Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

rivers

I’ve been vaguely aware of the Peter Grant series for a while now but it was only a trip to the library in desperate search of something to read on a long plane trip (to Hawai’i – still recovering from jetlag…) that made me pick up Rivers of London, the first of these hybrid police procedural/fantasy books.

PC Peter Grant is just starting out in the police. Still on probation, he and colleague WPC Lesley May are sent to guard a crime scene after a body is discovered missing its head right in the middle of Covent Garden. When Lesley goes to get coffee to ward off the cold, a mysterious witness shows up. Mid questioning, Peter realises that the man is transparent: he’s actually talking to a dead man. During his attempts to track down the ghost for further questions, he encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale and is recruited to the Folly, official home of English magic (founded by Sir Isaac Newton no less) and a secretive department of the Met police force.

CCTV seems to show that the murder was committed by a man who was able to change his face. Magic is clearly involved and so Grant and Nightingale begin their investigations as more violent deaths occur in prominent locations close to Covent Garden. As if this wasn’t enough, a dispute begins between Father and Mother Thames, and Peter is sent in as mediator, attempting to negotiate with both sets of followers without becoming bewitched, a very real danger.

As well as the obvious magical qualities of the novel, Aaronovitch presents a story populated with diverse characters which sets it apart from the everyday police procedural. Peter himself is mixed race, and Mama Thames and her followers are all black. As far as the tricky question of authors writing outside of their race, I think Aaronovitch does a decent job. Certainly, POC characters in this genre seem, with my limited reading, to be few and far between, and I’d rather someone made an effort than just white washed London or had token minor POC characters that they don’t have to worry too much about. Apart from being a bit heavy handed with reminding the reader that he’s not white, Grant reads as a pretty authentic character and not just a ‘by numbers’ idea of what a mixed race copper would be.

The other main character is London itself. It’s clear that Aaronovitch loves his home city, and the investigation takes in huge swathes of London, from Bloomsbury and the Folly’s Russell Square location, up to Hampstead and across to Richmond and beyond. Without it becoming an information dump, the geography of the city is brought to life and is a perfect fit with the Thames plot in particular. In terms of world building, there is enough here to form a picture of this new London underworld without the book becoming a pure set-up for the rest of the series.

All of which brings me on to my one negative point. There is almost too much going on here in terms of the plot. Perhaps because I was passing through multiple time zones, but I began to lose track of what was going on with the main plot: the murders. I sort of followed what was going on but there was a chapter or so where I was became completely lost but the pace kept me going. The subplot of the river dispute was much easier to follow  – the characters involved were well drawn and involving compared to the ghosts who were far harder to grasp (sorry!).

Overall verdict – I’ve already got the next book, Moons over Soho, waiting for me at the library so safe to say, this is a series that has its claws in.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

I love it so much when a book lives up to its promise. For me, the novel that is a bestseller and a satisfying read is only too rare, but Eleanor Oliphant succeeds. The debut novel by Gail Honeyman (a fellow Lucy Cavendish shortlistee – no pressure!) follows the titular character. I came to Eleanor not really knowing what to expect apart that it was a book about loneliness. Eleanor is rather odd but you work out pretty quickly that most of her problems stem from her childhood. Once a week Mummy calls, from an undisclosed location. As a reader you know what Eleanor knows which is that Mummy did something bad and that wherever she is, she can’t ever leave. It doesn’t stop her from getting in touch once a week to taunt her daughter though, and as much as Eleanor dreads the calls, she cannot let go of these weekly interactions.

At work she just gets on with the same job she’s had for nine years and avoids social interactions with her colleagues as much as possible. It’s only the arrival of new IT guy, Raymond, that shakes her out of her faithful routine. An accident results in her being forced into new and unusual situations, and Eleanor comes to believe that perhaps she does need to be more open to new experiences.

I so enjoyed this book that I found myself rationing it out, not wanting it to end. This is mainly because Eleanor is such a great character. Seeing a familiar world through eyes who view everything slightly differently is so refreshing. She is an open narrator, letting the reader see every flaw (which, thanks to Mummy’s influence, she is constantly aware of). She is also highly aware of the flaws of others, criticising Raymond’s dress sense and table manners which fall far lower than Mummy’s expectations. There is a particular scene on a busy bus which made me cackle (partly because in that moment I knew exactly where she was coming from). She describes her usual game of selecting the best person to sit next to. Then this happens:

…he walked straight past me and sat on the other side of the bus, next to a short, rough-looking man in a sports jacket. I couldn’t believe it! Two people got on at the next stop – one went upstairs, the other, once again, eschewed the spare seat next to me and walked towards the back of the bus, where, I noticed when I turned around to look, she seated herself next to a man with no socks on. His bare ankles looked distressingly white above his oxblood leather brogues, which he had teamed with green jogging bottoms. A madman.

This is a character led novel, but there is also the mystery of what happened to Eleanor as a child. It is always clear that her present state of mind is a direct consequence of abuse. Gradually Honeyman reveals details as Eleanor realises that to move forward she must revisit her past.  This is a dark tale at times, but humour is never far away and I found it a hopeful narrative. Eleanor is one of those characters who will stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page.

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Floating Theatre

 

This story grabs the reader from the first chapter: the sinking of a steamboat on the Ohio River in 1838, based on a real life tragedy. May survives by swimming a mile or more with a little girl in tow; other passengers lose their lives and this terrifying incident is brilliantly brought to life. A seamstress, May has made her living by travelling with her cousin who is an actress. When her cousin is offered a new career as a public speaker by a wealthy abolitionist, Mrs Howard, May finds herself out of work and it is a chance meeting with another of the steamboat survivors that leads her to the Floating Theatre.

May is a great character, odd but not overly so. She cannot lie without difficulty; despite working in theatres for years she has never watched a play until Hugo, the captain of the Floating Theatre, makes her; she has a very fixed moral compass. I loved seeing how she changes over the course of the book. The theatre travels along the river, stopping at towns in the slave-owning south, and the free north, and Mrs Howard soon enlists May to help ferry runaways across to safety. This involves a lot of scheming and lying as May doesn’t know who she can trust and is not good at deception.

I really did get swept away by this story. Life on the boat is so vivid I could picture all of the characters and even those who barely speak are well-drawn. As a story about slavery recounted by a white character, Conway does well to examine attitudes through May’s experiences. She finds that her new friends are disappointingly reticent to become involved in the slavery debate. Even though they all claim to despise its existence, they’d prefer to turn away from the issue completely. As one character says to May, ‘…it’s hard to be on the wrong side of the law. Makes a fellow uncomfortable.’

Towards the end there were a few too many ‘bad omens’ for my liking – I could already guess that disaster was around the corner without it being quite so heavily hinted at (I don’t need a drowned dog to point out that with only a few chapters to go something is bound to go wrong). Other than that, this was a novel which lived up to my high expectations.

Thanks to Readers First for the free review copy.

The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan

weight

How do you carry on, when you lose someone you love? Big Billy Brennan has suffered the greatest tragedy a parent can know – he has just lost his son. His family is reeling, and his marriage is a partnership in name alone. Billy is also obese: at nearly 30 stone, he can barely walk down the street without breaking a sweat. In his small Irish town, he can’t escape his notoriety.

So Billy decides to take on the two things weighing him down – his grief, and his fat – and in doing so he’s going to try to stop the terrible plague of suicide that is haunting the youth of Ireland.

Tackling the subject of suicide sensitively is so important, and Rohan does this incredibly well. Michael Brennan is just present enough and we don’t get fed simple reasons for his suicide. Instead, he seemed happy. About to apply to uni, star of the local football team and popular. His parents don’t understand what could possibly have made their eldest son go to such lengths, and Billy in particular blames himself.

The weight issue was tended to take over, though it was linked with Michael’s death. Billy is a mess physically and emotionally, blaming his own father for showing little interest in him. When he suddenly decides that he’s going to lose half his body weight for charity, it seems a little out of character but I went with it. His struggle to give up the vast portions of fast food, and the scenes where he struggled to walk a few laps of his own house, were poignant and I felt disappointed in Billy when he fell victim to temptation. I could feel the weight of the pressure that he piled upon himself by publicising his sponsored weight loss so widely.

I struggled a little more with the Brennans as a family. Billy seems to be set apart from everyone: his wife, his kids, his sister, his parents. As much as I appreciated the challenge of the weight loss more when he was up against it, I wondered at his wife’s refusal to help. She carried on stocking the fridge with chocolate and unhealthy snacks, barely commented when Billy moved out of their bedroom into their dead son’s (or when he moved back in). Tricia herself became little more than a foil to Billy’s plans and her constant criticism began to irritate me. They never had proper rows either, just little sniping comments that began to wear me out as much as they did Billy.

Although the subject was treated sensitively, I felt that it was too tentatively explored and I wanted more impact. All in all, this was a decent story but not perfect and the ending fizzled out with no concrete conclusion.

I received a copy of this novel from Readers First in exchange for an impartial review.

 

Casting off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

casting off

The fourth book in Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, Casting Off continues where the last book left off.  Originally, this was the final book in the series, the fifth only being published eighteen years later. I think that if I was reading this as the last book then I may have had more questions by the end (mainly relating to Louise and Villy), but I think that the other storylines were resolved satisfactorily.

Sometimes you can pick up a book in the middle of a series and read it as a standalone. I doubt that Casting Off would work if you hadn’t read the previous novels though. The family is too vast and so much has happened to them that, in spite of the potted history and family tree at the beginning, I don’t think a casual reader would find it enjoyable. As part of the series though I think this novel did most of what I wanted to.

We pick back up in July 1945. Rupert has just returned from France, years after everyone thought he was dead and months after he could have. Clary, who kept the faith that he was alive, feels that he abandoned them, and his wife Zoe feels guilt over the affair that she had while Rupert was missing (little knowing that the reason he stayed away so long was that he found love himself, in France). Older brother Edward finally comes clean to his wife Villy, and tells her about his mistress.

The daughters are now grown up and provide the main focus of the novel: Louise, still stuck in her loveless marriage; Polly still struggling to get over unrequited love for Archie, Rupert;s good friend; and Clary, embarking upon her own first love affair.

There is so much going on that it is a wonder that Howard manages to corral all of her characters into a format that makes sense. Having the book split into different sections (‘The Girls’, ‘The Wives’) makes it easier to keep a handle on whose point of view we’re looking from, though sometimes I found myself reading several paragraphs without knowing quite which character I was inhabiting which felt a little odd. Also, sometimes as a reader you want to follow a character for longer which isn’t possible with such a huge cast. I found that ‘The Outsiders’ sections were of less interest (apart from Sid – big cheer for her and Rachel finally sorting themselves out!). I’ve never cared much about Miss Milliment and I’d be happy enough if Villy’s sister Jessica and her whole family vanished. As much as I found Raymond’s storyline touching, it added nothing to the piece as a whole and I’d have much preferred Howard to use that space to go back to Louise and her strange marriage to Michael (and the hideous mother in law who was sadly quite quiet in this novel).

Verdict: definitely one for the fans. It ties up most of the ends but I’m glad there’s another book to go

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

gustav

Once upon a time (well, a month or so ago) I was determined to read all of this year’s Baileys shortlisted books before the winner was announced. With five days to go and three of the novels not yet read that is most definitely not going to happen. My failure is tempered by the knowledge that I have had to give over precious reading time to writing – a new novel which I am obsessed with. Nevertheless I had already reserved a couple of the Baileys books from the library so they will not go unread. Rose Tremain’s book attracted me first due to its relative brevity (as well as being due back to the library today).

Set in Switzerland and beginning in 1947 Gustav Perle grows up in a tiny flat in a small town. He lives with his mother, Emilie. His father, a hero says his mother, died when he was a baby. When new boy Anton moves to Gustav’s town, the boys quickly become friends. Anton is a talented pianist, a prodigy he tells Gustav. Emilie doesn’t like Anton visiting their small flat. Anton’s family are Jewish and Emilie tells Gustav that his father died trying to protect the Jews during the war. Tremain cleverly uses Anton’s constantly supportive parents to contrast the indifference that Emilie shows to her son. When Emilie contracts pneumonia and has to be taken to hospital, Gustav is left alone with only a friendly neighbour to help. She tells him he must wash the sheets where his mother wet the bed, to weak to get to the bathroom, and there is a heart-breaking scene where he goes down to the laundry but is too little to reach the light switch and has to leave the sheets there until the next day.

The middle part of the book takes place before Gustav’s birth, the story of how his parents met. This is a bleak novel and so I wasn’t expecting a happy tale, but in some ways I could understand why Emilie had turned out the way she did once I knew what she’d already been through (though she is never portrayed as likeable, rather slightly calculating and self-pitying). The real circumstances around her husband’s death were even more tragic than imagined, though I felt that here the rather Swiss restraint that Tremain employs could have been relaxed. Having become involved with Erich’s predicament I found that his actual death was rather anticlimactic. I don’t think I needed it to be more dramatic in terms of what happens, only I think I wanted more detail. I wanted to be there, and to know his thoughts, rather than finding out about it later, if that makes sense.

This is the sort of novel which is quietly excellent. The prose is perfect and never overwrought. I found the dialogue a little rigid but it fit the style of the novel. Both Gustav and Anton are very restrained and, certainly with Anton, there is the suggestion that if they let go too much then all will be lost. I am full of admiration for this book, but I never quite fell in love with it.

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

the women

Set in Bavaria, Germany, The Women of the Castle follows three women as they come to terms with the end of World War II and the arrival of the Russians and Americans. I do love historical fiction and I haven’t read a huge number of novels set in post-war Germany (The Reader is the only novel that springs to my mind). The premise, seeing three very different women thrown together in a dilapidated castle, intrigued me.

Marianne von Lingenfels’ husband was a Nazi resistor. The castle is his family legacy and so she returns there after his execution for a plot to assassinate Hitler. She is the matriarch of the strange family that is formed after she goes in search of other resistance widows. Benita is the beautiful widow of Marianne’s childhood friend, Connie. Less principled that Marianne, she blames her husband for abandoning her. Rescued from sexual slavery, Marianne hopes that they will become allies, while Benita is not sure that she believes in Marianne’s high ideals. A third woman, Ania, is found in a labour camp and brought to the castle, but perhaps isn’t quite who she seems.

This is a novel that hops around in time, beginning with a prologue in 1938 before jumping ahead to 1945. There are other jumps – filling in the gaps in Benita and Ania’s pasts for example, then moving forward again to 1950. At times I did struggle a little, and if each chapter hadn’t been signposted with dates and location (the castle is, disappointingly, only a small part of the story) then I would have been lost. I did start to wish that Shattuck had concentrated on a story within the castle timeline as there was lots there that was left unexplored. In some ways, as this is a book written around the author’s own family history, and following years of research, I wondered if she had felt constrained to tell a certain story.

The blurb on the jacket cover promises that Benita will begin a clandestine relationship, and that Ania is trying to conceal a complicated role in the Nazi regime. I thought that these would be key moments, exploding Marianne’s dreams, but in reality by the time these revelations come they seem to lack the danger that they would have had if the women had all been together at the castle. When Marianne feels betrayed she just walks away and there is no real consequence (actually, perhaps for Benita there is, but I feel that her actions are driven by complex factors which could have done with more scrutiny).

I thought that this was a well written novel, examining difficult situations within a complex war, and Shattuck does well to make the history enjoyable to read. I just wish that, with the ingredients she had at her disposal, she’d written a story that examined the relationships between the women more closely.

Thanks to Readers First for this review copy in exchange for an impartial review.