“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

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“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

“Mostly Harmless” by Douglas Adams (1992)

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“The history of the Galaxy has got a little muddled, for a number of reasons: partly because those who are tyring to keep track of it have got a little muddled, but also because some very muddling things have been happening anyway.”

Every year I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve tried to have a specific series to be re-reading. In 2013, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then in 2014, all of Douglas Coupland. 2015 was Harry Potter, 2016 went to Jasper Fforde, and 2017 didn’t actually have a theme and was just a few old favourites I wanted to rediscover. This year, I set myself the task of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and since it’s only a trilogy of five, I’ve already done it. Fittingly, the 42nd book I read this year was Mostly Harmless, which feels just about perfect. Don’t panic – my waffling introduction ends now. The next paragraph gets to the point.

Mostly Harmless picks up at an unspecified point beyond the end of the last book. Arthur Dent is scouring the multiverse (or rather, the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, as multiverse doesn’t quite explain what’s going on) for any sign of Earth, but is routinely upset to find that it doesn’t exist, or does but in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ford Prefect has returned to the headquarters of the Guide and breaks in as to avoid the expenses department who would like a word. He finds things have changed rather a lot since he was last here. And elsewhere, Tricia McMillan is starting to wonder if her career as a television presenter is a satisfying compromise to the opportunity she didn’t take to join Zaphod Beeblebrox on his spaceship.

Except, as we know, she did. Only not in this universe. On this version of Earth – where the primary difference appears to be that clover here usually has four leaves and a three-leaf clover is lucky – she went back for her bag and Zaphod left her behind with nothing but frustration and a sense that she was meant to be so much more. She gets a second chance, though, when aliens land and take her to the planet Rupert, just beyond Pluto, to ask how astrology works. Meanwhile, Ford is fiddling his accounts in ways previously unseen by the galaxy, and Arthur appears to have finally found somewhere that he isn’t entirely miserable. That is, until our Trillian turns up and informs him that he’s a father, which is awkward as they never even got around to sleeping together. As everyone gathers together for one final time, Arthur realises that this really is the end – for now at least.

While still funny, surreal and one of the cleverest books in the known universe, there’s definitely a bleak streak throughout this one. Everything feels a little more futile, and ending cannot be described as happy, however you slice it. Adams admitted later that he was having a difficult time personally when writing this book, and it shows. He had, apparently, always planned to restore whatever passes for order in the series at some time later, but his untimely death in 2001 put paid to that. Although a sixth book has been published, I won’t be reading it for now. I sense that no matter how good the imitation, it won’t be quite right.

The book is also the most uneven of the series. Zaphod and Fenchurch are both missing – the former’s absence is not explained, and there is a throwaway line regarding the latter – and the plot threads don’t necessarily all tie up quite as well as we’re used to. It ends rather abruptly and we never properly get a chance to savour the final events. There are, however, more female characters than ever, some interesting philosophy, and an underlying message about the importance of home and trying to find one’s place in the universe.

I’m sure that Adams would’ve given us a lighter sixth book, but it is what it is. All in all, it’s still a great book, better than I remembered, and I love some of the concepts. Arthur is still an angel, and I would love to take him out for tea, just to give him a bit of normality. Whatever happened next though, including the real reason that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, are buried along with Adams in Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been to see his grave, and I advise any fan to do the same. There’s a beautiful tradition, though. In life, Adams claimed he could never find a pen when he wanted one, so it’s now the done thing to take one with you and leave it for him at his grave.

And if that touch of madness doesn’t sum up the wonderful man and his incredible books, then I don’t know what does.

“How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb (2017)

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“If I get this right, Tess Rampling will definitely want to have sex with me.”

Over the last few years I’ve read a number of books with a “how to” premise. In theory, I now know how to find love in a bookshop, how to talk to girls at parties, and how to stop time. Before beginning this blog I even read a book called How To Bag a Jabberwock, just in case one ever reared its head across the hills of southern England. But now it’s time to turn the concept on it’s head. It’s time to learn how not to be a boy.

Robert Webb is, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men working in television today. Peep Show is incredible, and whenever he pops up on a panel show – which is much less often than his comedy sidekick David Mitchell – it’s always a delight. His life, however, was not always so cheerful. Webb struggled from a young age with society’s expectations. Boys weren’t supposed to cry, or talk about their emotions. Men were meant to like football and beer, and not take themselves too seriously. Therapy was for girls, boys were meant to be brave, and it certainly wasn’t OK to fall in love with other boys. Before he was even eighteen, he had to deal with an abusive father, the death of his mother, and people who expected him to be something he didn’t want to be.

In his memoirs, he explores his life through the lens of gender stereotypes and explains how toxic the culture of masculinity is. There’s a reason that so many men kill themselves, and maybe having hundreds of relationship books published that treat men and women as two different species hasn’t really helped humanity. As Webb grows and explores both his internal and external worlds, he discovers love, hope, tragedy, comedy, loss, battles he never asked to be involved in, and William Wordsworth. Determined and precocious from a young age, he decides that if he has any hope of being happy, he needs to be famous and that involves getting into the Cambridge Footlights.

The topics of gender, sexuality and the stereotypes surrounding each seem to be on the mind of the zeitgeist quite a lot. I think part of this has come from the fact that mental health has also become a huge topic, and it has revealed the startling statistics behind suicide, depression and anxiety. Men are told, generally, from an early age that it’s “unmanly” to express their feelings, and so they get bottled up and often converted into anger. Webb frequently points out throughout the book that the emotions that he – or any of the men he knows – display are quickly transmuted into anger and, sometimes, violence. Indeed, the phrase “man up” is surely soon to be retired. The book is a refreshing breath of air in its openness of the topic.

Not only is it one of the Very Important Books for today’s society (see also, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig) it’s also very moving and very funny. Webb has overcome things I can only imagine to become who he is. He is frank and honest about his life and the decisions he’s made within it. He is incredibly candid regarding his relationships, sexuality and failings, and it makes him all the more likeable.

As someone who, like Webb, struggled with the concept of masculinity, this book is a tonic and vital. I was a kid who cried a lot. I cry less now, but for years I didn’t cry at all. I’ve always been more comfortable with girls and women as my friends, have no interest in football, have always loved books, and was never particularly bothered about what other boys thought of me at school. It’s important, I feel, for people to know that the gender stereotypes are rubbish. Women are strong, men like pink, and both can be utterly useless at expressing their feelings. This is important not only for the next generation coming up and their descendants, but also for those who have been struggling with unfounded expectations for so long. A really wonderful book.

“So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” by Douglas Adams (1984)

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“That evening it was dark early, which was normal for the time of year.”

Continuing the oddest trilogy in history, I’ve hitchhiked on a Vogon spaceship, eaten out at the end of the universe, and discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Only one thing left to do – thank everyone for the seafood. Ready? On we go.

By his count, Arthur Dent has lived the last eight years of his life travelling around the galaxy, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a group of insane aliens. It’s a surprise to him, therefore, when he arrives back on Earth about six months after the planet and everything on it was destroyed. He’s not sure whether he’s imagining it or not, but there are pubs and cups of tea, so he’s not complaining. He might, however, not be the only person on the planet who thinks something is wrong. He meets (and instantly falls in love with) Fenchurch – a girl so named because she was conceived in a queue at Fenchurch train station – who is considered mad by her family because she’s convinced that the hallucinations of yellow spaceships everyone endured six months ago weren’t fake.

Elsewhere, Ford Prefect is haring through the galaxy trying to find his old friends, Marvin the Paranoid Android is on his way to find God’s Final Message to His Creation, Wonko the Sane continues his attempts to live outside the Asylum, and lorry driver Rob McKenna is becoming increasingly irritated that it never stops raining – on him at least. As Arthur tries to get back to normality and begin a relationship with Fenchurch, it’s surely only a matter of time before the universe comes knocking again. Besides, where did all the dolphins go?

After three books spent haring around the universe, it’s almost comforting to final return to Earth. Zaphod and Trillian are both entirely absent, and Marvin only turns up towards the end, meaning the focus is entirely on Arthur and his very human quest for companionship. Adams mocks his previous methods of avoiding the topic of whether Arthur has a sex life by giving us a full insight into what he gets up to, although still described in his brilliant use of extremely surreal metaphors. There is something much more accessible here though. While all the books, really, are about humanity and the struggle every living thing must go through just to make it to the next day, here the problems are more grounded in reality. Arthur is a simple man. He never wanted to be a galactic hitchhiker, so he’s thrilled to be back at home.

While all good – it was much better than I remember it being – the best scenes are when Arthur teaches Fenchurch how to fly (a skill he picked up in the last book) and the journey to see God’s Final Message to His Creation, which they actually manage to find and it’s exactly what it should be.

Blissful, joyous stuff. Which is just as well, as next up is Mostly Harmless and from what I remember, it’s not exactly the cheeriest book…

“The BFG” by Roald Dahl (1982)

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“Sophie couldn’t sleep.”

Back to Dahl this week, as I’m away this weekend and wanted to finish up a short book before I went away so I could take a new one. There seemed little that was more appropriate than another dip back into Roald Dahl with a small story about a big-hearted giant.

Sophie is an orphan and has a horrible existence in an English orphanage. One night, unable to sleep, she peeks out of the window into the witching hour and across the street sees an enormous creature peering into bedroom windows and using a trumpet to blow something inside. Before she can process any of this, the beast spots her, and before she knows what’s happening, she is in the giant’s pocket being spirited away at great speeds to a place she could never have imagined.

Her captor is the BFG – the Big Friendly Giant – who lives in Giant Country, scared of the other giants who are twice as big as he is and love nothing more than to eat “human beans”. The BFG, however, is much nicer, and he spends his days catching dreams in Dream Country and his nights blowing them into the minds of human children. Sophie, naturally, is appalled by the behaviour of the other giants, and sets a plan in motion to save humanity and make sure the giants can never eat anyone ever again. Her plan is ambitious, and involves speaking to the only human she thinks has the power to stop the killings…

You probably knew all of that, of course. The BFG is a childhood staple, and reading it again I found myself transported back into the mind of a child, more so than I did with the other Dahl’s I’ve read this year. While Sophie has no particularly remarkable features to set her aside from a generic child hero, except perhaps a bright mind and her kindness – she feels a rough version of Matilda who would come into existence six years later – the BFG provides a fun, engaging character. His use of language is, as he would say, phizzwizard and while there are plenty of made up words to entertain kids, there are some great malapropisms and mistakes, such as referring to fun and games as “gun and flames”. This novel also feels almost unique in the world of Dahl in that there is at least one adult who isn’t entirely useless – namely, the Queen. Although not named as the same Queen we know, it most certainly is supposed to be. It’s fun to see her in a fictional light and whether she would be so calm about discovering the existence of giants, we can only speculate, but I imagine she’s the sort of woman it takes a lot to fluster.

Despite, of course, being a book for children, there is an underlying message on how horrible humans are. The BFG says that giants don’t kill other giants, and humans are the only animals to kill their own kind. This isn’t strictly true, as many animals have been recorded murdering their own species – not least the cannibalistic spiders and mantises, but also meerkats and wolves – but it is true that these are often in cases of sexual dominance, or infanticide to give their own offspring a better chance of survival. Humans are indeed one of the very few species that kill other adults. It’s a big topic for a book of this sort, and I wonder how many children really ponder on this.

Despite the deeper themes, it can be read on a much more superficial level. It contains the perfect combination of magic, humour and horror that we’ve come to associate with Roald Dahl, and it’s well worth revisiting.

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