“Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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“It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.”

There are three non-fiction books that I think should be compulsory reading. The first is Sara Pascoe’s Animal. The second is Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. This is the third.

In this pioneering book, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge explores the history of British race relations and the racism inherent in every system of the country, also dealing with the intersectionality of it aligned with gender and class. Exploring the notion of white privilege, racism in the workplace, the rise of the far right and stereotypes, she tackles the subject head on, taking no prisoners. Personally, I found it quite uncomfortable at times, but that’s a good thing. It’s uncomfortable in all the right ways, making white people realise quite how much the world is stacked in their favour.

Particularly fascinating is the brief history given on the position of black people in our history. While the civil rights struggle of the USA is well-documented and taught often, for some reason we do not discuss our own struggles with racial divides. I say “for some reason”, but it’s because every country likes to portray itself as noble and heroic, and I don’t think any are quite so keen to do this than Britain. For this reason, many people grow up unaware of the struggles of the black community in Britain, and in just one chapter of this book I have learnt more about the British civil rights movement than I did in seventeen years of formal education. It is shocking how recent so many of the dates are. It’s even worse when you consider that things are still not equal. The media – a predominantly white industry – still has considerable bias over people of black and minority ethnicity. We have created a story for the nation where “racism happened somewhere else”, when one look on Twitter or the debates that raged around the Brexit saga proves that this is far from the truth.

My only issue is that I would’ve liked some more concrete statistics. When discussing, for example, how the system is stacked against young black people in education and such, Eddo-Lodge explains that black people are continually at a disadvantage in how they are treated in schools, graded, and are given fewer opportunities than their white peers. I’m not saying I don’t believe her, because I’m certain this is the case due to deeply embedded white privilege, but it would have been interesting to see the specific statistics to emphasise the point, rather than relying on vagaries like “greater proportion” and “many more times” and such. I appreciate that the book is aiming to be accessible to a wide audience so it doesn’t want to get too bogged down in these things, but I feel that these are important points and they should be spelt out. I will be doing my own research off the back of it though to get the disparity figures.

That aside, it’s a powerful, sharp, smart and uncomfortable read. I’m one of those people who claims to not be racist, but there is no denying that by being white I have certainly been granted opportunities others have not. Food for thought, and essential reading in these tumultuous times.

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!

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (2018)

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“If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.”

A national lock down seems like the right time to get through some of the larger hardbacks on my shelf while I haven’t got to be carrying them around. As such, we come at last to the fourth part of the Strike series, Lethal White. It turned out that aside from the last couple of pages and one or two smaller plot points, I had all but entirely forgotten everything that had happened in Career of Evil. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know that much, as very quickly we’re plunged into a brand new case which leaves you almost unable to put the book down. There are also some spoilers ahead for the previous books, so that’s your final warning.

Robin and Matthew have just tied the knot, but within minutes of the vows being said it seems that that knot is strained. When Robin realises that Matthew deleted some messages from Strike from her phone, she loses a great deal of trust and respect for him, but for the sake of their families, they go ahead with the honeymoon. A year later, their marriage isn’t in much a better position, but there are other things to worry about now. Following the high media attention that Strike and Robin received after finding the Shacklewell Ripper, Strike has fewer money worries and can hire some more detectives, but is less able to be covert himself. A problem falls in in his lap, however, when Billy, a mentally disturbed young man, bursts into his office and tells him he once witnessed a murder. Before Strike can find out anymore, Billy bolts in a panic.

Thus the case begins. Using what scant knowledge he has, Strike finds himself going from the very poorest corners of London to the highest echelons, where Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, has asked him to step in and find out something about Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport, who is blackmailing Chiswell. Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament and begins to get to know the Chiswell family and the people around it. Strike meanwhile is keeping tabs on Billy’s brother Jimmy, an anarchist who is currently protesting the damage done to London by the upcoming Olympic Games. When these two cases collide, it spells a fatal end for one of Strike’s clients. He and Robin now need to work out who is keeping secrets, because someone knows more than they’re letting on, and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it.

Rowling, despite her flaws, has always had a knack for characters and really has a good handle on how mysteries should work. It’s been said before, but several of the Potter books are basically just murder mysteries and it’s never been a surprise that she went into crime once she’d finished those. As with all the best mysteries too, it’s all there for you to solve, but I admit I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Rowling excels once more at keeping a complicated and twisted plot together and the book’s length seems almost justified. There’s a stark realism to the books that is thoroughly captivating. It’s also a prolonged study into the class system, showing the working classes being brushed aside and left to struggle, with the wealthy repeatedly showcase their belief that the world is there solely to bend to their will. Divisions are hugely prevalent, as are the themes of pairs and partnerships. Rowling is, really, quite a skilled writer, and becoming increasingly brilliant.

I remain disappointed by the inclusion of the romantic sub-plot, though. I’ve no problem with Robin or Strike being in relationships, as indeed they are, but the constant nods to the fact that they might be falling in love with each other are non-essential. The story works perfectly well without adding in the further tension to their relationship that it might be more than professional. The relationship, nonetheless, feels real and well-painted. As ever with Rowling, the characters are solid and real, each with depth and perfectly-fitting names. Strike is still one of the most interesting detectives of recent years, and Robin is aptly named as his competent sidekick who this time round gains a new strength that we had already seen coming to the forefront. She is determined and forceful and I adore spending time with her.

Another excellent addition to the series. I read this week that Rowling has plans for “at least ten more”. I’m not sure I have space on my bookshelf (or the upper arm strength) for them, but if the quality stays this good, I’ll do my best to try.

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!

“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

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“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Penultimate Truth” by Philip K. Dick (1964)

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“A fog can drift in from outside and get you; it can invade.”

It’s been a very hot week and I really should have picked up something light and easy to read instead of a dystopian novel from the 1960s with a heavy political bent, but here we are. I’ve enjoyed books by Philip K. Dick in the past, so I hoped I’d get on with this one too, as it had an engaging premise. The reality, however, wasn’t quite like that.

In the future, people are crammed into underground tanks, living beneath the surface while World War III rages on the land above them. For fifteen years, the world’s population has lived like this, with daily broadcasts from government officials telling them what is happening and how the war is progressing, showing them footage of destruction and catastrophe. However, all is not as it seems.

In truth, the war finished a long time ago, and the world is at peace. Those in charge choose to deceive everyone else so they can live with great wealth and prosperity on the planet’s surface, with those who aren’t part of the conspiracy tucked away doing the dirty work and not messing everything up. Is it for the greater good, or just pure selfishness? Things begin to unravel, however, when one of the most prominent tank engineers is dying and desperately needs a new liver. President Nicholas St. James sets out on a mission to the surface in search of truth to the stories of artificial organs being used by the military. When he gets there, however, he learns that his life has been a carefully preserved lie, and he needs to work out who he can trust and fast.

Normally, I get on quite well with Philip K Dick’s work. It’s weird, sure, but there’s something engaging about it nonetheless and he sucks you in to his bizarre worlds easily. This one, however, was nigh on impenetrable. You’re thrown into the world, which isn’t always a bad thing, but the immediate submerging in a text full of neologisms that refer to technology we don’t have, means you’re already on the back foot. Yes, there is a lot in here about the state of politics and how the government will just out-and-out lie to give themselves better lives, talking about sacrifice like it’s something they have to deal with as well as the working classes, but because I’m one of the “little people”, I find absolutely nothing redeeming about these figures and found myself entirely uninterested in what they were doing or what they had to say. Fiction has always been an escape – lying, self-serving politicians is a bit too real in 2019.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood because of the oppressive humidity of the last week and having argued with technology all morning and I’m taking it out on the book. But I think that overall it’s just not one of the best books available from the great man. If they taught Dick’s work in schools, they’d probably make you read this one because it’s all political and not very funny. There are much better examples of his fiction available. I don’t think this one has aged all that well, and would be better forgotten.

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 Iron Bird” by Robert Woodshaw (2019)

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“Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I am a lappet-faced vulture, dear.”

Being one of those people who has a passing knowledge of the classics but hasn’t read most of them, it may come as no surprise that I’ve never actually read Animal Farm. Of course, I know what it’s about and I’ve actually seen a film version of it. As we all recall, it is an allegory for communism as told through a group of farm animals. Robert Woodshaw has taken the principle, shaken it out and injected a sense of modernity with The Iron Bird, the story of the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher as told through the lives of a group of zoo animals.

During the Second World War, young Bel-imperia Pinch, a lappet-faced vulture with dreams of being educated under the wise owls of the Cloisters, finds herself working begrudgingly for her undertaker father, assisting in his role as undertaker of Hesper House and Zoological Gardens. The fledgling knows there must be more to life than burying the dead, and when she meets someone who informs her that she will one day be greater than Chartwell, the elephant seal currently serving as Prime Exhibit, she prepares to develop a core of iron to achieve her goals.

Meanwhile, in 2010, an increasingly fragile Bel-imperia sits in a rarely-seen cage at the zoo, still taking audiences from curious animals and one particularly nosy human writer who wants to know all about her life. A new scent-marking contest is underway in the zoo and the incumbent Prize Exhibit, Ebenezer Bull, a half-blind rhino prone to charging in without thinking, is having his position threatened by the new leader of the Order of Carnivores, the slick smooth-coated otter Dale FitzClarence. Bel-imperia is sure that her time to return to the ranks is nigh, but with her health failing and her mind going, it will be a challenge.

Robert Woodshaw manages to bring what could be a very silly idea to life with great aplomb. Fast-paced and packed with superb characterisation, it’s an example of how to write animals without making them too human. Granted, they can do things that many animals can’t such as write, vote or perform religious ceremonies, but they’re all still done through the eyes and abilities of animals who have their own rules, culture and society. Here, it’s not impolite for a mother bird to regurgitate dinner for their chick, and carrier pigeons are used as the postal service. The novel has its own internal logic, and that’s often all I require.

Woodshaw also does a great job at translating politicians into animals, each one perfectly representing their human counterpart. The three major political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – find themselves populated by carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, respectively. From Gordon Brown’s blind rhino, to David Cameron’s slick otter, and even Boris Johnson’s purposely-dishevelled polar bear, the characters feel rich and good fun, even if the people they’re portraying are less than sympathetic. Other jokes regarding this I particularly liked are the subtle nod to the sheep and goats of Norn Iron Farmstead, a reference to the Troubles of Northern Ireland (“Norn Iron” being exactly how “Northern Ireland” sounds in the appropriate accent) and the fact that the zoo’s equivalent of the House of Lords is populated by extinct creatures, a reference to the average age in the Lords.

Of course, questions are raised regarding how the animals are able to move so freely around the zoo, why dinosaurs and dodos still manage to exist but no human seems to have noticed, how the Prize Exhibit always gets to move into Dower House which appears fit really for humans rather than any of their kind, but somehow none of it matters. You just go with it and it all adds to the humour of the piece. While it is funny, and Woodshaw makes sure to use as many references to real world political parallels, often just as passing references (I’m sure there are many I didn’t get), it’s also curiously moving, and like in the film The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep played Thatcher, you find yourself sympathising with her, even though she is, at the very least, one of the most divisive figures in recent British history.

The novel is a brilliant allegorical tale that should be a key text for anyone interested in recent history. I know I’m someone who complains that there aren’t enough new ideas these days, and many might think that the parallels to Animal Farm here means this counts as a “rehash”, but I happen to disagree in this case. In a lesser writer’s hands, perhaps this wouldn’t work so well, or would be more derivative. I couldn’t do it. Woodshaw has produced a book that sparkles with wit and warmth, and that’s not easy to do when you’re writing about a woman who, according to many, lacked basic human empathy.

Wonderful, thoughtful stuff.


Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“Night Of Camp David” by Fletcher Knebel (1965)

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“Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth.”

I’m not someone who wants to use his platform to discuss political opinion, but in reading a wide variety of novels, sometimes it’s inevitable. In this book, I found myself at the heart of the political system.

Senator Jim McVeagh gets the feeling that his political career is about to get a boost when, after a gala dinner, the President himself, Mark Hollenbach issues an invite for Jim to attend a private meeting at Camp David. When he arrives, Jim becomes uncomfortable when the President reveals that a joke he made during his speech earlier in the night about wiretapping was actually in earnest. It gets worse when he begins to display true paranoia and is convinced that “they” are out to get him.

Unsure what to do, Jim confides in his mistress, Rita, who shares her own story of instability from Hollenbach. Jim attempts to raise the subject with some others high up in Washington, but all that does it make people convinced that he’s the one with the mental illness, and he begins to spot the Secret Service are on his tail night and day. Suddenly, the life he saw as the future vice president is shattered as the President begins to share more of his secret plans, and Jim becomes convinced that the the most powerful man in the world has gone mad – but who is going to believe him?

First published in 1965, the book was at the time pure escapism. Knebel wrote many political thrillers, but this one appears to have dropped out of sight for the last fifty years. In 2018, Vintage announced they were going to publish it again and it has definitely struck a nerve in today’s political climate. Proving to be remarkably prescient, the novel includes early mentions of there being no such thing as “true facts” because it implies the existence of “false facts”, which obviously can’t exist. And yet doesn’t that just resonate with the cries these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”? There’s also a moment where the President plans a meeting with the Russian premier, and the main characters argue that the meeting cannot be allowed to go ahead. Again, timely.

Being of its time, the book is notable for its lack of female characters, with I think only four ever getting any speaking roles: Jim’s wife, his daughter, his mistress, and a secretary. This is not a political landscape where women are present, and probably not even welcome, and with a twenty-first century mindset, their absence is very obvious. Women are never even mentioned as political figures, with many conversations using “men” to describe everyone in the room or who may be of relevance at that moment.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, then this is surely something that you’ll enjoy. As a Brit, my knowledge of the American political system is pretty shaky and I don’t necessarily understand all the titles and roles in play here, but the tension racks up well enough that I also don’t think it matters completely. The dialogue is occasionally quite dense, but not impenetrable, and it does deal with very real and important issues of mental illness, responsibility and power. While interesting and loaded with food for thought, maybe it is a little far fetched. I mean, can you really imagine a mentally unstable, paranoid halfwit being elected to the most powerful office in the world?

Exactly.

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!

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

“The Pottermore Trilogy” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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hogwartsIf there’s one thing we can say about J. K. Rowling (and there are many things, many of which I don’t agree with), it’s that she is one of the finest world-builders of all time. While there are some suggestions that she makes up things on the fly – and maybe a couple of things she has – it always seemed very clear to me that there was a plan in place from the beginning. When you read back and notice Sirius Black getting a name check in the first chapter, two whole books before he turns up, or see the innocuous mentions of the Vanishing Cabinet long before it comes into its own in the sixth book, it’s obvious that she knew a lot more than she was putting in the books.

With the advent of the website Pottermore, we were promised more information on some of the series’ characters and concepts, and she certainly delivered, although you’ll never please all the people all the time and there’s much call for information on main characters like Sirius Black and Neville Longbottom, whereas we’ve often ended up with that on blink-and-you’ll-miss-them characters like Celestina Warbeck and Professor Kettleburn. Nonetheless, if she has this level of information on those characters, she must be able to produce massive tomes on some of the core characters. However, even some die-hard fans found it hard to navigate through the site to get their hands on the new information, so it’s now here and available to us all. While the information is free to read on Pottermore, the three new ebooks, which I’m dubbing here the Pottermore trilogy but have no official grouped title, are cheap to download and contain a little extra too. They were released yesterday and by the time I’d finished breakfast this morning, I’d read them all. The full titles of the three are:

  • Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide
  • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists
  • Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies

The first listed is, as you’d expect, all information about the school itself, telling us more about the Hogwarts Express and the creation of the hidden platform at King’s Cross, the Sorting Hat, the ghosts, the grounds and some of the school’s more peculiar artifacts such as the Mirror of Erised. The second, Power, details information about the Ministry of Magic (including a list of all Ministers) and those who seek or have been granted great power of one kind or another, including Umbridge, Slughorn and Quirrell. Peeves is also discussed in detail here, simply I think for the purposes of alliteration in the title. The final book, Heroism, is primarily about some of the most important and influencial secondary characters, McGonagall, Lupin and Trelawney, but also has some extra information about things associated with them, such as werewolves and seers.

Are the books worth getting? Yeah, sure. There isn’t a great deal of extra content unfortunately, but we get the full guide on how to become an Animagus, and find out more about Slughorn’s history. If you’re a die hard fan, then of course they belong in your collection, but as I said above, most of the information is available on Pottermore for free. People seem to be slating Rowling for now charging for it, but the original hasn’t been removed, so it’s still completely accessible for everyone. No one is making them buy these books.

I personally love the extra information she has stored up about her world, and I always get excited when there is anything extra revealed. There were rumours once of an encyclopedia about everything, but if these books teach us anything it’s that that is going to be one enormous book. And if it ever emerged, I’d devour the thing in one sitting. Until that day, we shall make do with these rather brilliant little bonus books.

“Something Rotten” by Jasper Fforde (2004)

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something“The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance.”

And I’m back to Fforde. This review will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read the earlier books, so make sure you’re up to date on The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots before checking this one out. This might just be the best of the bunch so far.

The fourth book in Thursday Next’s story picks up in 1988, two years after the events of the last one. She’s now heading up Jurisfiction and has spent most of the missing years within fiction, avoiding the real world where her husband no longer exists, having been eradicated when he was two-years-old. She is still a woman of action though, and hasn’t been held back by her infant son Friday. However, when an incident in the Western genre goes wrong, Thursday finds herself unwilling to stay on and so makes her way back into the real world, bringing Hamlet along with her as he’s under the impression that people in the Outland see him as something of a ditherer.

It couldn’t be a worse time to bring a Danish prince to England though, as the new Chanellor Yorrick Kaine – a fictional character who has escaped from who knows where – has all but declared war on Denmark and is setting about banning all Danish literature. Elsewhere, evil corporation Goliath has decided to apologise for all its past transgressions and is turning itself into a religion, the thirteenth-century seer St Zvlkx is due to make an appearance again, hopefully to discuss his Revealments, there’s an assassin after Thursday, in the absence of Hamlet, Ophelia has led a hostile takeover of the play and ruined it, and the fate of the world rests on Swindon winning the World Croquet League this coming weekend.

It’s just another normal day for Thursday Next.

As ever, there are a million different threads here but they all tie up wonderfully. Things from previous novels are brought back and explained, and we get a whole new list of things to enjoy. The star of the book though, other than Thursday, is Hamlet. He begins consuming the different versions of his play that we’ve produced, and finds that everyone seems to have their own take on who he is and how he feels. After all, he’s never had a clue himself. He’s portrayed as a worrier who is unable to make a snap decision, as well as being somewhat vain but very emotionally unstable. He’s a delight, and you can tell Fforde enjoyed playing with him, although at the end you do get the feeling it was all done just to have a single joke pay off brilliantly. But I’m not complaining.

Another great sequence involves Thursday and friends heading across the Welsh border to track down a cloned Shakespeare, playing on the notion of infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. What if you had infinite Shakespeares? How much quicker would you find genius? The book is full of great scenes, and also becomes the first in the series to introduce illustrations, which bring to life the bizarre world even further.

There’s also the introduction of a few new characters, such as Cindy Stoker, the most dangerous assassin in England and wife of Thursday’s friend Spike, Millon de Floss, Thursday’s official stalker, and young Friday, who is it hinted at will become very important to the planet’s future survival. After spending the majority of the last book inside the Bookworld, it’s quite refreshing to now return to this bizarre, twisted version of England that Fforde has created. Any world that gives us dodos, croquet as a national sport, and George Formby as President is one that I want to spend more time in. Fforde continues to write with such intelligent humour that you laugh your way through a book that feels light as air and never bogs you down, despite occasionally dealing with some very dramatic and beautifully written scenes about love and loss.

The book feels like it’s wrapping up, and in some ways it is. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Thursday, but it feels like an end of “part one”, as in the next book, we will have jumped ahead in time to the early 21st century. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

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