“A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby (2005)

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“Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block?”

Suicide still seems to be one of the most taboo subjects in the Western world. Death is rarely something any of us want to think of, and many of us are upset, perhaps outraged, by the concept of someone taking their own life. Most, if not all, religions look upon it as a grave sin, and there are organisations dedicated to preventing people from doing it. I’ve, fortunately, never been in a position where I felt that death was the only option, so I can offer no explanation for how these people feel or what drives them to the edge, sometimes literally. In my first foray into a Nick Hornby novel, he dips his toe into the world of the suicidal and tries to shed some light on it all.

Martin Sharp doesn’t think he has anything left to live for. After sleeping with an underage girl, he’s done time in prison and is now dealing with no contact with his children, no career prospects, and no hope. On New Year’s Eve he makes his way to the roof of Topper’s House, a popular suicide spot in north London. However, while contemplating the leap, he finds himself joined by three other would-be jumpers: Maureen, a single mother struggling to cope with the prospect of another year with her disabled son, Jess, who is eighteen and only wanted an explanation from her ex-boyfriend as to why he left her, and JJ, an American whose dreams have not come true and he’s not a world-famous musician.

Unable and unwilling to jump with an audience, Martin comes away from the ledge and the four eat the pizza JJ was delivering to the building and then descend through the building to a party to find Jess’s ex. The four vastly different people are soon bound by this one act, and when the press hunt them down and start asking questions, they find themselves united and lying to the country about what really happened on the roof. As time goes on and their friendships develop, they begin to see that maybe death isn’t the answer. Maybe they were just asking the wrong questions.

The most incredible character of the novel is, in my opinion, Maureen. She has a son who is trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move or communicate, and she has dedicated her life to him, sacrificing any joy from her life to take care of him. Her life is tragic in the extreme. She is incredibly isolated and generally unaware of anything that’s happened in the outside world for about twenty years. You can see fully why she would want to end it, but are heartbroken by the fact that she thinks that’s the only option. She is as trapped as her son, and her passages are the most poignant and wonderful. She was my favourite character by a long way, if only because I wanted to help rescue her.

The narration shifts around between the four characters, and Hornby does a brilliant job of making them all sound so distinct. Maureen bleeps out her swear words, Jess doesn’t use correct punctuation and her sentences run on, and JJ uses Americanisms throughout. I like the other three characters just fine too, but they are all less sympathetic than Maureen. Jess seems like a typical angst-ridden teenager but we learn more about exactly who she is and what happened to her to get her in this position. JJ has the least reason to jump, almost seeming to find himself at Topper’s House on a whim, so he at first lies about his reason for wanting to end it all. Martin is arrogant and foolish, but he’s also rather self aware and his character does undergo some development throughout the novel, showing he is capable of learning from mistakes, even if he doesn’t always follow the lesson fully.

In another novel, maybe some of the things that happen to them would seem far-fetched, but here they seem to work. People bond in difficult times in strange ways, so I took it that it had to take something extraordinary to bring these people together, but once they were, everything they did seemed normal. There’s no reason these four should ever have met otherwise, but I think life generally throws us in the path of the people we need most.

A couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but generally not as funny as billed, however that’s not really a complaint. It’s very wise and thoughtful and really rather beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.

“The Last Policeman” by Ben H. Winters (2012)

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last policeman“I’m staring at the insurance man and he’s staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames.”

As a species, we seem almost obsessed with our own extinction. Having been responsible for wiping out a whole mountain of other creatures, we are keen to turn this attention to ourselves and wonder what might happen if we suddenly came up against a challenge so great that we might not make it out alive. In The Last Policeman, the Earth is threatened by an asteroid, nicknamed Maia, which is on a collision course with the planet and is definitely going to hit, killing billions and leaving the rest to die slowly in the aftermath. Even worse, it’s coming in just six months.

Hank Palace is a police officer in New Hampshire, and has been in the force less than two years. All around him, people are quitting their jobs, running off to complete their bucket lists, or simply killing themselves. Hank, however, is different. He feels responsible as a cop, so he is doing his best to uphold whatever law remains in this strange world. That’s why when he encounters yet another suicide victim, he doesn’t toss the case aside when something seems unusual about it. Palace becomes sure that this man, Peter Zell, was murdered. But when there’s just six months on the clock and no one is much interested in the every day running of a doomed planet, how will Palace bring the culprit to justice?

This is one of the most breathtaking books I’ve read in a long time. Murder mysteries are old hat by now, but to combine it with the lawless, desperate setting of the pre-apocalypse brings us something new and magical. Palace is only twenty-seven, but always wanted to be a detective, and now he’s finally got his wish just at the wrong moment. He is certain that upholding the law is always the right thing to do, whatever the circumstances, and even though most of his colleagues have lost interest in their jobs, he is determined to see his case through to the bitter end.

The exposition is scattered in nicely and doesn’t feel intrusive. There’s no conversation where the characters sit around and discuss, “Hey, remember that big asteroid that’s coming to kill us?” They don’t need to discuss it – it’s all they can think about. Instead, Palace feeds us lines through his memories of the news coming out, making it all feel horribly real. The world is definitely crumbling, and we find out more about what other countries are doing through newspapers and TV reports, but there’s no big block of text. Some of it isn’t even elaborated on; at one point a character asks, “Have you seen what’s happening in Jerusalem?” but since Palace isn’t interested, it never gets explained. One can only imagine, though.

But while many people have killed themselves, disappeared or turned to a life of petty crime, there are those who are determined to keep their humanity and carry on almost as if nothing unusual is happening. Sure, petrol prices are astronomical, there’s no reliable phone service, the Internet is down for good, and drug crime is through the roof, but some people, from waitresses to coroners and, of course, Palace himself, just want to keep their heads down and do their best for humanity before it’s all over. The threat is never far below the text, as indeed would be the case in reality, too. It feels wonderfully realistic and a good portrait of how I think humanity would react. Oh sure, there are mass panics across the globe, but not everyone has given up. Maybe they’re delusional, but maybe they’re brave.

That’s really the wonder here – how something so fantastical has been written as something so realistic. The book is the first of a trilogy, and with the asteroid just five months away by the end of the book, it can only get closer, and I am definitely intrigued to read more and find out just how things will go for humanity before the end of the world.

“Kimberly’s Capital Punishment” by Richard Milward (2012)

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End of the line...

End of the line…

“I found the eyeball fifteen minutes before I found the rest of him.”

This is a very difficult review to write. Y’see, I try very hard to not spoil anything about the books I review, avoiding as much as I can of major plot twists and so on, but in this case it’s going to be hard. I want to talk about everything that happens in the second half of the book, but doing so will diminish the thrill you would get from reading it yourself first hand. So really, while this is a review, I can only review half of it and throw in a few vague comments about the rest.

I hope that alone is intriguing enough to make you want to read it, because you really should.

This is the story of Kimberly Clark, a twenty-something from Teeside now living in London (known only as “the Capital” within the book). She has become bored of her life and her kind, caring boyfriend Stevie. Instead of simply breaking up with him, she starts being nasty to him, first in subtle ways and then less so, in a bid to show him that she isn’t as perfect as he claims, and maybe even to get him to break up with her.

But Stevie doesn’t break up with her. He kills himself instead.

With his death on her conscience, Kimberly sets about being a good person and filling her days with entirely altruistic deeds. She helps out the homeless, works hard for her boss, finds it impossible to say no to men who ask her out on a date, and freely doles out money to those who ask, despite having little herself. And then on page 209 everything changes and … I can’t say anything else.

I did find the book a struggle to begin with. I’ve read Richard Milward before and the book, while very smart and full of intelligent lines, both dark and hilarious, it didn’t seem like him or what I knew of him. This is a man who writes books with little attention to grammar and punctuation (Apples) or that don’t use any paragraph breaks (Ten Storey Love Song). Why was he wasting his time on some daft bint with a guilt complex? Concerned that the book was going to be a slog, I flicked ahead and saw what was coming. And it was too intriguing to leave.

Just read this, frankly. That’s about all I can say. It isn’t for the faint hearted as there are some truly, truly graphic and disturbing scenes peppered throughout the book, but Milward does a wonder with mixing the mundane with the macarbe and never once attempts to poeticise the more gruesome aspects of the human condition. Kimberly is an interesting character, but not entirely compelling to begin with, and by the end you can’t help but feel sorry for her, but some of the other characters really shine.

The book also does a great job at describing what makes London so wonderful and disgusting. It’s a backwards love letter to a city that really needs a good night’s sleep and a week or two in rehab. It’s a smart novel, definitely a modern classic of weird fiction and does its best to break all the rules of fiction writing while still maintaining complete believability. The language is wonderfully casual yet verbose and while it’s a fast-paced read, I can’t guarantee you won’t come out feeling at least a little bit sick, violated or like you’ve been hit with a high-speed brick wall.

Just read the damn thing, although maybe not while you’re eating.

For more of my own writing, my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus is available now to download from all good ebook retailers.

“The Mysterious Mr Quin” by Agatha Christie (1930)

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quin“It was New Year’s Eve.”

Over sixty years before DC Comics introduced the world to supervillain Harley Quinn, the name had been introduced to the public with Christie’s creation, Mr Harley Quin. Although not nearly as famous these days as his female counterpart, both characters are based on the Harlequin, a typicallly comedic fellow from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. The stock character is typically seen as a clown-like figure, wearing a costume patterned with brightly-coloured checks. As far as personality goes, he’s something of a trickster, witty and light-hearted, usually seen as a servant. He’s physically agile and there’s something a little bit magical about him.

This collection of short stories from Agatha Christie puts a character like this down in the real world. With the name Harley Quin, there’s little to hide the fact that he is indeed a harlequin, or perhaps even the original harlequin. Unlike most everything else Christie wrote, these aren’t necessarily crime stories. In fact, only one or two feature the police.

The stories are actually about elderly Mr Satterthwaite, a man who has spent his whole life on the edges, listening to people and watching the world go by. He knows all the best people and has seen a great many things of note. As such, he has come to learn much about human nature. However, in the first story he encounters Mr Quin who turns up at a house where Satterthwaite’s friends are hosting a party. They’re talking about the unexplained suicide of an old friend, and Mr Quin suggests that looking at the situation from further in the future might make the details clearer. Satterthwaite takes his part and the friends discover the truth about what really happened all those years ago. Quin takes his most mysterious leave.

Over the following stories, Satterthwaite encounters Quin in places as diverse as his local restaurant to the Corsican mountains, each time the man appears just as there is drama unfolding and Satterthwaite believes that Quin is helping save people and solve their problems, while Quin insists that it is all Satterthwaite’s own work. As the mysteries pile up, and Satterthwaite becomes less and less surprised at encountering Quin, the true nature of his fairweather friend becomes more and more obscure. One wonders if he’s even real…

These are clever stories and such a different change of pace from the usual Christie fare. They’re easily the most different of anything else she wrote, being as they are about the supernatural (or implied to be so, at least). They remain top class mysteries, but the crimes and issues being discussed happened long before, and now run on the implication that a later study will make more sense of them, once feelings and emotions have cleared up and the facts can be laid bare.

Mr Satterthwaite is rather an interesting figure, a gentleman and a genuinely nice man who is nonetheless influential in his circles. He knows everybody and everybody knows him, from artists and actresses, to duchesses and countesses. He is floored by Mr Quin, and believes that it is he that is solving all the problems, although it’s clear he’s merely giving the right nudges.

Mr Quin is an marvellously creepy creation. I don’t know if he’s supposed to be that way, but by the end he’s almost malevolent in his manner. His story is never wrapped up and it’s not clear if he is human or something else entirely, prone as he is to simply disappearing whenever he deems his business finished, and the implication at least once that he can speak to the dead, or maybe even bring them back….

My favourite three stories differ from those Christie chose. We both are fond of “Harlequin’s Lane”, but whereas she picks her other two favourites as “World’s End” and “The Man from the Sea”, I’d plump for “The Shadow on the Glass” and “At the ‘Bells and Motley'”. The stories were apparently written over a period of years (indeed, Satterthwaite seems at least ten years older by the end as he is at the start) and were never intended as a blatant series, but there are a couple of references between the twelve that link them together. They’re a curious collection. Christie claimed that Satterthwaite and Quin were probably her favourite characters, and I can definitely see their appeal. Both appear in other unrelated novels, too, so I expect that before long I will run into one of them again.

And drama will unfold once more.