Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “London”

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #51 Kraken by China Miéville

I have a confession to make.  I’ve been following China Miéville’s career for over a year but until now I haven’t read any of his books.  I’ve read loads of interviews, watched panels and listened to podcasts.  But I’ve been avoiding reading his books.  Perdido Street Station has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for all this time and I haven’t had the courage to read it.  Because I think Mr. Miéville is kind of awesome.  He gives great interview and even greater panel.  (I mean, seriously, he kills it on a panel.  You guys should totally watch the World Writer’s Conference videos from the Edinburgh Festival.  But only if you’re super geeky about literature because otherwise it’s pretty boring and navel-gazy with occasional flashes of pure and utter awesome.  So, you know, whatever.  You should do what you want and not even listen to me.)  It’s kind of fun, too, because despite being 40-ish, he still kind of looks like the punky kid, even when he respects the occasion by wearing a suit.  He has five baby octopus tentacles piercing his left ear and a bald head.  You can really only go so suit-y when you’re working in that accessorial arena.  So there’s everyone dressed in standard serious writer wear (creative but in the artisanal way that means, “you can take me seriously because this silk blouse was sustainably sourced and these earrings were handcrafted by refugees using colorful thread and locally sourced shiny, spit-polished rocks”), and then Miéville comes out and does the intellectual version of a Mr T, pitying the fool while kicking ass in a surprisingly soft-spoken, gentlemanly and humorous way.  It’s really squared fun to watch.  The problem is, it doesn’t matter how smart, charming and funny you are.  If I’m going to hang with you geekstyles, I’ve ultimately got to love your books.  If I don’t love the work, it’s hard for me to enjoy a writer in any other context.  Damon Lindelof may be awesome in interviews and on panels and stuff, he may totally be someone I’d love to sit next to a dinner party, but I’m not really going to watch or read those interviews because I’m not into his work.  (Sorry, Damon.  I’m sure you’re crying all the way to the bank.)  So I’ve been avoiding reading Perdido Street Station because it might not be as awesome as Goodreads says it is.  Because I might decide I want to punch China Miéville in the face after reading it, as apparently the Penny Arcade guys wanted to do.  If that happens, then you know I’m going to have to break up with China.  And that would be really sad for me, if not for him.  (Mei-Who?  I imagine him saying before shrugging his shoulders and going back to work.)  Also, it would be kind of embarrassing because I’ve posted a lot about Miéville on my Facebook page and have even quoted him in one of my recent reviews here.

So since Perdido Street Station has had such a big build up, I thought it might be a good idea to read a less famous book.  Kraken jumped out at me because the concept tickled me.  The giant squid on display at London’s Natural History Museum goes missing, plunging curator Billy Harrow into a world of competing apocalypsi and more off-beat magic than you can shake a stick at.  There’s a villain that’s a talking tattoo on some poor man’s back, a union leader who just happens to be a spirit who can only inhabit figurines or statues and a magician who can fold people up like origami.  And here’s the thing: aside from the aforementioned octopi tentacle piercings, Mr. Miéville has a giant skulltopus tattooed on his arm.  And, with his shaved head, he kind of looks like an octopus.  That’s a lot of octessorizing for any group of people, let alone one person, and it makes me think that cephalopods are something that make his brain pan sizzle and sear.  You know, if you’re gonna read one book about a tentacled sea creature, you should maybe go with the one written by a guy so obsessed with the things that he’s going to wear one on his skin every day until he dies.  Or at least that was my logic in picking Kraken.

I enjoyed reading this book every bit as much as I hoped I would.  Miéville’s got a great imagination and I thoroughly enjoyed his inventiveness with language, with character and with the fantastic version of London he’s created here.  I wasn’t sure how much I liked the book, though, until about the last one hundred pages or so.  Miéville sets a lot of plates spinning in the air and I honestly wasn’t sure he was going to pull off the ending without breaking some crockery.  But man, he TOTALLY did it.  There’s a point where the plot strands come together and it’s so delightful and fun and weirdly literal that I just started laughing and I pretty much smiled all the way until the end of the book.  Did I love this book?  No.  Am I going to press it eagerly into the hands of every single one of my friends?  No.  Am I going to read more China Miéville?  Fuck yeah!  I’m not ready to take vows or get his name tattooed on my ass or anything but I honestly can’t wait to read more because this guy has the full package.  He’s smart, he’s got a sense of humor, he can write and he can tell a story.  It’s rare that a writer combines all those qualities.  There’s a reason why Miéville keeps on getting compared to Neil Gaiman and it’s not just the whole fantasy version of London slash apocalyptic comedy thing.  He’s ambitious, he puts it all out there like he’s not afraid of failure and that is pretty frickin’ awesome.  If you like Giant Squids (wait, are there people who don’t?), inventive fantastic fiction, puns, nerdy references, genuinely scary villains and writers who aren’t afraid of slinging around big ideas, then you’ll like this book.  And if you don’t, well then you probably didn’t even read this review.

PS China Miéville is famous for using fifty-cent words (hey he’s got all those degrees from all those world-famous universities, he gotta get his money’s worth, amirite?) and, yes, I did end up reading this book with my iPad keyed up to a Dictionary site.  It was worth it.  Of the words I learned, my favorites were benthic (meaning: relating to the bottom of a sea or lake or to the organisms that live there) and haptic (meaning: of or relating to the sense of touch).  Haptic is such a beautiful word.  I’m glad I know it now.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #84: To Kingdom Come by Will Thomas

Author Thomas returns to mid-19th century England and brings back the dynamic duo of Barker and Llewelyn, this time going undercover as master bomb makers to infiltrate a terrorist Irish gang determined to blow up London in order to win an Irish homeland. Thomas gives us a sympathetic view of the Irish battle for self-rule, even while clearly deploring the tactics to which certain factions of the Irish home movement resort in their desperation to defeat British domination.

Barker has Llewelyn train in the “stick fighting” favored by Irish rebels, and also to study the rudiments of bomb making under Russian anarchist Johannes van Rhyn, a mercenary who sells his expertise to the highest bidder—in this case, to Llewelyn’s employer Barker to whom he owes a debt.  Then the duo goes to Liverpool, a hotbed of rebels inside the belly of the British beast. There, Barker takes on Van Rhyn’s persona and manages to worm his and Llewelyn’s way into a network of Irish terrorists, one of whose leaders has an alluring sister Maire O’Casey. Llewelyn and Maire are deployed by the gang to Paris to buy bomb-making supplies, and Llewelyn falls head over heels with the lovely and multi-faceted Maire.

The terrorists shape a dastardly plot to blow up most of the important government, financial, and law enforcement offices in London, plus bridges and train stations, bombings guaranteed to cause thousands of casualties and, they hope, force the government to yield to their demands. Barker/Van Rhyn and his assistant Llewelyn are initiated into the ring, and required to producedozens of deadly dynamite bombs for distribution throughout London. Their challenge is to have the authorities capture the ring members with their hands on the bombs, while preventing the bombings from taking place. It is a race to the finish to stay out of the hands of Scotland Yard while simultaneously foiling the terrorists.

As always with author Thomas, the story is engaging, the characters are fully-fleshed, the scenes are skillfully set, and the dialogue and action rife with both drama and humor. The one underlying mystery of the novel itself is who the real mover and shaker of the terrorists is: Dunleavy who fought on the Confederate side during the American Civil War and is now a charismatic drunkard with a skill for strategizing, or one of a half-dozen other characters under Barker’s scrutiny. Unfortunately, the final revelation, albeit excitingly presented, was not as dramatic as the author clearly intended—I guessed it long before the denouement.

To Kingdom Come may not be Will Thomas’ best novel to date, but it is a fun read nonetheless.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #82: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

In Some Danger Involved, author Will Thomasplunges us into the roiling waters of anti-Semitism in 19th-century London. The British capital has been a mecca for Jewish immigrants—Sephardic and Ashkenazy—for centuries, but  growing economic unrest in the city is proportional to the rising hostility being stirred up by other immigrant groups and by a number of churches and others, against the close-knit Semitic community. When a young Jewish scholar with a remarkable resemblance to the Jesus Christ depicted in Renaissance paintings is found crucified in the middle of London’s Jewish ghetto, young Jews start arming themselves in preparation for a new pogrom and everyone girds for bloodshed.

Detective Cyrus Barker is hired by the wealthy Rothschilds to find the murderer before the city explodes into further violence, and in this debut novel by Thomas, we are introduced to Barker’s sidekick Thomas Llewelyn, the 22-year-old son of a Welsh coal miner who is also a widower, a former student of Oxford, and a starving ex-convict on the verge of committing suicide before he is brought into Barker’s employ. Barker himself is an exotic of the first order, a martial arts adept steeped in multiple languages and the classics who was raised in China, employs a Jewish butler, has a seemingly inexhaustible fortune and keeps a mysterious veiled widow hidden from view. As Barker and Llewelyn hustle around the city seeking clues and interviewing suspects–Jews and Gentiles, churchmen and rabbis, gangsters and scholars–the tensions rise and Llewelyn in particular escapes multiple near-death traps as the murderer closes in.

What makes the novel especially fascinating are the well-researched and clearly presented aspects of Judaism of the day. While some in the Jewish community are well-established and assimilated into British life, others are newly-arrived, impoverished, desperate, often radical. We meet early Zionists who seek a Jewish home in Palestine, Messianic Jews with their own interpretation of the Talmud; we also meet early proponents of the eugenicist movement who defined the Jews as a “lower species,” and a host of colorful characters who fill out both the upper crust and the underworld of London society. When a second body turns up, the pace escalates rapidly to an unexpected climax.

With his adept writing, insights into the period, and touch of humor in all the right places, Thomas has launched a series which promises to delight. Looking forward to reading others of his half-dozen novels to date.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #13: One Day by David Nicholls

I wanted to hate this book. It seemed to be one of those things that make me want to scream and run away – the whole unlikely romancey scenario of two people writing stupid letters to each other on the same day every year, going on about how they have changed and seen the errors of their ways, before unsurprisingly hooking up in the end. Well, what do you know. When I eventually did read it, and I only did so because I had already read everything else my mum had lying around, it turned out that it wasn’t all that unlikely or schmaltzy. Emma and Dexter don’t actually purposefully write letters to each other every July 15th! The story rather zooms in on whatever they are doing each year. That makes the book altogether more bearable, but I still didn’t like it much.

One Day tells the story of how Emma and Dexter hook up on graduation night and then stay in touch over the next 20 years although their lives continue in completely different directions. It’s humourous, well paced and not too heavy on the clever markers that scream “Looklooklook! Isn’t this just soooo 80s?!”. It’s not too schmaltzy, because the end is a bit of a downer. BUT. As with Starter For Ten, I just couldn’t bring myself to care for either of the characters. As far as I could tell, Dexter was an idiot who had nothing going for him apart from his hotness, and Emma made her life unneccessarily hard and devoid of joy. The only proof we have for the fact that those two are meant for each other are their own words, and even those are a bit unconvincing. I found both of them a bit meh and didn’t feel any chemistry between them, which makes it hard to care about the story. I’m not saying it’s a bad story (although I could see the final twist from miles away), I just didn’t like it. The only exception are the last few pages. Those I loved, strangely enough.

ElCicco#CBR4 Review #33: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

 

This book is the third (after Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho) in Aaronovitch’s delightful series featuring London Constable Peter Grant, the son of West African parents and a newly minted police officer of seemingly average ability. In the first book of the series, Peter discovers that he can communicate with ghosts and sense other unusual phenomena. He is soon linked up with a secret section of the British police force led by Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a master wizard. Nightingale is a man of murky past and indeterminate age, although he looks younger than his years, and he takes on Peter as a protege at his HQ, the Folly.

Each of the books deals with a specific murder but there is a running story of “the faceless man” — an anonymous character who possesses terrible power — and the slowly unfolding backstory of Nightingale and the tragedy that befell the magical community in WW2 at Ettersberg. Whispers is about the murder of an American art student who also happens to be the son of a senator. He was done in with a piece of magical pottery (Peter can feel the magic on the shards) in a subway tunnel, and the magic team must work with the regular force and the FBI to find the murderer.

Aaronovitch has a terrific sense of humor and creates a fabulous array of characters who become part of Peter’s magical and mundane worlds, such as Father Thames and the various river goddesses; Molly, the housekeeper at the Folly who has some strange appetites and obsessions; Lesley May, Peter’s smarter partner who has a life altering experience in book 1; and Peter’s superiors on the police force, Stephanopoulos and Seawoll, who find working with the wizards trying due to all of the embarrassing and difficult-to-explain events that occur as a result of their actions (mostly Peter’s, since he tends to get involved in unusual situations and is still very much a novice when it comes to exercising his magical skills).

The dialog is snarky and funny, and the pop culture references come fast and furious, particularly those related to British fantasy literature. One of my favorite excerpts is a scene involving Lesley and Peter after a night of heavy drinking on Lesley’s part. She accuses Peter of being boring and says:

“‘You’d think a copper who was a wizard would be more interesting. Harry Potter wasn’t this boring. I bet Gandalf could drink you under the table.’

“Probably true, but I don’t remember the bit where Hermione gets so wicked drunk that Harry has to pull the broomstick over on Buckingham Palace Road just so she can be sick in the gutter.” Afterward, Lesley picks up where she left off, “pointing out that Merlin probably had something to teach me about the raising of the wrist.”

I would read all of the books as opposed to picking just one. They are fun, easy, enjoyable reads. My only gripe is that I’ll probably have to wait a year for the next one and I’ll forget details from previous stories by then.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#31: Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Sometimes one needs a little mystery, and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell rarely disappoints. Asta’s Book was just what I was looking for — a murder, a missing person, mistaken identity, and modern-day characters trying to sift out the truth from the family history.

The primary narrator is Ann Eastbrook, granddaughter of Asta Westerby. The title Asta’s Book refers to a collection of diaries that Asta wrote starting in 1905 when she was a new immigrant to London from Denmark. In 1905, she was still learning English and so she kept her diaries in Danish. She has two sons and is pregnant, hoping for a girl. Asta kept her diaries until her death in 1968. Curiously, none of her children or husband knew of her diaries until after she died, when her daughter Swanny found them, recognized their literary value and had them published. Asta’s Book became a runaway best seller, with several volumes in print and more to come. When Swanny dies in 1988 at the age of 83, her niece Ann inherits the rights to Asta’s diaries.

The narration switches back and forth between Asta’s diary entries, events in Swanny’s life in the 1960s and Ann’s situation in 1988. Ann, as custodian of the diaries, is approached by news outlets, relatives and a former friend regarding the diaries and their contents. As a result, she is drawn into an investigation of an unsolved murder and missing persons case from 1905. She is also drawn into a family mystery regarding Swanny’s origins.

It’s a fine mystery with unexpected twists and admirable attention to historical details. The character Asta is as fascinating to the reader of this mystery as she is to the fictional readers of the diaries. She is a smart woman, dissatisfied with her marriage and often brutal and heartless to those around her, particularly her husband Rasmus and maid Hansine. Outwardly, Asta played by society’s rules. But inwardly, through the diaries in Danish that she expected no one to read, she expressed derision and pessimism about the individuals and events that were part of her life. This is a good choice for the murder mystery crowd.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #10: The Vault by Ruth Rendell

I’m a creature of habit, and I do need my quick crime fix. Although her last offerings were a bit disappointing, I picked up The Vault in my Lovely Library, looking forward to lazy mornings on the sofa with my book while the washing up waited patiently in the kitchen. It is a quick read, and the quality of the writing is exactly as you would expect from someone who must be a little old lady now, publishing a book each year. It’s hurried, but then that’s how I was reading it.

Based on the happenings in an earlier Rendell novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes, the novel opens with the discovery of four dead bodies in a coal hole of a nice villa in a nice London neighbourhood. Inspector Wexford, now retired, is spending some time in the capital, meets an old colleague and is asked to advise on the mystery. The problem of bringing in Wexford solved, all is back to normal. He walks around town, talks to people, is still very much in love with his wife, struggles with his feelings towards the daughter who’s not his favourite, and is pretty much the same old policeman we know and love (and got ever so slightly bored with). The case itself is not particularly exciting, as always, it’s the characters that make the book interesting, although they, too, have become set pieces. A bit more narrative exploration would have been good.

And there are the usual things that bug me: The fact that each case or problem is mirrored in the behaviour of Wexford’s children or friends. The increasingly embarrassing use of markers to place the novel in time (Do we really need to know what movies were shown in cinemas when this is supposed to take place? Great research there…). And, this time, the way you can trace how and when the author fell out of love with one of her characters: At first, the inspector on the case is portrayed as a great guy, until suddenly Rendell gets increasingly mean in her descriptions of him. It might be a clever way of showing how someone as used to his old ways as Wexford reacts to a new environment and working with new people. Or it might just be a case of Rendell changing her mind about him in the middle of writing. Overall, Rendell’s novels are still a great deal better than most crime fiction, although if you’re new to her books, do start with the older ones. It’s not necessary to have read A Sight For Sore Eyes in order to understand The Vault, but it’s a much better book.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #52: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr. Timothy is a mystery set in 1860 London at Christmastime, and centered around—of all people—Timothy Cratchit, made famous as Tiny Tim in Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”  Hold on! Before you go “Yecch, too saccharine for my tastes,” rest assured that this reinvention of the now-23 year old Mr. Timothy—while delightfully Dickensian in language, setting, and character—is as gritty, bloody, and darkly exciting as any contemporary thriller, but with twice the depth.

Timothy has lost his father, mother, and several of his siblings, accepts room and board at a whorehouse in exchange for teaching the madam to read, and occasionally accompanies the hilarious Captain Gully dredging for bodies in the Thames in exchange for remuneration. Meanwhile, Timothy sees the image of his deceased father everywhere he goes, and writes letters to the dead man as a way of coping with the excruciatingly guilty conscience he suffers towards his entire family for having been “Tiny Tim.” He is still trying to fathom who and what he now is, or can become.  He has shed the wooden crutch of his childhood, but not the financial one that comes in the form of periodic handouts from rich Uncle N, otherwise known as Ebenezer Scrooge (yes, that Scrooge!) who has made Christmas giving the raison d’etre of his life. The doddering Scrooge lives in a mansion filled year-round with moldering holiday decorations, and has taken to studying fungi as a hobby while donating to every cause that crosses his doorstep; a grown-up Tiny Tim is reluctantly still one of those causes.

Not long after spying from his bedroom window the panicked flight of a disheveled young girl who appears more spirit than human, Timothy starts to encounter the branded corpses of girls of the same age and contracts the services of street urchin Colin the Melodious to track down the escapee and try to penetrate the mystery of the brand. Little does he know that he has stumbled upon a conspiracy of human trafficking at its most perverse, and one that is buried within society’s seemingly invulnerable upper crust. Bayard accelerates the action as Timothy and his intrepid young helpers attempt to expose the bad guys, and the reader fast-forwards from Dickens to Ludlum without ever losing the period flavor of the story.

While the conclusion of the story is foregone—this is Timothy Cratchit, after all—the depth of character that author Bayard gives his young protagonists, the exciting plot, and the authenticity of the language and the period which he depicts, makes this an enjoyable and worthy read.

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #38 The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1) by Jonathan Stroud

I think this is the first young adult series since Harry Potter that I’ve felt so sad that this book is fiction.  And that I’m not a wizard.  I’m already waiting on pins and needles for the next book to come in the mail.

The story beings with Nathaniel, an apprentice wizard, summoning Bartimaeus, a djinni of some renown.  Nathaniel is a bit of a child wizarding prodigy, but his mediocre and paranoid master has ever taken enough of an interest in him to notice.  His master, Underwood, plays politics more than he plays with magic and when one of the most influential wizards in London, Simon Lovelace, embarrasses and violently harms Nathaniel, he doesn’t lift a finger.  Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus to exact his revenge, but things don’t go as planned.

The book switches off from Nathaniel’s and Bartimaeus’ points of view.  Bartimaeus’ chapters are the best, though.  He’s pretty sarcastic and snide, and bit arrogant.  Maybe it’s a British thing, but Stroud almost rivals Pratchett in terms of humorous footnotes.  Nathaniel does dismiss Bartimaeus at the end of the book, but since the trilogy is named after him, it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll be returning.

Even though the book is a triology, it can stand alone.  The main plot involving Lovelace gets tidied up and finished off nicely.  There is a small subplot, which I imagine will play a bigger role in the next books, regarding the politics of England and the wizards vs. commoners.  Wizards run the show, having all the major seats in government and they are very disdainful of the commoners.  This will undoubtedly come to a head at one point and Nathaniel will have some part in it, I’m sure.  Even though a lot of the later story is telegraphed by Stroud, I’m still gleefully looking forward to the next book in the series.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#24: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori is a mystery of sorts on aging and death and how people handle it. Some are angry and fight it, seeing death as a hostile enemy. Others accept it, or are resigned to it, or even welcome it.

The story takes place in London in the late 1950s, amongst a group of people in their 70s and 80s who have known each other for decades. Some are in declining health, some are wealthy and successful, others are artist-types or personal staff. Some start receiving phone calls in which an anonymous voice, calling them by name says, “Remember you will die.” Who is calling? Is it a threat? The calls start with Dame Lettie, who is angry about it and suspicious of everyone. Eventually others receive the calls, too, although it seems that everyone hears a different voice and the reactions to these calls also vary. In the course of the novel, past affairs, infidelities, and secrets of the characters are revealed.

The characters are an interesting bunch and  drive this story forward. Dame Lettie is a prison reformer who is bossy and domineering. She is the first to receive the calls, and given her abrasive personality, could have invited this harassment from any one of a number of people. She frequently discusses her will and who will be left in or out of it, using it as a threat/promise to get her way. Jean Taylor seems to see and understand more than others do. Having served as the maid or personal assistant to Charmian (a successful writer suffering from poor health and declining mental faculties), Jean knows many of the secrets of others and has suspicions about the callers. Charmian and her husband Godfrey (Lettie’s brother) have a dysfunctional marriage. Charmian sees that Godfrey resents her success as a writer. As she grows ill, he grows stronger and when she revives, he grows weaker. She knows all his secrets but doesn’t tell him so because his reaction would be anger and resentment for letting him go on feeling guilty. Charmian, however, has a number of secrets of her own. Alec Warner is a gerontologist who constantly pesters his friends to record their temperatures and complexion before and after getting news so that he can keep careful records for his research. Alec is a gossip and enjoys being the one to break important news to the others and then carefully observe their reactions. He also employs others as sources for his research. Alec’s research cards are his life, although it is not clear what ultimate purpose he has for the information. Mrs. Pettigrew is a gold digger and blackmailer who preys on the elderly by offering personal care services although she herself is almost as old as her clients.

A number of other characters are part of the story as well, including Godfrey and Charmian’s no-account son, an art critic, and a retired detective. The end of the story is not what one might normally expect from a mystery, but I found it to be a creative and satisfying resolution. I enjoyed Spark’s writing and characters — witty and dark.

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