“You” by Caroline Kepnes (2014)

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“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.”

It is quite amazing how naturally we seemed to take to social media as a species. Granted, a lot of us have become more savvy in recent years and maybe don’t feel the need to “check in” to every location or update the world on every change in mood. After all, you never know who is watching. You came to me originally in the form of a series on Netflix that I devoured. It was just the right type of creepy, and my friend who also loved it bought me the novel. I thought it was time to dive back in.

Joe Goldberg is immediately struck when Guinevere Beck walks into his bookshop. She’s beautiful, flirtatious, and intelligent, and Joe knows that he is meant to be with this woman. Luckily for him, she has an unusual name and a very public social media presence, so finding her again will be a piece of cake. After he saves her from being hit by a train on the subway, Beck finds herself attracted to Joe as well, and they begin a delicate courtship.

There are other problems around them, however. Joe has the bookshop to run, and Beck’s life is complicated. There’s Benji, the guy she keeps hooking up with despite knowing he’s no good for her, and Peach, the wealthy best friend who is somehow related to J. D. Salinger but likes to keep the specifics secret. In fact, she likes to keep a lot of secrets, and has Beck on a short leash. Beck can’t help but run off to these people whenever they call, so Joe decides he has to intervene to make sure that he and Beck can be together. He’s already stolen her phone – he now wants to steal her heart.

But neither Joe or Beck are quite the people the other thinks they are, and soon the “relationship” becomes a tangle of lies and deceit as they try to work out what they want and how to get it. And Joe in particular will stop at nothing to achieve his happy ending…

Although pretty much everything that happens in the book also happens in the TV show, the adaptation has a lot of extra stuff. Most of that revolves around further acts that Joe performs that he thinks are “romantic” but any sane person would see as “psychotic”. However, both he and Beck get further characterisation in the show and their extremes are muted, giving them far more shades of grey than the novel allows them. In the book, it is much harder to see Joe as having any redeeming features at all. He is a single-minded sociopath with no boundaries, little empathy and a terrifyingly selfish outlook on the world. Beck on the other hand is probably a good deal nicer in the show, and in the book has more issues and flaws. This is another one of those books where it’s just a lot of horrible people doing horrible things to each other, but I didn’t dislike it for that. Sometimes I do, but sometimes the writing is just too good. It’s a very fine balance to achieve, and I don’t think it’s one I could ever articulate. What makes an unpleasant character someone you want to read about? I don’t know.

The writing sings, though, and it’s a rare foray into a second-person narrative – always a tricky thing to pull off – where everything we experience is from Joe’s point of view, but he’s constantly talking to Beck, often applying his own interpretation of her actions and emotions to suit himself. It’s an insidious book that gets under your skin and unsettles you. It might also make you think again about sending that tweet. You never know who’s reading…

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!

“Z” by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

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“Picture a late-June morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume – same as I would wear that evening.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of the play The Lost Generation, a three-hander about the tumultuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. Long a fan of their hedonistic lifestyles if not their writing (I’ve still never read any Hemingway or Mrs Fitzgerald, and only a couple of Mr Fitzgerald), I was inspired to finally pick up Z, which tells the story from Zelda’s point of view.

Not long before her eighteenth birthday, fun and flirty Zelda Sayre meets the handsome and confident F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s 1918 and Scott is about to head off to join the war in Europe, meaning Zelda isn’t sure whether to accept his sudden offer of marriage, even though she knows she’s never felt like this about another man. When the war ends, Scott stays after all and just two years later, the two are married and begin their journey to define a generation.

As Scott gains success and recognition for his writing, Zelda finds herself living in his shadow and her once exuberant personality and zest for life begins to wane. They drink too much, they argue, and Scott becomes increasingly controlling and obsessed with his new friend Ernest Hemingway, who Zelda can’t stand. There is some happiness and love in their relationship, but very little stability, and Zelda must work out who she is in this modern world and reclaim her own independence once more. As they pass through various cities and countries, with Scott always working on the next novel (read: drinking heavily), the couple – along with their daughter Scottie – begin to change and we wonder if their lives are as glamorous as history has recorded.

As it’s based on the true story of Scott and Zelda, how it ends is a foregone conclusion, but I won’t reveal it here in case you don’t know what befell them. We hear a lot about the Fitzgeralds as the couple who made the 1920s what it is. They are a symbol of the Jazz Age, Prohibition and the excesses of the interwar years. Myth states that he was worshipped as a literary idol, and she flirted her way through the entire Western world, but the version presented here by Fowler is much different and far closer to the truth. Zelda was hamstrung by Scott’s ego and he dominated her life, dissuading her from following her own goals of being a professional dancer because they didn’t fit in with what he wanted to do. Perhaps this is par for the course given that at the time men did have much more say in relationships than women, but Zelda is not your average 1920s woman (considered by many to be the “first flapper”) and doesn’t like being corralled and beaten into submission. And yet, on a couple of occasions where Scott’s abuse turns physical, Zelda still seems prone to blaming herself.

Scott, himself, was prolific and wrote stories for magazines and screenplays for Hollywood, but his novels were few and far between and he didn’t really achieve the success and introduction to the literary canon until after he’d died. Because the story is from Zelda’s perspective, it’s hard to know if Scott’s monstrosity has been played up or is an accurate reflection of his personality, because he comes across as singularly unpleasant. He is selfish and domineering but simultaneously thin-skinned and weak, breaking down in tears whenever things don’t go his way or he doesn’t get to be the centre of attention. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, there are people that say Scott ruined Zelda’s life, but also those who say that Zelda ruined Scott’s. I know which side I come down on, easily.

It is nice for Zelda to be thrust into the spotlight for a change. She also wrote a novel, Save the Last Waltz, and was a great painter and dancer, but to this day she struggles under the reputation of simply being “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife”. It’s fantastic and fascinating to see her given some agency and learn about the tragedy that she went through.

A compelling and startling exploration of the Jazz Age and how history likes to put a neat gloss on everything.

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 Good Fairies Of New York” by Martin Millar (1992)

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“Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practising gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.”

The USA, in its modern form, is a pretty young country, as these things go. Yes, the Native Americans have a wildly fascinating and detailed folklore history, but much of it seems to be ignored and there are struggles to preserve it. Perhaps we’ve already lost a lot. It always seemed to me that the modern Americans viewed the folklore and magical history of older countries like England and Ireland with jealous eyes and sought to create their own myths and legends, idolising figures like Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett and George Washington. In this novel, Martin Millar gives America a chance to play around with a few older myths.

The novel opens with two Scottish fairies, Morag and Heather, flying through the window of Dinnie’s flat and vomiting on the carpet. The frenemy fairies accidentally found themselves in New York after boarding a plane and are bemused by this huge city and its strange ways. Unable to deal with Dinnie and his horrible personality, Morag flies to the apartment over the road to meet Kerry, a perfectly charming woman with Crohn’s disease and a desire to complete her Celtic flower alphabet.

Being good fairies, Morag and Heather decide to improve things for their human friends. They don’t count, however, on New Yorkers not having the same excitement when seeing fairies as the British and Irish do and they soon find themselves in trouble with New York’s native fairies, a large number of homeless people, and Dinnie’s abrasive landlord. Elsewhere, the fairies of Cornwall are staging a rebellion against their tyrannical king, another group of fairies have landed in Central Park and are desperately in need of some whisky, and the ghost of Johnny Thunders is trying to find his old guitar.

Despite all the claims that he’s a hilarious writer, I definitely didn’t find this one as funny as I did my last Martin Millar novel. I get the light-heartedness and that the humour is present, but it didn’t tickle me into laughing out loud once. I was impressed with the concepts, certainly, and they’re quite daft, but they suit the universe he’s created well enough that I don’t find them outlandishly funny. The other problem is that there are so many overlapping stories and viewpoints, often visited for only a paragraph or two at a time, that things quickly tangled themselves up and it became hard to develop a rapport with one character when suddenly you were jerked away to read about another, only to drop back in to meet a third on the very next page.

Some of the stuff is very interesting, though. The Celtic flower alphabet intrigues me as a concept, and I would love to have known more about that. The inclusion of New York native fairies is also great fun, as they’re not just simply American. There are Italian fairies in Little Italy, Chinese fairies in Chinatown, and Ghanaian fairies in Harlem, each with their own styles, customs and costumes. They do hang a lampshade on the fact that despite America having had a lot of Irish immigration, there don’t appear to be any Irish fairies in the city, but it does make you wonder where they are.

An interesting and fun read, but a touch too busy. With a little more focus, it could be great.

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!

“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.

“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 that 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.

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