“The Murdstone Trilogy” by Mal Peet (2014)

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Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

“The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbellows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.”

Tolkien has a lot to answer for. Without his huge success writing about elves, dwarves and journeys across sprawling landscapes to find or return some sort of jewellery, there wouldn’t be such a market for these sorts of books. The Fantasy genre, in name alone, implies that anything is possible in this world, and yet it seems that over and over again the same sort of story is played out. Having recently just got back into playing Skyrim,  it’s particularly on my mind right now. But, as I say, these books sell, and this is a tale about what happens when they reach the upper echelons of popularity.

Philip Murdstone has had a fairly successful career writing Young Adult books about overly sensitive boys, but recently the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market and his newest offering was barely noticed. His agent, Minerva Cinch, has a new idea for him. Seeing the change in the tide, she suggests he try and write a fantasy novel, or even better a trilogy, as readers can’t seem to get enough of that sort of thing. There’s only one slight problem – Philip hates fantasy.

Now told that he has to write a fantasy novel if he wants to reclaim his earlier success, Minerva sends him off with an outline of what such a novel should contain. All the tropes are there: a sword with a funny name, an evil overlord and his ugly minions, a hero from a shire on the very edge of the Realm, a McGuffin that needs to be acquired at all costs. Philip doesn’t know where to begin. However, while staggering home from the pub one night, he meets Pocket Wellfair, a Greme from another Tolkienesque world, who shares with him a story of such wonder and majesty that before he can blink, Philip is the internationally famous and wealthy author of Dark Entropy.

But now the world wants the sequel, Philip can’t seem to do it without Pocket’s help, and Pocket is far more interested in getting the Amulet back to his homeland, and if he can destroy Philip’s testicles at the same time, then all for the better. The Murdstone Trilogy must be completed: humanity is hungry for the sequel. Philip must make a pact with Pocket to save his own life.

This is a brilliant and darkly funny take on the fantasy novel, both playing with the concept and the very notion of the genre’s existence and predictability. The writing style is reminiscent in many ways of the fantasy novels being discussed. Set in Devon, there are few places more perfectly suited to represent the wonder of a Middle Earth like world. Philip, however, can’t see that, and laments how difficult it is to invent a fictional world, in between listing details of local folklore, describing people in the village in a way that would fit into his novel, and reeling off the unusual place names that make up his environs. It also mocks authors in general, and shows that we’re all a bit fraudulent and worried that one day the switch that powers our imaginations will turn off.

Philip is a fun character, if rather sad and pathetic. It’s hard to say how much he’s based on Mal Peet himself, who similarly made a career writing YA fiction, before switching to this adult offering. He, unfortunately, died the following year, which made me feel guilty that I’d discovered him too late. Minerva is also brilliant; a modern creature unsuited to the fantasy genre, but with a name that suggests otherwise, and the mad locals of Flemworthy, the local town, are of great comedic value. They indeed wouldn’t look out of place in a pub the heroes travel into. They even have local nicknames that suit them.

The ending left me a little disappointed, but it’s a nice twist nonetheless and allows for the genre to do something different. It’s further a reminder that I’d rather read books like this than actually have to wade through The Lord of the Rings. Good fun, and very clever.

I’ve never been into writing sword & sorcery, but my own book has more than its fair share of myth and magic. Download The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or wherever else you get your ebooks and check it out.

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“Born Weird” by Andrew Kaufman (2013)

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Some are born weird; some have weirdness thrust upon them.

Some are born weird; some have weirdness thrust upon them.

“The Weirds acquired their surname through a series of events that some would call coincidence and others would call fate.”

Andrew Kaufman is up there with Agatha Christie, Jasper Fforde and Douglas Coupland as one of my favourite writers of all time. Although he’s only penned four books, and none of them are very long – two are barely one hundred pages each – he manages to weave such beauty into his prose that his skill can’t really be brought into question. The man has immense talent, and once again he’s proved himself to be a master storyteller.

This is the story of the Weird family, five siblings who have, without their knowledge, been cursed. When each was born, their grandmother Annie Weird, known to them as The Shark, bestowed upon them a special power. The eldest, Richard, would always stay safe; Abba would never lose hope; Lucy would never get lost; Kent would be physically stronger than anyone he fought; and Angie would always forgive everybody, instantly.

But the children are now adults and haven’t spoken in years. Angie finds herself meeting her grandmother again, who informs her that she is not far off dying. She has realised now that the blessings she gave her grandchildren have become curses. If Angie can get all five Weird siblings into her hospital room before she dies in thirteen days, she will remove their gifts before she dies, leaving them free again. Angie at first refuses, but her grandmother soon proves that she is more than capable of bending the universe to make life hell, so with no other option, Angie sets about tracking down her siblings.

Kaufman has a rare gift in that he can make the magical seem mundane and the mundane seem magical. Angie and her siblings are not particularly thrown by the notion of the curses (or “blursings” as they become known, a portmanteau of “blessing” and “curse”), as if that sort of thing just happens. He also throws in other fun asides, such as the fact that both Annie and Angie have hearts twice the average size, that as kids the five built a city in their attic called Rainytown, and that Abba just now happens to be the queen of a country called Upliffta. No time is wasted dwelling on these points, they just are what they are.

While sweet and magical, it’s also tragically heartbreaking. The kids are almost alone in the world after their father disappears one night and, mad with grief, their mother forgets who they are and becomes convinced that the family home is a hotel she’s staying at. The characters are all well-realised and believable, despite their blursings. Angie has become a pushover, Richard is three-times divorced because whenever things stop feeling safe, he backs away, and Lucy never has to ask for directions, either in the physical world or in life generally. This is a book that shows you why our flaws aren’t flaws – they’re what round us out.

I’ve yet to read a Kaufman I didn’t like, and I have a feeling I probably never will. Read this book now, because it’s just quite simply beautiful.

“Eleanor Rigby” by Douglas Coupland (2004)

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All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

“I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn.”

In my retrawl through Douglas Coupland’s work, I had from the beginning been dreading Eleanor Rigby. That of course makes it sound that I don’t like it, but that’s not true. I really like it. It’s beautiful and very artfully crafted. It’s just about a topic that I find uncomfortable – and there isn’t much that makes me uncomfortable.

Loneliness is something that I’ve discussed here before, and dealt with a few times in my life. I don’t want to get too maudlin about the whole thing, but it’s unpleasant and not something I recommend. There is a distinct difference between being alone and being lonely and before I get too into this, I’d better actually discuss the book.

Eleanor Rigby is the story of Liz Dunn, self-professed loneliest woman in the world. Coming from a traditionally Couplandian dysfunctional family, she has become stuck in a small apartment in an anonymous neighbourhood in Vancouver, now in her thirties, entirely unmarried and living a life that is bland and unexciting. The most dramatic thing that ever happened to her was the discovery of a dead body on the side of the train tracks when she was a child. Her family love her, but her life is never deemed as interesting as those of her brother William and sister Leslie.

Then, one day in 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet is in the skies and Liz is coming down off painkillers from having her wisdom teeth removed, she gets a phone call from the hospital. They’ve got someone in asking to see her. His name is Jeremy, he’s twenty years old, and he’s her son.

Typically of Coupland, it’s a book full of wonderful lines and moments (“What about life after death?”; “What about death after life after death?”), although I had forgotten much of it in between the first and second read. Some parts stick out, such as Liz’s descriptions of her crippling loneliness and a scene in which Jeremy and Liz crawl along the highway in rush hour. There’s some stuff about psychology (unavoidable as some of the story takes place in Vienna, home of Freud) and modern medicine, and the nature of time passing.

There’s a beauty about it, and a certain haunting quality, made stronger by the fact that I happen to personally be in a fairly dark and lonely place myself right now. I’m not someone who craves a relationship – I’m happy being single – but there’s an unavoidable fact that sometimes you find yourself without any company. Everyone has their own lives, I’m not faulting that, but it can get you down. As I said, I knew that this book would be difficult and maybe right now it wasn’t the smartest book to read in this mood, but maybe it just helped me get better into the tale.

Liz Dunn is one of my favourite Coupland characters, and you can’t help but feel sorry for her and her empty life. She’s not depressed, but she is sad, and that’s perhaps worse. Jeremy is like a breath of fresh air to both the pages and her life, and he brings a touch of magic to the whole thing. The book is very Coupland – normal people in abnormal situations – but it’s engaging, sweet and very touching. I don’t think it’s one that gets remembered in his oeuvre (thematically fitting, I suppose) but if you’ve ever felt lonely, or are lucky enough to not know how it feels, then give it a go. You are not alone.

For a clear example of how long term loneliness can drive a person insane, you’ll find it as one of the themes in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available now on Amazon and iBooks.

“The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket” by John Boyne (2012)

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brocket“This is the story of Barnaby Brocket, and to understand Barnaby, first you have to understand his parents; two people who were so afraid of anyone who was different that they did a terrible thing that would have the most appalling consequences for everyone they loved.”

Recent readings seem to have all been a bit dark. Sure, they’ve been good books but after a while a long chain of horrible characters, vile settings and appalling situations makes a man snap. A book with “terrible” in the title might seem like an odd choice to go with next, but a friend of mine mentioned it a while ago and said it was really good. I trust her judgement, so I went for it, only being a little bit daunted by the fact that the author, John Boyne, also wrote The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which I haven’t read or seen but know to be immensely upsetting. So with only my friend’s word that this wasn’t going to be a horrible book, I pressed on.

The Brocket family are all perfectly normal. Alistair and Eleanor have no desire to stand out from the crowd or do anything that’s seen as unusual, an attitude they try to force into their first children, Henry and Melanie. But then Barnaby is born and their life is thrown into turmoil as Barnaby has a condition – he floats. Unable to obey the law of gravity, Barnaby is therefore constantly in danger of floating away. Alistair and Eleanor are horrified by what they see as a blantant act of attention seeking.

They do their best to hide Barnaby from the world, but eventually he has to go to school. After he accidentally gets his face into the newspapers, Alistair and Eleanor decide they have had enough and hatch a plan to rid themselves of their son and return to a normal life. Once free, Barnaby is confused by what has happened, but embarks on a series of adventures around the globe where he learns a thing or two about being normal.

Ultimately, it’s a novel for a younger audience, but that’s a rubbish way to judge any book, and there’s definitely plenty in here that narrow minded adults could learn from. On Barnaby’s journeys, everyone he meets tend to be people who are not considered “normal”, particularly by their families, and who have been cast out of their homes for whatever reason. Some of these are not normal because of appearance, or their dreams, but there is also a couple who are clearly lesbians (although not noted by Barnaby as explicitly being such), both cast out of their homes. The book does wonders for showing children (and, again, older people too) that normality is not strictly something you can define, as someone’s normal is abnormal to someone else.

Boyne has definitely taken from Roald Dahl with this novel, and it’s certainly got the feel of something that Dahl could have written. It’s in the way that Barnaby is a good child, if not slightly unusual, and he lives in a world where the “ordinary” grown-ups are of no use whatsoever. After a certain age, people’s imaginations dry up if not used properly, and this shows the damage that that can do to a family, as well as individuals themselves. It’s also very dark – Lemony Snicket came to mind repeatedly – given that Alistair and Eleanor are able to get rid of their son in the manner that they do.

The book is peppered with adorable little illustrations too, showing Barnaby both before and during his adventures, which add to the sweetness of the text. Barnaby is a wonderful boy who would be loved by any other family, but not by one who treats anything they aren’t used to as dangerous and bad. Barnaby actually notes at one point that in the books he reads, he identifies with orphans most of all. Sometimes it rings bells of Harry Potter living at the Dursleys. There is also a brilliant little nod to Harry Potter (is it just me, or has every book since 2005 made some mention or oblique reference to the series?) when Barnaby is stood on Platform 9 of a train station and his eyes glance over briefly to the gap between that one and Platform 10.

It’s a lovely book with a wonderful message that more people need to pay attention to. After all, if we can’t even define what normal is, why would anyone want to be it?

“The Waterproof Bible” by Andrew Kaufman (2009)

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The Waterproof Bible

No frogs were harmed in the making of this book.

“The limousine taking Rebecca Reynolds and Lewis Taylor to the funeral had stalled in the middle of an intersection.”

I discovered Andrew Kaufman a couple of years ago with his novella, now a cult classic, All Of My Friends Are Superheroes. Last year, I encountered him again with another novella, The Tiny Wife. So, when I found his name again in Waterstone’s, I picked up the book without even questioning it. He writes with magic, and his ideas are so beautiful, brilliant and romantic that I can’t help feel a pang of jealousy whenever I read him. I wish I’d come up with some of these ideas, although I daresay I’d be unable to achieve what he can.

The Waterproof Bible is the story of three individuals. The first is Rebecca, who naturally broadcasts her feelings to everyone around her. If it’s a particularly strong emotion, you could be three or four streets away and share in her emotion. However, she’s managed to solve the problem by trapping the emotions into personal objects, although that then leaves her with boxes upon boxes of stored emotions that span her whole life.

The second is Lewis, whose wife, Lisa, has just died. He is finding it difficult to grieve, so skips out on the funeral and goes to stay in the second-best hotel in Winnipeg. There, he gets a very important haircut and encounters a woman who claims to be God.

The third is Aby, short for Aberystwyth, who has stolen a car and is driving across Canada to save her dying mother. She’s nervous, not a particularly good driver and very uncomfortable out of the water. Oh, yeah, and she’s green with gills and has lived in the Atlantic Ocean her whole life, where she reads her Bible and follows Aquaticism teachings.

The three characters stories intersect neatly, although the chronology is a little confusing at times, leaping back and forth to show events from more than one point of view. The oddness of some of the situations within the novel (aquatic humans, tiny women swimming in glasses, a radio that broadcasts advice to the owner) are simply taken in their stride, as they’re so novel and compelling that you don’t have the urge to question them.

In all three of his books, Kaufman writes about romance – a very real romance in very unreal circumstances. Although this is not a love story, there are definitely undercurrents about the power of love, and what it can do to ordinary people. I really do think that the best word to sum up Kaufman’s writing is “beautiful”. There’s a marvellous innocence about it, about people facing impossible odds but never giving up, simply getting on with it.

This book is for anyone who believes in love, or feels that their life needs just a little more magic in it. Therefore, it’s for practically everyone.