“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

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“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

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 Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

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!

“Question Time” by Mark Mason (2018)

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“It’s on nights like this that the pub feels even more womb-like than usual.”

I love quizzes. I’ve long had a desire to consume as much trivia is humanly possible – one of my school reports notes that I have an “unstoppable thirst for knowledge” – and often the only place is comes in useful is in the corner of the pub, two wines down, as the chap behind the bar says, “Round one, question one…” I don’t profess to be a particularly popular person, but I’ve had people beg me to join their team. My knowledge is shallow but broad, and often obscure. At one point, I could claim to have won every pub quiz I’d ever taken part in, but unfortunately after a few slightly lower finishing positions, I’ve had to adapt this to say that I’ve never lost one (i.e. never come last). I also tend to write my family a quiz most Christmases, which usually ends in an argument as they all say, “Well how are we meant to know that?” Look, sorry, it’s not my fault you don’t know there are 336 dimples on a regulation golf ball, or that the capital of Uruguay is Montevideo.

I’ve read Mark Mason before, a few years ago enjoying his excellent Walk the Lines, in which he travels the whole of the London Underground network on foot, peppering his journey with endless trivia. I figured that a book specifically about quizzes would give me even more, and I wasn’t wrong. Broadly speaking, it’s about Mason’s travels around Britain, stopping in at all kinds of quizzes along the way. He visits the World Quizzing Championship, a quiz machine in a pub, a recording of radio music quiz Counterpoint, and speed quizzes in Edinburgh bars. All through his journey, he is attempting to answer the one question that still has him stumped: “What makes the perfect quiz question?”

Alongside this quest, however, Mason simply explores towns and cities of Britain, including Edinburgh, Southampton, Oxford and Nottingham, and doles out endless streams of trivia, sometimes about the places he’s visiting but often not. In another’s hands, this could get dull and reduce the whole endeavour to a book best dipped into when on the toilet, but it doesn’t falter once. As a trivia junkie myself, some of it I knew, such as Mr Bump’s Norwegian name (Herr Dumpidump), and which British monarch is the only one who has had their DNA taken (Richard III), but there were hundreds of other titbits I had no idea about. The Spitfire plane was originally going to be called the Shrew, Alaska has the second highest number of national parks in America after California, and that the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones, which I knew to be Europe’s biggest bookshop, has eight miles of shelving.

Question Time is a supremely interesting look at the world of quizzing and the kind of people who do it, especially those that manage to make a living out of it. Although there aren’t many celebrities in the field, we still cross paths with Kevin Ashman, one of television’s Eggheads, spot Paul Sinha of The Chase across the room, and take part in a quiz hosted by Jack Waley-Cohen, the senior question setter on my favourite TV quiz show, Only Connect. We also get to see a quiz hosted by the QI elves, who’ve taken the podcast world by storm with their spin-off show No Such Thing as a Fish. Although there is definitely a certain type of person who gets really into the act of quizzing, there does seem to be something unifying and universal about the “sport”, and the tradition of trivia is as alive and well as it ever was. People are just curious, and we all like the challenge, it seems.

It’s also inspired me once again to try and make my way to the other side of the microphone and host one myself. If you know of an opening, give me a shout.

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!

“The Real-Town Murders” by Adam Roberts (2017)

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“Where we are, and where we aren’t.”

Last time I met Adam Roberts’ writing, we were sinking fast towards to an ocean floor that never seemed to arrive. I didn’t even register this was the same author until about halfway through. I should’ve cottoned on sooner, as once again he’s created a strangely unsettling world where everything is just a bit off and you’re never going to get everything explained.

In the near future, private detective Alma has been called upon to solve an impossible murder. In a car-making factory where everything is automated and human contact is minimal, a body has turned up in the boot of one of the new cars, stone dead with his lungs and heart mashed up. Watching the security footage, it seems there is no way a body can have been inserted into the car at any point of its construction, and yet there it is. Alma promises to take the case, but is chased off it by a mysterious figure called Michelangela. Much as it would have been nice to have the money, Alma has more pressing things to worry about, such as her partner Marguerite whose genes have been hacked with a disease, and only Alma can administer the cure, once every four hours.

But while most of the world remains oblivious to this murder, trapped as they are in the fully immersive Shine – the Internet’s entirely virtual successor – some people are keeping an eye on the Real, and Alma soon finds that she’s involved in something much more sinister than she first realised. Before she can really register what’s going on, she finds herself shunted from police custody, hospital and back home again, with her only goal being to keep Marguerite alive. She’s entirely off the grid now, as if she onswitches back into the feed for even a second, the authorities will be able to track her down. Then again, they know where she has to be every four hours. The hunt is on…

So, trying to explain a future world and all the technology that encapsulates is sometimes part of the fun of writing, although it’s possible to get bogged down in specifics. Here, I don’t think we often get specific enough. Granted, to have the characters stop and explain to one another what the Shine is, or how people stuck in it for months at a time used mesh suits to exercise their muscles would break the reality. We never get to enter the Shine, though, so we don’t know exactly what it is, although I got the impression it’s a full VR world that the user can build themselves and live in their own private paradise. Similarly, all the people we do see have constant feeds surrounding them, and it’s not exactly clear how these work. I ended up assuming it was a Google Glasses kind of technology, but it could just as easily be some kind of brain implant, or even a product of the environment.

Some aspects are a little far fetched, but then I suppose all good science fiction has something that makes you think that this really is the future. Drones, self-driving cars, VR, these are all fine, but it’s actually the more mundane parts I disliked. The story takes place in R!-town, which was once known as Reading, but had rebranded for tourism. Apparently so had other towns nearby – sWINdon and Basingstoked!, for example – and even the country is now known as UK!-OK! It’s stuff like this that takes me out of it, as it seems too silly. The one aspect I did really like though was the the White Cliffs of Dover have been carved like Rushmore with the faces of famous Brits, leading to a bizarre and surreal scene in which the characters scale Shakespeare’s face and take refuge in his nostril.

Honestly, I found the concepts of the future more interesting than the actual murder case. The solution, while ingenious in its own way, actually felt a bit like a cop-out. The text also gets a bit repetitive at times, with characters repeat conversations with one another, or drop in exposition we already know. Something else I must praise though was the way that people speak when they meet in the real world. Alma and most of the others have normal speech patterns, but people who live mostly in the Shine and have only dropped out for a while tend to mix up words, repeat themselves, stumble over syntax and are prone to spoonerisms. It’s a neat little touch.

An intriguing and distressing future where privacy is a thing of the past and people never have to go outside. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

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!

“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.