“Concrete Island” by J. G. Ballard (1974)

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“Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.”

They say that no man is an island (except for the Isle of Man, of course), but even in this world that is more connected than it has ever been, it’s still possible to feel alone, surrounded by people who don’t understand you or maybe don’t even notice you’re there. Coming from an island nation myself, I do wonder if all that living apart does something to a society’s psyche. Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Cuba … they often have some of the most interesting and unique histories. But we’re not here to talk about natural islands – this one is entirely man made.

Robert Maitland is driving out of London at just over seventy miles an hour when his front tyre blows out and his car smashes through a crash barrier and down into a patch of grass, ignored by every motorist who passes by on the three motorways surrounding it. He manages to pry himself from his Jaguar and clambers back up the embankment, hoping that he’ll get picked up. But there’s nowhere here to stop, or at least no one willing to do so. Still in shock, he considers making a break for it, but he’s hit by a car before he has a chance and tumbles back down onto the traffic island, cut off some his old life – his wife, his mistress, his job, his friends… Now he is a resident of this concrete island and he needs to work out how to get off. Will he end up here forever? And is he even the first person to have made it onto this forgotten land?

An allegory for how we’re all really, at the end of the day, on our own, and selfishness remains an endemic problem of humanity (unless I’m entirely missing the point), the novella sees Ballard deal with the constraint of having all of his action take place in one very small area. With very little dialogue, Ballard is tied to letting the world tell the story. Maitland initially seems to have very limited resources, but I do feel that there’s a cheat when he discovers the remains of the buildings that used to stand here and finds that some of the basements are still in working order. In fact, the whole island itself is much larger than I had gathered from the premise, which again feels like a cheat.

There’s little characterisation for Maitland, too, and we never really find out all that much about him, save the facts he’s a rich businessman and has two women in his life who may or may not be aware of one another. A lot is left vague, and actually some of that works, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for him. The premise as a whole is a little far fetched, too. I’m not against a weird plot – not by any means – but it’s hard to believe that not a single person sees him down there. Even if they thought he was a tramp, surely a police car or concerned motorist would double check? Ballard is at pains to make sure Maitland can’t just walk across the empty roads at night by giving him an injury, and like the island and its surrounding roads, it all feels a little too artificial.

Robinson Crusoe for the modern era – a weird story with some interesting ideas behind it.

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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“Bats In The Belfry” by E. C. R. Lorac (1937)

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“As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort!”

My re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue is almost upon us, and I’ll be kicking off with it as soon as 2019 rolls around. For now though, I turn to another writer from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a woman who has almost entirely been forgotten until the British Library dug her up again for reissue – E. C. R. Lorac.

At the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s cousin, talk naturally turns macabre between some of the guests. Young Elizabeth Leigh comments that there’s a game she’s played at her club – they take turns to suggest the best way to hide a dead body. Everyone seems content to join in, not taking it very seriously, but apparently all keen to share their theories. A short time later, Bruce is called away to France on urgent business, it seems that that’s the last anybody sees of him.

But then his suitcase and passport show up in a crumbling Notting Hill artist’s studio. There’s still no sign of Bruce himself, but there are many secrets that seem to be surrounding him. His friend Neil Rockingham was meant to see him in France, but he never turned up. Bruce was once a respected novelist, but has fallen on hard times, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of his actress wife Sybilla. His young charge, Elizabeth, would love to be married to Robert Grenville, but it’s yet to be allowed. And then there’s the difficult issue of the strange artist Debrette, who might just have been blackmailing our missing man. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is put on the case and begins to learn more about the Belfry and quite who had the most cause to see Bruce Attleton disappear…

This novel, like apparently all of Lorac’s work (her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) slipped through the cracks of literary history but it’s no sad thing that she’s been rediscovered for the modern era. While her characters don’t particularly stand out as greats of the genre, they’re distinct from one another, and Inspector Macdonald is a very fine policeman and a man I would trust wholeheartedly. Other characterisation is still quite clever though, making use of tropes and ideas that perhaps a lesser author would have done something obvious with. Debrette, for example, has an enormous and distinctive beard, which would be quite useful as a disguise should someone be pretending to be him. But are they?

Actually, it’s London itself that sticks out most of all. It’s a very real version of the city in the thirties, with thick fog and people hidden round every corner. Not much has changed in eighty years in fact, as best indicated when Macdonald makes a comment that it’s quicker to walk through London than take a bus during rush hour.

A fairly good example of the genre, with the clues neatly seeded and all there for you if you’re paying attention – the early conversation about how best to dispose of a body becomes particularly prescient – and one that I’m pleased the British Library has dug up from the archives. Long may they continue to do so.

“The Third Wheel” by Michael J. Ritchie (2019)

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“The room is perhaps eight feet square.”

Back in 2014, I published a novel. Now, I’ve done it again. There is no stranger feeling that seeing something you created for sale out in the world, but last time it was just an e-book. This time round, I’ve gone full paperback, and that’s truly bizarre, to be able to hold the physical copy of something that for a long time just existed in your head. This post obviously isn’t quite a review, but to keep the format, here’s what The Third Wheel is about.

Dexter is fed up. All of his friends are getting married, settling down, moving in together and growing up, and he’s being left behind with no one to hold hands with and only his ginger tom, The Great Catsby, for company. It’s not that he’s jealous of their relationships, it’s just that he thinks there’s more to life than wrapping yourself up with one other person for eternity.

But after a wedding that ends in drunken disaster, Dexter’s world – and everyone else’s, come to that – is shaken when aliens make first contact. Now faced with the prospect of imminent destruction and no practical skills whatsoever, Dexter and his friends, including sunshine optimist Ruby, science fiction geeks Jay and Kay, hard-nosed pragmatist Priti, and no-nonsense Gavin, set out on a mission to survive in this new world.

So I’m not actually going to review a book I wrote, but I’m afraid I am going to talk about it and why you should buy it for a little bit. I’m hoping that it’s something really different, as I’ve become somewhat tired of the entertainment market being saturated with remakes and retellings of the same stories. I’m not claiming that I’ve invented something brand new here – a first contact story is hardly unique – but I’ve tried to make something that doesn’t follow traditional rules. I’ve subverted the notion that science fiction always seems to have heroes who somehow possess just the right skills and knowledge.

Mostly, however, I’ve done away with the romantic subplot. This is one of my biggest bugbears about modern media – the insistence that no matter the genre or plot, there always has to be a romance somewhere in it, often detracting from the main story or simply weakening it. That was actually the original seed of the novel – a story in which a romantic subplot wasn’t possible. I confess that your opinion may vary as to whether I’ve been entirely successful in this aim, but hopefully I’ve subverted it and played with the trope enough for you to accept that this is a rare book in that respect. I’ve attempted to write about friendships, as I think truly that platonic relationships get a hard rap in fiction and we don’t get to read enough about them. Like Dexter, I don’t believe that we’re all destined to find “the one”, and I struggle with society’s insistence that we all belong in pairs. I’m a full person by myself, and so is Dexter. On the other hand, I hope that the novel doesn’t seem to be an attack on romantic relationships. I’m a fan, of course, I just don’t think they’re for everyone.

The novel is a curious blend of typically English humour and dark scenarios, but I think they mix well together and allow for a deep novel packed with emotional punches. I’ve done my best to create a large cast of unique personalities so that you find yourself rooting for everyone, but accepting that none of them are perfect. Dexter is perhaps something of an unreliable narrator, but that plays in to the theme I had of life never giving you all the answers. Yes, you almost certainly will have questions by the end about things that don’t get cleared up, but like life, it’s messy. However, if you want a few answered, read on past the acknowledgements for a few bonus chapters that fill in some of the gaps, showing scenes that occurred when Dexter wasn’t around to narrate.

If you want to pre-order the book prior to its release on January 17th 2019, you can do so at Amazon or Waterstones, and doing so will give them an indication of demand, so it would really help me if you could. It is available as both a paperback and an e-book. I really hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please let people know on social media and use the hashtag #TheThirdWheel to spread the word. If you’re not already, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more information.

Right, better get on with the next one.

“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.

“Ivy & Abe” by Elizabeth Enfield (2017)

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“I’m aware of him looking at me.”

Most, if not all, of us spend parts of life wondering “what if…”. We think about how different our lives would have been if we’d gone to different universities, met different friends, or made different choices. Perhaps one of the most pressing of these questions focuses on the nature of soulmates. If there is one person out there for each of us, then does it matter when we meet them? Elizabeth Enfield takes a look at this premise in the sweetly moving Ivy & Abe.

Ivy Trent and Abe McFadden are soulmates, that much is clear, but is there a right time to meet them? Told from vignettes of Ivy’s life, this novel recreates their first meeting over and over again, every time at a different age and in a different situation. From 1965 to 2032, there are several versions of how they met. Perhaps it was when Ivy was widowed and not much looking forward to a future alone. Maybe they met as teenagers on a French holiday. Maybe they were both already married to other people, and didn’t expect the affair. Or perhaps they meet just fleetingly, for five minutes, and nothing ever happens.

This is a charming book, with an awful lot of heart. Ivy and Abe are both beautiful creations and it is fascinating to see their lives play out in numerous ways. I found myself every time hoping that this would be the right timeline, but they don’t always end in happiness. It seems that there really is a “right time” to go along with the “right person”. Ivy and Abe’s relationship is pretty much always, for the most part, loving, at least. Abe is a classic gentleman, and Ivy is very sweet. Both of them, in every timeline, have hardships to deal with that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Ivy’s mother, for example, is chronically ill, and her early death casts a shadow over her later life, and this in turn will also affect how Abe fits into her puzzle.

Despite all the timelines being separate, there are a few overlapping themes in them. Ivy and Abe both end up in the same careers, both suffer great tragedy, and they are always nice people. To tie them together, though, there is often a mention of déjà vu, and a frequent recurring element is a lorry containing hay bales and someone being concerned that they don’t look safe. Sometimes this concern is justified and relevant; other times it’s just mentioned in passing.

I was curiously struck by a note in it that resonated in this week’s return of Doctor Who. Our new Doctor, played wonderfully by Jodie Whittaker, gave a speech in the first episode of the series about how, as people, we evolve and change over time, never forgetting who we were, but not feeling tied to being that person for our whole lives. This is definitely a theme in this book, as the characters are slightly different people at different ages, and circumstances around them perhaps make them do things that other version wouldn’t have done. Like it or not, we are – at least partly  – products of circumstance and environment.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of the book, lest I give away some of the sweeter moments, but it’s definitely one worth reading and Enfield is one to watch. She creates rich characters in a detailed world that makes itself clear that this is our world, with a number of scenes set around important times and trends of the era she’s dealing with.

I like a book that makes you think, and this one will leave you pondering about your life for some time.

“13 Dates” by Matt Dunn (2017)

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“I fall in love with Angel the moment I see her.”

Romantic fiction has long been considered the realm of women, with people like Helen Fielding and Sophie Kinsella dominating the field. However, there are a good number of men doing their best to prop up the genre with novels from the points of view of the male characters, and often with great aplomb. Mike Gayle might be the best of the bunch, but Matt Dunn also does a good job, and I return to him again this week.

Noah Wilson has just met Angel Fallon in his local Starbucks and instantly fallen in love with her red hair, wry smile, and love of spontaneity. Unfortunately, in meeting her, he’s now found himself late for a blind date. He decides he doesn’t care and desperately wants to see Angel again, but can’t seem to track her down anywhere in Richmond. His friend Marlon helps him seek her out, with the advice that it takes thirteen dates to realise if you love someone. If Noah can just get those next twelve dates, then his future is secured – right?

The journey to true love never did run smooth though, and while Noah does manage to find Angel again, before he can confirm whether the two of them are destined for one another, they’ve first got to combat horses, jellied eels, a rock climbing instructor and more parkruns than are probably healthy. But will thirteen prove to be lucky for some?

At first, I was somewhat disappointed that it was simply a case of “awkward man meets manic pixie dream girl and she changes his life”, and while some of that is true about the story, it’s actually much more than that. Seemingly predictable, Dunn has a curious way of pulling the rug out from under you just as you think you’ve settled into the story, he changes tack and introduces something else. Some of them are somewhat cliched and contrived – but I’ve always been someone who quite likes a well-used cliche – but the story works as a whole. I can see how Angel would grate for some people though. As I mentioned above, she does fit the “manic pixie dream girl” type (and if you don’t know what that term means, think Zooey Deschanel in every film role she’s ever had) and even her name (Angel Fallon / fallen angel) feels a tad ridiculous. She’s not someone I would particularly care to meet, but then again I’m more like Noah in that I like to have a plan.

Despite my minor griping, I’ve got to fall down on the side of liking the book because it’s very funny. Dunn makes good use of awkward characters and situations, misunderstandings and people stuck in situations they really don’t want to be in. I particularly enjoy that every single person the main characters come up against who works in a public-facing role has already reached their daily quota of how much bullshit they’re willing to put up with from customers and clients, and as someone who has worked in customer services for a decade, it’s a position I strongly sympathise with. Another great line is when Noah’s elderly landlady is trying to think of the word Dignitas, she asks Noah for the name of that place where all the old people go, and he responds, “Eastbourne?” Even the minor characters get some good lines here, and the world feels richly populated somehow, even though we only meet a very few of the people in either Noah or Angel’s circles.

An interesting and funny take on the road to love. I remain convinced that Matt Dunn is a sharp talent and always worth your time.

“So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” by Douglas Adams (1984)

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“That evening it was dark early, which was normal for the time of year.”

Continuing the oddest trilogy in history, I’ve hitchhiked on a Vogon spaceship, eaten out at the end of the universe, and discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Only one thing left to do – thank everyone for the seafood. Ready? On we go.

By his count, Arthur Dent has lived the last eight years of his life travelling around the galaxy, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a group of insane aliens. It’s a surprise to him, therefore, when he arrives back on Earth about six months after the planet and everything on it was destroyed. He’s not sure whether he’s imagining it or not, but there are pubs and cups of tea, so he’s not complaining. He might, however, not be the only person on the planet who thinks something is wrong. He meets (and instantly falls in love with) Fenchurch – a girl so named because she was conceived in a queue at Fenchurch train station – who is considered mad by her family because she’s convinced that the hallucinations of yellow spaceships everyone endured six months ago weren’t fake.

Elsewhere, Ford Prefect is haring through the galaxy trying to find his old friends, Marvin the Paranoid Android is on his way to find God’s Final Message to His Creation, Wonko the Sane continues his attempts to live outside the Asylum, and lorry driver Rob McKenna is becoming increasingly irritated that it never stops raining – on him at least. As Arthur tries to get back to normality and begin a relationship with Fenchurch, it’s surely only a matter of time before the universe comes knocking again. Besides, where did all the dolphins go?

After three books spent haring around the universe, it’s almost comforting to final return to Earth. Zaphod and Trillian are both entirely absent, and Marvin only turns up towards the end, meaning the focus is entirely on Arthur and his very human quest for companionship. Adams mocks his previous methods of avoiding the topic of whether Arthur has a sex life by giving us a full insight into what he gets up to, although still described in his brilliant use of extremely surreal metaphors. There is something much more accessible here though. While all the books, really, are about humanity and the struggle every living thing must go through just to make it to the next day, here the problems are more grounded in reality. Arthur is a simple man. He never wanted to be a galactic hitchhiker, so he’s thrilled to be back at home.

While all good – it was much better than I remember it being – the best scenes are when Arthur teaches Fenchurch how to fly (a skill he picked up in the last book) and the journey to see God’s Final Message to His Creation, which they actually manage to find and it’s exactly what it should be.

Blissful, joyous stuff. Which is just as well, as next up is Mostly Harmless and from what I remember, it’s not exactly the cheeriest book…

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