“Whispers Underground” by Ben Aaronovitch (2012)

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“Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living.”

Any review of a book that’s in the middle of an on-going series requires a certain amount of preamble, although I’m far too lazy to provide a fresh synopsis of what you’ve missed so far, so either duck out of this review now until you’ve read the series, or if you’re happy to get potential spoilers or would like a brief rundown on what came before this, then click for reviews of the first two books, Rivers of London and Moon Under Soho.

And breathe.

Whispers Underground reunites us with Peter Grant and the supernatural side of the Metropolitan Police. After Abigail Kamara, a nosy young girl from his housing estate, tells him that she’s seen a ghost, but Grant is soon pulled away from this discovery when a young man is found dead, stabbed, on the platform at Baker Street tube station. James Gallagher was an art student with no known enemies, but unfortunately for the police, his father is a US senator, and soon the FBI have descended.

The cause of Gallagher’s death certainly seems to be in Peter’s remit, which becomes more obvious when it turns out that Gallagher’s housemate is half-fairy and doesn’t seem all that keen to help the police with their inquiries. Meanwhile, Peter is still struggling to get used to magic and Lesley’s half-face, the FBI agent seems to be on a mission of her own and should definitely not be allowed to know about magic, there are some shifty looking traders down the market who swear they can do you a good deal on some unbreakable pottery, and Christmas is just around the corner. Just another day, then.

More than anything this time round, I felt a lot of similarities to Peter James’s novels featuring Roy Grace. The research into the working of the police force is evidently greatly detailed, and whereas those books show the familiar streets of Brighton, here we get to explore London. The true joy comes from the supernatural elements that most of society ignore, partly because the police are very good at hiding the truth, and partly because people would rather not deal with anything out of their comfort zones.

The style remains flippant and genuinely funny, packed with pop culture references, and there’s a real joy in these worlds. When I reviewed the first book, I said that something was missing, and I think I know what it was now. The books are not separate entities; they are complete continuations, and if they all existed in the same tome, while it would be heavy to read in the bath, it would make just as much sense. The ending is great, setting up things for the fourth book, and the final line sends a shiver down the spine. Clever, clever stuff.

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“R.I.P.” by Nigel Williams (2015)

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And then one morning you wake up dead...

And then one morning you wake up dead…

“‘George!’ said Esmerelda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?'”

I’m not especially scared of death, but what will annoy me most about it is not knowing how everything turns out. But would I want to hang around and see what happens to the people I love? It’s an odd thought. However, this slightly macabre introduction is my way to getting into a novel where this exact thing happens. Let’s read on.

George Pearmain is aware one morning of his wife Esmerelda shouting abuse at him. This is nothing unusual and he finds he can’t stir, even while she stands over him telling him how useless and fat he is. In fact, even once Esmerelda leaves and goes downstairs to find George’s mother Jessica dead on the kitchen floor is he capable of moving. It’s only when Esmerelda comes back up that they both realise the truth – George is dead, too.

Other than that, he feels fine though.

The house is full of guests – it was meant to be Jessica’s ninety-ninth birthday – so all the family and a few of her friends have gathered, and there are more on the way who can’t be contacted and told to stop. The police arrive and the efficient DI Hobday becomes convinced that there is more to the situation than there first seems to be. George, now a mere spirit with limited control over his conciousness and none at all over his body, is left hovering around the house trying to piece together what has happened. It soon becomes apparent that both Jessica and George were murdered, and when it emerges that Jessica is worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen her most recent will, everyone becomes a suspect. Money will do strange things to a person.

While genuinely hilarious in places, there is definitely a dark and bittersweet taste to this novel. George is a perfectly likeable man, I found, and it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet him until he’s dead. The rest of his family, however, are horrendously vile. With no main character younger than sixty, this becomes a novel where older people turn against one another with such suspicion, hate and violence that is unseen in the younger generations. George’s siblings, boring newsreader Stephen and qualified witch Frigga, never seemed to like George much, and the feeling was almost certainly reciprocated. The most hellish of all though is Lulu, Stephen’s wife, a harpy of a woman who has a considerable celebrity presence and believes that she is better than everyone around her, partly because she once made Tony Blair cry on national TV.

Despite the comedy, and the premise that it’s being narrated by, essentially, a ghost, it also works as a genuine murder mystery. There are seven or so primary suspects and while many aspects of their personalities are played for laughs, you also find yourself starting to wonder which of them would be so callous as to do away with the harmless George, never mind his ninety-nine year old mother. George, meanwhile, begins to appreciate the life that he had, realising that his marriage was far happier than he ever thought it at the time and that his wife meant more to him than he ever told her. It is, of course, too late.

Sharp, witty to the bitter end, and full of beautiful phrases and clever characterisation, Nigel Williams has blown me away.

“The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse (2009)

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It leaves a chill, certainly.

It leaves a chill, certainly.

“He walked like a man recently returned to the world.”

If, like me, you live in Britain, you will have probably noticed how hot it’s been these last few days. The unseasonable weather, while ultimately welcome, seems to have made most of us sweaty, irritable and  uncomfortable. In a vague attempt to cool off, I hoped that a book with “winter” in the title and a snowflake on the cover might have the same effect as a cold shower. Now though, I think that “damp squib” is a better description for the book than “cold shower”. And I’m still too hot.

Giving away the twist and the main plot in the three words of the title, The Winter Ghosts takes us to France between the world wars. Freddie Watson has arrived in Toulouse in 1933 to find someone who can translate a letter he’s been carrying. When the translator, Saurat, asks where he found the letter, which may just be a priceless historical artifact, Freddie tells his tale.

Five years earlier, Freddie had gone to France after a spell in a sanatorium. He is unable to get over the death of his older brother during the Battle of the Somme and it has driven him mad. Seeking closure, he goes to France but his car gets caught in a snowstorm and hurled off the road. Travelling through the blizzard, he arrives at a town that seems deserted, but takes refuge in the hostel of M and Mme Galy. They invite him to a celebration that night that all the villagers will be attending. Deciding to go along, he finds the place in question and enters, being introduced to various members of the crowd.

One of them stands out for him though, the beautiful, ethereal Fabrissa. They talk into the night, Freddie telling her his tragic story, when the party is interrupted by soldiers carrying swords. In the scuffle, Freddie and Fabrissa escape into the mountains where, once safe, Fabrissa tells her story. The next morning, Fabrissa is gone and Freddie can’t be sure if she was ever there in the first place, but he is determined to find her.

I’ve never read Kate Mosse before so didn’t really know what to expect; I certainly didn’t expect it to turn into a ghost story, assuming, at first, the title was metaphorical. Given that the bulk of the story is supposedly Freddie telling Saurat the tale, it genuinely does (at first anyway) feel like Freddie is telling you the story personally. The imagery and the location are both beautifully handled, and Freddie’s struggle to cope with his brother’s death feels realistic. It seems rarer to contemplate how siblings feel after a death, focus instead tending to go to the parents. Here, Freddie has to cope with the loss of his whole family, really, as it’s made patently clear, both to him and us, that George was the favourite brother and his parents had little time for Freddie, even before George’s death and especially after.

For all that though, the book is flawed. It was apparently originally released as a short story, and you can definitely tell that’s the case. It feels like it’s been padded with superfluous description and dialogue, like an overstuffed armchair that’s lost its shape. Freddie is the only character who is properly fleshed out, and his heel face turn after realising that Fabrissa isn’t quite what he thought seems a little strange. He’s a dim character, apparently completely unaware for a long time that he witnessed something stranger than usual. When it comes down to it, the beautiful language cannot mask the fact that nothing really happens here. It’s immediately forgettable, chilling in all the wrong ways and I’m not tempted to read Mosse’s earlier work.

If I had a five-star rating system, something it’s too late to implement at this point, then this gets a solid three. It is neither outstanding in being either really good or really bad, and it will pass a couple of days, but it just never grabbed me. You may not agree, but you’d have to make a good case for me to change my mind.

“The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman (2014)

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magic land“The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.”

Well, here we are. A year and a day after my review of The Magician King, I finally produce one for the final book in the trilogy, The Magician’s Land. The first one, The Magicians, was my first ever review, and this has a weird sense of a circle closing. Not that I’m packing in this blog, but nonetheless the completion of a series – particularly a very good one – is always a moment for reflection. So I’m going to crack on and, please be careful, there are spoilers ahead.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read The Magicians or The Magician King. Read on at your own risk.

The book opens with Quentin Coldwater back in the real world, banished from the fantasy land of Fillory which, until recently, he was the High King of. Now forbidden to return by the ram god Ember, he is alone in the world and has no direction. He manages to find his way back to his old college, Brakebills, where he learnt so much of his magic. He’s not sure how pleased they’ll be to see him, but Dean Fogg allows him to join the teaching staff, where he proves to be a competent teacher.

However, he is also distracted by a page he stole from a book in the Neitherlands – the world that exists between the worlds – which seems to contain some kind of very heavy duty magic. Dedicating his non-teaching time to decoding the page, he develops further passion for magic and its wonder. And then something terrible happens and he has to leave, and so does one of his students, Plum, a highly talented witch who seems to have her own private link to Fillory.

Now unemployed and with even less direction than before, he finds that he has been summoned to a bookstore where several other magicians have gathered. They are given a task by a blackbird: track down two thieves known only as the Couple and steal an unstealable suitcase from them. The bird says that the contents are valuable but claims not to know what they are. Quentin and Plum join the team and soon find themselves up to their necks in some of the most powerful magic they’ve yet encountered.

Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, are coming to terms with the fact that the world appears to be ending. The clock trees are running out of sync, the daily eclipses have stopped, and even the animals have started going a bit funny. With time rapidly running out, they must try and find a way to save their kingdom before the apocalypse comes and wipes everything out.

And on top of all of this, the ghost of Quentin’s ex-girlfriend Alice has started appearing at mirrors throughout the multiverse, which is probably not a good thing.

Like the previous two installments, Grossman fills this one with a wonderful series of interlocking narratives, taking the reader on a journey backwards and forwards through time, teaching us things we haven’t yet learnt, and explaining things that have so far been unexplained. Everything ties together but you better have a good memory because there are things brought back to the forefront here that haven’t been relevant since the first book, and given it’s been two and a half years since I read that, my memory is a bit shaky. Nonetheless, it all felt right. There’s not too much exposition on what has come before, but we do get lots of long stories from the characters about things we didn’t see first time round.

Grossman is a very smart writer and his style is beautiful. Whatever causes him to produce his ideas must be pretty special indeed, and I want some of it. Without trying to give too much away, this book contains a flying billiards table, a moving chalk man, a room in a library that contains all the novels that were never written, time spent in the mind of a blue whale, a potential explanation for why ghosts are happy to stay ghosts, and the most powerful spell ever encountered.

Perhaps it ends too abruptly, but that might just be me always wanting to know what happens next, and there’s definitely a quite literal dues ex machina quite late in the story, but you can forgive it (just) because everything else has been so smart. There’s a lot of wisdom about books in here, especially the repeated wisdom that you can never unread a book, so be careful which ones you choose.

Frankly, as a series, it is a thing of beauty and I’ll probably end up returning to it again at some point and discover many, many things I missed or don’t remember from the first time round. If you’re going for this series, do start at the beginning, and I really think that if you have even the smallest interest in magic and how irresponsible people can be with it, then it’s worth checking in and spending some time in the company of some of the most intelligent magicians of all time.

“Affinity” by Sarah Waters (1999)

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affinity“I was never so frightened as I am now.”

I occasionally catch myself saying, perhaps somewhat boastfully, that I’ll read anything. I’m usually only moments later forced to eat my words. Sarah Waters is, of course, an author whose name I know but historical fiction is something that I would never buy for myself. Fortunately, for Valentine’s Day this year, the other half and I bought one another books that we loved for the other to read, in an attempt I suppose to get to know each other better and understand where we’re coming from, via a literary perspective.

And so this is how I found myself suddenly reading Waters. Affinity is not one of hers I knew (although every time I’ve stepped into a bookshop in the last few years I swear I’ve seen at least ten copies of The Little Stranger on display) so I went into it basically blind, going only on the blurb.

Affinity transports us to London in the 1870s, a city shrouded in thick, choking fog and a class system so divided that it may already be the Morlocks and Eloi. The story has two narrators. The first is Margaret Prior, a well-to-do young lady who is struggling to deal with the sudden death of her father. She is perhaps a little disturbed and, to take her mind from her boring life – and to escape the endless wedding preparations of her sister Pris – becomes a Lady Visitor to the women’s prison of Millbank, attending to some of the inmates and hearing their stories, giving them a chance to speak out. One of these is Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who has been imprisoned for attacking a young girl and killing the lady she lived with. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and that the actions were performed by the spirit folk, in particular one brutish and dangerous spirit called Peter Quick.

Selina is the second narrator, although her chapters reveal what happened before she was put in gaol, explaining how she got herself mixed up in the sorry mess and how she developed her skills as a spiritualist. She learns tricks to make people believe that she is summoning those from beyond the mortal realm, but there’s a certain ambiguity about the whole thing – is she entirely a fraud, or is there some truth to what she says?

Margaret is captivated by Selina and, in a state of emotional weakness, begins to fall in love with her. Selina reciprocates her feelings and the soon neither can sleep or function because they are consumed with thoughts of the others. Selina begins using her powers to send gifts to Margaret, who is at first scared, but later realises that she cannot live without Selina. A plan begins to form, but escaping from gaol is not easy – not even with the guide of the spirits…

It’s a slow burner and takes a long while to get going, but once it does, it’s definitely enjoyable, and the twist at the end is a wonderful pay off. I had no idea where it was going until it happened, although I had a suspicion that, thankfully, turned out to be wrong. There is much ambiguity within the novel, both in the relationship between the main characters (this is, of course, Victorian London, and lesbianism isn’t exactly freely discussed) and in the talents of the spiritualists. Is Peter Quick real, or is he entirely constructed from Selina’s mind? There’s potentially a case for both sides of the argument, and Waters is certainly not going to give away all the answers.

The book also is notable for containing very few male characters of any importance. There are probably only five or six that recieve names and any sort of description, compared to the scores of women prisoners, wardens, family members, visitors to Selina’s “dark circles” and servants that populate the novel. This merely adds another reminder to us that this is a story about women and their struggle. Britain at this time is not yet as liberal as it will become (and, let’s be honest, we’ve still got quite some way to go), and the stress of hiding her true self does some dreadful things to Margaret. I’d be hard-pushed to call it a love story. It shows the more dangerous, but just as realistic side of love – all-consuming, all-powerful and prone to making even the most innocent-seeming people perform deeds that don’t align with their moral code.

All in all, it’s captivating enough to be a page turner, but don’t go into it for a quick read. The descriptions are great, and the characters realised enough – some more than others, of course, depending on their narrative importance – and the dense text sucks you into the horror that is Millbank prison. A nice touch is also the occasional mention of the cloying fog that shrouds the city, further emphasising that London is all about secrets and there is always something hidden from view. So while it’s a somewhat claustrophobic novel, and I wouldn’t say it’s particularly happy either, it’s well-written, powerful and generally a very interesting read.

“Saga: Volume 1” by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012)

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saga book“This is how an idea becomes real.”

Graphic novels have so far featured poorly on this blog and on my reading lists in general. It’s not that I don’t like them – actually, far from it – or don’t consider them “proper books”, it’s simply that I don’t know where to begin with them. The only ones to have graced my blog so far have been manga versions of Shakespeare plays,  so it’s about time I took a look at something else. Fortunately for me, having a wide circle of friends with varying circles of interest means that every genre and style finds its way to me eventually, and it’s thanks to two of these friends that Saga found its way onto my shelf.

The one I’ve read is the first six chapters of the story, collated together, although I’m told there is much more to come. The background of the world is that there are two warring races of aliens, those of the planet Landfall who all have wings, and those of Landfall’s moon, Wreath, who are all adorned with horns. While the war has now ended on this planet and moon (under the logic that the destruction of either will too destroy its companion) the battles have been outsourced, and now the entire galaxy has to choose whether to side with the planet or the moon. There is nowhere to hide from the war.

Amid the mess, two have fallen in love: Marko, a Wreather who has vowed to never use his sword again, and Alana, a Landfallian with a sharp tongue and little fear. Somehow, they have sired a daughter and are now on the run from both of their peoples, not wanting to be part of the neverending war. However, there is a bounty on their heads and several people are now after them. These include Prince Robot IV, a robotic royal with a screen for a face, and two freelance bounty hunters, The Will (a slightly washed-up figure who travels everywhere with his companion, Lying Cat) and The Stalk (a creature from your worst nightmares). With the help of a half-bodied teenage ghost called Izabel, Alana and Marko are determined to get as far away from the war as possible, but with everyone in the galaxy seemingly looking for them, that’s going to be a lot harder than it seems.

So what we have here is that someone has taken Game of Thrones, Star Wars and your worst nightmares, loaded them into a blender on full speed and poured out the remains onto the paper. The characters and story are immediately compelling and while the whole “two from different factions fall in love” shtick has been going since Romeo & Juliet if not before, this is one of the freshest takes I’ve ever seen. Fiona Staples’ artwork is a thing of absolute beauty and genius and the characters are phenomenally well-realised. The design is beautiful and there are no short cuts. Every single character is identifiable. Just because everyone in Marko’s race has horns, it doesn’t mean they have the same horns. While his are curled like a ram’s, we also see a whole bunch of other styles, including a unicorn.

By far and away the outstanding character so far is Lying Cat, The Will’s faithful companion, a large green feline who can immediately tell if someone is telling the truth or not. The facial expressions on the beast are so wonderfully realised that you totally go along with it. The whole universe has clearly had a lot of work put into it, so while there is all this ongoing political drama, the true focus is actually on this pair of new parents, trying to do what is right for their newborn daughter in a galaxy that is rife with problems. This humanising plot means that you totally buy everything else that’s going on.

Sure, there are some images here that are going to haunt my dreams for the next few nights, such as the two greeters on the brothel planet Sextillion who are merely porn-star heads on spindly legs, but it’s absolutely worth it. The imaginations of both Vaughan and Staples are out of control, and I for one am not willing to help them reel them in. Long may they continue.

“Girlfriend In A Coma” by Douglas Coupland (1998)

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These Things Take Time...

These Things Take Time…

“I’m Jared, a ghost.”

Douglas Coupland is a master at dissecting the niggly bits of existence, dragging out the parts we don’t necessarily want to examine, and holding them up to the light anyway for us to peer at. He captures the essence of the time, most famously the late eighties up until the present day, and his fifth novel does the same, examining both the tail end of the 1970s and the 1990s, looking at the changes that occured with jarring speed in that time. However, he does tend to keep his books set firmly in the real world, even if from a slightly warped point of view. In this one, he goes all-out weird, and isn’t this weird again until Generation A, over a decade later.

The novel begins in 1979 when, on the 15th December, Karen falls into a coma that that lasts for seventeen years. Her boyfriend, Richard, and her friends, Hamilton, Pam, Wendy and Linus, are left behind to deal with the consequences. Although they did nothing to cause her coma (she had merely taken two Valium and barely any vodka), they become tainted and people begin to whisper about them behind their backs.

The five of them begin to seek meaning and struggle to come to terms with growing up and surviving adulthood in a world that is becoming faster and more interested in technology. (One character notes later into the book that in the battle between humans and machines, the machines won with barely a struggle.) However, while some cope better than others, Richard perhaps copes the worst, but he has promised Karen that he will wait, and wait he does, for 6,719 days.

When Karen emerges from her coma, it is considered a miracle and she is in better shape than many doctors could have imagined. it feels like a blink of an eye for her, but the world is changed massively and she comes with some horrible and shocking news: the universe put her into a coma because she saw something she wasn’t meant to see, and the end of the world is coming…

The novel is split into three parts. The first is narrated by Richard, who talks about Karen entering her coma and the activities that the group get up to in the following seventeen years. The second is in the third person and jumps between all the characters, and deals with Karen’s reintroduction to society (she quickly becomes fed up of people telling her that the Berlin Wall came down and that AIDS is a thing) and the prophecy that she seems to have had. The third part is from the point of view of Jared, who was another friend of the group back in the 70s, who died unexpectantly and is now their spirit guide through the end of the world that does indeed occur.

Coupland says that he wrote the book during a very dark time in his own life, and that’s fairly clear. The book, particularly the final apocalyptic part, is very dark and scary, but so indeed are the parts where the characters are trying to be normal. Karen notes that when she awakens there seems to be a certain something missing from people, but she can’t work it out properly. It might just be a struggle to search for meaning and fill the loss that everyone is dealing with. Technology and other societal advancements has rendered humanity sterile. It’s another clear sign of how on the ball Coupland is, as we’ve only become more and more obsessed with finding ourselves but losing time to technology over the last decade and a half.

When I first read Coupland’s books, this one was almost immediately selected as my favourite of them all, and I think it probably still is. It’s weird and dark, but the imagery is so beautiful and the entire section that takes place during the end of the world is haunting in its beauty and magic. The characters, while all so very lost and unable to deal with much of what happens around them, seeking answers in alcohol and drugs, are for the most part likeable, and you can’t help but pity them when the real world shows them the horror that it is capable of. Jared is probably the least fleshed out character, but nonetheless is still rather interesting, being, after all, still sixteen at the end of the novel, whereas the others all grew up, physically if not mentally.

It’s a bit denser than I remember, but it’s full of wonderful observations that Coupland is famous for. One particularly noteworthy one is when he says that if you were forty and were told that an eighteen-year-old was going to make all of your career decisions from now on, you’d be furious. “But that’s what life is all about,” says Hamilton; “some eighteen-year-old kid making your big decisions for you that stick for a lifetime.”

Dark and magical, but fascinating in its scope and rather special.

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