Half Sick of Shadows – David Logan

16113695

If ever any book was badly represented by preconceptions, its Half Sick of Shadows. It won the Terry Pratchett Prize alongside Apocalypse Cow and was presented as a time-travel tale. Readers (and that would appear to be all bloggers who have reviewed this book) seem to have been expecting a Pratchett-esque romp through time paradoxes–perhaps Night Watch, set in Ireland.

Up-front then: this book is nothing at all like that.

Instead, the closest analogy for Half Sick I can come up with is The Cement Garden rewritten by League of Gentleman. Edward, the protagonist, grows up on a crumbling ‘manse’ with his god-fearing father, absent older brother, attached-at-the-hip twin and gentle mother. The novel opens as something of a blackly funny coming-of-age novel presented as an off-kilter Gothic fable, as the young Edward unfolds the grim details of his life in an entertainingly matter-of-fact manner. A third of the way into the book, he is sent off to boarding school, where the novel rapidly accelerates to its peak. The school section is both highly entertaining and cutting, and despite what other reviewers have suggested, Logan handles the time compression required to age his protagonist from 5 to 17 both subtly and imperceptibly (and along the way there’s a dizzyingly brilliant scene in which Edward and his friend Alf Lord – key to the novel but barely present – get drunk at an Irish pub quiz that doesn’t seem to quite exist in the right time and space dimension.)

Immediately after, the novel takes a diversion into both the tragic and the absurd, but unfortunately only one of these is a good thing. Returning home, it becomes clear how far away Edward has grown from his twin, who is tied to her home by the weight of a childhood promise to an abusive father and shrunken into the gloom of filth of her own surroundings. This is chillingly sad, and handled beautifully by the author, but unfortunately at the same time the time-travel trappings that have thus-far only faintly whispered below the narrative come into play, and they make not a blind bit of sense. The finale is ham-fisted and rushed, and sadly ruins what until then had been a flawed but intriguing piece of fiction.

It’s quite hard to pin down how I feel about the novel upon closing the last page. Until a third in I was only mildly absorbed by the book, and by the end I felt it had squandered much of its atmosphere and weight on an incomprehensible ending. In fact, its 300 pages feel like something that would have worked stupendously well as a novella in which the need for the narrative to be pulled together at the end could have been avoided and instead we could have simply feasted on the smartly-rendered atmosphere of the whole thing. That said, to all the reviews I’ve come across that have damned this book for not being Terry Pratchett: measuring a book against what you thought it would is a shortcut to disappointment, every time.

Newbury and Hobbes 1: The Affinity Bridge – George Mann

61cJa6S4iIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Steampunk detectives knocking around in London pea-soupers solving potentially supernatural mysteries? Why the hell have I not got around to reading these before?

Clearly the omnipotent Book Pot agreed with me, for just as I had resolved to read the first Newbury and Hobbes mystery as my ‘free choice’ book, it spat out The Affinity Bridge as my next ‘dictated choice’. And so I devoured it in roughly two days.

Let’s be honest: I was very unlikely not to enjoy this book, playing as it does to all my favourite genre touchstones. That said, given my yen for steampunk detectivising, it would have been easy for it have turned out to be a let-down, but thankfully it was no such thing: appropriately atmospheric (the evocation of a smog-shrouded and slightly grimy London is evoked better than a number of other similar works I’ve read) with a mystery the right side of convoluted that — miraculously, because I always find this to a huge flaw with detective novels — arrives at its conclusion without having either telegraphed the solution nor arrived so out of the blue that it’s would have been frustratingly impossible to work it out for myself.

As for Newbury and Hobbes themselves–they’re an interesting pair, if slightly at the whim of the narrative in this novel, though I suspect with a clutch of future books continuing their story there’s plenty of room to explore them further as characters. For the most part, the more fantastical elements of the steampunk world creep in around the edges of the narrative without over-egging it with a parade of the genre tropes, but there’s more than enough to keep the world interesting–the mechanically-augmented Queen Victoria being the memorable highlight.

So all round a solid, entertaining read and (crucially, I suspect) more than enough that I nipped straight onto the tinterwebs and ordered the rest of the series, which I aim to read very shortly (if the Book Pot doesn’t intervene first.)

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman

gaiman

I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, in case its escaped anyone’s notice. With the exception of Anansi Boys I think all his novels are superb (and Ocean at the End of the Lane was one of my favourites of 2013.) Accordingly, I was quite excited when Trigger Warning popped up on the shelves without my having remembered it was being released, and I sped through it in a few days.

I’ll start gently: the highlights.

A Lunar Labyrinth is an illusory, elegant story told beautifully; The Thing About Cassandra is a deft little story about an imaginary girlfriend who appears to have forgotten how to be imaginary which is thoroughly entertaining and oddly poignant; The Case of Death and Honey is Gaiman’s second Sherlock Holmes story which is well-characterised and an absorbing version of what the winter years of Holmes might have been like; Click-Clack The Rattle-Bag is, in short, creepy as fuck; An Invocation of Incuriosity is a great sci-fi story, Nothing O’Clock is a perfect fusion of the twin styles of Gaiman and Doctor Who, and finally, Black Dog is a return to the Shadow from American Gods which is a nasty little horror story that’s the finest of the collection.

For all that I’ve picked out seven highlights, I’m hard pressed to say much else positive about this collection though. Love Gaiman as I do, the rest of the stories and poems feel rather fragmentary and lacklustre; or in fact, practised. The collection feels a bit like Gaiman’s got quite good at doing Gaiman, and whilst it might not always be easy to find an obvious flaw with a story, the whole book as a collection doesn’t strike home like his previous two did. And I have a sneaking suspicion that another author with less fame and sales reliability might have had the collection a little more rigorously edited. It might be personal taste however; the two ‘headline’ stories in the book, The Truth Is A Cave On A Dark Mountain and The Sleeper and the Spindle, both of which are universally acclaimed and exist in individual editions, I completely failed to find engaging in any way. I still think the man’s brilliant though; if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t find Trigger Warning quite such a disappointment.

Beautiful People – Simon Doonan

51Ag2ll5v4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a huge fan – one of the early tumthumpers shouting about how people must watch this show immediately – of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful People TV series. Partly because, in my university-halls days, I was equally obsessed with anything in which Simon Barnett was a little bit fey (everything he’s in) and The Feeling (who provide the theme song.)

Somewhere in the years after I bought a copy of the memoirs on which the series is based. I actually can’t remember where, but the second Book Pot decree of the year forced it back into my hands from the dusty corner of the shelf where it skulked.

First off, as I’m sure most reviews say, this bears little resemblance to the series. For a start, its two decades later, which might not matter were both works not richly drenched in the eras they portray. The vague make-up of the characters is intact, although the ‘real’ people of the memoir are handled with altogether more shades of grey than their primary-coloured TV counterparts (except, oddly, Simon himself, who seems to have been toned down from the screaming proto-queen of the book.)

What it does have is the same sense of anarchic camp, and in that sense Jonathan Harvey’s adaptation is absolutely on the nose. Some of the finest moments of the book make it intact to the screen, but by way of review, I offer my four highlights of ‘unseen’ story:

1. In which Simon believes he has murdered his blind aunt by walking her into a lamp-post.

2. In which Simon and his best friend fetch up in a hovel in London in search of the beautiful people, only to encounter a ragtag assemblage of oddities who have no idea what to do with a floor pillow (but know exactly what to do with an upright piano).

3. In which Simon discovers the meaning of camp at Butlins.

4. In which Simon takes an unexpected detour to the Rembrandt on Canal Street and discovers the age-old tradition of ‘mother-‘ and ‘daughter-ing’.

Great stuff. Read it, especially if you love the show.

Cover Design: Mrs Danby and Company – Paul Magrs

I’m very excited to finally be able to reveal a project I’ve been working on – the cover and interior design for Mrs Danby and Company. If you have even a passing acquaintance with my reading habits, you’ll know much I love his Brenda and Effie series, and so I was delighted to be involved with this. Mrs Danby and Company is a bonkers steampunk epic that takes in underwater kingdoms in the Atlantic, New York, Mars and the lair of giant spiders, featuring some what-do-you-mean-copyright pastiches of familiar figures from the annals of classic fiction – and a fair few from the extended universe of Mr Magrs too.

Artwork below!

mrs danby advert 2

danby

City of the Saved: Tales of the Great Detectives (Obverse Books)

totgd-completeI’ve read alot of Sherlock Holmes anthologies, but never one quite like this. If you haven’t come across City of the Saved before (I hadn’t, and it doesn’t matter) it’s effectively the city at the end of the universe in which everyone in history, living, dead or fictional, have been resurrected. In Tales of the Great Detectives, that means that all the endless iterations of Holmes and Watson have banded together to form the Agency, and this anthology details the investigations of a disparate bunch of pairings which is – like I said – the kind of Holmes and Watson’s you’ve never read before. [Warning – this review contains major spoilers. Sorry.]

It opens with a brief introductory piece by editor Philip Purser-Hallard, Saqqaf, and later is closed by its companion piece, Sussex – both atmospheric, illusory fragments that sets the tone for the rest of the anthology. The second story, Young Sherlock Holmes and the Mansion of Doom by Stephen Marley is a superb cold open; starting off like a stock Holmes story so precise in its execution that I utterly failed to see the turning point in which my mounting list of criticisms (cliched story, ‘young’ characters that sound old, illogical deductions…) were suddenly revealed to be deliberate and the story slowly lets you figure out that this is a fictional Holmes in a fictional computer game which is just plain bonkers but just plain brilliant.

It’s a clever start to the anthology because it weans you so neatly from straightforward-Sherlock into the genre-mashed, self-aware archness of the rest of the stories. The second story notches it further: in Eliminating the Impossible by Jess Faraday, Holmes is being stalked by a grim-looking man he believes to be his Creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, a man who in turn believes he is being stalked by Holmes’s. If you like your ontological arguments packaged as Arthur Conan Doyle attempting to assassinate Sherlock Holmes, this is the one for you. (It also has a particularly bone-chilling final image mirroring, I realise as I write this, a cosmic Reichenbach Falls.)

Next is The Case of the Pipe Dream by Chantelle Messier which is, quite frankly, a work of bonkers genius. A Watson is dispatched to a ‘Victorian’ area of the city to attempt to repair a ‘broken’ Holmes, one reconstituted from a half-complete radio serial and dashes around solving shonky mysteries and interspersing his speech with product placement advertising. This by itself is smart and funny, but the conclusion of the story which sees Holmes and Watson battling the ‘Plot Device’ which is leaking genre into the town and causing everyone to act as villainous archetypes is the pinnacle of this anthology’s self-aware brilliance. And of course, the ‘Plot Device’ is disarmed by chucking in some volumes of literary criticism. “Literary theory, my dear Watson!’

Kelly Hale’s Art in the Blood is focused on Watson, with his Sherlock an agoraphobic hologram, casting him as a film-noir ladykiller who, in the course of his investigation, accidentally cops off with Sorcha Lock, the only female Holmes. The mystery afoot is something of an afterthought to the story, but like much of the rest of the anthology the joy is in the intriguing characterisation – and a Sam-Spade-Watson is up there with the best of the book.

That said, the final two stories can’t quite live up to what preceded them. The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate by Andrew Hickey sees two Watsons, the original and an affable, bumbling incarnation, investigating the disappearance of Arthur Conan Doyle, only to uncover his involvement in a mass religious conspiracy involving the remaking of bog men and fairies. Unlike the rest of the stories, this story feels very preoccupied with the mechanics of the mystery, lacking the imaginative genre play that the others have. Round off the collection, The Baker Street Dozen by Elizabeth Evershed features a Watson assigned a dim-witted anime Holmes investigating the remaking of a Moriarty, a trail that eventually leads them to a university facility housing all of literature’s most famous criminals. It feels like a great first two thirds of a novella – anime Holmes is funny and both the Agency and the odd asylum of villains is fascinating – but the ending suddenly evaporates in half a page. More please.

In fact, generally: more please. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the anthology – I’ve read quite a few Holmes anthologies, and I always enjoy those that bend the form until it squeals a bit. In that respect, Tales of the Great Detectives blows them out of the water; smart, cutting, self-aware and highly entertaining. Sequel, now.

The Confabulist – Steven Galloway

confabulistIn present day, Martin Strauss has just been told he has a degenerative psychiatric condition in which he creates false memories of his past. And several decades before, Harry Houdini is working his way up the music halls and theatres to becoming such a legendary escape artist he is recruited by the CIA. And Martin Strauss is the man who, as history dictates, punched him in the stomach, causing a ruptured appendix that killed him.

Of course, you can never quite be sure of anything in the story, because the first page heavily underscores that this is very unreliable narration. It’s partly the point, because the whole book is themed around the ideas of illusion and masquerade – as would befit any novel about stage magic. A few other reviewers complained about this insecure footing, but I didn’t particularly find it mattered; the novel reimagines Houdini’s death as a feint to disappear from society and what happens afterwards – the feel of fiction is intentional.

The only flaw with the novel is that Harry Houdini’s strand of the narrative is so much more fascinating than Martin Strauss’. It never once mis-steps into dry biography, and is enthralling and well-constructed enough to sell its embellishments well. The first half feels very much like a rags-to-riches, rite-of-passage but offset by the Strauss narrative it doesn’t feel prosaic, and in the second half it instead ramps into something of an espionage thriller. By contrast, the Strauss narrative feels a bit less sharp and defined, and both strands suffer somewhat from a surplus of beautiful women with no character. (Lest you mis-translate that however, the writer does a sterling job of depicting Bess, Houdini’s long-suffering wife.)

All this said, whilst the above paragraphs might sound rather negative, I did actually enjoy the book. For some reason I was predisposed against reading it, but the book pot decreed, and within four or five pages the narration had turned me around; I finished the whole thing in two days. The Houdini half is gripping, and the Strauss half only really suffers by comparison. If anything, the harshest criticism is that the whole book feels a little like a paler cousin to Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, rehashing many of the same themes, explorations and events. Recommended to those of you who might already enjoy this type of novel, but perhaps not one to appeal to anyone outside of its sphere of interest.