“The Diary Of A Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell (2017)

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“Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable.”

Wigtown in the Galloway region of Scotland is a town of just one thousand or so residents that would be another one of the many fairly remarkable, but historic, towns that make up the United Kingdom. As it is, it has been dedicated as Scotland’s Book Town, like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This means it has an enormous number of bookshops. One of these is simply called The Book Shop and is said to be the largest in Scotland. It’s run by a man called Shaun Bythell who isn’t quite on par with Bernard Black in terms of grumpiness, but he’s not far off. You may know him as the man who shot a Kindle and hung the remains like a hunting trophy. This is his story.

Detailing a year in the life of a Scottish bookseller, these memoirs focus on the day to day running of a bookshop housed in a centuries old building and all the problems inherent in this. There are leaky windows, disrespectful staff, misplaced novels, book purchases to be made, and that’s all before you get to the customers. Bythell is rarely judgemental towards his customers, merely observational (his words) but he does record a great number of incidents where customers are shown to probably be somewhat insane. There are those that ask him for books without knowing the author or sometimes the title, those that haggle (or even adjust the prices themselves), those who ask for things he has and then leave without them, or those who simply come in to tell him that they don’t read.

If you’ve never worked in customer service, you won’t believe a word of it. If you have, you will.

Most of all though, the book does shine through with Bythell’s passion for books. Frequently he has to visit other towns in Scotland to look through collections of books that people are selling. Sometimes all he finds is dross, or forgotten tomes covered in dust and cat hair that he could never make a profit on. Other times, he discovers rare antiquities and visibly becomes excited at meeting them. He is, naturally, a keen reader himself and has a love of not only books but the whole second-hand bookselling industry. He laments the changing ways and how modern technology – particularly Amazon – is rendering bookshops obsolete. As someone who still supports brick-and-mortar bookshops – especially independents when I can – I hope that his fears are unfounded, although truthfully I can see how much harder it is becoming to run a bookshop when everything is available online with the click of a button. Still, I find that Amazon tells you what it thinks you’ll want, whereas any true book lover knows that you can’t beat browsing physical shelves where you stumble onto something you didn’t even know you needed to know about.

A charming and hilarious book that has shoved Wigtown still higher up my list of places to visit, and also made me reconsider the available option of running one of the town’s bookshops for a holiday. I fear I’d never get any work done in a place like that … it sounds ideal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dinner For Two” by Mike Gayle (2002)

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“Apparently (at least, so she told me) it all happened because her best friend Keisha had to stay behind after school for hockey practice.”

Despite the sheer number of books on my shelf that I’ve still not read, when it came to picking one over the weekend, I couldn’t seem to get my head around any of them. As such, I retreated into one I’ve read before. Mike Gayle, as I’ve said before, is one of my favourite writers, and his chatty, confessional style is very easy to absorb.

Music journalist Dave Harding is very happy with his life. He’s got a good job, a nice flat and is happily married to Izzy, the woman of his dreams. Everything seems brilliant, but his biological clock is ticking and Dave finds himself eager to start a family. Izzy, however, doesn’t seem so bothered. His life changes dramatically, however, when the magazine he works for folds and he is persuaded to take up the role of agony uncle for a teenage girls’ magazine.

He soon finds that he actually quite enjoys answering the problems of confused teenagers, and he’s a natural at giving relationship advice. He even begins written a column about how men think for Izzy’s ladies lifestyle magazine. But then he receives a letter from a thirteen-year-old girl called Nicola that stands out from the rest. She tells Dave that he is her father – and she’s got the evidence to prove it…

I didn’t remember much about this one but know I hadn’t read it since university, so at least ten years ago. As ever, it’s funny and warm, but it’s definitely not my favourite. When Dave learns that he has a daughter, he begins seeing her but neither of them inform the other most important people in their lives – namely her mother and his wife. Although obviously done for drama and to allow tension to build, in reality this all just seems a bit insane. It’s hard to be fully sympathetic with Dave when we are watching him lie to his wife and while he doesn’t actively ask Nicola to keep him a secret, he also doesn’t do anything to encourage her from telling the truth. Nicola is portrayed as a pretty good teenager, and the constant reminders of Dave – and others – that she’s a good kid don’t ring hollow, as she clearly is, although we’re only seeing things through his eyes.

In general though, it retains Gayle’s brilliant voice and the characters are otherwise wonderful and fully realised. He has a way of making you care about these people, without using a single ghost, alien or vampire. His stuff is real, and you almost feel like the events happened to someone you know personally. He doesn’t shy away from the realities of growing up and the complications surrounding relationships. We’ve all got histories, but they don’t all turn up on the doorstep long after you’ve left them behind. A pleasing read and a firm reminder that I’m doing the right thing in returning to his old books.

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

“The Art Of Failing” by Anthony McGowan (2017)

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“I’m back working again at the British Library.”

It’s been one of those weeks where very little seems to have gone right, with the exception of polishing an opening chapter of a novel I hope to finish some time between May and the heat death of the universe. However, it turns out that I am actually having a pretty good time of it when compared to Anthony McGowan.

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered.

Among the humour, though, are some genuinely insightful and beautiful moments. My absolute favourite is when he sees a green woodpecker while eating his lunch and declares no day wasted if you’ve seen a woodpecker – or a fire engine. I also love his notion that if you were starting from scratch and getting rid of all the bad animals like lice and tapeworms, you’d definitely keep the woodpeckers. Despite all the problems that befall him, McGowan is able to draw up some wonderful insights about the natural world, modern living, and ornithology. He’s also very keen on grebes.

It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

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

“Still Life With Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins (1980)

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“If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.”

No, it hasn’t taken me eleven days to read a book, but I appreciate that the blog has been quiet for a while. Before the book I’m about to review, I also read Joined-Up Thinking by Stevyn Colgan which, while excellent, was a book of random trivia and difficult to review without merely repeating back all he’d written. There’s also been a lot of drinking and watching Christmas films going on – ’tis the season, after all. But I’m here now with one final pre-Christmas review, for one of the oddest books of the year.

Still Life With Woodpecker is inexplicable. Here, we meet Princess Leigh-Cheri, who is living with her parents in Seattle after they were kicked off of their European throne and sent to live in exile. Leigh-Cheri maintains an interest in environmentalism and being a good person, and seeks to attend Care Fest in Hawaii, to hear Ralph Nader speak and find out more about the state of the world. The king and queen allow it, providing she takes along their one remaining servant, Gulietta, an old woman who doesn’t speak any language understood by the family.

While in Hawaii, the centre where Care Fest is supposed to be held is bombed by the Woodpecker, an outlaw actually called Bernard Mickey Wrangle, who has been responsible for a spate of bombings over the last couple of decades, yet has never been caught. Leigh-Cheri performs a citizen’s arrest on him, but before she can turn him in, she finds herself falling in love with him, bonded primarily of the fact they both have bright red hair. The two swiftly fall into a heavily sexual relationship, and when Bernard is finally arrested for his crimes and sent to solitary confinement, Leigh-Cheri returns to Seattle to do exactly the same, locking herself away in an attic with no furniture and painted-over windows, where the considers a packet of Camel cigarettes and begins to philosophise over the nature of pyramids, choice, bombs and love…

Despite the weirdness of the plot that feels a bit like it was constructed from a random generator (and I don’t knock that because that’s pretty much exactly how my first novel came to be), it somehow all works and is above all hilariously funny. Robbins has a way with words, puns and bizarre similes that is on par with Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams and Tom Holt, and they don’t let up. It’s intelligent and bonkers in that perfect measure that’s so hard to do, and the surrealism is just spot on – weird but not so much that it overwhelms the story and takes over.

One of the ongoing themes (aside from the difference between a criminal and an outlaw, or what is to be done about all the redheads) is the question of how love can be made to last. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but Robbins does manage to wax somewhat poetically on the subject, pointing out the differences between lust and love, and even comes up with a half-decent and poignant explanation on what exactly it is that causes love to disappear from a relationship. It never gets too schmaltzy though, as it’s liberally peppered with incredibly graphic sex scenes that are almost hilarious in their construction and not in the least sexy.

Very weird, but hilarious and curiously moving.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“What The Hell Did I Just Read” by David Wong (2017)

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“It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck.”

Not for the first time, I’ve stumbled into a series in progress, but it didn’t seem to matter so much here. David Wong has been on my radar for years thanks to his novel John Dies at the End, which I’ve always found an intriguing title but I’ve never got round to reading. Instead, assuming this was a standalone, I’ve somehow skipped ahead to the third book in the series, crashing headfirst into a world that would terrify Stephen King and greatly amuse Douglas Adams. Strap yourself in.

John, Dave and Amy have just fled from Them. They’re not entirely sure what it is They wanted, but at a guess it’s the vial Amy has just tossed into the river. Not long after, John and Dave receive a call about a missing child, but the circumstances surrounding it are above the pay grade of any of the police and seem much more in the line of these two, who specialise in the unusual, the supernatural and the downright weird. The child, Maggie, appears to have been abducted by a seedy character, but no one can agree on what he looked like or if he even existed.

As the three seek out the missing girl, they learn that another child has gone missing too, this time from a trailer park. When the boy turns up in Dave’s apartment, claiming that it was Dave who abducted him, things are only going to get worse. Our heroes find themselves dealing with a collection of creatures that can alter memory and perception, allowing them to hide in plain sight and causing you to forget they even exist a split second after you were looking directly at them. More children disappear, but there’s some debate as to where they’ve gone, and John and Dave are convinced they need another sample of their special “Soy Sauce” that helps them to see the supernatural. It’s a shame they threw their last vial into the river. As the body count rises, shady organisations close in on the town, and a creature dubbed the BATMANTIS??? goes from being an urban legend to a terrifying reality, the story heads down a very dark path indeed…

I can only assume the previous books in the series are of a similar vein, and perhaps I’d have got more from it had I read them, but it doesn’t seem to need much in the way of backstory. The characters are introduced with enough detail to give you an idea of who they are, and the narration shifts from Dave’s first person tale to events in the third person from Amy and John. All three characters have distinctive voices. Amy’s parts focus on the feelings and emotions of the characters, are much more empathetic and contain no swearing, while John’s are hyperbolic, over-exaggerated and frequently laced with sex and gratuitous violence. As such, it helps add to the confusion of the story. We’re never totally sure what’s going on, who we’re meant to believe, or if anyone is worth believing at all.

Wong’s imagination is quite something. There are some creatures straight out of the darkest pits of horror here, and I do have to worry a little about his sanity. While the book is genuinely hilarious and full of great one-liners and stupid gags, it’s also scary as all hell. It’s laced not only with supernatural creatures with uncanny abilities and too many teeth, but also with genuine horrors of human child-snatchers, and the terror of losing your mind. It’s a world that’s easy to immerse yourself in thanks to the conversational style and constant action, but afterwards you just feel like you immersed yourself in a tepid swamp rather than a bubble bath.

Wong weaves plot points together neatly, too, with things that seem trivial and inserted just for a cheap gag later becoming pivotal. It does all tie up pretty neatly by the end – although the gaps I have might, again, just be because I’ve not read the earlier ones – but it’s the sort of book that you allow some things to keep hanging. After all, we still don’t really know what happened…

I don’t know what the hell I just read, but it was very good nonetheless.

“Not Working” by Lisa Owens (2016)

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“There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.”

I, unfortunately, have a great deal of experience with the horror of late-twenties unemployment. I’m not going to go into it here – partly because it’s very boring, partly because I don’t want to – but Lisa Owens has done an incredible job of capturing the struggle in her novel Not Working.

Claire Flannery has just quit the job she hated with plans of finding the perfect job and one that she really wants to do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what that is. Sleepless nights begin and she struggles to get to grips with the job market and dealing with her judgemental friends and family who try to be supportive but have limited patience. It also doesn’t help that her grandfather has just died and at the funeral, Claire made an ill-advised comment and now her mother isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Claire has disgraced the memory of the deceased.

As Claire tries to work out exactly what she wants to do with her life, she begins to clash with long-term boyfriend Luke, her grandmother, several friends who are settling down with unsuitable partners, and her former colleagues. Desperate not to head back to square one, she wishes she could work out what she wants to do with her life, other than entering competitions on the Internet and sitting around in her pyjamas. But maybe it’s when you stop looking for things that life gets easier…

Owens is particularly good at capturing the minutia of life, from observations about people on public transport, to the silly little conversations we have with our nearest and dearest. There’s a great moment where Claire recites a text message from her father, complete with bad grammar and sudden switch to capital letters halfway through a word. She is also incredibly (and somewhat horrifically) skilled at pointing out a painful truth with a single line. I found myself somewhat stunned when I found one of my thoughts written down as if someone had crawled into my brain and dug it out while I’d been pretending it wasn’t true. (It was “I wish I liked myself a bit more, and wine more than a bit less.”) There’s also the thought many of us have probably had about how jobs aren’t necessarily as we imagine them to be: “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” But the absolute killer, the thought that I’ve had but never been able to put into words, was thus:

What’s wrong is, I would tell them, if I could be bothered, were anyone even interested, but they wouldn’t understand, so what’s the point? But … what? Oh yeah, what is wrong with ‘her’ – i.e. me – is, I’m the spare human in the world. If you counted everyone up, I’m the one who’d be left over, the one who does nothing, only takes, always takes things, a drain on everyone, completely pathetic like the poor old – poor old thing, the poor old wooden spoon, floating in the dirty sink…

Ouch.

Despite the truth pills, it’s actually a very wonderful book – raw and honest and very funny. I’m not the first to say similar, but imagine the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones had had a child, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Owens doesn’t shy away from the stigma attached to being unemployed as an adult, and how everyone around Claire reacts feels very real. And yet, she also is great at talking about how many of us want to find the thing we’re really good at or really want to do, but unfortunately we don’t always know what that is.

A great little read, but prone to hitting a bit too close to the bone.

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