“A Book Of Book Lists” by Alex Johnson (2017)

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“This is a book of book lists.”

I never really understood that cliche of making a habit of looking in someone’s medicine cabinet when you first visit their house. What I do believe in studying, however, is people’s bookshelves. You can tell a lot about people by what books they own, and sometimes even more by how they’re arranged, how well-thumbed they are, and what sort of topics take centre stage. And as John Waters said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Sage advice.

In this book, Alex Johnson explores the bookshelves of the rich and famous, as well as taking a look at lists of books in other unusual situations. Have you ever wondered what books line the shelves in the apartment in The Big Bang Theory? Do you know which books are allowed into Guantanamo Bay’s library? Have you ever wanted to peek at the libraries of Richard III, Marilyn Monroe or Osama bin Laden? What books are on the university reading list if you study English in Mississippi? If these sound like questions you want answers to, then this is the book for you. Combining simple lists and beautifully impressive trivia, Johnson takes us on a journey through some of the most unusual libraries in history, from the mythical Library of Babel, to the books that were burnt by the Nazis.

He also tackles more eclectic lists, delving into the world of books more generally. One list gives all the titles that Ernest Hemingway rejected before settling on A Farewell to Arms. Another tells us what the astronauts on the ISS have at their disposal. Elsewhere, we look at the books already declared “future classics” and even which titles line the shelves of countless Billy bookshelves in IKEA stores across the globe. One of the most interesting topics is that of the Future Library, a collection of never-before-published stories that are being kept in a vault to be opened in 2114. Authors are asked to contribute a new piece that won’t be seen until the next century. Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell were the first to contribute, and every year a new literary figure is picked. It makes me kind of sad that, barring some remarkable advances in science, I won’t be around to see them. (In 2114, I would be 126, so don’t think I’m suggesting an early death.)

Quite silly, but also an insight into the history of literature and the books we love, this is definitely one for any bibliophile to consume. It may even inspire you to expand your own shelves. After all, what do yours say about you right now?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2015)

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“4 Conflicting Parts of Himself Darren Jacobs Attempts to Ignore as He Tries to Ask a Particular Eleventh-Grade Girl for a Really Big Favor on Friday, April 25, at 10:38 a.m.”

I’m one of those people who loves lists. I write lists for everything – books I’ve read, films I need to watch, things to buy, errands to run. I’m also one of those who adds things to lists just to cross them off to make myself look productive. Every list I write begins “Write list”, simply so I can cross that off immediately. However, I can’t say that it had ever crossed my mind to write a novel entirely in lists. It’s too late now anyway – Todd Hasak-Lowy has beaten me to it.

Darren Jacobs is your average, awkward fifteen-year-old living in Chicago. He’s had a terrible year, with his parents divorcing, his brother moving away to university, and his best friend leaving the state. He’s also still hopelessly single. Things reach a head when Darren learns that the reason for his parents divorce is that his father is gay. Unwilling to deal with the fallout, or put up with the long drive to Ann Arbor to visit his brother Nate with his dad, Darren instead approaches one of the cool girls at school, Zoey Lovell, and asks if she’ll give him a ride to the bus station so he can go alone.

It’s only when the bus stops along the route that Darren discovers Zoey came along too, and the two unlikely companions find themselves with Darren’s cool brother Nate exploring the drug-laden world of university. Darren isn’t sure if Zoey is now is girlfriend, or even if she wants to be, and when she disappears, he starts to wonder if any of it ever happened. That one daring weekend, however, will have consequences for everyone that make it clear it really unfolded…

Were it not for the unique style of this novel, I think I would have been far less generous in my thoughts about it. Without the structure of everything being written in lists, it’s your classic “awkward American teenager meets a manic pixie dream girl and joins a band” sort of thing, although not without charm. Zoey doesn’t interest me much as we’ve seen her type too many times before, but I am fond of the Jacobs family, particularly Nate, the older brother. Yes, he’s something of a cliche too, but I find him and his relationship with Darren particularly engaging. I can’t recall off the top of my head many stories that focus on sibling relationships – and even fewer on positive ones – so that makes a nice change.

The novel’s real charm, of course, comes from the unique trait of it being written solely in lists. They run the gamut of listing emotions, memories, dialogue and reasons for things happening to simply rings of a telephone, fingers, letters and items in a bag. One page simply has “5 Months That Have Passed” and listing them, rather than just saying “Five months passed…”, another lists “8 Best Things Darren Ever Built out of Legos, in Chronological Order”. In this style, we jump back and forth through the timeline and learn about Darren and his world in an interesting, if somewhat academic way. It’s very easy to read though, and while I’m not sure it would work for most genres or stories, it fits perfectly here. The lists themselves are not referenced until towards the end when there is a comment about whether the lists we give ourselves in life are good or bad, so even though the book is entirely lists, they never feel intrusive.

An intriguing take on story structure that saves and enhances a tale we’ve, admittedly, probably read before.