“House Of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

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“This is not for you.”

There are some books that pass into legend as being unlike anything else. House of Leaves is one of those. It has sat on my shelf for years at this point, daring me to pluck up the courage to explore it. As much a work of art as a story, it begs to be read, even though you know it’s not going to be easy. Given everyone else seems to be using quarantine as a time to get through those books they’ve been putting off forever (a lot of people are struggling through Middlemarch as we speak), it was literally now or never.

Johnny Truant, an LA tattoo artist, has discovered a manuscript in the apartment of a dead man called Zampanò that is an academic study of a film called The Navidson Record. Truant is unable to find any evidence of the film’s existence, however, and many of the references that Zampanò alludes to don’t exist either. Truant shares the whole study with us, interjecting with his own footnotes and edits.

The bulk of the text focuses on The Navidson Record, a film made by photojournalist Will Navidson, who has recently moved into a new house in Virginia. With cameras set up in every room, he intends to use the move as a project to reunite his strained family relationships, but the house has other ideas. Upon returning home one day, the family discover a closet that wasn’t there before they left. Upon further analysis, Navidson discovers that the house is a quarter-inch bigger on the inside than the outside. Calling in his brother and some friends to examine this irregularity, Navidson soon decides that they should enter this new closet, only to find that it leads to an impossibly huge labyrinth, all in black, that changes and warps constantly and seems to have no end. Compelled to document his findings, Navidson begins to construct the film that will make him famous, but there will be costs and dangers that he cannot yet dream of.

Whew. I freely admit that there was a lot of skim-reading taking place here. While the bulk of the story – that of the house and the Navidson family’s relationship with it – is what drives the narrative, none of it is as simple as that. Truant leaves a lot of footnotes, sometimes explaining some specific of Zampanò’s text, or sometimes talking about what’s happening in his own life. Some of these footnotes run on for multiple pages, and it quickly becomes clear that he is not a reliable narrator by any means. I skimmed a lot of these as I didn’t find his story as interesting as the main one, so I admit I may have missed out on some things. Nonetheless, I feel I got the gist.

The piece is as much a work of art as it is a story, and as my friend suggested, it seems to be pushing the idea of what a novel is or can be. Arguments can be made as to whether it worked or not given there is nothing else like this, but I think, while the story is good – and genuinely terrifying – it is the style that people keep returning to this book for. Every contributor has their own font, which is mesmerising for a start, and I’ve already mentioned the long footnotes, but there is so much more going on here. Some pages contain just a few words, others contain overlapping threads, with six different strands of story or footnote tied together, arriving in text boxes or upside down. Some bits require a mirror to read, others will need you to flip the book upside down. Sometimes the text mirrors the action of the story, such as moving up the page when a character is climbing, or shrinking to a tiny area in the middle of the page when Navidson is crawling through a small gap. There are transcripts and interviews, snatches of music, scientific explanations on mythology or science that seem to serve little purpose. Some pages are missing, others have text crossed out, and in the lengthy appendices, there are drawings and photographs to corroborate the evidence of this film and house that may or may not exist. Danielewski is some kind of mad genius and this book is truly the work of someone either incredibly intelligent or frighteningly mad. Some call it a horror story, others a romance, but all that seems certain is that anyone who comes into contact with this house in any way – including just reading about it – has their own interpretation.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, but I’m also not in a hurry to return. The house changes you.

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 Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Elevation” by Stephen King (2019)

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“Scott Carey knocked on the door of the Ellis condo unit, and Bob Ellis (everyone n Highland Acres still called him Doctor Bob, although he was five years retired) let him in.”

I have a love/hate relationship with Stephen King but, then again, I think everyone does. Sure, there is no denying his talent, but when you churn out as many books as he does, they can’t all be winners. Having been bitten in the past, but also having enjoyed others, I took a chance on his new book, Elevation, partly because the synopsis intrigued me, and partly because, well, it was short. If it turned out to be a dud, it wouldn’t take long. (I’ve become so cynical…)

Scott Carey knows that in Castle Rock gossip travels really fast, so he seeks out advice from just one person, his friend Dr Bob Ellis, about the peculiar symptoms he’s been displaying. He has started losing weight, one or two pounds a day, but there’s absolutely no physical difference to his pot-bellied figure. Even stranger, anything he’s holding while on the scales doesn’t seem to have any weight at all. Scott refuses to talk to anyone else about it, because he doesn’t want to become a science experiment or a freak show.

Elsewhere, a lesbian couple have recently moved to town and opened a new restaurant. While some of the neighbours might seem friendly and make use of Deirdre and Missy’s new place, others don’t seem so progressive. Scott’s only concern is that their dogs keep fouling on his lawn. With the town’s annual Thanksgiving race coming up, Deirdre is determined to win it so that the town has to pay attention to her.

Short and sweet, the book is fortunately not a dud. It’s just long enough to capture your attention and, aside from Scott’s mysterious weight loss, it’s all very real and not much actually happens. Scott is a pleasant enough person with some tragedy in his past that is only ever obliquely mentioned and he seems to want to get on with people rather than endure any conflict. Deirdre is an interesting one. She is one of those people who will leap to a defensive position whenever it seems anyone doesn’t like her and blame it on the fact that she’s a married lesbian, rather than because she’s just an abrasive person. No one denies that it’s harder to be a minority in many places in the world, but she certainly seems willing to use it as an excuse rather than adjust her own personality. Indeed, there is some hostility to her and Missy because of their sexuality, and the small town is perhaps not as picturesque to outsiders as it seems to those who live there.

The addition of an element of magical realism is fun and while this isn’t a horror, there is certainly a tension surrounding the text, with the inevitable question being, “What happens to Scott when he stops weighing anything?” The resolution is bittersweet, but fascinating, and ties things up nicely.

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!

“The Next Person You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2018)

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“This is a story about a woman named Annie, and it begins at the end, with Annie falling from the sky.”

I rally against sequels a lot. More often than not they serve as a way for someone to cash in on a previously great story with a slightly worse story that wasn’t really needed. Of course there are exceptions – Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2, for example – but it’s a good rule of thumb. Sometimes we have to let stories standalone. The trouble is, of course, no story really is told in a vacuum. It links to thousands of others. Mitch Albom has used this technique to the full in the beautiful sequel to the truly excellent The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

In the original book, we focus on Eddie, an elderly war veteran who dies saving the life of a little girl. He ascends to the afterlife where he is met by five people who impacted his life and teach him a lesson he must learn from it. At the end of his novel, he takes his place in the queue to meet the girl he saved. This is her story.

Annie has just got married, but the marriage is doomed as within hours, she and her husband Paulo are in a devastating hot air balloon crash. Annie feels herself go under the anaesthetic when she gets to hospital, but she wakes up in the afterlife, meeting the first of her five people. She now undertakes the same journey as Eddie once did, meeting five people who changed her life, including the doctor who reattached her hand after it was lost in the accident, her strong, protective mother, and Eddie himself.

There aren’t many books that bring a tear to my eye, but this one certainly did. The original tale is one of my favourite books and while I’d not held out much hope, I think I’d always been curious to know what had happened to the little girl. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the idea of sonder, that feeling that everyone you meet has their own story and a life as complex as your own, but you only get to play a part in a few of them. This book, and the previous, play that up to the max. Annie is a sweet person, not perfect, but more courageous than she lets herself believe and the sort of woman I would like to be friends with. It’s nice to see Eddie again, less grizzled than we first knew him. The story is by its very nature quite tragic, but like all the best books, hope still shines through.

That’s always what goodness boils down to – hope. There is always hope. Belief in an afterlife in itself is a hopeful act, and while I’m not religious and don’t really think there is anything after “this”, there are worse things to encounter on the other side than five people with important messages.

A beautiful, powerful story. I love it.

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!

“Night Of Camp David” by Fletcher Knebel (1965)

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“Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth.”

I’m not someone who wants to use his platform to discuss political opinion, but in reading a wide variety of novels, sometimes it’s inevitable. In this book, I found myself at the heart of the political system.

Senator Jim McVeagh gets the feeling that his political career is about to get a boost when, after a gala dinner, the President himself, Mark Hollenbach issues an invite for Jim to attend a private meeting at Camp David. When he arrives, Jim becomes uncomfortable when the President reveals that a joke he made during his speech earlier in the night about wiretapping was actually in earnest. It gets worse when he begins to display true paranoia and is convinced that “they” are out to get him.

Unsure what to do, Jim confides in his mistress, Rita, who shares her own story of instability from Hollenbach. Jim attempts to raise the subject with some others high up in Washington, but all that does it make people convinced that he’s the one with the mental illness, and he begins to spot the Secret Service are on his tail night and day. Suddenly, the life he saw as the future vice president is shattered as the President begins to share more of his secret plans, and Jim becomes convinced that the the most powerful man in the world has gone mad – but who is going to believe him?

First published in 1965, the book was at the time pure escapism. Knebel wrote many political thrillers, but this one appears to have dropped out of sight for the last fifty years. In 2018, Vintage announced they were going to publish it again and it has definitely struck a nerve in today’s political climate. Proving to be remarkably prescient, the novel includes early mentions of there being no such thing as “true facts” because it implies the existence of “false facts”, which obviously can’t exist. And yet doesn’t that just resonate with the cries these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”? There’s also a moment where the President plans a meeting with the Russian premier, and the main characters argue that the meeting cannot be allowed to go ahead. Again, timely.

Being of its time, the book is notable for its lack of female characters, with I think only four ever getting any speaking roles: Jim’s wife, his daughter, his mistress, and a secretary. This is not a political landscape where women are present, and probably not even welcome, and with a twenty-first century mindset, their absence is very obvious. Women are never even mentioned as political figures, with many conversations using “men” to describe everyone in the room or who may be of relevance at that moment.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, then this is surely something that you’ll enjoy. As a Brit, my knowledge of the American political system is pretty shaky and I don’t necessarily understand all the titles and roles in play here, but the tension racks up well enough that I also don’t think it matters completely. The dialogue is occasionally quite dense, but not impenetrable, and it does deal with very real and important issues of mental illness, responsibility and power. While interesting and loaded with food for thought, maybe it is a little far fetched. I mean, can you really imagine a mentally unstable, paranoid halfwit being elected to the most powerful office in the world?

Exactly.

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!

“Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy (2009)

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“Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.”

Life is an endless series of choices. We find ourselves an endless number of futures ahead of us, and then the decisions we make whittle down the options, but there will always be more. Left or right. Buy or sell. Stay or go. Hide or seek. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in time travel fiction, the heroes are always so concerned that any actions they make in the past might affect the future, but we never seem to pause in our own present to realise that the decisions we make now are making big changes in the future. There’s no time travel in this book, however, just simple people with big decisions to make.

Meloy’s book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which centre around a person who has reached a figurative crossroads in their life and need to decide what they’re going to do about it. Chet Moran is worried that he’ll never see Beth Travis again, unless he does something about it. Aaron needs to decide whether or not to continue his relationship with his tiresome brother George. Naomi has to choose what action she takes when her friend confesses that she thinks her husband is having an affair. And Everett and Pam have got to make up their minds regarding the strangers they found in the snow.

Some of the same themes recur over and over, and there is definitely some repetition of situations, with affairs and relationships between parents and children, but they all feel real and raw. The silliest one, and probably my favourite, is “Liliana”, which is about a man who finds his grandmother alive and well on his doorstep, despite her death and autopsy two months previously. It turns out that her death was all something of a “misunderstanding” and so she has returned to check up on him and his family. Many of the other stories are quite tragic, such as “Travis, B.” which is about a young man struggling with feelings of love for the first time and not having the ability to do anything with them, or “Red from Green”, which is about a father failing to stop the molestation of his daughter and how their relationship drifts apart afterwards.

Curiously candid and not overly flowery, the stories are short and punchy, and I think all of them left me with a sense of wanting to know what happened next. Intriguing little nuggets of fiction that tap into those bits of being human that we don’t always like being tapped. Worth a read if you’re after something quick.

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!

“Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2014)

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“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

When the weather gets gloomy and cold, it’s often best to take yourself off to somewhere warm, even if just in a book. I made my way El Paso, Texas in the 1980s to escape some of the British January chill. There, I found a story that was much more than I expected.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza – known as Ari – is in many ways your average fifteen-year-old, swallowed up by self-doubt, confusion and family troubles. His brother is in prison and his father is a Vietnam war veteran: neither of these things are ever discussed. At the local swimming pool one day, he meets Dante, a fellow Mexican-American teenager who teaches Ari to swim. Ari has never had a proper friend before, and the two are soon inseparable, spending all their time together laughing and playing games.

As Ari’s self-imposed walls begin to crumble, their bond seems unshakeable, and on one rainy summer’s day, Ari saves Dante’s life, breaking three of his limbs in the process. Unable to speak about his heroic act, Ari closes down again, and Dante has to move away to Chicago with his parents for the rest of the year. When he returns, however, both boys have been changed and they wonder if their friendship can continue as they change from boys to men…

A friend of mine recommended me this and said she loved it. I generally trust her opinion on books, so went for it and was very pleased I did. I’ve long struggled with getting into much young adult stuff, but there’s something quite wonderful and wise about this. The relationships between the boys and their parents are particularly endearing. Ari gets on with his mum, but struggles with his father who is clearly suffering from PTSD. The shadow of his brother hangs heavy over them all, and there isn’t even a picture of him up in the house. It’s almost as if he never existed, but Ari can’t open up the communication channels to ask why or even what he’s in prison for, as it all happened when he was very young. Dante, on the other hand, is an only child and has a very open and affectionate relationship with his parents, which Ari is jealous of.

A lot of emphasis is also played on the two boys identities as Mexicans. According to Wikipedia, 80.7% of the city’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, and given the city sits right on the Rio Grande with Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city, right on the other side, this is obviously an important aspect to them. Many of the other characters are also of Mexican extraction, allowing for a very diverse novel that paints a world that I’m not familiar with. Sáenz however builds a fascinating and beautiful little world, with characters who feel very real and good company. The relationship between Ari and Dante is, for the most part, kept somewhat ambigious. Ari is the sole narrator, but he’s so used to burying his feelings that he’s even capable of burying them from us.

A charming and beautiful novel about growing up and the hidden trauma that so many carry around with them.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

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