“In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami (1997)

Leave a comment

“My name is Kenji.”

I’m always a little bit sad that I never had to write a dissertation at university. Having done a degree in Creative Writing, my final project was instead to write 15,000 words of a novel. I still wonder to this day what subject I would have written it on. I wasn’t yet a Christie lover, so she’s out, meaning I probably would have written something about the Mr Men’s approach to cultural norms. Because I don’t have my own, I’m always fascinated by what other people wrote their dissertations on, and I learnt earlier this year that one of my colleagues wrote hers on post-war Japanese fiction. After we’d compared notes on Kazuo Ishiguro, Genki Kawamura and Haruki Murakami, she asked if I’d ever read Ryu Murakami. So here I am.

Kenji is a young tour guide, specialising in taking visitors around the various sex clubs that make up parts of Tokyo’s nightlife. Just before New Year, he has been hired by Frank, an overweight American who wants to experience some of the seedier parts of the city. Frank, however, is unlike anyone Kenji has ever met, odd even by American standards, and Kenji begins to doubt the man’s authenticity. As they spend more time together, Kenji finds himself pulled down into a pit of evil where Frank reveals his true intentions, with the only hope of rescue in the form of Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun.

While it all starts off quite interesting, and Frank is immediately portrayed as an unusual man, there’s nothing that sets your heart racing to begin with. We are sucked in because Kenji can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very wrong indeed with Frank, and it’s only when it’s too late that we realise he was right. Comparisons to American Psycho are just, although it’s much shorter, and I found that even as someone who writes a good deal of gore into their stories, it’s somehow harder to read from someone else. The characters introduce us to a world unlike many of us in the West will ever experience or understand, where sex is a commodity sold far more openly than here. Kenji himself notes that while this sort of thing is taken for granted in Japan, and much of it is certainly illegal to some degree, no one in Japan actually questions why it happens, so they can’t really explain it to foreigners.

The writing is succinct and it’s a fascinating translation, with the whole thing feeling claustrophobic and intense. You join the characters in the dark, damp and cold back alleys of Tokyo, a city that always seems to be burning brightly with artificial lights and advertising hoardings, and everything feels like it’s encroaching on you. There’s an unrealness to it that leaves you unsure what’s actually happened, but whether it all really happened or not, you’re never going to be quite the same coming out the other side.

A shocking and staggering read.

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!

“The Fog” by James Herbert (1975)

Leave a comment

“The village slowly began to shake off its slumber and come to life.”

Fog is one of the strangest weather formations the planet throws up. Sure, when you get down to basics, it’s pretty much just a low-lying cloud. Nonetheless, fog stirs up the primal fear – that of the unknown. Fog shrouds our view of the world and has led to numerous disasters throughout history, from ships running aground on rocks, to lives being lost in wars when views are suddenly obscured. It’s not alone, as there are also its sisters smog (smoke and fog, creating the infamous peasoupers of London) and vog (volcanic ash and fog). But it’s that primal fear I mentioned that we can’t get away from. Nothing is always scarier than something, and who knows what might be lurking in that dense mist, so close but invisible.

In The Fog, it’s not quite clear what the titular mist is. When a large crack in the ground opens up in a village in Wiltshire, a yellowish vapour rises from the fissure and sets off across the countryside. At first people think nothing much of it, just noting its strange colour, but it soon turns out that anyone who gets caught in the fog … changes. At a school, pupils mutilate one of their teachers. In a church, a priest exposes himself to his parishioners. On a farm, a herd of cows trample their owner. When the fog reaches Bournemouth and manages to convince the entire town to walk down to the sea and drown itself, the police and the government know that whatever they are dealing with is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

The only hope now, it seems, is John Holman, the only person in the country who has been exposed to the fog and cured of its insanity-inducing properties. Given the unenviable task of getting close enough to the fog to get a sample so that a cure can be manufactured to save everyone else before they kill themselves or one another, Holman sets about doing so with guidance from scientists and politicians. However, he’s also got to deal with his beloved Casey, who has also been infected by the fog, and time may be running out, as the fog now seems to be on its way to London…

The scenario Herbert dreams up here isn’t actually scary in itself, as the chance of a malicious, mind-altering fog coming into existence seems slim. However, what the fog actually is never gets adequately explained, so the sense of unease does hang around. It’s very possible it’s an example of biological warfare that has been accidentally released during a bomb test, but it could so easily be something much more otherworldly and sinister. The true horror here lies in how those who have been affected react. It brings out base animalistic tendencies, some people changing immediately and others taking hours to succumb, and most people immediately want to kill and torture. Many kill themselves, either jumping from windows or throwing themselves into water, but many more set about killing their loved ones and strangers in increasingly gory ways.

The novel frequently leaves Holman and his associates to show us how “normal” people are being affected, and Herbert does this well by fully fleshing out each character with a few pages of backstory before the fog interrupts their lives. This is never invasive, and makes us care about the characters we’re seeing die, even if they’re not all pleasant. One man, for example, is shown as being a drunk and a terrible husband but it’s still a shock when his racing pigeons, returning home through the fog, gang up and kill him. Another man, in one of the book’s lighter moments, feels no compulsion stronger in his insanity than a desire to kick everyone’s backsides.

A chilling and very dark novel that explores how quickly society can fall, what measure any of us are sane, and how we must deal with death.

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!

“Oh, I Do Like To Be…” by Marie Phillips (2019)

Leave a comment

“It was a hot day in the summer, one of those days that glimmers like a mayfly, only to be trampled under the heels of an unseasonal downpour twenty-four hours later.”

Marie Phillips is responsible for one of my favourite books about the Greek myths – Gods Behaving Badly – so it was nice (if surprising) to see her appear on Unbound with a new novel. Once again she’s taking someone from history and putting them down in the modern world. Once again, she does it with style, humour and fun.

Billy is a modern day clone of William Shakespeare. His sister, Sally, is from the control group, cloned from a hair found on a bus seat. Since realising that his creator and mother Eleanor doesn’t think Billy will ever live up to the original, the pair have spent the last five years travelling around Britain, stopping in at seaside towns where Billy can seek inspiration and finally write a new Shakespeare play. Unfortunately, the town they’ve chosen this time has a problem – and the problem is Bill and Sal.

Bill and Sal have no idea that they are clones of Shakespeare and a random hair, but Bill is a successful writer anyway. When Billy meets Sal and Sally meets Bill, things begin to unravel with frantic speed as the pairs enter into a farce of epic proportions where no one is who they seem, misunderstandings are frequent, and it’s very possible that at least one of them is going mad…

I love a book with a silly premise, and having clones of Shakespeare wandering around in the modern world is a good one. It’s not been done since Jasper Fforde had a go, but with vastly different results. It takes a sharp mind – and, I imagine, a lot of post-its – to keep track of a farce like this and they’re much easier to do on stage and screen than on paper, but Phillips does wonders with the concept. Fittingly, it gives the whole thing a sense of a Shakespearean play, given he had a fondness for long-lost twins and confused identities.

Aside from the obvious plot, it’s also a great insight into the nature/nurture debate in psychology. Billy knows he is Shakespeare and then feels threatened and creatively crippled as he can’t ever do as well as the original. Bill knows nothing and yet manages to produce copious plays, poems and novels. I like the argument Eleanor makes that if Billy can’t do it, it proves that whoever it was who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, it wasn’t Shakespeare. I’m firmly on the side that says he did, but a friend and I got to debating last week. The book also seems to be a love letter to the seaside towns of Britain that most of us have visited at one time or another for family holidays as children and the like. It conjures up a world of ice cream vans, bucket and spade shops, and picture postcards that automatically stir up feelings of nostalgia.

Daft and wonderfully clever, as only Marie Phillips can do.

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!

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979)

9 Comments

Don’t Panic.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

I always try to start the year with something I’m going to enjoy, be that something optimistic, magical, or heartwarming. Given the mess that 2017 had left me – and most of us, to be honest – in, I was taking no chances. It was time to dip back into the works of one of the greatest writers ever.

This is the story of Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has woken up on a Thursday morning with a terrible hangover to find a series of bulldozers in his garden, filled with workmen who want to demolish his house. Arthur does his best to halt them by laying down in the mud, but his plans are foiled by the arrival of his best friend Ford Prefect, who demands they go to the pub. Once there, Ford reveals that he’s not from Guildford, but actually from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the world is going to end in about twelve minutes. Making sure Arthur knows where his towel is, Ford hitchhikes off the planet and onto one of the Vogon ships now orbiting the Earth, seconds before the whole planet is wiped from existence.

Now entirely homeless, Arthur is given a crash course in interplanetary travel as he finds himself in some very odd company: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the psychopathic and two-headed President of the Galaxy; Marvin, the manically depressed robot; Trillian, a fellow human who he once met at a party and entirely failed to get off with; and Slartibartfast, whose name doesn’t actually matter. Zaphod drags the team along on the hunt of the legendary planet of Magrathea, in search of the answer to the Ultimate Question – the answer to life, the universe, and everything…

Douglas Adams had that perfectly magical skill of making brilliantly complicated concepts and plots seem easy. He was infamous for his inability to meet deadlines (he always said he enjoyed the whooshing sound they made as they passed by) but thank god he buckled down for long enough to give us this book, and the rest of the series. The writing is superbly tight, funny on every page, and yet also somehow all a little bit terrifying. The technology may be bizarre, and the aliens may be unusual, but broadly speaking the themes are very familiar. Above them all, though, sits the question, “What is it all about?” Much of the second half of the book focuses on answering the meaning of life, and the answer we get, now famous throughout our world, is pleasingly mental, and yet tantalisingly indecipherable. I think I agree with Slartibartfast’s assessment of the whole thing: “I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

Adams is also legitimately one of the funniest writers we were ever lucky enough to have. From his excellent, surrealist metaphors (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), and his comments about the nature of beauty and wonder (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”), to his attempts to explain the universe in simple terms (“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), there’s not a single joke that falls flat here, nor any wording that seems out of place. His creations too, such as the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drive, beautifully and simply solve typical narrative problems of the genre with pure madness, and yet they’re so good you don’t pause to question them. Never stop to think too hard about an Adams’ novel. They make sense, but only if you’re totally on board.

I already can’t wait to get back into the remaining four books in the wildly misnamed trilogy.

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.

“Madness” by Roald Dahl (1944-1977)

1 Comment

“Louisa, holding a dishcloth in her hand, stepped out the kitchen door at the back of the house into the cool October sunshine.”

Roald Dahl is best known for his subversive and dark children’s novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The Witches, populated usually by useless and abusive adults and children who were always capable of outwitting them. Far fewer people are aware, however, that he also wrote extensively for adults. This is the first time I’ve ever delved into his adult work and, unsurprisingly, it’s quite dark. Yet, it’s still somehow not quite as dark as some of his more familiar works. Here’s the collection Madness.

Each story features someone who has gone a bit mad in one way or another. The opening story, “Edward the Conqueror” tells us of a woman who rescues a cat that she’s convinced is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt and her husband who is jealous of all the affection the cat is now receiving. “The Landlady” is a quick tale of a woman running a B&B who doesn’t seem to ever want her guests to leave. “William and Mary” is the story of a man who dies of cancer but has his brain (and eye) kept alive by a scientist friend while the rest of the body is peeled away, and the reactions of his widow. These are not stories for the especially faint of heart.

The story “Pig” is actually probably the one that most felt like the Dahl I knew, and yet is also probably the darkest of the lot. In it, we find a young boy called Lexington who is raised by an elderly aunt to be a vegetarian. After her death, he makes a visit to New York for the first time where he tastes pork and declares it to be the finest food he’s ever eaten. In his desperation to get more and learn how it is cooked, he is very quickly led astray. Despite the content, the tone is very light and breezy.

I was less taken with the stories “Katina” (set in Greece during the Second World War) and “Dip in the Pool” (set aboard a cruise ship), although both were still compelling enough to hold my attention. Like sketch shows though, short story collections can always be a bit hit-or-miss, and these come from throughout Dahl’s career. Still, it’s been an interesting look at insanity from the minds of one of the oddest writers the planet produced. I have a funny feeling I’ll be buying up the other collections too.

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.