“Dream London” by Tony Ballantyne (2013)

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“Crunch crunch crunch.”

Many of the world’s finest cities are built on grids: New York, Barcelona, San Francisco, Paris, parts of Edinburgh and much of Rome. London, however, is not quite like that. With so many dead ends, cut-throughs, alleys, curves and very little regulation regarding street naming, there’s a theory that it’s been built like that specifically to confuse tourists. Or maybe it’s just to slow down any army that returns to take its nations stuff back from the museums. Dream London take this to a whole new level, and as I’m really missing my visits to the capital this week, it seemed a good place to spend a little time.

Dream London is not the London we once knew. The city changes a little bit every night, and the people change a little every day. The parks have disappeared, the Thames is now an impassable mile-wide waterway, the towers are gaining new floors with alarming regularity, and you never know if you’ll wake up to find your house next to a pub or a train station, or even if your house still exists. No one knows why this is happening, and have even less idea of how to stop it. Enter, Captain Jim Wedderburn. A former soldier, he left the army and is now struggling to make ends meet in this twisted version of his old home. He looks after a cohort of prostitutes and does his best to keep out of trouble, but Dream London has a way of making you into someone new.

Wedderburn’s fame is large, and when two rival factions seek him out for help against one another, he finds himself torn in two. Does he follow the Cohort into the legendary Angel Tower, the thousand-storey skyscraper that seems to be the centre of the changes, or does he join Daddio Clarke and his army of captive followers who all possess eyes on their tongues and send foul-mouthed little girls in to do the dirty work? Elsewhere, Dream London has given Wedderburn his fortune and he learns that he will soon betray one of his friends, and another will betray him. There’s no escape, the parks are getting bigger – even if no one can access them – and something terrible is coming. But this is a city where nothing is ever the same two days running, so how on Earth can it ever be put back together?

With shades of Neverwhere and Jasper Fforde abounds, this is a riotous romp through a fictional London that still seems oddly familiar. This must be what it’s like to be a first-time visitor to the city, with roads and train stations that come and go as they please, an inconsistent skyline, and people everywhere only out for themselves. Dream London seems to slowly be sinking back into a place of Victorian values, where workhouses exist and women are relegated mostly to either selling sex or cleaning floors. It’s not a bad life for everyone, but it very much depends who you are. Ballantyne does amazing work at spinning this mythical city on the page and bringing it to life. The complications of trains that never take you where you want, least of all out of Dream London, the obsession with eggs of the people who live near the fabled Egg Market, and the astounding reveal of who is behind it all are strokes of genius.

One of my favourite inventions is the Angel Tower, which is hiring people to rewrite the laws of the universe. On the Writing Floor, whatever is written becomes fact and shifts the city into a new shape. Anything from here that then gets moved to the Contracts Floor is immutable and unchanging. The Numbers Floor is the most interesting, however. There are no prime numbers in Dream London, and so Wedderburn is hired to prove this. When looking at the numbers, his mind begins to be affected by the city and he realises that there are other numbers between the numbers we know. As of now, seventeen has always been two times green. This is beautifully followed with the chapter titles, which insert the colours (and one two occasions, mere sensations) into the running order. A madcap idea that is executed with true skill.

Sharp, interesting characters, a well-defined world, and some utterly believable silliness. What isn’t to love about this?

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!

“Crudo” by Olivia Laing (2018)

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“Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married today.”

I did the rare thing this week of giving up on a book that I wasn’t enjoying, and instead plunged headfirst into this novella about the end of the world.

It’s 2017 and Kathy is about to get married. She is worried, however, by the state of the world, with right wing governments taking office, the UK paralysed by Brexit, climate change is out of control, and anyone can lose everything with one wayward tweet. Nonetheless, she is determined to make her marriage work. Olivia Laing constructs a snapshot of a fleeting moment, capturing one hot, horrific summer in the early 21st century, as she asks if there is any point in learning to love when everything’s about to end.

The book is entirely set in 2017, and frequently mentions news stories of the time, with Kathy feeling the world is ending with every new story she hears. It’s only three years later that I’m reading it, and yet it seems like an entirely different world already. As the story progresses we see the world come to terms with the election of Trump, the President’s firing Bannon and Comey, the early repercussions of the Brexit vote begin to get felt, Jeremy Hunt denying trying to sell the NHS off, and the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire. Each seemed an earth-shattering story at the time, and while the fallout from each trundles on today, it’s remarkable to think how many tragedies we’ve been through in the last few years.

Kathy’s story, laced through these events, is one of falling love. A survivor of breast cancer, she has finally found someone she loves enough to get married at the age of forty, although we learn later that her husband is twenty-nine years older than her. It is believed that narrator is based on Kathy Acker, who is not someone I knew so I probably missed a good deal. Acker, however, died in 1997, so while our author here shares the same name and published books of identical titles, it isn’t the real one. This is obviously some literary allusion that went far above my head, although I don’t think it’s necessarily any worse for not understanding. The writing is too charged with emotion, juxtaposing falling in love with the fall of civilisation in one of the most tumultuous periods of recent history. Some of it stings a bit too close to home as the world around us becomes messier and madder and it makes you ask fundamental questions about why and how we bother carrying on as if there is some future we’ll be save in. I guess we just have hope there is.

The perfect novel to consume on a hot day, and a stark reminder of how quickly the world can change.

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!

“London’s Labyrinth” by Fiona Rule (2012)

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“My journey into London’s underground labyrinth began on a warm July afternoon, in the leafy communal gardens that lay behind the red-brick walls of a mansion block in west London.”

Since we currently can’t explore the real world, I am even more grateful for the existence of books. They not only allow you to explore places you may know well, but also those that you are less likely to be able to get access to – and I don’t just mean Hogwarts or Mars. It’s time to head to London and take a look at what’s going on beneath the surface.

Fiona Rule takes us on a journey beneath London’s facade to explore the world beneath. It’s a tour through the enormous and efficient sewers created by Joseph Bazalgette (which still function as well today as they did in the 1800s), the birth of the world’s first underground railway, and the secret bunkers that held the government during the bombings of the world wars. Along the way we learn how the Tube led to the creation of the British Transport Police, the worst acts of terrorism ever committed on the network, why there are so many abandoned government offices, and see the use of the tube stations as bomb shelters.

My dad is somewhat preoccupied with the question of why, given we’ve excavated so much of London’s sub-surface, the city hasn’t just fallen in on itself, and I increasingly see his point. It seems remarkable today that there was ever a time when we weren’t using the area under any of our cities, but now London is propped up above miles upon miles of tunnels, ferrying trains, people, electric cables, sewage, and even rivers across the metropolis. Rule takes us to bits of the capital that we never see, explaining with a simple, if occasionally dry, touch how this subterranean world works. I like to think I know a lot about this sort of thing, but I had no idea that Bazalgette was building his sewers at the same time as the District Line was trying to be installed, and everyone spent the best part of a decade in each other’s way, as great piles of soil blocked busy streets and routes had to be altered to accommodate both projects.

Elsewhere, we learn about some of the worst accidents that ever occurred underneath London, including the 7/7 bombings, the fire at King’s Cross Station, the crash at Moorgate station, and the death of many trying to build Brunel’s tunnels under the Thames. We discover the Post Office Railway, which transported everyone’s letters and parcels across the city until 2003, and the legendary Necropolis Railway, which took coffins and mourners out to a cemetery on the edge of the city when everything got too crowded within the border.

It’s a fascinating look at a world that most of us take for granted and only see a small portion of.

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!

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (2018)

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“If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.”

A national lock down seems like the right time to get through some of the larger hardbacks on my shelf while I haven’t got to be carrying them around. As such, we come at last to the fourth part of the Strike series, Lethal White. It turned out that aside from the last couple of pages and one or two smaller plot points, I had all but entirely forgotten everything that had happened in Career of Evil. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know that much, as very quickly we’re plunged into a brand new case which leaves you almost unable to put the book down. There are also some spoilers ahead for the previous books, so that’s your final warning.

Robin and Matthew have just tied the knot, but within minutes of the vows being said it seems that that knot is strained. When Robin realises that Matthew deleted some messages from Strike from her phone, she loses a great deal of trust and respect for him, but for the sake of their families, they go ahead with the honeymoon. A year later, their marriage isn’t in much a better position, but there are other things to worry about now. Following the high media attention that Strike and Robin received after finding the Shacklewell Ripper, Strike has fewer money worries and can hire some more detectives, but is less able to be covert himself. A problem falls in in his lap, however, when Billy, a mentally disturbed young man, bursts into his office and tells him he once witnessed a murder. Before Strike can find out anymore, Billy bolts in a panic.

Thus the case begins. Using what scant knowledge he has, Strike finds himself going from the very poorest corners of London to the highest echelons, where Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, has asked him to step in and find out something about Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport, who is blackmailing Chiswell. Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament and begins to get to know the Chiswell family and the people around it. Strike meanwhile is keeping tabs on Billy’s brother Jimmy, an anarchist who is currently protesting the damage done to London by the upcoming Olympic Games. When these two cases collide, it spells a fatal end for one of Strike’s clients. He and Robin now need to work out who is keeping secrets, because someone knows more than they’re letting on, and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it.

Rowling, despite her flaws, has always had a knack for characters and really has a good handle on how mysteries should work. It’s been said before, but several of the Potter books are basically just murder mysteries and it’s never been a surprise that she went into crime once she’d finished those. As with all the best mysteries too, it’s all there for you to solve, but I admit I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Rowling excels once more at keeping a complicated and twisted plot together and the book’s length seems almost justified. There’s a stark realism to the books that is thoroughly captivating. It’s also a prolonged study into the class system, showing the working classes being brushed aside and left to struggle, with the wealthy repeatedly showcase their belief that the world is there solely to bend to their will. Divisions are hugely prevalent, as are the themes of pairs and partnerships. Rowling is, really, quite a skilled writer, and becoming increasingly brilliant.

I remain disappointed by the inclusion of the romantic sub-plot, though. I’ve no problem with Robin or Strike being in relationships, as indeed they are, but the constant nods to the fact that they might be falling in love with each other are non-essential. The story works perfectly well without adding in the further tension to their relationship that it might be more than professional. The relationship, nonetheless, feels real and well-painted. As ever with Rowling, the characters are solid and real, each with depth and perfectly-fitting names. Strike is still one of the most interesting detectives of recent years, and Robin is aptly named as his competent sidekick who this time round gains a new strength that we had already seen coming to the forefront. She is determined and forceful and I adore spending time with her.

Another excellent addition to the series. I read this week that Rowling has plans for “at least ten more”. I’m not sure I have space on my bookshelf (or the upper arm strength) for them, but if the quality stays this good, I’ll do my best to try.

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 a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Carry On, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse (1925)

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“Now, touching this business of old Jeeves – my man, you know – how do we stand?”

Literature is full of iconic pairings. Benedick and Beatrice, Elizabeth and Darcy, Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Thursday and Landen – all of them at their best when with one another. Jeeves and Wooster, however, are a cut above the others, having a symbiotic relationship that is for all time. It’s not a romance, and it’s not even really a friendship – this is a relationship drawn on professional lines – yet they stand together with loyalty and respect nonetheless.

Here are ten early stories about one of fiction’s greatest pairings, starting with the moment Jeeves walks into Bertie’s life and cures his hangover with a drink of his own invention. From that moment on, Bertie cannot live without Jeeves. Throughout these stories, Bertie finds himself in many a pickle, as do many of his friends including Sippy, Bingo, Bicky and Corky, and with little intellect of their own, they must routinely ask Jeeves for help. Jeeves, to his credit, always knows what to do and can always solve the problem thanks to his intelligence, wisdom, and a huge number of contacts with whom he is always in communication with. There are, as ever, a huge collection of overbearing aunts and dangerous misunderstandings in here too, and we even get to see Bertie out of his native England, with some the stories taking place in New York and one in Paris.

The collection also contains “Bertie Changes His Mind”, the only time that Jeeves himself narrates the story. It’s really funny to see things from the other side, as we get to see Jeeves as not just being an almost supernaturally good valet, but actually being incredibly manipulative, if always for a good cause. He does seem to genuinely like Bertie, and his actions are always for his own good, whether that be discouraging him from taking in children to liven up the house, or getting rid of his purple socks.

As ever, the stories are charmingly hilarious and while Bertie would probably begin to grate after a while if I knew him in real life, on the page he’s a delight. Completely able to accept that he’s a bit of a “chump” and lacking in imagination and brain power, he knows that he wouldn’t be able to cope without Jeeves. In one story, he finds himself without him for a while and realises that some men don’t have a “gentleman’s gentleman”. He genuinely can’t see how they could manage.

Jeeves and Wooster are a dynamite pairing, and each would be lost without the other. I’m still fairly new to the series and am enjoying dipping in to the back catalogue, but they are books to be enjoyed sparingly like a good glass of port at the end of the day, not knocked back like cheap vodka shots. Wodehouse is one of the few writers that can make me genuinely laugh out loud, and it’s always a delight to spend some time in the company of his characters.

Blissfully silly stuff.

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 a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

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“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

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 take a look!

“Kismet” by Luke Tredget (2018)

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“The bus to Kilburn is a long time coming, and while waiting Anna looks back and forth between two versions of the Edgware Road, the real and the digital.”

As the chronically single member of my friendship group, I’m the only one who has much experience with dating apps. Most of the people I know seemed to get in just in time and settled down before they could download. I’m not particularly a fan though, as it’s often difficult to maintain a conversation with someone when there’s no need to reply immediately and you can project whatever version of yourself on there you like. There’s no denying, however, that they have changed the dating landscape forever, and some people seem to become obsessed with them. Luke Tredget’s book, therefore, is very timely.

Anna is having a bit of a crisis. While her career is going from strength-to-strength, and she’s got a great boyfriend in Pete, her thirtieth birthday is inching ever closer, and she begins to doubt whether she’s really got what she wanted. Intrigued, she downloads Kismet, a dating app that matches you to people nearby, but to her dismay she finds that the app has been so successful in the last few years that there are barely any single people left. That is, until she meets Geoff. He’s quite a bit older than her and, while handsome, she wouldn’t normally consider him dating material, but Kismet has given them a match of 81, which is extraordinarily high.

She starts to question everything, not least her relationship with Pete which Kismet rates at 70. Surely if there’s an option to do better, she should take it? She’s become all the more nervous because she’s accidentally discovered that Pete is going to propose after her birthday dinner and she isn’t sure she’s ready for that yet. As she looks at her life and all the things she’s yet to do, the stability of everything crumbles around her, all for the sake of a simple number on a screen.

The cover quote says that this is the book equivalent of Fleabag, which is true in that it’s about a not particularly likeable woman showing agency regarding her sex life, but I would say otherwise that it’s not quite the same thing. It is, however, a hugely important book for the zeitgeist. We are so used to algorithms now telling us what we should like, do and be, that even when it comes to love we’re happy to pass over responsibility to an artificial intelligence that thinks we’re compatible with someone just because we’ve watched the same TV show. You only need to spend five minutes on a dating app to know that these numbers are mostly meaningless. For example, I just checked my rarely-used OK Cupid profile and have a 91% match with a girl, but the entirety of her profile is a single “I’ll fill this in later” and it seems to therefore be based on the fact we both think Paris is more romantic than a camping holiday, and an aversion to horror movies. Hardly enough to make me drop everything and run off to find her.

The book is a romance, but not many of the old cliches are in evidence, which is nice. Rather than being desperate to settle down with her partner, Anna is scared by the commitment of marriage, and the mistakes she makes with her job are not part of her “ditzy but charming personality”, but rather quite serious and have actual consequences. While superficially, she and Geoff are a good match, Tredget does a good job at dismantling the notion that we are better off with someone just because it’s better on paper. It doesn’t account for everything, as there are some things that even Amazon and Facebook don’t know for sure about us. Kismet is shown as a particularly advanced app, but with a lot of secrecy embedded into its functionality, and it works on a whole other level to Tinder and its kin, suggesting this is a slightly altered version of our world where technology has developed a little faster. The app is spooky, but the world seems obsessed by it, as Anna is frequently seeing news stories and adverts for it, implying it is a hugely influential piece of tech.

I enjoyed the book because it toys with that notion of finding “the one” and how we’re all imperfect people trying to find perfection. Tinder only works because you can swipe left with few consequences, as another face will be along in the blink of an eye. How many people have you rejected on dating apps that you’d probably actually have quite a good time with? Kismet makes the reader face up to the idea of being happy with what you’ve got, rather than constantly striving for something that you think will be better, regardless of whether or not it actually is.

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 take a look!

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