“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

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“Dead Man’s Time” by Peter James (2013)

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“The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.”

It’s not been long since my last visit to the criminal underbelly of Brighton, but the next visit is never all that far away. I’m going to crack on, but there may be spoilers here if you’ve not read the rest of the series and are bothered about having aspects of the ongoing plot revealed too soon. If not, press on.

A few weeks after the birth of his son, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace hopes that work might give him a bit of a break and let him enjoy some time with Cleo and the new baby. Brighton, on the other hand, has other ideas. There’s been a burglary in a wealthy part of the city that’s left an elderly woman fighting for her life after being tortured, and millions of pounds worth of antiques smuggled off to the black market. The woman’s brother, Gavin Daly may be ninety-five, but when he discovers that a particular item of enormous sentimental value was also taken, he vows at nothing to get it back.

As Roy Grace and his team try to stop Daly and his son from taking matters into their own hands, a story unfolds that reveals a familial promise almost a century old. The race is on to get hold of the missing antiques and bring the villains to justice. Elsewhere, however, unwelcome faces from Grace’s past are closing in, and they’re not coming for a pleasant reunion and catch up over coffee.

As ever when I review a lot of books by the same person, particularly when they’re in the same series or on a similar theme, it’s difficult to keep knowing what to say. This it the ninth novel in the Roy Grace series, and it remains as interesting and captivating as ever. However, the books are beginning to spend more and more time away from Brighton – the reason I became interested in them in the first place – and in other countries, usually the USA. I do miss the simpler times of them being set in locations I know, and while much of the book still is, James appears to be stretching the net wider now. It’s not really a complaint – I enjoy the books and the characters a lot – but just a note that if you came here for the same reason as me, you may be disappointed.

As ever, more layers are added to the characters and they continue to be some of the most three-dimensional and realistic people to ever populate a fictional world. There are a couple of bigger developments here, too, while other aspects have been forgone. More than any other, it feels like a sequel and while there are still introductions to every character, they’re noticeably shorter and some prior knowledge is required. Previous threads – such as the constant leaks to the local press – have by now been resolved, but new sub-plots are emerging. There is the real sense that no one in the story is entirely independent. Every character, no matter how small, has a fully developed life of which we only see a little.

The actual criminal activity in the book is also incredibly dark, but then most of James’s books seem to follow that line. Not for the very faint of heart, this book dabbles in topics of torture and attacks on the weakest members of society, but there is also much about loyalty, familial love, and letting go. There even seem to be more red herrings than usual here, with you never being quite sure how everything links up and what exactly is going to happen. Nonetheless, it all does, and James even provides a surprising final chapter that in the hands of a lesser author might seem cheesy.

Roy Grace and Peter James continue to dazzle, and long may they do so.

“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

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“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

“Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

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“On a spring morning in 2009, Matthew Lawrence dropped the anchor of his small boat at a random spot in the middle of a blue ocean bay on the east coast of Australia, and jumped over the side.”

I’ve always had a fondness for the animals with more curious traits. Skunks are cute, and have that unusual method of defence we all know about. Sloths are sweet and have somehow made it to the modern world without ever feeling the need to pick up their heels. Narwhals are the closest we’ll get to actual unicorns. And chameleons are bio-mechanical masterpieces, with all the latest features. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot for that most alien of creature – the octopus.

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book takes us underwater into the world of the cephalopods, that curious collection of creatures that comprise octopuses, squids and cuttlefish. We parted ways on the evolutionary path some 600 million years ago and our families thus evolved in very different ways. However, both sides evolved intelligence in one way or another, and Godfrey-Smith is curious as to where that began. Using a combination of science and philosophy, the book analyses octopus intelligence and what it can tell us about our own consciousness.

The book covers a number of topics surrounding octopuses (and yes, that is the correct pluralisation) including their evolution, lifestyles and habitats. We explore their curiosity, their ability to use tools, and their incredible ability to change colour and shape to disguise them anywhere they choose. There’s the stunning realisation that despite their unparalleled skill at camouflage, they’re actually colour-blind, and what their short lifespans might say about the cost of having such a highly developed neural system. As Godfrey-Smith says, they are about as close as we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.

It’s an engaging and fascinating topic, but this isn’t a book that’ll suit for a bit of light reading. This is science and philosophy at its most intense, talking about sentience, evolution, psychology and intelligence. It’s still interesting to read about these strange animals, and even more so to learn a little more about cuttlefish, a creature I know very little about. One of the most engaging passages has Godfrey-Smith diving with friendly cuttlefish, and one who is determined to ignore him. One things for sure, you’ll never be able to look at any of these beasts in the same way again.

“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

Book Chat: Sabrina Greenberg

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Sabrina Greenberg manages a London office in her day-to-day life, but has a much more colourful existence once out of the 9-to-5 rat race. She juggles her time between being incredibly sedate – reading, watching Netflix and cuddling her beautiful white cat – and being more active than I could ever imagine. A keen hiker, she also enjoys bouldering, trampolining and weight lifting.

She is also a huge advocate for mental health awareness, and now runs a blog about how she has used exercise to help combat the worst of her anxiety. Sabrina has spoken freely and openly on her blog, on podcasts, and with national newspapers about how she handles her own mental health, and she’s not one to mince words. A staunch feminist, Sabrina has no time for diets, articles that emphasise the importance of weight loss, or people who believe women should look a certain way, believing that all of these things belittle women and create a toxic culture.

I caught up with her to ask a few questions about her favourite books.

What are you reading at the moment?

Brave by Rose McGowan. [It’s the memoirs of a woman who knows what it’s like to live and work in the cult of Hollywood, and how she rebelled against the system instead of keeping quiet and towing the line.]

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

I love holding real books. I have tried e-readers and audiobooks but the experience is just not the same to me. It feels more impersonal somehow. If my budget would allow, it would always be hardback books.

Can you tell me about a book that made you cry?

To say that A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara broke my heart might be an understatement.  There was points when reading it that I had to stop as my reaction was so much stronger than I could have anticipated that it actually shocked me.  It is a beautiful novel, but I wouldn’t advise unless you were feeling particularly robust!

What book do you think you’ve read more than any other?

I think it would be Wild Swans by Jung Chang. This was a book I picked up off my grandpa’s shelf when I was about 17 and just feel madly in love with the true life story of three generations of women battling the institutionalised brutality of China from warlords, through Communism until the opening of their boarders. It is such a powerful book and an excellent historical account.

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Margaret Atwood.  She is one of the most prolific and uncompromising writers.  Alias Grace was perhaps the first book that etched itself onto my subconscious. I come back to it every couple of years as a result. I also read somewhere that she can read two books everyday, which is astounding! 

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

100% Jane Eyre. I always felt an empathy for Bertha Mason. She is described as violently mad, a strange wild animal and at one point, simply ‘it’ – an inhumane thing. I never saw that. I saw a mentally unwell woman who was rejected and punished as severely as one can be. She loses her home, her husband and is vilified for desperately trying to retain some of the brief elements of normality that she understands.

Can you tell me some of the books currently on your “to-read” list? 

I am going through quite a big non-fiction phase at the moment.  I am writing on the blog a lot about how modern fitness and diet culture can negatively impact your mental health, so my book shelf is a reflection of this: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh are next on my list.  I have also just pre-ordered Bryony Gordon’s new book: Eat, Drink, Run: How I got Fit Without Going Too Mad, which I am very, very excited for.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

The Shining! I decided to read it last year whilst going through a severe period of insomnia – definitely not my smartest move! I was a huge fan of the film, but was aware that Kubrick and King had disagreed on the final outcome and was interested to see what was missing from the story. My fiancé eventually only let me read it during the day as it was only exacerbating the situation.

What were your favourite books growing up?

The Nancy Drew Mysteries! I was enthralled by her red hair and general sass. I think I must have read them all at least twice.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

My favourite book is Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It may not be considered to be a work of literary prowess by some, but to me it’s like reading water. It flows so elegantly and continually draws me back to its story of love in the winding cobbled streets of Barcelona.


You can learn more about Sabrina at her amazing blog Anxiously Active, or follow her on Twitter: @anxiouslyactive.