“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

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“Jude In London” by Julian Gough (2011)

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jude“I left the iceberg behind me and swam toward England.”

My knowledge of Irish literature is scant. When I visited the Writer’s Museum in Dublin last year, I found myself facing the facts that I haven’t read much that’s come out of the country, mostly because I immediately think of James Joyce and the bits of Ulysses I read at university, which sends that part of my brain scurrying away beneath a desk and hoping no one mentions Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll probably get around to some of the less terrifying ones in time. I bring this up because the hero of today’s novel, Jude, is an Irishman, and there’s some suggestion that this book is an updated version of Tristram Shandy, but I’ll have to take the word of other reviewers for that.

The book opens with Jude clinging to an iceberg in the Irish Sea, floating towards Great Britain where he hopes to find the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with, Angela. It’s worth noting this early on that this book is actually a sequel, so I assume the first book gives detail as to how he’s got into this situation. However, the book does nicely open with a recap on what we’ve missed, including the details that after an accident, Jude has had reconstructive surgery so that he looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, except he has a fully functioning penis as a nose. Oh yes, it’s that sort of book.

Anyway, Jude washes up on the shores of England (or Wales) and then begins his journey to London to find Angela. But things aren’t as simple as just tracking down the love of his life. Along the way he saves the universe, stars in a porn film, chases a monkey, gets mistaken for an artist, kills the Poet Laureate, and comes close to finding out who abandoned him in an Orphanage eighteen years ago. He also finds himself in conversations about Irish literature, comparing them to famous superheroes, and a lengthy but brilliant explanation of the credit crunch using goats.

The plot itself is thin, but that’s not why anyone’s here. We’re here for the sheer strangeness of the novel. It’s well written, and you find yourself pressing on because you can’t imagine where on earth it’s going to go next. I don’t think Gough himself knows. While Jude’s situations are, frankly, unbelievable, you can’t really stop yourself from reading them. It’s sharply satirical – there’s probably a lot about Irish culture that I don’t get – and delights in messing around with surreal jokes, curious construction, and general piss-taking. I particularly enjoyed seeing him arrive early at the Tate Modern and decide to tidy up, which includes making a messy, unmade bed, and cleaning out an enormous fish tank with a dead shark in it, with a long piss in a handy urinal afterwards.

If you like a book you can understand, give this one a miss. If you like something rambling, funny and strange, then there are few books that fit the bill better. Odd, but satisfying.

“This Census-Taker” by China Miéville (2016)

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census taker“A boy ran down a hill path screaming.”

China Miéville is a name that still doesn’t trip off enough tongues, as far as I’m concerned, but the reviews on his latest book all but sum up how those in the know do feel about him. He’s been called “one of our most important writers”, “incomparable” and “ambitious”, and even the great Ursula K Le Guin refers to him as “brilliant”. This is my third venture into his works, after The City and the City and Kraken, and while, yes, it is my least favourite of the three, it nonetheless is till full of magic and oddness that makes it hugely endearing. So let’s cover the plot.

Set in a poor town in the misty mountains of an otherwise undisclosed location, a boy runs from his house further up the hill down into the town by the bridge, screaming that he’s just seen something terrible. The villagers try and help him, but when the boy’s father tells them that it’s all been a misunderstanding, But the boy is sure that he saw his father kill his mother. Left alone on the hill with only his increasingly deranged father, he is trapped and finds no one will listen to him; that is, until the census-taker comes to visit.

It’s a short book, and the plot is fairly simple. Not a lot happens but, this being Miéville, there’s still a lot going on, and far more that never gets explained. We don’t get many answers to the questions we have and little is revealed that isn’t absolutely necessary. We don’t know where the story is set, the age or name of the protagonist (only two characters actually get names at all) and it’s unclear whether something magical is happening or not. These are not necessarily complaints – they make you want to keep reading.

The boy’s father is a key maker, but there’s a suggestion that this is something supernatural. People ask him for what they want, and he makes a key that helps them get it. Maybe they need wealth, or they need to escape, but they can do this with whatever key the father makes for them. Is this to be taken literally? Is there magic afoot here, or is it the misunderstandings of a small boy? We’ll never know.

It isn’t my favourite of Miéville’s books, but it’s a good starter novel for anyone who wants to read him but is daunted by his larger tomes. Dip in and find yourself caught up in his weird and wonderful style.

“The Teleportation Accident” by Ned Beauman (2012)

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Send it to another place.

Send it to another place.

“When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriend’s lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex.”

It’s been a while, so if you have no other form of entertainment than this blog and have noticed I’ve been missing, you may be wondering where I’ve been. In the real world, I have been pony trekking in Somerset (just don’t ask) but in the literary world, I’ve been in 1930s Berlin and latterly Los Angeles, struggling with a dense novel. So here we go, with Ned Beauman’s second novel.

Boxer, Beetle was Beauman’s debut novel and I confess that it is one that entirely bypassed me, and I don’t know anything about it. Neither, as you’ll soon learn, do I much care to. I’m getting ahead of myself, because I don’t want to insult the book, so let’s cover the premise and then move on to critique.

In Berlin in the early 1930s, Egon Loeser, a set designer in the theatre, is struggling a contraption called a teleportation device that will move actors from one side of the stage to the other in a heartbeat, and also with a complete lack of sex. It hasn’t helped that his ex-girlfriend has just hooked up with someone else and he has just met Adele Hitler (no relation) and immediately fallen in love with her. Unfortunately, so has everyone else. Avoiding all other sexual interaction until he can have Adele, Loeser begins to slowly lose his mind and when he hears that she has left Berlin, he goes after her, following her to Paris and then Los Angeles. In America, however, he discovers that due to the events going on in Germany now under the charismatic new chancellor, almost everyone he knew has also one by one upped sticks and moved half a world away.

In Los Angeles, he continues seeking out Adele but gets mixed up with his favourite author Stent Mutton, and some scientists at CalTech who, among other strange and secret projects, are working on a teleportation device, only this one has grander applications than the theatre, if only Professor Bailey and his assistant can solve the riddle of how to make it work.

When it comes to the actual writing, Beauman is near enough a genius. He is funny, clever and good with words and I can’t take any of that away from him. When he describes a posh house as being somewhere Loeser feels that at all times he is being watched by either a live horse or a dead stag, that conjures up such vivid imagery about the kind of house we can all picture. However, it’s a dense book. It isn’t hugely long, but Beauman is a fan of the long-winded paragraph giving the book a somewhat daunting density that is hard for a reader to maintain for long. The characters, while not exactly wooden, do not appeal particularly in any way. By the time I got to the last second twist (and, objectively, it is quite a good one), I had long stopped caring. It appears to have been recieved favourably, however, having even been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. But it reads exactly like a book longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, almost as if there was a space open on the list and the book was written especially for the role. Take that how you will.

It’s clever, but it knows it. It’s funny, but with a nod and a wink towards the audience. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t like it enough. I just have absolutely no strong feelings about this book either way. It filled up nine days of my life which was about five too many, and I will forever equate it with the burning in my thighs after an afternoon on a horse.

I did look up Boxer, Beetle briefly and found a review on Amazon from user ThugEarwig that said of it, “I strongly suspect it was written in a coffee shop. On a Mac.” This is exactly the feeling that I have about this book too, so thank you for that Mr Earwig. More succintly and intelligently put than I could ever manage.

If you’re interested in reading more of my work, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon, iTunes or any other ebook retailer.

“London’s Strangest Tales” by Tom Quinn (2006)

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London-s-Strangest-Tales

Have you heard the one about…

London has a history stretching back some two thousand years, and that’s a long time for any city to still be sitting about. In that time, it’s bound to pick up a curious habit or two. This book is, as you may have guessed, all about the strangest aspects of the city.

This book came into my possession last summer and I’m almost sad I didn’t get round to reading it sooner. That’s the trouble with having such a long reading list. Anyway, I’ve discussed before about how much I love London, and I certainly read enough books set there, but this book has opened my eyes to parts of London that I’ve never seen or even known about. Some of the stories I was vaguely familiar with, but a lot of this is brand new.

The book follows the formula of very short snippets of information, between one and four pages long, that share some weird fact about the city. They are listed in vague chronological order, from 950 to 2007. A lot of them are about laws that have never been repealed (officially, all clocks in the city must be blue and gold, under a law issued by Henry VIII), old buildings, eccentric residents or notable shops. Everyone’s here as well, with facts about most of the monarchs who have called the city home, and then numerous celebrities from the last thousand years, in particular Charles Dickens, who appears to be absolutely everywhere in London during the nineteenth century.

There’s the story of the teacher who refused to bow to the king because he felt he students would then feel there was someone more important than him. There’s the sewage works designed both inside and out to look like an Eastern Orthodox Church, the jockeys who ate tapeworms to keep their weight down, the fact that you technically can’t be arrested for owing debt in Pall Mall, the statues of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell that all but face each other, and an explanation as to why Cromwell’s has been consigned to the Pit, and also the statue of Peter Pan that, for legal reasons, doesn’t exist.

Colourful characters include Elizabeth I, baring her breasts to all and sundry, Ben Jonson who was buried standing up, the fashionable Beau Brummell who couldn’t remember the faces of the men he commanded in battle, Edward VII who enjoyed pretending to be a fireman and Nell Gwynn, the most loved of all Charles II’s mistresses. And that’s just the famous ones! There’s plenty of eccentric commoners too, from the man who kept his house filled with animals, to the man so miserly he only changed his clothes when the rotted off his body.

It’s a fascinating romp through the most interesting city on Earth, but the author, Tom Quinn, has opinions and he isn’t going to hide them. He routinely shows his disgust at the habit London’s developers have for pulling down beautiful old buildings and installing blocks of metal and glass in their place. It’s no wonder that there is very little of London left that was build before the 1700s. Quinn also has a habit of repeating himself in numerous stories, but I think that is more to do with the nature of the book. Although I read it cover to cover, many people will probably dip in and out, so some things need to be explained again.

These are but small complaints about what is a hugely interesting book. I can’t wait to get back to London and find some of these places, from the spot where milk was sold fresh from the cow for centuries in St James’s Park, to the statue of Mary Queen of Scots that, somehow, always has fresh flowers in her hands, although no one quite knows where they come from.