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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

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“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.

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

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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.

“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)

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good-omens“It was a nice day.”

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now there’s a team and a half. Although I’ve devoured most of Gaiman’s work, I’ve only read a few Pratchett novels and never been especially taken by them. I’ve discussed this before. As such, embarking on this book that is continually held up as one of the best and funniest of the nineties was done with trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Here’s the situation…

Eleven years before the main story starts, Crowley, a angel-now-demon who “didn’t so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards” has an important job to do involving the Antichrist. It’s not a job he wants to be doing, mind, but you don’t argue with the big boys downstairs. Once the kid has grown up a bit, there are rumblings. Crowley and Aziraphale, an angel and part-time bookseller, realise that the end of the world is due this Saturday and neither of them particularly want it to happen. They’ve come to like Earth and it’s many trinkets. They decide to try and stop it.

Elsewhere, the four Bikers of the Apocalypse have received a message to gather. A young man called Newt Pulsifer gets gainful employment as a witchfinder, only to befriend one a short while later. She’s Anathema Device and has been for years studying the only book that means anything to her: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Anathema is the distant descendant of Agnes and has noticed that the prophecies go no further than this coming Saturday. Add to the mix a Satanic hellhound who discovers he’d rather roll in cow shit than do evil, a bogus medium who does extras on Thursdays, two other demons who are trying to make life worse for Crowley, and a former Satanist nun, and things are about to become more complicated than algebraic long division.

And everyone’s lost track of where the Antichrist even is…

That plot summary feels short for what’s actually going on in this book, but it’s one of those ones that is best read in full. So much happens and in such a short space of time that you find yourself tearing through the pages, desperate to find out how it’s all going to get sorted out. It’s immensely funny, and I really mean that. Some books start out funny but then tail off towards the middle and lose it by the end. This one is full of throwaway gags, stupid imagery, witty asides and the most beautiful surrealism. Frankly, I’m jealous. The concepts packed into here are amazing and I’m in awe of them, as well as being pissed off that I will never be this good and wish I’d come up with some of these ideas first.

The main characters arguably are Crowley and Arizaphale, and I adore them both. Crowley may be a demon, but there’s a hint of angel in him somewhere, and while Arizaphale may be an angel, there’s a sliver of darkness in him. Crowley in particular seems keen to cause havoc wherever he goes, simply because that’s what demons do. He drives a beautiful Bentley which only keeps running because he wills it to, and has much to say about the fact that all cassette tapes left in cars for more than two weeks turn into Best of Queen albums. (It’s that sort of insanity I love – it’s nonsense, and yet it feels like that it could be real.)

My favourite characters though are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. who are now the Four Bikers. War, Famine, and Pollution (who replaced Pestilence when he resigned after getting pissed off about the advent of penicillin) are fully fleshed out. Death remains Death, though speaks in the same manner and seems to share a similar appearance to the Death of the Discworld novels. Pollution is a young man who leaves mess in his wake; everything he touches breaks, leaks or becomes toxic. Famine is a food scientist and dietitian who has basically worked out how to produce food that has zero nutritional value (his fast food fries have never even seen a potato) and peddles diet plans that cause people to waste away. He’s incredibly famous among the celebrity world. War is a stunningly beautiful war correspondent who always seems to be in the right place just before the action kicks off. I am in love with War, continuing my obsession with redheads and women who look like they could kill me.

If you’re a fan of Pratchett or Gaiman, come and nestle among these pages. They are magicians, and putting them together creates something particularly wonderful. Indeed, this could be the book that turns me into a Pratchett fan. Perhaps I shall return to the Discworld after all. What an utterly charming, hilarious and at times deeply poignant novel.

“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness (2015)

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We can't all be the Chosen One.

We can’t all be the Chosen One.

“On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.”

Every good story needs a hero. The Buffy Summers, Harry Potter or Darren Shan of the piece who has to save the world (and often just the school) from imminent destruction from the Villain of the Week. But there are only so many zombies, ghosts or dark lords to defeat, so not everyone gets to do it. This is a story about those who aren’t chosen. These are the characters who, rather than wanting to save the world, just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up or any of their friends being used for a sacrificial ritual. After all, what was Hogwarts like if you actually attended all your lessons and never had to smuggle dragons out the castle or do battle with giant snakes?

Our narrator is Mikey, a high school senior with OCD who is struggling with growing up, the friendships that may be about to end, and his unrequited feelings for his friend Henna. Along with his sister Mel, a recovering anorexic, and his best friend Jared, who happens to be a quarter God, he’s counting down the days until the school year ends and he has to leave his pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere.

He has problems, but they’re mostly ordinary. Jared is keeping a secret from him, Henna seems to have developed a crush on the new boy Nathan, Mikey’s mother’s political ambitions are perhaps getting in the way of letting them have a united family, and to cap it all, Mikey’s OCD is getting worse again. Still, at least he’s not one of the indie kids. They’re the kids who keep getting involved in the strange events around town. Years ago it was zombies, or vampires, but this time the town is at risk from Immortals who glow with a blue light and are killing anyone in their way. But that’s not Mikey’s story – he just hopes no one blows up the school before he can get his diploma.

This is such a cool concept for a story. Yes, there is a massive threat to the town, and possibly the world, but this time we’re not going to be part of it. Every chapter opens with a brief summary of, basically, what we would see in that chapter if we were following the hero indie kids, but then will cut to a very ordinary event with Mikey and his friends. They sometimes brush up against the fantasy story, but they’re not directly connected. This adds so much to the world of fiction, and brings home again the notion that we are all the heroes in our own stories, but every single one of those stories are connected. Some people have to save the world, and some just have to survive the consequences.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, the story details much about the nature of family and friends, especially the family we construct from our friends and how that’s different for everyone. Patrick Ness writes with such warmth and sweetness that you can’t help feel for Mikey, Mel, Jared, Meredith, Henna, and the rest of them with their struggles. Jared is particularly interesting, as I love the idea of someone who just “happens to be a God”, but he doesn’t really let it affect him when he can help it.

A wonderful, funny and sweet novel about growing up, feeling unloved, struggling to move on, and why sometimes it’s best not to be at the heart of the action.

“Ant Farm” by Simon Rich (2007)

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ant farm“How about some ice cream, Isaac?”

If you loved yourself, you’d read Simon Rich, and that’s all there is to it. Given that this is his fourth appearance on my blog in just over two years (see also: What In God’s Name?, The Last Girlfriend On Earth and Spoiled Brats), it’s no surprise that he’s back here again and I’m talking him up once more.

Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations, to give it its full title, is his first book, published when he was just twenty-three and is already full with all the humour and sheer genius that his later books also contained. I’d worried that maybe he’d started off not being quite so good, but, no, he’s been brilliant from the first moment.

Containing fifty-seven separate narratives, it sounds daunting, but each is unique and expertly constructed, and none of them are more than three pages long. These are not short stories, they are flash fiction, and yet using just a few hundred words at a time, Rich is capable to drumming up such drama and comedy that you long for there to be many, many more stories. Most of them revolve, as the full title suggests, around people stuck in difficult situations and how they cope with them, revealing a myriad facets of the human psyche, almost all of which are simply hilarious. The book is packed with laugh out loud moments and, sure, it’s a short read – not even 150 pages – but there are few better ways to spend an afternoon without taking your clothes off. Unless you like reading in the nude, but that’s not for here.

From the first story (what happened on the journey home after God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac) to the last (a troop of soldiers heading off to war), there are many adventures to be had. I won’t list them all – we’ve all got other things we need to be getting on with – but some highlights include:

the fact that in medieval England, all measurements were derived from the king’s body parts,

what happens when the guy responsible for naming Crayola colours has problems at home,

the two situations in which learning trigonometry turns out to have been useful,

what your mother thinks you think when she leaves you home alone,

what happens when a murder victim bumps into his murderer in the afterlife,

why parents don’t care if their teen rebels, as long as they wear deodorant,

and what happens when small talk goes wrong.

The book is split into five sections which contain stories centered around rough themes. In order, these are probably best labelled “childhood”, “teenage years”, “work”, “relationships” and “God”, although these are prone to blurring and not strictly that firm, but they give you some idea of what to expect. As I said at the start of this review, Rich is a treat that we should all be reading because the man can do magic with his brevity, and because he’s still so young, there are surely many more years of his work to look forward to.

If your tastes are not for Simon Rich, but rather you fancy something a bit stranger about cannibals, witches and investigative journalists, try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available for all ebook platforms right now!

“Apocalypse Next Tuesday” by David Safier (2014)

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apoc

Can I take a raincheck? How’s Thursday?

“There’s no way that Jesus can have looked like that, I thought to myself as I sat in the parish office staring at the painting of the Last Supper.”

The return of Jesus to the modern Earth is a fairly standard subject that appears in recent fiction, and I should know because I seem to have read most of the novels on the topic. This hasn’t been done intentionally, but as I’ve undoubtedly mentioned before on this blog, I find the whole idea really interesting. Although not in the least bit religious myself, I retain a strange curiosity about religion – why does it drive people to behave the way they do, and what were the people in the Bible really like, if of course they even really existed?

In Apocalypse Next Tuesday, we hear the events from German thirty-something Marie Woodward, possibly one of the most average people on the planet. She’s just jilted her fiancé Sven at the altar and is entering into a downward spiral of depression, not helped by the fact her dad has fallen for a Belarusian woman younger than Marie, and her mother has shacked up with the local priest. Things quickly take a turn for the brighter, however, when she meets the kind and naïve Joshua, a carpenter who has come to fix the hole in the roof. She ponders about asking him out for a date, not realising that she has the hots for Jesus himself.

Because elsewhere, Satan is about and is recruiting his horsemen for next week’s Armageddon. The events of the Book of Revelation turn out to have been pretty accurate and Jesus has only returned to fight Satan and his armies. There are just a few short days now for Joshua to convince Marie who he is, then Marie to convince her sister Kata of his true nature. Marie has fallen for some bad men in her time, and now she’s fallen for the best, but can he be swayed from his task of saving the world from Satan and creating the new Kingdom of Heaven?

The book was originally released in German and I’m pleased it’s made it across here in translation, although I think I’d like a word with whoever was responsible for proofreading and the translation. Although generally good, there are a few spots here and there where the wrong word is used, a word is omitted entirely, an errant space has turned up, or the punctuation is sloppy. These are petty complaints and don’t detract from the novel’s content, but it still irritates me to see them.

Otherwise, the book is frothy, funny and has a lot of heart. Jesus (or Joshua) is portrayed kindly, as more human than superhuman, and even God comes across better in this appearance than he does in others. Marie is not actually wholly sympathetic, and is shown to be aggressive, rude and stubborn, although is also capable of good, freely admitting that she finds it difficult to be nice to everyone, and that to live life the way God intends is not an easy thing to do.

Of the secondary characters, my favourite is Kata, Marie’s sister, who has recovered a serious illness, although lost her faith in God along the way. She is a cartoonist and her cartoons pepper the book, cute little drawings that detail the adventures of two sisters. Marie often reads them to find things that Kata won’t say out loud.

It’s a sweet little novel, with some really interesting concepts (I love the stuff with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and some genuinely funny jokes. It’s also, oddly, never overtly heavy-handed regarding the religious aspects. It acknowledges that God is both kind and dangerous, and that lives are complicated. We all have secrets and anyone would find it difficult to be a good Christian in these modern times. It’s why I have respect for those who do live by a moral code, providing it isn’t one harmful to or disrespectful of other people.

You don’t expect a book with the word “apocalypse” in the title to be light, but it is.

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