“In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami (1997)

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“My name is Kenji.”

I’m always a little bit sad that I never had to write a dissertation at university. Having done a degree in Creative Writing, my final project was instead to write 15,000 words of a novel. I still wonder to this day what subject I would have written it on. I wasn’t yet a Christie lover, so she’s out, meaning I probably would have written something about the Mr Men’s approach to cultural norms. Because I don’t have my own, I’m always fascinated by what other people wrote their dissertations on, and I learnt earlier this year that one of my colleagues wrote hers on post-war Japanese fiction. After we’d compared notes on Kazuo Ishiguro, Genki Kawamura and Haruki Murakami, she asked if I’d ever read Ryu Murakami. So here I am.

Kenji is a young tour guide, specialising in taking visitors around the various sex clubs that make up parts of Tokyo’s nightlife. Just before New Year, he has been hired by Frank, an overweight American who wants to experience some of the seedier parts of the city. Frank, however, is unlike anyone Kenji has ever met, odd even by American standards, and Kenji begins to doubt the man’s authenticity. As they spend more time together, Kenji finds himself pulled down into a pit of evil where Frank reveals his true intentions, with the only hope of rescue in the form of Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun.

While it all starts off quite interesting, and Frank is immediately portrayed as an unusual man, there’s nothing that sets your heart racing to begin with. We are sucked in because Kenji can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very wrong indeed with Frank, and it’s only when it’s too late that we realise he was right. Comparisons to American Psycho are just, although it’s much shorter, and I found that even as someone who writes a good deal of gore into their stories, it’s somehow harder to read from someone else. The characters introduce us to a world unlike many of us in the West will ever experience or understand, where sex is a commodity sold far more openly than here. Kenji himself notes that while this sort of thing is taken for granted in Japan, and much of it is certainly illegal to some degree, no one in Japan actually questions why it happens, so they can’t really explain it to foreigners.

The writing is succinct and it’s a fascinating translation, with the whole thing feeling claustrophobic and intense. You join the characters in the dark, damp and cold back alleys of Tokyo, a city that always seems to be burning brightly with artificial lights and advertising hoardings, and everything feels like it’s encroaching on you. There’s an unrealness to it that leaves you unsure what’s actually happened, but whether it all really happened or not, you’re never going to be quite the same coming out the other side.

A shocking and staggering read.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The 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.

“Lost In A Good Book” by Jasper Fforde (2002)

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It's my favourite place to go missing.

It’s my favourite place to go missing.

“I didn’t ask to be a celebrity.”

I’m back to Jasper Fforde and I’m going to open immediately by saying that if you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and care about spoilers then stop reading now. This book opens pretty much where the last one left off, so I will have to talk about the ending of the first book as a matter of course. In some series, this probably doesn’t matter, but in Fforde’s world, while each book contains the important information from previous novels, you miss out on a lot of character work and nuanced details.

So, spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

It’s a month since Thursday Next had chased down dangerous criminal Acheron Hades into Jane Eyre and accidentally changed the ending of the novel, and now she’s struggling with the pressures of fame when she’d much rather be spending time with her new husband, Landen. However, most of the time she finds herself caught between her duties at SpecOps (a genuine copy of Cardenio has been discovered), the villains of Goliath (their operative Jack Schitt is still trapped in The Raven), and Cordelia Flakk who is insistent that she does more press and publicity. But things are about to get a whole lot worse.

When coincidences start happening around her, Thursday starts to worry that she’s going mad. She attacks a Neanderthal who she believes has a gun, she is nearly crushed by a car, and just when things couldn’t get any worse, her husband is eradicated from time and now died when he was two years old. Only she has any memory of the fact that she was ever married, and everyone else is concerned for her health. Just when things couldn’t get anymore troublesome, she makes contact with a lawyer who works for the Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from inside the books. Thursday is assigned to be trained up as their newest member under the watchful eye of Miss Havisham (yes, that one) and must learn the ropes of the book industry.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the world is due to end in just over a week, and someone is after Thursday who makes Acheron Hades look as nasty as a kitten. Life would be so much easier if she was just allowed to sit back and get lost in a good book.

OK, so trying to write a coherent (and short) plot synopsis for a Jasper Fforde book is nearly impossible, so that’s as good as you’re going to get. As usual, there are so many threads going on here, but they still all make sense and tie together in such wonderfully implausible ways that you almost can’t get over the sheer nerve of the man. Thursday remains one of the greatest characters in literature, and this is where the books really start to come into their own, as we spend some time in the Great Library and meet the fictional characters who run the Jurisfiction, most notably in this book, Miss Havisham, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen and Commander Bradshaw.

It also introduces us to one of the most terrifying villains in fiction. With the abilities to mess with people’s memories, as well as affect the laws of coincidence and probability, this is one of the most horrifying people you could imagine meeting. Maybe you already have…

It is the Bookworld, though, that really shines through. I forgot how far into the book you get before Thursday actually makes it into the Great Library, but once you’re there, it’s clear that Fforde has never had quite so much fun. He populates the fictional world with characters who we know from the classics, as well as more of his own devising, and has them all as real as anyone from the real world. A particularly funny example is with Mrs Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility, who worries what the readers think of her and her husband. Miss Havisham is awesome; we’re more used to thinking of her sat in her ballroom wasting away in her wedding dress, but here she’s full of life and has a strange passion for sports cars, or indeed anything with a big motor. It also introduces some of the concepts that will become important later like pagerunners (characters who escape from their books) and the Well of Lost Plots (where all unfinished stories reside).

It’s a book that is hilarious and smart, certainly, but it’s so full of warmth and love too, and it really feels like settling down with an old friend, albeit a well-read friend who in equal measure likes to make you laugh, cry and quake with fear. Fforde seems to understand literature in a way that few others do, and he really, really loves books. It would be so easy to mock literature from the inside, but he doesn’t. It’s all done with passion and joy.

This series is a must for anyone who loves literature, and if that’s you, then get on with it.

“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire (1995)

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There are two sides to every story.

There are two sides to every story.

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.”

If I’m not reading, I do enjoy the theatre, particularly a good musical. One I’ve always been particularly fond of is Wicked, which I last saw in March earlier this year. It feeds into my minor obsession with the fact that there are two sides to every story, and often we only hear one of them. Gregory Maguire, however, has a habit of producing novels that show us another version of events. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, he shows us another version of Cinderella’s tale. In Mirror, Mirror, he reveals the motivations of Snow White’s stepmother. And in last year’s After Alice, he explores the effects Alice had on Wonderland once she’d gone. But in Wicked, we get to see the events of The Wizard of Oz from a completely new angle.

Starting years before Dorothy blows into Oz and meets her rag-tag bunch of friends, a baby girl is born in Munchkinland with bright green skin, something never seen before. Her parents, the devoutly religious Frex and the flighty, flirty Melena are suspicious and find it very difficult to love the child, whom they name Elphaba. Born with razor-sharp teeth and a pathological fear of water, as well as her verdant skin, Elphaba is an anomaly too far, and the family move out to Quadling country where she can be raised without drawing too much attention.

Soon enough though, Elphaba is old enough to attend Shiz, a hugely prestigious university in Gillikin country. There she meets Galinda, the snooty social-climbing wannabe-sorceress; Doctor Dillamond, one of their teachers who happens to be a Goat; and Fiyero, a prince from another land who is handsome but nervous about being in a new environment. Elphaba gets involved with Doctor Dillamond’s research into the differences between animals and Animals, the latter being those that possess sapience and can take jobs among humans. The Wizard seems to want to restrict the rights of the Animals, and Dillamond and Elphaba become determined to stop it.

After travelling to the famous, fabled Emerald City, Elphaba and Galinda meet with the Wizard, and Elphaba decides that she has to stay in the city to help against the plight of the Animals, as fewer and fewer of them are given respect or allowed into the human realms. What she does there sets her on a path that will one day lead to her being dubbed the Wicked Witch of the West.

If you’ve ever seen the musical version of this story, be prepared that this novel is incredibly different to that. While some of the characters are still here, they often have very different backstories and futures. Nessarose, who later becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, for example, is in a wheelchair in the musical, but in the novel her disability is that she lacks arms. But I’m not going to go into all the differences here, because they simply are too numerous. Let’s look at the book on it’s own merits.

Above all, it’s an exploration of good and evil, and how they can appear different to different people. It also looks at rumour and folklore, and how stories spring up, as well as prejudice, against the Animals mostly, but also against the smart and spiky Elphaba who is judged continually by Munchkins because of her skin colour. Elphaba is called evil and wicked by those that don’t know her, but there’s an argument to be made for it. Her work in the Emerald City can divide even the readers, as we wonder whether she’s a terrorist or a freedom fighter, a distinction that seems to occasionally rise in our world, too. She is not placid, though, and she’s definitely working at something and her intentions are good, even if the execution is less so. Galinda (who later changes her name to the more familiar Glinda) is considered good, but it is suggested simply because of her position in status and good looks. She seems content to stand by and let evil happen, perhaps making her more evil than those performing the evil itself.

I’m not very knowledgeable on the world of Oz, but it feels like Maguire has dug deep into the many original novels set there to build up a world that feels very real, despite its strangeness. He manages to imbue the fantasy world we know from the film with a sense of reality, not letting things just “be”. This is a world where there is sex, education, politics, war, terrorism, racism and murder, despite to some people seeming to be just a funny world of brightly coloured cities and roads, and friendly scarecrows and cowardly lions. We find out how the Lion came to be cowardly, where the winged monkeys come from, and why exactly Elphaba is so obsessed with getting those shoes.

While it’s a really interesting book and a great conceit because I love the idea of seeing stories from another angle, it’s quite dense still and not especially easy going. I wonder, perhaps, if I prefer the musical, and think that I do, as the story is far simplified (and actually on almost an entirely different trajectory) and places an emphasis on the relationship between Elphaba and Galinda. Plus the songs are really good. The book is for completists, and it’s the first of a series which, I presume, will go on to show what happened in Oz once Dorothy and the Wizard had left, but if you really want the story of the witches of Oz, I’d go see the musical.

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (2001)

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eyre“My father had a face that could stop a clock.”

There is another 1985. In this one, literature and art are revered in the way that sport and religion are in our world. Criminals have turned their attentions to literary forgeries and art theft. Here, Richard III is performed with audience participation, Baconists go door-to-door insisting that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, and the truly dedicated have all changed their names to that of their favourite poet.

But because this is Jasper Fforde, there’s far more going on than just that. This is a world where time travel exists, vampires and werewolves stalk the streets, home-cloning kits have ensured that everyone has a pet dodo, the Crimean War is still raging, and a corporation called Goliath has a finger in every pie. Even then, I’m still simplifying. I’ve had to jump right in though because this world has been built so wonderfully from the bottom up, that I really have to try and stress what magic is going on in here.

Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective (or LiteraTec) who has just been temporarily promoted. From her lowly position in SpecOps 27, she has been called upon to assist SO5, a department so shady that no one’s quite sure what they do. But this time they’re after Acheron Hades, one of the most evil men in the world; a man who does evil acts just for the sheer joy of doing them. He has no motive, he just wants the world to suffer. As a former student of his, Thursday is able to identify him, as everyone else is having trouble on that front. While Hades appears human, he has a number of particular powers, such as the ability to convince people he’s not there, to hear his name whispered from a thousand yards away, and to be undamaged by bullets.

Thursday’s uncle, the genius but forgetful scientist Mycroft Next, has just invented another wonderful device, the Prose Portal. It allows people to travel in and out of fiction and explore their favourite tales first hand. But such a device, in the wrong hands, would prove very dangerous indeed, and with both Goliath and Acheron Hades after it, Mycroft is in serious danger. When Hades traps Mycroft’s wife Polly inside a Wordsworth poem, he then sets about killing a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, demanding a ransom before he does any more damage. After all, Chuzzlewit is one thing – people will get over a missing lodger. But Hades has set his sights on bigger targets, and when he kidnaps Jane Eyre from her own novel, only Thursday is brave enough to step inside the novel and put right what went wrong…

This was the first Fforde book I read, and indeed the first one published, and it won me over immediately. I don’t actually know how or why it took me so long to get round to him. The idea of being able to leap in and out of fiction is heaven to me, and it gets explored in far more depth in the upcoming installments. It’s hilarious, smart, original and everything that a good book should be. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m about to start off on some wild fanboying.

eyre 2Thursday Next is one of my favourite protagonists ever. Thirty-six years old, she seems different to so many heroes who have gone before her. She’s remarkably ordinary, a former soldier who suffered great loss in the Crimean War ten years before and is still struggling to get over it. Her biggest regret is losing her ex-lover, Landen Parke-Laine, and when he makes a reappearance in her life, she wants to set things right. Although some people probably complain that giving such an “action woman” a love story seems like it’s pigeon-holing women and saying they all want the same thing, I disagree. I’m against tacked-on love stories, but here it seems fitting. Besides, this isn’t Thursday risking it all for a man she’s just met – she and Landen have history. It never claims that this is what all women want, just what Thursday needs to be happy.

The extended cast are all wonderful. Acheron Hades is a great villain, although not my favourite in the Thursday Next series – she’s yet to come – and Thursday’s family are hilarious, not least the absent-minded Mycroft, and her time-travelling father, who has been scrubbed from history by his former colleagues after he went rougue in the Chronoguard (the department that cleans up messes in time) but still pops in to see his daughter from time to time. The other members of the SO departments including Spike Stoker, Bowden Cable, Braxon Hicks and Victor Analogy are also all superb, if only for their wonderful names – Fforde likes a name that serves as a pun. We also get to meet the cast of Jane Eyre, who are all too aware that they’re in a story. While Fforde resists giving Jane herself too many lines (he apparently didn’t want to mess too much with her out of respect), we do get to know Rochester very well.

It’s probably the fourth time I’ve read this book now – Rowling is probably the only author I’ve re-read more than Fforde – and every time I find something new in it; a joke I’ve missed, or some foreshadowing I ignored. Despite Jane Eyre being a key plot point in the book, this is the first time I’ve read The Eyre Affair after reading the original text, and while I loved it more than enough before, it makes it even better afterwards, to see Thursday skulking around the novel. Besides, at one point Thursday does explain the plot for Bowden Cable, so even those who haven’t read it can follow along. It’s such a clever concept, and Fforde does it with such skill that it’s a wonder this book isn’t better known. In some ways, I wish everyone knew about it, but in others, I like having a smaller, select group who seem to worship it.

The book has many lessons in it about the importance of literature, and love, but above all it’s consistently creative and plays with your expectations. Fforde has performed a miracle here, and throws so much into it that you race through wondering how all the plot threads will join up, if even at all. By the end, though, you can’t help be satisfied. Plus, it’s the only book I’ve ever read that successfully manages a car chase – they’re much easier in films.

It’s a must read for any lovers of literature at all, but in particular those with a love of the Brontës. After all, as Thursday herself says, “Governments and fashions come and go, but Jane Eyre is for all time.”

“Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows” by J. K. Rowling (2007)

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I open at the close...

I open at the close…

“The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.”

And so the series draws to a close for me once more. I have finished my re-read of the seven Harry Potter books, and once again found myself shedding a tear, caught up in the drama, finding nuances that I’d never noticed before and generally realising that this series doesn’t just deal with magic, but is imbued with the stuff itself. There are spoilers from here on in; if you’ve somehow never read it and want to remain uninformed, stop reading now.

In the final installment of Harry Potter’s adventures, he, Ron and Hermione are on a journey around the country in search of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, the hidden items that contain parts of his soul. If they can destroy them, then they can finally defeat Voldemort. But things are never as easy as that.

First they have to attend Ron’s brother’s wedding, deal with the fallout from Albus Dumbledore’s death, work out where the Horcruxes are, and avoid Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters. Their journey takes them around the country where they must break into three of the most heavily protected buildings in the wizarding world, deal with dark magic beyond anything they could have imagined, as well as get caught up in a secondary mission to reunite the Deathly Hallows, which will give the holder the power to cheat Death. It all comes to an earth-shattering climax during the Battle of Hogwarts as this thrilling series draws to a thrilling and powerful close.

What always gets me about this book is the sheer number of emotional wallops that Rowling subjects us to. Before it was released, she announced that the gloves were off and anyone could die in this one. I think we all sort of shrugged this off, convinced that she didn’t mean it about anyone too important. But then Hedwig dies just a few chapters in (a moment that represents Harry’s loss of innocence and passage into adulthood) and we all went, “Oh, right, she really did mean anyone.” By the end of the novel, Lupin, Tonks, Snape, Fred, Moody, Crabbe, Scrimgeour, Pettigrew, Dobby, Colin and Bellatrix will have joined the ranks of the dead. With the exception of Crabbe, Pettigrew and Bellatrix, who arguably deserved their fates, the rest all have the power to make one cry. This time round, I only shed a tear at one scene, and it wasn’t even one with a death in it.

The final showdown has begun.

The book presents a cavalcade of activity. Some of the information given is new and, while some people argue that it’s not fair that we didn’t get to know everything before this book (such as the true identity of the Grey Lady, and the very existence of the Deathly Hallows), I beg them to remember that the books are told from Harry’s point of view, so we can only know what he knows. Almost every character from the previous six books turns up again here, if only to be name checked and not actually seen. Harry recalls numerous events from the last six adventures, and patterns often begin to emerge from them.

One of the most interesting sections is towards the end when, during the break in the Battle of Hogwarts, we finally get to see into the mind of Severus Snape and find out his past. It’s moving and heartbreaking, but while this is true, it’s also true that I still can’t find it in my heart to particularly like the man. He was nasty and vindictive, and regardless of which side he was on, he remained a bully.

The whole Battle of Hogwarts is an absolute masterpiece of writing, bringing together all the characters and allowing the story to reach its head. There’s so much going on in these scenes that I almost feel like I’m there, surrounded by wizards both good and bad, house elves, giants, centaurs, spiders, and everything else in between. The teachers come into their own – McGonagall leading school desks into the fray, Sprout throwing dangerous plants at the Death Eaters, Trelawney simply lobbing crystal balls on their heads from a high balcony – and every character we’ve grown to know and love over the series shows themselves to be brilliant, perhaps none more so than Neville. The absolute pinnacle, however, is still Voldemort’s body at the end, dead and very, very mortal. It shows so clearly how he was merely a human, not the super being that he thought he was. The film ruined this moment; sure, it looked more cinematic, but it was not what we were supposed to see.

Nineteen years later…

I have unanswered questions, of course. I want to know what happened to Vernon, Petunia and Dudley when they were sent into hiding. How did Vernon handle any of that? What happened to Hermione’s parents afterwards? Where was Voldemort’s body laid to rest? I want to know how Hogwarts  rebuilt itself, whether Slytherin ever became better thought of, and just generally what happened to everyone else. The epilogue does some service with this (I know some people can’t bear the epilogue, but I happen to love it), and I guess we’ll just have to wait for Rowling to release some more answers, if she ever wants to.

Re-reading the Harry Potter books has proved to me that this is not a series to be taken lightly. Oh sure, they begin with the lightness and fun of a Roald Dahl romp, but very quickly you descend into something far darker. This is one for the ages. Harry Potter is already part of the planet’s syntax – I can barely find a (British) book written post-2000 that doesn’t make some reference to the boy wizard. Rowling is a genius, a queen of world building and characterisation.

What else is there to say about this series that hasn’t already been said?

All is well.

“Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff (2007)

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bad monkeys“It’s a room an uninspired playwright might conjure while staring at a blank page: White walls.White ceiling. White floor.”

We like to think, I hope, that, while there are people in this world capable of incredible evil – regardless of whether or not they actually think they’re doing the right thing or not – they are heavily outnumbered by the forces of good who will always save the day.

Bad Monkeys is the story of “the organisation”, a crack team that scours the world fighting evil. Jane Charlotte is their newest recruit and after brushing up against them in her teenage years when she accidentally discovers that her school janitor is a serial killer, she is left in limbo for two decades before she is properly recruited to the department of Bad Monkeys, the team that kills those who perform evil deeds.

But Jane has killed someone who wasn’t on her assignment list, and she’s now in a stark white room being questioned by a doctor who can’t tell if she’s lying, insane or, most terrifyingly of all, telling the truth. She whips up a world in which she is tracking down the Mandrills, a rival organisation responsible for baseless evil, accompanied by a homeless woman called Annie, three men called Robert, and some clowns, all the while armed with a gun that kills people by natural causes and drugs that affect the laws of physics. As Jane’s story is picked apart by the doctor, it becomes clear that absolutely nothing is as it seems.

The book is very clear in that Jane and her fellow operatives are responsible for tackling “evil” rather than “crime”. They have almost limitless information on every human on the planet and can track down everything about you in minutes, not only knowing, say, what books you’ve taken out of libraries, but how often you’ve read them and which paragraphs particularly appealed to you. Although in theory good, the organisation has some strange technology, forefront of most is the Eyes Only technology. These are small, almost invisible lenses that can see and hear whatever’s going on in a room, and are generally placed on a pair of eyes somewhere in a room. This means any poster, photo, painting, billboard, newspaper, book cover, or even banknote could be watching you. (When reading this earlier I thought I was safe, then decided I might not actually have been in an eye-free room all day.)

The book is, frankly, insane, but I really enjoyed it. The secret agency trope has been done to death (not that that’s a complaint;I like a secret world hidden just under our own), but not ever quite as maniacally as it’s been shown here. It’s a madcap romp through a study of what makes someone good or evil, and how the two states marry up. It also works well as a thriller, with constant twists and turns in the story, and explaining things the wrong way round so they’re never happening exactly as we imagine they might be.

I definitely came away satisfied, and with a desire to find out more, but, just like in real life, some things are best kept secret. A stellar, quick read that might be a bit nuts, but also works wonderfully as a genuinely tense thriller.

“Horns” by Joe Hill (2010)

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Devilishly good...

Devilishly good…

“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.”

There are certain traits that are definitely genetic; eye colour, hair colour, that sort of thing. But then sometimes abilities or personalities get passed down through generations. The Redgrave family are all actors. Michael McIntyre’s dad was a comedian before him. And it turns out that Stephen King’s skill in the field of horror stories has been passed down to his son, Joe Hill.

I didn’t actually know that they were related until I was looking up the book just after having finished it a short while ago, but from the limited experience I have from King, I can say it hardly comes as a surprise.

This is the story of Ig Perrish who wakes up with a thundering hangover one morning to discover that he has grown a pair of horns in the night, frightful things of bone jutting out from his forehead. Speaking to his sort-of-girlfriend Glenna, he finds that she’s acting strange. Firstly she doesn’t even acknowledge the horns, and then she tells him that she wants to eat all the doughnuts in the box before her – would he mind if she did? It seems a bit odd, but convinced that things are wrong, Ig heads to the doctor’s surgery. There, more people beginning telling him secrets. A mother in the waiting room reveals her affair to him, a child declares arsonist tendencies, his doctor talks about wanting to sleep with his teenage daughter’s friend. They all seem to want his permission to do these things.

Ig heads to his parents house, desperate to see someone he loves, but worried that they’ll reveal more secrets. When he arrives, they do indeed pour out some secrets, first and foremost that they believe he was guilty of the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend Merrin the previous year, something he was absolutely innocent of. However, his brother Terry has a slightly different confession: he knows who killed Merrin, and once Ig has the knowledge, the fires of Hell can’t hold him back from extracting his revenge.

Rarely have I read a book so incredibly immersive. Horns drags you in with jagged claws and holds your face to the flames as images pop up and you feel like you’re right there for every single page. Ig is an incredibly unlikely character to develop horns, having been someone always willing to help and unable to lie for the last quarter century, and this is what makes the changes in him so pronounced. The story jumps back and forth in time, detailing how Ig and Merrin met, how he became friends with the slimy Lee Tourneau, how Ig and Merrin eventually broke up and what he’s doing with himself now he has the horns and, apparently, the power to hear everyone’s darkest secrets.

There’s much in here about religion, about willpower and about sin, as well as copious references to songs and Christian mythology regarding the devil. Whether Ig has become the devil himself or merely one of his agents is never quite clear – in fact, a few things are a little unclear – but what is known is that he can now make people act on their vile urges, as well as control any snakes that happen to be nearby.

Ig is a lovely character who suffers greatly, even before the horns have appeared, although his suffering naturally gets worse from then on. Merrin is a fascinating girl who knows her own mind, but can perhaps be a little easily swayed on certain topics. The secondary characters – Lee, Terry, Eric, Glenna – are also an interesting patchwork, ranging from the truly despicable to the innocents dragged along through hellfire, well-meaning but perhaps stupid or just willing to follow whoever has the power. The chapter where Ig’s own family turn against him is torturous to read, as it’s almost impossible to imagine your parents thinking these things about you.

The book emphasises the fact that the devil is probably not actually the bad guy that we have painted him – he’s an anti-hero, rather than a villain. As Ig suggests at one point, if God hates sinners and Satan punishes sinners, surely they’re working for the same team? It also notes that the devil turns up in most religions as more of a trickster, or the one responsible for bringing life to the world. We may not always like his methods, but he does what he needs to do.

A dark book that is wholly graphic but thoroughly absorbing and will definitely haunt you once the final page is done with.

“Notes on a Scandal” by Zoe Heller (2003)

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notes 1

What was she thinking?

“The other night at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed.”

Even though I am only twenty-five years old, I have already experienced the pangs of true loneliness. By that, I don’t mean an afternoon without seeing anyone, or a few weeks inbetween relationships. I mean loneliness that drags on for months, where you can arrange a whole day around one small task, where seeing someone becomes an event rather than something that just happens. It’s terrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, truly I wouldn’t.

I bring this up because loneliness is a key theme in this book. Barbara Covett (aptly named) is a lonely old woman who has very little to live for and seeks companionship with people she deems worthwhile, although she may not go the right way about it very often. I’d imagine that many of you have seen the film that came from the book, as indeed I have. It’s a good film. While it is always my gut instinct to say that the book is better, these two end in slightly different ways and with slightly different moods, so it’s not entirely fair to compare the two.

But anyway, let’s crack on.

We touch down in nineties London and read the purported manuscript of Barbara Covett, a sixty-something teacher with a rather intense view of relationships, among other things. The book is supposed to be her retelling of the events that occured at her school between her friend Sheba Hart, a slightly hippie-ish, very middle class, married pottery teacher, and a fifteen-year-old student called Steven Connolly. As Sheba’s one remaining friend and confidant in the media mess that surrounds the affair, Barbara wields a considerable amount of power over Sheba and has decided that if she writes down the events of the story, it will be all to the good.

The story is told in flashback mostly, detailing the relationship from Barbara’s point of view. As such, much of it is Barbara repeating things that Sheba has told her, allowing already for an unreliable narrator who hasn’t actually seen many of the events first hand. Sheba’s relationship with Steven starts fairly innocently when she discovers he is a talented artist, but it quickly changes as Steven announces that he fancies his teacher. Flattered and unable to stop herself, their relationship quickly becomes physical, yet they are desperate to hide it because, obviously, it is a criminal offence. Sheba will lose not only her job, but also her husband and family, and may end up in prison.

notes 2

Judi Dench as Barbara: evil in knitwear

Sheba later confides in Barbara about the affair, and the elder woman urges her to stop it immediately. Sheba is reluctant and refuses, and Barbara, disgusted by the whole thing, becomes irritated when Sheba begins to lose interest in their friendship in favour of her young lover. Barbara is not one to take this lying down, finding Sheba’s ignoring of her to be a huge slight against her and, as such, begins to seek her revenge.

This very clever story is written, then, from the point of view of the piece’s villain. Barbara is a very intense woman with some very interesting private thoughts. She is quietly convinced of her superiority to everyone around her and seeks to be the most important aspect of her friend’s life. There are mentions earlier in the novel of another woman, Jessica, with whom Barbara was previously friendly but who cut off all contact and insisted that Barbara was too clingy and suffocating. Barbara does not understand what she has done to offend her, so. There are even implications that this is a recurring theme – Barbara latches herself onto one person and does not let go, beginning to let her life revolve around her one friend.

Perhaps it is unfair to cast Barbara as the villain. As I said, she is merely a very lonely spinster who can have weekends that revolve around visiting the launderette. She wants companionship and is perhaps unsure about the limits involved. She is not the only nasty character in here. In fact, the only character who seems to exhibit any sort of niceness is Richard, Sheba’s husband. Sheba is a self-absorbed middle-aged woman having a crisis and obsessing over her underage lover. Connolly in turn is a nasty piece of work, being rude to Sheba in front of his friends. Even the other teachers are nasty or gossipy or power-hungry. This is a book about horrible people doing horrible things to one another, and failing to accept the consequences.

It ends somewhat differently to the film, and it’s hard for me to say which one I like better. Barbara is a brilliant character (nasty people are so much more interesting) and a master of manipulation. Above all, she is funny, which makes her a very interesting villain indeed. It’s certainly not a book for everyone, and I’ve tagged it here as a thriller because there are shades of that about it, but all in all it is a tale all about our need for companionship, at whatever cost.