“Bonjour Tristesse” and “A Certain Smile” by Françoise Sagan (1954)

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“This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’.”

Despite it only being a short boat ride away, I’ve never been to France. It’s not somewhere that holds a great deal of appeal for me, despite the wine flowing like water through the countryside. Besides, it’s much cheaper to travel by book. I’ve just paid two visits with this collection by one of France’s finest young writers.

In the first story, Bonjour Tristesse, we meet seventeen-year-old Cécile who enjoys a life of laziness on the French Riviera with her father, the philandering Raymond, and his new mistress, the superficial Elsa. Because Raymond has no intellectual interests, instead spending his time meeting women and socialising, Cécile in turn doesn’t show any interest in her studies, instead spending her time achieving a sexual eucducation from Cyril, the student in the villa next door.

Things change, however, when Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s mother appear at the villa. She is intelligent and cultured, and the same age as Raymond, making her a far more suitable match for marriage, and within days Elsa has been turfed out and Anne and Raymond announce their engagement. Seeing this as a threat to her lazy, privileged life, Cécile schemes with Cyril and Elsa to get Anne out of the picture, with tragic consequences.

In the second story, A Certain Smile, Dominique is a young Parisian student who embarks on an affair with Luc, the uncle of her current boyfriend, despite knowing that if his doting and very sweet wife Françoise was to find out, it would ruin their blossoming friendship. Unperturbed and acting on base instinct, the affair continues but Dominique is sure that Luc will never leave his wife, meaning more than one person’s heart will get broken as events unfold.

The Guardian, and I sense they aren’t alone, called Sagan “the French F. Scott Fitzgerald”. I’m not sure I’d go that far. There is perhaps a similarity in style, but my overall sense is that she’s a 1950s Sally Rooney. Like her, the stories are led by unlikable, selfish young women who have read too many stories and think they understand what love is. Cécile and Dominique both act without realising that everyone else around them is also human with their own emotions and failings, and one gets the impression that even when you leave them to deal with the fall out of their actions, they’re never going to learn from their mistakes.

The writing, however, is beautiful (it’s French and the French don’t do ugly) and conjures up the long days of French summers and the need to do nothing in a hurry. Despite being written sixty years ago, in many ways it feels surprisingly modern, and I suppose it just reveals that people haven’t really changed all that much, not at a fundamental level anyway. We’re all just looking for ways to stem the boredom that encroaches some days, but we may not always go about it the best way.

Of the two, I think I preferred A Certain Smile, but with both I found myself sympathising with the older female characters most of all. Anne and Françoise do not deserve their fates in these books, whereas the protagonists are, as I said, not people I want to befriend and the men are all, well, men. That’s maybe the bit that tells you more that you’re in a different era. A book like this could be written now, but must be prepared to face a backlash. It is of its time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is now, too.

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 Platform Edge” edited by Mike Ashley (2019)

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“‘There’s a lot in knowing your engine well,’ said the Driver, as he shut the regulator and laid hold of the Westinghouse brake handle.”

What is it about trains that makes them so fascinating? They’ve been around for a long time now and yet have generally had some kind of hold over us. They still seem romantic, dangerous, exciting things that can take us anywhere and give us a whole new adventure. Unless you’re travelling on Southern, of course, like I normally have to. On the other hand, fiction is peppered with them, and there they take on a whole new lease of life. Trains continue to fascinate, and so do ghost stories, so The Platform Edge is a perfect marriage, containing some of the most obscure and spooky stories of haunted trains and ghost locomotives ever written. Just in time for Halloween!

Spanning 1878 to 1985, these eighteen stories – edited together by Mike Ashley – bring railways old and new to life, each filling us with dread and horror. There are spectral passengers, tales of hypnosis, dead drivers with warnings from beyond the grave, a haunted ghost train, and who-knows-what lurking in the subway. The range of authors is wide too. While F. Scott Fitzgerald is in here, he’s probably the only one who is a household name. Others include the author of the Mapp and Lucia novels, E. F. Benson, and

More are very obscure. Michael Vincent is one such author and Ashley admits he didn’t manage to find out anything else about the man. L. G. Mobley is another who was noted in her time (her short story “Inexplicable” was a big influence on Sigmund Freud and his use of the word “uncanny”), but her story in this book, “A Strange Night” hasn’t been seen in print for over a century.

The outstanding story for me was “A Smoking Ghost” by W. G. Kelly. Unique and darkly funny, it contains an idea I’ve never seen anywhere before. A man is alone in a train carriage when a second traveller barges in. When our hero complains about the cold, the newcomer offers to swap places with him, but this happens far more literally than our hero could have imagined. In “A Subway Called Mobius”, the a subway is thrown into chaos when one of the trains entirely disappears. While it never shows up again in any stations, subway workers do occasionally hear it rumbling past, but always just out of sight and often in two places at once. “The Last Train” takes us into the London Underground where a driver is under the impression that the disused station Museum is still active. He wonders what would happen if he stopped there…

In fact, the story I was least impressed with was Fitzgerald’s. His comes late in the book, and is about a haunted train and a lost love, but it’s a little disjointed and never quite grabbed me in the same way as many of the others. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt – I expected more given the high quality of the stories that had come before. While there’s no way we can remember all authors equally, it is wonderful to have some of these forgotten names given a chance to be rediscovered. When you learn that some of these stories have been lost and languishing in libraries for over a hundred years, it makes you wonder what else we’ve forgotten. Well done to the British Library to taking the time to dig up these forgotten gems.

If you want a little bit of a fright this Halloween season, this is a good place to start.

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!

“Suddenly, A Knock On The Door” by Etgar Keret (2012)

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“‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands.”

Short story collections remain, like sketch shows, somewhat hit and miss. When a writer packages together a lot of their work in one go, it is easier to compare them and see what you do and don’t like. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories in here, but some of them definitely left a bit to be desired.

The title story of Suddenly, A Knock On The Door features a writer being held at gunpoint by a man who demands he tell a story, which begins to fold in on itself as every time he tries, someone else arrives with the same plea. In the dark “Teamwork”, a divorced man tries to work out a way to save his son from an abusive grandmother. In “A Good One”, a board game designer arrives to a meeting with a bloodied nose and a briefcase containing nothing but a half-eaten apple. In “Surprise Party”, a wife tries to make her distant husband happy but ends up spending time with some distant acquaintances instead. And then there’s “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” where a man begins a documentary project about the wishes people would ask for if they had the power.

Set mostly in Israel, the stories have a large focus on uncertainty, loneliness, divorce, family and sadness. Few characters in the stories are happy and a lot of them seem to be trapped and unable (or unwilling) to prise themselves out of their ruts. A lot of the stories end abruptly or without giving us a firm resolution, leaving us to make up our own minds about what happens next. Sometimes this works, sometimes I wanted a solid answer.

“Pick a Colour” was a particular favourite story, highlighting in a very clever way the truth of racism, immigration and intolerance. “Lieland” was also interesting, and is one of the many stories to dabble in magic realism, with a compulsive liar finding out that all of his lies have come true and now he has to deal with the consequences. “Healthy Start” is also an interesting one, about a lonely man who has breakfast in the same cafe every morning by himself. Whenever he sees someone come in who is looking for someone, he waves them over and pretends to be whoever it is they’re meant to be meeting, be it a wife’s lover or a business partner.

It’s hard to know quite what else to say about this collection. Yes, there are some great ideas in here – some dark, some funny – and the prose style is easy, but then again it’s a translation, so as ever, I don’t know what’s been lost. Overall, though, I feel there’s something lacking and it didn’t resonate with me as much as I perhaps hoped it would. You might have better luck.

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!

“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

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!

“Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy (2009)

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“Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.”

Life is an endless series of choices. We find ourselves an endless number of futures ahead of us, and then the decisions we make whittle down the options, but there will always be more. Left or right. Buy or sell. Stay or go. Hide or seek. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in time travel fiction, the heroes are always so concerned that any actions they make in the past might affect the future, but we never seem to pause in our own present to realise that the decisions we make now are making big changes in the future. There’s no time travel in this book, however, just simple people with big decisions to make.

Meloy’s book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which centre around a person who has reached a figurative crossroads in their life and need to decide what they’re going to do about it. Chet Moran is worried that he’ll never see Beth Travis again, unless he does something about it. Aaron needs to decide whether or not to continue his relationship with his tiresome brother George. Naomi has to choose what action she takes when her friend confesses that she thinks her husband is having an affair. And Everett and Pam have got to make up their minds regarding the strangers they found in the snow.

Some of the same themes recur over and over, and there is definitely some repetition of situations, with affairs and relationships between parents and children, but they all feel real and raw. The silliest one, and probably my favourite, is “Liliana”, which is about a man who finds his grandmother alive and well on his doorstep, despite her death and autopsy two months previously. It turns out that her death was all something of a “misunderstanding” and so she has returned to check up on him and his family. Many of the other stories are quite tragic, such as “Travis, B.” which is about a young man struggling with feelings of love for the first time and not having the ability to do anything with them, or “Red from Green”, which is about a father failing to stop the molestation of his daughter and how their relationship drifts apart afterwards.

Curiously candid and not overly flowery, the stories are short and punchy, and I think all of them left me with a sense of wanting to know what happened next. Intriguing little nuggets of fiction that tap into those bits of being human that we don’t always like being tapped. Worth a read if you’re after something quick.

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!

“Mythos” by Stephen Fry (2017)

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“These days the origin of the universe is explained by proposing a Big Bang, a single event that instantly brought into being all the matter from which everything and everyone are made.”

I return again to the Greek myths. No culture on Earth has produced a mythology quite like this, as far as I’m concerned. I’m doing a lot of research into Egyptian myth lately for a project, and they’ve got some fun stories, but for me the Greeks really have it all tied up. Stephen Fry turns his talented hand to retelling the stories in a modern language for us to enjoy once more, and he does it with all the skill, humour and wit that we expect from him.

Starting from Chaos, Fry takes us on a journey from the first beings like Gaia, Ouranos and Nyx, through the reign of the titans, to the rise of Zeus and the Olympians and into the Silver Age where gods mingled with mortals and neither tended to come out of it well. We meet and learn the stories of everyone who matters including Hades (misunderstood Lord of the Underworld), Hera (the most jealous wife in history), Midas (the cursed king), Sisyphus (the twice-cheater of death), Arachne (who dared call herself the world’s greatest weaver) and Helios (the driver of the sun’s chariot).

What I always found most amazing is that these stories manage to explain pretty much everything that existed in the Greeks world, and make the mundane magical. The Atlas mountains are the remains of Atlas himself. Echo was once a woman who talked too much. The Sahara desert only exists because of an accident with the sun’s chariot, and even tiny things get an explanation, such as why the river Pactolus is a natural source of electrum, and why chaffinches have pink cheeks. It all makes me wonder what stories they would’ve come up with had they ever encountered penguins, kangaroos or computers. Everything from the seasons to spiders becomes more fascinating if you think of it in mythological terms.

There’s something particularly wonderful about the Greek myths because the gods, despite being, well, gods, are impossibly human. They have flaws and jealousies, rages and rivalries, and generally aren’t exactly the most pleasant of beings. And yet this makes them all the more compelling. We can see ourselves in their stories, and see that humanity was indeed made in their image, even before Pandora opened her vase and released the bad things into the world. There are tales here of revenge, hubris, betrayal and lust. The Greek myths form the first soap opera, and it’s one that I adore.

Fry is, of course, one of those modern polymaths who can do absolutely anything he turns his attention to – except for, apparently, singing and dancing – and he clearly takes a lot of joy in retelling these tales, adding his own unique spirit to them. They don’t need much in the way of adaptation to be palatable for modern audiences, so he instead revels in adding inconsequential details and silly jokes, all of which are hugely appreciated.

Whether you’re new to the myths, or already fell in love with them, this is vital 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 check it out!

“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

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