“The Hanging Tree” by Ben Aaronovitch (2016)

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“I dreamt that I heard Mr Punch laughing gleefully by my ear, but when I woke I realised it was my phone.”

I always think it’s a struggle to review whole series on here. For a start, it locks out anyone who hasn’t read the previous books, because spoilers will automatically feature, and oftentimes there’s a lot of repetition about style, language, plot and character. Nonetheless, on I go, hoping I can keep on finding something new to say. If you want to read on, you can catch up with my thoughts on the previous five books (Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer), or just dive in here and pretend you know what I’m talking about. Then at least one of us might have some idea.

After the exchanging of hostages in rural Hertfordshire, Peter Grant is back in London now and Lady Tyburn is calling him in for a favour. Her daughter’s best friend has got herself tangled up in the death of a teenage girl – there’s a possibility she provided the fatal drugs – and Lady Ty needs to ensure her family aren’t caught up in it all. Grant is flung into the world of London’s super-rich, where every basement has a swimming pool and money is king.

But things keep bringing him back to his old nemesis, the Faceless Man. Everything is linked, and when he tries to get some information out of Reynard Fossman, an anthropomorphised fox from an ancient fairy tale, he also ends up meeting turncoat Lesley May, and blowing up half of Harrods. Add to this the fact that Isaac Newton’s Third Principia, said to contain the secrets of alchemy, has appeared on eBay and things are about to get extremely messy, extremely quickly. Grant has to arrest the right people, maintain the secrecy of magic and try not to get killed, all of which is far easier said than done.

The most pertinent thing to mention about the Rivers of London series is simply how witty they are. The language and use of metaphor would make Douglas Adams proud, and they just slide off the page with great ease. Aaronovitch is also prone to filling his books with endless references and jokes to pop culture. The ones relating to Harry Potter are very obvious, as are the ones to Doctor Who, but it’s quite clear that I’m not picking up on everything. Indeed, I tweeted Aaronovitch to ask if anyone else had discovered the Weird Al reference in the book, and he replied, “Which one?” Dammit; he’s a canny devil.

However, we’re now six books into the series and I am bemused. The plot ricochets around erratically, occasionally dropping in references to previous installments of the series that have since slipped from my mind, and seeming to change direction halfway through and bringing back something else entirely. My friend who was a book ahead of me with this series advised me that I keep a notebook handy for this one, and she wasn’t wrong. There are so many characters to deal with here that it soon becomes a struggle to keep up with who is who’s daughter, lover, enemy or arresting officer. There’s little consistency on who to focus on as well, as characters slip out of the limelight only to reappear later with seemingly new motives. The central characters though, including Peter Grant, Sahra Guleed and Lady Ty, are marvellous creations and I enjoy them and their banter immensely.

Despite all the magic, Aaronovitch paints a London that feels inexplicably real, and there’s no losing sight of the fact that he’s developing a really fascinating world here. But it at times feels a hodge-podge of several different plots battling out for front and centre, and many things have to be taken for granted, such as Grant’s developing magical abilities, almost none of which we see him learning first hand. I accept that it would be boring to fill the book with pages of failed spells, but a little more information regarding what exactly Grant is being taught would be great.

It’s all change now though, as I’m just embarking on the most classic of classic novels.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“The Labours Of Hercules” by Agatha Christie (1947)

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the-labours-of-hercules“Hercule Poirot’s flat was essentially modern in its furnishings.”

I love the Greek myths. I love Agatha Christie. Bring in a book that combines the two and I’m a very happy man indeed. Fortunately, you don’t need to be classically educated to keep up with this one, so let’s just get stuck in.

Hercule Poirot, world-famous detective, is contemplating retirement. He’s getting on, and these days he’s more into the idea of growing marrows than seeking out murderers. But when an old friend scoffs at Poirot’s thoughts of retirement, Poirot seems determined to prove him wrong. Poirot, however, can’t just disappear of the scene, however. He decides that he will take twelve more cases, only dealing with those that seem to mirror the Twelve Labours of his mythological namesake, Hercules.

And so Poirot sets about his task. The twelve short stories each detail a specific crime that, in one manner or another, represents the Herculean task. Unusually, he is rarely dealing with murder here, and along the way he solves issues of missing persons, theft, a brainwashing, money-grabbing cult, criminal gangs and drug addiction. He is occasionally assisted by Inspector Japp and his secretary Miss Lemon, and he meets again Countess Vera Rossakoff, the only woman to whom he seems to show any attraction, despite her criminal background.

Despite the assurance that these are his last cases before retirement, we know full well that this was never going to be the case. He is retired already in his first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is growing marrows in the countryside. However, he also makes reference here to an incident from The Big Four (the novel in which the Countess is also introduced), which was published after Ackroyd, suggesting to us that the novels were not published in the order that things happen. These fit in somewhere, but their real place in the canon isn’t strictly important.

Poirot’s insistence that the stories match up to the legendary tasks means that he can only take certain cases, although he’s definitely stretching a point a few times. “The Lernean Hydra”, for example, is famously about a monster that can never die because it always regrows new heads when one it cut off. Here, he is dealing with a village of gossips, who can never be fully silenced. “The Horses of Diomedes” gives us an untamed herd of daughters that are running riot with the wrong crowd, and for “The Apple of the Hesperides”, we are taken along on a journey to recover a stolen goblet that is decorated with emeralds to represent apples in Eden. “The Capture of Cerberus” is indeed about bringing a dog up from Hell (although, in this case, Hell is an underground nightclub), but “The Stymphalean Birds” merely relates the title to two women who are birdlike in their manner and appearance, with beaked noses and big capes.

They’re an enjoyable set of stories, and while the body count is low, it’s almost refreshing to see a Christie where the bodies aren’t piling up. Poirot dealt with far more than just murder, and this collection shows of his ability to turn his little grey cells to any puzzle. Short, sharp and very clever; a delightful read.

“Third Girl” by Agatha Christie (1966)

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third-girl“Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”

There are many things that one comes to expect from an Agatha Christie novel. A recently rewritten will. A loyal butler. A fussy foreign detective. A red herring or six. But above all what one expects is a body. These books are about murder, after all. So when you’re reading one and there isn’t a body at all, you’re thrown somewhat. This is, of course, Third Girl.

Poirot is enjoying breakfast when his servant George informs him that there is a young woman to see him, most urgently. Although Poirot doesn’t normal take house calls at this time of the morning, he allows her to be seen in and very quickly she announces that she thinks she’s committed a murder, although she doesn’t seem very sure. Before Poirot can even learn her name or any more details, she declares that he’s too old to help her, and makes her exit, leaving a hurt and frustrated Poirot behind.

Upon receiving a call from friend and writer Ariadne Oliver, Poirot is soon buoyed again by her company and it transpires that the dotty author is the one who sent the girl to him in the first place! Seeking out the girl’s name and address, Poirot and Oliver set about exploring the friends and family surrounding this mysterious woman. There’s her father, recently returned from abroad with his new, young wife; a dotty old soldier who is trying to write his memoirs; a highly efficient secretary who may just be too efficient; and a glamorous dandy of a man who the mystery girl seems rather fond of.

But all the while there doesn’t seem to have actually been a murder committed, which leads to a very difficult question – is this girl a murderer, or is she mad?

If ever you need a reminder that Christie wrote more than just books set in the twenties, here is a great example. Published in 1966 and set around the same time, we dispel for the most part with the grand house and murdered nobility to explore a London populated by working girls, beautiful young mods, and more drugs than you can take if you had the whole decade free. Poirot feels like a throwback to a much older time in this society, and yet he’s on top form as ever. Personally, I find that Christie’s later novels rarely live up to the pure genius of her earlier ones (although there are, of course, exceptions) and this one includes a very long chapter in the middle in which Poirot lays out to himself everything that he has learnt so far. The answers are all in there, but you need to know what you’re looking for. I got some of the hints quite sharpish, and I’d worked out half the solution, but I wasn’t entirely there.

The book is notable, however, because just when you think you’ve seen Christie do everything possible, she plays around with the medium again. The idea of having a murderer but no murder is an interesting one, and it’s unusual to go so long in a Christie novel without finding a body. Poirot becomes increasingly frustrated that he doesn’t have a murder, and it becomes almost as weird as it is amusing. Body or no, however, I enjoyed this one. It may have meandered a little, but everything seems to tie up and you once again feel sure that justice has been done.

“Generation A” by Douglas Coupland (2009)

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gen a“How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world?”

The bees are dying. No one really seems to be able to explain conclusively why this is, but the fact remains that global bee populations are dwindling. It might not sound terribly important, but bees are one of the primary pollinators of the world. Not only would a loss of bees mean a loss of honey, but we’d also lose dozens of crops, among these being watermelon, tomato, tangerine, sunflower, strawberry, raspberry, quince, pear, onion, mustard, lime, kiwi, hazelnut, fig, fennel, cucumber, cranberry, cotton, cauliflower, carrot, broccoli, blueberry, apricot and apple. I’m not going all environmental on you here, but I’m just setting up the world we’re about to enter in Generation A.

It’s the year 2024 and bees have died out the world over. Juice is synthetic, cotton clothing is a thing of the past, and everyone feels a bit guilty about the fact they let it happen. As such, most of the world has become addicted to a new drug called Solon, which gives the user a feeling of solitude that is at one calming and addictive. Once you start taking Solon, you stop caring about anything else.

Then, quite out of the blue, Zack, a corn farmer in Iowa is stung by a bee. Before he even has much time to register what has happened, he is pounced on by the authorities, zipped up into a bodybag and transported to an anonymous room somewhere deep underground where scientists proceed to conduct tests on him. Not long after this, four more people are stung. Sam in New Zealand, Julien in France, Diana in Canada, and Harj in Sri Lanka. The same fate befalls these stingees too, and once they’re kicked out of their holding cells, they find that they have become the most famous people on the planet and can barely move without being surrounded by people demanding autographs and DNA.

The five realise that they have to be together, and the opportunity comes with a scientist called Serge has them all transported to a quiet island off Canada, a place where Solon is banned and the natives only tolerate their presence because they might bring the bees back. There, not far from the site of the last hive (now a UNESCO World Heritage site), Serge has them tell one another stories, telling them that it is all part of a scientific experiment, one that may change the future for humans and bees alike.

A spiritual sequel to Generation X, this book too deals with lonely people who have tried to escape the world. It’s also all about stories and the power of storytelling, although this time suggests that the stories the characters tell actually have a physical power. It’s fun to read the narratives the characters come up with, as they start inserting in-jokes into them and making them connect with those of the others.

Zack is a reprehensible character, but actually very likeable. Sam and Harj tie for the nicest characters in the book; although she is reeling from the fact her parents have just informed her that they don’t believe in anything anymore (which may or may not be connected to the fact they’ve started taking Solon), and Harj has faced much hardship since his family were swept away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and now idealises America and the life one can make for oneself there. Julien is the least likeable, being pretty stuck up and apparently determined to blame anyone but himself for his failings. Diana is the least interesting of the five. She has Tourettes, but it feels like it’s a trait that’s been tacked on to make her more memorable.

The drug Solon reminds me hugely of soma, the hallucinogenic drug from Brave New World. They’re both used freely by the masses who seem unable (or simply unwilling) to take notice of the fact that they’re probably doing their bodies and minds much more harm than good. The idea of a drug that placates the population is a horrifying one and almost pushes this book into dystopia territory. However, I think it maintains a little more hope than some dystopias. The world has not quite fallen apart, but things are not as they once were. It’s not really about the bees; it’s about how humanity is slowly eating away at itself and one day it will be too late to undo all the damage we’re currently inflicting on the world and ourselves. Coupland once again stands firm and shows how much he understands the world, displaying his usual frightening clarity. While not my favourite of his books, it’s a strong contender.

I’m almost done with Coupland now. I’ve re-read all his books, as I said I would way back when, and now I’ve just got one more to go, his newest novel Worst. Person. Ever. which I’ve never read. Expect that one along soon. Meanwhile, I’d like to say that if you ever think you should re-read an author you loved, do it. You’ll only fall even more in love with them and their work.

“Carry The One” by Carol Anshaw (2012)

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carry1“So Carmen was married, just.”

Literature, like life, runs the gamut of the happy to the depressing, and that is what makes it so wonderful. And just because a book makes you sad, that is not a reason to be sad yourself. In fact, if a book succeeds in making you sad, then it is a very good book. After all, you’re just reading slices of tree with inky squiggles on them. Not all books can be laugh-a-minute comedies or set in esoteric and strange fantasy worlds – some of them have to tug at the heartstrings.

Carry The One (which is a wonderfully evocative title) begins at the wedding of Carmen and Matt and, while this should be a day of happiness, it ends on a note of tragedy. Leaving the venue late that night, a car of five guests, all sleepy, stoned or drunk, sets off with just its fog lights on and, somewhere down the track, hits a small girl who is catapulted over the car and declared dead almost immediately.

The rest of the novel follows the car’s passengers for the next two and a half decades and how this event follows their every waking minute. In the car are aspiring artist Alice, her brother Nick who is stoned and wearing a wedding dress, his new girlfriend Olivia – the fated driver of the car – wedding singer Tom and the groom’s sister Maude, who has just slept with Alice and seems keen on continuing the habit. Alice and Nick’s other sister Carmen, she who just got married, also feels guilt for allowing them to drive off without their lights on. From the moment the young girl, Casey Redman, hits the front of the car, their lives are inexplicably changed and wherever life leads them from this moment on, they are part of an exclusive club that is burdened with grief and, wherever life takes any of them, they always have to carry the one.

While the characters are not always entirely sympathetic, they are nonetheless interesting and their lives don’t seem extreme, and neither do any of their reactions to the death. Twenty-five years is a long time to cover, and the characters spread from 1984 to 2009 (approximately, given signals from other events that occur in the world while their lives unfold), given us a full insight into the way their futures pan out. While there are some touching, tender moments of happiness, they have to deal with issues such as divorce, drug addiction, affairs, prison, politics and fame, all of which are shown in a gritty, unpleasant manner.

Perhaps they all feel they have been cursed somewhat by the events of that fateful night. Alice’s best work are paintings of the girl they killed, as she may have been if she’d lived, but she cannot bring herself to ever show them to anyone. Nick spirals down into a mess of drink and drugs, supposedly unable to forgive himself for that night. They all blame themselves, with the exception of the singer Tom, who has turned the event into a song and is making money off the tragedy, something the others cannot forgive him for.

Secondary characters are also constructed with more than one direction, such as Carmen’s son Gabe, and the parents of the three siblings. It put me in mind a little of a book I read a couple of years back called Breaking Away, which was also about the relationships between siblings. More than anything, it is a story that deals with their relationships with one another. I find I never see enough books that have this as a focal point or central theme of the story, when sibling relationships are perhaps among the most interesting and complicated of any that exist.

It’s a very moving book. Not exactly gripping, but your interest would be hard pushed to wane and the ending is delicately handled and rather beautiful. Above all, it’s a novel about grief and guilt, two feelings that I think every human on the planet has considerable experience of, and perhaps that is what makes it so relatable.

Need something a little more unrelatable? Try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which is about gods, witches and immortality. And stick around too, as I’m about to embark on a certain classic sci-fi writer for the first time for my next review.

“I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay” by Toby Litt (2008)

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drums“Wouldn’t the coolest thing now to be to be Japanese, eh?”

Something that seems to flummox many people about me is that I don’t have much interest in music. This might seem odd as anyone who knows me knows that I can’t walk down the street without first plugging headphones in. I like music as much as the next man, and I have my own tastes in it, but I’m not a die hard fan of anyone particularly. I’ve been to perhaps three gigs in my lifetime. I like music, but I don’t own any CDs, I can’t remember the last time I bought an album and I haven’t known what’s number one in the charts for about a decade.

As such, I perhaps didn’t get Toby Litt’s ninth book as much as some others might. I’ve read Litt twice before, with Beatniks and Finding Myself and I think this one ranks currently somewhere in between the two.

It’s a novel, certainly, but actually it’s probably better defined as a series of short stories. They’re all told from the point of view of Clap, the drummer in the band okay (all lower case, in italics) and tell the ups and downs of life in a rock band over twenty years. Along with his bandmates Syph, Crab and Mono, our hero drummer experiences the best and worst that fame, fortune and fans have to offer. The stories are given slightly out of order, and feature such episodes as Syph’s near-fatal overdose, Clap’s introduction and conversion to Buddhism, Mono meeting his wife Major and their joint fondness for fishing, and the suicide of a young fan who killed himself listening to okay‘s first album.

First and foremost, the book is witty and wise. There are lashings of Douglas Coupland in here, with plenty of one liners, some funny and some profound. It’s sad too, shining the torch onto the gritty world of rock and roll and showing that it isn’t all sex and drugs, and the bits that are don’t necessarily seem as cool as you’d imagine when you get a closer look at them. It is a story about people who refuse to grow up, and what happens to them when the universe makes them grow up anwyay.

It wasn’t the easiest read, and I think part of that is simply because I have so little interest in the subject matter, which is unlike me as I’m willing to read pretty much anything. Why did I bother reading it then? Well, valid question. Truth be told, the first book by Litt I read, Finding Myself, was so good and so smart that I guess I now continue to seek out his other work to find something as good as that. Neither book so far has been, but then again they’ve both been heavily about music. However, after a while, details of another tour, another overdose, another girl become boring and run of the mill. Clap is a good narrator and while not exactly someone I’d immediately want to befriend (Mono seems the best of the four bandmates, incidentally), he tells his story with love, tinged with regret, which I guess is how all the best love stories are told.

It’s worth a skim, and Clap’s list of advice to the fans is pretty beautiful (“Don’t mourn your own life”), but if you don’t really care about the music industry, then you might not get that much out of it.

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