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.
Seven 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.
Speaking 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.
Speaking 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.
The 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.