“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.

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“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…

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

“Surfeit Of Lampreys” by Ngaio Marsh (1941)

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“Roberta Grey first met the Lampreys in New Zealand.”

With no Agatha Christie mysteries to fill my brain with, I have turned my attention to others from the Golden Age to find another author I can indulge myself with. My exploration somehow took me to the other side of the world with the New Zealander Ngaio Marsh.

The Lampreys are a large, sprawling family noted for being mildly eccentric but generally harmless. Their ignorance regarding the worth of money, however, comes to be an issue when they find themselves approaching bankruptcy once more. Head of the family Charles Lamprey intends to ask his miserly, rude brother Gabriel for a loan, but the evening doesn’t go to plan and before the night is out, Gabriel has been killed.

The police are called and begin to question everyone who was in the house, including Charles and his wife, the six children, the victim’s widow, the servants and Roberta Grey, a family friend who has only just arrived from New Zealand to spend some time with the Lampreys. With apparently everyone as a potential suspect with much to gain from the death of the old man, Inspector Alleyn must conduct his interviews and work out who is telling the truth and who is manipulating the facts to protect themselves – or maybe someone else.

Given this is only my first dip into Marsh’s oeuvre, it’s hard to say quite how she compares to others of her generation, but she’s certainly got something. The book does take a little while to get going but the language isn’t particularly florid or difficult. The main focus is given over to the solving of the crime, though, and while there are a couple of subplots regarding how some of the characters feel about one another, they don’t really come to the forefront and overshadow the primary story. I can’t say if I would have benefited from reading earlier novels featuring Inspector Alleyn, as he seems quite established here already, but I like him as a detective. He seems capable, able to think laterally and adjust his method of questioning depending on who he’s interviewing, be it the young son, or the unbalanced widow.

Like in many novels, the children don’t always speak like children, but then again it was a different time and around this era children seemed to have to grow up faster. Plus it’s a high-class family, so things are always different among the aristocracy – as a working class chap myself, I can only imagine. On the whole though, it’s a sharp, funny, tightly-plotted novel and I shall definitely be returning.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over 90% funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips (2007)

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“One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.”

It’s not been long since I last delved into Greek mythology, but I couldn’t resist another visit so soon, but this time in a very different world. I actually first read this book in 2008. I was at university, and for my screenwriting class had just begun working on a pitch for a sitcom involving the Greek gods living undercover in modern London. A week later, I found this novel in Waterstones – a story of Greek gods living undercover in modern London. I ensured I finished my work before reading this one so as to not accidentally just copy it even more, but naturally found that it was done much better than mine was.

It’s been centuries since the Greek gods were respected and revered, and they now find themselves squashed together in a small north London house which has seen better days. Apollo (god of the sun) has been caught turning a mortal into a tree like he always used to, so Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) make him swear to do more harm to a mortal for ten years – a blink of an eye in god’s terms. Aphrodite, however, decides to give him further punishment with the aid of her son, Eros (god of love). While recording the pilot for his TV psychic show, Apollo is struck by one of Eros’ arrows of love and falls in love with a demure, innocent mortal.

Things go from bad to worse when the mortal, Alice, begins working as a cleaner at the gods’ house, and Apollo is determined that she is the true love of his life. Alice, however, doesn’t reciprocate, as she’s too caught up on her would-be boyfriend Neil, a polite engineer who’s too scared to make a move. When Alice rejects Apollo’s advances, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead our heroes down into the Underworld in an effort to prevent the end of the world.

Phillips does an incredible job of blending the gods into the modern world. It’s established they’ve been living in London since the 1600s – arriving sometime between the drop in house prices from the plague and the increase again after the 1666 fire – and each of them has been given a role that suits them well. Dionysus, for example, here runs a nightclub and is a DJ. Apollo is a TV psychic, Aphrodite is a sex-line worker, and Artemis is a professional dog walker. How the mighty have fallen. Phillips also has done her research and makes use of the gods lesser-seen aspects. Hermes is, of course the messenger god and the one who guides people to the afterlife, but she gets good mileage out of the fact he’s also the god of coincidence and money. Artemis is a sexless prude, but simply because she’s the goddess of chastity.

As I’m sure I’ve said before, the reason I love the Greek gods is because they’re all so like us. They’re manipulative, angry, selfish, bitter and so very human for a race of non-humans. Seeing them struggle with modernity is particularly good fun, but Phillips adds in aspects I would never have thought of. Eros, for example, has become a Christian, and the idea of a god worshipping another god is especially funny. He seems to be using it to work through his guilt, but also laments that he never got a chance to meet Jesus at the time. The others are less keen on Christianity, as it’s Jesus that’s the main reason no one believes in them anymore. The moral characters, Alice and Neil, are also great creations, and both oddly remind me of people I know. They’re hugely reserved and are clearly both in love with one another but too fearful to make a move and admit this. They are, in essence, the polar opposites of the gods.

Despite the generally fluffy and light attitude of the novel, there are also some very dark moments to be had, putting it on par with some of the original myths. The gods have a very different set of moral codes to humanity. They’ve always been free and easy with incest (in the second chapter, we see Apollo having sex with Aphrodite and the text acknowledges they are aunt and nephew), but there’s also a scene where Apollo tells Alice he wants to rape her, and doesn’t seem to understand why that would be a problem. Apollo is hugely self-absorbed. I’d say that he thinks the sun revolves around him, but it pretty much does, as that’s his deistic domain.

Will I ever return to writing this sort of thing? Yes, probably. My set up is vastly different, with a focus on different characters in the pantheon. Plus, there are so many re-tellings of the Greek myths that it’s not like they can’t all exist together. Still, this is one of the funniest and smartest around, so I highly recommend it if you’re into this sort of thing.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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