Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Considering how long it’s been since I’ve visited my own blog, that means that this book had to be something special.  I gave it five stars and a little blurb on Goodreads, but sat here (at my uncomfortable computer desk so feel honoured Mr Aaronovitch) thinking that this book deserved more than just a quick link on Goodreads.  More people will probably read that little blurb on Goodreads than would possibly read this, but the urge to splurge some words hit me, and what is a blog for anyway, but to blurt out our innermost thoughts and feelings, no matter who or what might read them.

As a wannabe writer, my dream is to publish a reasonably well-written tale that is somewhat witty, and clever, and will make people sit up and take notice (and buy it).  I have become a critical reader now, looking for mistakes in others so that I may learn from them and not repeat those mistakes, but after a while, it sort of defeats the purpose of writing, which is to, well, write.  But sometimes, you read something so clever and witty and well-written, that you have to sit down and take your metaphorical hat off to them, because this book is one of those books.

Rivers of London starts off like this:

“It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory. Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’ – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport – like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling. Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head.”

I knew from the moment I read that first paragraph that I was on to something special.  I can’t believe it took me four years to find this book.  Imagine my utter joy when I realised that there are four more books in the series, already published.  That is the best thing about discovering something late.  You don’t get the angst of waiting.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes waiting is a good thing, but sometimes, you just want instant gratification.  That’s why I always wait for the full season of Game of Thrones to air before i watch the first episode.  That was beside the point.

This book is narrated by PC Peter Grant, a young constable in London, who encounters a ghost at the scene of a grisly murder (that would be the aforementioned headless body).  His paranormal encounter begins an adventure into a life that was hardly what he was expecting, having been told by his supervisor that he was destined to be a glorified clerk.  Aaronovitch’s witty style and grace and gorgeous attention to detail make this book an absolute pleasure to read.  The best part though, is the feeling of place while you read it.  I experienced London as if I was there again, even though I haven’t visited for over ten years. It all came flooding back, and the nostalgia was almost tangible.  I’m not sure how people who’ve never visited London will react to the book, but for me, this was the best part.

I recommend this book to lovers of paranormal fiction, crime fiction, fantasy fiction, fiction, non-fiction, the written word.  Basically, anyone who can read.

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher – Spoilers galore!!

I’m sure there have been many books written from the point of view of a dead protagonist.  That stalwart of chick shows Desperate Housewives is narrated by a dead person, most vampire fiction is from the point of view of the vampire who is, technically, dead.  But I can’t remember a time when I last read a book where the protagonist dies at the end of the previous one and then the next book is from the Point of View of their ghost.

That is the premise of Ghost Story (well it seems obvious now from the title that that was going to be the stor, der!!).  Now I am going to assume that if you are reading this review you are totally caught up on the whole Harry Dresden series and have either already read Ghost Story or are about to and don’t mind me spoiling the ending because that is what I am going to do here so no complaining in the comments!

At the end of the last book Changes, our intrepid hero Harry Dresden, finds himself finally rescuing his daughter and returning to Chicago where he has to hang out on his brother Thomas’ boat because his place was firebombed by the Red Court and no longer stands.  He has finally said to Murphy that they should get together (booyah I say!) and is waiting on the boat for her to arrive when bam! he is shot and falls into the depths of the lake and it all fades to black.  Now Butcher does not out and out say that he dies but it is pretty much implied.

The screams were heard for miles as we had to wait a year for the next installment and Ghost Story is it.  It takes up (we think) where it left off, with Harry thinking he is in Heaven or the other place H E Double Hockeysticks and he is soon disabused of that notion, being told that he has to go back to the mortal plain to find his killer.  The lives of three of his friends depend upon it.  Sigh, a wizards work is never done so of course Harry agrees, I mean, after all he’s been through it would be too much to ask to enjoy his afterlife wouldn’t it?  (Of course that would be a very boring book so no dice there)

When Harry gets to the mortal plain he finds that as a ghost he cannot affect anything except other ghosts, and his magic has deserted him.  Considering that the thing I like most about the Dresden books is when Harry goes all ‘Forzare’ on the bad guys I was a little sceptical that this would have the same impact as the other books.

I do think this is a good book but I think this is more for the true fans of Harry, who like some back story.  I particularly liked where we see some of young Harry and how he was betrayed by Justin.  It satisfied something in me which I didn’t know I was missing.  The action heats up more in the second half of the book when his friends can see and hear him through the help of some magical creations and a couple of people who can naturally hear ghosts.  Then it gets back to some classic Dresden with the wisecracks and the quips flying in the usual style.

There are a couple of pop culture references (usually prevalent but in this instance very pivotal) to Classic Trek and Princess Bride which resonated quite deeply with this particular fan girl so it was comforting to know that Butcher too is a fan boy.

After going on at the top about spoilers, I won’t go into the ending too much, but needless to say that the general ending was pretty much how I thought it would go but the method was all I was missing.  Very entertaining but again a cliffhanger ending.  I have got to wonder just how long this series is going to last.  13 books so far and the story doesn’t appear to be close to ending.  And when is he going to get rid of those swords?  Sorry, now I am just fan girl ranting.

I recommend this book for fans of the Dresden Series.  I don’t know what you would think coming into this fresh without all the background information.  You would most likely be totally lost in the first chapter and give up in disgust.

A Review of A Wind in Cairo by Judith Tarr

In one of my previous blogs I was going on about old favourites.  One of the books in my bookshelf that has survived numerous moves and several overseas trips is ‘A Wind in Cairo’ by Judith Tarr.  My copy, printed in 1989, was bought then as well.  It is a small book by today’s doorstop standards with only 268 pages.  It is also a standalone, another rarity it today’s world of prequels, sequels and series.

I think that is one of the main reasons why I return to it so often.  I don’t have to reread a whole series, just the one little book.  It pulls me in and grabs me from the start, not letting me go until the finish.  It doesn’t matter how many times I have read it, it doesn’t matter that I know the ending already, it stands the test of the reread with flying colours.  I always find something new to discover every time I pick it up.

I starts out with Hasan, a spoiled prince of the blood of the Prophet.  He is a wastrel, a gambler, a womaniser and a drunk.  His father despairs of him ever changing and gives him an ultimatum that he is sending him to his friend, a Bedouin Sheikh to make a proper man of him.

I his disbelief and despair, Hasan goes on one last bender and offends a magi, the premier magician of Cairo.  He is cursed into the shape of a stallion and to be owned by a woman, something forbidden to his faith.

Hasan, as you can guess, is quite a handful to his new owner Zamaniyah, but she doesn’t give up on him and they become a great team.  As with all love stories, you can predict the ending almost from the start, but it never matters.  The journey is everything, rather than the destination.

You begin to fall in love with Hasan, even though he is a spoilt pampered prince and you hope it will all turn out well in the end, even though things look grim.

Judith is well known for her historical fantasies.  She combines a fantastical world with meticulous research into many different time periods.  In this one, it is set during the crusades but from the Arab point of view and that is a wonderful twist.  The fact that the main protagonist is a horse is beside the point, he still has a mind and his love for Zamaniyah is no less potent for being of the mind only.

I just checked Amazon and you can still buy this book.  I don’t know if it has been in print continuously all this time but that is pretty impressive and a testament to the quality of Judith’s writing.  I encourage everyone to check out her books, especially this one.

Review of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Well now I finally understand the massive lines for John Scalzi’s autograph at Aussiecon 4.  I must say that I am a latecomer when it comes to his books.  Before Aussiecon 4 I hadn’t heard much about Scalzi’s books although I had heard his name in passing.  I am not a great reader of Science Fiction per se, preferring the sweeping epics of fantasy or the torrid paranormal romances that are taking over the shelves at the moment.

After starting this blog I started reading a lot of other blogs about reviewing books.  It came to my attention that the majority of these blogs rated Old Man’s War in their Top 10 books.  That grabbed my interest as most of these people had very different tastes.  Another reason it grabbed my attention was that someone mentioned it had been optioned as a movie so I wanted to read it before someone could ruin it by making a movie out of it.

So while browsing my local library I saw a copy on the shelf and immediately grabbed it.  Instead of getting several books at a time like I normally do, I limited myself to just this book so I could have no reason to delay reading it.  (Sometimes I do that, I don’t know why but I often really want to read a book but delay reading it so long I have to take it back to the library because someone else has booked it.  Mine is not to reason why)

I had guests staying with me this week (my parents so you have to be a good host) so my usual reading speeds were well down.  It took me 5 days to finish this book.  If I hadn’t had guests this weekend I think it would have been a single sitting.  I absolutely loved it!  It brought me faith that no matter how many books I read there will always be something good that I have missed.

The premise of the book is that in the future humans have colonised space and have come across innumerable alien species who also want the same planets that humans do.  Earth has been isolated from the rest of the known galaxy by the Colonial Defense Forces.  So the only humans who go into space are from the densely populated countries mostly in Asia.  Those others who want to go into space must go through the army.  There is no lack of volunteers for this army for the simple reason that recruits must be aged 75 and they know that somehow when they join they will be made young again.

The story is in first person from the point of view of John Perry.  It starts like this:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday.  I visited my wife’s grave.  Then I joined the army.”

We follow John’s adventures as he discovers new friends, goes to exotic locales, meets new aliens, and kills them.  John’s experiences throughout his life and his wry outlook on life help him through some very tough moments.

Scalzi’s style throughout this book is quite gentle considering the subject matter.  In one scene, John is experiencing a crisis while fighting another alien species all of one inch tall.  He breaks down after being told to stomp the little aliens to death.  You are so absorbed with John’s suffering you don’t really comprehend that they are basically going Godzilla on these aliens.  Until John points it out.  And then you feel a bit queasy, like he does.

This tale gently moves from his friendships forming, to being in battle, to a final twist which brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.  While it isn’t particularly fast moving at times, that didn’t bother me much as the writing was excellent and the simple interactions between characters was interesting and pertinent to the story.

I recommend this novel for both lovers of pure sf and also those who are interested in stories that favour characterisation.  I am glad I have come to this late as I noticed there are a couple of sequels already published.  I am looking forward to them very much.

Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I have been a long time fan of Neil Gaiman.  His humour, his hollywood good looks (yes I hope Neil reads this), and his quirky sense of the surreal and the sublime.  Good Omens was one of my favourites for many years and I met him at a convention in Melbourne in 2005 which only reinforced my love for all things Gaiman. 

I loved Stardust, I loved Coraline and I was ecstatic when he won the Hugo award for American Gods.  but somehow I never got around to reading it.  Oh I had every intention, there were many times I would borrow it from the library, or look at it in a bookshop and think, Oh I should get that, it’s bound to be good reading, and I would look at the blurb and think, maybe later.  It wasn’t until just this week that I actually got around to reading the book everybody always told me was worth the reading.

Let me just say from the start that everybody else was right.  This is certainly a great read.  As a wannabe writer, but one who never seems to ever get any words on a page, whether through lack of imagination or lack of confidence in one’s self, or, dare I say it, a lack of talent, I am constantly amazed and very often jealous at the sheer imagination and talent of some authors out there.

American Gods is a tour de force in mythology.  Whether Gaiman knew about these gods in advance and simply slotted them in to his story or whether he did copious amounts of research I am unsure and certainly couldn’t be bothered looking it up (maybe that is my problem – although this column is called confessions of a lazy girl after all), but the sheer amount of different mythologies involved boggles the mind.

While I was reading this I was immersed in a world of gods and mythological creatures, from the All Father, Odin to kobolds and the Fates.  They were all there, and reminders of tales I had read in the past.  How glorious was the thought that early settlers brought their gods with them when they moved to a new country.  How shivery was the feeling that the cause of all those missing children was through sacrifice to an entity so that life could be nice and pleasant, without the misery of the surrounding towns descending into high unemployment and obscurity.

I was particularly taken with the almost pathetic reality of these former gods as they became lost in obscurity, but never really dying, having to hold down day jobs as they are no longer worshipped, becoming grifters and criminals, or whores, or comedians (still not quite sure who he was referencing in that brief moment).  It is, to me, a comment on the fickleness of fame, and the fickleness of man.  What can be worshipped by the masses in one moment, is forgotten in the next.  Even the modern gods, those of Media and Technology and mysterious government agencies, were worried about the length of their time as gods and how long they would remain supreme before even more modern gods took their place.

The meandering journey of the mysterious Mr Wednesday and Shadow, his human assistant (who are the two main protagonists of the book) through small town America to find all the old gods and call them to war, was a fascinating montage of the quirky and the tacky.  How many of those places mentioned were actually real I don’t know, but Gaiman was quick to point out at the start of the book that he wouldn’t recommend trying to recreate the journey as a lot of it was in his imagination.  (And what an imagination that is – yes I really want Neil to read this).

Reading about the city on the Rock and all the tacky fairy tale figures carved out of stone, and visitors wondering after their visit what they were really doing there reminded me of many a visit to some tourist attraction where I began to think why on earth was this a tourist attraction?  I think that was another reason why I loved this book.  Gaiman’s way of bringing you into a story, even one with such a fantastical plot, and making you feel that you could relate to the main character, (although really why he didn’t boggle more once he figured out the secret is beyond me), was incredibly well done.  Although there weren’t as many belly laughs as I was expecting, Gaiman being an incredibly witty writer and tweeter (again – yes I am hoping he reads this), there was a black humour behind it all that was subtle but apparent (did that sentence even make sense?).

I am glad I came late to this book as I now know there is another, Anansi Boys, which I will happily chase down and read as well.  I haven’t really gone into the plot of this book as most of the people who read this (if any and hopefully one of them Neil) will have either already read it, be familiar with the plot, or if not, can look it up on Wikipedia, where they go to so much trouble to ruin it for everyone by rehashing the whole story. (That is a rant for another day!)

I hope to hear some recommendations from others on books that should be read, that I have somehow missed or never got around to, like this gem of a novel that should be on everyone’s must read list.

Cheers

Paula

Review of The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

I has been quite a while now since I have read a novel by Orson Scott Card.  I went through a phase after reading Enders Game where I devoured anything written by Card.  I absolutely loved the Alvin Maker tales and one of my all time favourite books is Treason, a stand alone novel which is all too rare in the SF genre.

I read a blurb about The Lost Gate and was quite excited about it.  It looked to be something new and different, another thing quite rare in the SF genre.  It is about a young boy, Danny North, who has grown up knowing that magic existed.  His whole family, living in a compound like some freak religious cult, have magic.  Whether it be his Uncle Zog, who can control animals, to his father who was a Rockbrother, someone who can control metal.  Danny himself has no magic.  He is a ‘drekka’, looked down upon by his talented family, constantly harassed by his numerous cousins.

To escape the torment Danny runs a lot.  He often runs so fast he doesn’t know how he got there.  Then one morning, while babysitting the girls and trying to make them mind, he does something impossible.  He gates.  Gatemages have been hunted for centuries.  They are the reason that all the magical families have declined to their current pathetic state.  Those families, who were once gods on earth, used to use the gates to go to another world.  Upon returning from that world their powers would increase exponentially and they were as gods to the poor humans.

Loki, a Gatemage, closed all the great gates, preventing them from increasing their powers.  The families’ powers declined over the centuries and the continual warfare between them meant that any Gatemage born to the families was killed so that no family would have the advantage over the other.

Once Danny realises his power he knows he must make his own way in the world and find out how to use a power that nobody has had in hundreds of years.  He leaves all he has known to go out and learn what he can about his powers and about himself.

This is a classic coming of age story, although I thought the main character, Danny, was a bit of a smart ass and difficult to relate to.  I think more could have been done with the characters in this, although I did find it compelling reading.  Danny’s adventures, while fairly tame, follow a progression of learning and he steadily becomes more of a real person towards the end of the novel.  This is obviously the first in a long series, as nothing much really happens in this one.  The other story, taking place on another world, seems to have a little more promise, with another gatemage who turns out to have a lot of secrets.

It is obvious these two characters will become either allies or enemies in the next novel, as there is really no-one in either world who can stand against them.

While I quite enjoyed reading this novel, it hardly compares with the emotionally wrenching Enders Game, which I feel to be one of the classics of the last couple of decades.  It was pleasant but I think the next novel needs to step it up a notch in the action department otherwise readers will lose interest.  I am looking forward to the next novel but not enough to count the days, if you know what I mean?