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 (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.