“The Management Style Of The Supreme Beings” by Tom Holt (2017)

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“Dad, as is tolerably well known, is omnipotent and can do anything.”

And I return to Tom Holt. This is the third time I’ve delved into one of the extraordinary books that his unique brain has produced. I don’t know all that much about the man, but I do know that I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. He’s the sort of writer, though, that I don’t want to hurry through. He is to be savoured. Still, it was time to explore one of his more recent works, this time dealing with the bureaucracy involved in running Earth.

Dad and his son Jay are beginning to tire of being supreme beings of a planet that doesn’t seem all that bothered if they’re present or not. With plans to take retirement and fish for the rest of eternity on Sinderaan, they explore their options and end up selling the planet to the Venturi brothers. These keen and cunning businessmen have come a long way from humble beginnings growing up on Mars, but now own all several galaxies, and this Earth seems like a decent addition to their portfolio. The old guard head off, all except for Dad’s other son, Kevin, who decides to take his place among the humans he’s grown to admire.

Immediately, they make sweeping changes. Reincarnation replaces an afterlife, meaning Hell and all the current staff and residents are left to their own devices (quickly deciding that they should become a theme park), belief is total and the Venturi brothers get rid of that tiresome old “Good/Evil” dichotomy that seemed to cause so many problems. Now, you can sin as much as you like as long as you can pay for it. Blaspheming will cost you a few hundred dollars, but if you want to start a war you’re going to need billions. Faith is shaken and society is changed overnight.

But Dad didn’t give the Venturi brothers all the salient facts, because there is another god lurking on Earth. He’s ancient, something of a trickster, and no one really believes in him – at least, no adult. But take care – this mysterious figure is compiling a catalogue, checking it twice over and pretty soon, he will be coming back to town…

Whenever I’ve been asked (and it has happened occasionally) which author I most aspire to write like, I often name Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde or Douglas Adams, but really, I think it’s Tom Holt. He doesn’t waste an opportunity to throw in a joke, a pun, a ridiculous (but always startlingly accurate) metaphor, or throwaway concept that could have been a whole novel in itself. One of the giants of literary comedy, he takes a simple if far fetched premise and twists it all out of shape and into something staggeringly original. Many books have been written about God and what he really thinks of us lot down on the planet, but never before have I seen it all played out like this.

The human characters, while interesting, pale in comparison to the more supernatural ones. The gods, angels and demons and their relationships are great fun to watch play out, and they’re dealt with in daft – and yet totally acceptable – ways. The Devil (known as Uncle Nick) doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of Hell anymore, and so the whole place is run by his human assistant, Bernie. Kevin is a brilliant also-ran to “Jay”, never quite matching up to what his brother achieved, but not for the reasons you’d seem to think. The universe in general though is dense and rich like a chocolate gateaux and full of information about alien species and bizarre biologies that even Douglas Adams would have struggled to dream up, and he had sentient shades of blue and species that invented deodorant before the wheel. The whole thing is a laugh a minute.

I can’t say much more without ruining great swathes of the novel – I’ve hinted at what else is to come already – but all I can do is advise you to buy this book immediately and join me for a swim in Holt’s imagination. There’s loads of room.

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!

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“The Dinner” by Herman Koch (2011)

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dinner

Who ordered the lobster?

“We are going out to dinner.”

Already this year, I have ventured to read my first German author and now here I am reading my first Dutch author, Herman Koch. Apparently well known in his own country, this is his first book that has been translated into English. The premise of the novel is simple – the story is told over the course of a single meal and is divided into five sections: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert and digestif. From the moment they enter the restaurant to the moment the bill arrives, I was hooked.

There are four people at this dinner. Paul, our narrator with more issues than a glossy magazine. Claire, his destermined, intelligent wife. Serge, Paul’s brother and potentially the next Prime Minister. And Babette, his wife who arrives to the dinner clearly having just been crying.

The four have gathered for a reason, although it isn’t strictly very clear at first what that reason is. As it goes on, events unfold and their meeting is explained. They both have teenage sons, and those sons have been caught on CCTV doing something horrifying. The footage has been shown on the news, all over the country, but only the four parents have identified the culprits. They now need to work out what they should do about it, how they can protect their sons and themselves, and how to keep the family together.

I can’t really say any more than that without ruining the main plot, but it’s certainly a gem. The characters are very interesting, all much darker than one first realises. In fact, the whole novel slides rather quickly into a black hole and never quite gets out of it again. There are naturally flashbacks to moments in their past, and the end has a “what happened next” feel about it, but the vast majority of the action takes place in this very fancy restaurant with the staff buzzing around, trying to keep this important politician happy.

Paul is a great narrator, although it quickly becomes clear that he is disturbed. The reasons quickly become evident once the main course arrives and his story is explored more deeply. Serge and Babette are sympathetic characters, trying to fight back their egotism and desperation to succeed for the sake of their son and nephew. I actually like all four of the main characters (five, if you count Paul and Claire’s son Michel who also appears briefly), although that’s not to say that I would particularly want to go for dinner with them. Still, I find the good guys are rarely the best characters. (Case in point: I will insist to the death that Dolores Umbridge is the greatest thing in the Harry Potter books, and Aornis Hades from the Thursday Next series is a true masterpiece.)

This is an intense novel about family and politics, justice and ethics, innocence and guilt. There are some great discussions on the nature of victims and the arguments surrounding capital punishment. The thread of unhappy families weaves throughout the narrative, too.

This may be the best book I have read this year – at no point was I bored or wished it to hurry along. The narrative is clever in that so little action actually happens, and that mere seconds take pages to occur, but that is the nature of small moments like this. Our minds fill with so many thoughts in every moment that to explain them all would take a while. Koch manages that nicely. The premise of setting it over a meal is also a beautiful touch, as you know when it has to end, and feel with the characters as they try to decide at what point it would be best to discuss the thing they have all come to discuss.

Skip dinner, try this instead.