“London’s Labyrinth” by Fiona Rule (2012)

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“My journey into London’s underground labyrinth began on a warm July afternoon, in the leafy communal gardens that lay behind the red-brick walls of a mansion block in west London.”

Since we currently can’t explore the real world, I am even more grateful for the existence of books. They not only allow you to explore places you may know well, but also those that you are less likely to be able to get access to – and I don’t just mean Hogwarts or Mars. It’s time to head to London and take a look at what’s going on beneath the surface.

Fiona Rule takes us on a journey beneath London’s facade to explore the world beneath. It’s a tour through the enormous and efficient sewers created by Joseph Bazalgette (which still function as well today as they did in the 1800s), the birth of the world’s first underground railway, and the secret bunkers that held the government during the bombings of the world wars. Along the way we learn how the Tube led to the creation of the British Transport Police, the worst acts of terrorism ever committed on the network, why there are so many abandoned government offices, and see the use of the tube stations as bomb shelters.

My dad is somewhat preoccupied with the question of why, given we’ve excavated so much of London’s sub-surface, the city hasn’t just fallen in on itself, and I increasingly see his point. It seems remarkable today that there was ever a time when we weren’t using the area under any of our cities, but now London is propped up above miles upon miles of tunnels, ferrying trains, people, electric cables, sewage, and even rivers across the metropolis. Rule takes us to bits of the capital that we never see, explaining with a simple, if occasionally dry, touch how this subterranean world works. I like to think I know a lot about this sort of thing, but I had no idea that Bazalgette was building his sewers at the same time as the District Line was trying to be installed, and everyone spent the best part of a decade in each other’s way, as great piles of soil blocked busy streets and routes had to be altered to accommodate both projects.

Elsewhere, we learn about some of the worst accidents that ever occurred underneath London, including the 7/7 bombings, the fire at King’s Cross Station, the crash at Moorgate station, and the death of many trying to build Brunel’s tunnels under the Thames. We discover the Post Office Railway, which transported everyone’s letters and parcels across the city until 2003, and the legendary Necropolis Railway, which took coffins and mourners out to a cemetery on the edge of the city when everything got too crowded within the border.

It’s a fascinating look at a world that most of us take for granted and only see a small portion of.

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!

“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!

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1843)

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“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

I have been asked before how I can consider myself such an avid student of literature when I have (until now) entirely bypassed Dickens. Alright, not entirely. Great Expectations was one of my set texts at university, but I tired of Pip and his accomplices after four or five pages, discarded the novel, and blagged my way through the associated essay. (Stay in school, kids.) Finally though, at the age of twenty-nine, I have read an entire Dickens story. It’s a short one, true, but it counts, and it could really only be read at this time of year.

Do I even need to recount the plot? Ebenezer Scrooge, a notorious miser and uncharitable fellow, loathes joy, happiness and, above all, Christmas, despite all the “fools” around him rejoicing in the festivity. One Christmas Eve, he is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who tells him that three ghosts will come to him to get him to mend his ways, thus beginning one of the most famous tales in the English language.

We, of course, all think we know the story and yes, all the usual stuff we remember is in here, usually put into whichever adaptation we’re watching. But the thrill of reading the original text comes from learning that there is so much more. I didn’t know that Scrooge had a sister, but it was obvious really, given we knew he had a nephew. There are more ghosts than just the four famous ones in the text, and we see Scrooge go through more visions than I’m used to. Tiny Tim is as sweet as ever, making it all the more heartbreaking when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come reveals what happens to him.

Scrooge is vile, yes, but it feels almost comedic a lot of the time. Indeed, Dickens is far more prone to a pun or a gag than I would have given him credit for. The true barbarity of Scrooge’s deeds and personality come when we see the Cratchit family and how they struggle, although even in the dire situation they find themselves in, Bob still raises a toast to his employer on Christmas Day, further emphasising what a good man he is. Even Scrooge cannot fail to be touched by this. On the other side of the comedy, the chapter featuring the aforementioned Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is very creepy and oddly tense, even though you know exactly what is going to happen. Scrooge seems slow on the uptake regarding whose death he is being shown in these scenes, but it’s quite easy to read him as being in denial.

Much as I’m not sorry I’ve finally read the text – and in particular, I have to praise it for one of the very best opening lines in all fiction, and perhaps the greatest use of a colon ever – I’m mostly just pleased that I can finally say that I have read Dickens. As for the story? I’ll be sticking to the Muppet adaptation, which is far and away the best retelling of the novella, and given that it uses so much of the original text, may also be the one truest to its source material. Kermit improves everything.

It’s a little early to celebrate, but nonetheless if I forget to do so again, may I wish a very merry Christmas to all my friends and readers. Have a lovely season, and here’s to a wonderful new year.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

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nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester (1864)

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female detective“Who am I? It can matter little who I am.”

Literature is populated with almost as many detectives as it is criminals. Some of the best of these are women. We all know Miss Marple, and many of us are familiar with Agatha Christie’s other female detective, Tuppence Beresford. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Temperance Brennan, Thursday Next, Ellie Miller … but how many people recognise the name “Miss Gladden”? I would wager very few. But Miss Gladden occupies a very important role in the history of the fictional female detective: she was the first.

Written way back in the 1860s, the novel is another one reproduced for a new generation for the British Library Crime Classics series, which I’ve dealt with a few other times on the blog so far and always loved. This one indeed introduces us to the first ever female detective in literary history. She gives her name as Miss Gladden, but freely admits that it’s not her real name. In fact, we discover very little about her; more interested as she is in talking about her cases and adventures.

The book is split into seven stories of wildly varying lengths which detail some of the cases of our heroine. Some involve a murder, some involve theft, one involves an issue of inheritance, but they all orbit around the fact that the person investigating is female. The stories are of varying quality and interest, and the language is what one would expect of the time.

Miss Gladden, as mentioned, keeps much of her identity secret, and the novel is certainly of its time with the impression it gives of women. Although written by a man, I actually think it does a fairly good job of giving us a female protagonist who is on one hand certainly feminine, and yet at the same time, incorrigible, strong and capable. The book makes note of the fact that it is easier for a woman to eavesdrop without being suspected, or to gain access to the private places of female suspects – be they physical or simply mental – than a man may be able to. Characters accept Gladden in her role, regardless of her gender, which is refreshing, and it’s also noted that she isn’t the only female detective in London. In reality, of course, there wouldn’t be a female police officer until 1915, some fifty years after this book was written.

Some of the stories seem to lack a satisfactory ending. Sometimes justice reaches the criminal by some other method than that of Gladden, or simply she stops writing about them, either unable to solve the case or unwilling to press on with it. Some of the solutions given also, I don’t think, would stand up in modern crime writing, but one can let them slide here.

The book is notable for its historical and literary importance, and I’m not sorry I’ve read it, nor indeed that it’s been widely published again, but I have found more than ever that I just can’t always get on with the style and language of books from two centuries previous. The blueprints are there for all the women who followed in Miss Gladden’s footsteps, but the stories have much improved over time when compared to this original installment.

“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.

“Dodger” by Terry Pratchett (2012)

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He'd do anything.

He’d do anything.

“The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was a dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellow for supremecy in the air and waiting to splash down.”

Last year I wrote a somewhat scathing review of Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, bidding the Discworld canon adieu as I did so. However, not so long after this statement, this novel found its way onto my shelves and there it has sat for the best part of a year as I worked up the courage to return to Pratchett. However, this not being a Discworld novel, I hoped that maybe I would have better luck with it than previous experiences with him.

This is the story of Dodger, a tosher in Victorian London who knows everyone but manages to keep on the right side of the law by living up to his name. However, one night during a torrential storm, he comes across a young woman being beaten by two men. Dodger is not without heart and takes it upon himself to rid the girl of these men, thrashing them senseless. Later, Dodger and the girl are rescued by two other men who take them to a place of safety.

It then turns out that this girl is not just any girl. Although she refuses to give her name, it quickly becomes evident that she is of aristocratic and foreign stock. Dodger learns that their saviours are none other than Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens, the latter of whom wants Dodger to put his skills to the test and find out who it was beating up the girl (known as Simplicity) and to perhaps put a stop to them. Accompanied by his Jewish landlord Solomon and his stinky dog Onan, and with the luck of the Lady of the Sewers on his side, Dodger begins an adventure that sees his name become more and more common around the city. And when he is recorded as having done battle with cut-throat demon Sweeney Todd, it suddenly seems that everyone is after Dodger.

OK, so first things first, I enjoyed this much better than my previous visits to the Discworld. Although the tone and style is still unmistakably Pratchett (which in itself is not a bad thing), it requires far less world-building meaning that one can get stuck right into the story and spend more time with the characters and the action. It’s almost like a Who’s Who of Victorian London at the time, featuring not only the aforementioned Dickens and Mayhew, but also founder of the police force Robert Peel, up-and-coming politician Benjamin Disraeli, cartoonist John Tenniel, and millionaire philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, among others.

There is the obvious assumption, also, that Dickens eventually takes Dodger’s character and immortalises him on the pages of Oliver Twist, and while I was half expecting the titular orphan or Nancy to turn up, neither did, although Solomon Cohen is the very basic blueprint for Fagin. As mentioned, the only other fictional character present is Sweeney Todd, presented in a very different light than we are used to. The book is peppered however with references to Dickens’ work, such as people using his titles in passing. Dickens is never slow in making a note of what he sees as a good idea for a future novel.

Victorian London was a ghastly place, and the book highlights that, spending much of its time in the sewers, and many more pages in the slums of the East End. The divide between the rich and the poor is never far from the text though, as Dodger is sucked into the world of the upper-class, donning a suit and his now infamous stovepipe hat in order to pass as a gentleman. It’s a book about battling the odds and surviving no matter the cost, but also about the “fog of truth”, that is to say that everyone sees things slightly differently, and it is up to journalists, historians and other individuals to decide on what they think is the truth or not, plucking the salient points in their preferred order from the mist of ideas.

Pitched as a young adult book, I don’t necessarily feel that that’s exclusively the case, and it certainly reads for an older audience, using Pratchett’s typically verbose style. Outdated concepts and other Victoriana are discussed in footnotes and the acknowledgements, and there’s a wonderful “bonus scene” at the end if one keeps on reading, like a deleted scene on a DVD. I’ve always had rather a fondness for the Artful Dodger, and this sort-of-retelling of his life is a fascinating, funny and charming read.