End of Story by Louise Swanson

It’s the year 2035 and fiction has been banned by the government for five years. Writing novels is a crime. Reading fairytales to children is punishable by law.

Fern Dostoy is a criminal. Officially, she has retrained in a new job outside of the arts but she still scrawls in a secret notepad in an effort to capture what her life has become: her work on a banned phone line, reading bedtime stories to sleep-starved children; Hunter, the young boy who calls her and has captured her heart; and the dreaded visits from government officials.

But as Fern begins to learn more about Hunter, doubts begin to surface. What are they both hiding? And who can be trusted?

Oh this book is amazing.

I loved Louise’s earlier books (writing as Louise Beech), this is her first foray into a dystopian sci-fi and boy is it a doozy.

It’s 2035 and fiction has been banned. Writing novels is a criminal offence. Even reading stories to children is punishable by law. As dystopian futures go, this is pretty bleak. The story of Fern, a once-famous author, and her move into secret work as a reader will draw you in, wrap you in this strange world leaving you wondering just how we got there, and how on earth it’s possible to come back.

Hard to say more without spoiling anything, so get yourself a copy of this brilliant book, a large cup of tea and settle down for the ride. It’s worth every illegally-written word.

The writing is beautiful, the setting horrific, and it finishes with an ending that’ll leave you thinking for days. Hugely recommended, and I for one cannot wait to see what Louise Swanson comes up with next.

End of Story by Louise Swanson is published by Hodder & Stoughton in March 2023. Huge thanks to the publisher for the advance copy of the book to review.

Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow

Birmingham, 1933. 

Private enquiry agent William Garrett, a man damaged by a dark childhood spent on Birmingham’s canals, specialises in facilitating divorces for the city’s male elite. With the help of his best friend -charming, out-of-work actor Ronnie Edgerton – William sets up honey traps. But photographing unsuspecting women in flagrante plagues his conscience and William heaves up his guts with remorse after every job. 

However, William’s life changes when he accidentally meets the beautiful Clara Morton and falls in love. Little does he know she is the wife of a client – a leading fascist with a dangerous obsession. And what should have been another straightforward job turns into something far more deadly. 

Set in 1930s Birmingham, and dripping with period atmosphere, Needless Alley is fabulous. William ‘Billy’ Garrett is a private enquiry agent, who specialises in helping men with divorces. For a suitable fee he’ll arrange a honey trap (ably assisted by his best friend Ronnie, an out of work actor) to get some incriminating photos and help the husbands get out of their marriages. But it all goes awry when he meets the beautiful Clara, the wife of one of his clients.

Gloriously gritty Brummie Noir with a real sense of place, the book takes in the highs and lows of Birmingham from the canals to the country houses, the tenements to the factories, and featuring a glorious cast of memorable characters, it’s a hugely impressive debut, and one which I highly recommend.

Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow is published by Baskerville and is out now. Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book to review

January/February roundup

Hello dear reader! How are you? It’s been forever. You look fabulous, as always.

I did mean to do a January roundup following my ‘How do you read so much?’ post, but then life got in the way (yes, I was reading more books), and before you know it, February has arrived (along with more books), and then you blink and it’s the end of the month and not only have I not done a January roundup, I don’t appear to have written very much at all this year.

Ooops. I blame Elden Ring (and Jackson Ford, who kept saying it was awesome) and appear to have lost *cough* hours into it already. Double oops.

It’s so pretty though. That’s me, about to go an investigate a castle to give a letter to some dude called Edgar (I think). I’m really not very good at keeping track of what’s going on and there’s no obvious ‘go here and do this’ list.

So yeah, been playing a LOT of Elden Ring and taking a bit of a break from the old blog/newsletter/everything. But I’m back! Cue fireworks/cake!

What have I been reading, I hear you ask? Well settle in kids, cos it’s a LIST. (the kind you don’t get in Elden Ring, grumble grumble). Super short reviews, might dive back in and write up some longer ones later!


It Ends At Midnight – Harriet Tyce [Wildfire, 2022]

Delightfully twisty thriller, starting (and ending, as the title suggests) at midnight on New Year. Seemed to be a good choice as I started it on 31st Dec and finished it on New Year’s Day. Full of unreliable narrators, kept me guessing until the very end. Enjoyed it a lot.

End of Story – Louise Swanson [Hodder, March 2023]

Oh this book is amazing. Loved Louise’s earlier books (writing as Louise Beech), this is her first foray into a dystopian sci-fi. 2035 and fiction has been banned. Writing novels is a crime. Reading stories to children is punishable by law. The writing is beautiful, the setting is horrific, and it finishes with an ending that’ll leave you stunned. Hugely recommended.

Needless Alley – Natalie Marlow [Baskerville, January 2023]

From a dystopian future to Birmingham, 1933. William Garret, private enquiry agent, specialises in helping men with divorces, but it all goes awry when he meets the beautiful Clara, the wife of one of his clients. Gloriously gritty Brummie Noir. A hugely impressive debut, and one which I highly recommend.

The Vicar Man – Amelia Crowley [2021]

Utterly splendid historical fantasy, with a lovely line in folk horror and humour. A young priest turns up on the island a week before the equinox, and the villagers are looking for someone… special to help with the harvest. Enjoyed this enormously, though it took me far too long to twig about the title!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

What’s there to say about this one? A classic Christie, one which gets talked about a lot. I’ve read shockingly few of Christie’s books. I enjoyed it, and had fun trying to figure out whodunnit, albeit unsuccessfully. Will I read more Christie? Sure.

The Devil Takes You Home – Gabino Iglesias [Mulholland, 2022]

Stunning. A father takes a job as a hitman to save his daughter and goes on a journey into darkness. Dark and bleak, but breathtakingly good. Not for the faint-hearted, but when I finished it, I knew that it will be top of my books of the year list, and I was only eight days into the year. It’s THAT good. If you read one from this list, read this one.

The Spare Man – Mary Robinette Kowal [Solaris, 2022]

Off into space for a locked room (well, locked spaceship) mystery. Tesla Crane is on her honeymoon on a space liner heading for Mars when there’s a murder and her new husband is promptly arrested. Cue lots of investigating, banter, cocktails, and the best dog, Gimlet. Delightfully entertaining.

The Daughters of Izdihar – Hadeer Elsbai [Orbit, January 2023]

First in a duology by debut author Hadeer Elsbai, set in an alternate Egyptian-inspired world featuring elemental magic and some seriously badass women fighting for their rights in a male-dominated world. Very much looking forward to book 2.

Grave Expectations – Alice Bell [Vintage, May 2023]

Enormous fun. Claire is a medium, Sophie her best friend, who also happens to be a ghost. And very sarcastic. A lovely murder mystery at an old country house with some brilliant characters, excellent banter and a cracking story. Fabulous debut, I shall be looking forward to what Alice Bell comes up with next.

Failure Is An Option – Matt Whyman [Vertebrate Publishing, 2022, Audible]

First non-fiction and audiobook of the year. Matt Whyman goes from being an average runner taking on the saturday morning parkrun to someone who runs ultras, and ultimately taking on the famed Dragon’s Back Race, a six-day event some consider to be amongst the toughest. Funny, honest and told with a wry sense of wit, I loved this book. Though I think I’ll stick to parkrun and the weekend trail run through the woods, I must admit I did look at a couple of longer running events…

Freeze – Kate Simants [Viper, March 2023]

A new reality TV show in the Arctic with a bunch of mostly unlikeable characters all vying for the win. What could possibly go wrong? Lots of things, that’s what. Who will win? And more importantly, will there be anyone left to claim the prize? Cracking thriller, pack your thermals!

Legends and Lattes – Travis Baldree [Tor, 2022]

Utterly delightful cosy fantasy. Viv the orc hangs up her sword (literally) and opens the first ever coffee shop in a little town. Not huge on plot, but a lovely cosy tale with characters you’ll come to love. I enjoyed it enormously.

The Other People – CJ Tudor [Penguin, 2020]

A missing child and a father’s quest to find her, even though the police think she’s dead. Fab suspense thriller dealing with love and loss, splendidly creepy. Loved it.

Phew! That was a lot of reading for one month. I don’t normally read that much, as is evidenced by…


Thirty Days of Darkness – Jenny Lund Madsen [Orenda Books, May 2023]

I was hugely fortunate to get a super-early sneak peak at this from the lovely Karen at Orenda Books, and appear to have been the first reader! Danish literary author Hannah is challenged to write a crime book in thirty days, so heads off to a remote village in Iceland. How hard can it be to write a mere genre story? Then there’s a murder, and suddenly everyone’s a suspect. Lovely vein of dark humour in here, enjoyed it a lot, and looking forward to book 2 already (and book 1 isn’t out for a couple of months!)

Games for Dead Girls – Jen Williams [HarperVoyager, March 2023]

Huuuge fan of Jen Williams’ books, so very excited to get my hands on an ebook proof of Games for Dead Girls. Played out over dual timelines, a macabre game in the past turned into tragedy, whilst present day Charlotte returns to the caravan park to research local folklore and uncover the secrets of what went on all those years ago. Stitch-faced Sue is a fantasticly spooky creation which will linger long after you’ve finished. Just hope she doesn’t come for you…

The Ugly Truth – LC North [Bantam Press, March 2023]

Melanie Lange has disappeared. A video shared on YouTube claims her father is holding her at a secret facility. He claims that she’s been admitted to a private medical clinic. Her friends say she’s been kidnapped. Who is telling the truth? Told through snippets of emails, transcripts of interviews and a Netflix documentary, you’ll change your mind a dozen times before you get to the end. Fascinating!

There we go. Sixteen books read across two months. Some to add to your watch lists, some to dive into now. Huge thanks to the publicists and publishers for the advance copies.

Have you read any of them? Any take your fancy?

Keep your eyes peeled for fuller reviews – and do let me know if there’s any you’d like to know more about!

On reading (a lot)

On the 9th of January I posted on FB that I’d just finished book #7 of the year, Gabino Inglesias’ superb The Devil Takes You Home.

A friend replied “7?! HOW?!”

Now I get this a lot, as I read a lot. Admittedly, the first week of January was a lot, even for me. Last year, for example, I read 52 books, and that’s the fewest I’ve read in a year for quite a while.

However, this doesn’t even come close to the number some of my #bookblogger chums get through! And they also regularly get the ‘how do you read that many/that fast?’ with a certain amount of incredulity on the part of the person asking, almost as if they can’t quite believe that it’s true.

It’s true. (I’m not for a moment suggesting that my friend didn’t believe me!)

Whilst this is an unusual rate for me personally, a few factors contributed.

I started the first book (Harriet Tyce’s excellent It Ends At Midnight) on New Year’s Eve (seemed appropriate), so finished it off in the morning of January 1st. Some would argue that I’ve not ‘read’ all of the book in 2023. Hush now.

I started book 2 (Louise Swanson’s equally excellent End of Story) straight away. I love her books, so dived in. Finished that on January 2nd, and onto…

Book 3 (Needless Alley, by Natalie Marlow). Finished that one on January 4th, early hours of the morning. By that point I’d discovered that I’d come down with Covid, so was off work sick, curled up on the sofa. I’d been send this book by the lovely folk at Baskerville, it’s out in February so I wanted to get through it in time for publication.

Book 4 was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. Started when I got up on January 4th, finished later that evening.

Book 5 was The Vicar Man, by Amelia Crowley. January 5th, read it in a day (sofa, blanket, hot honey & lemon). Fairly short book, enormously entertaining. Written by a friend’s partner and been on the shelf for a little while (sorry Amelia!)

Book 6 was The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal, read between January 6th and January 7th. Bit of a chunkier ebook, so took me a while longer. Enjoyed it a lot so savoured it a little. Gimlet is the Best Dog Ever.

Book 7 was Gabino Inglesias’ The Devil Takes You Home, which was just utterly stunning in its writing and kept me reading late into the night (well, the early hours of the morning of January 9th.

Things that helped me get through these books quickly:

  • January started with two days holiday
  • I had two days off sick with Covid…
  • …followed by a weekend when couldn’t go anywhere (see Covid excuse)
  • The kids were staying out of the way because of the twice-aforementioned Covid which meant (relative) peace and quiet on my sofa under a blanket (and cat)

I also didn’t watch much TV. Just curled up on the sofa and read.

I’ve read another two books since then, but the pace has slowed somewhat. The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai took me until January 13th, partly because I was back at work that week, the book was much chunkier and I was taking my time with it. TV was on more and it’s harder to concentrate on the books.

Latest book is Grave Expectations by Alice Bell (started Friday 13th, finished lunchtime today, Monday 16th), which I happened across on Instagram (I think) and promptly ignored my ‘no more books from NetGalley until I clear the backlog’ rule to request it and the pesky publisher only went and approved the request.

It’s enormous fun, about Claire, a 30-something medium whose best friend Sophie died when they were both 17, but still hangs around and keeps telling Claire where she’s gone wrong. Murder mystery at a big old house, loved it.

So yes, I read a lot. Mainly by not doing a lot of other things. My reading rate will drop off, I’m sure, probably back to the one or two a week.

My friend commented that they read maybe a book a month. And that’s brilliant! It really doesn’t matter how much, or how little you read. Are you enjoying it? Then carry on.

But if someone says that they read 200, 300 books a year? Instead of not believing them, or grumbling that they “can’t possibly read that much”, or they “can’t be reading properly” or “must be skipping bits” or, heaven forbid “must just be reading [insert current genre snobbery here]”

Then maybe just keep it to yourself. They’re happy reading whatever it is they want to read, in whatever format it is they’re happiest reading books. People read in different ways, for different reasons. Maybe they don’t watch TV. Maybe they read fast. Maybe they’re got a library card and are not afraid to use it.

Let’s all just be happy reading. There are so many great books out there.

Books of the year 2022

Well, that’s 2022 almost done. Usually by now I’d have done my books of the year lists – one for crime, one for SF/fantasy and one for everything else.

This year I’m going to condense it all into one list. Hey, it’s my blog, my rules.

I read 52 books this year (assuming I don’t finish one between now and midnight on the 31st – possible but unlikely), which feels like a nice round number. A book a week is a lot for some people, not a lot for others. It’s the lowest total personally since 2016 when I read 31 books.

Can’t think why 2020 might have had so many books…

Anyway, we were talking about books that I’ve loved this year. Here then is an entirely unsorted list of some of the books I’ve really enjoyed in 2022.

A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers, by Jackson Ford

Teagan Frost is back with a bang. Ford cranks the dial hard up way past eleven, and you’d better strap yourself in for another high-octane ride. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even been paying the slightest bit of attention that I love these books, and they’ve been a regular feature on my books of the year list. No pressure if you’re watching, Jackson.

The Rabbit Factor/The Moose Paradox by Antti Tuomainen

I adore Antti Tuomainen’s books, so it’s no surprise to find The Rabbit Factor and the sequel The Moose Paradox on this list.. They’re Tuomainen’s best yet, with black humour at its finest, deftly handled. Quirky characters, a fantastic setting and just great, fun reads.

Incy Wincy, by RJ Dark

Incy Wincy follows on from RJ Dark’s first Mal and Jackie adventure, A Numbers Game. More glorious shenanigans as everyone’s favourite psychic/private investigator and his best mate Jackie. Hugely entertaining, cracking plot and superb characters. Book 3 please, RJ.

Little Sister, by Gytha Lodge

A young girl staggers out of the woods covered in blood, but she insists that it’s her sister they need to worry about. The fourth book in a series, but worked as a standalone and left me wanting more. Lodge deftly leads you down various paths, crossing and uncrossing narratives – a gripping thriller that I enjoyed enormously.

Into the Dark by Fiona Cummins

Regular readers will also be aware of my love of Fiona Cummins’ books, and Into The Dark is no exception. Cummins carefully delivers little snippets of information as the plot unfurls, and you’re often left questioning what you thought you knew as each chapter plays out. Who do you trust, when no-one seems to trust each other? Dysfunctional families, secrets, lies and mysterious goings-on. And a new police detective on the case with a bit of a dark past himself…

Taste: My Life through Food by Stanley Tucci

I listened to this book on Audible, narrated by Stanley Tucci himself. He’s a genial host, regaling us with tales and recipes and other stories from his love of food. Hugely enjoyable.

Dog Rose Dirt, by Jen Williams

I seem to have been a bit remiss with my reviews this year – I could have sworn I’d written a long, glowing review of Jen Williams’ foray into crime writing, but it seems that it’s got lost along the way. Suffice it to say that this is a superb specimen of a ‘true crime’ serial killer story which is very much worth your time checking out. Superb writing, taut plot and another which I whipped through at pace, always needing to know what happened next.

The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

Hugely enjoyed this. I read a lot of crime books and love a good supernatural thriller and police procedural, so this was right in my ballpark. What if a detective has to solve his own murder? Superb.

Life Sentence by AK Turner

Another which seems to have slipped down the back of the review sofa. I loved AK Turner’s first book Body Language, featuring mortuary assistant Cassie Raven, whose has a special connection with her recently deceased clients. Life Sentence is another fantastic book, and I highly recommend you picking up both.

SOLO: What running across mountains taught me about life, by Jenny Tough

Jenny Tough (yes, her real name) ran across mountain ranges on six continents, solo and unsupported. This is an incredible set of adventures, beautifully written. There’s a short film about her runs that’s just been released, and I highly recommend both the book and the film. I met Jenny at the Sidetracked event in Leeds in October, and she’s just as fabulous in person as she comes across in her book.

Wolf Pack, by Will Dean

Another year, another Tuva Moodyson mystery. Another certainty for the books of the year list. Look, if you’ve not read any of Will Dean’s books, sort that out. Wolf Pack is the fifth in the series, and not the best place to start as there’s a lot of backstory. But once again, if you’ve read the first four, you need no encouragement from me. If you’ve not read any yet, get yourself to a bookshop!

The Redeemer, by Victoria Goldman

This is a great debut from Goldman and I really enjoyed it. The story is strong, well-plotted and kept me guessing (wrongly, of course) all the way. Great start to a series, looking forward to more!

And Your Enemies Closer by Rob Parker

And Your Enemies Closer is the follow-up to Rob Parker’s brilliant Far From The Tree. It follows on six months after the events of the first book, and from the opening page (can it have a first page if it’s an audiobook?) I was hooked. I even found myself sat outside my house in the car for a couple of extra minutes’ listening time. Parker has got a knack for creating compelling, flawed characters that half the time you’re rooting for, and the other half you’re wondering what on earth they’re doing. He’s also a dab hand at a dark, twisting plot and has some very creatively unpleasant ways for equally unpleasant people to get their just rewards. Superb

Truly Darkly Deeply, by Victoria Selman

Now you know that I do like a good psychological crime thriller, and that’s exactly what we have here in Victoria Selman’s excellent Truly, Darkly, Deeply. It’s a fascinating glimpse into fractured family dynamics and the possibilities of innocence and guilt, with a serial killer stalking the streets of London. Deliciously twisty.

Sundial, by Catriona Ward

This one snuck under the wire. I adored The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial was just as good. Part psychological thriller, part horror, it’s another incredible book following Rob and her daughter Callie as they go back to Rob’s childhood home of Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. There’s a creeping sense of dread that permeates the book as secrets and lies are gradually stripped back to an incredible finale.

Phew! Those were my books of 2023. Bit of a mixture, and I hope you find something in there to tickle your fancy.

Before I go, here’s a sneaky 2023 book that you MUST add to your list.

Children of the Sun, by Beth Lewis

Another of my all-time favourite authors, Beth Lewis has given us some incredible books. The Wolf Road is just stunning, and last year’s The Origins of Iris was wonderful. Dark, raw and startlingly original, it will linger long in the memory after you turn the last page. It took me a while to recover myself after reading. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on Children of the Sun (out in May 2023, sorry you’re going to have to wait). Incredible book about cults and family and belief and loss. Lewis’s writing is, as ever, just beautiful. Hugely recommended.

The ONE book: Stewart Hotson

Welcome once again, dear reader, to the Littlest Library, where guests get to choose the ONE book they’d like to save and add to the collection. This can be a precious physical copy of a book you own or a book that means something to you personally.

The ONE book rules

  1. You can choose ONE book
  2. see rule #1

That’s it.

It can be any book you like, but in the words of the Highlander, there can be only ONE.

Today I’m delighted to welcome Stewart Hotson to talk about their ONE book.

The library I’d take a single book from to preserve is my own – something like 3,000 books all in (not including cookbooks, textbooks and design books for the architect in my life). It’s not quite every book I’ve ever read, after all the TBR pile is pretty generous and, around my late teens I had to dispose of several hundred that I now wish had never ended up leaving my life. 

What it does contain is a collection of the books that have made me. The non-fiction includes my enduring love of philosophy, economics, physics and theology plus the odd and esoteric. 

In addition, the research I undertake for my own writing can be found here – whether it’s books about cryptocurrency, infosec, the history of Algeria, India, Japan, a natural history of fungi or any other number of disconnected subjects.

I’m a former physicist turned banker by day but a writer whenever I get a moment and this odd selection of influences can be found all across my library. 

There was a battle royale over which book I would save. In the end it came down to the winner and Mary Douglas’, Purity and Danger which literally changed my life. However, as influential as that book was on the way I saw the world, the book that won was The Master and Margarita by Mikail Bulgakov. 

Bulgakov’s book is my favourite novel of all time. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Russian literature translated into English but this is the one that sits at the top of the pile for me. To understand its importance for me I need to talk about how I encountered it and then its legacy. 

The novel arrived in my hands during a period in which I was looking for long novels that addressed the real world but had elements to them that were fantastical. Furthermore, Bulgakov was a famous(ly sly) dissident in the USSR. I found a translation in Waterstones and bought it. Simple as that. 

I was expecting something interesting but then I read the foreword in which I learned that Bulgakov wrote the entire novel then burned the only copy upon discovering the Russian secret police were going to raid his home. 

After they were gone he wrote the novel out a second time. At just over 110,000 words that is no mean feat. When I learned this I realised I had to read it if only to see what kind of story a man who was committed enough to burn his only copy before re-writing it from scratch would create. 

I confess that I found the first hundred pages tough going. I don’t know if it was the translation or the story but, honestly, I didn’t really know what was happening at all. Then, about the hundred page mark, something clicked and I fell into the story in the best way possible.

What is the story? It’s about a day in which satan arrives in Moscow and has a bacchanal in a society that literally exclaims he doesn’t exist. The moment I understood that the novel was about how two competing systems of thought clashed, how stories could never be silenced and how meaning and story are inextricably linked was a moment in which my entire view of the world changed. 

The structure is elegant but complex, sophisticated and knowing, sitting beside itself at times with a nod to the reader that it’s quite aware that it’s talking about how it’s built and how the characters within struggle with the bounds they know someone else has put upon them. 

It is a passionate cry for the freedom to think, to dissent, to try for a better world. It is a clear eyed view into what it means for us to believe, about how the stories we tell reveal what it is we hold dear and what it is that fills us with terror. 

It is also a novel about political control, about oppression and how to survive it. 

Lastly it is two very solid fingers up at those who would silence minorities fighting for justice, for their voices to be heard. Bulgakov was very aware of the violence inherent in oppression but he also firmly believed there was no way tyrants could hold on forever no matter how they tried to tell reality it was something other than what it was. 

I’ve loved this novel for a long time and it feels as relevant today as it did the moment I first encountered it. 

It’s not an easy read but it is profound.

Lastly, I remember being on a journey with a Polish friend of mine who revealed that when she was growing up the novel was a set text for the Polish equivalent of A-levels and she couldn’t understand why I was so in awe of it. We discussed how she loved regency novels (which I hate) and that perhaps for both of us, school had destroyed something precious in trying to draw our attention to its worth.

Anyway. This is the novel I would save and I hope you get a chance to read it one day and find just a fraction of what I did on that first read through.

Thanks Stewart! Definitely one I’ll be adding to my own library, it sounds amazing.

You can find Stewart around the internet at https://www.facebook.com/shotston, on Instagram @thestewhotston or at stewarthotston.com. He also writes reviews for Scifi Bulletin and Grimdark Mag, and has six novels published. The last two are The Entropy of Loss, published by NewCon Press and Daybreak Legacy, published by Aconyte.

Would you like to take part in the Littlest Library ONE book challenge?

Drop me an email: dakegra@gmail.com with a photo of your book, and some words to explain why it’s your ONE book.

Until next time…

The ONE book: Oli Jacobs

Welcome, dear reader, to the Littlest Library, where guests get to choose the ONE book they’d like to save and add to the collection. This can be a physical copy of a book you own or a book that means something to you personally.

The ONE book rules

  1. You can choose ONE book
  2. see rule #1

That’s it.

It can be any book you like, but in the words of the Highlander, there can be only ONE.

Today I’d like to welcome Oli Jacobs to the blog to talk about his ONE book.

That One Book – House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

I remember in the early days of my writing career a piece of advice I was given by a fellow peer after the proposal of what would become my book Bad Sandwich. It was, quite simply (and I may be paraphrasing):

“People don’t want to be challenged when reading.”

It was a fair comment as, to its detriment, Bad Sandwich is an incomprehensible mess of words slapped over a basic story. But to me, and those who have managed to enjoy it, it was an attempt to bring something akin to the likes of Finnegan’s Wake – a unique experience that, when understood, gives the reader a feeling of achievement as well as enjoyment.

Consider how that is utilised in other media. In movies we have the likes of 2001 and Tenet. In video games, Dark Souls has invented a genre where difficulty overwhelms basic fun. Music? Listen to the likes of Merzbow or any Prog Rock band and tell me that doesn’t make demands of the listener …

When it comes to literature, though, the one title that I will always hold up as a shining example of a reading challenge that yields great satisfaction is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. A completely unique book in terms of presentation, story, and structure, which is equally a mystery, a horror, and according to the author themselves, a love story. The book does not translate to ebooks, is only available (I believe) as a hardback sized paperback, and becomes not so much a challenge as a test of the reader’s own narrative comprehension.

So what is House of Leaves all about? Well, it begins with a drug addict named Johnny Truant who is hired to sort through the files of late film academic Zampanò, specifically those relating to his work on a documentary called The Navidson Record. This then leads us to said documentary, which follows the life of patriarch of the Navidson family and photographer Will as he chronicles the strange goings on within the house his family move into in Virginia. All of which is accompanied by a litany of footnotes pointing towards fictional documentaries, academic materials, and other footnotes.

And that’s not even getting into the presentation of the whole thing.

Effectively this is a story about a story about a story. While Truant is our “main” character, the meat of the tale lies in The Navidson Record and the unfurling of events within the house. The horror here is showcased in abnormal growths of space, and the effect it has on the minds of those around it. What begins as an impossible corridor soon expands into a colossal labyrinth, and the breakdown of sanity and safety Will and his family attempt to endure.

This bleeds into Truant’s tale, as the mental pressure of this story causes him to feel the effects of it in his everyday life, causing him to spiral into his own vices and confront his own familial ghosts in parallel to Will facing his. In the end, there are no clear answers, no reasons tied up in a nice little bow. There is just a resolution that leaves one with the same feeling of pleasurable exhaustion as all the characters in the tale have.

How is this sense of madness conveyed? In the infamous presentation Danielewski chooses to tell his tale. The aforementioned footnotes are the first thing to show a lack of adherence to the established format of literature. They crawl up the sides of the page, consume whole sheets, and slither within themselves to create a verbal ouroboros. You then see how certain elements of the font are equally as off. The word house is always presented in green, the different narrators represented by different typefaces. Then the whole structure collapses to fit the tale, with a single word alone and vulnerable within an empty sheet, or a paragraph cut open by a window whose view is seen when the reader turns the page. All of this contributes to an inherent theme that nearly everyone who has read House of Leaves can agree upon, the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the elaborate labyrinth in which they dwell. Everything in the story loops back on itself, leads to dead ends, and contains a feeling of utter dread that leaks from the characters to the reader. You are hypnotised through that sense of narrative immersion readers crave in a book, and before you know it what once seemed like a crazy looking title has sucked you deep within its maze-like walls.

Suffice to say, I love House of Leaves. I love how it is presented, how its story unravels, and the effect it has on the reader. It has inspired the epistolary style of Wilthaven, the void-like mystery of the hole in Deep Down There, as well as countless other horrors I plan to release in the future. Specifically, it has left a mark on me that only comes from a truly inspirational work of fiction.

But a work that is not an easy read.

Those I know who have read it have treated it like marmite – some love it, some hate it. It is equally seen as genius and pretentious amongst critics. Ideas to adapt it to film or television have been instantly dismissed due to the sheer scope and feel of the story itself. It is, quite frankly, a challenge of a book that will demand a great level of concentration and understanding that those who say reading must be “fun” will balk at.

But like all challenges, once you have conquered the literary beasts, once you have gained even a base level of understanding about what is being presented to you, you will get a level of satisfaction that you will never get from the most functional bestseller.

Oli Jacobs is a bearded anomaly seen around the wilds of Southampton. His best known works include Deep Down There and Wilthaven, the latter being a Book Bloggers Novel of the Year Finalist in 2021. You can find his works on AmazonBig Green Books, or via his website  You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his newsletter. As always, he hopes you enjoy.

This sounds amazing, and I’ll be picking up a copy for sure. Thanks Oli!

Would you like to take part in the Littlest Library ONE book challenge?

Drop me an email: dakegra@gmail.com with a photo of your book, and some words to explain why it’s your ONE book.

Until next time…

The ONE book: Richard Wilson

Welcome once again to the Littlest Library, where guests get to choose the ONE book they’d like to save and add to the collection. This can be a physical copy of a book you own or a book that means something to you personally.

The ONE book rules

  1. You can choose ONE book
  2. see rule #1

That’s it.

It can be any book you like, but in the words of the Highlander, there can be only ONE.

We’ve talked Liz de Jager, Adam Maxwell, and Chris McDonald. Today I’d like to welcome my friend Richard to talk about the one book he’d choose.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.

Paperback copy of The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

I really want to say this is a book that I discovered in my childhood but I was actually introduced to this when I was 21 and started going out with my wife.

The Dark is Risking is a fantastic book set in British mythology. Technically it is the 2nd book chronologically in the 5 book sequence but the first is really more of a prequel.

Set in the 70’s, in midwinter, it tells the story of Will Stanton, an 11-year-old boy who turns out to be an Old One, an immortal, and powerful being who protects Britain against the forces of the Dark (capital D) but not yet fully realised his power he has to gather the 7 signs of the light.

Essentially it is a short but immensely satisfying read. The reason it is my one book, is the first year we were together my wife read it to me and since then, we read it to each other every Yule, now our daughters now join in, it is our “family” book.

If you ever read LeGuin or Garner you’ll love this. Susan Cooper paints a modern fantasy, the two layers of the “real world” as we know it and then the magical, just below just out of sight.

If you’re interested, the BBC has done an adaption and it will be on the BBC iPlayer starting on 20th December.

ps. Some time ago a film was made of this called “The Seeker” – please don’t watch this. Hollywood took control away from the author and made a terrible film.

Thanks Richard! I love seeing old, battered, much-loved paperbacks that have been read and re-read and re-re-read. There’s a history to those pages, and it’s a perfect choice for my littlest library.

Do you want to take part in the Littlest Library ONE book challenge?

Drop me an email to dakegra@gmail.com with a photo of your book, and some words to explain why it’s your ONE book.

The ONE book: Chris McDonald

Welcome once again to the Littlest Library, where guests get to choose the ONE book they’d like to save and add to the collection. This can be a physical copy of a book you own or a book that means something to you personally.

The ONE book rules

  1. You can choose ONE book
  2. see rule #1

That’s it.

It can be any book you like, but in the words of the Highlander, there can be only ONE.

We’ve talked Liz de Jager and Adam Maxwell, and today it’s the turn of Chris McDonald, author of the Erika Piper series, the Stonebridge Mysteries and the standalone story Little Ghost.

Right Chris, what have you got for us?

This was, perhaps, the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. How do you choose ONE book??

I spent a sleepless night thinking about it, going through my goodreads and trying to narrow down a book that I loved so much.

It was futile.

In the end, I’ve gone for Vine Street by Dominic Nolan.

Big books scare me. 500+ pages is an investment, and one usually I cower from.

When Dom Nolan’s Vine Street dropped through my door, it’s hefty bang signalling it’s arrival on my doormat, I ran away scared. And then I read page one, and before I knew it, I was finished.

The story is intriguing and the writing beautiful. I cried a couple of times, and I found myself, when at the shop or at work, thinking about the characters. A year and a half on from reading it, I still think about Geats, and that to me signifies a great book and a great writer. For me, Vine Street must endure!

Fabulous, thanks Chris! I bought a copy of Vine Street a year ago in hardback and agree that it’s a beast of a book. I even picked up a copy on my kindle thinking it’d be easier! I’m bumping it up my TBR list now.

You can find Chris McDonald on twitter @cmacwritescrime, or on the excellent Blood Brothers crime writing podcast

Do you want to take part in the Littlest Library ONE book challenge? I’ve got a few more guests lined up, but the more the merrier!

Drop me an email: dakegra@gmail.com with a photo of your book, and some words to explain why it’s your ONE book.

The ONE book: Adam Maxwell

Welcome once again to the Littlest Library, where guests get to choose the ONE book they’d like to save and add to the collection. This can be a physical copy of a book you own or a book that means something to you personally.

The ONE book rules

  1. You can choose ONE book
  2. see rule #1

That’s it.

It can be any book you like, but in the words of the Highlander, there can be only ONE.

Last time we talked Liz de Jager, author of one of my favourite trilogies (start with Banished!) about her ONE book, THE WALKING DRUM by Louis L’Amour.  

Today I’m delighted to welcome Adam Maxwell, author of the Kilchester books. They’re a lot of fun, you should check them out.

Right, Mr Maxwell. What have you got for us?

As a teenager, I was an insatiable reader. I was also an impatient idiot.

I say this up front, hoping you’ll relate and ultimately forgive me for what I’m about to tell you. Part of it, at least.

Before I get into my one book, maybe I should give you some context?

Rewind back to the late 80s and early 90s and the world was a different place for bookish types. In Newcastle and Sunderland in the North East of England, there were the pillars of second-hand bookshops like the Durham Book Centre, but there always seemed to be other shops sprouting weekly.

As a result, myself and my cousin Oliver entered an endless quest to view and purchase ALL THE BOOKS.

On pocket money alone, it was difficult and so we also employed the magnificent local libraries in order to feed our addictions.

I was consuming crime books by Agatha Christie alongside Monty Python’s Brand New Papperbok and one day my Aunty and Uncle said, ‘You should read this. It’s right up your street.’ They handed over a paperback copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and, within two chapters, I knew it was the favourite book I had ever read or would ever read.

Oddly, that isn’t the book I would save.

The great thing about finding a new (to you) author is that they have a back catalogue and these musty bookshops allowed me to fill my shelf with the first four Hitchhikers books.

The library, on the other hand, had a hardback of another of Douglas Adams’ books… on the front cover was a brass plaque and on the plaque were the words:

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

Hardback copy of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Reader, I practically ran out of the library with it and started reading on the bus home.

I read and I read and then… the impatient idiot took over.

The whole first section is about an electric monk? And a bloke in a car? Where were the jokes on every page? The main character didn’t even turn up for… pages and pages and pages…

See… impatient idiot.

I gave up on it and returned the book, thinking little more about it until a few weeks later when, chatting with my cousin, I mentioned the disappointment.

‘What?’ was his incredulous response. ‘It’s his best book. You should give it another chance.’

And so I did. And in doing so I discovered the ‘one’… because yeah, Hitchhikers is great. It’s a mad, fun, brilliantly written cornucopia of ideas, but plot-wise it’s all over the place. Dirk Gently takes all the best bits of Hitchhikers and all the best bits of Douglas Adams; this big ideas, the humour, the Wodehousian wordplay and crafts it exquisitely together into a brilliant narrative and produces something even better.

Firstly, the concept… a detective who takes the idea of a Sherlock-like detective who sees things we don’t and pushes it to the absurd. Dirk sees nothing in particular. And everything. In a funny sort of way. He’s convinced by the interconnectedness of all things and, although he is clever, he’s also infuriating and inconsistent.

From the outside Dirk Gently seems to be cursed with his powers rather than engaged with them. Then come the ghosts, the hypnotism, the… time travel?

And lest we forget the horse in the bathroom.

A simple case of a lost cat becomes so overblown that Dirk becomes embroiled in events that could prove extinction-level and yet the world he occupies always feels very British… and always very, very funny.

The Dirk Gently books taught me a huge amount about how it’s possible to balance humour with completely contrasting genres and make it work. If you build the right type of fictional world, then anything can happen in there.

I re-read both the Dirk Gently books every few years and they still remain as fun, fresh and brimming with ideas as they were the first (second?) time I read them.

Of course, after I returned my copy to the library, I had to buy my own. And that’s the one book I would save. Thanks to my cousin pointing out that I was an impatient idiot.

These days I’m glad to say I’m not quite as impatient.

But I’m still a massive idiot.

Adam Maxwell is the author of the Kilchester series of novels which have been described as ‘Oceans 11 meets Hot Fuzz… in book form’.

If you like crime fiction with a large dollop of crazy then you might want to give his books a read. And if you head over to his website www.adammaxwell.com you can get one of them for free.

Thanks Mr M. It’s a cracking book and a worthy addition to the library (especially as I foolishly sold my own, signed copy many years ago when I was skint. It appears that I too am a massive idiot!)

Do you want to take part in the Littlest Library ONE book challenge? I’ve got a few more guests lined up, but the more the merrier!

Drop me an email: dakegra@gmail.com with a photo of your book, and some words to explain why it’s your ONE book.

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