“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.

“Rivers Of London” by Ben Aaronovitch (2011)

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London; a city full of secrets.

London; a city full of secrets.

“It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden.”

If any city has a magical underbelly, it’s London. The city looks magical as it is – two thousand years of history held together with nothing more than hope and duct tape. Neil Gaiman did a very good job of showing a version of this in Neverwhere. Parts of the Harry Potter books are set in London, and Doctor Who has turned practically every noteworthy building and statue into something sinister. I even gave it a bit of a go in my own novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus (available at all online ebook retailers, just saying). However, I had yet to embark on this series, despite a number of people saying that it seemed like my sort of thing. One even said it read a lot like my book, which took on a weirder note when the final chapter of this has a moment that almost completely mirrors the opening chapter of my own. Weird.

In Rivers of London, we meet DC Peter Grant, two years out of Hendon and finding himself now standing guard at a spot near where a man has had his head taken off by an unnamed assailant. So far, so crime novel, but then he takes a statement from one Nicholas Wallpenny who turns out to be a ghost. He tells his colleage Lesley May about it and while she’s a little skeptical, she merely uses it to tell him that this is why he will never be considered a proper copper, and will undoubtedly be shifted off to work in an office for the rest of his career.

While hunting down the ghost again later for a second interview, Grant meets DCI Thomas Nightingale and before you can say expecto patronum, he is pulled into a branch of the Met that deals with ghosts, vampires, trolls, river gods and wizards, his own training to become a fully-fledged wizard immediately underway. When the prime suspect from the first case reappears with his face falling off, Grant realises that this is not your average case, and soon he must learn how to get a better hold on his magic if he’s to catch the perpetrator, who seems more than capable of changing his face at will, and seems to enjoy causing mayhem around the city. As more bodies fall, Grant also finds that he’s having to broker peace between Mother and Father Thames, who are fighting again about which parts of the river they own.

London crime just became a lot more confusing.

It’s a funny, smart, quick-witted novel, for sure. The rules of magic are rather scientific and interesting, taking up to ten years to become skilled enough to use it well and with ease. The beauty of it is that magic isn’t a complete secret. The public seem unaware of it by and large, but the police know it happens, so know when to call Nightingale in when the crime strays into the supernatural. It doesn’t mean they like the idea though, and most of them are downright hostile to the idea of magic, dreading the m-word turning up in their official reports. Grant’s friend Lesley seems more open to the idea, and after a few Potter-based jibes, seems to go with the flow and understands that spells are being cast and ghosts are being hunted.

Despite being clever and interesting, it lacks something, but I simply cannot put my finger on what it was. The plot veers a little too wildly at times, with non-sequitur scenes thrown in that seem to have no build-up and aren’t mentioned again, such as the killing of two vampires. The title comes from the battle between the two Thames gods, Mama Thames who controls everything downriver and the Old Man of the Thames who controls upriver, the divide occurring at Teddington Lock, and while some of the minor characters come in from this network, none of the business with these factions ever seems too pressing. Aaronovitch is perhaps trying to tell two stories at once that brush against each other but never fully connect.

The characters are great, mind. Peter Grant is a strong addition to the pantheon of fictional crimestoppers, a mixed race daydreamer with a vaguely scientific background and a strong role model in his mother, compared to his father who is a drug-addled jazz musician. While we hear a lot about them, we don’t see much, although from what I gather, that comes in the sequel. Nightingale is sufficiently mysterious, and there are many questions about his housekeeper Molly that I don’t think I want answered, simply because I’m scared. The non-river plot is perhaps stronger, and invokes one of the most terrifying things in our culture that people seem to forget is as horrific as it is – you’ll know it when you come to it.

If you love London, crime, magic or surprises, then give this book a go, because I definitely think that, despite something in my head not adding up, it’s a series worth spending time with.

“The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

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wind“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

I was trawling the shelves last week for a new book to read, and became interested in my top shelf, which is mostly stocked liberally with humour books, trivia books, a few things from my childhood. However, my attention was grabbed by The Wind In The Willows, which I plucked down, blew dust from and immediately decided that it needed to be read. I didn’t even know I owned it, sat up there sandwiched between Black Beauty and The Swiss Family Robinson, both of which were also something of a surprise. Where the books came from is anyone’s guess, but I may have inherited them down from my mother. My copy of Willows is from 1981 and apparently cost 95p on release. Ah, inflation.

Having seen a few adaptations of the novel, I realised that I’ve never actually read the original book, a fact that needed rectifying post haste. This is the story of four animal friends – Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger – and the adventures they get up to in their forest and on the riverbank. It begins with kind and sensible Mole getting tired of his spring cleaning and heading out into the wider world. He stumbles upon the river for the first time and there he meets Ratty, a dreamer who wants nothing more than to please his friends and spend his days “simply messing about in boats”. He loves the river and his life, and soon he and Mole are spending every day together. Ratty introduces Mole to his friend Toad, a very wealthy amphibian who lives in Toad Hall, a huge, decadent mansion and, while he’s smart and very friendly, he’s also arrogant in the extreme and prone to getting obsessions that consume him fully.

The final member of the main quartet is Badger, a wise old mammal who dislikes Society and will only come find you if he wants to speak to you. He appears to run the Wild Woods with an iron paw, but he’s quite soft at heart where his friends are concerned. The main crux of the story involves Toad developing an obsession with motor cars and, after stealing one and joyriding it around the countryside, he is taken to prison, from where he must escape.

What surprised me most about the book is that it reads far more like a series of short stories. There is a central plot, certainly, but there are a couple of chapters that don’t do anything to drive the story on. That’s not to say I disliked them, but they’re a slow-paced addition to the novel. One involves Ratty (actually a Water Vole) meeting a seafaring rat who tries to convince him that the best way to live is to travel the world. In another, Ratty and Mole go to find Otter’s son, only to have something of a religious experience on the way. The book is also wonderfully illustrated, the drawings provided by E. H. Shepard, who also provided the famous illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh.

The novel is certainly of its time, and there’s nothing particularly offensive about it. There are villains, but they come into play late and aren’t much of a threat, and the four main characters are all certainly able to be described as “nice”. They do have flaws – Toad is conceited, Mole is stubborn, Badger is prone to grumpiness – but above all they want to keep one another happy. This is most surprising of Toad, who in adaptations seems to become someone that prompts questions as to why the others would bother to be friends with him. Here in the original text, Toad is shown to be generous, gregarious and intelligent, and you can understand why the others put up with him.

The strangest thing about the book is simply that the anthropomorphism is so wonky! It’s not a complaint, because it’s actually quite funny, but it does seem odd that Mole lives in a burrow (although in some human comfort) and Ratty implies that some of the animals eat one another, but Toad lives in a mansion, drives cars, is tried via human courts and is apparently big enough to disguise himself as a human. On a couple of occasions as well, Grahame mentions Toad’s hair, which … well, I still don’t know what to do with that one. You just go with it all because to question it would be to ruin the charm.

It’s a wonderful tale in a pastoral England that seems almost heavenly. Upon finishing, Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad all feel like real friends, and I will not forget in a hurry the time I have spent with them.