“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.

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“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.”