“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

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“The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047” by Lionel Shriver (2016)

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“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”

Many people have long lived by the notion that money makes the world go round. I’m not sure that’s true, but there’s no denying that if you have money it makes for a more comfortable ride. During the credit crunch last decade, the general population wised up a little to economics and realised that things weren’t necessarily always going to be so rosy. Indeed, with Brexit looming here in the UK, the cost of it and how that money will be raised seems to be a constant topic. Economic destruction is just one of the many negative options for the future of the planet, and Lionel Shriver explores that notion here.

The year is 2029 and things in the USA are bad. The dollar has imploded and is barely worth anything. The national debt will never be repaid. An international currency war is wiping out bank accounts with great speed. The Mandible family are just one of many that are struggling to survive in this world where cabbage costs $38 a head (and rising) and homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. When the family patriarch, Douglas Mandible, sees the inheritance he was set to leave his large family disappear, the whole clan now must deal with disappointment, frustration, and a lack of anything approaching luxury.

Florence works at one of the homeless shelters and is tired of having to turn away people every day because they’ve got a distant uncle with a spare bedroom. Her teenage son, Willing, is precocious and seems to have an innate understanding of economics and the way the world is going. Avery and Lowell are struggling to give up their expensive wines and quality clothes, and their children – Savannah, Goog and Bing – aren’t at all used to going without. In fact, the only one who seems to be doing OK for himself is Jarred, who has disappeared upstate to run a farm, now that agriculture is the only way to make any money.

As prices rise and everyone’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the family find themselves making one compromise too many as they do whatever they can to survive through to a better future that may or may not be coming.

I’m not an economist by any means, but even I can see that the culture of spending money we don’t have is surely going to cause problems eventually. Shriver uses her characters (in particular Willing and Lowell) to explain the fundamentals of interest, taxation and inflation to us, and while these are the clunkier parts of the novel, they’re very useful to have. The first two thirds of the book are set between 2029 and 2032, when the country is falling apart and the final third takes us to 2047 with the surviving characters in a country that has begun to rebuild itself in a new way to aid its survival for longer. During the gap, a number of characters we’d grown to be interested in are wiped out, which is a shame and a bit of a cop out, but I also understand why it’s done.

One of my favourite aspects of dystopian futures, or anything set in the future really, is simply how the author envisions that world. I don’t mean the major details, more the little ones. In this one, for example, most of the technology brands we know have vanished and been replaced by superior models, which is by now a common idea. I do really love glimpses at future politics, too. While the story is set entirely in the USA, it’s mentioned that North and South Korea have undergone reunification, Ed Balls is the current British Prime Minister, the USA has its first Latin American President, and at some point before the story begins, Putin declared himself President for Life, and the USA went to war with New Zealand for some reason.

It’s an intelligent book, and actually quite funny as well, although the reality of what’s happening is perhaps a little daunting. I’m not sure society will ever get to these extremes, but odder things have happened. While the end careens towards a slightly more positive future, the very final paragraphs suggest that humanity, once again, has never learned from its mistakes. If humanity has a fatal flaw, it’s that, and I think it’s important to show it. Maybe one day we’ll pay attention.

“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend hat it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

“Dead Man’s Time” by Peter James (2013)

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“The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.”

It’s not been long since my last visit to the criminal underbelly of Brighton, but the next visit is never all that far away. I’m going to crack on, but there may be spoilers here if you’ve not read the rest of the series and are bothered about having aspects of the ongoing plot revealed too soon. If not, press on.

A few weeks after the birth of his son, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace hopes that work might give him a bit of a break and let him enjoy some time with Cleo and the new baby. Brighton, on the other hand, has other ideas. There’s been a burglary in a wealthy part of the city that’s left an elderly woman fighting for her life after being tortured, and millions of pounds worth of antiques smuggled off to the black market. The woman’s brother, Gavin Daly may be ninety-five, but when he discovers that a particular item of enormous sentimental value was also taken, he vows at nothing to get it back.

As Roy Grace and his team try to stop Daly and his son from taking matters into their own hands, a story unfolds that reveals a familial promise almost a century old. The race is on to get hold of the missing antiques and bring the villains to justice. Elsewhere, however, unwelcome faces from Grace’s past are closing in, and they’re not coming for a pleasant reunion and catch up over coffee.

As ever when I review a lot of books by the same person, particularly when they’re in the same series or on a similar theme, it’s difficult to keep knowing what to say. This it the ninth novel in the Roy Grace series, and it remains as interesting and captivating as ever. However, the books are beginning to spend more and more time away from Brighton – the reason I became interested in them in the first place – and in other countries, usually the USA. I do miss the simpler times of them being set in locations I know, and while much of the book still is, James appears to be stretching the net wider now. It’s not really a complaint – I enjoy the books and the characters a lot – but just a note that if you came here for the same reason as me, you may be disappointed.

As ever, more layers are added to the characters and they continue to be some of the most three-dimensional and realistic people to ever populate a fictional world. There are a couple of bigger developments here, too, while other aspects have been forgone. More than any other, it feels like a sequel and while there are still introductions to every character, they’re noticeably shorter and some prior knowledge is required. Previous threads – such as the constant leaks to the local press – have by now been resolved, but new sub-plots are emerging. There is the real sense that no one in the story is entirely independent. Every character, no matter how small, has a fully developed life of which we only see a little.

The actual criminal activity in the book is also incredibly dark, but then most of James’s books seem to follow that line. Not for the very faint of heart, this book dabbles in topics of torture and attacks on the weakest members of society, but there is also much about loyalty, familial love, and letting go. There even seem to be more red herrings than usual here, with you never being quite sure how everything links up and what exactly is going to happen. Nonetheless, it all does, and James even provides a surprising final chapter that in the hands of a lesser author might seem cheesy.

Roy Grace and Peter James continue to dazzle, and long may they do so.

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

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“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

“Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames (2005)

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“‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves.”

Despite, according to some, giving off the air of a man who appears to have fallen out of a Jeeves & Wooster novel, I have very little experience with P. G. Wodehouse. I’ve only read one of the novels, and just haven’t got round to getting anymore done. I’ll count this as an attempt though. Set in nineties New Jersey, this novel takes the concept and updates it, turning Bertie Wooster from a British aristocrat to Alan Blair, a Jewish American alcoholic novelist.

Alan Blair is, at novel’s opening, living with his aunt and uncle due to money issues and the fact his parents are long dead. However, they are tiring of his antics and wish him to go to rehab. Instead, Blair decides to head off to New York state to find a Jewish community to spend his time with. He is accompanied by his valet, Jeeves, who is detached enough from Blair’s mistakes to serve as the perfect butler. Intelligent, capable and just like his Wodehouse counterpart, the most competent man alive.

While seeking out like-minded company, however, Blair gets drunk again and ends up insulting a local woman, resulting in two black eyes and a broken nose. He also learns that he has been accepted to the Rose Colony, an artists’ retreat where he can work on his novel in peace with fellow creatives around him. Arriving, he finds that drinking is all but encouraged, so his plans to stay on the wagon are quickly dashed, and things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a sculptor called Ava, and determines that she is the woman of his dreams – all because she has the most incredible nose.

Blair is fundamentally an unreliable narrator, thanks mostly to his alcoholism. Indeed, it takes many pages before we even learn that he is an alcoholic, as he manages to omit the fact he drinks until it’s absolutely necessary to bring up in the plot. He’s a foolish man who doesn’t know when to stop drinking, meaning every so often he entirely blacks out and has no memory of events. He obviously thinks very highly of himself and regards himself as a cut above most other people – he insists on wearing a shirt and tie every day – but, like most writers, he’s also barking mad and wouldn’t be able to cut his toenails without the assistance of Jeeves.

However, it actually took me an absurdly long time to come to the conclusion that everyone else had probably reached a hundred pages before. I suddenly noted that Jeeves has absolutely no interaction with anyone other than Blair, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I decided that Jeeves didn’t exist. There’s actually no confirmation either way to his existence or lack thereof, so I think it’s up for grabs as to the truth. Personally I’ve settled on the side of thinking that Jeeves is an imaginative construct, used by Blair to try and get himself sorted and sober – but with very little success.

The novel’s biggest coup, however, is that despite the change in location, time and content, it still sounds remarkably like Wodehouse, which is impressive because even that man could occasionally sound like a parody of himself, and the conventions of his novels are easy targets for satire and pastiche. It’s much more graphic than Wodehouse, with a couple of very vivid sex scenes, and the language is often coarser, but on the whole you could mistake it for an alternate-universe Bertie Wooster adventure.  The metaphors and tricks with words themselves are pure Wodehouse though, and Ames has done a remarkable job. They’re funny and sharp, for example, a woman is described as having “copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that”. Five times the book cover announces via reviews that it’s hilarious, and while maybe that’s a couple too many, it is funny.

In terms of plot though, very little actually happens. Blair likes to use thirty words when three will do, and his internal monologue is the key thing here. The events of the story take place over the course of a week, but quite how Blair ended up in his situation we can’t be totally sure, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for us to wonder exactly what will happen next. Interesting and engaging, and a nice update on a genre that could be mishandled.

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.

“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

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