“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!

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

My journey through the Western canon has been sporadic. Sometimes I stumble onto something I like very much. Other times, I read Thomas Hardy. The trouble is that when everyone is telling you something is really good, it raises your expectations. You also come to think that you know the story. However, as I learnt from the likes of Frankenstein or Catch-22, what I thought I knew barely touched the surface or was wildly incorrect. That was how I felt about Rebecca – I know all about the woman who overshadowed her husband, I know about Manderley, and I know all about the terrifying Mrs Danvers. But, it turns out, I knew nothing.

Our nameless narrator begins the novel dreaming of visiting Manderley, the house where she lived with her husband, Maxim de Winter. The de Winters are now living in Europe, in exile, living a dull life, and we wonder how they got there. Skipping back through the past, we find our heroine serving as a companion for the bad-tempered and status-obsessed Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. She finds herself interested in the quiet, brooding gentleman who dines next to them every night. Mrs Van Hopper informs her that this is Maxim de Winter, who owns the exquisite country seat of Manderley and has never got over the death of his devoted wife, Rebecca. By the time the holiday is over, our narrator finds that she is to become the second Mrs de Winter, with Maxim determined to give her a more exciting life.

When they arrive at Manderley, however, things do not seem as rosy as promised. Maxim is distant and somewhat harsh, and everything about the house is reminiscent of Rebecca, with the staff – particularly the skeletal and domineering housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still determined to do things just as Rebecca did them. Trapped behind the reputation of Maxim’s first wife, our heroine tries to forge her own path and make a name for herself in this world. How can one woman retain such power from beyond the grave, and will it ever be removed?

The story is naturally about a woman seeking to find her identity, which makes it all the more ironic and fitting that we never find out what her name is. Indeed, aside from a few hints at her hobbies and appearance, we know very little about her. It is Rebecca who dominates the book, which should be obvious given she’s the title character, but it’s unusual to have a story named for a character who never actually appears. Waiting for Godot is the only other one that springs to mind. Despite not really existing, Rebecca’s personality shines through the text and it seems that no one will ever be over her death, although as the novel progresses and more is uncovered, it seems that perhaps not everything was as it seems at first glance. The new Mrs de Winter is shy and doesn’t want to tread on any toes, but when the time comes to be severe and take on a more commanding presence, she does so with aplomb.

There are, however, two real stars of the novel. The first is Manderley itself, regarded as one of the most important houses in the area, if not the country. Legend surrounds it and people clamour to be invited to one of the famous parties that Rebecca frequently held. Maxim seems less keen on them, but his apparent devotion to his wife suggests that he will let her do as she pleases to keep her happy. The second is Mrs Danvers. Almost certainly a monomaniacal psychopath, she is the one with the strongest loyalty to Rebecca. She has never got over the death and knew Rebecca for much of her life. They were close, and I’d argue that Mrs Danvers may even have been in love with her employer. She is cruel and manipulative, tricking the narrator into humiliating herself and at one point trying to convince her to kill herself. She is terrifying at first, but she certainly has a human side, too. She’s got a misplaced devotion, a resistance to change, and a fierce need to protect the woman she loved, even from beyond the grave. She is an utterly fascinating character, made all the more interesting by the fact that she only seems scary to the narrator when they are alone. As soon as she sees Mrs Danvers in the company of others, it is clear that she is not so intimidating.

I know no one’s asking me to curate the list of what “counts” on the list of canonical Western fiction, but if they did, Rebecca gets a spot without question. My advice to everyone is to head back to this and maybe some of the other classics that you think you know so well and see if maybe you weren’t a bit wrong after all.

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!

“Mr Commitment” by Mike Gayle (1999)

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“Have I missed something here?”

Commitment is still seen in our culture as a scary word at times. This is particularly skewed towards men, who are viewed as never wanting to grow up, leaving women wondering when the man-child they’re dating is ever going to get down on one knee. Most romance stories seem to deal with this from the female point of view, so thank goodness we’ve got Mike Gayle on hand to share the other side of the story.

Duffy has been dating Mel for four years and is very happy with how things are going. Mel, however, needs something more. She is so desperate to marry Duffy that she has proposed instead, and when his response does not match up to the one she wants – and he doesn’t even suggest moving in together as an alternative option – she decides that maybe she’s been wasting her time. Scared to lose her completely, Duffy agrees to marry her, but she knows his heart isn’t in it, and after a mighty argument in IKEA, it seems like things are over for good.

As the two begin the healing process, Duffy can’t let go completely and is keen to ensure they remain friends. However, with Mel getting in touch with her previous boyfriend again, and Duffy being charmed by a beautiful television presenter who should be everything he dreams of, there are things getting in the way, and Duffy has to come to terms with his fear of commitment. Surely losing Mel forever is a scarier prospect?

I love Gayle’s writing, and have discussed it several times over on the blog, and while Mr Commitment isn’t my favourite, it’s still full of life. The jokes work, although there’s a certain irony in the fact that Duffy is a struggling stand-up comedian but we never once see him on stage or doing any of his material. I would imagine this is for the better, as it’s hard to write that kind of stuff, and it runs the risk of the reader not finding him funny. I also was struck by how much the world has changed in such a short time. Although this book was only published in 1999, I baulked when I realised that that was actually twenty years ago. This is still a world where everyone smokes in pubs, nobody has a mobile, and there’s a woman called Alexa who, twenty years on, must be going insane.

Much as I am not someone who has marriage, babies and a life time commitment to weekends in IKEA in their future and broadly speaking I think there should be more books about friendships and less emphasis on everyone finding “the one” (which entirely explains the existence of my novel The Third Wheel), I did really enjoy it. I’m not against romance or the concept of marriage at all, it’s just not really for me. It’s still great to read a book with characters that I like that has a happy ending where everything is resolved. Perhaps the trends of men being all terrified of commitment and the women being desperate for a wedding day is a bit of a tired cliche, but then again things have maybe just changed a lot more in the last couple of decades. Besides, it can’t be true as it’s usually the man who proposes in a heterosexual relationship, and they can’t all have been arm-wrestled into it. I think it’s one of those cases where you have to look at the characters and say that while these states are normal for them specifically, you can’t extrapolate to assume it’s true of all men and women. I know women who don’t want to marry and men who long to settle down. It takes all sorts.

Life is messy and complicated, and the characters here display that fully, with no one’s life running as smoothly as they outwardly present. Nonetheless, love always wins.

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!

“Dinner For Two” by Mike Gayle (2002)

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“Apparently (at least, so she told me) it all happened because her best friend Keisha had to stay behind after school for hockey practice.”

Despite the sheer number of books on my shelf that I’ve still not read, when it came to picking one over the weekend, I couldn’t seem to get my head around any of them. As such, I retreated into one I’ve read before. Mike Gayle, as I’ve said before, is one of my favourite writers, and his chatty, confessional style is very easy to absorb.

Music journalist Dave Harding is very happy with his life. He’s got a good job, a nice flat and is happily married to Izzy, the woman of his dreams. Everything seems brilliant, but his biological clock is ticking and Dave finds himself eager to start a family. Izzy, however, doesn’t seem so bothered. His life changes dramatically, however, when the magazine he works for folds and he is persuaded to take up the role of agony uncle for a teenage girls’ magazine.

He soon finds that he actually quite enjoys answering the problems of confused teenagers, and he’s a natural at giving relationship advice. He even begins written a column about how men think for Izzy’s ladies lifestyle magazine. But then he receives a letter from a thirteen-year-old girl called Nicola that stands out from the rest. She tells Dave that he is her father – and she’s got the evidence to prove it…

I didn’t remember much about this one but know I hadn’t read it since university, so at least ten years ago. As ever, it’s funny and warm, but it’s definitely not my favourite. When Dave learns that he has a daughter, he begins seeing her but neither of them inform the other most important people in their lives – namely her mother and his wife. Although obviously done for drama and to allow tension to build, in reality this all just seems a bit insane. It’s hard to be fully sympathetic with Dave when we are watching him lie to his wife and while he doesn’t actively ask Nicola to keep him a secret, he also doesn’t do anything to encourage her from telling the truth. Nicola is portrayed as a pretty good teenager, and the constant reminders of Dave – and others – that she’s a good kid don’t ring hollow, as she clearly is, although we’re only seeing things through his eyes.

In general though, it retains Gayle’s brilliant voice and the characters are otherwise wonderful and fully realised. He has a way of making you care about these people, without using a single ghost, alien or vampire. His stuff is real, and you almost feel like the events happened to someone you know personally. He doesn’t shy away from the realities of growing up and the complications surrounding relationships. We’ve all got histories, but they don’t all turn up on the doorstep long after you’ve left them behind. A pleasing read and a firm reminder that I’m doing the right thing in returning to his old books.

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!

“No-One Ever Has Sex On A Tuesday” by Tracy Bloom (2014)

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(Incorrect.)

“There are those who get to choose the father of their child and those who don’t.”

It’s easy to be conned into buying a book if it’s got a silly title. There was something weirdly captivating about this one. I even ignored the unusual grammatical choice, but that alone should have clued me in to the fact that I was about to embark on something ludicrous. If Bridget Jones’s Diary is the Waitrose of this genre, then No-One Ever Has Sex on a Tuesday is Lidl.

Our heroine, Katy Chapman (the budget Bridget), is in something of a pickle. She’s pregnant, and she’s pretty sure that the father is her casual boyfriend Ben, who is a bit of a lad and eight years younger than her. However, there’s a slim chance that the father could be Matthew, her teenage ex who she had a one night stand with at a school reunion. After that incident, they vowed not to see one another again, but when they both turn up in the same antenatal class, they have to face facts.

Katy tries to keep their former dalliance a secret from Ben, while Matthew attempts the same with his wife Alison, who is now pregnant after a long time struggling with fertility issues. Secrets, of course, do not stay hidden in literature, and soon the truth begins to spill out as the births get nearer, with potentially disastrous consequences.

So, we’re supposed to be on the side of Katy, but from the moment she sleeps with Matthew behind Ben’s back, my sympathy for her vanished. She spends the rest of the novel hoping that her secret is contained, but it feels like something too big to be swept under the rug. She is selfish and doesn’t seem to give much thought to anyone else’s feelings, least of all Ben or Alison. Matthew, in turn, is somewhat misogynistic and while at first he’s determined not to ruin his stability with Alison, by the end he’s all but ready to drop Alison and believes that Katy wants him back immediately. He can’t understand that times have changed and he has other responsibilities now.

This is to say nothing of the supporting cast. Ben is so wrapped up in his own feelings that he absconds on a stag do instead of being with his girlfriend. The character of Daniel, Katy’s best friend, is a walking stereotype and almost offensive in the portrayal of gay men, with his dialogue so camp it may as well be written in pink glitter. He, too, is far too concerned with how the birth will affect him, despite him really having no part in it whatsoever. He also throws the most inappropriate baby shower in history. Alison is perhaps the only character I have even a smidgen of sympathy for as she has apparently no clue all this drama is going on around her, but even she’s not an especially pleasant person.

The plot is relatively straightforward and doesn’t meander too much, but there’s a lot of emphasis on how funny everyone is being, and how hilarious their pranks and jokes are. If you have to signpost the humour, then it’s not there. There’s also the “hysterical” character known only as Braindead, who is supposedly Ben’s comic foil, and so stupid it’s apparently a wonder he manages to get out of bed in the morning without suffocating himself with the pillow. There are some very staged scenes where trivial things have to happen to move the story along, such as when Matthew spills coffee on himself in front of Ben, and has to remove his shirt, thus revealing that he has the same tattoo on his hip as Katy.

Ultimately, the book struggles under its own delusions of being much funnier and more original than it really is. The writing itself is fine, but the humour is forced and there isn’t a single person here I’d go out of my way to save from walking into traffic. And yet, inexplicably, there are over 1,000 five-star reviews of the book on Amazon. Since the sequel has less than 100 reviews in total, I sense something afoot here, but that may just be in my head.

I’m not disparaging “chick lit”, as I think there’s quite a lot of it that’s very good, but this isn’t one to go for. Lisa Jewell, Alexandra Potter and Veronica Henry would all serve you better. I’m not carrying on with this series.

If dystopian fiction is your 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 two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

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. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“R.I.P.” by Nigel Williams (2015)

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And then one morning you wake up dead...

And then one morning you wake up dead…

“‘George!’ said Esmerelda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?'”

I’m not especially scared of death, but what will annoy me most about it is not knowing how everything turns out. But would I want to hang around and see what happens to the people I love? It’s an odd thought. However, this slightly macabre introduction is my way to getting into a novel where this exact thing happens. Let’s read on.

George Pearmain is aware one morning of his wife Esmerelda shouting abuse at him. This is nothing unusual and he finds he can’t stir, even while she stands over him telling him how useless and fat he is. In fact, even once Esmerelda leaves and goes downstairs to find George’s mother Jessica dead on the kitchen floor is he capable of moving. It’s only when Esmerelda comes back up that they both realise the truth – George is dead, too.

Other than that, he feels fine though.

The house is full of guests – it was meant to be Jessica’s ninety-ninth birthday – so all the family and a few of her friends have gathered, and there are more on the way who can’t be contacted and told to stop. The police arrive and the efficient DI Hobday becomes convinced that there is more to the situation than there first seems to be. George, now a mere spirit with limited control over his conciousness and none at all over his body, is left hovering around the house trying to piece together what has happened. It soon becomes apparent that both Jessica and George were murdered, and when it emerges that Jessica is worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen her most recent will, everyone becomes a suspect. Money will do strange things to a person.

While genuinely hilarious in places, there is definitely a dark and bittersweet taste to this novel. George is a perfectly likeable man, I found, and it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet him until he’s dead. The rest of his family, however, are horrendously vile. With no main character younger than sixty, this becomes a novel where older people turn against one another with such suspicion, hate and violence that is unseen in the younger generations. George’s siblings, boring newsreader Stephen and qualified witch Frigga, never seemed to like George much, and the feeling was almost certainly reciprocated. The most hellish of all though is Lulu, Stephen’s wife, a harpy of a woman who has a considerable celebrity presence and believes that she is better than everyone around her, partly because she once made Tony Blair cry on national TV.

Despite the comedy, and the premise that it’s being narrated by, essentially, a ghost, it also works as a genuine murder mystery. There are seven or so primary suspects and while many aspects of their personalities are played for laughs, you also find yourself starting to wonder which of them would be so callous as to do away with the harmless George, never mind his ninety-nine year old mother. George, meanwhile, begins to appreciate the life that he had, realising that his marriage was far happier than he ever thought it at the time and that his wife meant more to him than he ever told her. It is, of course, too late.

Sharp, witty to the bitter end, and full of beautiful phrases and clever characterisation, Nigel Williams has blown me away.

“Shades Of Grey” by Jasper Fforde (2010)

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Not everything is black and white.

Not everything is black and white.

“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.”

I often get asked, as you might imagine, what my favourite book is. This is like asking an Olympic runner which leg they’d most like to have cut off, or a mother which of her children she’d save from a burning building. But, generally, if I don’t want to get into a debate about how books are hard to compare to one another, I refer to this book, Shades of Grey, as my favourite book of all time. Unfortunately a very similarly titled novel has dwarfed this one, which is a shame, because this novel deserves far more praise than that one.

In this book, we are hundreds of years in our future, where the world is very much unlike it was before. Centuries ago, there was a moment in history known now only as the Something That Happened. Now, society runs on a rulebook that seems to owe a lot to private schools of our era: towns are governed by Prefects, cash has become merits, meals are communal and everyone wears a uniform. Some of the rules make no sense – no spoons can be manufactured, for example – but they are treated with utmost authority. This is a world where they have a system of human responsibilities rather than human rights, where everyone is expected to do a certain amount of Useful Work in their lifetime to make them of value to the Collective.

But I’m missing out the most important aspect of this universe. In this future, social hierarchy is decided by your colour perception. Everyone can only see one colour – red, blue, yellow, green, orange or purple – and everything else appears grey to them. Everything from your social standing, the jobs you can have, and who you can marry depends on what colour you can see and how much of it. This is a world where colour comes before all else.

Our hero is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is sent with his father to the small town of East Carmine where he is expected to learn humility and conduct a chair census. Before they arrive even, in the nearby town of Vermillion, Eddie and his father, a doctor (or Swatchman) find a man who has collapsed in a paint shop. He appears to be a Purple – the most respected group of the Colourtocracy – but Eddie realises that he’s wrongspotted – he’s actually a Grey; someone with no colour perception whatsoever. This is a huge breach of the Rules, but what does it mean?

Arriving in East Carmine, Eddie meets Jane, a Grey with a cute nose and a penchant for punching anyone who mentions it. Eddie is immediately smitten, but also concerned that he’s sure he saw her in Vermillion … but there’s no way she could have got there and back so quickly. Trying to avoid being killed by her, he encounters the rest of the village, including the officious and arrogant Yellow, Courtland Gamboge, the conniving and self-preserving Red, Tommo Cinnabar, and the vile and spoilt Purple, Violet DeMauve who wants to marry him to make her blue-end Purple redder again in her descendents. All Eddie wants to do is to conduct his chair census and return home to so he can marry Constance Oxblood and inherit the stringworks. But he’s started asking too many questions, and he doesn’t like the answers. It seems that Eddie is realising that things aren’t always black and white…

Eddie and Jane

I don’t know how to get across how much I adore this book. Imagine if Douglas Adams had written 1984 and you’re halfway there, sort of. The idea of building a society on colour perception is mad, but is it any madder than any other sort of society we’ve tried? All the ideas here are genius, from the implications of how life must be when you can’t see the full spectrum, to having a world run on school rules. Because there are so many unanswered questions in Eddie’s life, we can’t get the full picture either.

Like all Fforde’s work, it’s a book that’s impossible to explain in simple terms. He throws in so many concepts and lets you get on with it, always with remarkable results. Alongside the Colourtocracy, we also have the idea of synthetic colour, a British landscape full of elephants, giraffes and ground sloths, a belief that good table manners are about the most important skill you can possess, the distribution of postcodes that no longer seem to represent their original locations, fear of swans and lightning, and an Apocryphal Man, who doesn’t exist (and more’s the pity if you forget that). It’s a wonderful, fantastic mish-mash of ideas and yet it all works. The characters are fully rounded and believable, and there’s so much material here. It’s also home to the aforementioned Courtland Gamboge who, while an odious character, is one of my favourite people in fiction for reasons I can’t quite explain.

The only flaw in this book? The cliffhanger. It ends promising two more in the trilogy, but we’re in our sixth year of waiting now, and I’m getting antsy. Having now bought this book for several people and had them fall in love with it, it’s become almost joyful for me to see the horror on their face when they realise there’s still no sequel. Fforde has promised them for ages, but the last I heard the next one in the series, when it does finally materialise, is going to be a prequel.

Don’t let that last bit put you off – this is one of the most hilarious, wonderful, intelligent books in existence. I’ve read it three times now in the last six years, and every time I find something new. This is literature at it’s finest, and you will not be disappointed. It’ll also leaving you sort of wishing that you could experience this world for a bit, take your Ishihara, and find out what colour you are…

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