Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

whispers

Having found myself slightly addicted to the PC Peter Grant series, I moved straight onto book 3: Whispers Under Ground. Grant finds himself called to the scene of a murder at Baker Street Underground Station. The victim is the son of a US senator, stabbed to death with a strange piece of pottery that gives off the strong vestigia that tells PC Grant that something out of the ordinary is going on. Having established the link between something or someone magical, Grant is immediately seconded to the Murder Squad, working once more with DCI Seawoll who has never been his biggest fan and has only just returned to duty after the events of Rivers of London. There is also the complication of FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds who is supposed to be kept in the dark as far as magic is concerned, but who keeps mysteriously showing up wherever Grant – and therefore the magical world – is.

It isn’t that hard to find the bodies at a major crime, even one at a complicated scene like an Underground station – you just look for the highest concentration of noddy suits and head that way. When I stepped out onto platform 3 the far end looked like an anthrax outbreak. It had to be foul play then because you don’t get this much attention if you’re a suicide or one of the five to ten people that manage to accidentally kill themselves on the Underground each year.

Grant’s unofficial partner in his investigations is WPC Lesley May, still on leave but keen to get back in the game. The banter between these two was a highlight, May battling to keep Grant in line and stop him from making needlessly reckless risks. Watching Peter come to terms with her horrific facial injuries does add another dimension to his character. Often quite immature, watching him with May he does seem to be growing up at last.

Carrying through from the last book, the Folly are still on the trail of the rogue wizard, the Faceless Man, who tried to kill Grant in book two. With Nightingale having established a list of potential Little Crocodiles, members of an elite Oxford University dining club who may have been taught dark magic. In some ways I felt more invested in this plot strand, most likely because it is a continuation. It feels as though this will run for a few more books to come which I like.

Thoughts so far- this is building up to an epic encounter with the Faceless Man, though since Peter Grant is a slow learner, I hope this is a long way off for his sake. I like the development of the other recurring characters, Lesley May and DI Stephanopoulos in particular. I do like that Peter is quite inept, charming in its own way, but I would like him to wise up a little. Time will tell…

 

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

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First published in Chile back in 2012, Meruane’s semi-autobiographical novel has just been published in the UK in an English translation by Megan McDowell. Featuring a protagonist also named Lina Meruane, also a Chilean writer, it does read a little as pure autobiography but the events are fictional (drawn from Meruane’s real experience of going temporarily blind).

Lina, a Chilean writer living in New York, is at a party when her eyes haemorrhage. This is not expected; she has already been seeing a doctor who has warned her that this could happen at any time. Blood fills her vision and leaves her practically blind, barely able to make out shapes and outlines. She has just moved to a new apartment with her partner, Ignacio, and everything is new and prone to being bumped into. The doctor tells her she must wait one month for her eyes to settle before he can determine whether there is any chance to save her sight.

Thwacks against half-closed doors, all of their edges blunt. A nose mashed against a shelf. Scratched fingers, broken nails, twisted ankles almost sprained. Ignacio took note of every mishap and tried to clear the boxes still only half-emptied, he moved the open bags from the hallway and cleared away orphan shoes, but then I got tangled up in rugs, I knocked over posters leaning against walls, I toppled trash cans. I was buried in open boxes with table legs between my fingers. The house was alive, it wielded its doorknobs and sharpened its fixtures while I still clung to corners that were no longer where they belonged. 

Lina has already planned to travel to Santiago to visit her family, and takes us on the terrifying journey as a newly blind person navigating air travel. Ignacio cannot travel with her so organises a wheelchair for Lina at the airport, an action she sees as humiliating. Her parents don’t understand why she can’t get her eyes operated on in Chile and this period is marked by Lina trying to rediscover the city that she used to know. When Ignacio arrives later, she navigates him by memory. She teaches him the words for common items that his Galician Spanish give other names to. Even as Lina becomes more dependent on Ignacio, she becomes more irritated and worried about how she would cope without him.

The final section of this, quite short, novel – around 150 pages – is the most urgent. Lina returns to New York and is admitted to hospital to have her surgery. The reader is forced to wait with her as the doctor explains that the operation more complex than he had anticipated; she will have to wait several weeks to know if she will see again. No spoilers from me, but these few pages were by far the most gripping, watching Lina and Ignacio on tenterhooks, Lina making ever greater demands on his loyalty.

This book won’t be for everyone but it reads as an incredibly personal journal. For anyone who loves memoir or autofiction, this should be an ideal read.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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History of Wolves is one of three debut novels on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Ever drawn in by a beautiful book cover, I love it when the cover fits the contents as perfectly as it does in this case. The Minnesota scenery and the small town of Loose River and its many lakes form an incredible backdrop to this novel.

Linda is fourteen, at high school, a loner. She lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake. She has no friends since the other commune inhabitants left some time before. When a family move in across the lake, she finds herself fascinated by them. Patra, the wife, is a young twenty six, childlike and immature. Her husband, Leo, is away for much of the time and Paul, her son is four years old. Linda, despite not really liking children, jumps at the chance to babysit Paul and becomes a regular visitor. From the first page we know that Paul is no longer around, and by page two Linda is clearer: he is dead.

In April, I started taking Paul for walks in the woods while his mother revised a manuscript of her husband’s research. The printed pages lay in batches around the cabin, on the countertop and under chairs. There were also stacks of books and pamphlets. I’d peeked at the titles. Predictions and Promises: Extraterrestrial Bodies. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The Necessities of Space.

“Just keep clear of the house for a few hours” were Patra’s instructions. I was given snacks in Baggies, pretzels wound into small brown bows. I was given water bottles in a blue backpack, books about trains, Handi Wipes, coloring books and crayons, suntan lotion. These went on my back. Paul went in my hand. His little fingers were damp and wiggling. But he was trusting, never once seeming to feel the shock of my skin touching his.

He wasn’t like animals. I didn’t have to win him over.

At first this novel reminded me most of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, from the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Eerie winter backdrop – tick. Small town America – tick. Loner female protagonist living in a weird family set up – tick. Newcomers who bring trouble with them – tick. As the novel drew me in, I began to feel differently, though the premise is similar. In both books the reader is drawn on because of a need to know what exactly happens, having been promised a moment of huge significance at the very start. Where I found Eileen calculating and intentionally tricksy, there is an authentic honesty to Linda’s narration.

Having read some other reviews, I do agree that the subplot involving Mr Grierson, a teacher at Linda’s school, and Lily, a fellow student, to be a bit meandering and oblique. Although the main action is set while Linda is fourteen, she tells us that she is now thirty seven, and we get snippets of her life at twenty six. Linda spots that Grierson treats Lily, widely acknowledged to be beautiful but a little odd, in a different way to the rest of the girls in class. She seems strangely drawn to both Lily and Grierson and, much later, writes to Grierson after he has moved away. I thought that her preoccupation with Grierson had a lot to do with her loneliness and a need to fit in. Just as her motivation in babysitting Paul has more to do with wanting a relationship with Patra, she wants someone to look at her the way that her teacher looks at the girl across the classroom. It is all conducted at such distance that I think this is where it lost focus a little.

The writing of this book is incredibly accomplished and beautiful. Fridlund recreates entire acres of scenery in a few words, and this is what elevates the novel from what, in other hands, could have been a rather straightforward story. I think it will struggle to make the shortlist but I have a lot more books to read yet.

See my reviews of other longlisted books here:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

first love

Shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize, this slim novel is the story of Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties who is married to an older man, Edwyn. It is not a happy marriage. I wasn’t drawn to this and, had I not wanted to finally get round to finish reading the Baileys shortlist, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. I went in with an open mind but had a feeling that it was going to be very beautiful and that not very much would happen. I was sort of right.

I read the blurb and expected this to be a short and claustrophobic tale of a marriage gone wrong. Really this is a rather disjointed tale of Neve’s life up to the current moment. I picked this up to take on a three hour coach trip, thinking that with only 167 pages it might get me through most of the journey. Instead, I found myself frequently putting it down, then getting confused when I next picked it up as to when or where Neve was. Riley flits around Neve’s life so quickly that I often had to reread passages just to remind myself if we were in Manchester, London, Glasgow…

I enjoyed most the fraught relationship between Neve and her mother. Often comic, I found this far more interesting than Neve with Edwyn which felt rather one-note – he says something vile; she tries not to provoke him further. In some ways Neve was a younger reflection of her mother. Both of them flitted around, moving from place to place. In some ways I felt that Neve was only with Edwyn because she feared becoming like her mother, ditching relationships and having to start afresh each time. There were also some interesting scenes between Neve and her father, a bully who was reminiscent of her husband, which I wanted to be explored more.

When Neve and Edwyn do have a proper conversation (as opposed to the sections where he’s basically having a childish trantrum), these are full of tension and bile. Edwyn harps on about a time years ago when Neve drank too much and was sick, in every room of their flat if he’s to be believed, and Neve doesn’t, though she can’t remember. As much as he picks fights with her it is only when he tells her that he won’t forgive her, that he never forgives, that it feels as though Neve’s breaking point has been reached. I found their relationship a curious one. He is older than her, though by how much I was never quite sure. At times it seems that he is taking the father role – they don’t have sex, or not very often. There is no desire and only a few moments of affection which seemed to be habitual rather than truly emotional.  He constantly refers to her using him to keep a roof over her head.

It is Neve’s dependency on others that I found so frustrating. She is a person who seems to fall into situations rather than having any control. She is always living a few quid from destitution. The relationship with Edwyn balances on her need for financial support while he, ageing and suffering from heart disease, relies on her for companionship, someone to care for him rather than act as a lover. I wondered what brought them together in the first place.

This is the sort of book that you will enjoy if you like short story collections – this reads a little like one, a series of vignettes taken from Neve’s life. As a novel, it was a little too flighty. I often lost track of time and location and, reading the reviews of others, this is a common experience rather than as a result of me reading in several sittings. Perhaps my expectations were too far removed from what the author was trying to achieve, but for me I found this an unsatisfactory read.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Moon

On to Book Two! So, after quite enjoying Rivers of London, the set-up more than the actual plot perhaps, I decided to try the second book in the series and see how it developed.

We pick up just after Rivers finishes. PC Peter Grant is driving down to Essex to visit his old WPC mate Lesley May who suffered a catastrophic injury at the end of the first book and is trying to come to terms with it. She’s in comparatively good spirits but Grant’s almost relieved to be called back to London to deal with a suspicious murder in Soho – a jazz saxophonist who fell down dead right after a performance. As it turns out, he’s just the first in a long line of London jazz musicians who have died mysteriously over the last five years, their deaths all coming within hours of a gig.

I found myself enjoying this instalment more than its predecessor. The magical world was already set up and the plot was much less convoluted, perhaps a little easy to predict, but in the lead-up to the Man Booker longlist I was quite glad for a light read. Grant is an engaging main character, though he makes so many terrible decisions that you have to wonder whether he’s not a liability with his haphazard magical skills. He also has zero willpower when it comes to women which lands him in even more trouble in this novel than in the first. We also learn more about Peter’s parents, especially his jazz musician father who he turns to for help with the investigation. I liked these scenes and felt they added another dimension to the book outside of the Folly. I was also grateful for more of Stephanopoulos who, in the absence of Lesley, was the only person who seemed capable of keeping an eye on Peter.

One of the features of a good series is that really there should be enough carrying through from the previous book, and some unresolved issues to give the reader a nudge on to the next. I didn’t think that there was too much going over of old material and there are a couple of great set-ups that had me logging on to reserve the next instalment from the library immediately (another benefit of coming to a series late is that you have a pile of books to look forward to!). What I’m hoping for is a bit of growing up from Peter (who, when you think about it, is just your typical mid-twenties bloke so I should cut him some slack) and I have high hopes for Lesley May. I missed her a little and she would definitely have stopped Peter from making quite so many daft errors. I’ll be picking this up alongside Paul Auster’s 4,3,2,1 – some light relief for when the weighty tome becomes too much!

Shelter by Sarah Franklin

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Sarah Franklin has an incredibly impressive literary CV and yet this is her debut novel. In 2014 the opening pages of this very novel won Sarah a Jerwood/Arvon Mentorship, working with Jenn Ashworth and others to finish the project.

Set in 1944, two out of place strangers meet and find common ground. Connie is a city girl from Coventry. After a devastating bombing raid, she escapes the city and finds refuge in the Women’s Timber Corps, learning to fell trees in the Forest of Dean. Seppe is Italian, sent to a POW camp in the forest after being captured in north Africa. Sick of being trapped among his fascist compatriots after having been forced to fight for a cause he never believed in, Seppe manages to wangle a job outside the camp working with Connie. They become friends and the book follows their journey from outsiders learning to cope with life in a small village where everyone knows each other, to becoming part of a community.

The great strength of this novel is in the detail. Beautifully written, the landscape is the star of Franklin’s book, stealing the limelight from any human character. I was immersed in the Forest of Dean from the moment Connie arrives, and the historical setting is also spot on. In terms of educational value, there is much to learn (and I do appreciate leaving a book knowing more than I did when I started it!). I had no idea that ‘lumberjills’ were a thing, but with the demand for timber increasing as the war went on, and with able bodied men out fighting, Connie’s story is by no means unique. The POW camp too was a revelation, as was the idea that these so-called prisoners could actually wander in and out so long as they stuck to a curfew and weren’t known to be among the hardcore fascists (marked out by being forced to wear a black band over their uniforms). So much research must have been carried out and yet it is drawn so lightly on the page.

Perhaps because the surroundings are so expertly brought to life, I did find the characters less compelling than I would have liked. I never felt that I understood Connie quite, though since she didn’t know herself what she wanted maybe that fits. Seppe was lovely but I did start to wish he’d stand up for himself at some point; bullied for his entire life, both by his fascist father and by an old schoolmate he sees him as a traitor, he couldn’t even tell Connie what he thought of anything. Sheep farmer Amos was a much more believable character. His quiet stoic nature in the face of losing his only son to the war, in addition to having Connie forced upon him when there is nowhere else for her to live, was beautiful to read. A man of few words, I felt his anguish while Connie never shut up and yet I never understood why she was ever attracted to Seppe.

Although the blurb hints at romantic love, I wouldn’t read this novel expecting too much from that angle. I preferred the friendship between Seppe and Connie, before things get unnecessarily messy. I loved Amos, and Joyce and Frank who live next door. I can’t say too much else without spoilers but I suppose I wanted there to be more at stake. The first third of the book hints that there could be some disaster on the cards but it never quite hits home as hard as I wanted it to. There was just a lack of… passion? I’m not sure, but this is a very good book, just not quite as great as I hoped it would be.

Thanks to Readers First for the review copy.

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.