Book review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Yes, Robert Galbraith is really JK Rowling. Yes, JK is unfeasibly wealthy and ridiculously successful. And, yes, as a much poorer and less successful writer, I ought to ameliorate my jealousy by writing an excoriating review scraping away her technique to reveal a writer buoyed up by an adoring, Hollywood-fed public and hard-working editors. Sadly, I can’t, because this is bloody good. Rats! Rats and double and triple rats. This is really unfair. At least with Dan Brown it is an easy matter to mock his success by citing his prose but, damnit, I can’t do that with JK; she can write.

All right, let’s abandon plan A. Here goes with Plan B: I am an early Rowling adopter. I read the second Harry Potter just after it came out, which puts me some way ahead of the fame bulldozer that began to shovel everything else out of the way once the film of the Philosopher’s Stone came out. I read each Potter thereafter as they came out, and loved them all (except number 5, of course, where all Harry does is SHOUT IN CAPITAL LETTERS). I admired how JK dealt with fame, vast amounts of money and the Scottish referendum, not to mention the efforts of some Christian apologists who really should have known better to paint her as the gateway to the occult and, in one dreadful case, imply that she is possessed by the devil (Michael O’Brien, what were you thinking?).

So, plan B: yay for JK! She writes, and well. She makes you (or at least me) want to keep turning the page well past my normal bedtime. Yes, the finger of writing fame seems to have got stuck at ROW for some reason that no one can really understand, but that is just the public appetite, no more explicable than the Marie Celeste or Kim Kardashian; it’s a phenomenon, as random and powerful as lightning and, for the recipient, possibly just as frightening. So all praise to JK for writing a riveting, pacy detective novel, with a wonderful sense of London (particularly for someone who lives in Edinburgh) and great characters.

Plan C: go out and read The Cuckoo’s Calling (but get it from the library – as a much less successful writer, I need the money more than JK does).

Book review: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein
Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

I was  a big fan of Heinlein’s juvenile novels when growing up – I’m still a big fan of them now – and I have kept my collection neatly lined up on a shelf over the years, occasionally dipping into favourites. My favourite is probably Have Space Suit, Will Travel, but Starman Jones runs it close.

Anyway, I’d not read Tunnel in the Sky for a long time, so I picked it up for a re-read (my edition dates from 1978 when it cost 60p!). In the end, I found it slightly disappointing. Tunnel in the Sky has all Heinlein’s usual virtues of tight writing and an apparently effortless evocation of a future Earth society, but it also showed some of the vices that were later to dominate his work: notably the tendency to use a novel as a showcase for his political and philosophical ideas. So what is basically a SF Swiss Family Robinson becomes an essay on ideal forms of government, complete with compulsively verbose older authority figure (although, on rereading Swiss Family Robinson, it also featured a compulsively verbose older authority figure, the father, so maybe Heinlein pinched this constant character from a Swiss pastor. Sounds unlikely, but stranger things have happened). Of course, being early Heinlein, it doesn’t lose the story completely, far from it, but if Churchill had, by some chance, reviewed 1950s science fiction he might have decided that it would have benefited from less jaw jaw and more war war.

The Secret of a Happy Marriage: Reading The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows

You can dispense with psychological testing, horoscopes, compatibility checks and relationship counselling, all the panoply of means devised to test whether you and your proposed spouse are destined for a lifetime of conjugal bliss or will split, amid recriminations and bitterness, in a few years’ time, for I have found the answer. To know whether you are truly compatible, find out what he or she thought of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the age at which your intended first read it.

For myself, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is the first book I can recall reading – my mother tells me I was five at the time but since she is firmly convinced of my genius we can probably take that with a pinch of salt – my little legs, marked with the signature pattern of British Rail upholstery, drumming against the metal beneath the seat in one of those old-fashioned train compartments as I breathlessly read through to the end, oblivious of the delight I’m told I caused the other passengers as this small, brown boy plunged into the most English of literary landscapes. I re-read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ many times when I was young, and regularly through the years, managing to keep my edition in good condition. But this time, when I went to read the story again, for a change I picked up my wife’s edition, to find it marked with the inscription ‘Harriet Whitbread 1975 Christmas’. So she was six when she first read it, and it has travelled with her through an itinerant life as an actor, through digs and flats, to finally settle with me; we were destined from the moment we each entered Grahame’s England.

So there, that is the answer. If you and your intended both read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ at about the same young age, if you both skipped past ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter because you didn’t really understand it but now find that it has become close to your favourite part of the book, if you both want to take tea with Toad and settle down next to the fire with Rat and Mole, then you have met your soul mate and a life time of domestic happiness is ensured.

However, if neither of you have read ‘The Wind in the Willows’, then you place yourselves at the mercy of Aphrodite; will she make her blessing permanent, or temporary? In all likelihood it will be a marriage that endures rather than blesses. And if your reaction to ‘The Wind in the Willows’ differs then, I am sorry to say, you are surely destined for divorce; far better not to marry, and find someone else who read the story at the same time as you and appreciates it as you do.

And if you tried to read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ as a child and found it undreadable, objectionable or boring, which opinions you still hold despite being grown and able to know better, then I, for one, am glad never to have made your acquaintance.

Book review: The Narrows by James Brogden

The Narrows by James Brogden
The Narrows by James Brogden

When you think of urban fantasy, almost inevitably somewhere like London or New York comes to mind. Despite being a Londoner (a born one at that, so I can look down my nose at all the dick-come-latelys [dick after Dick Whittington of course] that pretend they understand the Great Wen) even I have to admit that leaves a lot of urbanity out of the picture.

So thank you, James Brogden, for bringing a city long overlooked out of the shadows, or the Narrows, and into the enchanted ley light of literature. This is a wonderful book that succeeds in doing something most people – and certain any Londoner – would consider impossible: it casts Birmingham as a believably magical place – although I think it more than appropriate that the Bull Ring should be the putative site of the Apocalypse, as our evil villain seeks to drill down to the core of the worlds and become, well, God, or at least, in Brogden’s theological imagination, the usurper of Aristotle’s unmoved mover (although presumbably Barber apotheosised would have adopted a more hands-on approach to deity).

Hugely enjoyable and I would be straight on to reading Brogden’s next book, Tourmaline, if any borough in the London Libraries Consortium stocked it. Shamefully, none do. I may be forced to actually pay for it myself (yes, Brogden really is that good).

Book review: The Traitor’s Heir by Anna Thayer

The Traitor's Heir by Anna Thayer
The Traitor’s Heir by Anna Thayer

Like many others, I suffer from PTRD – post-Tolkien reading disorder: the deepening sense of despair that slowly overwhelms a reader as he discovers that, in the field of fantasy fiction, he started at the top with the Good Professor and ever since then he has been coming down from the mountain of the worlds, into the flat plains – or, in some cases, stagnant pools – that comprise the world-building imaginations of other writers.

Let’s be clear about this: no one, and I mean no one, will match, let alone beat, Tolkien in the depth, breadth, height and profundity of their world building. The reasons for this are multiple, and mainly lie in the peculiar, and unique, range of gifts Tolkien brought to the creation of Middle-earth: most notably his astonishing grasp of the deep structure of language accompanied with the imagination to wield that creatively, and his profound, but non-allegorical faith, that transmuted the considerable suffering of his life into the meditation on divine providence that underlies his work.

So it’s hardly any surprise that, after discovering Tolkien and falling on any book that mentioned JRRT on its cover (‘comparable to Tolkien at his best’ – I’m looking at you, publishers of Stephen Donaldson), and finding out that none of them were comparable to Tolkien – and having fallen to the depths of Shannara – I shunned fantasy completely for many years. Recently, I’ve put a toe back into one or two of the pools in the Wood Between Worlds, but only for the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, which is making some progress (although I fear its obsession with the noumenal nature of tramps and hobos threatens towards self parody). So Anna Thayer’s ‘The Traitor’s Heir’ is the first proper, secondary world fantasy novel I’ve read for many years, and what a relief it was to enjoy it thoroughly. By keeping its focus strictly on the human (with a bit of magic thrown in) it avoids the unfavourable comparisons with Tolkien, while the emphasis on the struggles of the good does actually bear comparison with what Tolkien is doing in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. So, thank you, Anna, for reawakening my interest in secondary-world fantasy. Now for the second volume in the trilogy, ‘The King’s Hand’.

Book review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Towards the end of a book which he has informed, inspired and, indeed, haunted, Edward Thomas steps from the byways and pathways he has taken through Robert Macfarlane’s imagination – mental, mapped and physical – into the foreground: Macfarlane gives the reader a short biography of the man. In the course of it, he tells us that Thomas was something of a literary hack, churning out reviews and books for pay, but what he wasn’t, surprisingly, was a poet. It was only after Thomas struck up a friendship with Robert Frost, and the American worked through one of Thomas’s essays, striking it into lines of verse, that he realised what he was and what he wanted to be: a poet.

Reading Macfarlane’s studied, and studiedly beautiful, prose, it’s hard not to think that he’s waiting for a modern-day Robert Frost to do the same to his work. In many ways, poetry might suit Macfarlane better: as with Thomas and many of the other people he meets or reads in The Old Ways, he is trying to express something that merges into, or emerges from, the inexpressible; something more fundamental than emotion; maybe, simply, motion, as experienced and walked by each of us, every day. Walking, the first and most fundamental means of motion, is, in this book, revealed as mysterious and profound; separated from inactivity (note, not stillness) by as deep a gulf as that which divides the living from the dead. Robert Macfarlane walks, therefore he is.

Book review: Aquila by Andrew Norriss

Aquila by Andrew Norriss
Aquila by Andrew Norriss

Wonderful story. Two boys – united by friendship and a determination to pass through school entirely unnoticed – discover a strange machine, hidden in a cave, and take it home. Given that the cave also contains the skeleton of a Roman centurion, the machine must be old. But did the Romans build machines?  Trying to figure out what it can do (pretty well everything turns out to be the answer in the end) causes them to blow their school anonymity as they start asking questions (shock, horror) and they even start to study independently. Norriss writes with a delightfully light touch and the two heroes, and the suspicious deputy headmistress, are wonderful creations.

And, on further thought, I’m going to give this book the ultimate 5-star accolade: it really is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read.

Book review: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

The Man Who Walked Through Walls
The Man Who Walked Through Walls

Remarkable. Surrealism, the coldest literary form, with heart and soul. Each story turns on the extraordinary, but the extraordinary accepted without question, from the the titular man who walked through walls to the seven-league boots for sale in a junk shop. There is great theological insight too in some of the stories, combined with considerable humour, for example  the old lady, widely believed (particularly by herself) to be a saint who finds that the only way she can get into heaven is to pose as the regimental whore for her reprobate nephew’s army unit.

But it is the insight into humanity, particularly the humiliations of everyday poverty, that give the stories emotional heft and depth, and lift them above the usual exercises in literary form that anaesthetises most exercises in surrealism and magic realism.

I first gave this book four stars, but the way the stories have remained with me suggests that I have undersold it. This is definitely a five-star book.

Book review: The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy

The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy
The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy

A generally well produced journey through the archives of the Guardians of the Galaxy. I grew up in the 70s reading Marvel Comics, with Jim Starlin’s Warlock series a particular favourite, but I seem to have missed the Guardians then. It’s interesting to see how they’ve evolved, through the various sub universes of Marvel space, into the team of today. The earliest work (1960s) has a freshness of line that is lovely to see, and while the storyline seems a little naive a half century later, it’s still refreshing in its imaginative sweep. This imagination is really allowed to let rip in the Rocket Raccoon story set in Halfworld, a planetary lunatic asylum where intelligent animals look after the insane and two toy barons – a mole and a lizard, fight it out with killer clowns and assassin bunnies. The writer had some serious fun with the premise.

Moving more up to date, Dan Abnett’s take features his trademark ability to chop up timelines in such a way that characters are illuminated and sly jokes slipped in, all while maintaining narrative tension. A star comes off for the very sloppy proofreading in the prose character histories at the end of the book, where each Guardian is named and profiled.

Book review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith
Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

An enjoyable romp through St Matthew’s version of Christmas – the reviewer on the front cover who compares it to St Luke’s Gospel mashed with A Game of Thrones clearly hasn’t read the infancy narratives recently – which is probably at its best when it sticks closest (relatively speaking, since the wise men are, in this version, clever and ruthless criminals) to the Gospel. Not to say there isn’t considerable fun to be had in the inclusion of zombies, Pontius Pilate and enough blood shed to float a small boat down the Nile, but it does get just a trifle far fetched. Still, it’s nice to see that Grahame-Smith takes the essential point of Christmas, the Incarnation, seriously – this is not just another boring exercise in contemporary debunking. Do steer clear if you find written violence off putting, though, particularly in light of current events, potential readers should note there are a number of graphically described beheadings.