Possibly the first time I’ve had my monthly reviews done bang on time. Shocking stuff!
Readers will know by now that I love a good war story, and if it’s a WWII one, even better. So of course, I loved Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. It’s the third on a loosely connected triology, which began with the powerful Birdsong. I have bought the middle book, The Girl at the Lion D’Or, and intend on reading that soon.
Charlotte’s father made an appearance in Birdsong, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy this book. A young, insecure woman, Charlotte travels from her native Scotland to London to help with the war effort. She feels she must do something, even if she’s not sure what. She meets two men on the train, and one takes a shine to her, and when she mentions she speaks French, he offers her a job, helping the French Resistance.
Charlotte is unsure, but when she becomes involved in a passionate love affair with Peter Gregory, a RAF airman who subsequently disappears on an assignment, she takes up the offer. She can find him on her mission.
Faulks has written the kind of book you can gladly get lost in. Everything is wonderfully real; the casual, almost party atmosphere of the London war effort set Charlotte finds herself part of; the French village of Lavaurette where Charlotte dyes her hair and takes a job. A tale of love, loss and endurance, Charlotte Gray lingers long in the mind.
Again, regular readers know I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan. His most recent short story anthology, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances doesn’t disappoint. As he explains in the introduction, the title comes from internet-speak for a potentially disturbing link or image, especially for those who may have certain phobias, illnesses or life experiences. And some of these stories are very disturbing.
‘The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains’ is a chilling tale of dark magic set in the Scottish Highlands, and a particular image from that tale is still rattling around in my head. ‘Clack Clack Goes the Rattlebag’ is another spinetingler, and ‘The Thing about Cassandra’ is a creepy examination of the nature of fiction. There’s also another installment in the ongoing adventures of Shadow, the hero of American Gods, and it’s brilliant. Shadow finds himself in rural England, where the belief in Black Shuck still lingers in the air. It’s a brilliant, thrilling and dark tale.
Not all the tales in Trigger Warning will keep you awake in terror. There’s a great Doctor Who story (Gaiman has already written two episodes of the long-running series), and the tale of the ‘uninventor’, Sherlock Holmes with bees, and the great ‘A Calendar of Tales’. Gaiman, a prolific Twitter user, asked for suggestions for a series of flash fiction pieces based on the month of the year- the result is fantastic. There’s also ‘The Sleeper and the Spindle‘, a wonderful reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. This has been released as a standalone book. I need it.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is so short and compulsive I read it in one sitting. Irish literature can often feel a bit stuck in the past. There’s always priests and funerals in the rain and misery. This novel is set in the Ireland of today, and in parts, it’s so painfully accurate it hurts- especially when it details the impact the closure of Dell had on Limerick.
Each chapter is narrated by a different person, all affected in some way by the failure of Pokey Burke’s construction business. The effect of the recession in Ireland has been explored in art, theatre and film, but literature has been slow to catch up. This, however, is the novel of the Celtic Tiger collapse.
Ryan captures the claustrophobic rumour-mill of small-town Ireland incredibly well, as well as the tensions in a tight-knit community. He makes the correct decision to go for a low-key, realistic ending in a story which could have become lurid and far-fetched, and despite bleak moments, the story ends on an expression of love.
If there is a criticism, it would be that not all the narrators seems relevant to the main plot; the inclusion of a young man who is planning to go to Australia feels like Ryan just wanted to include the emigration angle. Eastern European immigrants have become a part of modern Ireland, but the author makes the bizarre decision to tell us about a member of a Siberian nomadic tribe who somehow winds up in rural Tipperary. Perhaps Ryan felt Pawel from Krakow would be a cliche, but this chapter does feel a bit false.
Overall, though, The Spinning Heart is a stirring and affecting depiction of modern Ireland.
Rivers of London (called Midnight Riot in the US, for some odd reason) by Ben Aaronovitch is one of the straight-up enjoyable and entertaining books I’ve ever read. It follows young police constable Peter Grant, who alongside his friend (and putative love interest) Lesley May is about to find out what section of the London Metropolitan Police he will be assigned to. Peter is not a good a copper as Lesley, who tends to not let her mind wander from the task at hand. So when Lesley gets assigned to the Murder Squad and he gets shunted to an administrative role, he tries not to be too upset.
But Peter has other talents. When a series of gruesome murders and assaults blight the city, he finds he can take witness statements from ghosts. He then gets sent to the Folly, under the supervision of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, head of the Met’s supernatural unit.
It’s a joy, not least because of Peter’s dry, sardonic narration. Aaronovitch has done his research on the police too, but the prose doesn’t get bogged down in facts and figures. London itself bounces off the page, and the supernatural and mundane are beautifully balanced. There are more installments in the series, I’ll be reading those soon.
Like Rivers of London, The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, is compulsive, but it’s nowhere near enjoyable. It’s a very, very strange book, and at times I wondered why I was still reading.
Ariel, a somewhat disagreeable lead character, is doing a PhD in English literature. She wants to examine ‘thought experiments’ and needs to get her hands on a book by the mysterious Victorian writer Thomas Lumas, called The End of Mr Y. The only thing about this book is that it’s cursed; anyone who’s ever read to the end, dies.
Saul Burlem, her thesis supervisor, hasn’t been seen for months, and one of the last things he told her was to forget about Lumas’s book. Ariel finds a copy in a second-hand book shop, and reads it. There’s a formula in it for getting into a mysterious dimension called the Troposphere. She tries it, and it works.
But she is in grave danger in this world, both from sinister enemies who want the formula and from her physical body, which is in danger of shutting down the longer she stays. And when she meets Adam, the first man she’s ever had an emotional connection with, she inadvertently puts him in harm’s way too.
This book is very dark. Ariel is a troubled character, with a tendency to self-destruct- and to talk at length about Derrida and Heidegger. She’s hard to spend time with, to be frank, and her tortured promiscuity gets wearying also. It’s not a feelgood read. However Thomas’ brazeness just about pulls the novel through; she throws the kitchen sink at it; unethical CIA experiments, religion, video games, the Matrix, time travel, mice- it’s mad stuff. There were things I really liked. The idea of a “train of fear” is a stroke of horrible genius, and the character of Apollo Smithneus, a mouse-god being kept alive by the faith of six believers, is glorious too. I gave it four stars on Goodreads for those concepts alone.
I am not sure that the book is as clever as it thinks it is. As an English grad I approach those who quote postmodernists in reality with more than a shade of caution, so my heart sank when I read the first Derrida interpretation. What’s more I’m not sure that Ariel actually understands a lot of what she spouts. It’s a very weird book which overreaches itself, and while such ambition is to be admired, it’s perhaps not always advisable.