Books You Should Read But Have Probably Never Heard Of

Listen, don’t tell anyone, but I’m not particularly well-read, especially not for a writer. I read a lot when I was small, but it’s something I’ve let slide as I have progressed into adulthood. Perhaps it is because of my own unwritten rule that I don’t read when I am working on my own writing – I have been doing quite a bit of that in the last few years. But when I do read, you can guarantee I find the very best of the weird and the wonderful, the very highest of brow, to tickle my literary taste buds. Here are some of my favourites.


Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun – Neil Rushton

This is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted, nor the easily offended. It is the story of one man’s descent into madness – or possibly his return to sanity, depending on your point of view – through the controlled use of hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs. It is rather Joycean in its lack of linear narrative, but is surprisingly easy to follow, although the fruity language might be a bit off-putting for some. As might the occasional foray into very dark subject matter, although it is written with such explicit beauty and care that even some of the most unthinkable elements become pure poetry. It is weird, it is challenging and I have never read anything quite like it – and never enjoyed a book in quite the same way, either.



The Mullet – Hairstyle Of The Gods – Mark Larson & Barney Hoskyns

Once upon a time, I would only go out with chaps who had mullets. No, really. It was a dark time in my dating history, but it did at least introduce me to this fine tome, which really does contain everything you need to know about the most controversial and enduring haircuts of all time.

We learn the history of the mullet (it goes back to prehistoric times!) and its evolution, the various types of mullet and where they can be found – there’s even a handy guide to mullet wining and dining. If you have ever been curious about the ‘shorty-longback’, this book will tell you everything you never wanted to know.


Filthy Lucre – Simon Rose

A book about corporate corruption and insider dealing sounds neither interesting nor funny, but this unlikely book manages to be both. It was published in 1990, so bits of it come across as rather dated, but this only adds to the charm. It was, apparently, serialised as a cartoon in the Mail On Sunday at the time, which is fairly unusual. I would say this is a classic British farce, with plenty of good-humoured smut mixed with astute satire that could probably benefit from being modernised, but is hugely enjoyable as it is. There are quite a lot of rude bits in it, too.



Yes Minister – The Diaries Of A Cabinet Minister – Jonathan Lynn & Antony Jay

I saw this on a friend’s bookshelf and swiped it immediately to read on the train. This is volume two, so one assumes there is a volume one also, perhaps even a volume three. Anyway. This is presented as the collected diaries of the fictional Minister for Administrative Affairs James Hacker and is basically a direct adaptation of the utterly brilliant TV programme from the 80s. It stays true to the television series and is a brilliant light read for fans of the original. While Filthy Lucre demonstrates how business and technology have moved forward in leaps and bounds, Yes Minister shows us that Whitehall hasn’t changed at all. The debates around surveillance and personal privacy are as pertinent now as they were then, not to mention their views on what was the EEC (now, of course, the much-discussed EU). I could go as far as to peg Humphrey as a Remainer and Hacker as a Brexiteer. I shall certainly be doing my best to get my hands on volume one. Hopefully, my friend has it and I can steal that too.


Crap Taxidermy – Kat Su

Quite frankly, this is the best thing ever published. I mean, ever. It does exactly what it says on the tin and provides page after page of some the worst, the funniest and the most downright bizarre examples from the eclectic world of taxidermy.

This is the perfect book to bring out at dinner parties and hand around between courses – who couldn’t fail to love this earnest-looking bear or the dieting fox?


This is my personal favourite. He (it’s definitely a ‘he’, isn’t it) looks so pleased with himself, doesn’t he? There is even a section at the back of the book that talks you through your own home taxidermy projects, step by step. I haven’t tried this, however, so cannot say how helpful it really is. But the main point of this delightful publication is to enjoy the efforts of other (assumed) amateur taxidermists and enjoy them you will, let me tell you.

So there we have it. I hope I have introduced you to some hitherto little-known literary gems that would otherwise have passed you by. No need to thank me, it has been my pleasure.

So You Want To Be A Writer

No, you really don’t. But if I absolutely can’t persuade you otherwise, I suppose I should at least share a little of my experience on the matter. Talking to a lot of writers, you would be forgiven for thinking that they were all producing epic masterpieces from the womb and have been engaged in the great literary struggle ever since, barely a moment passing when swathes of creative perspiration were not dripping from their brows. And I’m sure that’s how a good deal of them view the situation. Such declarations can be intimidating for us mere mortals, as if the fact we haven’t been scribing equivalents of The Odyssey since we were in short trousers means we don’t stand a chance of ever putting pen to paper.


What do you mean you haven’t written your first draft yet?

The truth is, everyone has to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter when or where we start, just as long as we start. And not everyone is obliged to become a fully-fledged literary obsessive, dedicating every waking moment (and non-waking ones, in some cases) to their magnum opus. Take my friend Sam, for example (regular readers will know her as Ice Badger). Sam is a professional technical writer, but has a huge creative streak outside of work and is particularly gifted in the field of haiku. She has often hinted at wanting to write some fiction and last week asked my advice about getting started. I took this as a huge compliment as I am certainly no expert in penmanship and my fiction writing is pretty low-brow, to say the least. But this is what I would say to Sam, and anyone else thinking about wielding the quill for the very first time…


Sam in her other role as Minister for Good Ideas & Gin, helping me run the country


In the past I have been guilty of hoarding notebooks, too afraid to write in the nicest ones because I didn’t want to ruin them with scribbles and nonsense. But scribbles and nonsense are exactly where the best stories come from! So I got myself a cheap, functional, unassuming notebook and began a-scribbling with gusto (gusto is optional, but it really helps). I’ve got lots of them, now, some of them are really nice. Even the nice ones are full of nonsense – quite frankly, I’d make notes on the back of the Mona Lisa if an idea came to mind.


Lots and lots of nonsense that eventually became books and things

Your notes don’t have to be profound, interesting, or even make sense. They should be things that strike you for any reason, cause thinking, raise a smile or a question, make you cry or fume. It could be the funny mannerisms of that woman on the tube, a quirky turn of phrase favoured by your granddad or some graffiti that caught your eye in the underpass. Maybe you have half an idea for a character on the bus, or think of a great opening line whilst doing the ironing. Anything at all, write it down. You’ll be surprised how quickly those seemingly random missives become a little creative goldmine. Sometimes, the random things join themselves up and little stories peek out their heads when you least expect it.


Inspiration can be fortuitous and unsolicited, but more often than not it needs a little helping hand. It is widely agreed that going for a nice walk is very helpful. Get out and about and notice everything. What does the sky look like? What can you hear or smell? Notice the tiny flowers and the way the little bird cocks his head. Notice the people – how they move, how they speak, try to imagine what they’re thinking or where they’re going, where they’ve been. There are stories in everything, if only you look carefully enough.


There’s got to be a story in this…

It’s always good to write about what you know and the more you know, the more you have to write about. Travel is a fabulous way to open the mind to new experiences but isn’t possible for everyone. Just going to unusual places (or places unusual to you), speaking to people you normally wouldn’t and looking at things you haven’t seen before are super ways to foster inspiration.


You should probably read a great deal. I admit that I am not a big reader, although I did read a lot when I was small. If you fancy turning your hand to writing, chances are you’re already a keen reader and will already have a good idea of styles you like and things you don’t. A broad spectrum of reading material will help you find your writing voice, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate your favourite authors. Rather, think about what it is you like about their writing – beautiful rhythm and alliteration? Gorgeous, rolling descriptive prose? Clever dialogue? Whatever it is you love, grab it and develop your own unique take on it.


Reading big old books in your jim-jams is very writerly.

Be Brave!

Just start writing! It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away with the preparation and contemplation and forget to actually put stuff on the page. You don’t have to show anyone – in fact, I’d probably advise against it whilst you are in that tentative, fledgling stage of writing. And if you do, show it to someone who knows what they are talking about, who can offer you some constructive advice. Or, if you are feeling thick-skinned (and the material is appropriate) show it to a kid. Kids know what they like and are very good at saying what they think.


My brave face

I promise you, with every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter you write, you will get better. Believe me, it won’t be too long before the words start behaving in a much more civilised manner and you are producing stuff that, while not quite Dickens, is actually, well, pretty good.

Just give it a go, enjoy it and be true to yourself. Nothing about writing is complicated, difficult or requires special insight. No one can teach you how to write, but some people can help you think about how you want to write. Pick up a pen. You will never know unless you try.

Finnegans Wake: Book 3.2

Shaun returns to reality (if you can call it that) from the donkey’s dream, going by the name Jaunty Jaun, a man know ‘far and wide, as large as he was lively, was he noted for his humane treatment of any kind of abused footgear,’ . He seems a little roughed up or worse for wear. He passes a policeman who has fallen asleep, drunk, at his post and eventually comes across his sister Izzy (Isa from previous chapters) and 28 schoolgirls from St Brigid’s School sitting under a tree. They are apparently learning ‘their antemeridian lesson of life.’ 

Jaun greets the schoolgirls with a doff of his hat (with a reinforced crown) and they all make a great fuss of him – all except the prettiest girl. The girls jiggle his fat, feel his manhood and declare him to be sixteen years old, which is rather forward of them in several respects. In return, Jaun makes various comments on their appearances (some quite harsh, others salaciously approving) and advises them to read up on Irish legends.

It appears that Jaun is planning on going away and speaks fondly of his sister Izzy, declaring that he will miss her terribly. He then goes on to discuss a sermon he heard given by Father Mike and implores the girls to gather around and listen. It is quite a lengthy sermon, as it turns out. It starts off innocuously enough, with instructions to keep the Ten Commandments, go to church on a Sunday and not to eat pork on a Friday. There is practical advice about cooking (the importance of food is greatly stressed) and keeping a clean house, plus some very useful tips on handling an alcoholic husband – which if they end up marrying any of the characters from this book could come in very handy. Jaun preaches the importance of remaining chaste and virtuous, but expresses this in such a suggestive manner that you very much get the impression that he prefers the company of somewhat less virtuous ladies. To further this point, he gives some quite detailed and graphic advice on lovemaking, although one wonders how a chubby sixteen year old has accumulated such esoteric knowledge. Other highlights of the sermon include:

‘Never lose your heart away till you win his diamond back’ (I think this is tip for card games)

Warnings about posing nude for artists

Don’t sleep with a piano player, especially if he is your lodger

‘Never park your brief stays in the men’s convenience. Never clean your buttoncups with your dirty pair of sassers.’  Wise words indeed!

There is also what appears to be a swipe at his mother, ALP, when he explains at length the error of cheating on a husband with a great many men and becoming pregnant. Jaun generally speaks highly of his mother in both this chapter and the one previous, but his hatred of his illegitimate half brother Shem is evident throughout the book.

Eventually, Jaun announces that he is hungry and needs to go. He asks the girls to wait for him until the grame reaper’ comes, but Izzy has other ideas. She implores him not to leave and starts talking about priests. Another of the girls declares her love for Jaun, but sadly cannot pursue her feelings for him as she already has a boyfriend who is more gifted in the trouser department. Unimpressed, Jaun has a drink and starts shouting. He tells the girl that she can have Dave the Dancekerl instead. Jaun is very fond of Dave:

‘I bonded him off more as a friend and as a brother to try and grow a muff.’

As luck would have it, Dave comes around the corner carrying some pate and three white feathers. Jaun proceeds to sing his praises, although there are a few snipes about his physical appearance – Dave is far more slender than Jaun and I think he is a bit jealous about the fact.

Jaun insists that he must board a ship immediately and all the girls weep with despair. Then, a worrying thing. These words appear:

‘But the strangest thing happened.’

Considering the unlikeliness of the book so far, one can only wonder with ever-increasing dread what it might mean by ‘the strangest thing’.  As it turns out, I don’t have much of an idea, unfortunately, except that Jaun chokes, spits and curses. A great deal of randomness ensues and Jaun possibly dies. We end on this note:

‘The silent cock shall crow at last. The west shell shake the east awake. Walk while ye have the night for morn, lightbreakfast-bringer, morroweth whereon every past shall full cost sleep.



This is a very amusing and quite naughty chapter on the whole but the overall feeling is one of hypocrisy. The boastful Jaun / Shaun presents himself initially as a wise and pious fellow, to whom the young ladies should pay great attention. But he immediately abuses his position by endlessly detailing the behaviours he at first advised them to avoid. Joyce has a marvellous sense of irony and makes flagrant use of juxtaposition to create some very dark humour. On the upside, the final lines suggest that someone is on the way with some breakfast, so it’s not all bad.

Favourite Lines

‘I’ll tear up your limpshades and lock all your trotters in the closet, I will, and cut your silk-skin into garters.’

Now, there’s a threat if ever I heard one.

‘And is that any place to be smuggling his madam’s apples up? Deceitful jade. Gee wedge! Begor, I like the way they’re half cooked.’

I don’t know what it means but it made me laugh.

‘Dress the pussy for her nighty and follow her piggy-tails up their way to Winkyland.’

Quick trip to Winkyland, anybody?