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For good or for evil – and I firmly believe that it is for good – Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will,” said Silas, “take a graveyard.”

Between 2003 and 2004 I lived in Edinburgh. I still consider it one of the happiest times of my life (admittedly things have been quite rosy of late as well). Despite only living in the city for less than a year, I managed to move apartments three times (!), spending the longest period of time in a cosy flat on Dalkeith Road. Edinburgh is a beautiful part of the world, old and venerable, but with a vivacious social scene. It was not the living that concerned me though. It was the dead. On my street alone there were two graveyards. The Meadows, a large public park popular with picnickers in the summer was reputedly a black death burial ground. Sometimes while I wandered home through the park in the middle of the night I used to wonder if  the dead were to rise, would the living inhabitants of the city have a chance?

The Graveyard Book opens with a brutal murder of a family, which is survived by a small, nameless infant. Through a quirk of fate the child manages to crawl all the way to a local graveyard and is rescued from a horrible fate by the taciturn Silas and a group of ghosts who reside there. Mr and Mrs Owens, dead for centuries, are charged with raising the child. Silas, who is neither living or dead and therefore unable to enjoy the advantages of either, becomes the infant’s protector.

The man Jack is still hunting for him, somewhere out there in the city.

As no one knows the child’s name, he is given the moniker Nobody Owens, or ‘Bod’. Given the ‘Freedom of the Graveyard’, he learns how to hide from the living and some of the secrets of the dead (but not all of them of course – that will have to wait). After a few years Bod meets a lonely young girl, Scarlett, his first ‘living’ friend. She of course assumes he is imaginary. The world outside the graveyard remains a mystery to Bod. While some of the dead do help in his education, most of their knowledge is centuries out of date. Scarlett provides a rare insight into what ‘life’ is really like. While Silas is able to protect him within the gates, there are plenty of dangers inside as well. Ghouls go hunting among the graves at night and the souls buried in unconsecrated ground are restless. Bod will have to learn to survive, as the man Jack is waiting for him. As he grows older, the boy who lives with the dead becomes more eager to meet him and find justice for his murdered family.

Neil Gaiman has become an accomplished novelist since leaving comics. In fact, I find more to recommend in his writing with each title. Many people have sung the praises of American Gods which I found derivative of some of his earlier work with the Sandman comic. In all his work there are certain recurring ideas – once again Death appears here personified as a beautiful young woman – but over the years he has discovered an ever more confident voice as an young adult and children’s fiction author.

I have in the past been overly critical of Gaiman, though no fault of his own. I have no problem with his writing, so much as I do have one with some of his fans. I have heard some crow that Un Lun Dun had managed to out-Gaiman the author’s own Neverwhere.  With The Graveyard Book I feel that he has raised his game once again. The story combines his usual whimsy with a gripping and increasingly epic storyline. There is an incredible vision of a Ghoul City that resembles Gaiman’s depiction of Hell in Sandman. The killer of Bod’s family is referred to as ‘the man Jack’, and his introduction is chilling for the emphasis on his knife, lending it more agency than the murderer himself. Then there is the delightful device of giving the full name and epitaph of each of the graveyard ghosts when Bod meets them.

Simply put this is a lovingly written, smart and funny book about growing up with death.

What did I do to deserve this, God? What? What? What? But I know the answer to that very bitter question. It’s a simple one. And the answer is: everything.

I’m an absolute bastard.

That’s the simple honest truth.

We first meet investigative photographer Callaghan, a man who enjoys his drink, drugs and women, stark naked on the balcony of a hotel in freezing cold Glasgow. Inside the room he can hear the woman he was just pleasuring now in the company of her Romanian gun-runner husband. Perhaps this seems like an odd situation to find oneself in, but Callaghan simply can’t help himself. His life is one endless car-crash of danger, adrenaline and body-wrecking excess.

However, Callaghan’s adventures are about to take an even more bizarre turn. Acting on a tip-off from the mysterious Mr Volos, Callaghan and writing partner Jim become caught up in a police investigation into a series of gruesome murders. The police suspect that they are responsible, but other than their presence at the crime scenes, they have no evidence. Callaghan has recently been receiving threatening letters at his workplace – hard-hitting magazine  ‘Black and White’ – written in tone-deaf blood-soaked verse. Then photos from a crime scene that would have won himself and Jim a front page splash disappear, landing Callaghan in trouble with his ball-breaking editor Mrs Ryan. He suspects that his stalker is responsible somehow, but then again his articles have managed to offend some very dangerous people involved in the London crime scene.

What Callaghan does not realize is that he is in the cross-hairs of two supernatural opposing forces. As the murders continue, a disturbing trend begins to emerge. Each of the victims are themselves murderers, the very same ‘scum’, that Callaghan hates so much, which he blames for all of society’s problems. Could it be that serial killers are themselves being hunted by someone even more monstrous than themselves? When the murderer makes direct contact with Callaghan, he is terrified to discover that not only was he right in his suspicions over the identity of his stalker, it appears he is being groomed to become an accomplice in this horrific quest for twisted justice.

In many ways this book reminded me of Headcrusher by Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov, two journalists from Latvia who wrote a contemporary satire on capitalist excess in their former Soviet nation. There are also elements of the films of Nick Love on show here, I am thinking in particular of Outlaw, which also proposes that the only solution to society’s ills is even more brutal vigilante justice.

Andy Remic goes further here though, mixing in suggestions of supernatural horror. Murderers are said to be ‘Deviants’, evil forces that can be reincarnated to offend over and over again. Perhaps unwisely Fred West and Harold Shipman are named in the book as examples of otherworldly ‘Deviants’ (touches of David Icke?). Consequently the opening monologue from the murderer is deliberately pitched to confuse the reader into believing he is just another psychopath.

As such I chose to read the book as a satire on the excesses of ‘The City‘, – fast cars, designer drugs, easy women and cheap living – where every wideboy financier fancies himself as a coked-up latter-day James Bond. If that strikes you as something you would enjoy, then Serial Killers Incorporated fits the bill.

What I do object to though, and this is just a handy rule of thumb for writers generally, is the use of the word rape as an analogy. If a character is suffering from exposure on a hotel balcony, he is not being ‘raped’. If someone is being burnt alive, the flames are not ‘raping him’. I would have thought being burnt was in itself horrific enough. As it happens when a female character is actually raped, the novel describes it as feeling like being ‘entered….like fire‘.

Fast-paced violence, foul-mouthed dialogue and brutal excess.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

It was a little square of card, some strange design, a beautiful, intricate thing of multicoloured swirling lines. It was, Deeba had realized, some mad version of a London travelcard. It said it was good for zones one to six, buses and trains, all across the city.

On the dotted line across its centre was carefully printed: ZANNA MOON SHWAZZY.

I have a weird love/hate relationship with the writing of China Miéville. The first time I read Perdido Street Station I was enjoying a fruitful encounter with the work of M. John Harrison (check out his blog here). Miéville was a poor imitation of the latter to my mind and suffered by the comparison.

Skip forward another five years and I finally re-read Perdido Street Station. And I loved it. The more I learn about Miéville the more I like him. Here was a fantasy/sf writer (he tends to be lumped in among the ‘new weird‘) who liked to explore socialist themes in a fictional setting. Also the bloke is astonishingly charismatic in person.

So I have been converted to the cause.

Un Lun Dun begins in a seemingly conventional manner. Two friends Zanna and Deeba begin to notice various strange phenomenon, seemingly targeted at the former teenage girl. Animals pause and bow to her, strangers approach them in café and address Zanna as ‘the Shwazzy‘, and finally a noxious black smog seems to be stalking her.

When the two girls accidentally cross over to an alternate London – UnLondon – they find a weird world similar to their own and yet filled with unusual creatures such as ‘unbrellas’, wraiths, stink-junkies, bookaneers, flying buses and binjas. The rejected flotsam and jetsam of London find a new home here and often come alive.

The people of UnLondon worship Zanna as a prophesied saviour who will rescue them from the malevolent entity known as the Smog. When the city is attacked by the creature’s minions, Zanna is knocked unconscious and Deeba is sent back with her to ‘their world’. The prophesies have been proven false, the Shwazzy has failed and while the UnLondoners assure Deeba that they have a back-up plan in the event of prophecy not going to plan, she cannot help but feel there is something wrong.

When she returns home she discovers no one has even missed her. Zanna has no memory of their journey and Deeba’s talk of evil smog and talking books of prophecy sound like the babblings of a crazy person. So after going to all that effort to escape back home, Deeba decides to return to UnLondon. She may not have been chosen by fate, but she knows what to do. It is time to clean up UnLondon.

This is a fantastic, delirious, dark-edge transplantation of Oz to the landscape of the Thames.  Miéville conjures up amazing creatures that fit neatly into this incredible world of his invention – including carnivorous giraffes, roaming ‘unbrellas’, and ‘smombies’. An added treat is Miéville’s own illustrations, including ghostly afterimages of street-lamps from earlier eras, the aforementioned giraffes and of course, my personal favourites, the binja:

I love those guys.

This is a great book for children, with quite possibly the most kick-ass ending I have ever read. Fast-paced, funny and very imaginative, it is an adorable book. I really wish I had not read it in a single day. I want to spend a week reading it. In fact, I’ll say it here, any parent who reads this to their child is possibly the coolest mum or dad ever.

Great fun.

When civilians finally became aware of the unit they had wholeheartedly endorsed it, but the publicity had brought condemnation from naturally secretive government officials. A new generation of number-crunchers had come forward to insist on regulations being followed to the letter. The concept of an agency run on principles of instinct and experience was anathema to them.

Saturday night in Bulli was firmly established as ‘television night’, during Stephanie and my first stay in Australia together as a couple. The evening would begin with Iron Chef, move on to Rockwiz and then be wrapped up with New Tricks. It’s a lovely show about a group of retired coppers solving crimes.

This book is a lot like New Tricks. Except with some Richard Carpenter-style occultism and hints of Iain Sinclair‘s Lud Heat thrown on top for good measure.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) was founded in post-war London to handle cases that remained stubbornly unsolved. Driven by detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, the unit is known for its success in concluding a string of investigations, but also the ability of its lead detectives for upsetting the top brass. In fact having uncovered some embarassing secrets linked directly to the Home Office, the PCU has been unofficially disbanded.

The eccentric Bryant has taken to forced retirement with little grace, pouring over mountains of obscure literature and refusing to leave his home. His partner May has been left dismayed by the abrupt change in their fortunes and is pondering becoming a private eye. The rest of the team resigned in protest at the treatment of Bryant and May to ensure no further action could be taken against them.

Then a series of sightings of an unusual figure dressed in a stag costume in the King’s Cross area provide May with an idea. The location of these appearances is politically sensitive, as much of the development is tied up with a strict government timetable designed to renovate the outer sections of London in time for the 2012 Olympics. When a decapitated body is found in the vicinity, May has just the leverage he needs for the PCU to be reinstated. Except this time they are to receive no assistance from the Home Office, or the Met and their investigation is to be conducted in secret.

Having been forced to accept such a compromise, May needs no reminding that this is the PCU’s last chance. Everything has to be done by the book and within official guidelines. So when Bryant starts ranting about psychogeography, occult rites, chaos theory and pagan sacrifice, May can see that bright light at the end of the tunnel receding ever further away.

It turns out this is the seventh book in Christopher Fowler‘s Bryant and May series. Nevertheless I had no problem getting up to speed, as each of the characters in the PCU is sketched quickly in the opening chapters, even as the business of unfolding the plot begins in earnest. Bryant’s holistic approach to crime-solving draws groans from his colleagues, but their obvious affection for him overrides any concerns with the state of his sanity. The rest of team each have their own quirks and personal relationships to be dealt with, including a Home Office mole who becomes increasingly sympathic to the unorthodox methods of the group.

Fowler enjoys indulging in London esoterica, while also reminding the reader that this is not just another police thriller concerned with naff ancient conspiracies. Cleverly the plot reveals that mundane reality has many a quirk of fate that makes it more interesting than it first appears. The events that unfold are shown in the opening chapter to be connected to the London Blitz; the unidentifiable murder victims’ lives are revisited through a judicious use of flashbacks; environmental activism and a loophole in property law throws up much confusion in the PCU’s path; and finally the eventual culprit does not measure up to Bryant’s desire for a Holmesian nemesis, but is no less dangerous.

This is simultaneously a dry procedural mystery that concerns itself with some strikingly unusual events. There is a sly intelligence behind Fowler’s plot contortions, as well as a love of bad puns. Looking at his blog there’s also an evident interest in London history and popular culture. At one point a character is described as having passionate views vis-à-vis Star Trek versus Battlestar Galactica.

An amusing murder mystery with great characters and fascinating historical detail. Great fun.

Meredith nodded as she thought. ‘You know, I often wonder whether this place – the villages, the moors – has a certain mystical quality that draws people back – or which won’t let them go.’

There has been an interesting attempt to revive interest in classic novels lately. Not only do we have the fitfully amusing mash-ups of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy with fantasy, or horror staples, but there was also a recent marketing push to design the covers of the likes of Wuthering Heights to appeal to fans of Twilight.

Today’s book not only carries an opening quote from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, it refers to the book itself frequently within the text. The contrast between the metropolitan lifestyle of protagonist Grace in London and her feelings of  isolation on the Yorkshire moors indicate that there are places in this world where the clock can be turned back to the periods described by these classic novels referred to in Beneath The Shadows.

Grace and her husband Adam left behind their hectic lives in London to raise their newborn child Millie in a cottage inherited after the recent deaths of his grandparents. Hawthorn Cottage is an opportunity to escape from the pressures of paying exorbitant rents and nights of blaring traffic, as well as give Millie a proper childhood in the fresh air of the countryside. If the change is too drastic, Adam promises that after six months they can leave.

Then one night Grace returns to an empty home, finding only a cryptic note from Adam telling her he has something important to tell her. Hours pass without any sign of him and then she discovers Millie safe in her pram outside the house, but no sign of her husband.

Adam’s disappearance is treated by the police as an apparently intentional abandonment of his young family. Grace is unable to accept this and returns to the cottage a year later secretly looking for clues as to her husband’s vanishing. Grace’s parents are unhappy with their daughter’s decision to return and her sister Annabel agrees to visit to make sure she is not slipping back into despondency. Once back in the Yorkshire village of Roseby, Grace sets about trying to renovate the old cottage to make it more attractive to a buyer. She is determined to provide her daughter with a proper inheritance. She meets a stoic man named Ben, a one-time native who has only recently returned to Roseby after years overseas who agrees to help with the renovations.

Local woman Meredith acted as caretaker for the cottage in Grace’s absence. Through her she learns more about Adam’s family, the history of the area itself, as well as much of the local folklore about spirits and ghosts. Grace becomes disturbed by a recurring nightmares involving Adam and supernatural creatures inspired by Meredith’s stories. When Annabel arrives and takes a fancy to the kindly yet mysterious Ben, she also cannot help but feel disturbed by how her sister’s flirtation affects her.

Then winter comes to North Yorkshire, covering the vast landscape outside the cottage with a blanket of snow, but also completely isolating Grace and her child, with no company save for the buried secrets of Roseby. The more she learns, the more she begins to question what she knows about Adam. She becomes convinced there is someone close to her, someone living in Roseby, who knows what really happened to her husband.

Sara Foster has followed up her debut Come Back to Me with a winning evocation of novels such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, – each namechecked along with Rebecca in the story – as well as the natural sights and sounds of the Yorkshire landscape. Ben makes for an entertaining reincarnation of Heathcliff, whose past is indelibly linked to Grace’s. I enjoyed how Foster updates the themes of these classic novels to a contemporary setting. The hints of supernatural forces dropped throughout the texts, with copious mentions of ghosts and barghests, add to the prevailing mood of menace. Grace and her sister’s relationship is also well established, comic sibling rivalry a more contemporary concern than classic naturalism.

All this is combined with the literary trope of a family with too many buried secrets to produce a work that casually merges classicism and contemporary to winning effect.

With thanks to Random House for my review copy.

It was always portraits with me. Portraits of other people. For forty years my work was images of strangers. Then it changed. She brought about the change. I don’t know how it happened. It’s a story, not an explanation.

Oh sweet relief. Today I finished my #NaNoWriMo entry. It’s already been submitted and I can breathe a sigh of relief – before the more arduous task of rewriting begins. After all, and I cleave to this point, I have not written a novel, only 50K words. An important distinction to make.

Still the process has given me a newfound respect for writers and the dedication that they show to their craft. Writing is a process of discipline and routine, ensuring the consistency of the initial idea, but still allowing the story room to breathe, to perhaps become something unexpected. These are all things I will have to learn if I want to be a writer, but I hope I have made a first step in that direction.

Today’s book is about artistic ambitions, the struggle between the life of the artist and the final work of art. The story’s nameless narrator is a well-known portraitist based in Canberra. In the autumn of his career he meets an academic on exchange at the university he haunts. Jessica Keal, a still young woman with a past that is the reverse of his own. He agrees to paint a likeness of her for a commissioned study of Australian academics and the two fall into a routine of artist and subject, casually revealing more and more of their former lives.

Jessica is a fourth generation Australian, who left her farming background in the Araluen Valley outside of Canberra for the life of a university academic in London. Returning to Australia she discovers a host of recriminations waiting for her, personified by the mother she left behind. The artist, in turn, left London for Australia when he was fifteen, cutting himself off from the frustrated failures of his own father, who hoped his son would become an author so that he could vicariously enjoy his success. Instead the artist chose to paint portraits of strangers, to capture the lives of people he does not know, so as to avoid questioning his own history.

The artist explains that sitting for a portrait is actually a process of give and take. Throughout the process he begins to reflect more on his own past, just as Jessica opens up to him about her fears and concerns elicited by her return to the family home in Canberra. The artist does not stop with one painting of his subject, he produces dozens, crowding out the spaces of his studio, capturing her in different poses and attitudes. In studying her he learns more about how a life can be understood as a sequence of experiences.

Reading this I was reminded of Lucien Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. What did they talk about I wonder? Alex Miller has the narrator initially tempt the vanity of Jessica in order to convince her to sit for him, but it becomes clear that his need for her to take part outstrips the flattery of her ego. His obsession with her transcends the causal force of sexual desire. It becomes the key to understanding his own life’s failures and inadequacies. In particular his refusal to paint members of his own family points to his shame at leaving his father behind, as well as his absent relationship with his wife and son, now both long gone.

It is interesting that the narrator’s father wished for the artist to become a writer, as his process of painting Jessica produces a series of portraits that fit into a loose narrative of her own life. The most startling moment for the two of them is when he paints her absence in a setting she has posed for a statement on the childhood long gone that is preserved in Araluen.

Miller’s descriptions of the farm belonging to the Keal family and their relationship with this natural environment is wonderfully detailed, with unchanging oak trees and swimming holes transporting Jessica back to her childhood self simply by coming into proximity with them. However, while this novel is concerned with the process of painting, it focuses more on the internal monologue of the artist faced by a blank canvas, the blurring of the painter’s own self with that of the subject, sourcing experiences from both in order to bring the painting to life.

Studied, intimate and very inspiring.

 

 

‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’

Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.

It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.

Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.

It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.

This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.

Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.

This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.

This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.

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