Saturday, 22 February 2014

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

I really like the cross-pollination of crime and fantasy that Ben Aaronovitch achieves in his Peter Grant series, kicking off with Rivers of London. Peter is a young probationary constable with London's Metropolitan Police when a man is found dead in Covent Garden with his head lopped off. Peter is part of a police cordon of the area when he finds himself chatting to an eye-witness who also happens to be a ghost.
    About this time, Peter is due to be allocated to a branch of the Met. Keen to do anything to prove his worth and avoid relegation to the Case Progression Unit, a job involving more paperwork than action, he decides to revisit the crime scene on the off chance his ghost will turn up again. Instead he meets Inspector Thomas Nightingale and his life is changed forever.
    Nightingale takes him on as an 'apprentice', and if that sounds a bit Harry Potter, then that is because Nightingale is a wizard, in charge of his own branch of the Met which deals with ghosts, vampires, demons and the like. Relieved to avoid the Case Progression Unit, Peter moves into the Folly, a rambling old building that has plenty of secrets, including a strangely otherworldly housekeeper called Molly, a library full of musty magical tomes and a laboratory.
    As well as wearing impeccable suits, carrying a silver-topped cane and driving a Mark 2 Jag, Nightingale can do magic. In the lab, Peter practices the spells that will help him compete with the darker forces, and destroy more than one cellphone. And he will need to get on top of that magic as soon as he can because the darker forces in this case soon take several more lives. The typical MO involves turning a victim into a raving Mr Punch (of Punch and Judy fame), their facial bones cracking into Mr Punch's hawkish profile, before committing murder.
    Peter also has to step in to arbitrate when there's a patch war between the deities of the river aligned with Father and Mother Thames. It's lucky he's had all that training in conflict resolution, because the river gods become useful allies as he hunts down the spirit forces behind Mr Punch.
    There's a lot going on, and you need your wits about you to keep up, or else you can just go with the flow - there's a lot of water in this story - and enjoy the witty dialogue and theatrics that form a key part of the plot. While this is very much a fantasy novel, Aaronovitch describes a very recognisable London and his police references ring true. This makes the novel quite accessible for readers who don't usually dabble in this genre.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is a kind of novel in short stories. Some of the stories are about Olive or her husband, Henry, while others - quite a few- are about fellow inhabitants of Crosby, Maine where they live, but Olive sneaks into all of them somewhere.
    Olive is a retired school teacher, formidably big boned and not afraid to speak her mind. Her husband, Henry, is a pleasant pharmacist who wants people to be happy: his son, Christopher, who suffers from depression, his assistant Denise, who loses her husband. He'd like Olive to be happy too, but the reader learns early on that this is a tall order for Olive.
    Olive is a difficult character - she's not easy to like - she can be rude and prickly, often to the people she loves most; Henry has our every sympathy. As a teacher, she was feared by some and remembered fondly by others - either way she is certainly memorable.  She is outlandishly truthful, but also very aware of what is happening around her and the difficulties that people are going through.
    In the second story she somehow steps in at the right time to prevent a suicide.  She has a peculiar kind of empathy for the troubled young man who is part of an armed hold-up attempt at the hospital. But does she do enough good to make up for her frequent rudeness?
    The stories themselves are rather similar to Olive herself. Some are quite disturbing - there are suicides and several deaths from natural causes; people who have a loved one in prison as well as the armed-hold up story; there are plenty of people, especially women, living unfulfilled lives. But one or two have something approaching a happy ending.
   Oddly enough it is Olive herself who makes this collection eminently readable. In spite of the dour themes that run through the book, Olive is a breath of fresh air. Her own problems - her son moving away; Henry's illness, loneliness and regret - are all tackled with that trademark matter-of-fact bluntness of hers, while there's an undercurrent of humour in many of the stories. She can be a bit naughty too - especially with regard to her daughter-in-law, whom she plainly dislikes.
   Olive is kind of insensitive but sensitive at the same time and the stories likewise both harsh and sympathetic. It's an accomplished collection, worthy of it's 2009 Pullitzer Prize.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Wool by Hugh Howey

You have to be in the right mood for a distopian novel, but with the right kind of distopian novel, you know you'll be in for a ripping yarn that's hard to put down. Which was what I anticipated with Wool.
    The first of a trilogy, Wool describes a world that has destroyed itself, the air too toxic to breath, the earth a barren landscape blasted by caustic winds. Survivors live a passably normal existence, going to work or school, growing their food, making what they need to ensure their future, but living inside an enormous underground silo.
    Within the silo there are floors upon floors with a seemingly endless staircase, so people gravitate to a particular profession, living and working in a particular section of the silo. The Mechanics which maintain the silo's power supply live in the 'down deep', further above them are Supply, a kind of large warehousing unit. There are gardens, which connect people to a kind of religious veneration for the circle of life. Towards the 'up top' is IT, who have the technology to keep tabs on the workings of the silo as a whole.
    The story opens with the death by 'cleaning' of the silo's sheriff. Three years before, Holston's wife was sent out to clean and he has been distractedly morose ever since. There are flashbacks describing material his wife in IT has found on her computer - dangerous ideas that challenge the accepted way of thinking.
   'Cleaning'is a kind of exile from the silo, the condemned wearing a specially designed suit that will protect the wearer from the toxic air outside for a short time, just long enough to clean the sensors that project a view of the world to the silo inhabitants, and to walk a short distance towards a crumbling city beyond.
    Mayor Jahns watches with dismay Holston's cleaning, before turning her attention to appointing a new sheriff. She and Deputy Marnes make the long journey down to meet their top candidate, Juliette, a mechanic who had once helped Marnes on a murder case. Juliette is a terrific character - she's tough and can turn her mind to any problem to figure out a way to fix it. She is reluctant at first to accept the role of sheriff, and accepts only if she can do an overhaul of the silo's power generators first. She is, after all, a fixer.
   While she might be Jahns's top pick, Bernard, head of IT, is unconvinced. He has a curious grip on how things work in the silo and has his own man in mind. What happens next is a power struggle, involving murder, rebellion and a threat to continued life inside the silo. And Juliette will have her work cut out if she wants to fix that.
    This is a gripping story that lives up to its promise as a great distopian read rather like The Passage. It has drama and political intrigue in spades and sequences of thrilling action. Then there is the technology, described in depth, which makes the mechanical workings of the silo clearly imagined and fascinating.
    Like The Passage, Wool is the first of a trilogy and I will be keen to dip again into the world Hugh Howey has created - it is such a wonderful piece of invention.