Tag Archives: British Fiction

Unseemly Science, Rod Duncan

Unseemly Science, Rod DuncanUnseemly Science by Rod Duncan First Published: 2015 Pages: 346 (Paperback) Form: Novel Series: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #2 Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

In the divided land of England, Elizabeth Barnabus has been living a double life – as both herself and as her brother, the private detective. Witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess, Elizabeth resolves to throw the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook into the fire, and forget her past. If only it were that easy! There is a new charitable organisation in town, run by some highly respectable women. But something doesn’t feel right to Elizabeth. Perhaps it is time for her fictional brother to come out of retirement for one last case…? Her unstoppable curiosity leads her to a dark world of body-snatching, unseemly experimentation, politics and scandal. Never was it harder for a woman in a man’s world…

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, the first book in Rod Duncan’s steampunk series, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, was one of my surprise favourite reads of last year. It had so much to love; a competent (crossdressing!) and pragmatic heroine, a genuine female friendship, gripping plot, fun victorian/steampunk trappings, limited hints at future romance, and wonderful alternate-history world-building. And all set in a part of the UK that I was pretty familiar with too (Leicester pride!). It had literally all the things I never even realised I wanted when I picked it up as a light holiday read. The sequel is not as strong. It is slower to jump into the ‘main’ plot and there is a lot more going on. For the first half of the book it relies more on the character of its protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabas, than it does on fast paced action (though there’s still plenty), and isn’t as instantly gripping ‘what’s going to happen next!?’ as the first book. But actually, I’m pretty fine with that. I love Elizabeth and I don’t object at all to spending more time in her head with her thoughts. Continue reading

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Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

Night Watch, Terry PratchettNight Watch by Terry Pratchett

First Published: 2002

Pages: 364 (Hardback)
Form: Novel
Series: Discworld #29
Subseries: The City Watch #6

Rating: 5/55/55/55/55/5

Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch had it all. But now he’s back in his own rough, tough past without even the clothes he was standing up in when the lightning struck.

Living in the past is hard. Dying in the past is incredibly easy. But he must survive, because he has a job to do. He must track down a murderer, teach his younger self how to be a good copper and change the outcome of a bloody rebellion. There’s a problem: if he wins, he’s got no wife, no child, no future.

A Discworld Tale of One City, with a chorus of street urchins, ladies of negotiable affection, rebels, secret policemen and other children of the revolution.

Truth! Justice! Freedom!
And a Hard-boiled Egg!

A reread in memory of Terry Pratchett. RIP.

I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was twelve. My big sister was playing Ysabell in a year 10 house play production of Mort. Neither of us were familiar with Discworld at the time, but she borrowed the book from the student director and I borrowed the book from her. And that was it. It was wonderful and clever and different from anything I had read before.

Over the next few years I attempted to complete the whole series of (then) around 25 book. With no budget for buying books, and so many to read, I borrowed them from the town library, the school library, the earlier mentioned student director (who was then dating my sister and thought he was only lending them to her), and once I had older male admirers of my own, from them as well.I can’t remember what order I ended up reading them all in, but it was whatever was available at the time, and most certainly not the ‘correct’ order. I read Carpe Jugulam before Wyrd Sisters and got confused by the change of cast, and Feet of Clay before Guards! Guards! and was distressed to find Angua not in the earlier book. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (the first two books in the series) were the final books I read in my catch up – which was probably good as they are by far the weakest. But throughout this disorganised mishmash or chronology and characters there was one subseries, and one character, who always remained my favourites. The City Watch, and Commander Samuel Vimes.

I watched the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork shrink and grow and shrink and grow as I erratically read whatever I was able to get hold of at that moment. Only when I had caught up – and my parents had caught up enough on mine and my sister’s shared love of the series to start buying them for us at Christmas – did I start to read them in order. And the first of these Christmas presents gifted to me rather than my sister, was Night Watch. I had finished it by boxing day morning.

Still, when I heard the news of Terry Pratchett’s death this Thursday, it was Guards! Guards! I sought out, and the excuse to finally read The City Watch series in the correct order. As I could not locate the book, however, I picked up Night Watch instead. And I think, even had I found the book I was initially looking for, Night Watch was the right choice. It’s one of the most poignant and most human stories in the whole series. A policeman and a murderer, sent back in time through a freak magical accident (more details on that in Thief of Time) to a time when the city watch was incompetent, the ruler of Ankh-Morpok relied on torture and secret police, and rebellion was brewing in the slums. And a young Sam Vimes needs to learn to become the man (and the policeman) he will be. Only one problem – the murderer’s first act is to kill the man who would teach him that, and potentially change the course of history forever. Its up to Commander Vimes to step into his mentor’s role, teach his younger self the morals of policing, and become the leader of a revolution he already knows is doomed.

But Vimes (wonderful Vimes!) never half-arses a job. And, as the timeline changes in subtle ways, he realises that perhaps things aren’t so doomed after all. If he does things right this time and learns from his past, maybe this time the revolution will be successful, the friends who died might live – but doing so would change his future forever; he would lose both his wife and his unborn child. And this is why Vimes is my favourite character in the whole of the Disc. It’s all exemplified in this one book. Although Vimes is grumpy and pragmatic and cynical and never fails to fight dirty, he will always always do what is right and he will follow a job through right to the end. He adores his wife, but that’s who he is, and he cannot let the people around him down by not trying his best. Its one of the more angsty, more depressing, and most beautiful Discworld books from what I regard the best period of Pratchett’s writing.

And as it deals with Commander Vimes travelling back into his own past, well prior to the events of Guards! Guards!, it serves my rereading from the beginning purpose even better than the first book of the series itself! It sets up what the characters and the city were like before Vimes’ meteoritic rise through the ranks better than any of the early books do, and I’m sure will make me appreciate just how much Vimes achieves in the rest of the series.

So 5 stars. Forever 5 stars. Funny, sad, and thoughtful. A good book for grieving a wonderful wonderful author and a brilliant person. RIP Terry Pratchett. You will be missed.

Sidenote: My copy of Guards! Guards! has now been found, the next two books are reserved from the library. This City Watch reread is totally happening! Watch this space! And I promise future reviews will try to be more about the book than this one.

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Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma HealeyElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

First Published: 2014

Pages: 282
Form: Novel

Rating:5/55/55/55/55/5

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen is a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One that everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

Elizabeth is Missing is part mystery, part historical fiction and part family drama. But really what it’s about is Maud; an elderly woman slowly losing her memory to dementia. And the real strength of the book is not in the mysteries (which aren’t that hard to solve) but in the way Maud narrates the story. First person present tense – which I normally loathe –  works absolutely beautifully here for a woman not giving an account of something that has happened, but permanently stuck living in the moment (either in the present or in her 1940s childhood). The repetition, the contradictions,confusion, and denials of something she has already said all make her very sadly realistic as she progresses from ‘forgetful’ to in need of permanent care.

But, throughout the dementia; the blanks in her memory, the confusion over words, the occasional inability to recognise her own daughter, Maud maintains a strong and distinct personality of her own and is never ‘just’ a forgetful old lady. She’s not the sharpest tool in the box (even before the dementia) but she is likeable, funny, strong-willed, and tenacious. So once she’s decided that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing she does not let go of it as her carers and her daughter all tell her to, but determines to find her for herself. And, as she slowly loses grip on the present, trying to find Elizabeth brings back memories of her older sister, Sukey, who disappeared in 1946.

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Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik

Victory of Eagles, Naomi NovikVictory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

First Published: 2009

Pages: 345 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: Temeraire #5

Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

As is the nature of longer series, the blurb contains spoilers for previous books. So everything goes below the cut this time.

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Foxglove Summer, Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove Summer, Ben AaronovitchFoxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

First Published: 2014

Pages: 394 (Waterstone’s Hardback with bonus short story)
Form: Novel
Series: Rivers of London/Peter Grant #5

Rating: 5/55/55/55/55/5

When two young girls go missing in rural Herefordshire PC Peter Grant is sent out of London to check that nothing supernatural is involved. It’s purely routine, Nightingale thinks he’ll be done in less than a day.

But Peter’s never been one to walk away from someone in trouble, so when nothing overtly magical turns up he volunteers his services to the local police who need all the help they can get.

But because the universe likes a joke as much as the next sadistic megalomaniac, Peter soon comes to realise that dark secrets underlay the picturesque fields and villages of the countryside and there might be work for Britain’s most junior wizard after all.

Soon he’s in a vicious race against time in a world where the boundaries between reality and fairy have never been less clear…

 

I’ve made no secret about my total love for the Rivers of London series (apart from the second book – that one’s crap). They’re one of my go to’s for comfort reading: quick, entertaining, easy to read, and a little bit different former standard modern fantasy. For a start, the protagonist, Peter Grant, actually acts like a real police officer! He doesn’t pull the maverick cop act (much) but co-operates with other officers and departments, does his paperwork, follows procedure (as much as you can do when dealing with the supernatural) and generally acts in a way you expect a real person who doesn’t want be fired to act.

And Foxglove Summer really is Peter Grant’s book – taken out of London and away from his cast of supporting characters, Foxglove Summer gives Peter the chance to shine on his own for the first time. Regulars like Nightingale, Lesley, and Beverly do make their appearances, but generally it comes from the other end of the phone and, I was surprised to find, I didn’t miss them at all. I didn’t even miss the London setting, which has always been one of the highlights of all previous novels. Quietly, and without me really noticing it, Peter has grown up enough to carry a book – and a police case – on his own, and it was great to read him doing just that, and doing it pretty dang competently. Continue reading

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The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert GalbraithThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
(J.K. Rowling)

First Published: 2013

Pages: 550(Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: Cormoran Strike #1

Rating:4/54/54/54/54/5

When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts and calls in private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.

Strike is a war veteran – wounded both physically and psychologically – and his private life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model’s world, the darker things become – and the closer he gets to terrible danger.

Before I start, I’m going to admit that I only chose to read this book because the author is J.K. Rowling. I’m partial to a detective story now and then but, without a specific recomendation for Galbraith from someone I trust, I would probably not have picked this novel up on my own from among  the sea of bland identi-covers and samey-blurbs in my bookshop’s crime section.  But Rowling proved (to me at least) that she could write for adults with The Casual Vacancy and she’s proved she could write mysteries and sprinkle clues around ever since The Philosopher’s Stone, so I was interested to see what her crime debut would be like.

 

And it’s pretty good. A fairly standard crime novel, perhaps: a PI with a funny name, a dark history, and a disastrous personal life investigates a death everyone believes to be a suicide, proves it was murder and shows up the police. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or exceptional about the story, but it is a solid, enjoyable read, and that’s pretty much all I ask of my detective novels. Continue reading

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Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie

 

Last Argument of Kings, Joe AbercrombieLast Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

First Published: 2008

Pages: 670 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: The First Law #3

Rating: 3/53/53/53/53/5

Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him, but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.

With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. And his days with a sword are far behind him, it’s a good thing blackmail, threats, and torture never go out of fashion.

Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful an process and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too–and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.

While the king of the Union lies on his deathbed, the peasants revolt, and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. Yet no-one believes that the shadow of war is about to fall across the heart of the Union. Only the First of the Magi can save the world, but there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, than to break the First Law…

And with the final book in the First Law trilogy (there are follow up standalone books set in the same world but this book completes the original trilogy), I remain more unconvinced than ever by Joe Abercrombie’s reputation as a master of fantasy. Sure, he subverts the cliche heroic fantasy tropes and stock characters to turn them on their head – but barely anyone writes that sort of heroic fantasy anymore anyway. And he still falls into that worst of fantasy author habits: writing way more than he he needs to, spinning a simple story into a whole trilogy. None of his books need to be as large as they are. The ending, while I admit it could have been a genuinely great end to standalone or a first novel in a series, feels anticlimactic after three books and roughly 1,700 pages. Especially when so little of relevance really happened in either book one or two. Really, the whole series would have been massively improved by hacking out all the filler, maybe reducing the number of POV characters, and condensing it all into two books instead (one would probably be pushing it).

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