“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

Leave a comment

“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

Advertisements

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

Leave a comment

“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

1 Comment

What’s the catch?

“It was love at first sight.”

In my ongoing mission to see if reading the classics makes me a better person, I come roaring down the runway to meet Catch-22, said to be, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest American novels of the last century. Despite knowing it spawned a phrase from its title and that it featured army pilots, much else of the detail had escaped me.

Captain Yossarian is a pilot assigned to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. He’s furious because people keep trying to kill him, which may have something to do with the fact it’s the height of the Second World War. He is desperate that he should return home alive but his officers keep upping the number of missions he has to complete before he can go. The only way out is to declare he’s crazy, but there’s a catch. Catch-22 in fact.

If he refuses to fly the missions, then he must be sane, so he has to fly them. If he accepts the missions, he’s obviously crazy because only a madman would want to fly during a war, and he doesn’t have to do them. That’s one hell of a catch. Surrounded by friends and enemies – some of whom are on the same side – Yossarian must find a way to keep his head while losing it and make it out of the war alive, without sacrificing another friend. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as everyone is plotting to keep themselves safe too.

28-year-old Captain Yossarian is the main character and is determined to survive the war, eventually refusing to fly anymore, but it’s hard to say that there are any minor characters. Most chapters take the name of a character and show their involvement in the unfolding drama. The list of characters is enormous but includes: Colonel Cathcart (who continually raises the number of missions the men have to fly), Doc Daneeka (self-obsessed medical man), Milo Minderbinder (who is running a syndicate and only does things if they gain him a profit), Nately (who has fallen in love with a prostitute), Scheisskopf (who is obsessed with parades), Clevinger (who disappears on a flight one day), Major —— de Coverley (who is feared but rarely seen), Major Major (who can only be visited while he’s out of his office), General Dreedle (who is apathetic towards war unless the men fight and die on demand), Nurse Duckett (who sleeps with Yossarian), Hungry Joe (a pervert and photographer), Orr (a bomber pilot who always crashes), McWatt (who seems crazy because he has remained sane), Sergeant Towser (de facto head of the squadron),  and Chief White Halfoat (a Native American whose family had to keep moving because they always settled where oil was found). That’s barely half of them. It’s an amazing cast and everyone feels nicely sketched out and there aren’t any superfluous cast members. It’s just a task remembering who’s who and who outranks who else. I need a diagram.

The confusion of characters is compounded by the fact that the story doesn’t follow a strictly linear path, and jumps about in the timeline showing the same events from different angles. Personally, my favourite characters are Yossarian, Major Major and Chaplain Shipman, and would happily have taken a story just about those three.

A primary theme of the novel is paradox. Aside from the central one of being too mad to fly, every other page seems to contain someone making a statement and then saying the opposite immediately afterwards, either forming a joke or sometimes to highlight the insanity of the world they inhabit. Early on we see a character described as, “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” Nately at one point declares, “Anything worth living for is worth dying for”, only to be told in return, “Everything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.” People adopt one another’s personas and illnesses in hospital to confound doctors and keep themselves in there longer and away from the planes they have to fly. The world here is a complicated mess where people are brought up against their superiors for not doing things, mediocrity is applauded and dead people are thought to be alive and the living are considered dead.

Frankly, my biggest issue comes down to the novel’s length. Yes, it definitely is funny, but I’d got the joke by about 150 pages in, and my edition clocks in at over 500. That’s a lot of extra time spent on something I thought we’d already covered. However, in saying that, it needs the ending it has. Towards the end, the jokes and lighthearted mood is stripped away and we see the true horror of war for what it really is. War is, after all, not a joke, and the stark reality of it hits you in the face like Orr being hit in the head with a woman’s shoe.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, and I can see why it’s lingered. Heller has done something pretty cool here, but rather unlike anything I’ve read before.

“The Radleys” by Matt Haig (2010)

2 Comments

Every family has secrets.

“It is a quiet place, especially at night.”

Vampires have a long and fascinating history, from the tales of blood-sucking demons of ancient Persia, via Bram Stoker’s famous addition to the canon Dracula, up to sparkly immortal teenagers of Twilight. It’s always fun to see these kinds of monsters turn up where you least expect them too, and so suburban England is perhaps the last place you’d think there might be any vampires. Oh, how wrong you’d be…

Peter and Helen Radley look like pretty normal people. Sure, they may be a little insular, but they seem harmless enough. Their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, though are a bit odd. Often sickly and slathered in sun cream no matter the time of year, both insomniacs with a distaste for garlic and a fondness for the macabre, they’re considered by their peers to just be strange. One night, Clara is attacked by another student on the way home and her reaction would perhaps seem a little over the top. By that time, however, it is too late and Peter and Helen must tell their children what they’ve tried to hide for them for their whole lives – the Radleys are vampires.

Now they know they should be drinking blood, Rowan and Clara begin doing so (although Rowan with some trepidation at first) and start learning about their history. With fresh blood now inside them, they become stronger and undergo changes in personality and appearance. Things may have gone alright, if not for the arrival of Peter’s brother Will, a practicing vampire who has become sloppy of late and killing people in a more obvious manner, and often from the back of his camper van. But once you invite a vampire inside, it’s very hard to get them to leave, and Helen is determined that he should before secrets are revealed and their quiet little suburban life is ripped apart.

Matt Haig is a great writer and I’ve covered both his fiction and non-fiction on here before. The Radleys appeals to me firstly because of the sheer Englishness of the whole thing (a friend of mine this week said that all my writing is deeply English too, which isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned) despite the fantastical elements. I also love the juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical. Haig delves into the lore of vampires in this universe. They aren’t immortal, but can live for a couple of centuries, faking their deaths and continuing on in a new guise later (Lord Byron is stated to have been a vampire who did this and only died in the late twentieth century). There is a difference between vampires who actively suck blood – and often kill – and those who abstain, such as the Radleys. And certain branches of the police are fully aware of the existence of vampires and there is a special branch of the force armed with crossbows to deal with errant members of the community.

The science of vampirism is mostly brushed over, but that’s how it should be. Going too deep into it would, I think, take away some of the much needed mystery, but instead uses the old lore in a modern setting and showing how society has changed. For example, while people aren’t going around swinging cloves of garlic at one another, it makes eating a Thai salad something of a risky endeavour.

But as much as it’s about vampires and fantastic powers, it’s really about being human. The Radleys are all perfectly nice people and just want to be accepted in their community but allowed to have a private life. They feel love and hate and envy and pride like the rest of us, but the primary difference, aside from the blood-sucking, seems to be that they have to deal with a lot more temptation. All the characters are tempted throughout the novel, mostly by the thought of renegading on their promise to live a blood-free life, but for other reasons too. Peter is tempted by a flirtatious neighbour, and Helen is tempted with memories of her past that have recently come back in ways she had never dreamed.

I expected gore, and I expected wonder, and I got both, but I didn’t expect such a charming tale of a family who simply want to be allowed to live. A disarmingly sweet novel for anyone who feels their family is a bit weird.

“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

Leave a comment

chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.

“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

1 Comment

nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

Leave a comment

woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

Older Entries