“The Art Of Failing” by Anthony McGowan (2017)

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“I’m back working again at the British Library.”

It’s been one of those weeks where very little seems to have gone right, with the exception of polishing an opening chapter of a novel I hope to finish some time between May and the heat death of the universe. However, it turns out that I am actually having a pretty good time of it when compared to Anthony McGowan.

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered.

Among the humour, though, are some genuinely insightful and beautiful moments. My absolute favourite is when he sees a green woodpecker while eating his lunch and declares no day wasted if you’ve seen a woodpecker – or a fire engine. I also love his notion that if you were starting from scratch and getting rid of all the bad animals like lice and tapeworms, you’d definitely keep the woodpeckers. Despite all the problems that befall him, McGowan is able to draw up some wonderful insights about the natural world, modern living, and ornithology. He’s also very keen on grebes.

It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

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!


“Misery” by Stephen King (1987)

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“umber whunnnn”

While hardly the most uplifting novel on my shelf, I found myself drawn to Stephen King. Maybe the title reflected my mood this last week or so, and it certainly hasn’t helped change that. And yet I’m actually not really complaining, because I think even if I’d been the happiest man on the planet, Misery would’ve brought me down a peg or six. When he’s bad, he’s really bad, but when he’s good, there’s no arguing with the fact that King is one of the planet’s finest writers.

Paul Sheldon has been pulled from the wreckage of his car on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road by Annie Wilkes, a woman who lives in an isolated cabin and claims to be his number one fan. She is particularly fond of his Misery series, and the fifth instalment is released while Paul is under her care. However, when she discovers that Paul ended the book by killing Misery off, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s livid.

Paul, however, is reliant on her care, as his legs are broken and it’s clear she hasn’t told anyone else that he’s there. Annie comes up with a plan – Paul must save Misery from the grave and write Annie her very own novel. If he doesn’t, well, Annie will punish him. Soon, Paul learns the truth about Annie’s past, and he realises that he’s in a lot more danger than he first thought. He’s now writing to save his life…

The novel’s real genius comes from the fact that it manages to remain captivating despite having, for the most part, just two characters and a single room as the setting. While not an out-and-out horror, it’s horrifying enough and serves as one of the most interesting thrillers I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve seen the film and think you know what’s going to happen, it’s worth reading because from what I’ve picked up, there are some huge differences. Annie is a stunningly vile creation who appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet King still ensures you feel some kind of pity for her, or maybe that’s just me being a bit more sociopathic than is normal. Paul’s characterisation flips between him being quite weak and easily cowed, but also determined, and yet it still somehow works. His goal is self-preservation, and he goes about it however he can.

The novel is also in many ways a discussion on the art of writing. Someone wiser than me described it as the book King wrote to stop other people becoming writers, and you can see why. If I was famous to the degree of Paul, I’d definitely be looking over my shoulder for my “number one fans”. There is talk within of the use of deus ex machinas in storytelling, with it all being explained in interesting detail. It’s notable that King has said the book was based around his experiences with drug addiction, with Annie representing his addiction and Paul being himself, struggling with withdrawal and dependence. Many aspects of the novel can be seen as allegorical, such as Annie removed or destroying parts of Paul’s body being a metaphor for writers having to edit their work and cut away bits that they liked.

As I said, maybe this isn’t the right book to read when you’re already not feeling your perkiest, but it’s nonetheless a really good read. Claustrophobic and scary, despite the insanity of the action it somehow remains far too real and none of it actually feels too far fetched, which perhaps makes the whole concept even worse. A fascinating look at mental illness, addiction, and, perhaps oddly, the power that literature has over people. Possibly, despite everything else, I believe that Misery is a love letter to books and writers, although one written in blood on the back of an overdue utility bill.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames (2005)

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“‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves.”

Despite, according to some, giving off the air of a man who appears to have fallen out of a Jeeves & Wooster novel, I have very little experience with P. G. Wodehouse. I’ve only read one of the novels, and just haven’t got round to getting anymore done. I’ll count this as an attempt though. Set in nineties New Jersey, this novel takes the concept and updates it, turning Bertie Wooster from a British aristocrat to Alan Blair, a Jewish American alcoholic novelist.

Alan Blair is, at novel’s opening, living with his aunt and uncle due to money issues and the fact his parents are long dead. However, they are tiring of his antics and wish him to go to rehab. Instead, Blair decides to head off to New York state to find a Jewish community to spend his time with. He is accompanied by his valet, Jeeves, who is detached enough from Blair’s mistakes to serve as the perfect butler. Intelligent, capable and just like his Wodehouse counterpart, the most competent man alive.

While seeking out like-minded company, however, Blair gets drunk again and ends up insulting a local woman, resulting in two black eyes and a broken nose. He also learns that he has been accepted to the Rose Colony, an artists’ retreat where he can work on his novel in peace with fellow creatives around him. Arriving, he finds that drinking is all but encouraged, so his plans to stay on the wagon are quickly dashed, and things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a sculptor called Ava, and determines that she is the woman of his dreams – all because she has the most incredible nose.

Blair is fundamentally an unreliable narrator, thanks mostly to his alcoholism. Indeed, it takes many pages before we even learn that he is an alcoholic, as he manages to omit the fact he drinks until it’s absolutely necessary to bring up in the plot. He’s a foolish man who doesn’t know when to stop drinking, meaning every so often he entirely blacks out and has no memory of events. He obviously thinks very highly of himself and regards himself as a cut above most other people – he insists on wearing a shirt and tie every day – but, like most writers, he’s also barking mad and wouldn’t be able to cut his toenails without the assistance of Jeeves.

However, it actually took me an absurdly long time to come to the conclusion that everyone else had probably reached a hundred pages before. I suddenly noted that Jeeves has absolutely no interaction with anyone other than Blair, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I decided that Jeeves didn’t exist. There’s actually no confirmation either way to his existence or lack thereof, so I think it’s up for grabs as to the truth. Personally I’ve settled on the side of thinking that Jeeves is an imaginative construct, used by Blair to try and get himself sorted and sober – but with very little success.

The novel’s biggest coup, however, is that despite the change in location, time and content, it still sounds remarkably like Wodehouse, which is impressive because even that man could occasionally sound like a parody of himself, and the conventions of his novels are easy targets for satire and pastiche. It’s much more graphic than Wodehouse, with a couple of very vivid sex scenes, and the language is often coarser, but on the whole you could mistake it for an alternate-universe Bertie Wooster adventure.  The metaphors and tricks with words themselves are pure Wodehouse though, and Ames has done a remarkable job. They’re funny and sharp, for example, a woman is described as having “copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that”. Five times the book cover announces via reviews that it’s hilarious, and while maybe that’s a couple too many, it is funny.

In terms of plot though, very little actually happens. Blair likes to use thirty words when three will do, and his internal monologue is the key thing here. The events of the story take place over the course of a week, but quite how Blair ended up in his situation we can’t be totally sure, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for us to wonder exactly what will happen next. Interesting and engaging, and a nice update on a genre that could be mishandled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“Man In The Dark” by Paul Auster (2008)

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auster“I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness.”

It is a talented author who can be immediately recognised by an untethered passage of their work. I could pick out a piece of Peter James from a line-up with little difficulty, and Neil Gaiman is these days pretty easy to distinguish too. However, I find few with a voice and style as distinctive as Paul Auster. I never think to consider him when I’m listing my favourite authors, as this is only the third time I’ve read him (see also: Oracle Night), but he does work magic.

In Man In The Dark, we meet August Brill, a septuagenarian former journalist who has recently mangled his leg in a car accident and moved in with his daughter and granddaughter. It is a house of sadness: August has recently lost his wife, Miriam (his daughter) is still struggling to come to terms with her divorce, and Katya (his granddaughter) is stuck in a rut after her boyfriend was killed in Iraq. Unable to sleep, August begins to tell himself a story.

He concocts an alternate timeline where the Twin Towers never fell and instead of the America going to war with Iraq, it goes to war with itself. In the aftermath of Bush’s election, a civil war breaks out among the states as some seek independence and others fight to remain united. Within this world, Owen Brick is a party magician who has been drafted into the war, only to find that he has been given a mission he cannot refuse. Because it turns out that this alternate America is all taking place in the head of a writer. If Brick can shoot the narrator, the world will end, the war will stop and peace will be restored.

Owen Brick must kill August Brill.

True to form, Auster once again employs themes of intertextuality, loneliness, the complexity of storytelling and obsession. It took a while to get going but it’s testament to the fact that you shouldn’t always trust the first few pages. It turned out to be one of the most haunting and beautiful books I’ve read this year so far. Auster knows what he’s doing and you have to admire the paths the takes and the ideas he chooses. There are so many elements of a love story here too, as August talks about how he met his wife Sonia and how they set about making a life for themselves. It’s a book of grieving people, sure, but it’s also a book laced through with hope and the realisation that things can and will get better.

The ending caught me off guard, but was beautiful. It’s been a fair while since I cried at a book, and this was the closest I’ve come in a long time. I finished it and found myself stunned, having to take a few deep breaths before I could carry on with anything else. It takes a special kind of book to do that to you.

The alternate world we see in August’s mind is a pretty interesting one. We only get scant information regarding this new America, and the book cleverly and carefully avoids a huge chunk of exposition, instead giving us just enough to be interested and get the gist as to what’s going on, but not so much that it becomes tedious and detracts from the plot. Auster weaves several stories together with grace and artistry and under a lesser hand it might have got a bit messy, but here everything is clear and constructed beautifully.

A haunting, magical book about love, hope and family. As the weird world rolls on.

“First Novel” by Nicholas Royle (2013)

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First Novel. Royle's seventh novel.

First Novel. Royle’s seventh novel.

“I am sitting, alone, in my shared office at the university.”

There is something quite remarkable about a first novel. And I can actually speak from experience on this topic as I’ve just had my first book published. (There’s a link at the bottom of this review if you want to check it out.) It is, after all, the first time that an author speaks to the world and shares his or her thoughts, feelings and ideas with the world at large. This is just one of the topics up for discussion in Royle’s novel, First Novel.

This is the story of Paul Kinder, a creative writing tutor in Manchester who wrote one book many years ago that sold poorly and now spends his time teaching, trying to work on a second book, and picking up women to have sex with in his car. Although somewhat anti-social, he attends a friend’s barbeque and meets a man called Lewis, another writer with a firm hatred of pilots due to some darkness in his past.

Paul struggles with his students, his job and his own mind as the story goes on. It is interspered with excerpts from novels written by his students, some of them perhaps hitting a little closer to home than he would like to admit. He also struggles to make decisions, many pages dedicated to “either/or” scenarios, and he also acknowledges he sometimes finds it hard to tell the difference between opposites – on or off, light or dark … dead or alive.

At this point, trying to explain the rest of the story is fairly futile and would only spoil it. Not much happens, really, for a long time in the novel. It’s slow to get into, yet oddly gripping. Kinder has an obsession with writers’ first novels, as well as looking at pictures in magazines of their houses to see if he can find a copy of his own book on any of their shelves. Minuscule actions are described in intense detail, such as in the first few pages when he dismantles a Kindle down to its component parts. So while the book starts off slow, and there are many pages where very little seems to happen, by the end you are entirely gripped and pulled along by the story as it becomes almost a thriller; the downward spiral of a broken man.

The plot shifts about in time and space – as well as through different layers of fiction – and builds up a history of Kinder, throwing together fact and fiction in a rather pleasing way. The tales told could all be real, and maybe they are. Not the darker aspects, one hopes, but one never knows. The book does get darker as it progresses, and is rather twisted, but the payoff is excellent and there’s no question that it’s been a wild ride that was well worth stepping onto. It’s chilling, haunting and all those words that cause goosebumps to erupt on your flesh.

Either you’ll like it, or you won’t, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you will.

If you’d like to read my first novel, The Atomic Blood-Stained Bus (and, frankly, why wouldn’t you?) then head on over to Amazon where it’s available now for all ebook platforms.

“On Booze” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (2011)

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On_Booze“Perfectly respectable girl, but only been drinking that day.”

I always felt that F. Scott Fitzgerald and I would get on really well, if only because we both write, have drinking problems, and we’re both fond of jazz music and fiesty women. I’ve read a couple of his books and have a certain fondness for The Great Gatsby, which, while probably not the Great American Novel, is pretty excellent. I found this book in Hatchards, an amazing bookshop in the middle of London, and figuring that Fitzgerald and alcohol was a winning combination in any situation, decided to give it a go.

The book is various snippets and clippings from Fitzgerald’s notebooks from the twenties and thirties, as well as autobiographical stories detailing his life as he lived it, and throwing new light on what it was actually like to be living in the Jazz Age and acting out the stories he put onto the page. A review from the New Yorker said, “More than any other writer of those times, Fitzgerald had a sense of living in history.” I think that’s very true – the man knew that times were changing and was often saddened by those changes.

The book is split into six parts, each of them dealing with something different. One is a selection of letters to friends; another talks of his struggles with insomnia. A third tells us why he fell in love with New York and why he always considered the city his true home. It paints a picture of a world post-crash where everyone had time to party and there seemed to be little in the way of responsibility. My favourite section, however, is “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number —–“, which details every hotel that Scott and Zelda stayed in between 1920 and 1933. Each hotel gets a paragraph or a couple of lines, revealing a few candid details about what the hotel looked like, who else was staying there, or even just what they had to eat or drink.

Despite the book being called On Booze and one having an expectation of all the stories being laced with martinis, there is very little actual drinking going on, although Fitzgerald happily acknowledges that it was happening, and indeed happening all the time. There is more here about his insecurities and perhaps what caused him to become such a drunk. It’s an interesting read (although not espcially sparkly or quick), but his fiction is better and there’s something rather disjointed about the whole exercise.

Probably the most valuable thing I found in the book, however, are the words I want on my gravestone: “Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died.”