I've read a few books recently (three actually) that I wanted to talk about, so I thought I'd do it all in one post.
"Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch
I got this book for Christmas 2017. Emma mentioned that she'd like to hear my opinion on it, so here goes:
I enjoyed it.
Wait. There's more. This book is a bit odd, because it's trying to do several things at once. First is an innovative supernatural story about the history of London. Second is a police crime thriller that is clearly gearing up to be a series. And third is something strange and tropey involving a posh guy with a cane and a Japanese-style vampire maid. While the mix is weird, it does at least make for a plot that is interesting to read.
I found the main character, Peter Grant, to be likeable. He's clever enough and fallible enough that you want to cheer him on. The other characters were enjoyable too. I particularly liked the supernatural ones (barring, you know, the bad guy).
The plot was a good read, if the resolution did leave a few parts unanswered in an unsatisfying way. But the best part was exploring the supernatural world (or should I say: supernatural London) that the characters inhabit.
This book loves London (modern London and the history of London) and it is so clearly written by a person that loves London too. The London in the book feels right. And there's a huge expanse of London covered in the book; it was so much fun to see multiple places I recognise show up in the plot. This is what makes the book so enjoyable to read. The setting is so well-envisaged that it could be a character in its own right.
And there's a set-piece near the end of the book, where Peter Grant chases the bad guy through the streets of London, that is worth the price of the book alone. I won't tell you what happens in that scene, but it is marvellous!
I do, however, agree with Emma's criticism of the book containing "endless performative heterosexual nonsense". This book is full of the male gaze. I think it's meant to make us relate to the main character more easily, but that's based purely on the incorrect assumption that all readers of the book are male. However, because the story is written in the first-person, the male gaze doesn't feel too out-of-kilter. That doesn't make it necessary, mind you (I actually don't care what that lady's arse looks like. SHE'S A WITNESS IN A MURDER INVESTIGATION.) Sigh. But it is a failure in 90% of modern media, so I'm not going to be too harsh on this one instance.
In summary: the book has its flaws, but if you want an interesting plot that revels in London and the history of London then this one's for you.
"The Angry Chef" by Anthony Warner
This non-fiction book is astoundingly good. I recommend it to absolutely everyone because it has the potential to make so many people happier in the long run.
I first came across the angry chef via his blog: angry-chef.com
For a good while before discovering the blog, I had become concerned by how much bullshit there is in the world of food. You come across a lot of it if, like me, you enjoy browsing food blogs, food videos on YouTube and food photography on Instagram. For a while, I thought I was going mad, because I was certain that things such as juice cleanses and low-carb diets and clean eating were all nonsense, but so many people seemed to be taking them seriously. (I should state here that I am no expert on diet, but my background in biochemistry does maybe make it easier for me to discount some types of nonsense.)
I was so glad, therefore, when I stumbled across the angry chef and found someone who was willing to stand up and denounce this bullshit for what it is: bullshit.
Now, the blog is good, but the book is even better, because the book is structured in a way that's easy to follow. Not only does the book systematically list some of the main pieces of bullshit and explain why they're bullshit, but it also gives guidance on how to spot bullshit and why we're tempted to believe it in the first place. That guidance is so great and really useful. Suddenly, navigating the world of food blogs becomes a lot easier when you can quickly spot if someone's spouting nonsense or not (say it with me: anecdotes aren't evidence!)
Honestly, I can't recommend this book enough. If more people read it, it'll be a lot harder for ridiculous (and sometimes dangerous) food fads to take hold. And if we, as a society, stopped following food fads we'd all be a lot happier (seriously, cutting carbs isn't the way to health, it's just the way to sadness); plus there'd be far less chance of even more dangerous fads (like chemophobia) taking hold.
"Lud-in-the-Mist" by Hope Mirrlees
I found this book on my parents' bookshelf and immediately picked it up because I remembered Emma having mentioned it on a list of books that inspired "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell".
Unsurprisingly, it's a fantasy novel, but where "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" is low-fantasy, "Lud-in-the-Mist" is very much high-fantasy. But here's the thing, in this instance the two aren't so very different when it comes down to it.
When we think of high-fantasy, we usually think of the whole faux-medieval sword and sorcery thing: there have to be elves and dwarves and trolls and goblins and stuff. This idea has all come from Tolkien, and I'm not knocking it at all, because I adore Tolkien, but you have to admit that a lot of fantasy published in the last 50 years has been very derivative.
How refreshing, then, to read a book that was published before "The Lord of the Rings" and so isn't influenced by it in the slightest! "Lud-in-the-Mist" is high-fantasy because it's set in the entirely fictional world of Dorimare (of which Lud-in-the-Mist is the captial city), but Dorimare is about as far from dwarves and trolls and epic medieval battles as you can get. In fact Dorimare is very domestic and has all the small-town politics and sensibilities that you might find in a George Eliot novel. This, in fact, drives a lot of the plot.
Now, the similarities with "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" are immediately obvious: Dorimare is a world that was once more magical than it now is. Centuries before the book is set there used to be a lot of interaction between Dorimare and neighbouring Fairyland, but since the rise of a governing middle class, that interaction has been severed so forcefully that even mention of it is taboo.
The plot follows the reintroduction of communication between the two countries by the smuggling of fairy fruit. There is also a long-lost ruler, the mysterious and almost-mythical Duke Aubrey, who might one day return.
The parallel between Duke Aubrey and "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"'s Raven King is impossible to ignore. Both are integral to the history of their worlds and to the magic of those worlds, and both dance almost invisibly along the edges of the plot. That said, they're not entirely identical, because while both characters are morally ambiguous, Duke Aubrey most definitely comes down on the "utter bastard" side of the line.
Despite the similarities between the two books, "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" is a read that is thoughtful and humorous, but "Lud-in-the-Mist" is a read that is thoughtful and dark. I mean, it doesn't immediately come across as dark, but as you get into the plot, you get this feeling that not everything is right. Fairyland doesn't just seem to be a land of lost knowledge or lost imagination; it's a land of something else as well. The characters' reactions to fairy fruit and other items from Fairyland are like the reactions of people suffering from drug addiction or from mental illness. To encounter Fairyland is to open the door to the fanciful, but it also seems synonymous with strange yearnings, unfulfilment, and unexplained unhappiness.
This all makes the book very odd. "Lud-in-the-Mist" reads very much like a morality tale, but what the moral is, I'm not quite sure. It is clear that the placid, yet unequal, domesticity found in Dorimare, combined with the blinkered view of the ruling middle class (who would rather immerse themselves in legal fictions than acknowledge the world around them), is not a satisfactory one. But how embracing fairy fruit and the amoral world of Duke Aubrey can help this, I'm not certain.
Can someone please explain this book to me? I would be grateful.
Regardless of the confusion it generated, I found the book a very enjoyable read. The writing style, particularly the language, is wonderful. Despite how practical the Dorimarites are meant to be, they sit within a story that is both poetic and whimsical in tone. There is something rich in the language: round and bright and luscious. Part of it is in the names of things and people, like the rivers the Dapple and the Dawl, or characters called things like Dreamsweet and Moonlove. Part is also in the descriptive nature of the text. Here's an example:
And the Dapple itself, stained like a palette, with great daubs of colour reflected from sky and earth, and carrying on its surface, in autumn, red and yellow leaves which may have fallen on it from the trees of Fairyland, where it had its source - even the Dapple might be considered as a flower growing in the garden of the Chanticleers.
I've never read anything like it before. It's vivid and lush and captivating. It takes you to a different, more magical world. And for that reason I highly recommend this book. I'm still not quite sure what the plot was telling me, but I know that I enjoyed it very much.
HAHA SUCCESS! IT WAS THE LINK TAG!
WELL LUCKILY FOR YOU I C&P-ed IT INTO PAGES, HAHA!!
HERE IT IS:
While not quite up to the excitement level of the FOOD POST, I still do love me a good book review post. Ahem.
And third is something strange and tropey involving a posh guy with a cane and a Japanese-style vampire maid. While the mix is weird, it does at least make for a plot that is interesting to read.
Oh god, a posh British guy with a cane and a… Japanese vampire maid? I feel that’s the punchline of a joke written by Anne Rice. In the 90s.
It’s true that I didn’t give Rivers of London a real shot, however. I don’t mind it that some/most men find some/most women attractive and think about banging them, obviously; I just mind that it seems like: a.) I can’t escape their tiresome adolescent maundering about their apparently unquenchable desires anywhere, even in the Land of Pure Imagination, and b.) I don’t find women attractive on the same terms that straight men do, and listening to them objectify us using the outdated metrics of their long-dead grandfathers annoys me. But! How much would we have to discard if we tossed out every work that features gendered sexual objectification? Pretty much all of them! Sadly! I’ll dig this book up & give it another try one day soon, why not.
but my background in biochemistry does maybe make it easier for me to discount some types of nonsense
You have a background in biochemistry??? Holy crap!
I bought The Angry Chef because I saw you talk about it here! I thought most of the content was excellent, but I found it funny that he occasionally took a minute to sneer at “leftists,” despite the fact that here in the US Warner himself would basically be considered a hair-on-fire Commie because of his, you know, ability to reason, interest in scientific data, general acceptance of natural human diversity, etc. Also I thought he relied over-heavily on the remarks and thought processes of Steven Pinker, a real asshole who made his name devising pandering evopsych explanations for bad human (male mostly) behavior, who believes that the default human emotion when confronted with social inequality should be ‘gratitude toward our gracious overlords,’ and who played an integral role in helping Jeffrey Epstein avoid prison for many years. Didn’t care for any of that even a little. But! I thought Warner’s rational takedowns of extreme diets were invaluable, and also his observation that the “clean eating” phenomenon was mostly about shaming people for eating things designed for ‘poor ‘ or ‘fat’ or ‘lazy’ consumers. Also for mentioning that the chemophobic, clean eating food fascist subculture is generally hyper-conservative, and seems intent on removing any food substance from the diet that allows women to avoid being chained to a stove all day, every day. No bagged salads or frozen chicken breasts for you, Mom! You’ll be cooking everything from scratch every day, forever, using expensive hard-to-find ingredients, or you’ll be accused of literally killing your kids with edible poisons! It’s crazy. I would give this book a 4/5, and up it to a 5/5 if Warner ever drops his dependence on Steven “Yikes” Pinker.
I’m so happy you read Lud-in-the-Mist! There are two of us now! We can have meetings & everything!!!
Can someone please explain this book to me? I would be grateful.
Okay, when they explain it to you, come and find me and let me know what’s going on.
I really agree with everything you’ve said here; the impressionistic aesthetic of the prose, the generalized weirdness, the hazy logic, the weird drug-like compulsions inherent in fairy artifacts, etc.
I don’t think I hated Duke Aubrey as much as you did, though! I don’t have the same reaction to fairy characters that normal people tend to have, I’ve found. They usually just remind me of my family, and then I get homesick for being small.
I will say that the thing I found most similar about Duke Aubrey & The Raven King was the mythic/mundane dichotomy – I don’t have the book on me at the moment, but I remember there being a part where Aubrey was described carrying on during an execution he’d ordered (I think?), partying and howling and acting vaguely BoJo-adjacent, and then a few days later unrelatedly coming to stand watch at the bedside of a dying peasant, carrying food and wine for the man’s grieving village. It was something to think about. Probably I should do that more, hmmm.
Also I remember thinking that Aubrey was like the gentleman with the thistle-down hair + J. Uskglass at the same time, and that I really preferred them separate.
I’m still not quite sure what the plot was telling me, but I know that I enjoyed it very much.
Comment from: [Member]
I would be interested to know what you think about “Rivers of London” if you do give it a read.
I’m glad you read “The Angry Chef"! It’s been over a year since I read it, so I don’t remember the sneering at leftists part. Warner always struck me as being really quite left-wing, but maybe I’m selectively forgetting the bits I don’t like XD
I’d never heard of Steven Pinker before, so I had just passed over his name when I came across it in the book. I don’t know whether to Google him or remain in a state of “ignorance is bliss".
Well, regardless of politics and a love for Pinker, the book’s guidance on how to spot bullshit is imo worth the price of the book alone. I often find myself thinking back to the hares and the eggs part too; I’ve not seen the problems with correlation and causation explained so neatly before.
Yay Lud-in-the-Mist! It was Aubrey’s deliberately driving a person to suicide that really did it for me. Uskglass is morally-grey, sure, but he wouldn’t do that.
I like your comment on the mythic/mundane dichotomy. Just like Uskglass, we see Aubrey so little that we’re reduced to relying on the myths to build up a picture of what he might be like. Are any of those myths actually true? That’s debatable.
I’d never considered that Aubrey was like Uskglass and Thistledown together, but you’re right!
Well, I wrote a long-ass response here, but TFC thinks it’s spam.
(How well it knows me.)
Hopefully it’s somewhere in your spam filter, lol.
Comment from: [Member]
Oh no! I’m afraid I can’t see it anywhere!
This shambles is the fault of my fight against spam five years ago. I think I blacklisted some random words in a spate of zeal.
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