If You Could Read My Mind: The four novels today deal with social conduct and mores with a light touch, even when the subject matter is the extinction of the species via murder, male mid-life crisis, suicide, and AI. To the authors’ credit, these four are wonderfully rendered comedies.
‘How To Kill Your Family’ by Bella Mackie
The tale of Grace Bernard is both a delicious romp into the world of the politically incorrect and a scathing social commentary. When the novel opens, Grace is languishing in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. What she did do, however, and this comes in the form of a confessional she secretly writes, is eliminate the members of her family that she never really knew. Grace is the product of an unexpected pregnancy between a French commercial model and a super-rich playboy who’s already married and has a daughter. Without batting an eyelash or offering any kind of support, Grace is denied by her bio-Dad, and it’s only later in life, after her mother passes away, that she hatches the plan, biding her time and getting rid of all the members of the family that made her life so miserable.
It’s the unrepentant tone of Grace as she recounts how she set about killing off the members of the Artemis clan that make this such an enjoyable read. Think of someone as charming as Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley, but now a woman and playing it for laughs, to get an idea of how Mackie presents Grace to us. And you’ll love how the murders are hatched so no finger is left pointing at our anti-heroine. Her father, Simon Artemis, eventually becomes paranoid to the extreme, but he’s alone in believing the deaths of his parents, his brother, his wife and daughter, are anything other than accidental or misfortune. There’s even an unexpected twist toward the end of the novel—but, come to think of it, this makes perfect sense given the laws of probability. Bella Mackie’s novel has to be one of the best guilty pleasures reads of the year.
‘Escape From Oblivia’ by Brian Kindall
The male midlife crisis, the drudgery of domestic bliss, the yearning for adventure and fantasy, the Lolita complex—themes that have all been tackled by novels, films, and TV series. So while this latest novel from Brian Kindall might not win any prizes for originality or freshness of premise, there’s a veneer of comedy and social commentary that keeps it an interesting, even mirth-filled read. It all starts of with Will Kirby, a creative and one-time published writer, ruminating at a library. For the last seven years, he’s been toiling on his second book, and he believes he’s finally found the ideal subject matter with the life of fellow writer and seeming paragon of toxic masculinity, Dick Banal. To complicate things, there’s a new young, French librarian named Martine he swoons over, while Roxanne, the regular librarian, seems to hero-worship Will.
Did we forget to mention that Will is married to Jane, and they have a wonderful daughter, Ava? Well, it seems Will is ready to forget those little facts as he explores the boundaries of his midlife crisis. And in episode after episode, we watch as Will blends his fantasy dreams with his real life, with disastrous results. The portions of the book dealing with the middle-aged man are hilarious, filled with acute observations about the male ego and that need for adventure when domesticity and routine have both kicked in. There follows an extended dream sequence but you’ll have to decide whether this portion works as well. It’s imaginative and fun to read, but as a metaphor for what kind of solution or resolution can be be created from the predicament of Will, it may be overlong or lacking in any real answer. But then again, that might just be the point.
‘Contacts’ by Mark Watson
James sends a text to his 158 smartphone contacts a few minutes before midnight, and right before boarding the London-Edinburgh train at Euston station. It’s basically a nonchalant suicide note, but the repercussions it makes throughout the world are what make up this smartly conceived novel. Structured roughly over the eight-hour train ride, it’s an interesting concept that Mark Watson pulls off with both gentle humor and deep compassion. Naturally, mental health, loneliness, and despair are tackled in the course of the novel. Immediately, phones in the hands of people all around the world light up—James’ sister in Melbourne, his ex-girlfriend in Berlin where she lives with a new partner, his flat mate in London, and his sister Sally has to contact their mother through the Mom’s landline in Bristol.
It’s through the memories of these individuals, the flashbacks that are provided, where we get a picture of how James has arrived at this sad juncture of his life—that life he hopes to end on Waverley Bridge in Edinburgh. James would definitely be the sort of person you wouldn’t give a second thought to if you passed him on the street, so kudos to Watson for making his life and the shared lives with the other individuals depicted here become a veritable page-turner. Too often, we read books about the digital age and how data privacy is abused, how technology has taken over our lives and how it all points to a bleak future in terms of meaningful human contact. This is precisely what makes this novel refreshing, how it shows the upside of technology, as people scramble to find James and avert the disaster that’s about to happen.
‘Set My Heart to Five’ by Simon Stephenson
Do you remember the first time you read a Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick novel? It was about how sci-fi could be coupled with humor and a lot of humanity. That may very well be the sentiment you’ll rekindle when you read this novel about a bot who evolves and suddenly thinks he starts “feeling.” Set in 2054, Jared is a dentist bot in Ypsilanti, Michigan—in a future world where Elton Musk has inadvertently incinerated the moon, New Zealand was wiped off the face of the earth, and countless people have been locked out of the internet because they couldn’t remember their passwords. Thanks to a doctor friend who loves old movies (enjoyed by a group called the “nostalgics”), Jared is introduced to these films and these evoke feelings in him that he knows shouldn’t exist as he’s essentially a machine.
What follows is an odyssey to LA, propelled by Jared’s love for these old films and because he watched “Blade Runner.” Now, he wants to write a screenplay for a film that will talk about bots with feeling, which he hopes will make people accept bots as thinking, feeling entities. This in a world where most of the films of the time depict them as killer bots, out to destroy humans. This logical train of thought is part of the charm of the tone and writing of this novel, as Jared comes out as a charming, sympathetic bot—perhaps even more human and compassionate than actual people. The novel then becomes a social commentary, exploring what it truly means to be human and with a light, humorous touch, recounting the adventures of Jared, and how the world of Hollywood is such a trigger for enjoying Life. SImon Stephenson’s novel is set in a possible future, sure. But it wonderfully reflects our lives today.