“The Last Family In England” by Matt Haig (2004)

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“Dogs like to talk.”

Broadly speaking, if we’re sticking with the insistence that you can split the population into “dog people” and “cat people”, I fall down unapologetically on the side of cats. I’ve nothing against dogs at all – I will always fuss over a dog if given the opportunity, and some of my friends have utterly adorable dogs – but if I had to have one of the two, I’d opt for a cat. However, this weekend I read a book about dogs. Or, more accurately, a book narrated by a dog.

Prince is a black Labrador, the central point of the Hunter family. He ensures that he upholds the Labrador Pact, a solemn oath sworn by all Labradors to keep the Family together for the sake of all humanity. Prince keeps a careful eye on Adam and Kate, and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte. But not all is well in the land of dogs. Some of the other breeds, led by the Springer Spaniels, have turned against the old ways and now seek out a hedonistic lifestyle, rather than trying to protect a Family. Prince, however, is earnest in his insistence that the Pact must be upheld, and he’s mentored by Henry, an old Labrador who knows a thing or two about it.

Things take a turn for the worse in the Hunter household, however, when Simon, an old friend of Adam’s, moves back into the area, and Adam finds himself tempted by this man’s wife Emily. What only Prince can detect, however, is that Simon’s scent seems to be on Kate an awful lot since his return too. Their dog, a Springer Spaniel mongrel called Falstaff, is determined to lead Prince astray, but Prince knows his duty. He must keep the Family together so he can help save humanity. Duty over all…

This is Matt Haig’s first book, and already there are the hallmarks of the supremely honest and magical writer he is today. A lesser author would have dogs speaking to one another in English when humans were out of earshot, but here, all the sniffs and tail wags and barks that dogs make constitute a language of their own. Dogs can smell emotion on one another, and on humans, and use wagging as a way to do anything from communicating annoyance with their own kind to calming down a potentially explosive situation in the family home. The book is centered around a nuclear family seen from a slant, which seems to be a common theme in Haig’s work. The Radleys features a family of suburban vampires, and The Humans deals with an alien taking over one of the family roles. Haig has an amazing way with truthfulness, and isn’t afraid to bring up the nastier aspects of humanity. Looking at them through the viewpoint of a dog makes them all the more interesting.

The dogs are really the stand out characters here, with none of them being anthropomorphised any more than necessary. They have their own codes and systems, chiefly the Labrador Pact, and each of them makes for good company, even if they do broadly subscribe to cliches (Labradors are loyal, Rottweilers are aggressive, etc). That would be my only complaint on that front, and you can even make a good case that that doesn’t ring true for the whole tale, but I can’t go into that more without spoiling things. The humans are vastly flawed, as all good characters should be, with Hal and Charlotte typical teenagers and Adam and Kate the struggling parents, trying to cope with their responsibilities as parents while their relationship seems to be breaking down, a process that appears to be speeding up thanks to the interference of Simon and Emily.

The novel’s ending is beyond heartbreaking, and really rather a brave option to have chosen. In context, it makes sense, but there remain many unanswered questions that we aren’t allowed to know answers to. The family will continue to make their mistakes, and Prince has learnt that perhaps the Labrador Pact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you if you’re prone to crying easily, but it remains a raw, beautiful and tragic tale. I adored it.

Good boy.

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“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

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“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it behind at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt (1992)

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The-Secret-History1“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

I bought The Secret History on the recommendation of a very literary friend of mine last year, although was, as usual, daunted by the size. However, this week it felt right. I was going away and needed something substantial to distract me on the plane, and I’d grown increasingly aware of the jet black spine that kept looking down at me.

The book opens with the knowledge that one of the characters, Bunny, is going to die. Not just die, but he will be murdered by his friends, who include our narrator, Richard Papen. The story the jumps back an undisclosed amount of time and we meet Richard properly. He is a middle class teenager from California who enjoys reading and studying Greek. His parents have no education and don’t understand this desire of his. He starts at one university, studying medicine, then Greek and English, but soon realises he needs to leave his parents orbit and so applies to Hampden College in Vermont, where his life will change forever.

He attempts to get onto the Greek course, but the reclusive professor, Julian Morrow, is hugely selective about his students and only has five people on his course, claiming that it is full. Richard begins to obsess over these five, and after a few curious meetings, is invited to join the Greek course and get to know them properly.

They are: Henry, deeply studious and serious, always wears suits and carries an umbrella; Francis, red-headed hypochondriac who is a bit more fun than Henry; the twins, Charles and Camilla, practically identical in every way, slightly Aryan, airy and the kindest of the group; and of course Bunny, the joker of the pack who has been almost shunned by his family and struggles most with money issues. They are all wealthy, intelligent, eccentric and definitely misfits. Richard worships them and is in awe that they’ve let him in.

But Richard soon realises that he is not privy to all of their secrets, and they regularly meet without him. One day it all spills out, the terrible secret that they’ve been keeping. Bunny has found out about it too, and he’s now blackmailing his friends, ensuring that they spend every last cent they’ve got on him. Henry begins to fear that Bunny will announce their secret to the world and comes to a rather startling conclusion: Bunny has to die.

Bunny does indeed die, and the second half of the novel (which drags on a little too much) is dedicated to the aftermath of this event and how it affects the surviving five.

Due to the characters all studying Greek, this indeed does read a little like a Greek tragedy, with emphasis on beauty, death, sacrifice and secrets. Charles and Camilla seem at first to be the characters you’d most want to meet, but by the end I would suggest it was Francis. There’s a good case for Richard, because at least he’s not quite as pretentious as the others, but there’s still something distinctly unpleasant about him. All the students at Hampden are pretentious in some way or other, but the central group are moreso than any. Francis wears accessory pince-nez, for example. They drink only the finest alcohol (and are practically always drunk), but the most ridiculous moment is actually a background character, an art student who is using paintbrushes as chopsticks.

While the world they inhabit seems nice – big houses, endless wealth, great prospects, huge intelligence – it’s unclear if any of them are actually happy. They have all been cast out from regular society, although his is partly Julian’s fault, as he has little contact with the rest of the college faculty and keeps himself and his classes as far apart from them as possible. Especially after the murder, their facade of happiness begins to unravel and they start having to deal with their problems more and more in isolation.

Richard is the blandest character, which is odd given that he’s the one writing the confessional, but that doesn’t mean he’s two-dimensional. There’s a lot to him; it’s just that the other characters are so wonderfully crafted. It’s unclear how much Richard says is the truth and how much is embellished, but that makes it all the more interesting. The book plays with beauty and truth, and how the two are interlocked.

I was wary about the book before I started it, and it really is the very definition of literary fiction, but nonetheless I really enjoyed it. Though dense, large parts of it sail by, and you can’t bring yourself to properly hate any of the characters, not really, because they all seem to possess a sort of charm that makes you forget their foibles, even the really nasty ones, and focus on the fact that they seem decent people. After all, they’re attractive, intelligent and moneyed – doesn’t that make you perfect in society’s eyes?

An excellent novel; very interesting and cleverly constructed, like Euripedes crossed with Bret Easton Ellis.

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

“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.