Category Archives: – Books

Book review: The Looking Glass Club by Gruff Davies

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And so I find myself reviewing another book as soon as I’ve finished it – seems like a good thing to do: turn the final page and give an instant reaction. Here we go again. This time it’s a mind-bending trip…

The year is 2010 and Zeke is a brilliant physics student at a top London university. He’s fallen in with a group who are taking a drug that seems to allow them to experience shared hallucinations. Well, they’re shared hallucinations or a door on to a parallel universe. Probably.

The year is 2035 and Steel is living with his talking dog in a high security New York apartment. He’s opened his door to a pregnant girl with no memory, who carries a note that takes him back to the darkest of dark times. From that moment he’s on the run; his life at risk.

But Zeke and Steel are the same person and, in this story, the boundaries between reality and illusion are sometimes impossible to distinguish.

The Looking Glass Club is an excellent novel. It’s fast-paced, gripping and it paints the most amazing pictures: at times it’s like being on a drug fuelled trip of your own. Both modern day London and a New York of the future are believable and brilliantly crafted worlds. It’s also a smart book – in truth, there are a couple of times when it’s a little too clever – but the story is completely unique, expertly told and, despite the technology and the pace of the narrative, it works because at its heart it’s an absorbing tale about friendship and trust.

This is a self-published book that asks you to make no compromise beyond the challenge of an enjoyably complex plot. It deserves a place amongst the best science fiction.

UK Amazon

US Amazon

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I’m off to the Hay Festival…

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So, yes, this is about as middle-aged and middle-class as my life has now become. In the past, it was all about music festivals; sleeping in a muddy field in a cheap tent; spending 3 days drunk or stoned or both; jumping up and down with 30,000 other people to loud music; getting no sleep.

But now, I’m about to head off to a literature festival. And you know what? It’s brilliant and I’m not ashamed at all… there’s the rest of the summer for teenage fun… for now I’m hanging with the grown-ups. I’ve been to the Hay Festival before and it’s awesome. I think it’s probably the premier literary festival in the world, and set in the quintessential pretty british village too.

My 4 days will include talks and readings by John McCarthy (who was held hostage in Lebanon for 5 years), Carl Bernstein (Mr Watergate), Hans Blix (Mr weapons of mass destruction), and Stella Rimington (the former Head of MI5). And I haven’t even mentioned the fiction writers.

So, I’m off to sip tea and wine. See you on the other side…

Book review: Canada by Richard Ford

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I’ve never written a review before but I just finished reading this brilliant, masterful book on the train home and wanted to share some of the love.

The novel is narrated by Dell Parsons, who looks back at the experiences of his 15 year old self in a small town in Montana in 1960. The bare bones of the storyline can be summed up in the opening passage:

“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”

I’m a big fan of Richard Ford but the plot of this novel is probably the strongest he’s written in terms of page-turning. However, if you’re looking for a thriller then you’ve come to the wrong place – as engrossing as the plot is, it’s less important than the writing itself.

This was the book that inspired my series of posts about authors who look like their writing: at the time, I called Ford’s style elegant, languid and wise. Sometimes, writing this beautiful can give the illusion of being wise and full of insight – but there’s no illusion here… every page is full of a rich voice that feels as if it may be teaching you something new about the world and the people who live in it. That’s not to say that you need a dictionary to get through the book. It’s that Ford uses language so simply to do such complex things that is his genius and, for me, his only equal in this regard is Cormac McCarthy.

Canada is a novel about the strange turns that normal people’s lives can take, it believes in looking forwards and seeing what’s in front of you instead of always looking for hidden meaning in what’s already gone, and it understands above all about human fragility. As you can tell, I would absolutely recommend it. I find it impossible to read a book like this and not be inspired… well, partly inspired and partly accepting that I’ll never be able to write quite that well.

Why aren’t novels illustrated?

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This may seem like a ridiculous question. But calm down everyone… clearly, the words in a novel should paint a far more vivid picture than any illustration ever could. That’s exactly the point-of-view that I’d normally argue: it’s sacrilege to even consider putting pictures in novels! Novels harness the power of words, they’re not picture books… yadda yadda…

But… would the right sort of illustration enhance some novels?

Of course, illustrators can be great artists – we can all recognise that. But we’re only allowed to appreciate illustrations if they’re in childrens’ books or in comics.

The closest we tend to come to an illustrated novel nowadays is in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which illustration is used intelligently to help us gain insight in to the mind of the protagonist/narrator: a map of a street, a hypnotic pattern from some fabric, a scrawled doodle. Maybe this is the furthest that an author can push illustration without the risk of producing something that’s seen as more of a novelty than a serious novel.

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Both of those books were critically acclaimed and hugely popular – I love them – it can work when done well. And they aren’t alone: The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith was called “A British beat classic for the 21st century” by Esquire, and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall created images out of the words themselves. What I’m interested in is whether a more ‘straight’ form of illustration can still be effective – or is it just completely unnecessary in a novel?

Is there a middle ground for the right book? Perhaps a hybrid of a traditional novel and a graphic novel? Whaddya think?

Any suggestions of books that have actually done this successfully?

The brilliant illustrations at the head of this post are from:
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Takes From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Authors who look like their writing: #1 Richard Ford

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Bear with me on this one. I’m currently halfway though reading the (already) brilliant Canada by Richard Ford and I was thinking how, at it’s best, Ford’s writing is a sublime combination of elegant, languid and wise. Then I flicked to the inside back cover and saw his photo – and the first thing I noticed was that he looks just like his writing. And that made me happy.

And now, excuse me, but I have to go and crack open a couple of beers with him on the front porch at the end of a long, hard day on the ranch*…

Photo © Laura Wilson
*N.B. I do not actually own or work on a ranch. To my knowledge, neither does Richard Ford. I also enjoy drinks other than beer although I have no idea about Richard’s taste in alcoholic beverage or if he drinks at all. Although I bet he does.

My 34 favourite books (probably)

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I admit it: this is a completely self-indulgent post. Forgive me. I shall beat myself with copies of War and Peace, in penance.

One of the guys on my writing retreat asked the rest of us to choose our three favourite books for him to add to his reading list. Really? How am I supposed to pick only three? I thought I’d give it a go by writing down all of my favourite books with the aim of choosing three from there – and this is what I came up with.

I haven’t given any rationale or explanation for any of the choices here (but I’m more than happy to chat away for hours about any of them) and sure, I’ve probably accidentally missed some books off the list (but this ‘assembled-in-an-hour’ compilation is what I’m sticking with for now).

This is them in alphabetical order. Remember: ‘my favourite’ not ‘The Greatest™’. Be enraged, be dumbfounded, be supportive…

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (1983)

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich (1935)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)

Brilliant Orange by David Winner (2000)

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (1991)

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (2001)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

D-Day by Anthony Beevor (2009)

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)

I Am Legend by Richard Mattheson (1954)

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2003)

Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now by Eleanor Coppola (1995)

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)

The Book of Dave by Will Self (2006)

The Crow Road by Ian Banks (1992)

The Dark Knight Returns by Mark Miller (1986)

The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest May, Philip Zelikow (1997)

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)

The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)

The Stand by Stephen King (1978)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)

The Wrench by Primo Levi (1978)

World’s End by T. C. Boyle (1987)