“Foxglove Summer” by Ben Aaronovitch (2015)

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“I was just passing the Hoover Centre when I heard Mr Punch scream his rage behind me.”

It’s been a difficult weekend for London. As the city dusts itself off from the second terrorist attack this year (the third in the UK), it showcases once again that the British people are strong, brave and resilient, and despite claims of certain American news outlets, we are not left “reeling” or “cowed”. What better to read right now than a story about the Metropolitan police continuing to do the outstanding work they do.

Foxglove Summer is the fifth installment of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, only this time we’re leaving the beauty of London for the even more outstanding beauty of the British countryside. There may be a couple of spoilers here if you’ve not read the first four, but this book feels slightly out of line with the others and more of a standalone. It opens with PC Peter Grant leaving London on the orders of his boss to join the investigation into two missing girls. Finding nothing inherently magic about the disappearance, but with little to return to London for right now, Grant offers his services to the local community and joins their team.

However, he soon learns that perhaps not everything is quite as it seems. He meets with an old wizard in a country manor house, has to rescue Beverley Brook – a river goddess – from the clutches of some rivals, and sets about trying to understand the magic of the countryside, which, being a Londoner born and bred, he knows little of. Soon he’s on the track of an invisible unicorn, dealing with nutty UFO spotters, and wondering if maybe there is a magical angle to this crime after all. In the countryside, there’s no one to hear you scream…

After the events of the last few books, this one brings a whole new breath of fresh air to the series. We’re out of the city, the air feels cleaner, and everything’s bright and sunny, although that might just be the weather outside. The fact that most of this book was read while sunbathing in my garden means that the descriptions of a very hot summer hit right at home. As usual, Grant knows little about what he’s getting involved in as he is still an amateur wizard, so many things go unexplained, even up until the end. You really have to just go with these stories. Yes, this person is a god, and this person is a fairy, fine, just accept it. It’s also satisfying that mundane things that some people in our world have trouble with are shown with the normalcy they should have. Grant’s colleague, the charming and sweet Dominic Croft, is gay, and it’s never considered by anyone to be an issue, even in a small country village where everyone knows one another. There are a couple of nods to Peter Grant’s mixed race heritage, with some of the local coppers claiming that his help will do wonders for their diversity figures, and a scene in which he is given menacing looks by a couple of local racists, noting with humorous tragedy that the trouble with being a racist in the white heartlands of Britain is that you don’t get much practical exposure.

Aaronovitch, as usual, writes with great humour and the book is packed with witty one-liners and smart, unusual metaphors. Grant’s internal monologue – although it seems clearly in this book that he’s actively telling someone the story – is great fun. At one point, he finds himself having to scurry up a tree and notes, “This is where the whole ape-descended thing reveals its worth […] Opposable thumbs – don’t leave home without them.” He remains a fun lead character and someone I enjoy spending time with.

We see less of the other regular cast this time, with I think all of them being on the other end of a phone for the whole book, and one of the few nods to the continuing plot of the books is that Lesley May, his former friend and colleague who has recently changed loyalties, is trying to get in touch with him, but her motives remain unclear. I suppose more will be tidied up in the next installment which, I’m informed by a friend who is one book ahead of me, requires a notepad to keep track of all the newly introduced characters. Bring it on, Aaronovitch.

“Sussex Folk Tales” by Michael O’Leary (2013)

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sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.