Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Ben Aaronovitch – The Hanging Tree

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.

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Christopher Priest – The Gradual

The Gradual is a book with some good ideas that doesn’t really live up to its potential. It also has one of the best hooks I’ve read this year – with the first chapter teasing a time travel element to the story that doesn’t really surface until halfway through the book.

I’m a sucker for fantasy/science fiction, and so the anticipation of the time travel twist – and exactly how it would work in Christopher Priest’s world –  is part of what fuelled me through the first half of the book. So it kinda surprised me when the time travel element of the book ended up being dull and unsatisfying. It slowed the pace of the novel down to a crawl (ironic?), and hindered the second half of the book from resolving the events of the first half very well.

In fact, the lacklustre second half just made me realise how strong the first half of the novel really was. For me, this was the first time that the introduction of a fantastical element has been a novel’s turning point for the worse rather than the better.

The Gradual focuses on the life of Alesandro Sussken, a famed musician who lives in the fictional country of Glaund. Throughout his musical career he finds himself repeatedly drawn to a set of islands that reside off the coast of Glaund that are forbidden to residents of his country. However, one day, a life changing opportunity comes along and Sussken is given the chance to take part in a musical tour of the islands.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that though – tons of different story threads and an impressive number of characters. This description only skims the surface of the novel’s first half, but trust me when I say it’s engaging. Things move at a slow pace in the first half (not quite as slow as the second), but Priest manages to keep things interesting. He builds up a series of mysteries that keep the reader engaged – craving to find out where they’ll lead to. By jumping between the different mysteries regularly, Priest keeps the book engaging while not actually having to move along any of the storylines too much. It’s a style that works for the most part.

But again, the second half… It isn’t as awful as I might be making it out to be (and the final twenty or so pages are pretty moving), but Priest just seems to squander all the anticipation he builds up. More storylines are introduced, making the book feel overstuffed, and none of them really seem to go anywhere. Mysteries are stacked on top of mysteries, and in the end only a few of them are really resolved.

I’ve got nothing against ambiguity, but the way Priest uses it in The Gradual just rubs me up the wrong way. It seems like he leaves many of his storylines’ endings ambiguous because he knows that the solutions to his mysteries have no way of being half as interesting as the mysteries themselves.

There’s definitely a fantastic book in here, and it’s worth reading just for the parts where it really shines.

China Miéville – This Census Taker

As I’ve noted before, I normally either love or hate a China Miéville book.  They either suck me up like few other authors’ books do, or I find them overstuffed and dull. This Census-Taker, Miéville’s new novella, falls somewhere in the middle (leaning more towards the love side). It doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest books (like The Scar and The City and the City) but it definitely isn’t a slog. In fact, if anything, I wish it was longer.

Focusing on a boy who lives with his parents on a remote hilltop, This Census-Taker tells a story of loss with a magical realism edge to it. The boy’s mother and father both have mysterious pasts and mysterious talents – his father, for example, is able to craft magical keys that do much more than open doors… But when a traumatic incident tears his home apart, the boy is forced to reach into the wider world for help.

It’s difficult to say too much about this book without giving too much of it away. Miéville is an author I normally associate with huge lengthy novels, and This Census-Taker is easily one of his shortest works (it is a novella, after all). It’s short enough that even describing the opening of the book feels like a spoiler… So I’ll keep things vague. Though the book is fantasy based, it is so on a smaller scale than most of Miéville’s stories. It’s packed with a bunch of weird ideas – such as a mysterious hole where the boy’s family throw their rubbish – enough to probably fill a novel.

There’s a lot of characters as well, but most of them don’t get a lot of page time – such as the titular census taker. This is something that works to the book’s advantage in some ways… Because of the short length, Miéville is able to keep things vague and mysterious. Just as we’re getting to know the world it’s snatched away from us, creating a need to savour the few details that we’re given. Because each idea and character is addressed fairly briefly, none of them stick around long enough to become tedious or dull. (In this sense it’s the complete opposite of Kraken.)

But… while this may be one of the novel’s strengths, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was its biggest weakness as well. The story feels like its only getting started when it draws to a close. Though I’m sure the author envisioned This Census-Taker as a novella, it certainly has an abrupt feel to it. It feels as though, I dunno, the author gets bored of the world before the reader does. Some parts of the novella feel well rounded and finished, but others do not. There’s just too many loose ends for my liking – too many things set up that don’t go anywhere.

But like I said, what’s here is solid – though perhaps not worth the price of admission. Maybe he wrote the story as a novella simply to ensure that the reader is left wanting more…? But then again, I was left wanting more with Perdido Street Station and that was over 800 pages long.

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men

Cormac McCarthy… Man, does the guy know how to tell a story. I was pretty impressed with his bleak representation of the apocalypse in The Road, but I think No Country for Old Men might be even better. It’s similarly bleak and similarly difficult to read to begin with – who needs speech marks? – but once you get into it, it’s difficult to get out.

At its core, the plot of No Country for Old Men is pretty simple; Llewelyn Moss, a mostly normal guy, decides to take some money that belongs to some very dangerous people, and, as a result, gets an incredibly ruthless murderer on his tail. A game of cat and Moss (ha!) plays out across the country while Ed Bell, a sheriff close to retirement, tries to find Llewelyn before anyone else does.

McCarthy rarely strays from the cat and mouse plot, and the novel is mainly impressive due to how well he tells it. No Country for Old Men demonstrates that a great story doesn’t need a big complicated plot, and in fact a simple one told well is frequently more powerful. The characters are fleshed out through small moments, and McCarthy avoids exposition whenever necessary.

For example, Chigurh, the man hunting down Llewelyn, has no past as far as the novel is concerned. McCarthy doesn’t try to explain the monster he’s created by giving him a traumatic backstory or anything – he’s just a ruthless killer. While this may suggest that he’s a pretty two-dimensional character, he really isn’t… Chigurh remains a mystery throughout the novel, following his own codes – sometimes flipping a coin to decide whether he should kill someone or not – but that’s what makes him so compelling. The same with Llewelyn. Why he becomes so committed to getting away with the money is left up to the reader. McCarthy understands that some things we do, and some of the ways we act, can’t really be explained. Too many stories are afraid to leave the reader in the dark a little bit.

And as the characters feel real, so does the way that the plot plays out. I won’t spoil anything, but No Country for Old Men is fantastic in the way that it just shuns narrative conventions. It doesn’t really have a three-act structure as such, and at times there’s not really a clear protagonist. These characters feel like real people reacting to things in the same way that real people would, and as a result it rarely feels like the author is manipulating them to create a particular situation or moment. Everything plays out realistically and still manages to remain interesting.

A common complaint about McCarthy is his minimalistic writing style, and I’ll admit that I had some trouble getting along with it at the beginning. With there being no speech marks, it was difficult to tell when someone was speaking at times… though only at first. After a few pages the story quickly sucked me in, and I found the lack of speech marks did nothing more than break down the barrier between the reader and the story. They’re just another signifier that you’re reading a book, and by McCarthy ditching them, it makes it easier to really be consumed by the story.

No Country for Old Men is just one of those books that reaffirms why I love novels so much. It’s the sort of book that can be enjoyed on two levels. You can just read it and enjoy it for the terrific story, or, if you want to, you can dig deeply into the characters and explore the novel’s themes. It’s both incredibly simplistic and incredibly complicated at the same time. And unlike most clever books (like a few of the ones I’ve reviewed recently) it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be clever – it doesn’t rub its cleverness in the reader’s face. It just reads as being effortlessly damn good.

Kei Miller – Augustown

Though Kei Miller’s Augustown is described as a novel, it really only is in the loosest sense. Really, it’s a collection of vignettes tied together by one location – Augustown – focusing on everyone from the poorest of beggars to the upper-class elite. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re hoping for a book with a propulsive plot, and twists and turns, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Despite the novel’s fractured style, everything connects to a central character: Ma Taffy. Living in the slums of Augustown – an infamous Jamaican town – Ma Taffy is seen as a pillar of the community by those around her. Everyone respects her, despite her being a blind elderly woman. However, something big is on the verge of happening in Augustown; a local gang member is hiding guns under Taffy’s house, Taffy’s niece has plans to rise from her low station and a school teacher is about to make the biggest mistake of his life… Everything is about to change.

Kei Miller’s novel is heavily invested in Jamaican culture in a way that someone with a Jamaican heritage could only write. It’s one of those books that educates as much as it tells a story – delving into the actual history of Augustown and the events that define it. One of the most interesting parts of Augustown focuses on a real prophet named Alexander Bedward who believed he could fly. It’s the perspective through which the author tells this story that makes it unique. It doesn’t read like a piece of non-fiction.

Like I said, Augustown is mainly a collection of vignettes – even if it is presented as and almost structured as a novel. Most people are likely to find the novel’s structure difficult… It jumps all over the place. While there is an overarching story, Miller’s detours make up most of the book. Just when you think the story is getting close to its climax, the author dives into an extended flashback or has a character tell a long story. It’s a difficult style of writing that’s frustrating to read at times. And while I don’t think this was the best way for Miller to structure the story he was trying to tell, it doesn’t stop they actual content of the book – the flashbacks and stories – from being powerful. There is one character in particular that the author does a great job of making the reader despise and pity at the same time.

Though Augustown really wasn’t what I expected it to be, I can’t deny that it’s a great book. It’s one of those novel’s that has a real heart and soul to it – it feels genuine in a way that’s rare.

David Means – Hystopia

Some of the best war novels are the weird ones; the ones that try to expose war for just how ridiculous and pointless it truly is. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are prime examples of this – the first easily being one of my favourite books – portraying war in an absurd manner rather than a serious one. David Means’ debut novel Hystopia tries to do this as well – just with much less success than those two books.

It’s hard to know where to start with the plot of this novel. Being presented as the work of a fictitious Vietnam veteran – supported by a lengthy ‘fake’ introduction – Hystopia focuses on a series of veterans who have managed to blank out their traumatic war experiences through a form of treatment known as enfoldment.

However, the treatment does not work on all subjects. A man that goes by the name Rake, one of the failed subjects, kidnaps an innocent woman and goes on a killing rampage across the country, leaving ‘the Corps’ – the group responsible for the enfoldment treatment – to clean up after his mess. Soon two officers of the Corps, Wendy and Singleton, the latter a recipient of the enfoldment treatment himself, are forced to go and capture him.

Really, this is only scratching the surface of Hystopia. There are a lot of ideas going on in this novel, such as it being presented as the work of a fictional author (and having its own fictional history) and it taking place in an alternate history America where Kennedy was not assassinated. And this links to my main issue with the book: it is unnecessarily complicated. I tried to keep my above synopsis brief, but it ended up being pretty much impossible. This book is bursting with ideas – many of them not fitting together well – and at times they cause it to feel like a mess.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of clever stuff in this book and David Means is obviously a talented writer, but it just seems as though he’s overlooked the basic need for a novel to tell a good story in favour of being clever. The alternate timeline the novel takes place in, for example, feels very unnecessary. It doesn’t play into the story nearly enough, and as a result it feels like Means chucked it in there just because. Slaughterhouse-Five had a lot of weirdness and cleverness in it, sure, but it never felt like weirdness and cleverness for the sake of it.

Ultimately Hystopia is best when it goes back to basics. War and war veterans are always going to make great subjects for novels, and when Means just focuses on the effect war has on people, the book is at its best. Despite him leaning a bit too much towards stereotypical psychopath, Means manages to make Rake a fascinating character. Many of the best moments in the novel are just those that give us glimpses into his personality. Other veteran characters are great too, such as tree tracker Hank. The author does a good job of making each character unique – each of them affected by war in a different way.

It’s kind of hard for me to recommend this book. While it features some excellent writing and some great moments, most of the time it just feels like it’s trying too hard – like it’s trying to be the next Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 when it really isn’t.

Guillermo Erades – Back to Moscow

Guillermo Erades’ debut novel has a lot of sides to it – it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the changed position of Russia after the fall of communism in the country; it’s about classic Russian literature; it’s about subverting literary conventions… Most of all though, it’s about growing up and entering adulthood. At heart it’s a classic coming-of-age story.

Martin, the protagonist, isn’t a likeable character – but he isn’t supposed to be. An English exchange student living in Moscow, he spends all of his nights out at bars and clubs with his expat friends trying to pull. Throughout the novel we see him have plenty of relationships, treating only a fraction of the women he sleeps with well. He’s selfish and self-centred – even if he seems to be oblivious to it almost all of the time.

And it’s this obliviousness, really, that fuels the novel. Erades examines a lot of cultural issues surrounding Russia during the time that Back to Moscow is set – primarily the position of women in the country – but filters them through the mostly oblivious gaze of Martin. As an Englishman, everything comes easy to him in Russia; he can get a high paying, low effort job with easy, he can spend his days doing nothing and he can blag away the university work he isn’t doing with little consequence. But it’s the Russian women he meets that have tough lives – something he doesn’t seem to understand.

His ex-long-term girlfriend, Lena, for example, is forced to get involved with prostitution in order to get to where she wants in life. As she explains to him, there are very few ways for a Russian woman in Moscow to earn enough money to have savings. An employer that is likely to pay an English man incredibly well is also likely to pay a Russian woman incredibly poorly. Martin can’t understand why Lena does what she does, because despite the fact that they live in the same city, their experiences of it are so completely different.

There’s a lot to Back to Moscow – too much to cover. It is also really heavily interested in Russian novels and short stories – Chekov in particular – and their structures and morals. It also gives an incredible amount of insight into a culture I must admit I didn’t have much interest in before. This is one of those novels that resists being analysed in a straightforward way; there are too many sides to it – it’s the sort of book that keeps you thinking. Oh, and it’s also pushed me to get into Russian literature. I’ve had a Chekov short story collection sat around for ages, and now I’m finally going to give it a read.

I highly recommend this book, not just for its interesting characters, but for all the interesting things it talks about. In addition to being a great novel, it’s also a great gateway into Russian culture and literature.