“Dream London” by Tony Ballantyne (2013)

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“Crunch crunch crunch.”

Many of the world’s finest cities are built on grids: New York, Barcelona, San Francisco, Paris, parts of Edinburgh and much of Rome. London, however, is not quite like that. With so many dead ends, cut-throughs, alleys, curves and very little regulation regarding street naming, there’s a theory that it’s been built like that specifically to confuse tourists. Or maybe it’s just to slow down any army that returns to take its nations stuff back from the museums. Dream London take this to a whole new level, and as I’m really missing my visits to the capital this week, it seemed a good place to spend a little time.

Dream London is not the London we once knew. The city changes a little bit every night, and the people change a little every day. The parks have disappeared, the Thames is now an impassable mile-wide waterway, the towers are gaining new floors with alarming regularity, and you never know if you’ll wake up to find your house next to a pub or a train station, or even if your house still exists. No one knows why this is happening, and have even less idea of how to stop it. Enter, Captain Jim Wedderburn. A former soldier, he left the army and is now struggling to make ends meet in this twisted version of his old home. He looks after a cohort of prostitutes and does his best to keep out of trouble, but Dream London has a way of making you into someone new.

Wedderburn’s fame is large, and when two rival factions seek him out for help against one another, he finds himself torn in two. Does he follow the Cohort into the legendary Angel Tower, the thousand-storey skyscraper that seems to be the centre of the changes, or does he join Daddio Clarke and his army of captive followers who all possess eyes on their tongues and send foul-mouthed little girls in to do the dirty work? Elsewhere, Dream London has given Wedderburn his fortune and he learns that he will soon betray one of his friends, and another will betray him. There’s no escape, the parks are getting bigger – even if no one can access them – and something terrible is coming. But this is a city where nothing is ever the same two days running, so how on Earth can it ever be put back together?

With shades of Neverwhere and Jasper Fforde abounds, this is a riotous romp through a fictional London that still seems oddly familiar. This must be what it’s like to be a first-time visitor to the city, with roads and train stations that come and go as they please, an inconsistent skyline, and people everywhere only out for themselves. Dream London seems to slowly be sinking back into a place of Victorian values, where workhouses exist and women are relegated mostly to either selling sex or cleaning floors. It’s not a bad life for everyone, but it very much depends who you are. Ballantyne does amazing work at spinning this mythical city on the page and bringing it to life. The complications of trains that never take you where you want, least of all out of Dream London, the obsession with eggs of the people who live near the fabled Egg Market, and the astounding reveal of who is behind it all are strokes of genius.

One of my favourite inventions is the Angel Tower, which is hiring people to rewrite the laws of the universe. On the Writing Floor, whatever is written becomes fact and shifts the city into a new shape. Anything from here that then gets moved to the Contracts Floor is immutable and unchanging. The Numbers Floor is the most interesting, however. There are no prime numbers in Dream London, and so Wedderburn is hired to prove this. When looking at the numbers, his mind begins to be affected by the city and he realises that there are other numbers between the numbers we know. As of now, seventeen has always been two times green. This is beautifully followed with the chapter titles, which insert the colours (and one two occasions, mere sensations) into the running order. A madcap idea that is executed with true skill.

Sharp, interesting characters, a well-defined world, and some utterly believable silliness. What isn’t to love about this?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Ink” by Alice Broadway (2017)

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“I was older than all my friends when I got my first tattoo.”

I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t think I’ll ever get one. I’ve nothing against them, and obviously I’ve no problem with other people having them, but I don’t think I could commit to having something to permanent on my skin. I’d want to change it after a while. If I had to, however, I know exactly what I would have. Ink takes place in a world where tattoos take on a whole new meaning.

Leora Flint lives in Saintstone, a town where everyone’s deeds are tattooed onto their skin. A dot on the hand for every year you’ve lived, your achievements on your right arm and your failures on the left, a family tree on your back showing where you’ve come from. There are no secrets in Saintstone, and everyone can read exactly who you are and what you’ve done with your life. Not long before graduating school and beginning her new career, Leora’s father dies and his skin is bound into a book so that future generations can read about him and have him never be forgotten.

Saintstone, however, has a new mayor, and he’s got some radical ideas, beginning with wanting everyone to register exactly what tattoos they have and what they mean, and bringing back the idea of marking criminals “forgotten”. Anyone tattooed with a crow will have their skin book burnt and it will be illegal to talk about them after they’ve gone. When Leora sees a man get marked with the crow for stealing someone else’s skin, it brings back a memory of her childhood that she’d blocked out. She remembers her father having that very same tattoo, hidden on his scalp under his hair. Leora realises that her father should be forgotten, and she’s determined to make sure his book comes home with her. As she delves into the family history, however, she soon discovers that the world is far more complicated than she imagined, and sometimes fairy tales are truer than the population believes.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had assumed that it was a world where tattoos made it impossible to have secrets because they appeared on your skin by magic, but nope, it’s a very mundane practice done by people called inkers. Every tattoo has a meaning, and the way this is all set out is very cool. Everyone has a family tree on their back, but if someone’s name has been replaced by a tattoo of a cuckoo, it means they’ve been forgotten. Fallen, dead leaves at the tree’s roots represent miscarriages or children who died in infancy. Every single symbol is layered with meaning, and while there are official marks, there is plenty of freedom for people to use the remaining space to decorate their bodies as they see fit. Everyone does, and it is considered weird and antisocial to keep your skin clear. The fear of the “blanks” – those people who choose not to tattoo themselves – are seen as untrustworthy with something to hide. It’s just an example of fantastic racism, but it works very well.

My main complaint is a lack of pacing in places. Occasionally weeks or months pass with little development in characterisation when there really feels like there should be some more exploration of people’s feelings, motives and interactions. Leora is also quite a flat character in places, having no personal tattoos but an innate ability to read and ink others like she was born to do it. The other characters are often more interesting, including Obel who trains her, Mel the town’s storyteller who has the people’s history inked on her skin, and even Leora’s parents.

It’s a thought-provoking book with some interesting concepts. I’m sure I’ll carry on with the series at some point.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Tropic Of Serpents” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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“Not long before I embarked on my journey to Eriga, I girded my loins and set out for a destination I considered much more dangerous: Falchester.”

In 2015, I began reading about the adventures of Lady Trent – at the time Isabella Camherst. Living in an world that is not unlike our Victorian era, she is a scientist with a passion for studying dragons. Despite the reservations that her society has about women adventurers, she manages to forge her own path and come out from the shadow of her husband and the male scientists that surround her. At last, I return to her memoirs, beginning the new year inside the pages of the second volume, this time detailing her adventures through a jungle known as the Green Hell.

Since returning to Scirland, three years have passed and Isabella is becoming restless. Desperate for another adventure and not finding motherhood to her liking – it’s particularly tough given her son looks exactly like her deceased husband – she plans a quest to Eriga, war-torn continent where her people have economic interests in the iron mines. When those with more power than her declare she must leave sooner than expected, she heads off with Thomas Wilker, a companion from her previous journey who doesn’t necessarily approve of her methods, and Natalie Oscott, a young woman with an inventor’s mind who loathes society’s rules even more than Isabella does.

In the land of Eriga, things are more turbulent than perhaps the Scirlanders realised. With several cultures and countries clashing over territorial disputes and the Scirling government focusing instead on building dams and mining iron, Isabella and her team find themselves guests at the palace, where the society’s leader asks her to bring back some dragon eggs while she’s off studying them. The group move off into the swamps, with local guides to assist them, and in there they find out not only a good deal about the native dragons, but also the people who have very different customs to the ones they’re used to. As Isabella learns more about dragons and alternate ways of living, she learns even more about herself and what she’s truly capable of.

The Eriga of the novel is clearly meant to be based on Africa, with white colonialists turning up to do their business, often with scant appreciation for what the natives think or want with them. The illustrations within the book – purported to be by Isabella herself – highlight the “otherness” of these people to her, and she clearly comes from a country where black people have yet to make any mark. One photo shows tribesmen who seem to have a definite Zulu basis. The world building is interesting and Brennan has clearly put a lot of thought into these things, but one can get so bogged down in trying to remember which culture is battling which and what all the countries are called that it can slow down the narrative a little. As with last time, the most interesting bits are when she is dealing directly with dragons, and these passages are not as common as one may like.

Nonetheless, Isabella remains an interesting character. She is the epitome of those female Victorian explorers like Gertrude Bell who struck out into the wilderness to study the world, paying no heed to the blustering men they left behind. Natalie is fun, too, being someone who has absolutely no interest in marriage or society’s norms. Thomas Wilker, in contrast, makes for a great foil, and it is wonderful to see he and Isabella reach a certain understanding and come to like one another, rather than simply tolerate the others presence. Isabella is fearless, ambitious and formidable, and she makes a credible heroine. She is not someone I would like to be on the other end of an argument with.

The third book is already on my shelf, so I doubt I’ll leave it so long this time to get to it. The adventure will continue soon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Lies Sleeping” by Ben Aaronovitch (2018)

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“His name was Richard Williams and he worked in public relations.”

And so we return to London for another run around magical crime scenes with Peter Grant. Let’s crack on.

We are at the point now where series lock-out has increased so much that if you’ve not read the previous books, nothing here is going to mean anything to you. Grant even says as much on the first few pages. Closing in on Martin Chorley, a wizard who would rather use his powers for evil than good, Peter Grant and his fellow police officers are reaching the end of their tether. Several people involved with a screenplay with an Arthurian flavour have been found dead, and it seems that whatever Chorley has been planning all this time is far from over.

With a long-term plan finally coming together and involving a giant bell, the mischievous spirit of Mr Punch, and a sword that may or may not be Excalibur itself, Chorley has a plan that could see London destroyed forever thanks to a two thousand year old myth and the ego of a former Eton schoolboy who has just been given the keys to Number 10. Loyalties are tested, magic is pushed to its limits, and Grant will stop at nothing to save the city he loves.

So, here we are.  The seventh novel, but with all the supplementary material available, it’s far further on than that. It might just be me and the fact that quite a bit of time passes between reading each one, but I find that the overarching plot has got away from itself. The series would be better served when binged, I think, as at this point, Aaronovitch assumes that you immediately know every reference he’s making to previous moments in the plot, and I simply didn’t. I’d lost track of some of the characters, and there’s definitely a sense that this one is wrapping up a lot of earlier threads. There isn’t much of a plot here that could be dipped in to without having read the previous ones, and everything hangs on what has come before. Despite the gaps of time, I get the sense that someone somewhere is hurrying these out, as there were multiple grammar and spelling errors. I’m not someone who gets hung up on these – it’s not Aaronovitch’s fault and 99% of books have at least one error in them – but you get the impression that corners were cut in an effort to release at a certain time, come hell or high water.

Still, it’s not bad. I think maybe some of the novelty has worn off – and I definitely put some of that down to professional jealousy, as I write in a very similar style to Aaronovitch but don’t have the sales – and there are a whole lot of things going on at the same time that don’t always interact neatly, but I’m not here to demonise it as a book. The jokes are sharp as ever, the characters are fun, full and lovable (even if the cast has now become so large that several of them who used to be big-hitters now seem to have been reduced to extras) and the ideas sizzle with originality. Aaronovitch is writing a love letter to London with these novels, and it works. By using as many real locations as possible, it brings the novel entirely to life and we find ourselves fully immersed in his world.

The book ends by wrapping up several of the major threads and, frankly, it could all end here and I’d be happy. But I sense there is more to come, and despite all I’ve said, I’m prepared to join Peter Grant on his continuing adventures. London always has more to offer.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins (2019)

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“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

If it wasn’t obvious, I love books. They hold such power and mystery, each one containing a new world that we’re free to explore if only we open the covers. Sometimes they are magical, other times dangerous. Sometimes they’re to entertain, or to teach. They have all sorts of purposes. Perhaps their most powerful ability is that they can store our thoughts, but what if that could be abused?

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory.

This is a world where binders are employed to take memories from people, things they would rather forget, and store them into beautiful, unique books for safekeeping. But binders are not always trusted and some people disagree with what they do. Seredith is no exception, and when an angry group arrives on her doorstep, she and Emmett manage to chase them away but to the detriment of her health. But Emmett has another problem. Beneath Seredith’s house sits all the books she has ever bound, stored away so that the people can forget. Down here, however, Emmett makes a shocking discovery: one of the books has his name on it.

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. Lucian Darnay, his rival, is basically his antithesis. He is born of privilege and never had to work a day in his life, but lives in the shadow of his abusive father. Seredith is a wonderful creation, something like Minerva McGonagall, and I enjoyed her. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

The concept of binding is, of course, at the heart of the novel. One can see how it would be tempting to be bound. You could forget failed love affairs and embarrassing moments in society, but surely the point is that we are all better people because we can remember our flaws? At first, the characters we see who are being bound are doing it for important reasons, just once a lifetime, to banish something they cannot live with from their brain. It’s an act of self-care, in some ways. As it progresses, however, we see how people use and abuse this ability, such as the vile Piers Darnay who rapes his maids and then periodically has them bound again so he can read their thoughts and take advantage again without them knowing it’s not the first time. There is also a horrible trade in books, with people prepared to sell others memories. A lighter note is made that some people are now making up fake memories, called “novels”, but the characters can’t comprehend of someone who would willingly make up a tragedy and spend so much time in that head space.

A surprisingly beautiful and moving novel about what we are willing to sacrifice for our happy endings.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero (2018)

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“It starts when you pull the lamp chain and light doesn’t come.”

Didn’t we all want to solve crimes as a child? Television and literature alike have always been full of precocious children and teenagers who are able to solve mysteries that leave those who are meant to be solving them stumped. The villains always get their comeuppance and time and again spooky and supernatural premises are shown to have entirely mundane backgrounds. In Edgar Cantero’s second novel, he takes on the genre and wonders: what if it wasn’t quite that easy?

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a group of teenagers made up of Peter, Nate, Andy, Kerri and their dog Sean – stopped the Sleepy Lake monster, who turned out to be yet another greedy, desperate lowlife in a rubber mask who would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Thirteen years later, the young detectives have grown up but not forgotten their adventures. And the more they try not to think about them, they realise that maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The events can’t be explained away by a guy in a mask. Something weirder was going on.

The group have changed, however. Tomboy Andy is wanted in two states after she broke out of prison. Kerri was once a child genius but now drinks away her problems in New York, accompanied by Tim, a direct descendant of the original dog. Nate is locked up in an asylum, but still has contact with Peter, which is probably a bit troublesome as he died two years ago. The surviving members of the detective club decide that they can’t hide from their demons any longer and head back to Blyton Hills to finally put to rest the trauma that has haunted them for half their lives. The town has changed and so have they, but the danger remains as real as ever, and they are soon once again meddling in things that no man or beast should ever meddle with.

Although I’m painfully averse to Scooby Doo (it’s entirely irrational, I just never liked the series), I was always a fan of Enid Blyton’s young detectives, and upon reading this you realise who close the two teams were. Both featured two male and two female characters, alongside a dog, and solved crimes that the authorities could never deal with. Here, Cantero updates the concept by throwing the amateur detectives right into an H. P. Lovecraft novel and letting them fight their own way out. The characters are rich and funny, particularly Tim, the dog, who has an enormous amount of personality without ever being overtly anthropomorphised. The humans feel real, despite the unreality of the plot, and are as likeable as they are broken.

Although already very funny despite the horror, the greatest stylistic device is that the book is very self-aware, pointing out its own construction and breaking the fourth wall so naturally that you completely buy into it. Cantero slips in stage directions, title cards, references to the very paragraphs and sentences he’s writing, and at one point even ends a chapter, only to have one of the characters refuse to let it end there and carrying on regardless. He’s also got an absolutely sublime way with words and can turn absolutely anything into a verb or adverb. A character doesn’t “tell” a story, they “once-upon-a-time” it. Jar lids marimba when there’s a tremble underground, and at one point characters see books “lemminging” off the shelf. It’s a masterful grasp of language made all the more impressive when you learn that his first language is Spanish. Like Douglas Adams, he makes you realise what words are actually capable of. I’m jealous.

If you grew up on The Famous Five, Scooby Doo or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is the book for you.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Good Fairies Of New York” by Martin Millar (1992)

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“Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practising gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.”

The USA, in its modern form, is a pretty young country, as these things go. Yes, the Native Americans have a wildly fascinating and detailed folklore history, but much of it seems to be ignored and there are struggles to preserve it. Perhaps we’ve already lost a lot. It always seemed to me that the modern Americans viewed the folklore and magical history of older countries like England and Ireland with jealous eyes and sought to create their own myths and legends, idolising figures like Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett and George Washington. In this novel, Martin Millar gives America a chance to play around with a few older myths.

The novel opens with two Scottish fairies, Morag and Heather, flying through the window of Dinnie’s flat and vomiting on the carpet. The frenemy fairies accidentally found themselves in New York after boarding a plane and are bemused by this huge city and its strange ways. Unable to deal with Dinnie and his horrible personality, Morag flies to the apartment over the road to meet Kerry, a perfectly charming woman with Crohn’s disease and a desire to complete her Celtic flower alphabet.

Being good fairies, Morag and Heather decide to improve things for their human friends. They don’t count, however, on New Yorkers not having the same excitement when seeing fairies as the British and Irish do and they soon find themselves in trouble with New York’s native fairies, a large number of homeless people, and Dinnie’s abrasive landlord. Elsewhere, the fairies of Cornwall are staging a rebellion against their tyrannical king, another group of fairies have landed in Central Park and are desperately in need of some whisky, and the ghost of Johnny Thunders is trying to find his old guitar.

Despite all the claims that he’s a hilarious writer, I definitely didn’t find this one as funny as I did my last Martin Millar novel. I get the light-heartedness and that the humour is present, but it didn’t tickle me into laughing out loud once. I was impressed with the concepts, certainly, and they’re quite daft, but they suit the universe he’s created well enough that I don’t find them outlandishly funny. The other problem is that there are so many overlapping stories and viewpoints, often visited for only a paragraph or two at a time, that things quickly tangled themselves up and it became hard to develop a rapport with one character when suddenly you were jerked away to read about another, only to drop back in to meet a third on the very next page.

Some of the stuff is very interesting, though. The Celtic flower alphabet intrigues me as a concept, and I would love to have known more about that. The inclusion of New York native fairies is also great fun, as they’re not just simply American. There are Italian fairies in Little Italy, Chinese fairies in Chinatown, and Ghanaian fairies in Harlem, each with their own styles, customs and costumes. They do hang a lampshade on the fact that despite America having had a lot of Irish immigration, there don’t appear to be any Irish fairies in the city, but it does make you wonder where they are.

An interesting and fun read, but a touch too busy. With a little more focus, it could be great.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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