Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Who’

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This is the fourth in Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series – see previous blog posts for my thoughts on Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground.

There is a different feel to this book from the previous ones and, to my mind, a welcome change. There is a greater focus on the quest for The Faceless Man and less world-building. However intriguing Aaronovitch’s fantastical elements around and beneath London are, some of the earlier books felt as if they were written to put in place a concept which would be used later: the personified Rivers (which are still, for me, the imaginative heart of the novels), the fae, the Quiet People. With this fourth book, a greater pace and return of The Faceless Man was welcome.

This book opens with an arrest (normally the end of a police procedural) which, because of unexplained blood in the car, involves The Folly (the Metropolitan Police’s magical department) which is made up of Grant, his partner Lesley and his guv’nor Nightingale.

This investigation runs broadly parallel with the search for Varvara Sidorovna, a Russian Nochnye Koldunyi or Night Witch. Sidorovna was first seen in Whispers Under Ground as an undercover nurse but it’s only here that she reveals the extent of her magic. And it’s pretty formidable!

The plot lines all lead Peter and Lesley to Skygarden, a fictionalised complex of apartments and a central garden area in 1960s concrete. Skygarden is, in fact, such in integral image and plot device that Aaronovitch gives it it’s own locus genii, Sky the Dryad or Wood Nymph who, whilst immortal, ages annually with the year and, as the novel is set in Springtime, is capricious and childlike. And she just about stays on the right side of the capricious and childlike border without straying into the Jar-Jar Binks world of irritating. She is, actually, quite charming!

There is an incredible assurance in Aaronovitch’s writing and characters and I love Grant’s mixture of self-assurance, police procedure and human frailty. I think I have said before that there is some very convincing and authoritative in Aaronovitch’s depiction of the workings of the police: the close relationship, the tensions, the rivalries, the occasionally ridiculous procedures and acronyms. Small details, such as the distance behind which officers follow each other through a door just in case the first one trips over a skateboard.

Nightingale, though, is the heart of the novels: the folded steel core around which the other characters are decorative wood. Yes, that is a deliberate echo of Aaronovitch’s magical staff, which is another plot device to lure out The Faceless Man. Nightingale is the still centre of The Folly, radiating knowledge and power without demonstrating that much of it most of the time. He has similarities in that way with Doctor Who, a show that Aaronovitch has worked on and written for. I’m not going to give anything away, but we do witness (albeit from a crouching position, behind cover and from a significant distance) Nightingale in action in this novel. And he does not disappoint! The aftermath of the fight is perhaps a little clichéd and has a little too much of an eye on how it might look on a screen but it works well!

There is a massive twist at the end of the book and – whilst I was expecting something along those lines to happen – the speed of it did take me by surprise. I’d thought we might be putting things in place, perhaps for book five!

Personally, I think this was the most successful in a hugely enjoyable series! Can’t wait for the next one!

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There is only really one word to describe this book.

Perfect.

Absolutely and undoubtedly, a perfect book.

Powerful, moving, honest.

A true book.

A summary of the plot here will not serve to convey its power. Go out and read this book.

In my own small way, however, here goes. The adult narrator returns to his old childhood home for one of his parents’ funeral, visits his neighbour’s farm and recalls his experiences as a seven-year old child. And, as you would expect of Gaiman, those experiences are dark, dangerous and otherworldly. His lodger’s suicide leads him to the Hemstock farm which seems itself to be part of an otherworld or an old world or a pre-reality world. Other remnants of the old world are embedded in the fabric of the farm which find their way through the narrator into the ‘real’ world. The remainder of the book revolves around the Hemstocks’ attempts to banish the remnant back to where it came from.

The Hemstocks – Lettie, her mother Ginnie and old Mrs Hemstock – seem to owe much to (or be a strange hybrid of) both a witches’ coven of maiden, mother and crone and Doctor Who. The sympathy Lettie shows the remnant, the offer to return her home before destroying her, even some of the cadences of her speech all seem to owe a debt to Gaiman’s involvement with Doctor Who. Tasting a coin to determine its age from the layout of its electrons was very Doctor Who!

Having grown up myself as a reader on the Kent-Sussex border to professional parents and having spent most of my weekends on my grandmother’s farm – on which my grandmother also lived in a caravan – the situation that Gaiman creates was very authentic and credible. The taste and texture and smell of milk drawn straight from the cow and of porridge made from it and of early morning milkings leapt from the page. The setting breathed in a way that the more stylised settings of Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust – all brilliant books in their own right – and even The Doctor’s Wife and Nightmare in Silver didn’t.

It was authentic.

And the horror beneath it is all the more horrific because of that authenticity.

And there is horror here. Monsters are there to be banished. Not entirely malign but monstrous and horrific.

The most disturbing elements though, as often with Gaiman, come through the less monstrous and more familiar elements: the housekeeper who wasn’t quite what she seemed and violated the sanctity of the family; the father who tried to drown his son in the bath in possibly the most horrific and chilling scene I have ever read in a book.

These scenes are uncanny – unheimliche – in that the familiar and homely and familial becomes other. In Coraline, the other and the unheimliche was relatively safe behind a door which could be locked. In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the child himself becomes the door and it is his own home (his own Heim) that becomes unheimliche. His home – his place of sanctuary, his inviolable domain, his sense of family and of identity – is turned into a prison.

At its heart, in my opinion, this book is about childhood. The terrors of childhood but also its value. And the value of not knowing things and of play. Lettie Hemstock tells us that she

“used to know everything.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars”

That – and the glorious epigraph by the late lamented Maurice Sendak that “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them” – puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with a fellow teacher about our children both being scared of monsters at night. “I just told them,” said the other teacher, a science teacher, “that there’s no such thing as monsters and they were being silly.” Myself, as an English teacher, I grabbed a plastic sword, leapt under the bed and slashed through the wardrobe to kill the monsters threatening my son!

Anyway, I digress.

This is a fantastic book. Everything is spot on. Everything is authentic. It is horrific, beautiful, mythic and true.

I really cannot praise this gem of a book enough!

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The last book I read, The Passage by Justin Cronin, took me a month to read.

This book, The Shakespeare Curse, took me 72 hours. That’s not a good sign. Not good at all. I like to lose myself in a book, to live, breathe, love and bleed with the characters I share my reading with. I like to immerse myself in the narrative, care for characters, feel their relationships grow and develop.

I could barely remember who was who in The Shakespeare Curse. Perhaps this was the effect of too many mince pies over Christmas or early onset senility. Perhaps it was the fact that Carrell’s characters were so wholly one dimensional that they were essentially interchangeable.

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I had some hopes for this book when I picked it up. I love Shakespeare as both an historical character and a writer; MacBeth is one of my favourite plays; a thriller in which modern murders are somehow based on MacBeth had promise.

Not a whole lot of promise! But some.

I was only really looking for a light post-Yuletide no-brainer thriller.

What I got was Kate Stanley, a heroine so monumentally stupid that I was rooting for the bad guys to finish her off! She is a Shakespeare scholar turned director who discovered a lost Shakespeare manuscript in the previous The Shakespeare Secret. Appearing not to want to waste a basic plot by only using it once, Carrell regurgitates it here: Kate was summoned to Scotland to locate a missing version of MacBeth on behalf of Lady Nairn a famous retired Shakespearean actress.

I can forgive Carrell the repeated plot. She’s in good company. Shakespeare recycled his own and other people’s plots.

The problem is that there is only plot here. There is no narrative, just plot.

The most absurd point occurred almost exactly half way through on page 178 out of 338 in my edition. Out of thin air and a propos of nothing, Lady Nairn mentions that she has an evil niece, Carrie Douglas.

Later she hands over an iPod containing a digital copy of a lost performance of MacBeth. There’s no explanation of how she got it. And it just happens to have a vital clue in it.

The best parts of this novel are perhaps the interludes around Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath and occultist. The parallels between theatre and the occult were interesting: the performance as ritual; players summoning and conjuring the semblance of Kings and heroes from the past; the dangerous nature of the Renaissance stage. But it was nothing that hasn’t been played with before: the Theatre and Globe were alleged by Carrell to have been made to Dee’s occult design to conjure within. An episode of Doctor Who entitled The Shakespeare Code showed The Globe’s structure and Shakespeare’s words summoning ancient alien Carrionites.

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As a thriller, this book did not work: I cared so little for Kate or Lady Nairn that the plot held no thrill. There was no twist to surprise me.

As a lover of Shakespeare, I found the hints that he derived his power from a magical rite mildly offensive. His poetry and language has power from its muscular, human heart not derived from an occultist rite!

This was a novel driven solely by plot and bereft of all those things that make Shakespeare wonderful: character, narrative, growth or humanity.

I’m sorry, J. L. Carrell, I wanted to like this book but just couldn’t!

The third of the Peter Grant magical police constable books to appear on this blog.

I’m beginning to feel I should write the review in the style of a police statement:

Proceeding on information received via a personal contact, Police Constable Grant witnessed a person or persons unknown which he later recognised as a ghost defacing property belong to the railway.

But I fear it would become terribly tedious both to myself and you!

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Aaronovitch had been a writer on the – frankly, limply disappointing – Sylvester McCoy days of Doctor Who in the 1990s and this book does feel an awful lot like Doctor Who. And in a good way. A much more satisfying way than the previous book, Moon Over Soho.

Like Doctor Who, there is an overarching story arc that has covered the last two books: the black – or ethically challenged – magician known as the Faceless Man. Here, however, it takes a definite back seat: we discover the Faceless Man’s mentor almost incidentally but he disappears (permanently so far as we can tell) without revealing anything to further that plot.

The main plot is actually a decent, focused and coherent murder story. An American is found dead on the tracks of the underground; evidence leads Grant, Lesley and Nightingale into the sewers and tunnels and warrens beneath London; the evidence leads to a surprise discovery hiding in the dark and, subsequently, the murderer.

There is actually very little magic involved here at all: if you’re looking for Harry Potter style hexes, you’d be disappointed. The world that Aaronovitch has created exists and magic plays its part… But, here, it is good old pedestrian leg work (pun fully intended) or what Lesley calls “real police work” that gets to the killer. And I liked that!

Aaronovitch does like to include one “set piece” public magical debacle in each of his books. In Rivers, it was the burning of Covent Garden; in Moon it was the ambulance dash into the Thames; here it is a conflict with what Grant – gloriously geekily – calls an Earth Bender who buries him in a cement coffin in an underground station. Despite these set pieces, the three books are different in tone, despite being set in the same universe: the mythic nature of Rivers has not quite been matched since; Grant’s slipping back into prehistory in Rivers – thanks to Molly’s bite – resurfaces (again, pun intended but not one you’d recognise prior to reading the book) in Whispers; the tenderness of Grant’s relationship with Simone and her memories in Moon are not matched in the other books; and this one feels much more like a police procedural than the previous two. Again, the parallels with television series like Doctor Who or Buffy‘s episodic nature are apparent: different emotional and writing styles week-by-week housed within a wider story arc which – one anticipates – will culminate in a final showdown that brings together the various strands (Goddesses, Quiet People, even FBI Agents and teenage girls) against the Big Bad Faceless Man.

One thing did rile me with this book. The grammar and syntax is simply bad in places. I read it on my ebook so I’m not sure if the errors I found so annoying were problems with editing or scanning…

There are two things which make this series stand out for me: firstly, the detail and history of London that seeps into the pages – in addition to the genus locii devices that allows London’s features to walk around as characters in their own right. Also, the understanding and banter and detail of the police procedural elements of the book seem to me to be screamingly authentic. I don’t know if Aaronovitch has a police background or not but, if he doesn’t, his research is very thorough!