“This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us” by Edgar Cantero (2019)

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“Elmore Leonard said it’s bad style to open a novel with the weather.”

It’s hard being trapped, isn’t it? At the moment, there is definitely that vibe over my island home, as the Prime Minister has locked down the nation to limit the spread of coronavirus. (I’ll try not to keep bringing this up, but it is all that’s on my mind of late.) Nonetheless, not all traps are physical, or maybe you don’t mind the location but it’s the company that is problematic. Now imagine having to share a body. How would you cope with that?

Adrian and Zooey Kimrean are private investigators unlike any others in the world. Born into the same body, they are basically conjoined twins but joined at a very base level. It’s his liver and her heart, one arm and leg each, and while Adrian controls one half of the brain, meaning he’s pure logic, Zooey controls the other that longs for a hedonistic lifestyle. Their androgynous appearance and apparent split personality is therefore confusing to many others, but there’s no denying the two of them are among the finest detectives in California.

When the sons of drug cartel boss Victor Lyon start getting killed in the seedy town of San Carnal, A. Z. Kimrean (as the duo are collectively known) are hired to find out who is responsible. No one wants it to be the yakuza, and yet it just might be, and that would be bad news for everyone. Kimrean has to work out who is really behind it, all the while saving the youngest of the Lyon clan, saving an undercover police officer, and, as the book itself puts it, “face every plot device and break every rule Elmore Leonard wrote” to solve the case.

What a riot. Never mind the madcap plot, even, but as I learnt from the last of his books I read, no one writes like Edgar Cantero. The whole thing knows it’s a novel, and the characters do too, and he’s not afraid to mention a room as being the same on “from Chapter 3” instead of describing it again, or not giving a character a name because “he’ll probably be dead by the end of the next page”. In places, it’s hugely cinematic, others very meta. While none of us may know exactly what Cantero is doing, he does, and thank goodness for that. There are laugh out loud lines on every page, and no one has had a mastery over metaphor and allusion like this since the days of Douglas Adams. At one point, a punchline references a Vine video, something that many readers – and particularly those who don’t spend all their time on social media – would have no idea about, and yet it’s a bonus for anyone who gets it.

Kimrean themselves is a miracle of a creation. Imagine if Sherlock Holmes and Dirk Gently were inhabiting the same body and you get the kind of level of detection work that’s going on here. The grammar is, at times, confusing, but both parts of Kimrean’s personality get their own time to shine and you see how they work together in harmony. Well, almost. At least once do the two personalities come to physical blows, and it takes a great deal of skill to write a character fighting their own body. Is the premise a bit silly? Certainly, but it’s fun, and you don’t care. Even the plot is really quite nondescript, and I won’t be able to tell you much about what actually happened a few months down the line, but the real drama in here is Adrian and Zooey and their relationship with each other and the world. If you like your murders gory and silly in equal measure, here is where to come.

The next book on my list is complete escapism. It’s what we need most.

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!

“Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2015)

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“4 Conflicting Parts of Himself Darren Jacobs Attempts to Ignore as He Tries to Ask a Particular Eleventh-Grade Girl for a Really Big Favor on Friday, April 25, at 10:38 a.m.”

I’m one of those people who loves lists. I write lists for everything – books I’ve read, films I need to watch, things to buy, errands to run. I’m also one of those who adds things to lists just to cross them off to make myself look productive. Every list I write begins “Write list”, simply so I can cross that off immediately. However, I can’t say that it had ever crossed my mind to write a novel entirely in lists. It’s too late now anyway – Todd Hasak-Lowy has beaten me to it.

Darren Jacobs is your average, awkward fifteen-year-old living in Chicago. He’s had a terrible year, with his parents divorcing, his brother moving away to university, and his best friend leaving the state. He’s also still hopelessly single. Things reach a head when Darren learns that the reason for his parents divorce is that his father is gay. Unwilling to deal with the fallout, or put up with the long drive to Ann Arbor to visit his brother Nate with his dad, Darren instead approaches one of the cool girls at school, Zoey Lovell, and asks if she’ll give him a ride to the bus station so he can go alone.

It’s only when the bus stops along the route that Darren discovers Zoey came along too, and the two unlikely companions find themselves with Darren’s cool brother Nate exploring the drug-laden world of university. Darren isn’t sure if Zoey is now is girlfriend, or even if she wants to be, and when she disappears, he starts to wonder if any of it ever happened. That one daring weekend, however, will have consequences for everyone that make it clear it really unfolded…

Were it not for the unique style of this novel, I think I would have been far less generous in my thoughts about it. Without the structure of everything being written in lists, it’s your classic “awkward American teenager meets a manic pixie dream girl and joins a band” sort of thing, although not without charm. Zoey doesn’t interest me much as we’ve seen her type too many times before, but I am fond of the Jacobs family, particularly Nate, the older brother. Yes, he’s something of a cliche too, but I find him and his relationship with Darren particularly engaging. I can’t recall off the top of my head many stories that focus on sibling relationships – and even fewer on positive ones – so that makes a nice change.

The novel’s real charm, of course, comes from the unique trait of it being written solely in lists. They run the gamut of listing emotions, memories, dialogue and reasons for things happening to simply rings of a telephone, fingers, letters and items in a bag. One page simply has “5 Months That Have Passed” and listing them, rather than just saying “Five months passed…”, another lists “8 Best Things Darren Ever Built out of Legos, in Chronological Order”. In this style, we jump back and forth through the timeline and learn about Darren and his world in an interesting, if somewhat academic way. It’s very easy to read though, and while I’m not sure it would work for most genres or stories, it fits perfectly here. The lists themselves are not referenced until towards the end when there is a comment about whether the lists we give ourselves in life are good or bad, so even though the book is entirely lists, they never feel intrusive.

An intriguing take on story structure that saves and enhances a tale we’ve, admittedly, probably read before.

“The Making Of Us” by Lisa Jewell (2011)

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making of us“Glenys Pike was thirty-five years old.”

I’ve always considered myself lucky to have such a close family. Oh sure, we argue and bicker, but I know that when the chips are down, they’ll be there for me, and I for them. To imagine life without a close family is strange to me. But this is one of the issues in Lisa Jewell’s The Making of Us. It’s been a few years since I read Jewell, but I’m a big fan of hers, and I’ve got a bit behind on her output. It was time to sort that out.

This is the story of Lydia, a self-made millionaire who lives alone in an enormous London mansion and is struggling with life now her best friend has had a child. Lydia has no one, her parents are both long dead, and she feels herself drifting from her friend. This is also the story of Robyn, a street-smart, uber-confident girl who has just turned eighteen and her life is completely and utterly perfect in every possible way, down to the fact that she’s just met the man of her dreams. This is also the story of Dean, a young man who has suddenly been thrust into fatherhood when his daughter is born prematurely and his girlfriend dies in childbirth. Unable to cope with the situation, he runs.

These three don’t know each other, but the world soon conspires to bring them together. It turns out that each of them shares something huge – they are all the progeny of the same sperm donor. He, Daniel, is in a hospice, dying of cancer, and calls upon his friend Maggie to help in in his final hours. Daniel wants to meet his children.

Each chapter gives us the point of view of a different character – usually Lydia, Robyn, Dean or Maggie – and allows us into their version of the world. Jewell captures the struggle of loneliness well, and her characters are all wonderfully distinct. She notes in the back of the book that she enjoyed writing this one, and it shows. Jewell is excellent at setting her stories so intensely in the real world that we feel that these people might be living just down the road from us. They certainly feel real.

But this is a heartbreaking book, too, a study in the ways our lives can go wrong and what we can do to fix them again. It’s about how all families are different, but they’re all extraordinary. Jewell ties everything up nicely, and the one potentially contrived plot point I was worried was coming didn’t (although it turned into something much sadder), and the book ends on a note of hope, that these characters are going to be OK. And that’s good, I want them to be.

I think my favourite character is Dean. There’s something sweet about him, even if he does run out on his daughter. He’s not perfect, but he’s young and scared, and he needs more of an anchor in his life. He never had a father, and his mother doesn’t seem interested in helping him get on with his life particularly, so he needs a family more than the rest, I think. Robyn is my least favourite narrator, but she’s not without charm. I just think she’d irritate me if I met her, since she appears intensely self-absorbed.

Once again, I am reminded that Jewell’s name is very apt – she is a diamond. She can take the everyday lives of people and make them interesting, allowing them to sparkle and shine. It’s an interesting book, and like many stories, there are sections that are better than others, overall it’s brilliant; very moving and very positive.

“Born Weird” by Andrew Kaufman (2013)

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Some are born weird; some have weirdness thrust upon them.

Some are born weird; some have weirdness thrust upon them.

“The Weirds acquired their surname through a series of events that some would call coincidence and others would call fate.”

Andrew Kaufman is up there with Agatha Christie, Jasper Fforde and Douglas Coupland as one of my favourite writers of all time. Although he’s only penned four books, and none of them are very long – two are barely one hundred pages each – he manages to weave such beauty into his prose that his skill can’t really be brought into question. The man has immense talent, and once again he’s proved himself to be a master storyteller.

This is the story of the Weird family, five siblings who have, without their knowledge, been cursed. When each was born, their grandmother Annie Weird, known to them as The Shark, bestowed upon them a special power. The eldest, Richard, would always stay safe; Abba would never lose hope; Lucy would never get lost; Kent would be physically stronger than anyone he fought; and Angie would always forgive everybody, instantly.

But the children are now adults and haven’t spoken in years. Angie finds herself meeting her grandmother again, who informs her that she is not far off dying. She has realised now that the blessings she gave her grandchildren have become curses. If Angie can get all five Weird siblings into her hospital room before she dies in thirteen days, she will remove their gifts before she dies, leaving them free again. Angie at first refuses, but her grandmother soon proves that she is more than capable of bending the universe to make life hell, so with no other option, Angie sets about tracking down her siblings.

Kaufman has a rare gift in that he can make the magical seem mundane and the mundane seem magical. Angie and her siblings are not particularly thrown by the notion of the curses (or “blursings” as they become known, a portmanteau of “blessing” and “curse”), as if that sort of thing just happens. He also throws in other fun asides, such as the fact that both Annie and Angie have hearts twice the average size, that as kids the five built a city in their attic called Rainytown, and that Abba just now happens to be the queen of a country called Upliffta. No time is wasted dwelling on these points, they just are what they are.

While sweet and magical, it’s also tragically heartbreaking. The kids are almost alone in the world after their father disappears one night and, mad with grief, their mother forgets who they are and becomes convinced that the family home is a hotel she’s staying at. The characters are all well-realised and believable, despite their blursings. Angie has become a pushover, Richard is three-times divorced because whenever things stop feeling safe, he backs away, and Lucy never has to ask for directions, either in the physical world or in life generally. This is a book that shows you why our flaws aren’t flaws – they’re what round us out.

I’ve yet to read a Kaufman I didn’t like, and I have a feeling I probably never will. Read this book now, because it’s just quite simply beautiful.

“Carry The One” by Carol Anshaw (2012)

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carry1“So Carmen was married, just.”

Literature, like life, runs the gamut of the happy to the depressing, and that is what makes it so wonderful. And just because a book makes you sad, that is not a reason to be sad yourself. In fact, if a book succeeds in making you sad, then it is a very good book. After all, you’re just reading slices of tree with inky squiggles on them. Not all books can be laugh-a-minute comedies or set in esoteric and strange fantasy worlds – some of them have to tug at the heartstrings.

Carry The One (which is a wonderfully evocative title) begins at the wedding of Carmen and Matt and, while this should be a day of happiness, it ends on a note of tragedy. Leaving the venue late that night, a car of five guests, all sleepy, stoned or drunk, sets off with just its fog lights on and, somewhere down the track, hits a small girl who is catapulted over the car and declared dead almost immediately.

The rest of the novel follows the car’s passengers for the next two and a half decades and how this event follows their every waking minute. In the car are aspiring artist Alice, her brother Nick who is stoned and wearing a wedding dress, his new girlfriend Olivia – the fated driver of the car – wedding singer Tom and the groom’s sister Maude, who has just slept with Alice and seems keen on continuing the habit. Alice and Nick’s other sister Carmen, she who just got married, also feels guilt for allowing them to drive off without their lights on. From the moment the young girl, Casey Redman, hits the front of the car, their lives are inexplicably changed and wherever life leads them from this moment on, they are part of an exclusive club that is burdened with grief and, wherever life takes any of them, they always have to carry the one.

While the characters are not always entirely sympathetic, they are nonetheless interesting and their lives don’t seem extreme, and neither do any of their reactions to the death. Twenty-five years is a long time to cover, and the characters spread from 1984 to 2009 (approximately, given signals from other events that occur in the world while their lives unfold), given us a full insight into the way their futures pan out. While there are some touching, tender moments of happiness, they have to deal with issues such as divorce, drug addiction, affairs, prison, politics and fame, all of which are shown in a gritty, unpleasant manner.

Perhaps they all feel they have been cursed somewhat by the events of that fateful night. Alice’s best work are paintings of the girl they killed, as she may have been if she’d lived, but she cannot bring herself to ever show them to anyone. Nick spirals down into a mess of drink and drugs, supposedly unable to forgive himself for that night. They all blame themselves, with the exception of the singer Tom, who has turned the event into a song and is making money off the tragedy, something the others cannot forgive him for.

Secondary characters are also constructed with more than one direction, such as Carmen’s son Gabe, and the parents of the three siblings. It put me in mind a little of a book I read a couple of years back called Breaking Away, which was also about the relationships between siblings. More than anything, it is a story that deals with their relationships with one another. I find I never see enough books that have this as a focal point or central theme of the story, when sibling relationships are perhaps among the most interesting and complicated of any that exist.

It’s a very moving book. Not exactly gripping, but your interest would be hard pushed to wane and the ending is delicately handled and rather beautiful. Above all, it’s a novel about grief and guilt, two feelings that I think every human on the planet has considerable experience of, and perhaps that is what makes it so relatable.

Need something a little more unrelatable? Try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which is about gods, witches and immortality. And stick around too, as I’m about to embark on a certain classic sci-fi writer for the first time for my next review.

“Breaking Away” by Anna Gavalda (2009)

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breaking“I hadn’t even sat down yet, one buttock still hovering, my hand on the car door, and already my sister-in-law was on the attack.”

Most of you reading this probably have siblings. Older or younger, brother or sister, one or many, you may well have grown up with another one in the nest, seeking the same attention as you. I have a sister who is currently farming and emu-wrangling* her way through Australia and I miss her a lot. This book was perhaps not the right thing to read, then.

*possibly

Most of the action takes place in one location – a car. Garance has just been picked up by her brother Simon and his shrew of a wife Carine, and they are now off to a family wedding. The story is told from Garance’s point of view and is pretty much a review of the relationships and lives of her and her three siblings – Simon, Lola and Vincent.

Garance worships all three of her siblings, incomplete without any of them, thinking that each of them is a saint in their own ways (except Simon, who is better than a saint). It builds up a tapestry of their relationships merely through her wandering thoughts as they push through the French countryside. Lola eventually confirms that she’s coming too, so they pick her up from the station (much to Carine’s annoyance) and then head off to the wedding. Arriving, they discover that Vincent isn’t coming, so the three slip away and head to his chateau to find him.

It’s a little novella, but there isn’t a word wasted among its pages. It’s beautiful, charming, warm and above all real. You want to be able to sit with these people and it feels like an honour to be allowed to spend a little time with them. It is exquisite in its construction, given that, as mentioned, most of it takes place in the same confined location with just three present characters. It’s a book about adulthood, and how we all have to let go of our childhood, even though the real world is full of disappointments, bad lovers, mistakes and responsibilities we’d rather ignore (the throwaway line about what Garance does for a living is a bit of a shock given what you’ve learnt of her so up until that point).

It’s happy but sad at the same time, and a gorgeous little novel to finish up the year on.

Happy New Year, everyone. See you in 2014! X