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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 While some of the dead do help in his education, most of their knowledge is centuries out of date.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.

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‘The making of artificial intelligence is one of the proudest boasts of the secularists’, said Campbell. ‘Next to artificial life, it’s the greatest triumph for their materialism. Perhaps greater. They claim to have done what Christians once claimed could be done only by God – creating a rational soul. Would this triumph not turn to ashes in their mouths if their own creations were to acknowledge the true Creator?’

I have a confession. Back in the summer of ’03 I was living and working in Edinburgh. I lived out of the Central Library, just opposite the Royal Scottish Museum where I worked in a restaurant. I would take out fourteen books at a time and read them over a month or so, then return them for the next load. Those were pleasant days. I recall taking out Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division. I remember reading it. To be honest though, I have no memory what it was about at all. I am not even sure I finished the book.

Not an auspicious start for a review, is it?

In The Night Sessions MacLeod maps the conflicts of our time, a diabolical festoon of resource wars and radical religious fudamentalism, on to a near-future society where the Western world underwent an event known as The Rejection. All forms of religious belief have been driven underground. A brutal, second Enlightenment took hold, America was swallowed in a destructive civil war and artificial intelligence escalated the spread of the conflict.

John Richard Campbell is a young man fascinated with robotics. His work in a New Zealand preserve for animatronic models has given him an interesting outlet for his religious beliefs. He has begun to proselytize to his charges and what’s more, they are listening to what he has to say. When a secret sect in Edinburgh hears of him, Campbell is initiated into The Free Congregation of West Lothian. During the same visit, he meets a virtual reality dj Dave Warsaw and his partner Jessica at a club night in a former church. Campbell is repulsed and secretly intrigued by the orgiastic scenes created by Warsaw’s mastery of music and image. His faith has hidden him from such activities, a faith that makes him especially vulnerable to manipulation.

A year passes and a series of murders in Edinburgh begin to rise tensions throughout the secular world. The targets are clergymen, former soldiers in the Faith Wars, with hints of inter-fundamentalist cell reprisals. Adam Ferguson leads the investigation, using bleeding edge technology to identify patterns in the murders, compile every scrap of data on file regarding the victims and their surroundings. However, he finds himself confounded by the complexity of the case. There are also fears of a much great attack at the secularist nations, so thoroughly denuded of religious faith that Ferguson has to remind his officers out of courtesy to refer to the murder victims by the title of ‘Father’, or ‘Bishop’, and not the prefix ‘Citizen’.

MacLeod’s novel is a vast spider-web of ideas and supposition as to the future course of our society. The ‘Rejection’, I am sure sounds like Richard Dawkins’ fondest fantasy, but the story does not shy away from depicting the overzealousness of the anti-religious factions in this new world. His vision of future developments in surveillance technology and A.I. is also exciting and playful. Ferguson’s robot Skulk is more a partner than an investigative tool, complete with a winning sense of humour.

I also enjoyed the familiar sights of Edinburgh being mildly tweaked to fit this depiction, despite surviving catastrophic sectarian conflict. MacLeod’s characters are for the most part Scots. There is in fact quite a large cast. The prologue that introduces Campbell serves to fix him in the reader’s minds before his eventual return in the latter-half of the book.

If some of this sounds familiar, perhaps you are a fan of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which also had the premise of a futuristic society running headlong into a conflict with fundamentalist religion. The difference is MacLeod’s book has balls. The ending is much more satisfying. Yes, I am still bitter.

This is a book that I will have no trouble remembering. A thrilling and inspiring read.

I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.

This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.

A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London.  Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.

The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?

The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.

One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.

This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).

Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.

‘Women are the ones who know what’s going on’, she said quietly. ‘They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?’

There are days when I feel very grateful for the opportunity I have been given with this challenge. It has forced me to broaden my choice of reading, introduced me to writers I would not otherwise have encountered. This is one such example.

Alexander McCall Smith is an Edinburgh-based author, who came to writing from a successful career as Professor of Medical Law. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency he exchanges his Caledonian surroundings for the exotic locale of Botswana, with its dusty roads, diamond trade and the Kalahari desert and in Precious Ramotswe, female detective, he has created a quick-witted rival to Philip Marlowe.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is occasionally episodic, with chapters standing in for individual cases, or short stories. Precious inherited her father’s livestock when he died and used the money from the sale of the cattle to set up her own detective agency. After a slow start she soon discovers her gentle humour, observant nature and kindness place her in high demand. While the police are all too ready to barge in and ‘solve’ cases by bringing them to the quickest end. Precious takes her time, offers her clients red bush tea, stares at the ceiling and comes to the best possible outcome.

There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.

McCall Smith returns the detective novel to an earlier format, in having the private eye take the moral view on each case, which is not necessarily the same as the legal view. For one the law is not always on the side of the women of Botswana, with unscrupulous men taking advantage of tradition to mistreat their wives, or daughters when it suits them. Precious refers to herself as a modern woman. She has suffered much hardship in her life, much heartbreak and has learned that men can lie quite easily when they wish. Sometimes it is easier for the police, or doctors, or lawyers to look the other way when a woman is in need.

While the book is episodic, with Precious dealing with missing person cases, as well as a stolen car and the wandering eyes of husbands. It is the kidnapping of a child though, with the suspected involvement of witchcraft, that becomes a case that she cannot solve, lying at the heart of the novel. She is forced to turn down the traumatized parents when they come to her for help, as she can see no possible way of returning their child to them. Plus, though it is a taboo subject, if witchcraft is involved, the child is almost certainly already dead. However, Precious never stops thinking about the missing boy. She is haunted by the memory of her own child, who was lost to her due to an abusive relationship. When she discovers that the kidnapped boy’s fate is tied up with powerful and dangerous men, who could just as easily buy off the police if need be, the stage is set for a poignant and bittersweet coda.

McCall Smith writes with a generous simplicity. This is most pronounced in the chapter relating to Precious’ father and his experiences working in the South African diamond mines. The hardships of the men underground are described in a disinterested manner, which makes the stories of these miners all the more powerful. They tell themselves that they will each be eventually ‘swallowed’ by the mine, whether it be by death from rock collapse, or the choking of their lungs years later. There is a warmth and gentleness to the writing, reflected in Precious’ own personality. While she observes men hurting others, cheating and stealing, she does not give in to despair. Instead she sets up her detective agency to make a difference.

This is a wonderfully hopeful and engaging novel. I plan on reading the rest of the series when I get a chance. Recommended.

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