London’s Burning ‘Bryant and May: The Burning Man’ by Christopher Fowler

burningmanI read the first Bryant and May novel, Full Dark House, many years ago. At the time it was the only one. Their second outing, The Water Room, is one of my favourite ever reads. Like all the Bryant and May books, it’s a love letter to London and its curious folklore, blended with a flawlessly plotted mystery. All of the Bryant & May novels are excellent, but The Water Rooms stands at the pinnacle.

The thing about being a book lover, and in particular a book blogger, is that there are simply too many books. There’s always some new floozy walking into the bookshop, turning heads and making us forget series we are wedded to. I’ve read the first five Bryant and May novels, own the next three (which my wife has read, she’s a fan too), but was flabbergasted to discover that three more have been published, whilst my attention was elsewhere.

The Burning Man is the twelfth Bryant and May novel and now, amazingly, there are as many that I haven’t read, as those I have. How did so much time slip by, and how come I stopped reading a series I thoroughly enjoyed? The Victoria Vanishes (No. 6) has been on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, yet is somehow in stasis. Christopher Fowler is not an isolated case. There are several trilogies, where I’ve enjoyed the first two books, but still haven’t read the last volume.

When offered a chance to read this latest Bryant and May instalment, I jumped at it, seizing the opportunity to reconnect with one of my favourite authors. It was like meeting up with old friends. You worry it might be awkward, but before you know it, it’s as though you’ve never been away.

Part of the draw of  Fowler’s books is his apparent encyclopaedic knowledge of London lore. I love London; just wandering about, looking at the curious buildings that stand cheek by jowl. I love the sense of history; not just the big famous bits, but the little pieces too. The lost churches, the old guilds and the hidden rivers. All the stuff Fowler writes so eloquently about. There are a few pretenders to his throne, but Fowler is the undisputed pearly king of London folklore. Marry this with tight plotting, superlative characterisation, and a side order of dry wit, and it’s no wonder we have such a fine series of books.

For Bryant and May’s latest instalment, Fowler has taken two modern-day foes that have centuries of tradition. The banks, deep rooted with the development of the city, and Guy Fawkes, one of London’s greatest folklore anti-heroes, now co-opted by modern anti-establishment movements. The novel is set between Halloween and Bonfire Night, a period of time dripping with folk connotations and import.

The Burning Man opens with London in turmoil. The city’s population has had enough of the rich getting richer. Protests and demonstrations have been sparked by the insider dealings of Dexter Cornell, a man who has broken a bank, yet walked away with millions. The city is a powder keg waiting to ignite. When ‘Break the Banks’ marches spill over into violence, a homeless man is caught in the crossfire; burned alive in a bank foyer. The PCU are called to clean up what is expected to be a routine investigation. As we know, when Bryant and May are involved, nothing is routine.

In their own inimitable style, the ageing sleuths start to tease out a wider plot and when another victim is found twenty-four hours later, it is clear the first death was no accident. Once more Bryant and May are up against a fevered mind working to an unseen timetable. Fighting off the usual scepticism from within the force, the peculiar might of the PCU swings into action.

The twelfth Bryant and May novel is a treat from start to finish. The tidbits of London folklore are entertaining, as is Bryant’s left-wing cynicism. Fowler clearly loves his city, but once again he rails against its inequalities and inequity. He is a powerful interlocutor on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Not everybody will be convinced by the beat of Fowler’s drum but it makes a welcome counterpoint to the right-wing clarion, that London is a centre for business, where we should bow to the bankers and swear fealty to their temple of Mammon. Political leanings aside, the novel contains skulduggery aplenty, with an intelligent and inventive murderer on the loose. Bryant remains as bumbling and enigmatic as ever, whilst piecing together a jigsaw no one else can see.

The Burning Man is a fine crime novel. I enjoyed it from first page to last. I have no idea why I took so long to read another Bryant and May. The best thing about having lost touch is that I now have five more novels to catch up on. Here’s to being a better friend in future.

Many Thanks to Sophie at Transworld for sending me a copy of the book. Don’t miss my Q&A with Christopher from yesterday. 

Burning Questions with Christopher Fowler

 

burningman2Today sees the publication of the new Bryant and May novel by Christopher Fowler. Bryant and May: The Burning Man, has the ageing crimefighting duo up against a serial killer with a ‘break the banks’ agenda. The city of London is in turmoil. Another bank has fallen, and another banker is set to walk away; free to spend his creamed off millions. Demonstrators take to the streets and, in the chaos, a homeless man is killed by a Molotov cocktail. Enter Bryant and May.

If you have never read a Bryant and May novel before, then you have a treat in store. There are eleven preceding novels, including The Water Room, which is one of my all time favourite crime books. Fowler weaves mesmerising tales, filled with folklore and London history. They are fascinating in both content and plot. His latest instalment promises to be an incendiary mystery, invoking the spirit of revolution and Guy Fawkes.

The release of The Burning Man, makes it a glorious dozen for Bryant and May, and to celebrate Christopher Fowler has taken time to answer a few questions.

What book(s) are you reading at the moment?

Thanks to an e-reader I usually have around 4 books on the go at once. At the moment I’m reading Graham Joyce’s ‘The Year Of The Ladybird’, Christopher Priest’s ‘The Adjacent’, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia’, and ‘Vainglory’ by Ronald Firbank, a ‘missing’ novel which has gone straight to e-print.

Which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?

I love Warren Ellis’s forays into crime, and I’ve just discovered Jim Shepard, an amazing US short story writer who should be better known. I’m rather shocked that I’m not reading many new women writers – much of what I choose is from recommendations, and one growing problem is that the gender divide is being courted by publishers so that it’s assumed women only write for women. Thank God, then, for Hilary Mantel, and for crime writers like Val McDermid and Laura Wilson.

‘Desert Island’ films, plays and/or music?

Where to start? Comfort movies like ‘Hair’ and ‘Aliens’ and ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (I explain the reason for that last one in my memoir ‘Paperboy’). I am also the only person in the world who loves Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’. Plays; Sondheim for wordplay, Charles Wood and Peter Barnes for muscularity of writing, but more recently ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, ‘Mathilda’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Music is insanely eclectic – I have a passion for film soundtracks that borders mental illness, but this morning I was playing Richard Strauss and German jazz funk band De-Phazz. I love minimalists like Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens. And hard house.

A favourite bookshop?

I love my two nearest shops, Foyles in St Pancras and Watermark in King’s Cross. And of course, Forbidden Planet – I’ve been shopping with them since they were just a market stall in Soho’s Berwick Street.

Who or what makes you laugh?

I love very English language-play; Monty Python, Galton & Simpson, Joe Orton, Al Murray, Stewart Lee, Viz, PG Wodehouse, the Ealing Comedies, ‘The Thick Of It’, The Grand Budapest Hotel..

What depresses you most about contemporary Britain?

The gap between rich and poor, which keeps kids uneducated, and the lunacy of television which happily fills children’s heads with unrealistic dreams. People working at TV companies should ask themselves if they’re contributing anything to society instead of shrieking at each other over Soho House drinks. Every era gets the cons it deserves, and our children deserve something better than the Kardashians.

What excites you most about contemporary Britain?

I live in King’s Cross, possible the most polyglot place in the planet, and it’s thrilling just to walk through crowds. I have no truck with the Little England mentality and – from a purely aesthetic point of view – prefer the muezzin’s call to prayer more than church bells on a Sunday. I’ll get punched for saying that.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

Better eyesight and a faster reading speed. I’ve always been a slow reader, and have always suffered from eye-strain. In a way it’s probably what made me a writer – every Friday my mother had to take me to Moorfields Eye Hospital and as a treat we would visit a museum or bookshop afterwards.

The beauty of London, and the Bryant and May novels, is how the old lies side by side with the new. In the ten+ years since Full Dark House, how much has London changed? How has the city in which Bryant and May operate changed since the recession and the government’s introduction of austerity measures? 

I try to be upbeat about the Mayor’s transformation of London into an oligarch moneypit, but sometimes it’s hard. After more cyclists were maimed on London roads last month, the half-hearted new cycle lanes that peter out after a few metres, forcing riders into traffic, feel symptomatic of what happens when government planners step in to change life here. Incredibly, the pace of change seems to be getting even faster. London has always been in flux, but change was largely driven from within. Now it is due to international market forces. Mercifully, the city no longer makes its money from children working in factories, dying of mercuric poisoning so toxic that their skeletons turned green. Now it’s the impossible-to-comprehend world of money-moving. It seems to me that the result of being driven by outside money movement is that it’s now hard to tell why anything at all happens here. Why does a presumably listed building vanish? Why are services suddenly withdrawn? Why are trees removed and emissions limits not met? Is it simply all down to chance now? For a city so well-connected, hard information is scarce. We are now at the mercy of random forces. We can only grab London’s coattails now and hang on.

****

I have just finished The Burning Man, and to borrow from a trend popular in the world of cinema, the answer to that final question is something of a teaser trailer. It’s highly illuminating in retrospect. Many thanks to Christopher for taking time to answer those questions for me, and thank you to you for reading.

Bryant and May: the Burning Man is out today (26th March), and my full review will be available from tomorrow.

 

A Change in Emphasis

emphasisI’ve been reviewing for over 7 years now. A figure which I find a little scary. First it was only on Amazon, but since 2012, it’s been here on my blog. I suppose I do it for brain exercise. As a stay at home dad cerebral challenges can be hard to come by. Writing reviews means I have to think that little bit more deeply about what I’m reading, and then try to come up with an interesting and entertaining way to convey my thoughts to you the reader. Having done it for so long it’s clear that I enjoy it, so much so that this year I decided to take things a little further by joining the team at GeekDad.

This is a smallish commitment, but it has had a knock on effect on how much time I have to write for my own blog. More unexpectedly it’s altered the way I feel about what I post here. In days gone by, I saw it as slavish chronicle of things I’d read. The occasional book did go by unreviewed, but by and large if I read it, I wrote what I thought about it – whether it were good, bad or mediocre. It may be coincidence, but since joining GeekDad, I’ve had no wish to write about books I’ve read that I found average. By not writing about them in depth, I have more reading time and more time to find the next book to rave about. It will also free up time to write some non-book related posts of GeekDad, starting with this post about in-app purchases.

This will inevitably cause a shift in emphasis in the blog, from books I’ve read to books that provoked a strong reaction. Most reviews will be positive, (which they already are) but I still want to leave the occasional post for books I’ve hated; they’re the most fun reviews to write. I suspect, I may do the odd mediocre wash-up post, just so the world knows, I am still reading…

elizabethThe three books I read recently that didn’t do anything for me were, The Invisible Library, The A-Z of Me and You, and more surprisingly, 2014 Costa prize winner Elizabeth is Missing. A debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing is brilliantly written. The sense of confusion and fear generated by the slide into dementia is portrayed almost perfectly. It makes heart-rending read, depicting the plight of both victims and their loved ones. The examination of the cruel work of Alzheimer’s is deeply affecting. Despite this, I found its central story slight, with some of the novel’s events being too convenient. The mystery at the novel’s heart, isn’t that mysterious. The whole time I was thinking, ‘this is impressive but there’s something missing’.

The Invisible Library, is a steampunk novel, with a labyrinthine multi-dimensional library at its heart. Similar in premise to books I love, such as The Grimm Legacy, and Libriomainvisible librarncer, it is but a shadow of both. The problem I think is that world feels neither real nor fantastic enough. It comes across as a facsimile of too many other similar books. There is no sense we are in a reimagined world, nor in the real world with fantasy elements. It seemed to hover between both, like Schrodinger’s cat. Most of this is down to terrible dialogue. Everybody talks in the same way, rarely sounding like their character should. I kept losing track of who was who. There was no distinctive voice, making the whole book feel beige. This was a shame, as there were some really nice bits in there. I kept waiting for it to burst into life, but I was disappointed.

a-zThe A-Z of You and Me, is a cynical a tear-jerker as you’ll ever read. It fits neatly into the mould of current popular books, having a terminally ill narrator (like The Fault in Our Stars) and a clever story telling gimmick, in this case the central character’s life story told through body parts A to Z. Perhaps I have been reading too many of these books, leaving me jaded but I found this lacked the wit and emotional resonance of Fault in Our Starts or The Universe Versus Alex WoodsIt’s well written, but I think overly gloomy, with just about everybody in the central character’s life having died.

It states in the blurb, the story about making the the wrong choices, but this isn’t strictly true. It’s more about not making any choices. Ploughing on down the same rotten path regardless. This is a pretty accurate depiction of the way many people lead their lives. The novel is by no means all bad, I just struggled to find empathy with many of the lead characters. The author is quoted in the blurb as being a Beckettian scholar, which may explain my apathy. I don’t know enough about Beckett to know if the writing structure played homage. I feel like the ending probably did, but as my only encounter with Beckett was a fifteen year old, being flummoxed by Godot, I’m not in any position to comment.

So, three books that felt flat as I enter a new period of blogging excitement. Later this week, I have a rare Q&A with author Christopher Fowler (rare for me to take part in blog tours, rather than an reclusive author exclusive!),  followed by a review of his latest book on Friday. This marks a long overdue return to one of my favourite crime series, ‘Bryant and May’. It was like catching up with old friends.

Thanks to the folks at Macmillan and Transworld for sending me the books I’ve grumbled in this post.  

 

 

Spreading the Word – ‘The Tongues of Men or Angels’ by Jonathan Trigell

menorangelsJonathan Trigell’s Genus is one of my favourite dystopian novels. It’s a first class meditation on genetic modification and a lens on current-day attitudes towards those with lower social mobility. It is in every way a dystopian novel built in honour of George Orwell. It is also a prose masterclass. Not a single word is misplaced, you can almost feel the effort made to form each perfect sentence.

On the face of it, The Tongues of Men or Angels has nothing in common with Genus. Trigell’s latest offering looks backwards, two thousand years, to the time of the crucifixion. Though the two novels are very different, Tongues of Men does have one very important thing in common with Genus. The quality of the writer’s craft.

The Tongues of Men or Angels has a very definite style and tone. One that befits the weight of its subject matter and the history behind the story. Again, the words feel like they were wrestled onto the page; honed into obedience by a wordsmith at his forge. It does make for a slightly detached unemotional read. We feel like we are watching from on high. Perhaps this is due to the events depicted, some of the most important in world history.

I’m not sure what motivated Jonathan Trigell’s to retell this story. Perhaps he needed nothing more than the fact he is a storyteller. What better tale to re-examine, than the greatest story ever told. A story that has endured two millennia, has given much comfort and caused untold strife; has made and broken nations. A story that has inspired millions of people and outraged almost as many.

The structure of this novel is all over the place. Timeline and point of view jump about, though the journey of Yeshua towards his execution continues only forwards. Much of the novel follows Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the apostle. His life is laid out in full, through Paul directly recounting his story, and through flashback to his early years. Other pivotal moments in Judeo-Christian history also appear (such as the denial of Christ by Peter).

I imagine to glean the most from this book, you would probably need to be a biblical scholar. I expect being an atheist scholar would probably help too. Whilst Trigell remains entirely respectful to his source material, you don’t have to look hard to notice there is an absence of divinity in the novel. It’s not overt, but it’s there. I imagine a believer would find this hard to swallow, whilst finding it hard to find fault with what Trigell has done. He reinterprets many events and significant moments from biblical lore, giving them a more rational slant.

I’m an atheist, but I’m fascinated by the stories recounted in the Bible. They are after all simply another mythology. I am particularly intrigued by the evolution of those myths. Since finishing the book, I have read around the subject a little, and it seems Trigell has been exceptionally faithful to the source material and its current interpretations. What dispassionate history doesn’t tell us, of course, is motive. This is what Trigell adds. Jerusalem at that time was a melting point of ideas and religious argument. Given this context, Trigell builds up a picture of how, in the absence of divinity, the stories may have evolved.

This is a difficult novel to enjoy. It is rather dry in places and it’s staccato structure can be a distraction. It is, however, a humorous novel; one that is gently irreverent. I am sure I missed many of the novel’s subtleties, and it would definitely bear repeated readings, especially after further research into its subject matter. This is not a novel one sits down to read for pleasure; it’s a philosophical journey that requires concentration.  It’s a book that prompts you to ask questions about the stories that form the backbone of modern western society. Ask, why is the church like it is? It doesn’t give many answers, merely suggestions. Suggestions many will disagree with.

The Tongues of Men or Angels is a work of serious literary merit. It’s wonderfully crafted and forces us to ask questions about things we take for granted. I learned a lot from this book, though it is important to keep in mind it is as fictional as any other, better selling, accounts of the tale. This book prompts us to question the manner in which history and religion are reported. How it’s easy to work the divine into anything, if you look hard enough. This is the second Trigell book I’ve read, I wonder what he has in store for us next? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be well-crafted and deeply thought provoking.

Many Thanks to Jonathan and Corsair Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

The Shock of The Fly – ‘The Mirror World of Melody Black’ by Gavin Extence

melody blackGavin Extence first novel The Universe vs Alex Woods, is one of my all-time favourites. It struck a deep personal chord, which made it particularly powerful for me; it’s warmth and compassion are remarkable. It features a slightly disconnected kid finding wonder in classic science fiction, and what’s not to like about that?

When I heard a new Extence novel was on the way, it immediately went to the top of my 2015 must-read list. As ever, I was filled with trepidation about returning to a much loved author (I should probably have an auto-tally on the blog of how many times I’ve said that). Certainly, I did not expect to be as blown away by this book; there was no way it could resonate with me like Alex Woods had. I was right not to. Melody Black is a good novel, but it is not a great one.

Extence’s prose is wonderful. I love reading his descriptions. They’re off-beat, often funny and always beautifully observed. Reading his books are the literary equivalent of slipping into a hot bath; deliciously comfortable and wonderful to wallow in.

In my recent review of Alice and the FlyI mention that its tone is similar to Alex Woods. Well here the content and themes are similar to Alice. Not only that, there is overlap with another novel that details mental illness, 2013 Costa Winner The Shock of the Fall. All are well observed, have quirky narrators, and deal with depression and mental illness in sensitive and deft fashion. Unfortunately, with so much overlap, it’s unsurprising that when reading Melody Black I felt like I’d heard it all before.

The Mirror World of Melody Black follows freelance journalist Abby Williams after she discovers the body of her neighbour. Simon died alone in a chair, in front of the TV. We immediately know Abby is unusual because the first thing she does is smoke a cigarette in the dead man’s kitchen. Whilst Abby appears initially unperturbed, the lack of connection between herself and the man who lived opposite her triggers a nagging anxiety. Events spiral and before long Abby is riding a juggernaut of self-destruction.

To say much more would spoil the stacking of Extence’s deck. Abby is just one of a host of likeable characters, and as I said Extence’s powers of observation are accurate and amusing. I enjoyed Melody Black. It’s easy to read whilst dealing with important themes. Extence has a light touch that belies the weighty subject matter. This is made all the more sharp by a candid and poignant afterword by the author. There’s nothing particularly new in The Mirror World of Melody Black and it never reaches the heights of The Universe Vs Alex Woods, but then very little does. It is however, funny, moving and uplifting, keeping Gavin Extence at the pinnacle of my must-read authors.

Many thanks to the team at Hodder and Stoughton for sending me a copy of this book. 

All Things Dull and Beautiful – ‘The Signature of All Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

signatureI don’t ever remember reading a book that enthralled me so much, whilst at the same time being so rambling and limp. The Signature of All Things on one level isn’t my thing at all. Set in the 19th Century, it’s a story about one woman and her peculiar take on the world. It’s about society and a woman’s place being constricted by the social mores of the time. On another level the book is exactly my sort of thing; history of science blended with questions about the existence of God. I suppose that’s why I had two such conflicting reactions to the book.

Alma Whittaker is the only child of a rich American landowner, the irascible Henry Whittaker and his wife, Beatrix. Both have brilliant minds. Beatrix is of Dutch puritan descent, and has a rigorous logical approach to life and learning. She raises her daughter in her own image.  Alma grows up isolated, with little companionship her own age, pressed into learning almost every waking moment. Her dinner table conversations are scientific discourse and logical rigour. Alma is highly intelligent and focussed, yet completely unprepared for anything remotely resembling real life.

I very much enjoyed the opening of the book, which begins before the birth of Alma, charting the rise of her father. Born to a master orchardman, ‘The Apple Magus’, Henry Whittaker grew up sleeping on a mud floor. Being gifted horticultural expertise from his father, Henry is able to make himself useful around Kew gardens, where his father works. Henry is also able to make a small fortune, illegally selling samples and cuttings from the garden. Samples jealously guarded by Kew’s curator Sir Joseph Banks. Discovery leaves Henry with very few choices, and so it is he finds himself on board ship with Captain Cook, where he becomes the expedition’s horticultural expert.

Henry Whittaker is the first of several strong characters in the book. The opening half of the novel that deals with his life as explorer, landowner and family man of sorts, are excellent. Most of his life we see through the eyes of Alma, who is another fine creation. Gilbert captures her with a beautiful blend of strength and fragility. She is a woman out of time. She has so much more than many of her contemporaries yet lacks the things she desperately desires.

In the second half of the book, Alma starts to move out from the shadow of her father, and explore where her own life faltered. I found the third quarter of the book very hard going. Boring even. There seemed to be much navel gazing and repetition; much of the plot and themes seemed derivative, unlike the first half. I continued on, but had this not been a book group choice, I may have abandoned it, so fed up I became with treading water.

I’ve since discussed the novel with my book group, and I was pretty much the only person to have such issues with this segment, although it was generally agreed it is the weakest. There is some strong evocative writing, but it didn’t really seem to have much justification. Having completed the book, I have a strong feeling that, had I skipped the third quarter, I wouldn’t have missed much and the book would still largely have made sense. It’s probably no coincidence that the middle of the novel contains its spiritual heart. As one might expect from the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I haven’t read), The Signature of All Things has a strong spiritual element. It’s with these elements I had the most difficulty.

The novel is drawn between three points. Science, the strict religious outlook of the time and an amorphous all encompassing idea of a spiritual connection. Boil this triangle down to a singularity, I suppose you would find yourself left with faith. Faith in God, faith in science or the faith that things work out according to some cosmic order. The problem for me is buying into that cosmic order. Whilst reading the novel, it didn’t work for me; it felt like a silly device to keep things ticking over. I found it difficult to maintain interest in a novel so deeply immersed in the fanciful. After finishing, I realised that perhaps the spiritual side amounted to little more than wishful thinking on the part of its players. They weren’t listening to some great cosmic spirit, but instead acting on their secret, unexpressed, internal wishes. This interpretation makes the whole novel more palatable, but I only made it after completing the book. When reading I didn’t care for these sections at all.

So having been bitterly disappointed, feeling let down after such a promising beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by the culmination of the book. If the Signature of All Things is a ‘quest’ novel, it is a quest for self. Now late on in years, looking back, Alma can evaluate her life, and decide whether it is a success. She spent years studying the mosses on her estate. A slow painstaking process, that mirrors Alma’s own evolution. Her comprehensive study of an ecosystem in miniature leads her to some challenging (for the time) conclusions about the origins of species, and the book returns to its scientific roots. Here the novel dovetails well with the scientific period it is written.

On finishing the book, I was left satisfied. There was much in I enjoyed. The science and scientists of the time are brilliantly brought to life. Gilbert writes fully about her chosen subject, but does so whilst keeping it interesting. The novel’s strong and interesting characters make it a worthwhile read. There were elements I didn’t like, but overall, I am glad I persevered to the end. The Signature of All Things was a good choice for a book group, with lots of facets worthy of discussion. Imperfect books often to give rise to the best conversations.

Officially a GeekDad

cropped-logo-geekdadLast week, I was offered a chance to become an ‘occasional contributor’ to the GeedDad, website. GeekDad is a glorious mish-mash of life-as-parents, games, books and shiny technology. I’ve been following GeekDad for around a year, and have been led to all sorts of interesting things as result.

Just before Christmas, they asked on their site for new contributors, and seeing as nothing ventured is nothing gained I applied. I was accepted and taken on in the second wave of new contributors. Suddenly I felt like a very small fish in a big pond. GeekDad gets more visitors most hours than I’ve had altogether, ever. Also my geek credentials suddenly felt rather lacking. On the school-yard, I’m the grandmaster geek; just knowing that something called a D20 exists, is enough to make me that. Now I’m privy to whole computing conversations I barely understand!

Last night I submitted my first post. It was unsurprisingly a book review. A wonderful children’s book, called The Wonder by Faye Hanson. There’s probably a better way of doing it but if you want to read the review, click here.

Hopefully it’s the first of many. I have a few ideas, I suspect I shall predominantly write book reviews but it will be nice to try some different things too.

the wonder

Gods and Monsters – The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams

ironghostJen Williams’ Copper Promise was one of my stand-out novels of 2014. It is an accomplished debut filled with first rate character writing. It’s players are compromised heroes, yet the novel is in no way dark. They’re not villains, not heroes, simply humans.

I was filled with second book trepidation when picking up The Iron Ghost. I would expect great things in this book, where I had only hoped for them when picking up book 1. Would I find that it shined brightly like the burnished Copper Promise, or would The Iron Ghost show rust spots?

Sebastian’s internal struggle with demons, both metaphorical and literal, was the pinnacle of The Copper Promise. There isn’t anything that quite reaches those heights in The Iron Ghost, but it is a fine novel all the same. Williams delivers an epic battle against a force of great evil. Yes, this is a standard trope, but Williams is an author who can handle the complex side of human nature, which gives her storie an added dimension.

The villain may be a towering force of evil, but he is not a shadowy faceless Dark Lord. He is a man with deep psychological problems, exploited by an unscrupulous manipulator. Yes, Bezcavar is back, and, once again, he is where the true wickedness lies. It is clever device. The character who is wholly and irredeemably evil has only limited power. He is strong of mind but weak of body, and must find others to do his dirty work. Bezcavar is a creation of the highest order. Consumed by malice, chilling to the core, he steals every scene he’s in.

As the novel opens the Black Feather Three have decamped to an icy continent, hired to settle an internecine dispute. One faction (the Skalds) uses a magical stone, to imbue giant golems with life. The other (the Narhl) believe this is heresy of the highest order and that the Skalds are defiling the mountain Gods. Who’s right will turn out to be very important. Things of course don’t run out as expected. Whilst Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian are going about their quest, somebody else’s plan is coming to fruition. Suddenly there’s a new mage on the block, and he can do things Frith can only dream of.

The rest of the novel is effectively a quest to put the genie back in the bottle. It will take the characters (particularly Frith) to some dark places. No tool in the arsenal can go unused, no matter how dark, if the Black Feather Three are to save the world. This raises interesting questions about whether the ends justify the means, though events do rather steamroll over the answer. The Iron Ghost lacks some of the subtlety of The Copper Promise; it starts to feel like a procession of set pieces, each more preposterously lethal than the last. The exception to this is the continuing story of the brood sisters. This is an interesting thread about self expression and stepping out of your parents’ shadow. Again something you don’t usually find in fantasy fiction.

There may be lots of action, but its quality is always high. It’s forever exciting. Once again Williams delivers the feeling of playing D&D in the best ever dungeon crawl. I’ve not encountered this before, and whilst I wouldn’t want it in every book I read, it makes the Black Feather Three books uniquely exciting. By maintaining strong characterisation and visceral action scenes, Williams avoids the ‘difficult second novel’ problem. The 500+ pages whip by, with numerous surprises that I won’t spoil here. Whether we see the Black Feather Three have another outing remains to be seen, but whatever Jen Williams does next, I’ll be there.

Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

Stings like a bee – The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

the mime orderThis book is the sequel to 2013’s The Bone Season. If you haven’t read that, you probably want to stop reading now.

I enjoyed reading the Bone Season. At its core it’s a wonderful mix of Pullman’s Northern Lights and Orwell’s 1984. My overriding memory of it though, is that it was unnecessarily complicated.  There’s an awful lot going on in the Bone Season. Almost too much. The combination of London setting and ideas to burn, put me in mind of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series. Pollock’s first book, The City’s Son was too bewildering for me. The follow up pared down the ideas to one or two of the really good ones, making The Glass Republic an exceptional novel. So it is with The Mime Order. Having opened up a multitude of paint cans for book one, this time Samantha Shannon uses only a few shades to paint something wonderful.

The Orwellian overtones of the first book are largely gone. Scion still sits over the story, but their totalitarian regime hovers over proceedings without interfering too much. Shannon has essentially ring-fenced her storylines. There are concentric circles of plot, with the mysterious (and murderous) Rephraim on the outside, and the oppresive (and murderous) Scion inside that. Residing in the middle are the oppressed (and murderous) syndicate of clairvoyants.  The events of the Mime Order take place at the heart of Shannon’s creation.

Paige Mahoney has one eye on the architects of her misery, but the action here deals almost exclusively with the mime-lords and their quasi-Dickensian London. After escaping from Sheol I, Paige quickly realises that she has little chance on her own. Despite their argument at the end of book 1, Paige’s latter-day Fagin, Jaxon Hall, has offered her a place back at his side as his ‘mollisher’. When a brutal murder takes place at the top of London’s clairvoyant syndicate, a power vacuum is formed in the city’s underworld. There’s a space at the top and only one person can fill it. Paige is faced with a choice. Aid Jaxon to a likely victory, but forever remain under his yoke or double cross the man who trained her. Jaxon isn’t interested in her tales of the Rephraim, he won’t let her go up against Scion, but if she becomes head of the syndicate she can reveal the truth to her fellow voyants. She could spark a revolution.

The Mime Order channels Dickens and Gaiman, with colourful characters in an oppressed criminal underworld. I do love a good alternate London, and Shannon’s is one of the best. Once again, the choice of Seven Dials as a key setting is inspired. I love it around that area of London and the dials is so otherworldly it’s perfect for a tale of myth and magic. Shannon plays deft homage, whilst banging out a great story.

The plot of the Mime Order has little out of the ordinary. Criminal factions play off one another, each vying for supremacy. What sets the novel apart, once again, is the world building. The gangs of voyants are marvellously drawn, as are their colourful leaders. There’s skulduggery aplenty. Lies, plays and double crossings, back-stabbings and full frontal assaults; it’s all here. The magic and clairvoyance upon which the novel is based are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. This adds great atmosphere; almost anything could happen. Shannon’s writing is highly addictive, I read this book for great chunks at a time, desperate to find out what would happen. The story swings back and forth with several twists, building up to a (possibly overdone) humdinger of a reveal.

It’s no secret this is a projected series of seven novels. The overreaching arc is left wide open for volume three; loose threads abound. The Mime Order was such a compulsive read, it’s going to be hard to wait for the next book. I’m eager to find out where the story will go next. Having constructed her world like an onion, Shannon has plenty more layers left to reveal. There are five more books to go, so lots yet to happen. If they’re all as good as The Mime Order, I’d happily read 50.

Many Thanks to Madeleine at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book. 

Religious Disorder – Arab Jazz by Karim Miské

arabjazzArab Jazz was one of those books that fell through my letterbox unexpectedly, landing on the outlying edge of my reading interests. It’s the sort of book that I’d love to read, if only there weren’t five more in the queue that I’d love to read equally, or even a little more. These books cause me great angst. They fill my shelves, waiting for somebody to invent a machine that slows time so that I can read them all. It’s a wonderful privilege to receive books unasked for, in hope of a review, but it cuts me up that I can rarely fulfil my side of the bargain; even if I never made it in the first place.

Arab Jazz was probably destined to remain somewhere near the top of the never-quite-read pile, when along came this tweet from Matt Craig at Readerdad (a fine blog, that you should read, especially if you like crime thrillers and Stephen King)

I’d half forgotten I even had the book, and hadn’t related its subject matter to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The link forged by Matt, I thought I’d give it a try.

The book vividly brings to life the melting pot of Paris and its 19e arrondissment. If you asked what Paris meant to me, I’d say something typically clichéd about the Tour Eiffel, the cobbled streets of Montmartre and the centre Pompidou. If pressed, I might grab desperately for a superannuated pop culture reference and say ‘Royale with Cheese’. I like Paris, love to visit it, but in reality I know very little about it. Arab Jazz brings the real city, the city where people live, to life. Paris crashed into our newstreams this year, but only with a sense of hyperreality. Miské’s novel is grounded in the real Paris.

Here we see Jewish residents brushing up against Muslims, alongside Christians and communists. There are policeman and shop-owners, teenage girls and manic depressives. Barbers and bar owners. Wannabe pop-stars rub against ardent lovers, whilst criminals of every hue lurk in the shadows. The whole of life is found between the covers of this book.

Arab Jazz opens with a murder. A violent violation of an air stewardess. The ritualistic cant of the murder scene suggests religious fanaticism. The body of Laura Vignole is discovered by Ahmed, a reclusive young man with North African heritage. Quick to realise he’s in the frame (our reclusive hero reads masses of paperback crime novels, he can spot a set up when he sees one), Ahmed flees to his room to await the inevitable arrival of the police.

Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot immediately see that Ahmed is not responsible for the murder, even if the victim did have an unrequited love for him. Kupferstein and Hamelot are fabulously drawn characters, with heritage that deviates from the norm. Together, and with help from Ahmed who is running a separate investigation alongside, they try to uncover exactly what has been going on.

Arab Jazz is both helped and hindered by the recent events in Paris. Firstly they give some novel some context. Most notably a couple of references to Charlie Hebdo which would have sailed right by me a couple of months ago. The simmering tensions in the city have been freshly examined by the media. They may have used a rough grade magnifying glass to do so but the worldwide analysis of real-life events in Paris have given the (non-French) reader a frame of reference.

Miské’s story is a subtle one. When compared with the sledgehammer blow of overwrought news reports, it feels mundane. It took me a while realise that although this is fiction, the picture painted is far closer to reality than the recent sensational reporting. The characters here are not merely French, Jewish and Muslim but Breton, Ashkenazi and Salafist. Nobody fits a broad one-word label; the labels that make headlines, that polarise communities. This is a novel grounded in subtle distinctions.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In many ways it’s not important. The key to the novel its cast. All different, all human, all living alongside one another. It’s not a perfect novel. I wasn’t keen on some of the flashback scenes, they felt like shoe-horning information in solely for the reader’s benefit. The colourful streets brought to life motif, does give the novel a rambling, ramshackle feel. If you like your crime fiction lean, mean and tightly plotted you might be put off. For me though the vivid portrayal of the 19th and it’s inhabitants is what sets the novel apart from the field. Overall this is an excellent début.

In Arab Jazz the murder takes second stage to the people caught up by its aftermath. The novel gently suggests that in a world where we run screaming from the demons pedalled by the media, the truth is often a little more prosaic. No single section of society has cornered the market in villainy. This is a fine novel that asks you to look beyond the stories we’re fed, forcing us to think that little bit deeper. Which is exactly what good fiction is meant to do. Apparently Arab Jazz is the first in a forthcoming trilogy of novels. I look forward to reading what follows.

Many thanks to the team at MacLehose Press for sending me a copy of this book.

Matt Craig’s full review can be found here, and his excellent interview with Karim Miské, here.