Reading Round-up: Broken Homes, Wolfound Century, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Artful

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (audiobook), Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie and Artful by Ali Smith.

Broken HomesSeven days in to the new year and I’ve finished listening to Broken Homes, polished off Wolfhound Century and read Artful and Haroun and the Sea of Stories for the Hear…Read This! podcast. I’m not planning on keeping this pace for year but I thought that seeing as I had a batch of books to talk about I’d experiment with a group review using a more conversional reviewing style. We’ll see how it goes, eh?

Audiobooks are funny beasts as some people don’t classify listening to the book the same as reading one and I guess they are right, mostly because the choice of narrator can enhance or spoil the book’s flavour. I don’t think I’d be able to actually read a Peter Grant novel. I’ve experienced all four books in the series so far through Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s portrayal of the London PC and apprentice magician. The trouble with me and audiobooks is that I take ages to listen to them, which explains the stock-pile I’ve got of audible credits I’ve amassed – I’m currently listening to Mitch Benn read his novel Terra, and loving his alien pronunciations – another case where audiobooks can beat straight novels.

Anyway back to strange things happening in London, after Whispers Under Ground listening to Broken Homes feels like a less complex affair and it feels better for that as it somehow it had room to breath.

It’s obvious though that this isn’t going to be an introduction to the world of the Folly, the Faceless man, and the more magical side of Aaronovitch’s London. A murder and a separate break-in point to an architecturally curious high-rise estate called Skygarden, which Peter and Lesley move into to have a snoop around, but not before they guard a very interesting gathering by the river Thames.

What I love is all the threads and layers that are slowly weaving around or pealing back (depending on what Aaronovitch is doing at the time) from earlier books are forming something special . He’s created a humorous distraction in the character of Zach Palmer, who in Whispers Under Ground acted as go-between, and you can see the whispering fruits of his labours here but there is also something a little darker and that brings me around to the ending.

Some authors sneak things up on you and you shout, ‘no!’ or ‘how could you’  well this has one of those moments.

For fans of the series Ben Aarnovitch is going from strength to strength and I’m curious where Foxglove Summer is going take us next because we are left is somewhere quite surprisingly uncertain.

Wolfhound CenturySpeaking of uncertain things, Wolfhound Century is one of those books that sounds strange: an Inspector Lom is summoned to another city, Murgorod, to a catch a terrorist. Lom has been chosen because he’s an outsider from a city several days travel a way. He’s also an unintentional trouble maker as he’s no corruptible. What he show us as readers is a world of trolls, fallen angels from a war that raged above the earth, ancient forests with their own agendas and that’s just that start.

Higgens is exploring something that feels very Russian, at least to my ear, as Murgorod slowly unfolds to be a police state with records being kept on everyone and people encouraged to report on their friends and neighbours. The technology is early twentieth century with horse and carts and telephones and lots of manual record keeping.

Higgens has a brutal storytelling style as he tells his tale in short chapters (83 over 336 pages) and shows little mercy to his characters, which mixes in with the sense of place that he’s very good at. It’s refreshing to see powerful fantasy transported away from Medieval Europe into something more contemporary and interesting.

We’re dropped right in to the action with first two alternating chapters showing us Lom and Kantor, the man he’s sent to catch, but we’re not overwhelmed.  The world-building is done in passing as we focus on Lom and Kantor and their associates as they go on their separate and inter twinning missions.

One of the strengths here is that Lom seems impervious to the dangers around him but the reader is made aware of the bigger picture and the real trouble that he could, and does eventually, end up finding himself in.

As the opening to a sequence it has a very curt ending, which shuts one door and invites another to open, rather than leave on a cliff hanger. Not that Higgins needed to leave the characters in a precocious position as there is lots of dangers and trouble for Lom to get himself straight back into into especially with Kantor (and his angel patron) having an agenda they are fair from completing and the issue  bleeding of one world into the potential of another.

Oh, didn’t I mention the bleeding of realities? I didn’t mention the scary stone angels enough, or the use of angel skin. I didn’t mention that the water seems alive and the forest is interfering too.

Wolfhound Century left me feeling that I’d read a special combination of an inspired writer with a skilled imagination.

Haroun and the Sea of StoriesSpeaking of skilled imaginations I read my first Salman Rushdie thanks to the Hear…Read This!’s January Book Club Choices. The first of which is Haroun and the Sea of Stories and it reminded be very much of The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, so much so in fact that I wonder if Catherine Valante had read it a some point? I don’t mean the story but in the way that a child from ‘now’ interacts with a hidden fantasy world.

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this one, though I wasn’t keen on starting Artful either, as I didn’t know how Rushdie would handle telling a children’s story and I was totally surprised how wonderful it was. Haroun’s father is the greatest of all storytellers but one day something goes wrong and all his stories dry up, something that Haroun feels is his fault but he gets the chance to visit the Sea of Stories and to restore his father’s story tap.

And it’s as bizarre as that, unlike Valente which resists the modern, Rushdie includes machines and mechanisms that ground his imaginative world.  Rather than being a lone child’s adventure Haroun has an unexpected family member around him. And that gives it a very different feel. Rushdie’s quirky characters mix with the sense of India (though one of initials and valleys) to create something completely removed from reality to form a place of pure storytelling pleasure. It’s not a dark tale, though are elements of ‘danger’ but nothing that’s going to scar small children. It has some nice, but not laboured, moral messages, especially about girls/women having to hide who they really are to get on in a man’s world and another about the power of stories to change the world.

If you have any imagination and you love a fairytale then Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one for you.

artful-by-ali-smithThe odd one out in this list is the very literary Ali Smith’s Artful, well you may think that, but you’d be wrong. It’s very much in No Cloak’s Allowed territory as it starts with a ghost story, a story that weaves its way around four linked lectures. Smith is playing with form and function here and at the beginning I couldn’t understand the switching from the narrator telling us their story and then switching to the lectures on time, on form, on edge and on offer and on reflection but there was a point where I stopped being annoyed by the lecturing tone and relaxed into taking on board what was being said, even if the messages were being mixed together.

You see the narrator is reading you the unfinished lectures from her partner and ghostly visitor, which makes it quite moving the more you read.

I was left thinking that people haunt themselves with the idea of the dead but if the dead actually did haunt them they’d react and cope completely differently – a lesson our narrator leans quite harshly in the end.

And that’s what I’ve been reading. Now to finish ‘Crouch End’ by Stephen King and to write that next short story review.

SFR: Payment Due by Francis Hardinge (2012)

Under My HatTitle:  Payment Due
Author: Francis Hardinge
Source: Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron ed by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: Sharp

One Line Review: When a girl’s gran can’t afford her bills her granddaughter takes revenge, which Hardinge does in an imaginative way.

One Paragraph Review: This 15 page short introduces us to a girl who lives with her gran and while at school her gran lets in a bailiff. What happens from there shows Hardinge has a bit of a twisted streak. The granddaughter takes matters into her own hands and well…sorts it out. A nice little twist happens as it veers off into a more magical direction than I expected. The ending line is perhaps a little too mirroring but Haringe doesn’t seem the sentimental sort. My first Hardinge but not my last as I’ve been hearing lots of very good things for a while.

SFR: A Handful of Ashes by Garth Nix (2012)

Under My HatTitle:  A Handful of Ashes
Author: Garth Nix
Source: Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron ed by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: Enchanting

One Line Review: A privileged teenage witch picks on less privileged one, which sets the victim on a race against time to save Ermine College

One Paragraph Review: Over 41 pages this YA tale manages to invoke a witches school, a lead character you want to root for and has a challenging, but not oversized, ordeal for the heroine to go through. Magical schools are overshadowed by JK Rowling’s creation but there is always scope for other writers to tell their own unique tales. And this one does, you immediately see how unfair things are for Mari as she is summoned as a servant and then humiliated seemingly because she’s a poor student and not a rich one but Nix uses that disparage to unsteady and to give a moral lesson to the reader – not a heavy handed one as it’s nicely done. He also shows imaginative flare with flying witches, bone wands, and the meaning of ash.

 

Enjoyable. 

Mini-Review: Gridlinked by Neal Asher (2001)

gridlinked+fc[1]Gridlnked was the first Polity universe novel to be published but it is the 8th book in the series I’ve read, so I am coming to it from the ‘wrong’ angle, but to be honest, I love the way that Neal Asher interlinks his ideas and explores his creation from various angles so I wasn’t surprised to see Dragon’s appearance though it was curious to compare this appearance that in The Technician, but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Ian Cormac is an Earth Central Security agent who have been connected to the grid longer than most humans should be, and because of that he agrees to be removed from the grid at the same time he’s given a mission to find out who blew-up a Runcible (a  stargate I’d guess you’d could call them), so he has to use old fashioned detective work ,like asking people for information,  at the same time as someone who is out to kill him for something he did on his pervious mission.

As with other novels in this series Asher’s passion for biology, physics and science in general shines. It doesn’t get in the way of Cormac’s investigation but it does create a concrete and fascinating world for him to live and breath in.

There are some great set-pieces, clever blending of AI and human interaction and, of course, Mr Crane. He gives each ‘person’ a proper personalities, which rightly extends to the AIs. It does make it easier to read as each character is in some way memorable.

I can’t think of a negative to be honest. All the ideas that come later are well-formed here and we end up with a thoughtful, fun and action-packed science fiction novel, which set up Asher to become one of the most enjoyable SF writers I’ve read. Oh, I have a negative – why did it take me so long to actually read it?

SFR: Notes from the House Spirits by Lucy Wood (2012)

Title:  “Notes from the House Spirits”
Author: diving-bellesLucy Wood
Source: Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

One Word Review: Perceptive

One Line Review: Lucy Wood asks what if you could hear about a house’s life via its occupants and answers that with snatches and impressions.

One Paragraph Review: It’s voyeuristic this one but at the same time invokes feelings of sympathy for an inanimate object. And to install such feelings is a skill. I ended up feeling sorry for the house as a series of occupants came and went. Wood injects enough of their lives to leave you curious though not enough that you want to know more about them. You still want to go back to the house and its feelings. It’s not a haunted house story but it is a haunting one.

SFR: Amethyst, Shadow, and Light by Saladin Ahmed (2013)

the fearsome journeysTitle: ‘Amethyst, Shadow, and Light’
Author: Saladin Ahmed
Source: Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: Subversive.

One Line Review: Zok Ironeyes and his partner Hai Hai plan on looting a mansion, instead this Conan-pastiche turns into a quest that could save the world, and Ahmed then plays and pokes fun at the idea.

One Paragraph Review: I’ve not read a lot of Conan but I was wondering if it was supposed to subvert this brand of heroic fantasy and I found another story (set in the same world) and an article  confirming that feeling.  Over 20-pages, we get a crash-course in world-building and go this mission but it’s a all a little too compressed to enjoy properly. I’m sure it echoes the source material as it does feel pulpy (eg loosing subtleness for instant explanation) but the moments of info-dumping distract from a fun partnership with a big human and a soulless human-rabbit (what I can tell that’s what Hai Hai is). I hope I get to read more of their ‘adventures’ as it’s an interesting idea but hopefully it’ll be a little less packed next time.

SFR: Hairball by Carita Forsgren (trans. by Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela) (2008)

It Came From The NorthTitle: ‘Hairball’
Author: Carita Forsgren (trans. by Anna Volmari and J. Robert Tupasela)
Source:  It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction edited by Desirina Boskovich

One Word Review: Surreal.

One Line Review: A woman has to unblock the drain and discovers the world isn’t what it seems.

One Paragraph Review: This is a story that slowly introduces you to a weird place and then makes that the reality. When the unnamed narrator pulls a hairball from the shower she discovers it’s alive and as the story progresses it slowly morphs into something more recognisable. The domestic start gives way to a surreal relationship and then a questioning of reality and part of me wanted to stay in the image world that Frosgren ends ‘Hairball’ with.

It was a pleasant surprise.

SFR: Ripple in the Dirac Sea by Geoffrey Landis (1988)

TTATitle: Ripple in the Dirac Sea (1988)
Author: Geoffrey Landis
Source: The Time Traveller’s Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

One Word Review: Clever

One Line Review: Asks, what are the consequences of time travel?, and illustrates those in a twisty three-thread narrative.

One Paragraph Review: As a second story of the almanac it throws you in the deep-end of the theories in time travel but it also gives you lots of buoyancy aids. It teases you with ‘Notes for Lecture on Time Travel’, with the author’s most revisited moment in history and time spent in the ‘present’. It’s one of those stories that becomes clearer and clearer the more pieces that are set down before you see the inevitable. Even if some of the ‘science’ gets confusing the consequences are plain.

SFR: The Education of a Witch by Ellen Klages (2012)

Title: The Education of a Witch
Author: Ellen Klages
Source: The Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy Vol. Seven edited by Jonathan Strahan.

One Word Review: Sympathetic

One Line Review: Reminds me of Matilda though the special child in this case loves witches not books.

One Paragraph Review: Reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter had already changed how I see fairytales after years of seeing the Disney-filtered ones. Earlier this year I read Poison by Sarah Pinborough, who in her own way challenges those same Disney-filters (don’t get me wrong I love Disney but they cleanse things), so I’ve already seen an ‘evil’ character differently. But if you haven’t I challenge you to read The Education of a Witch and not see Lizzy’s love of Maleficent as a positive thing. Of course, those around her don’t and that’s where societies beliefs damage us and how easily if turns us. Oh, and the magic here is slight but so significant.

Recommended. 

SFR: Mono no Aware by Ken Lui (2012)

future_is_japaneseTitle:  Mono no Aware (2012)
Author: Ken Lui
Source: The Future is Japanese

One Word Review: Sweet

One Line Review: A threat to Earth sends of 1000 people from Earth and Lui deftly navigates the present and the past to give us someone to care about.

One Paragraph Review: Until I got to the end I was hoping that this would be an episodic piece as we’re transported to a ship that is traveling near the speed of light to a destination outside our solar system (61 Virgins) and it makes a good setting to dip into to see how they are getting on. But Lui is focusing on the child of Hiroto as he ends up on this ship and the part he plays when he gets there. I’m a little sad it was so short as I’d liked to have seen what Lui would do with the other people on the ship though the relationship element  sadly does boarder on saccharine.

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