Book Reviews (13)

books 13

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

I somehow hadn’t read either Pratchett or Gaiman before, so I joined seemingly everyone else in reading their joint story of the apocalypse going wrong. It’s a playful blend of funny and dark elements, with great turns of phrase and imagination, like when the demon Crowley ‘blessed under his breath’.

The Antichrist getting into new-age magazines, the corporate-training-paintball-thing, Aziraphale’s attempt at stage-magic despite being an actual angel, the holy water: there’s fantastic memorable scenes.

Like Ally said there’s the odd bit like ‘prease to frasten sleatbert’ (no enormous deal for me, but, eh). I would’ve liked a bit more of the sinister notes too, but taste varies.

Milkman – Anna Burns

An account of the Troubles from ‘middle sister’ in an anonymous town, with conflict brewing in an environment of rumour and sternly enforced unwritten rules. Another story of simmering darkness lightened with absurdity, but with a very different feel.

Burns captures a mood of conflict and rumour baked in community life – a place where there are acceptable or unacceptable baby names, films, even brands of butter; depending on political/sectarian allegiance. Along with the Troubles, there’s an intriguing feminist angle. Middle sister’s wry narration addresses the town’s perception of the feminist ‘issues women’, the policing of men for proper masculinity (with enjoying cooking or viewing sunsets being suspect), and the psychology of unwanted sexual attention going unrecognised as a form of threatening harassment (if they’re not touching you, it can’t be violent).

The absurd elements keep a current of laugh-worthy wit through what would have been dense and depressing by itself. The humour shifts the tone brilliantly, with great side characters like tablets girl, nuclear boy, or chef.

The language is evocative while maintaining the air of protective secrecy, with turns of phrase steeped in implication. The style is thoroughly distinctive, although the first third is slow in places and the dialogue can be a bit stodgy and unrealistic. I see what Burns was going for with the speeches filtered through middle sister’s knotted mind, told in her non-committal and defensive style, but some more direct straightforward speech could’ve been a nice contrast.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne

The mysterious Captain Nemo takes unwilling guests on a journey under the seas in a submarine far advanced for its time.

It’s a unique view of the world, with lush description of marine vistas. There is a fair amount of specialist vocab and exposition in there, explaining the submarine and doing sums. Unless you know the names of a lot of marine species, you’ll find your eye glazing at points, unsure what you’re meant to be picturing.

Definitely a bit stiff in style and dialogue – but it’s an enjoyable voyage, with striking scenes and interesting thoughts.

The Spellgrinder’s Apprentice – N.M. Browne

An orphan boy runs from his apprenticeship grinding spellstones, an escape punishable by death, but this doesn’t explain why the island’s tyrannical ruler is hunting him: fearing a return of true magic to threaten his power.

A quick easy read with deft worldbuilding and strong characters, magic and betrayal. The plot packs in a good clip of action and connecting threads. I last read this when I was a lot younger so half-remembered a few surprises, but it still holds up as a clever adventure with deep details, like how magically providing bread affects the market for farmers. Vevena’s ways of working around her curse make for inspired writing.

The dodgy comma placement is annoying, though.

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Book Reviews (12)

Books (12)

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala tells the story of race and class in his life – featuring interactions with police, violence growing up, racist experiences throughout his education – and places it in a wider social and historical context.

His deeply informed and nuanced analysis picks apart narratives of ‘black-on-black crime’ (were the Troubles or Glasgow’s gangs ‘white-on-white crime’?); exposes our shallow self-serving vision of the end of the slave trade (which omits the role of slave rebellions); reveals Cuba’s significance in fighting apartheid; and much more.

Akala uses history and data to place his own experiences in the context of a class-stratified society forged in racialised imperialism, and unable to face up to the reality of its past or present. All more clear and readable than I’m making it sound.

Here he is talking about this stuff.

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy – Mariana Mazzucato

In mainstream neoclassical economics, things are seen as valuable to the extent they fetch a price on the market – reflected through supply, demand, and marginal utility. Mazzucato contrasts this ‘marginalism’ with earlier theories of what value is, how it’s generated, and how it may be extracted – arguing that as economics largely stopped debating the meaning of value, it has become easier for value extraction to masquerade as value creation.

The financial sector fetches a price on the market, but much of it is hardly ‘productive’. Often profits are ‘justified’ by risk-taking, but most of the real risk is taken in prior public investment and not rewarded. Inflated medicine prices are unjustified by research costs, and the argument their prices are high in proportion to benefit to society is false and has unacceptable implications (how expensive should water be?).

The public sector is undervalued, making it more vulnerable to capture by supposed ‘wealth creators’. Short-termism is incentivised, with firms spending astronomical sums on share buy-backs to please shareholders (instead of wages and investment). GDP has bizarre holes – if a company cleans up its own pollution that’s a cost which reduces GDP, if someone else is paid to clean up then GDP rises because paying workers adds value!

Marginalism is riddled with problems. Mazzucato doesn’t present a new alternative theory of value – the book’s long enough, to be fair – but calls for renewed debate about it to give rise to better policy. She does have a range of reasonable prescriptions, like using a financial transaction tax to incentivise long-term investment, nationalising natural monopolies such as energy, and upholding ‘stakeholders’ rather than shareholders.

I’m no economist, but I couldn’t help feeling she kept dodging the implications for capitalism itself. If landlords extract value, while there are more empty homes than homeless people, should housing even be a market commodity you can earn money just by owning and renting out? Isn’t the logical endpoint of ‘stakeholders>shareholders’ (at very least) Jeff Bezos losing a great deal of ownership and influence to all those employees he’s got pissing in bottles? If value doesn’t really track price, might markets and the profit-motive be inherently problematic means of arranging production and exchange? Important questions, but the answers are taken for granted here.

Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor

A man’s body is found lying in his dilapidated flat. Those who knew him watch from the sidelines as he is investigated, their stories of homelessness and heroin addiction unfurling in a close, intense portrayal of troubled lives.

This can be difficult to read, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the chronology is stretched and shuffled, speech merging into narration, sentences occasionally fragmented and paragraphs tumbling out of control. But if you can stick with it, you come to find the rhythm of the prose and the story, with each crisply depicted moment and detail adding to something deeply compelling, informed, and empathic.

There are some fantastically beautiful evocative passages, and the darkness is tempered by the humanity of the characters and moments of humour – ‘I don’t think I’d even have mental health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?’

From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A  t h i c c  graphic novel exploring the case of Jack the Ripper. More than a theory of occult conspiracy and a story of legendary violence, it’s also an inspired depiction of the Victorian world and the birth of the modern age, reflecting on power and our fascination with evil.

Campbell’s simple but expressive black-and-white imagery fits the time period, portraying vistas of London as well as graphic brutality. The style complements the mood of Moore’s writing, rendered in suitably rough font – though I sometimes wanted it a little clearer or bigger.

The story is fascinating and multi-layered, going beyond the murders themselves to delve into the police drama and to highlight the victims; who are treated as meaningful in themselves, and to whom the work is dedicated. All the characters are convincing, their interactions showing different perspectives and places in society, backed by research, understanding, and wit.

Book Reviews (11)

books 11

Four Roads Cross – Max Gladstone

Back to the Craft Sequence with the sequel to Three Parts Dead. In the wake of what happened there, Kos’s shareholders attempt a hostile takeover while protests, zombie traffickers and demonic incursions rock the city.

Great stuff. Tara develops further in the odd position of Craftswoman for a god in a world where they don’t tend to mix well, while aware that staying in the firm would’ve paid much better. Cat and Raz have fun interactions, and the whole vampirism thing was inspired – really fresh sides to the idea. The farmer’s market subplot and characters were okay, but not quite as interesting.

Gladstone’s fusion of the bizarre and realistic – contracts as magical structures, student debts laying claims on one’s soul, market fluctuations in a fire god’s church threatening global economics – forms an insightful fun-house mirror reflection of reality.

There were little points where I found things weird for the sake of weird, but, as usual, the wildly unique ideas and plot notes tie up into an overall logic with an action-packed conclusion.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Allies lost WW2, with the US divided between Japan and Germany. In a neutral buffer zone lives the writer of an underground bestseller, telling a story where the Allies won. The characters deal with everyday life in occupied territory, take part in risky plots, and witness a power vacuum open at the top of the Reich.

The story takes place mainly in the Japanese-run Pacific States of America. The way power relations work in ordinary life here is masterful. The natives hate or fear the ruling Japanese, while adopting their customs and coming to view them as subtly superior. As lives interconnect, reflecting recurring Taoist themes, relatively benign Japanese rule is contrasted with the spectre of Nazism. The Fascist regime is presented as a nihilistic madness which has swept genocide through Europe and Africa, papering over the cracks in its instability with technological grandstanding.

The only character I couldn’t connect with much is Juliana – she seems quite vague, blown about passively by events and the I Ching. Why did she join Joe on that trip, exactly? Maybe I’m missing something, but some of those segments were the few areas where an otherwise deeply considered world and psychological nuance slipped.

The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

Very t h i c c and very good. It’s hard to summarise the plot: a Queendom without an heir, dragons, international ideological conflict, an ancient enemy rising.

Ead has a fantastic arc, sent from the mages of the Priory to secretly protect the initially cold-seeming Queen Sabran. Both of them grow substantially through the novel, while far in the east the dragonrider Tané pursues her ambition, at great risk, through some of the most intriguing and emotive parts of the book. Loth felt like he should have been interesting, but didn’t quite click for me – though the gruff but complicated alchemist Niclays was a strong character.

The core ‘ancient enemy rising’ plot thread tying all this together was the weakest aspect for me. That threat felt distant and amorphous much of the time, coming in rapidly near the end. I liked the mythology, drawing on St George and other lore, and the tension springing from different regions’ perspective on it clashing. But this involved a fair amount of exposition and exposition disguised as dialogue.

The court intrigue, character arcs, and personal and political conflicts are where Priory shines. Those aspects are richly crafted, forming the real heart of the book. Well-developed characters, rivalries, friendships and relationships more than make up for the flaws, with enough compelling drama and fantasy for novels in their own right.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (trans. Ralph McCarthy)

Frank, an American tourist, hires Kenji for a guided tour of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife. Kenji swiftly finds himself swept along with Frank’s real murderous desires, in a novel described on the cover as ‘American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad.’

I was expecting a bit of 3edgy5me escapism, but this isn’t gritty so much as grotty. The atmosphere is mainly… empty. Yeah, there are some shocking gory scenes, and some nicely executed tension as Kenji attempts to keep his unpredictable client placated. The overwhelming mood, though, is loneliness and materialism and cultural void.

Sometimes that atmosphere feels thoughtful, as when Kenji muses on the ‘matchmaking pub’ cruddy furniture, the blank face of the man running it, the lonely and desperate characters trying vainly to assert themselves or connect with others. Other times it comes off as bland nihilism, not backed up by deeper engagement with setting or culture or character. I don’t know much about Japan, but this doesn’t feel like a convincing, disturbing portrayal of anywhere. It feels more like Murakami needs to get some sun and lighten up.

I can appreciate certain scenes. But as a whole, this doesn’t feel real enough to be creepy. Frank’s violence doesn’t mean much unless it’s somewhat explicable – rather than a cheap, ‘oh, he’s just insane’. Without more of a human counterpoint – which Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun, was supposed to be, though why is he dating a 16-year-old? – for a contrasting element of substance, the empty mood detracts from the threat.

Book Reviews (10)

books (10)

The New Poverty – Stephen Armstrong

75 years on from the Beveridge Report, Armstrong’s book explores the hidden poverty caused in the UK in recent years. He speaks to people affected by unemployment, in-work poverty, exploitative conditions, and the increasingly vindictive benefits system – as well as the organisers doing their best to address the problems.

I’ve read a fair amount about some of these issues. However, Armstrong investigates important factors that I hadn’t seen represented before: the rise in DIY dentistry(!); the decline in local news reporting and its impact on democracy and corruption in local government; how lack of internet access and computer illiteracy impacts access to vital services.

A distressing picture of entirely unnecessary struggle. People shouldn’t have to resort to pulling their own tooth out, but apparently that’s where we are.

All The Fabulous Beasts – Priya Sharma

16 bizarre, macabre, gothic short stories.

Sharma’s writing is elegant, concise, and deeply atmospheric. The stories focus on family, relationships, parenting, love and loss. Some of them were a bit opaque, with fantastical elements coming out of nowhere in a way that didn’t quite land; while some others felt a bit too obvious with their symbolic meaning.

All of them, though, are well developed, with a highly distinctive style conveyed in their details, characters, and turns of phrase. I most liked ‘Pearls’, a retelling of the story of Medusa with brilliant attention to character and modern concerns. As a collection, these fit together well, giving a cohesive overview of the sort of things Sharma writes about and her approach to storytelling.

Here’s the story Egg. If you like that, you’ll enjoy the rest of these.

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

The India Office sends injured expeditionary Merrick Tremayne to Peru, to get cinchona trees so the British Empire can produce its own quinine to treat malaria.

Like in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Pulley combines a well-realised historical setting and convincing characters with intricate, highly imaginative magical realism. There are nice cameos from Keita, which may be a bit confusing to people who haven’t read her first book, but I like that this is all one cohesive world.

This time the magical element takes a very different and unique angle, though it again involves time, and again intersects perfectly with the characters’ lives and their society.

The presentation of the India Office (formerly East India Company) is a deeply researched window into how imperialism worked at the time, and the natural friction between Merrick and Clem approaches similar themes – all with an unpretentious deft touch.

My only real quibbles are that some aspects of worldbuilding near the end felt like they escalated in scope a bit too suddenly to swallow, and that I couldn’t quite picture the layout of Bedlam clearly. Overall, though, another immersive work of magical realism showcasing what the genre can do.

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!’ Dorian wishes, beginning a descent into an aesthete’s cold hedonism that led critics at the time to moral outrage.

At first I struggled with this. Lord Wotton rambling on in pseudo-deep paradoxes (‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’ ‘The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.’) and nothing much going on – certainly nothing really scandalous by modern standards.

But then Wilde simmered down on the self-indulgent speeches, things started happening, and it was great. Some dazzling writing, capturing Dorian’s twisted state of mind as his corruption advances and his suppressed conscience stirs. It’s still hard to see how everyone was so shocked by this book, since it’s actually… clearly moral in its message? (Aside from the casual anti-semitism, etc…)

Sometimes irritating, but becomes a compelling psychological downward spiral.

Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.

Book Reviews (8)

Books 8

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

PI Doc Sportello investigates a plot to kidnap a real estate mogul at the close of the sixties in California, becoming caught up in a complex, colourful tangle of hippies, cops, and criminals.

He’s a convincing and complex character, an analytically-gifted dope fiend steeped in counterculture, scornful of the LAPD and authorities – concerned the lifestyle he knows is slipping away as political tides shift. The large, diverse cast is well-realised, but with many characters slipping in and out fluidly, and many plot layers forming, it can be hard to keep track. Some plot threads seem to not quite come together – but perhaps this reflects the effects of Doc’s own recreational habits.

There’s brilliant humour and wordplay, like the ‘plastricrats’ living off credit, and Pynchon somehow managed to keep weed-culture humour fresh and funny. The absurd events and trains of thought provide a psychedelic romp atmosphere to this tie-dye noir, though someone who remembers more of the period would pick up on jokes and references I didn’t.

I couldn’t believe this came out in 2009 – Pynchon’s nostalgia for this time seems so strong. But was it really as rosy a period as it’s presented through Doc’s eyes? There’s a strong current of objectifying women here, for a start. The book’s stances on police wrongdoing, American foreign policy, etc, seem to come packaged with a not particularly critical view of the excesses and flaws of Doc and his associates.

The writing is amazing; the plot a bit knotty but balanced with levity; a time, place, and spirit evoked to entertain us while also challenging our own time and priorities.

On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky

I found ‘Who Rules the World?’ a bit long, while this could have used being a little longer. It’s a little book packing a lot of content: discussing the ideas of key anarchist thinkers; the Spanish Revolution; the disagreement with state socialism; responses to various questions and concerns; and how classical liberal ideas, taken to their conclusions, can actually imply anti-capitalist or anarchist perspectives.

The word is commonly associated with ‘chaos’, conjuring images of masked mobs throwing bricks, but this has nothing to do with the philosophy. Chomsky describes the core of it as being that ‘the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.’ In the case of capitalism, he points to ideas from the 19th century labour movement in America, which responded to early industrial capitalism as ‘wage slavery’ in which a worker rents themselves to factory owners for a wage, and had ‘the assumption, just taken for granted, that those who work in the mills should own them.’

For Chomsky traditional anarchism is ‘an antistate branch of socialism, which meant a highly organised society, nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally.’

What’s here is compelling and readable – there just isn’t quite enough of it. Some points could use more elaboration. If you’re not already fairly far to the libertarian left, you’ll have questions and disagreements that Chomsky doesn’t take much time to address in detail. However, this is a very good introduction to powerful ideas, worth reading for an exposure to the Spanish Revolution alone.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Owen Jones

This is an excellent book, examining how class war has been waged by the elite against the majority from Thatcher through to Cameron and New Labour: looking at regressive policy, the media’s demonising stance, and the realities you won’t find in the Daily Mail.

With the demise of industry and crushing of the unions, millions lost reliable work, falling into unemployment and under-employment in exploitative service-sector roles. As social problems naturally resulted in formerly bustling areas, an anti-social minority (‘chavs’, an inherently classist slur) were unfairly cast as representative of whole communities.

[As] our society has become less equal and in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. […] What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? […] if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it [but] if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom.

Successive governments peddled the idea that aspiration isn’t about workers as a whole improving conditions, but about individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle class – leaving behind, supposedly, a feckless, wilfully unemployed, benefit-cheating rump.

Problems caused by neoliberalism and austerity were blamed on individuals. Rare instances of depravity were signal-boosted in the media to suit a narrative – while the larger crimes of the wealthy were minimised. This provided justification for the welfare state to be further undermined to incentivise hard work (whether or not opportunities were actually available!), making inequality worsen.

Jones says that, ‘it was the might of the working class that was once mocked and despised. But, today, with their power smashed into pieces, the working class can be safely insulted as tracksuit-wearing drunken layabouts with a soft spot for Enoch Powell.’ He has hope that this power can be restored, the class war waged back: making suggestions along the lines of a Green New Deal, a national programme to build socially owned housing, more progressive taxation, more co-operatives, and bringing back the ability of unions to really stand up for workers.

Passionate and deeply researched.

The White Book – Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)

It’s difficult to summarise this. Biographical prose poetry? Each short chapter shines with evocative imagery and crisp prose, brimming with beauty, grief, and thoughtful reflection on life. The narrator thinks back to an older sister that died just after birth, and how if she had lived then the narrator wouldn’t have been born – a life possible because of that loss. A present rooted in the past, the present continually falling away into an unknown future as one branch of possibility is selected instead of all the others.

That sounds really heavy, but the writing is delicate and meditative, focused on simple images and moments. Just because this is experimental and has deep themes doesn’t make it at all hard to read or appreciate. The translation retains a sense of the original Korean, representing some idioms literally, which is a nice touch.

Book Reviews (7)

reviews7

Pact – Wildbow

(Webserial: read it here)

‘Blake Thorburn was driven away from home and family by a vicious fight over inheritance, returning only for a deathbed visit with the grandmother who set it in motion. Blake soon finds himself next in line to inherit the property, a trove of dark supernatural knowledge, and the many enemies his grandmother left behind her in the small town of Jacob’s Bell.’

Considering it’s basically a first draft, another impressive work from the writer of the acclaimed and massive superhero serial Worm. Pact successfully brings the Wildbow disturbed imagination and fast pace to urban fantasy.

The magic system and worldbuilding are great fun, following rules while allowing for clever use of them. The demons have real menace – in many horror films they’re basically just strong and possess people, while here they have abilities like ‘permanently block access to higher realms upon death’ or ‘delete you and all memory of you from existence’. It’s speculated that the universe wouldn’t be so empty if not for them. Heck.

Which makes it disappointing there aren’t more demons. The plot goes in some really interesting directions, but also misses opportunities to show things it should have. Making the reader expect one thing then swerving course can be a boss move, but what if I still really want to see what I was expecting to? The other key quibble is that all the conflict/treachery/let’s-screw-with-Blake can get tiring, and too many characters are just awful people.

There are some incredible ideas, characters, and nice flourishes like the ‘group chat chapter’. I have complaints, but this was basically a first draft written at breakneck speed – and it’s still well worth a shot if you aren’t too squeamish.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley

A compelling and charming work of magical realism, set mainly in an intricately realised 1884 London.

Thaniel Steepleton, a Home Office telegraphist living his life on autopilot, is saved from a bomb by a pocketwatch someone placed in his room. He becomes entangled with its maker, the enigmatic Japanese immigrant Keita Mori, and Grace Carrow, a woman trying to prove the existence of ether before she is forced to marry – events spiralling out between possible futures and opposing geniuses.

The characters jump off the page, and the plot is full of surprises, the various elements coming together elegantly. The magical realist element was unexpected, but makes a lot of sense and is used to great effect. The different ways Thaniel and Grace respond to it drives tensions, resting on a strong bedrock of psychological realism in which both their perspectives are highly believable, making the reader question who’s right.

Recommended!

Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero

The concept of a Lovecraftian riff on Scooby-Doo where the grown-up (and messed-up) meddling kids reunite and return to a case that wasn’t just a guy in a mask – hell yes. The execution… is a very mixed bag.

When it gets going it’s pretty fun, and the characters are generally entertaining (albeit one-dimensional), particularly the dog, Tim. If this were a film it’d be the sort of bad but good one that’s dumb as hell but keeps you watching, like a Sharknado or Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. The book randomly veers off into script format sometimes, leaning into that atmosphere – but it’s still a distracting stylistic choice.

Some of the writing is definitely more ‘bad’ than ‘bad but good’:

Bruises sprawled throughout his slender chest and arms like industrial developments in nineteenth-century Britain.

The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.

Kerri’s hand was warm and white and so rarely soft like one of the only three species of flowers native to Antarctica.

She was joyfully drowning in Kerri’s hair, its fragrance and softness pounding on her senses like a cheerful Mongol army banging on the gates of Baghdad.

Kerri’s hair did get tiresome, and Andy (Andrea’s) attraction to her wasn’t handled that well: it was a bit creepy and more than a bit male-gazey. There’s also some trans comments that strike as ill-conceived. It’s unfortunate, because early in it feels like Cantero was trying to be #woke (Kerri tells Andy she thought she might have been trans, Andy clarifies she’s just a woman who doesn’t do traditional femininity).

Overall, I found this a fun ‘bad but good’ read with groan-worthy points here and there. Great concept, mixed execution.