “dynamite”, she begs Giles to come and meet her, but before she can pass on what she’s found, she is murdered for her knowledge. The police are called in and with Giles the prime suspect, his standing in society plummets. He recalls a retired detective, Frank Shunter, who solved the crime the last time Nasely had a murder, and hires him to prove his innocence. As the village works itself up into a frenzy, secrets are bound to come spilling out. It seems that village life isn’t as quiet and parochial as one would expect. Some of the locals are also planning on finding the Shaggy Beast once and for all, but will have to contend with the other residents of the woods – namely the doggers and the animal rights activists currently plotting to save Gertie’s Plash, a local pond, from being drained.

Colgan is a master of witticisms, almost rivalling his hero Douglas Adams in the way he slips in perfectly formed jokes at rapid fire speeds. He has a beautiful and effective way with words and metaphor, and isn’t afraid to give something a long set up for a killer punchline. He’s also a master at naming characters. In these pages we meet Oberon Tremblett, Janus Gugge, Gerry Waxleigh, Len Youlden, Raif Clyst and Charlie Barnfather. I’m not sure how many of them are real surnames, but if they’re not they all sound like they could be. The characters are complex and vibrant, and each name suits them perfectly. I don’t know how he does it, but in the same way that Trunchbull is the perfect name for a stern headmistress, so is Bultitude.

The murder mystery element of the story is also fun, although I admit I’d taken a guess early on and was proven to be right, so my journey was one of just waiting to find out how the murderer was caught, rather than who it was. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, however, as there are other things here that I could never have begun to guess would have happened, and it’s a rich tapestry of a world. It also feeds back into the first novel about reclusive crime writer Agnes Crabbe, but never entirely lets her dominate, meaning the story is clearly set in the same universe, and some elements will mean more to the reader if they’ve already read the first in the series, but is just as enjoyable without.

As a fun bonus, too, if you take a look at the page at the front of the book that showcases praise for Colgan’s previous novel, you might come across a quote taken from a very familiar blog, right there beneath quotes from Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig. I found it quite the honour.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Murder At The Vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

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“It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage.”

With absolutely no surprise, here comes the twelfth Agatha Christie of the year to round off the twelfth month. That’s made a dent, but it’ll still be 2025 before I’ve finished the whole re-read at this rate. Plenty of time to savour them. Anyway, we end the year with the introduction of one of her most famous characters – please take to the stage, Miss Marple.

In the quiet village of St Mary Mead, the vicar, Leonard Clement, has made an offhand and very uncharitable comment regarding local magistrate Colonel Protheroe. He says that anyone who killed the man would be doing a great service to the whole village, but his wife and nephew sweep the comment aside. It comes back to bite him, however, when just a few days later, Protheroe is dead. And not only that, he has a bullet wound in his head and his body is sprawled out in the study of the vicarage!

Before long, Lawrence Redding, a local artist who, prior to an argument, had been painting Protheroe’s daughter Lettice, admits to the murder, walking into the police station with the gun. The village is shocked, but things are complicated further when Protheroe’s own wife also admits to the murder. However, according to local gossip, neither of them could possibly have done it, so what are they playing at? Who are they protecting? The village spinsters set to work rumour-mongering, and at the top of the tree sits Miss Marple, the shrewdest old woman you’ll ever meet, who can see that everything is not as it seems. But will the police listen to a nosy old woman?

So, first up – Miss Marple. She’s not fully-formed yet, and slightly less saccharine than she becomes later. In many ways, I prefer that. She’s prudish, but aware of her failings and nosiness, and villagers are torn over whether or not they like her. All the spinster women of the village are gossiping busybodies, but Marple seems to mean to harm in hers, she is just interested in people and not necessarily going to spread any news that might be incriminating or personally damaging, unless there is a higher necessity. She isn’t really even the focus of the novel, and while she provides the solution, most of the detective work is done on-page by the vicar himself, joined by Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack from the local police.

There’s a wide cast of characters here, and they’re all quite fun, from Len’s young, beautiful wife Griselda who is everything a vicar’s wife shouldn’t be, to the flighty and purposely-vague Lettice Protheroe and even modern Dr Haydock, the local physician. It seems that everyone in the village had a decent motive to kill Protheroe, but there is a distinct lack of broken alibis. My only quarrel with it is that a gunshot would certainly be heard at such close quarters, and this is explained rather weakly towards the end. It works, but not enough attention is paid to it.

Christie herself became dissatisfied with the novel, feeling it had too many characters and sub-plots, but I’m inclined to disagree with her on this occasion. Yes, the cast is fairly substantial and they all have secrets, but this merely serves to provide us with a stack of red herrings that threw even me. Remember, I’ve read all these before, and I’m still getting them wrong. It’s been a very long time since I read this one, however, but I thought I could see what she was doing. In a couple of places I could – always take note of conversations that have no bearing on the current point in the plot – but the rug was still pulled from under me as she plays with tropes, cliches and notions of justice.

While not regarded warmly at the time, I think it’s a fine introduction to one of literature’s greatest amateur detectives.

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!

“Down And Out In Paris And London” by George Orwell (1933)

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“The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning.”

As someone who has long worked in customer service, currently funding my wine and book purchases being a barista and waiter, I’ve long had a sense of community with those seen at the bottom of the pile by many others in society. I’ve never been someone with a high-flying corporate job, or a role that brings in buckets of cash, and in some ways maybe that’s for the better, although there are definitely advantages to having money. One of my colleagues, however, was reading Down and Out in Paris and London which goes into great detail on what it’s like to be on the fringes of society, and so I was inspired to finally pick up by copy too and explore.

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

It is the people living on society’s fringes that make this story so great. The one that particularly struck me was Bozo, a London screever, who is perhaps the only person in the book to say that poverty doesn’t matter, because you’re still free inside your head. Unlike most of the others, he has time to still study and is very literate and educated. Although Orwell rarely looks down on those in the same situation as him – and indeed, the book ends with him saying that his time in poverty has taught him never to judge those who end up there – there is a sense that he considers himself more educated and more of a “gentleman” than others. In one London doss house (“spike”), someone learning that he’s had money in the past gives him special privileges. With Bozo, he actually gets taught some things, however, as the screever is a keen astronomer, whereas Orwell admits he hadn’t even noticed before that stars were different colours. Oscar Wilde famously said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Maybe Orwell has spent too long face down in his washing-up water.

Ultimately, it’s quite a tragic book. Orwell escapes poverty eventually, and his experience, while horrific, is temporary. The book shines a light on those who live like this for years, decades, or even their whole lives. There are people who find cigarette butts on the pavement just for the tiniest hit of tobacco, those who have eaten nothing but bread and butter for months, and men wandering the streets with a plethora of diseases that they cannot afford treatment for. It’s a remarkable book and one that should be read by everyone, whether or not they have felt the harsh reality of poverty. It’s especially vital reading now, given that we seem to live in one of the richest societies in the world but have a ridiculously high poverty level. Our governments could learn a lot from this, and not from Orwell’s other works as they seem to have done previously.

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!

“A Morbid Taste For Bones” by Ellis Peters (1977)

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“On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensation affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime…”

Detectives seem to have it easy these days. CCTV, fingerprinting, banking data, DNA evidence, tracing of mobile phone locations … there are any number of ways they can reach their conclusions and solve crimes. We forget how recent a lot of this is. Miss Marple didn’t have any of it in the fifties. Sherlock Holmes would have dreamed of DNA testing in the Victorian era. Miss Gladden would have longed for GPS. So imagine now we strip this back even further. This book takes us back to the year of 1137. King Stephen is on the throne of England, and religion reigns supreme across the island. Things might look a bit different, but people are still people.

Brother Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, responsible for running the herb garden. This is little about plants and their properties that the wise monk doesn’t know. There’s much more to him than life in the church however. Before he took up residence in the monastery, he travelled much of the known world and is very educated. When another of the monks has a vision that Saint Winifred has called for the Benedictine order to uncover her burial ground and move her bones to the safety of the abbey.

Convinced that this is the right thing to do, Prior Robert declares this to be a great idea and so sets off to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to ask for the relics of the long dead saint. They are met with suspicion and caution, with the Welsh not sure whether they are ready to sacrifice Winifred to the arriving Englishmen. Things become even more fraught when Prior Robert offers monetary compensation and it is taken as a bribe. With the Welsh villagers divided on what to do, tensions rise, and then it all comes to a head when the the leading opponent to the grave’s relocation is found dead. Some say that Winifred herself did it, but Cadfael is sure that there is a much more earthly solution. Using his intelligence and skills as a detective, he must solve the murder and restore trust and order to the community.

I had worried that a cast of monks would lead to a book that gave us a set of boring, pious characters, but fortunately twelfth century monks are still human and you can give them a habit and tonsure if you like, but they’re still going to express lust, pride and wrath. Cadfael is an intriguing addition to the pantheon of literary detectives and feels like a man out of time. He is cunning and clever, gentle with those he likes and impatient with big-headed superiors. Many of the other characters – and there seem to be a lot – bled into one another, however, and only the ones that were really pivotal to the story stood out to me. It took me a while to unpick who was who, which isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re trying to solve a murder.

Throughout history, death is often suggested to have been quick and cheap, so it’s actually nice to see someone caring about a specific death and realising that there’s something suspicious about it. Brother John, a fellow monk, seems at first to take on the role of his Watson, but by the end it seems more fulfilled by Sioned, the victim’s daughter. Naturally as a book centred around a Benedictine order, there are very few women in it – I think there are three with any dialogue – but she does good work and is a strong character. At one point, when someone comments on the weakness of women, Cadfael steps up to point out that there are just as many weak men and women are capable of great emotional strength. It’s a small touch, but it’s appreciated.

It’s an interesting concept for a novel and it’s definitely a unique motive for murder, but I can’t say I’m enthralled enough to continue with the series. The writing style doesn’t suit me, which is not to say that it’s bad. People may be people wherever they are in time or space, but this felt just a touch too removed for me.

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 Third Wheel” by Michael J. Ritchie (2019)

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“The room is perhaps eight feet square.”

Back in 2014, I published a novel. Now, I’ve done it again. There is no stranger feeling that seeing something you created for sale out in the world, but last time it was just an e-book. This time round, I’ve gone full paperback, and that’s truly bizarre, to be able to hold the physical copy of something that for a long time just existed in your head. This post obviously isn’t quite a review, but to keep the format, here’s what The Third Wheel is about.

Dexter is fed up. All of his friends are getting married, settling down, moving in together and growing up, and he’s being left behind with no one to hold hands with and only his ginger tom, The Great Catsby, for company. It’s not that he’s jealous of their relationships, it’s just that he thinks there’s more to life than wrapping yourself up with one other person for eternity.

But after a wedding that ends in drunken disaster, Dexter’s world – and everyone else’s, come to that – is shaken when aliens make first contact. Now faced with the prospect of imminent destruction and no practical skills whatsoever, Dexter and his friends, including sunshine optimist Ruby, science fiction geeks Jay and Kay, hard-nosed pragmatist Priti, and no-nonsense Gavin, set out on a mission to survive in this new world.

So I’m not actually going to review a book I wrote, but I’m afraid I am going to talk about it and why you should buy it for a little bit. I’m hoping that it’s something really different, as I’ve become somewhat tired of the entertainment market being saturated with remakes and retellings of the same stories. I’m not claiming that I’ve invented something brand new here – a first contact story is hardly unique – but I’ve tried to make something that doesn’t follow traditional rules. I’ve subverted the notion that science fiction always seems to have heroes who somehow possess just the right skills and knowledge.

Mostly, however, I’ve done away with the romantic subplot. This is one of my biggest bugbears about modern media – the insistence that no matter the genre or plot, there always has to be a romance somewhere in it, often detracting from the main story or simply weakening it. That was actually the original seed of the novel – a story in which a romantic subplot wasn’t possible. I confess that your opinion may vary as to whether I’ve been entirely successful in this aim, but hopefully I’ve subverted it and played with the trope enough for you to accept that this is a rare book in that respect. I’ve attempted to write about friendships, as I think truly that platonic relationships get a hard rap in fiction and we don’t get to read enough about them. Like Dexter, I don’t believe that we’re all destined to find “the one”, and I struggle with society’s insistence that we all belong in pairs. I’m a full person by myself, and so is Dexter. On the other hand, I hope that the novel doesn’t seem to be an attack on romantic relationships. I’m a fan, of course, I just don’t think they’re for everyone.

The novel is a curious blend of typically English humour and dark scenarios, but I think they mix well together and allow for a deep novel packed with emotional punches. I’ve done my best to create a large cast of unique personalities so that you find yourself rooting for everyone, but accepting that none of them are perfect. Dexter is perhaps something of an unreliable narrator, but that plays in to the theme I had of life never giving you all the answers. Yes, you almost certainly will have questions by the end about things that don’t get cleared up, but like life, it’s messy. However, if you want a few answered, read on past the acknowledgements for a few bonus chapters that fill in some of the gaps, showing scenes that occurred when Dexter wasn’t around to narrate.

If you want to pre-order the book prior to its release on January 17th 2019, you can do so at Amazon or Waterstones, and doing so will give them an indication of demand, so it would really help me if you could. It is available as both a paperback and an e-book. I really hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please let people know on social media and use the hashtag #TheThirdWheel to spread the word. If you’re not already, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more information.

Right, better get on with the next one.

“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

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“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

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