“Superpowers” by David J. Schwartz (2008)

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“It all started at a party, which is damn convenient if you ask me, and if this weren’t a true story I wouldn’t expect you to believe it.”

We’ve probably all, at one time or another, wondered what superpower we’d want. Some of us want to fly, others wouldn’t mind being able to teleport, or shapeshift, be able to manipulate the weather, or be able to predict the future. I’d want all the ones around time travel and time manipulation, or else being able to jump into fiction and interact with the characters inside. Broadly speaking though, you probably won’t complain with whatever you end up with – it’ll still be cool.

Superpowers takes us back to 2001, and is the account of five students in Madison, Wisconsin who all develop superpowers unexpectedly after a night drinking home-brewed beer in a colossal thunderstorm. Mary Beth is now the strongest person on Earth; Jack is faster than a speeding bullet; Caroline can fly and spends her evenings enjoying her new power; Charlie can read everyone’s thoughts and is becoming overwhelmed; and Harriet can turn invisible. Once they start getting a handle on their new abilities, they decide to form a superhero team, dubbed by the media as the All Stars, thanks to the patterns on the chests of their Lycra uniforms.

The five struggle to keep their identities secret from the wider world, but they’re drawing attention to themselves and not always in a good way. Some of the people they’ve tried to save don’t appreciate the help, and the police, including Harriet’s own father, are on the case of the All Stars, since vigilante activity is illegal. They soon realise that they are still fragile, and even they can’t solve all the world’s problems. This will become vastly more apparent to them soon, as it’s 2001. September is coming, and with it, an event that will rearrange the world order and prove to them that being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

The situation, while fantastical, is handled in a startlingly realistic way. Naturally, the characters take a while to come round to the sudden changes, but quickly decide that they must use their powers for good. When other people begin to find out about them, no one declares that it’s impossible or rounds them up for medical tests, and it’s all taken in its stride with the more pressing issues of keeping their names and faces out of the media, and how to fight crime at keep up with their classes at the same time.

It’s also quite funny in places, but does deal well with the struggles that would occur with these powers. Charlie, for example, is overwhelmed by his ability to read everyone’s thoughts, and considers it an invasion of privacy he’s not happy to have. Jack’s super speed has meant that he’s now aging far faster than the normal human rate. And Harriet soon discovers that she can use her invisibility to spy on people and pretend to be living someone else’s life. Also, it can’t maintain the comedy for the whole thing because of what happens at the end – I won’t spell it out for you, but it’s clear if you’re reading properly. The situation is dealt with in a respectful and fascinating manner, and reminds everyone of how tragic that single event was.

Ultimately, like pretty much all superhero fiction, it’s a book about power and responsibility, but even more so I would say it’s about accepting our limitations, whether we’ve got superpowers or not. It’s important to know that none of us can single-handedly save the world or do all that needs doing, but we can help out in our own small ways.

“Feed” by Mira Grant (2010)

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“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.”

Fiction is laced with creepy creatures, and it’s always fun to see an author mess around with them. This year so far I’ve already dealt with vampires, monsters, gorgons and fairies, so it’s time to turn my attention to zombies.

It was 2014 when it all began. We’d cured the common cold and eradicated cancer, but something far more severe was released in the process – the Kellis-Amberlee virus, or as we may be more familiar with it, the “zombie virus”. In 2040, we meet Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings who work as journalists, one of the most respected professions in this new world. But as much as humanity survived, so did the zombies, and the world has been changed forever.

Via their popular news website, the Mason siblings have just learnt that they’ve been selected to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Ryman, a Republican who seems to have a genuine shot at being the country’s next leader. Following him across the country with their third member of the team, the technophile Buffy, they get to the heart of American politics and do their best to spread the truth about Ryman and his campaign to everyone else. Things start to unravel, however, when there’s a zombie outbreak at one of his conferences, and then another at his wife’s ranch, which ends up killing their daughter. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and late addition Rick are on-hand to find out what happened, but end up uncovering a lot more than they bargained for.

Most notably, I felt, Grant does something that almost no other zombie fiction seems to do – it acknowledges previous zombie fiction. It always struck me as strange in zombie films and books that no one seems to know how to handle these creatures, suggesting that George Romero, Simon Pegg and their like never produced any zombie fiction and, indeed, they never existed in the mythology either until that moment. Here, it’s stated that George Romero is considered an international hero, as his movies allowed everyone to have the upper hand when zombies appeared. There are a few twists on the nature of the disease too. Grant goes into scientific detail about how the virus started and what it does to the body, and it’s noted that only people who died after the virus’s release reanimate, so there weren’t scenes of graveyards coming back to life, which probably allowed for the invasion not to lead to the end of the world. However, any mammal that weighs over forty pounds can be infected with the virus and become a problem. Because of this, most of the human population is now vegetarian, with it being unsafe to keep cows, sheep and pigs anymore. It also implies there are zombie whales roaming the oceans, which definitely needs exploring.

Grant’s worldbuilding is impressive. She takes into account how society would have to change with these events having happened, going into detail on hazard levels, cities that have been abandoned (the entire of Alaska is a no-go area now), how security and communication technology improved, what happened to religion, and most importantly how people’s view of the media changed. The reason that bloggers are now considered so worthy is that when the news broke, unofficial news blogs were already running information on how to defeat the zombies before the mainstream media were even admitting there was a problem. It has some rather prescient parallels to how the media is already being viewed, with many people seeming to get their news online instead, although not always from reputable sources. New slang is also introduced, such as dividing up the journalists into different factions; for example, Newsies report unbiased fact, and Irwins (named after the crocodile hunter, one presumes) like to get into the field and experience zombies up close.

However, Grant has a habit of getting bogged down in the minutia. It’s established very early on that security levels are ridiculously high, with blood tests and retinal scans being compulsory to enter any building, and often to leave them too. However, there are frequently long, slightly repetitive passages going into detail on all these scans and checks, despite the fact we’ve seen them all only a few pages before. Some of the dialogue is repetitive and phrases occur over and over again, such as Shaun always being described as liking to poke things with sticks. I also panicked towards the end that Grant was going to whip out a dues ex machina and make me want to drop the book into the water butt, but it was handled with such deft aplomb that I almost found myself applauding her.

Impressively for a zombie tale, the zombies don’t even feel like a major plot point. Very rarely do we have the protagonists dealing with them first hand; they’re merely part of this world, but one you forget at your own risk. It’s nicely done in that it’s not over the top, and the main story is really the presidential election, with themes embedded that we can totally understand. While it definitely has its problems, they aren’t related to plot at all, and it’s an inventive, exciting and really rather impressive introduction to what may well prove to be an engaging series.

“Perfect Murder” by Bernard Taylor and Stephen Knight (1987)

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murder book“It is often said that perfect murders are those of which the perpetrators remain undetected – or at least unconvicted.”

Murder is entertaining. I’ve said it again and again and again. Some people would think I enjoyed it a little too much, or maybe took too much of a practical interest in the activity. Those people need to provide evidence to back up such defamatory statements. And I’ve been very careful so far. As careful, in fact, as the murderers in this book.

A murder mystery is at its most satisfying when we get the answer. Readers of mysteries actually don’t like mystery, they like that there are solutions and they like it when everything comes together. Fiction, however, is much neater than real life because real life doesn’t have to make sense. In this book we discover the stories of seven murders from the last one hundred or so years that have still not been solved, and indeed probably now never will be. Taylor and Knight have done their research to find out what they know, give us all the evidence and drawn their own conclusions, inviting us to do the same.

There’s the strange death of William Saunders, found face down in a muddy pond; the disappearance of Georgina Moore, in which a neighbour is implicated but never convicted; the sad story of the Luard family, each of whom died in tragic circumstances; the murder of Weldon Atherstone, unrecognised by his own son after death; the infamous Brighton Trunk Murder where Tony Mancini was accused of killing his girlfriend; the spooky demise of Charles Walton whose death is believed to have been linked to witchcraft and the sight of a ghostly black dog; and the brutal killing of Helen Davidson, found in a forest with her face caved in and her dog faithfully watching over her. In every case, the murderer got away with it.

Although it’s a good premise and the authors have absolutely done astounding levels of research to bring us every possible detail about the deaths and subsequent trials, it is because of that that it seems a little dry in places. The two longest stories – those of Moore and Luard – tend to drag a little, repeating themselves and ensuring that everything is recorded as accurately as possible. This is fascinating, and allows us, as I said, to make our own decisions on what really happened. At the end of the each story – some written by Taylor, some by Knight – the writer shares his own theories, making use of evidence that came up years later and studying the known facts at the time to work out what really happened.

My personal favourite is the very short and snappy, but utterly captivating, witchcraft-centric murder of Charles Walton, although special note has to go to the Tony Mancini story which has a twist worthy of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. It’s an eye-opening read and a brief glimpse into the many, many murders that remain unsolved, as well as a stark reminder that unconvicted murderers walk among us – you never know who it could be…

“One Hundred Names” by Cecelia Ahern (2012)

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100 names“She was nicknamed The Graveyard.”

I’ve never much been a fan of the term “chick lit”. It seems disparaging, as if its trying to do down a whole genre of fiction. I’m also not going to defend it as a brilliant genre, but it definitely has its examples of good writing; Lisa Jewell and Alexandra Potter both do it very well. Cecelia Ahern became well-known when her debut novel, P.S. I Love You, stormed the charts and went on to become a successful film, but it always sounded too mushy for me. However, the blurb of this book intrigued me so I went for it and, frankly, I came out disappointed.

In this book, we meet Kitty Logan, a journalist whose professional and personal lives are falling apart around her. She has become embroiled in a scandal after accusing a school caretaker of sexually abusing two students live on national television. This was a scandal because she was wrong. Now with the court case over, she is trying to piece together her reputation once more. Constance Dubois, her friend and magazine editor, is dying of cancer, and she and Kitty talk about the stories she never got to run. Constance says there is one left, and she’ll pass it onto Kitty. If Kitty brings the envelope in Constance’s filing cabinet to the hospital, she’ll explain everything.

Kitty finds it but before she can make it back, Constance dies. Now the magazine wants to run a tribute and Kitty is determined to write this story for Constance. But inside the envelope there is no story – there is just a list of one hundred names. Kitty now has just over a week to track down everyone on the list, find out what Constance wanted to talk to them about, and save her reputation. Her journey introduces her to a strange assortment of characters, including a convicted prisoner who can hear prayers, a butterfly expert with a fear of people, and two very enthusiastic men with a pedalo.

Many of these sorts of books run to a formula and this one is no exception. Sure, some of the secondary characters are quite interesting but one of the most interesting of all is Constance who dies pretty soon into the novel. Kitty makes for a singularly unpleasant and unsympathetic protagonist. I get that we’re supposed to see her redemptive arc and how she’s struggling to bring herself to apologise to the man whose life she ruined, but frankly I didn’t care. Fictional or not, what she had done was beyond the pail, and I couldn’t bring myself to forgive her and consider her a decent person. For much of the novel, she’s also incredibly selfish, only apparently concerned about how her mistake has come to affect her own life, rather than the life of the man whose reputation she has dragged through the mud. Even when she reveals all about her hardships to an old college friend who is now a journalist too and promptly splashes her “exclusive story” across the tabloids is it hard to feel any real pity for her.

While I get that introducing the one hundred characters on Constance’s list would be a massive undertaking and require a book many times this size, I found the actual number to be a complete cop-out. Of those hundred, we meet six. Oh sure, they’re interesting – more interesting than Kitty – but it still seems like there was a lot more potential here that just doesn’t come into play.

At the end, everything ties up far too neatly, with happy endings for pretty much everyone, but there are a couple of plot points that just never seem to properly get resolved. This book could’ve been so much better, but it failed to live up to the hype and the execution of an otherwise pretty good concept is somewhat shoddy. Shame, really.

“Scoop” by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

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Extra, extra, read all about it!

Extra, extra, read all about it!

“While still a young man, John Courteney Boot had, as his publisher proclaimed, ‘achieved an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters’.”

Back in the day, I thought about working in journalism for a bit. I have since done the odd bit of freelance here and there, but generally I find that it’s not an area that comes naturally to me. Besides, in these days of fearmongering, phone hacking, celebrity obsession and Rupert Murdoch, it’s not exactly an area that seems particularly pleasant sometimes. It all seemed to much more wholesome back in the thirties, so let’s go!

So, another classic book on the blog – a rarity for me, and my first one this year, but thankfully another one I happened to like. Scoop is a farce of a novel, reading like an early sitcom and definitely comedic. The story opens with John Boot, a popular novelist, telling his society friend Mrs Stitch that he longs to escape. She offers to put in a word for him with Lord Copper, editor of newspaper The Daily Beast, suggesting that maybe the Lord can get John out of the country and into something a bit more exciting.

However, when the discussion arises between Copper and his assistant Mr Salter, confusion begins. Already working on the Beast is William Boot, a distant relative of John and known only for writing articles about nature and having recently got in trouble with an article about crested grebes. Assuming that this is the Boot in question, Copper and Salter call him in and request he go immediately to East Africa where drama supposedly reigns supreme in the small country of Ishmaelia. There is a war going on and, while no one’s quite sure what it’s about or who they want to win, every other newspaper is sending a reporter, so the Beast must do the same. William would rather stay at home and live his quiet life at Boot Magna, but no one argues with Lord Copper, and after some issues with the passports and luggage, William finds himself in the middle of Africa, not knowing the first thing about foreign reporting. And then the revolution happens.

For a book written nearly eighty years ago, I was surprised not only by how funny it was, but also by how relevant it still seems. The journalists are seen as ruthless and quite happy to make up a story if there isn’t one to be had. There’s the fun idea that if enough journalists descend on a place where nothing is happening to report on it, their mere presence will cause something to happen. It’s a good classic case of mistaken identity that couldn’t happen in the modern world (you’d think) and Waugh clearly revels in mocking journalists and indeed the English. William Boot is a classic Englishman in the manner that something has happened that he didn’t expect, but rather than cause a fuss, he’s just keeping a stiff upper lip and getting on with it.

Some of the secondary characters don’t appeal to me much or seem to add anything particularly vital to the narrative. William falls for a German woman while in Ishmaelia, but her existence seems only really to give him something to do while waiting for the news to break. The way that the country of Ishmaelia changes leaders so quickly and repeatedly is a parody of how great world powers fought over (what were to them) new lands, all trying to do what they thought was right, regardless of what the natives thought.

The language is fast and witty, as particularly displayed in this passage where Mr Salter attempts to explain to William how he is to tell the difference between the two factions in the war, the Reds and the Blacks:

You see, they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you. But from your point of view it will be quite simple. Lord Copper only wants Patriot victories and both sides call themselves patriots, and of course both sides will claim all the victories. But, of course, it’s really a war between Russia and Germany and Italy and Japan who are all against one another on the patriotic side. I hope I make myself plain?

It’s a quick read, and while not laugh-out-loud funny, is certainly capable of making you smile and have a little chuckle at the British, the way we handle ourselves abroad, and the manner in which we conduct our journalism. Like I say, while some things have certainly changed, a lot is still deeply familiar.

For my take on modern day journalism (with the necessary addition of old gods and lots of cannibalism), download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from all online ebook retailers.

“The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson (2011)

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Psychopath-Test

Get ready to suspect everyone…

“This is a story about madness.”

I’ve never read Jon Ronson before but his reputation naturally has not escaped my attention. He’s famous for his previous books Them (a look at society’s extremists) and the curiously titled book The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was later turned into a film. He is skilled at finding the most bizarre sections of our culture and turning the microscope to them.

The Psychopath Test is billed as “a journey through the madness industry”. I had never considered madness to be an industry particularly but given how many psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists, schizophrenics, psychopaths, sociopaths and Big Brother contestants there appear to be these days, I suppose it is. And once you’ve got the people out of the way, you get to find a list of all the mental disorders that seem to exist and you can be sure that you’ve got at least seven of them.

However, the book focusses are more on the aforementioned psychopaths and makes use of the eponymous Psychopath Test, a twenty point checklist that is used to diagnose people as psychopaths. It mentions several personality traits that are common among people who can be labelled as psychopaths, such as irresponsibility, glibness, manipulative, pathological lying and early behaviour problems. There is also always said to be a lack of empathy, being constantly detatched from horror in the real world.

Ronson interviews a collection of very colourful individuals, both those diagnosed with disorders and those who perform the diagnoses. There’s a young girl who died because she was being given pills to cure her of a mental disorder that she didn’t have. There are the Scientologists who believe that psychiatry is a complete waste of time. There’s the man who spends his free time posting out curious manuscripts to notable scientists. There’s the woman who was a guest-booker for television, ensuring that she people ready to appear on programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor who were just the right level of mad.

But two stories stand out. The first is the curious world of David Shayler. Click the link if you want a fuller picture of him but in short, he was an agent for MI5 who (among other things) failed to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi, was prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act and went on the run in France to escape trial. He was eventually brought to justice, and slowly appeared to be going mad. It is the latter part of his life that is central to this book. He began to claim that no planes had ever hit the Twin Towers, that the 7/7 bombings was an inside job and later informed the world that he was the Messiah. Ronson interviews him a few times to find out if he is a psychopath.

The other very powerful story is that of Tony who pretended to be insane to get out of a prison sentence and ended up stuck in Broadmoor for twelve years, unable to convince any of the staff that he was sane. It’s an incredibly amazing story of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” as everything he does is used as evidence of his madness.

It’s a good read for any armchair psychologist, and although there’s no big training session involved like Ronson goes on to become a psychopath-spotter, the full list of personality traits is included, as well as other ways to spot them. In fact, I even found myself relating to several points on the list. However, the book clearly states that if you are able to identify with the list, you aren’t a psychopath. How true that is, I don’t know.

Still, in the mean time you can begin to look at your neighbours in a new light.