Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was a huge surprise. Expecting a crime novel and police procedural, this book is so much more than that.

It all starts with Constable Peter Grant, an officer in the Metropolitan Police. He’s only supposed to take witness statements in a murder inquiry – and ends up interviewing a ghost.

Turns out there’s a Chief Inspector at the Met who is also the last wizard in England. And Peter Grant has just become his first trainee in decades, investigating cases that could have supernatural elements to them.

Rivers of London is refreshingly British. Sort of Scotland Yard meets Harry Potter (minus the wizarding school), and you can’t get much more British than that. Aaronovitch really knows how to write convincing dialogue incorporating British slang with just the right amount of sarcasm, and DC Peter Grant is a very well-written character and a narrator with a great voice. It’s smart and witty, without being patronising. It is also just as refreshing to see a non-white protagonist, especially as a detective of the Met, who is unselfconscious about his mixed-heritage ethnicity.

The author obviously knows London like the back of his hand. It is also pretty obvious that Aaronovitch is a proper geek as there are several references to the works of authors and scientists, as well as British pop culture. The amount of detail that goes into the police procedure descriptions is incredible.

The magic in this book is unique. The river Thames and her tributaries are in fact deities who are alive, and the Old Man of the River and Mama Thames are both fighting over the control of the rivers. There’s no silly wand-pointing. Peter and the Chief Inspector can pick up the essence that magic leaves behind, and they really use their full magical and non-magical arsenal to solve their cases.

Rivers of London is a great urban fantasy with the perfect mixture of detective story, magic, and British humour.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Rivers of London
Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Publisher: Gollancz
Release Date: January 10, 2011
Pages: 392
ISBN:  978-0575097568

Note: In the US, this book is known as Midnight Riot

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the first novel by Christopher Brookmyer, and the first to feature Scottish journalist Jack Parlabane.

Jack, just back from L.A. after a hitman tried to dispose of him, can’t seem to catch a break. And he can’t keep his nose out of things that intrigue him. Like the doctor in the flat below being murdered.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. The descriptions are very graphic and detailed, and there’s an almost juvenile potty-mouth humour throughout the book. But if this is your sort of thing, and you enjoy a good detective story with the protagonist being a Scottish (in all senses of the word) journalist, than Quite Ugly One Morning is the book for you!

The cast of characters in this novel is really well developed, no matter how small their role. And it’s refreshing to see such an expansive yet diverse cast. The story itself is beautifully crafted as well. Although the crime gets solved pretty early on, there’s never a dull moment, as the rest of the story skillfully spells out the solution by connecting the dots one by one.  It’s almost as if two stories run parallel to each other – one is of the good guys on the heels of the baddies, the other is the bad guy’s incompetent try to cover their tracks.

Even though the book was first published in 1997, it touches on some social issues that are still prevalent in British society today. And it’s a shame that even nearly 20 years on, nothing much has changed.

A working knowlede of Scottish colloquialisms may help understand some of the dialogue. But even if not, imagine listening to incomprehensible Scottish banter in the pub.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Quite Ugly One Morning
Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Abacus
Release Date: July 3, 1997
Pages: 312
ISBN:  978-0349108858

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith may be called blasphemy by Austen purists. I call it a brilliant and exciting update of a classic.

Because let’s face it: what’s been missing from Pride and Prejudice were zombies!

The undead are mostly viewed as a troublesome nuisance. Letters get lost when the mail couriers are caught and eaten. That sort of thing.

Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters are trained in martial arts and really know their weapons. As does Mr Darcy, who is a monster hunter in this reincarnation. And to be honest, I find him much improved with a sword and a musket.

The author, who credits Jane Austen as co-author, kept mainly to Austen’s writing style. But the dialogue got more hilarious, and the scenes a lot gorier. There are blood and innards and talk of brains being eaten everywhere. Elizabeth is a proper heroine, there are fights to the death, exhumations, and beloved characters who get infected with the “mysterious plague”.

It does help to have read Pride & Prejudice before, to compare the two stories. You’ll find that you’ll want to go back to the original again and again to see the two versions side by side. It’s laugh out loud funny when you picture all these well-loved and well-established characters with their noble attitudes facing a zombie apocalypse head-on. Yes, it’s silly and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. After all, it is a parody and having a bit of fun with classic literature.

But how could you pass up something like this?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Oh, and by the way: there are ninjas, too!

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: May 1, 2009
Pages: 319
ISBN:  978-1594743344

On the Road by Jack Kerouac #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road became the defining novel of the Beat Generation.

It describes roadtrips across America, carefree attitudes, Americana, jazz, free spirits, drugs, sex, booze and adventure, and is mainly autobiographical. Protagonist Sal Paradise is based on the author himself, and many of his friends and relatives, including other (now famous) beatniks like Allen Ginsberg feature in the book as well – sometimes with only minimal name changes on the part of the author.

On the Road is one of those books people seem to either love or hate. Written entirely using stream of consciousness, Kerouac’s rambling style, run-on sentences and seemingly disjointed thoughts can make it hard to follow the story sometimes. At other times, however, Kerouac comes up with beautifully written descriptions and explanations. Split into five parts, the story follows recently divorced Sal across the United States between 1947 and 1950, from New York to San Francisco and back with stops in New Orleans, Detroit and Denver and an eventual, ill-fated trip south of the border into Mexico.

Some characters, like Dean Moriarty who was based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, are thoroughly unpleasant. He’s an adulterer and a drifter, who keeps leaving pregnant girlfriends by the wayside to get back to his wife and family. Dean is someone, who abandons friends when they need him, and when the adventure is no longer fun for him.

Sal Paradise, on the other hand, is positively naive and innocent compared to Dean. He’s idealistic, and searching for life and a spiritual connection with life. He is basking in the energetic glow of Dean while it lasts and thinks that he has found what he was looking for and finally learned what life is about.

It’s easy to see how this novel can be appealing to teenagers and all those with Fernweh and Wanderlust in their hearts. On the Road romanticises a bohemian lifestyle, drifting from place to place, hitchhiking and seeking adventure.  It does encompass that sense that there is more to life and the world than the town you grew up in. On the Road may be the ultimate roadtrip novel.

Disclaimer: I bought this book (a paperback 50th anniversary edition that seems to be ou of print by now) at the iconic beatnik bookstore City Lights in San Francisco when I was 20 and on a cross-country roadtrip from L.A. to New York in the summer of 2007. I’d heard of On the Road before, and thought what better place to get my copy than City Lights, especially as Jack Kerouac Alley runs along the side of the bookstore building. For me it was the right book at the right time, but stream of consciousness writing is not for everyone.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: On The Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publisher: Penguin Books
Release Date: April 7, 2011 (originally published in 1955)
Pages: 281
ISBN:  978-0241951538

#WeekendCoffeeShare: If We Were Having Coffee… On April 17

Welcome to the Weekend Coffee Share, a blog hop by the lovely Diana over at Part Time Monster. Every weekend we get together for virtual coffees and a little casual chat.

If we were having coffee today, we’d sit outside in the sunshine to enjoy our drinks and we’d talk about all things books-related.

If we were having coffee today, I’d tell you that the first few books for my M.A. thesis arrived. I’ll be writing about cultural concepts in Australian Literature and because I study Cross-Cultural Communication by distance learning I do not have access to a university library. I need a total of 12~14 novels to look at, three to four each for aboriginal authors, settlers/convicts, visiting authors and “born Australians” for lack of a better term at the moment.

For indigenous authors, I’ll be looking at Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko, My Place by Sally Morgan, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright and Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington.  For literature by and about early settlers and convicts, I’ve got For the term of his natural life by Marcus Clarke, Letters from an Exile at Botany Bay by Thomas Watling, While the Billy boils by Henry Lawson and the poem A Convict’s Tour to Hell by Francis McNamara. As for visiting authors, I’ll be looking at Down Under / In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin and Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence.

Just contemporary authors are hard to narrow down. I have not decided yet, as all of these sound good and should give me a good variety of stories that deal with how characters and authors view and use the land. So if you know any of these books and could recommend it, I’d love to hear it! Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, The Tree of Man by Patrick White, Voss by Patrick White, We of the Never Never by Mrs. Aeneas Gunn, Happy Valley by Patrick White, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller, It’s Raining in Mango by Thea Astley, The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland, Capricornia by Xavier Herbert, The Lucky Country by Donald Horne, The Sundowners by Jon Cleary, and  So Far From Skye by Judith O’Neill.

I get the funny feeling I should at least have Patrick White in there, as he is a Nobel Prize for Literature winner and the only author on the list I have read before. What do you think?

But I also got quite a few text books as well. Some I ordered second hand from Amazon, some I found as eBooks and in online libraries as downloads. But there were some I just could not find, or when I did they cost €80 used and I don’t have that money lying around. My sister is a student too (on an actual, local campus), and from a list of 13 books she’s been able to get me 7 from her library! Result! So now I’m going through them and start to write my bibliography, so that I’ve got all the details and later just need to sort out the books I didn’t end up using.

If we were having coffee today, we’d talk about the A to Z Challenge. Unfortunately, some personal issues and overtime at work have reduced my writing time this week. I am, however, still participating and trying to catch up.

That’s pretty much it from me for this week. Check out the other Weekend Coffee Sharers as well! Thank you for having coffee with me! Same time, next week?

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman #AtoZ #Audiobook

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Did you know that London is split in two parts? And I don’t mean the cities of London and Westminster. No, it’s London Above and London Below.

London Above is the city most people know. The one with corporate jobs and ultra-modern buildings. But the London Below of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a whole different world, full of Rat-Speakers and shadow dwellers, with their own rules to abide and secrets to keep.

The version I am reviewing is the BBC Full-Cast Dramatization, although the print copy is just as marvellous. James McAvoy voices Richard, who by chance finds a way into London Below, where he discovers that what he only knows as landmarks, suburbs and tube stations are real people in the city underneath. There is an Earl at Earl’s Court – an old man with a tendency to go berserk – voiced by Sir Christopher Lee; Knightsbridge is guarded by actual knights, the Old Bailey is an old, kind man feeding pigeons played by Bernard Cribbins and Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice to the all-too-real Angel Islington.

The cast also includes the likes of Anthony Stewart Head, Johnny Vegas, David Harewood, Sophie Okonedo and Neil Gaiman himself. And what a cast it is! This particular version is dialogue-only, as the voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the world below to life. Even without a narrator the story is easy to follow and all the characters are so well defined and different that not a single one of them seems flat or unimportant.

Neverwhere is urban fantasy at its finest. It takes a familiar place and turns it into something incredibly more complex than you could ever have imagined. The way Gaiman brings all the landmarks and places to life borders on genius and begs the question: why has nobody else wondered where such places as Ravenscourt or Knightsbridge got their names from? And if they were people, what would they be like?

Only very few people Above ever catch a glimpse of London Below or the people who inhabit it. They choose not to see. For them, some of the folk from Below look like homeless people, and the people Above are used to ignoring their problems.

Neverwhere is the perfect gateway story for those wanting to get more into urban fantasy. And whether you read it or listen to it – you’ll never see London in quite the same way ever again.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Neverwhere
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: July 7, 2015 (originally published in 1996)
Pages: 336
ISBN:  978-0062371058

BBC Full-Cast Dramatization
Release Date: September 5, 2013
ISBN: 978-1471316470

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

 Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a book that just understands book lovers everywhere.

The bookshop itself is located in San Francisco, stacked from floor to ceiling with old and obscure tomes, it’s open all night and serves a very peculiar and eclectic clientele.

When web designer Clay gets laid off, he finds a job working the night shift at this curious, dusty bookshop run by Mr Penumbra, after Clay confesses that his favourite book is a strange tale barely anyone has ever heard of. He soon learns that there are two parts to the tiny but three story tall shop. The front of house is a crammed, traditional bookstore. The high shelves in the back hold the Waybacklist, an assortment of old and dusty tomes with obscure titles. And while Clay has never heard of any one of them, his regular night shift customers send him up the ladders among the Waybacklist every time they enter the shop.

The rules are few. When a customer asks for a book on the list, Clay has to note the book they want, the book they bring back, how the customer looked, what they wore and the precise time they came by. As Clay tries to digitise the inventory to keep himself entertained during the long nights, he starts to see a pattern emerging among the shelves. The depths of the quaint little store seem to hold great mysteries.

Robin Sloan’s debut novel is like a love letter for bibliophiles. It shows that publishing, typesetting, printing, the internet and eReaders are not at odds. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore wonderfully combines old and new technologies for the greater good of saving and passing on knowledge. Curiosity, and a love for books and knowledge soon turn into an adventure that has an ancient font at its centre, hidden messages between the lines and a secret literary society in the shadows.

It really makes you question ordinary objects and technology we use every day, and whether the cults and quests of old could still exist. Clay and his friends are an eclectic bunch, smart, full of life and the embodiment of their generation; trapped between old and new technologies and always looking for their next big chance. And yet the whenever it seems new technology saves the day, there’s a book coming to the rescue and vice versa.

A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

This is a book for everyone who knows that the printed word and the internet are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they work together quite nicely indeed.

 

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Release Date: August 1, 2013
Pages: 291
ISBN:  978-1782391197

Lucky Man – A Memoir by Michael J. Fox #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Many casual cinema-goers will know Michael J. Fox as an 80’s and 90’s star of the big and small screen, having headlined shows like Family Ties and movies like Back to the Future.

By now, it is probably also public knowledge that Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. His 2002 memoir Lucky Man offers a very personal account of his battles; not only with his debilitating disease, but also with his ego and alcohol addiction.

It casts the eternally young.looking actor into a whole new light. This is him, explaining his rise to fame from his Canadian roots to Hollywood, a name change – his real name is Michael Andrew Fox – and how early successes went to his head. He is brutally honest when he describes how he gradually became an alcoholic, and how the funny man on screen was struggling and in pain behind the scenes.

What becomes very clear, very early on is the stabilising influence his wife Tracy – whom he met on the set of Family Ties – had and continues to have on his life.

But possibly most shocking of all is that he was diagnosed with Early-Onset Parkinson’s Disease in his late 20’s, around the time the third instalment of Back to the Future came out. Parkinson’s is a shocking diagnosis at any point in life, but for a 29-year-old, it was devastating. He actually was so dependent on alcohol to function that he put the early symptoms and tremors down to delirium tremens. For a long time he suspected the hanging scene in the movie to have triggered his symptoms.

Michael J. Fox kept his diagnosis hidden from the public and the people he worked with for seven years, before he made the shock announcement. This gave him the time he needed to come to terms with his new reality, and get through several rounds of self-pity, before the media’s attention was on every small gesture he made.  Lucky Man is his honest account of how he came to terms with his diagnosis. He has had brain surgery while conscious, and succeeded in quitting alcohol cold turkey when he finally found a reason that made him want to stop: his new family.

Throughout the book, it becomes very clear that he is a family man, who keeps fighting his disease for his wife and his four children who lovingly call him “Shaky Dad.” He has raised awareness for Parkinson’s, started the Michael J. Fox Foundation and given a voice to many sufferers who had been ignored until he with his celebrity status took a stand and started looking for a cure.

At first, you’d think this book is just another memoir by a Hollywood actor who has had experiences with overnight fame and substance abuse. But this book is so much more personal than that. Every chapter includes a picture from the period he is writing about and later on, he even demonstrates the effects Parkinson’s has had on his life by showing his handwriting on and off his meds side by side. And yet, despite all his hardships, Michael J. Fox is calling himself a Lucky Man, because his family accepts him the way he is.

“The ten years since my diagnosis have been the best ten years of my life and I consider myself a lucky man.”

Lucky Man: A Memoir is a compelling and very moving read about what he has been through, what challenges he will have to face in the future, and how he continues to carry himself, spreading awareness of Parkinson’s Disease and looking for a cure. You definitely come away with new-found awe and respect for Michael J. Fox, who ceases to be simply seen as funny actor, and becomes a very brave man indeed.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Lucky Man: A Memoir
Author: Michael J. Fox
Publisher: Bantam Books
Release Date: April 2, 2002
Pages: 318
ISBN:  978-1863252898

Kim by Rudyard Kipling #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of those childhood stories that stays with you.

Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier stationed in Lahore, which back in the nineteenth century when the story takes place, was still part of British India.

He’s a street-smart beggar and a vagabond, and so accustomed to living among the poorest of the poor in Lahore, that barely anyone notices that he is white, a sahib, and not Indian.

Reflecting both the time of its creation and Kipling’s own childhood in India, Kim is full of  colonialism, imperialism and even racism, however, Kipling is a wonderful storyteller and this tale has stood the test of time.

Kim is brilliant, even though he has had no formal education and barely knows about his heritage. He meets a lama who is in search of a river to wash away his sins. They join together, and Kim becomes the lama’s chela, his student. From these humble beginnings, the story soon turns into one of espionage when Kim’s craftiness is discovered and he is sent to school to become a surveyor and help in the Great Game. Kim is torn between his role as a chela, and the espionage business he seems so proficient at. At the heart of it, it’s a beautiful and touching story about the friendship between Kim and the lama. Their relationship is unbelievably moving as the two care very much about each other, and while Kim understands the lama’s spiritual nobility, he is still hindered by his more earthly ambitions. It’s a relationship built on companionship and mutual respect.

Kipling’s descriptions of India are incredibly evocative, colourful and nuanced. They bring India to life in such rich and layered detail that all that’s missing is the smell of the spices to make it palpable. It’s a story for every reader – it’s got a quest, espionage, friendship and spirituality, but it’s also full of interesting individuals and quite possibly the richest and most colourful description of India ever put on paper.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Kim
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Publisher: Penguin
Release Date: October 25, 2012 (first published in 1901)
Pages: 336
ISBN:  978-0141199979

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge, as well as my 60 Books Challenge: a book with magic.

Set in the early nineteenth century, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell contains a rare mixture of historical fiction and old magic that is hard to find these days.

There used to be magic in England. But at the time the book is set in, it has been reduced to old myths and folklore. Even The Learned Society of Magicians is purely theoretical and  does not know any tricks – they merely exchange the stories of old.

Except for the reclusive Mr Norrell. As the only practical magician, he brings magic back to England. He is learned, and studied the old tales and their warnings. Norrell is a respectable gentleman. So when a young man called Jonathan Strange discovers that he does have magical powers and shows interest in the old magical legends about the Raven King, Mr Norrell becomes his protegé.

But while Norrell is restrained and cautious, Strange soon becomes interested in wilder, more perilous forms of magic and their uses, and thus endangers everyone he knows. Can old magic be restored to England? And are the stories about the Raven King and a creature only known as Gentleman true?

The entire book is beautifully written in era-specific language, which really helps bring the story to life. It’s got a little bit of Austen and Wilde, maybe even some Poe, but also a bit of old-fashioned fairytales from the likes of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. It’s a long read at 1,006 pages, but it is worth it. It’s a very immersive tale, full of intriguing characters, all flawed in one way or another. The relationship between Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, which ranges from friendship and mentorship to rivalry and everything in-between, is the backbone of the entire story. The magic is woven around it, gradually and skillfully, and continuously goes deeper and deeper until the lines between reality and folklore are blurred.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is historical fantasy at its finest.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release Date: September 5, 2005
Pages: 1,006
ISBN:  978-0747579885