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.
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