23 November 2014

Review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

I bought this book from Waterstones

Foxglove Summer
Ben Aaronovitch
Gollancz, October 2014
Hardback, 394 pages (Waterstones edition with extra short story)

In this fifth Peter Grant book, Aaronovitch is on top form, as is Peter. Two girls have gone missing in Herefordshire, and Grant heads out of the city to investigate any Folly-related aspects of the case. It's a refreshing change from London, for us and him, and a nice departure in a sub-genre where - implicitly or explicitly - serious business ends at the M25.

So, here, while Peter is very much "of London" and the strapline on the cover - "Two missing children. One lost copper" - hints that he may be out of his depth - he isn't fazed by being in the countryside, and instead shows the same professional approach to policing (natural and supernatural) as in the previous books, getting himself attached first to the missing girls' families as a liaison officer and then working methodically as part of the enquiry. I always enjoy Aaronovitch's refreshing alternative to the "lone gun" stereotype of crime fiction (or for that matter, the "lone wand" model of supernatural fiction!)

As a reader of Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series (about a vicar who investigates mysteries in her role as diocesan exorcist) which are set in the same area, I did wonder if there'd be any crossover... and indeed, at one point Grant is told he should talk to the local vicar... but, probably wisely, this doesn't go any further (Ben/ Phil - maybe though, one day, we could have short story...?)

The book is to some degree also fairly standalone within its series, with little need to have read the previous books (though Beverley Brook does turn up to help Peter). Given events in Broken Homes, Lesley Sharp is off the scene and Nightingale is tied up at the Folly. So there's not much development of the ongoing "faceless man" theme (though we do finally discover what actually happended at Ettersburg).

In all, a good addition to the series, broadening its range and showing that Aaronovitch still has a great deal to do with these characters - it's far from running out of steam (indeed the climax rather depends on it).

15 November 2014

Review: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

I was sent a copy of this book for review by Amazon Vine.

Crooked Heart
Lissa Evans
Doubleday, November 2014
Hardback, 288 pages

I loved Lissa Evans' previous novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half.  Like that book, "Crooked Heart" is set in Britain during the darkest days of the Second World War - and again, it follows the lives of ordinary people through that time, against the background of the London Blitz. Evans is good at describing the lives of people caught up in, or affected by, terrible events but without, directly, addressing those events: a refreshing approach, I find.

Ten year old Noel has been brought up in Highgate by his eccentric (though rather wonderful sounding) godmother, Mattie. She was a suffragette, and brings him up in a take-nothing-for-granted, fight -for-what-you-believe-in fashion. However, as war comes, bringing changes such as the erection of an anti-aircraft battery nearby on the Heath, Mattie becomes stranger and stranger - and one day, Noel finds himself quite alone. he has to leave his home and move in with his stuffy uncle and aunt (there is a slight frisson about just who Noel really is) before being evacuated from London to St Albans and placed in the care of Vee.

Vee is something of a chancer: she is already struggling to keep her family together -  a useless lump of a son and a Starkadder-like mother who had a nasty shock years before and never speaks who Vee  runs herself ragged keeping fed and clean.  Hard enough at the best of times, but a nightmare in wartime when you can queue for an hour at the fishmonger only to find that all the hake is gone at the end of it.

Noel and Vee are an ill assorted pair; it's clear Vee has taken him on for the sake of the ten shillings a week provided to foster parents, and for his ration book - while Noel is all closed in on himself, missing his godmother. The book shows very movingly, though, how the two grow together and begin to support one another, at first of necessity, but later - as things get darker and darker with an edge of real menace - from real affection and feeling.

The wartime background to this book isn't quite the one we're familiar with from countless cheery, we-can-take-it films and history books. Yes, we CAN "take it": everyone, it seems, is "on the take", stealing or creaming off what they can, some just to make ends meet, others with profit in mind. There are scams to avoid the call up, thefts by air raid wardens from empty homes, dodgy dealings with stolen fuel, fake charity collections, false identities... with the ceaseless bombing, queueing and shortages becoming almost like the weather, just something going on out there, to be accepted with a shrug.

That background does, though, suddenly loom terrifying close, demanding a response from both Vee and Noel. This all feels very real to me - people aren't heroes, at least not most of the time. And when they are, it's in the most unlikely ways.

A wonderful book.

9 November 2014

Review: Dark Tides by Chris Ewan

Source: I bought this book at Blackwell's

Dark Tides
Chris Ewan
Faber & Faber, October 2014
Hardback, 448 pages

Presumably aimed at the Hallowe'en market, this book follows events taking placed among a group of six friends on 31 October - Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man which we're told is the local version of Hallowe'en.  Early on, we get a glimpse of a mother determined to inculcate the local traditions in her daughter, though I couldn't for the life of me see much difference (or any, really) between these and the wider trick-or-treating of the English speaking world.

What is different here is the private rite of the six friends, who adopt the habit of a yearly dare on that night itself, taking turns to specify what is to be done. Of course, the dares become more complicated - and more dangerous - and they become especially personal to Claire, whose mother vanished years before on Hop-tu-Naa.  Is Claire's desire to know what happened that night deluding her about the dangers she is running, or will solving that mystery save her as things begin to take a deadly turn?

Ewan doesn't tell his story sequentially: while all the action takes place on - or around - a Hop-tu-Naa, they aren't presented in order. While that maintains the mystery to a degree - we don't know all of what Claire knows till the very end - it inevitably lessens some of the tension since we can keep checking what the date is and inferring that she will escape more or less unscathed from the current hazard...

Until that last Hop-tu-Naa, of course...

This is a pacey and engaging thriller, where the real mystery is less what has happened (though that features) but what will happen, who, if anyone, will survive and how damaged they will be if they do. Definitely one to be read on a dark winter's evening, and I suspect it wouldn't get the wholehearted endorsement of the Manx Tourist Board.

2 November 2014

Review: A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming
Lavie Tidhar
Hodder & Stoughton, 23 October 2014
Hardback, 288 pages

Source: Purchased from my local independent bookshop

In this book, as with his earlier Osama, Tidhar plays games with an alternate version of a real monster. This brilliant, haunting book raises many questions about guilt, evil and redemption but gives few answers, instead, it leaves the reader to ponder.

In another time and place, it is November 1939. Down-at-heel German émigré Wolf is a Chandleresque private eye living in squalid Soho among prostitutes and posturing Blackshirts. In this reality, The Nazis never came to power in Germany, but fled when the Communists took over. Wolf once was a Somebody, now he is a nobody, eking out a living as his old comrades prosper.

And, as befits a Chandleresque fantasy, one day, a dame walks in to Wolf's shabby office, a dame with a problem.

We soon learn that Wolf, too, has a problem - his client is Jewish, but he is an anti-semite, indeed, an ex-leader among anti-semites. So slternating between his diary entries and third person narration, we see him struggle with this case, a case he is forced to take on to stay alive in that very cold winter, but a case with which he becomes strangely absorbed.

The questions, of course, come straight away. Wolf, in the manner of PIs in Chandlerseque novels, is warned off, attacked, arrested, released and beaten again. He - the real Wolf, the man who rose to power - was an evil monster, so this must be deserved, surely? Yet the Wolf of the story, while vile, isn't that monster, is he? He took the first steps to monsterdom but never made it to the summit. Instead, here, in a swipe I think at current times, we see other monsters - Mosley and his followers - speaking of a country being "swamped" by foreigners, while Wolf sees the nationalist rhetoric turned against him and his Germans. We see American agents, proponents of "regime change". We see a murderer, watching from the shadows and killing those same prostitutes whom Wolf despises, but never harms.

If you're the sort of reader who has to have "sympathetic" characters, don't even start this, you simply won't get it. Nobody in London, 1939 - except perhaps one or two minor characters - is "sympathetic". They live in a tainted world, where the night has eyes, and all choices are bad ones.

Yet there are sympathetic characters in the book. Interleaved with Wolf's story are fragments of lives in the camps, where Shomer, a writer of Yiddish pulp tales, labours for his tormentors. Is Shomer dreaming Wolf? Yes, to a degree, though of course the detail of Wolf's life, the politics of 1939 England, the life Wolf lives is beyond what a Shomer would know. is Wolf, perhaps, dreaming Shomer, as he - Wolf - haunts a 1939 that seems to foretell 2014, with ghostly outlines of modern London and ghastly, hate filled rhetoric from a vile and bigoted politics.

How to write about the Holocaust? Tidhar asks this question explicitly and returns to it in his endnotes (which meticulously document what's true both in the camp narrative and in Wolf's life). Like this, is his answer. Compellingly, vividly, keeping those big questions of guilt, memory, good and evil in clear sight but never supplying glib answers.

It's an enthralling book, filled with violence, depravity, lots of graphic sex, humour (Wolf runs into his old friend Leni Riefenstahl, who's starring in a film about a little bar in a war-torn North Africa: "We'll always have Nuremburg" she sighs) but above all with intelligence and an unflinching view of history - both what it was and what it might be.

By far and away the best book I've read this year, confirming Tidhar, in my view, as a towering writer not just (just?) of fantasy but of literature.