“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.

“Lost For Words” by Edward St Aubyn (2014)

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lost-for-words“When that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire had approached him about becoming Chair of the Elysian Prize committee, Malcolm Craig asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer.”

I’ve always been skeptical about literary prizes. As one of the characters in this very book says;

Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent.

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve read some phenomenal books that seem never to have been given a moment’s attention by those who worship Literature with a capital L, and also slogged my way (often only ever part-way) through novels that have been honoured with massive awards – I’m looking at you, The God of Small Things. Anyway, Lost for Words is a satire on the world of literary prizes and seems to enjoy showing how ludicrous the whole thing is.

The book leaps around to see the world through various characters including the judges for the coveted Elysian Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the world, some of the writers, and others in their orbits. What we see is a nest of interlocking, often tense, relationships, as everyone has a goal besides ensuring the book they want is the winner. Characters include Katherine Burns, a writer who breaks hearts habitually and is always courting at least three partners; Sam Black, an author who is in love with Katherine; Vanessa, an academic who is not convinced by the literary merit of all but one of the nominees; John Elton, an agent who may just have thrown away the biggest book in history; and Indian author Sonny who is convinced that his novel The Mulberry Elephant will take the world by storm, if only he could get someone to take a look at it.

Lost for Words parodies the fact that some people seem to think that anything is art, and that if you get people to analyse anything enough, they will find all sorts of hidden meanings in it that probably reveals more about themselves than the artist. The book that wins the Prize (a decision that isn’t reached until two minutes before the announcement) is obvious from quite early on, but it’s still a good ending and you find that in this context you don’t mind, although had such a book won the Booker Prize in our world, you’d be miffed.

It’s a quick read, and quite biting towards the industry, but it makes some fair comments about the nature of art, criticism, fame, celebrity, and post-modernism. It’s not the sort of book that will spark many memories for me even a year or so down the line, but it’s not bad.

“The Murdstone Trilogy” by Mal Peet (2014)

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Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

“The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbellows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.”

Tolkien has a lot to answer for. Without his huge success writing about elves, dwarves and journeys across sprawling landscapes to find or return some sort of jewellery, there wouldn’t be such a market for these sorts of books. The Fantasy genre, in name alone, implies that anything is possible in this world, and yet it seems that over and over again the same sort of story is played out. Having recently just got back into playing Skyrim,  it’s particularly on my mind right now. But, as I say, these books sell, and this is a tale about what happens when they reach the upper echelons of popularity.

Philip Murdstone has had a fairly successful career writing Young Adult books about overly sensitive boys, but recently the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market and his newest offering was barely noticed. His agent, Minerva Cinch, has a new idea for him. Seeing the change in the tide, she suggests he try and write a fantasy novel, or even better a trilogy, as readers can’t seem to get enough of that sort of thing. There’s only one slight problem – Philip hates fantasy.

Now told that he has to write a fantasy novel if he wants to reclaim his earlier success, Minerva sends him off with an outline of what such a novel should contain. All the tropes are there: a sword with a funny name, an evil overlord and his ugly minions, a hero from a shire on the very edge of the Realm, a McGuffin that needs to be acquired at all costs. Philip doesn’t know where to begin. However, while staggering home from the pub one night, he meets Pocket Wellfair, a Greme from another Tolkienesque world, who shares with him a story of such wonder and majesty that before he can blink, Philip is the internationally famous and wealthy author of Dark Entropy.

But now the world wants the sequel, Philip can’t seem to do it without Pocket’s help, and Pocket is far more interested in getting the Amulet back to his homeland, and if he can destroy Philip’s testicles at the same time, then all for the better. The Murdstone Trilogy must be completed: humanity is hungry for the sequel. Philip must make a pact with Pocket to save his own life.

This is a brilliant and darkly funny take on the fantasy novel, both playing with the concept and the very notion of the genre’s existence and predictability. The writing style is reminiscent in many ways of the fantasy novels being discussed. Set in Devon, there are few places more perfectly suited to represent the wonder of a Middle Earth like world. Philip, however, can’t see that, and laments how difficult it is to invent a fictional world, in between listing details of local folklore, describing people in the village in a way that would fit into his novel, and reeling off the unusual place names that make up his environs. It also mocks authors in general, and shows that we’re all a bit fraudulent and worried that one day the switch that powers our imaginations will turn off.

Philip is a fun character, if rather sad and pathetic. It’s hard to say how much he’s based on Mal Peet himself, who similarly made a career writing YA fiction, before switching to this adult offering. He, unfortunately, died the following year, which made me feel guilty that I’d discovered him too late. Minerva is also brilliant; a modern creature unsuited to the fantasy genre, but with a name that suggests otherwise, and the mad locals of Flemworthy, the local town, are of great comedic value. They indeed wouldn’t look out of place in a pub the heroes travel into. They even have local nicknames that suit them.

The ending left me a little disappointed, but it’s a nice twist nonetheless and allows for the genre to do something different. It’s further a reminder that I’d rather read books like this than actually have to wade through The Lord of the Rings. Good fun, and very clever.

I’ve never been into writing sword & sorcery, but my own book has more than its fair share of myth and magic. Download The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or wherever else you get your ebooks and check it out.

“Books” by Charlie Hill (2013)

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Some books are fatally bad.

Some books are fatally bad.

“It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the end of a typically long week, and Richard Anger – the owner of the last little bookshop in town – was waiting for a cab to take him to the airport.”

I like books. And I like books about books, as I’ve shown several times over on this blog. So a book called Books was surely going to be a winner, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Well, it’s just a reminder that sometimes that stuff on the sale table in Waterstone’s is there for a reason. I’m being a trifle unfair, because this isn’t a terrible book. It’s just another example of a brilliant idea poorly executed.

Gary Sayles is a pompous, self-aggrandising author who has produced three bestsellers. After a break from writing, he’s coming back with his fourth “male confessional”, this time apparently bigger, better and more truthful than ever before. While the masses seem to like his work, those who claim to be in the know are less keen, particularly Richard Anger, a bookshop owner from Birmingham. He despises Sayles’s work, disparaging it whenever he can as being lowest common denominator fiction, and poorly written to boot.

On a holiday to Corfu, he witnesses a woman drop dead, while in the middle of reading a Gary Sayles novel. This piques the interest of a neurologist, Lauren Furrows, who discovers that this woman isn’t the first to die in these circumstances. A new name for the disease is coined – Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome (SNAPS) – and while scientists start to wonder what causes it, Richard is sure he has the answer. Gary Sayles’s books are so mediocre that they’re capable of killing.

In a few weeks, the newest book will be out on the shelves, and the whole country will find itself in a SNAPS epidemic, as reader after reader pitches over dead while trawling through the mess of wordplay, punnery and purple prose. Richard and Lauren must convince the world of this threat, all the while dealing with the feelings they appear to be developing for one another. And as if the challenge wasn’t hard enough already, two London hipster artists are also on Sayles’s trail, as the man himself sets about launching the book with the biggest bang he can think of.

It’s a great concept, a book that kills people, especially because it’s so terrible. It reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which similarly is about a lullaby that kills anyone who hears it, but while that was genuinely terrifying and smart, this just feels a bit farcical. None of the characters are particularly pleasant. Sayles is so enamoured with himself that he can’t see how trivial his work really is; Richard is an alcoholic with a similar sense of his own importance; Lauren is emotionally stunted; and Pippa and Zeke, the artists, are everything about the Shoreditch way of life that I can’t bear. Whether it’s intentionally Charlie Hill’s method to have the story mimic his actual work is beyond me, and it feels layered, but I just can’t get myself to care about any of these characters. They’re nasty to the point of caricatures. A couple of plot threads go nowhere, and the insistent use of brand names and pop culture references, which are actually a nice touch and firmly give the novel a sense of time and place, are inconsistently used. At the start there are a lot, and then they slowly dribble away.

I get that it’s a book satirising the publishing industry, about how real life sucks more than we ever care to mention, and also about how society has evolved levels of literature, declaring what is acceptable and what isn’t (the snobby division of “readers” and “people who read”, something I unfortunately buy into a little), but the only thing I’ve taken away from it is the following quote attributed to Michael Kruger by Richard Anger:

“Someone who reads too much without wetting his whistle regularly will become stupid; someone who drinks too much without diluting his drink with literature will end up in the gutter. Only the two together preserve culture; only the two together are culture.”

Mine’s a large white wine.

“The Missing Ink” by Philip Hensher (2012)

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missing ink“No, I didn’t learn handwriting.”

Last year I read what I thought was just about the nerdiest book ever. It was a history of stationery and it was incredible. This year, however, I have outdone myself with a history of handwriting. Yep. This is a 260-page look at every aspect of the written word, sometimes in more detail than you thought possible.

Philip Hensher, a writer and lecturer in Creative Writing (which is my own degree subject, incidentally) realised that he had no idea what one of his friend’s handwriting looked like. After more than a decade of friendship, this seemed impossible. Hensher sets about on a mission to find out whether handwriting really is dying out, and if so, what we can do to halt its decline.

Interspersed with interviews with friends, colleagues and relatives, Hensher investigates the different forms of handwriting that have come and gone over the years, why certain styles fall out of favour, how countries have their own styles, whether you can really tell anything about personality from handwriting, and how best to teach children how to write, before covering the history of the pen and its ink. He also looks specifically at Dickens and Proust, and how they dealt with handwriting in their work.

The book is a marvel and evidence that absolutely anything can become interesting if you look at it in the right way. I happen to be a big believer in the importance of people being able to write by hand and express themselves in this manner, even though, as I was reading it, I realise that I write less and less by hand all the time. Still, I have books and folders full of handwritten notes. There’s something wonderful about the simplicity of a pen and paper.

Although consistently interesting, a few of the chapters are a bit dry, but others are really rather funny, as Hensher inflicts his own prejudices and ideas on people and their handwriting. The book is peppered with illustrations, too, showcasing various examples of handwriting which liven up the text. Hensher is clearly very interested in his subject though, and his passion shines through.

This is a short review tonight, partly because I’m really tired, and partly because, as is often the case with non-fiction, it’s hard to discuss due to a lack of plot and characterisation. But don’t mistake short for unimpressed. It’s a fascinating social history, and might just make you want to pick up a pen again.

“Adventures In Stationery” by James Ward (2014)

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A journey through your pencil case

A journey through your pencil case

“I grew up in Worcester Park, a small town in Surrey.”

There’s a line in David Nicholls’ One Day where the main character, Emma, wonders if her dream of writing is actually just a fetish for stationery. I confess that I’ve wondered the same about myself. I love a good pen, can’t resist a handsome notebook (I’ve got several that feel too good to write in), and have on occasion been to visit a branch of Staples just for something to do, only to find myself suddenly eager to buy in-trays or treasury tags, despite having no purpose for either.

Apparently I’m not the only person with a fondness for stationery, though, and I think there are few people more obsessed than James Ward, author of this book. I bought it last year thinking that a book about stationery sounded quite interesting, but it’s taken me a long time to work up the courage to admit myself nerdy enough to peruse it. As it turns out, and this is no exaggeration, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read in my life.

Ward traces with undiluted joy the history of our desks from the first inks used in cave paintings right up to Clippy, the world’s most loathed paper clip. Along the way he tells us how products such as staplers, correction fluid, drawing pins, erasers, hole punches, pencils, compasses, date stampers, and ballpoint pens were invented, as well as bringing to life the histories of some of the stationery cupboard’s most famous residents, including Sellotape, Moleskine, Blu-Tack and STABILO BOSS.

This is the book that teaches you that the Americans still use different sized paper to everyone else, informs you about the competition between Marcel Bich and Laszlo Biro, and revels in the discovery of the glue that would revolutionise notetaking with the invention of the Post-It Note. Ward is, without apology, excited by all of these prospects, finding something interesting to say about everything from big, sturdy filing cabinets to the humble pencil sharpener. You’ll find out what inspired the Pritt Stick, why the pens in Argos are so rubbish, and who invented the pocket protector. Along the way there are disasters with leaky pens, glue that won’t stick, and ink that turns invisible when heated up, and a reassuring final chapter which emphasises that stationery is never going to be killed off entirely. Even computers have adapted – after all, think what the icons on computers are for, among others, “Cut”, “Highlight”, “Erase” and “Attach”. Even the “Create a New Post” here on WordPress has a pencil icon attached.

OK, so it isn’t a book to everyone’s tastes, and it’s very niche. When I’ve told people recently what I’ve been reading, I’ve got more funny looks than usual. But this really, genuinely, is an amazingly fascinating read. I could hardly put it down. Ward is amusing, and clearly unashamed of his love for the stationery cupboard, prone to buying products that are long since out of date but nonetheless possess a certain charm for him.

Any writer, artist or hoarder can find something here to amuse them, whether it’s the history of paper, the discussion on the threat that pencils so often seem to pose, a question on if it’s ever OK to take stationery from work, or Ward’s lamentation on the lack of London landmarks suitable for the end of a pen. Whether you ascribe quality to a Parker fountain pen, or prefer the sort that undresses a sexy woman when turned upside down, you will have owned at least one of the items covered in these pages.

Grab a pencil and a Post-It Note, and remind yourself to get hold of this book as soon as possible.

“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.

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