Cannonball Read 5, Book 78: Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

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I am someone who you will often find saying “I don’t really care for science fiction or fantasy”, but I honestly don’t know who I’m fooling there. When ever I do say it, I have more than one friend who will raise an eyebrow and point to any number of books, films or TV shows I love before saying “you’re an idiot”. I don’t know why I keep labouring under my own misapprehension, and I’m about to wax rhapsodical over a book featuring a trainee wizard policeman, so maybe now is the time to say that I love sci-fi and fantasy and I don’t care who knows it.

Aaronovitch introduced us to PC Peter Grant in the first book of this series, Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot if you live in America). Soho picks up pretty much straight away. Jazz musicians are dying in what looks like normal circumstances, but Grant detects vestigia (a magical aftertaste, if you like) about the corpse of the latest victim, saxophonist Cyrus Wilkinson. His subsequent investigation entangles him with the mysterious and beautiful Simone and then spills over into his personal life when his father, also a renowned jazz musician who has blown up his own career, becomes involved.

As with the first book, I loved everything about this except the main plot. The characters are wonderful, especially PC Grant. He narrates the story beautifully, with such warmth, wit and charm that if you don’t develop some kind of book crush on him, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you. The sub plots, two of which spills over from the first book, mostly centre on Grant trying to train as a wizard and not get thrown out of the police force, all flesh out the characters, both main and supporting, beautifully. The biggest plus though, I think, is that Aaronovitch clearly loves London. I mean, he LOVES it. The passion he has for it pours out of every page, along with a vast knowledge of its current and historical geography. It makes the city as much a character in the book as anyone who is actually flesh and blood. If you love London but don’t enjoy fantasy fiction, you’ll still find this an enjoyable read.

What stops this being a full five star delight and knocks it down to a mere  four star treat is the main plot. I had the same issues with the first book, in that the actual police investigation, magical or not, was a little too opaque. There’s a lot going on with this one, there’s a serial killer with a vagina dentata on the loose in addition to the jazz deaths and it all gets a little crowded. When Grant finally puts it all together as to who is killing the musicians and why, the revelation is a tad clumsy, I thought. Though the final image we are left with on that front is poetic, to say the least. That and a killer cliffhanger are more than enough to make up for some busy plotting. There’s two more already published in the PC Grant series, I will most definitely be reading them.

 

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 77: Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

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Anything described as a “literary page turner” usually makes me want to heave. For some reason, I don’t normally associate the two as being bedfellows, you know? So I approached this with caution, since the story sounded fascinating but there was the possibility of it being total overwritten garbage, much like that utter load of shite, The Night Guest. 

There is a lot of story going on and at the centre of all the multiple plot strands is Poplar Farm. It’s been in Louise’s family for generations, but it’s now been parcelled up and sold off. Paul Krovik bought a huge chunk of it, with the aim of building 200 houses on it and making his fortune. With only 20 complete, he goes bankrupt. The Noailles family (Julia, Nathaniel and their 7 year old son Copley) move into the finished show home, which would have been Paul’s home. The book jumps between their stories. Louise’s is told in the first person and sometimes it veers ever so close to fluffy overwritten garbage, but Flanery reins it in just in time.

The intersecting arcs of the Kroviks and the Noailles are by far the most gripping and totally earn this novel its “page turner” status. See, without wishing to get too spoiler-y, Krovik has been driven mad by the collapse of his dream. His wife has left him, taking his family away from him. With all contact severed and no money to live on, Paul hides out on Poplar Farm, in the hidden underground passages that allow him access to Julia and Nathaniel’s house. Nobody knows he is there. Copley sees him, but nobody believes him. The epic sense of dread Flanery creates in these sections of the novel is just incredible. Properly unpleasant and unsettling, it’s both impossible to put down (ha!) and difficult to read at the same time. Especially the sections detailing Copley’s days at school. Here, it tips over into being just upsetting. Anyone who ever had a shit day at school will be right there with him.

With all this dread and all these crazy people (Nathaniel isn’t the sanest of the bunch either, it turns out), there is quite obviously Something Unpleasant heading our way. And when it arrives, you’ll want to un-see it all, un-read the words. It’s horrible and heartbreaking, grim and sad. But anything less and you’d feel cheated. Essentially, I loved this book and while it’s not perfect, it can really truly be called both literary and a page turner. Top stuff.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 76: The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham

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I discovered Mark Billingham’s books featuring Tom Thorne after Sky One adapted the first two for television. The finished product bore almost no resemblance to the source material though. It’s been three years now and there doesn’t seem to be any plans for there to be any further adaptations, so it would seem the TV adaptations were not a roaring success. The Burning Girl is the fourth in the series of books which now numbers eleven, and sees the first stumble from Billingham. I have been reading them in order and very much enjoyed the first three, but this one didn’t grab me at all.

Rival London gangster families are the focus of this novel. The girl of the title had the misfortune of being best friends with the daughter in one of the families and is burned alive in a case of mistaken identity. The arsonist confessed and fourteen years later, he is still behind bars. Carol Chamberlain put him away and is spending her retirement working with cold cases when someone contacts her to tell her that she put the wrong man away. That it was HIM who burned the girl.

This runs alongside and eventually spills over into Thorne’s investigation into who is offing members of the gangster families and carving an X into their backs when he’s done so. And it’s here that the lack of interest really bites (or fails to?). None of the family members are particularly deeply or realistically drawn, so much so that they all sort of blend into one and you don’t really care which one of them ends up with a bullet in their brain. Thorne pays such scant attention to rules and regulations that it’s impossible to believe he would have remained in the job for any length of time. While the final act revelations are pleasingly twisted, the way the information is uncovered is so ridiculous and unbelievable, that one really does cancel out the other.

So it’s really not great, but at the same time, the first three are so much better and this isn’t flat out dreadful, so I’ll keep reading the Thorne series. This one I’ll chalk up to a blip.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 75: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

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This debut novel is due out in the USA next month and will be published in the UK at the beginning of 2014. Over here in the UK, the hype machine has already cranked into overdrive to herald it as “THE debut novel of 2014”. Having finished this Advance Reading Copy, I am left absolutely baffled by all the advance praise McFarlane is receiving. This book is all kinds of terrible.

On the back cover, this is what it says: “In an isolated house on the New South Wales coast, Ruth lives alone. One day a stranger offering help comes to join her. At first, Ruth’s glad of the company. But who is prowling through her house at night?” that’s the plot. And then “A novel of mesmerising power that will leave its footprint on your heart”. Say what? Matters don’t improve on the inside flap of the dust jacket which goes into slightly more detail: “In an isolated house on the New South Wales coast, Ruth – a widow whose sons work abroad – lives alone. Until one day a stranger bowls up, announcing that she’s been sent by the authorities to be Ruth’s carer. At first, Ruth is happy to have the company. Frida is efficient and helpful, and willing to listen Ruth’s stories about her childhood in Fiji and the man she fell for there. But why does Ruth hear a tiger prowling through her house at night? How far can Ruth trust this enigmatic woman? And how far can she trust herself?” And with the expanded plot synopsis, so comes an expanded load of promotional blurb: “This hypnotic tale soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, dependence, fear, and power and about the mysterious workings of the mind. Here is a dazzling new writer, reminding us how powerfully fiction can speak to our innermost secrets”.

Good lord. They are really going for it there, aren’t they? Well, let’s cut through the hyperbole for a second and look at the plot. Boiling it down, it’s about a physically infirm 75 year-old who is lonely and begins to think she’s losing her mind into the bargain. So when a stranger comes along, claiming to be her appointed carer, she believes them. Can anyone honestly tell me from just that outline that they don’t know where the story is going? It is painfully obvious from the second she appears who Frida really is. And things are already falling apart before Frida even shows up. McFarlane is prone to some pretty clunky writing, and it’s on page 5 that the reader is greeted with this: “The lounge room, when Ruth entered it in daylight, was benign. The furniture was all where it should be, civil, neat and almost anxious for her approval, as if it had crossed her in some way and was now waiting for her forgiveness, dressed in its very best clothes”. My jaw literally dropped when I read that and all I could think was “oh do bore off, it’s fucking furniture”. The book is littered with this kind of gaudily overwritten personification nonsense, so much so that it doesn’t so much soar above its own suspense as collapse beneath the weight of its own pretensions.

As if such horrendously flowery prose weren’t enough, there’s also the problem of the story itself. Frida is not a very good con woman and McFarlane is not a very good author, so between the two of them, it’s just so clangingly obvious where we are headed. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe you’re meant to be yelling at the book as Ruth is so thunderingly naive and trusting (or, if you’re in a less charitable frame of mind, really fucking retarded) with Frida. The wildly inconsistent characterisation of Frida doesn’t really help matters either. One minute she’s washing Ruth’s hair with tender loving care, the next she’s locking her in the house and making off to town with her bank book to do some shopping. It’s also pretty obvious what’s going on with the tiger Ruth keeps hearing at night. There is a sequence where Frida does battle with it while Ruth hides in her bedroom which cruelly exposes McFarlane’s incompetence as a writer. I was howling with laughter at the absolute ludicrous scenario, particularly when it was being spelled out in such a suffocatingly awful, painfully self conscious style.

By the time I got to the final chapter, all I felt was relief to finally be done with this enormous misfire. Ruth’s eventual fate was entirely unsurprising and equally unmoving, just as Frida’s true identity was tragically, clumsily obvious from the get-go. I can honestly find nothing to recommend about this book. The style is unbearable, the characters paper thin and inconsistent, the story flimsy, unbelievable and dull. Save your time and your money. There are bazillions of books out there. I read this one so you don’t have to.