Book Review: By Gaslight – Steven Price (Oneworld Publications – 2016)

By Gaslight is the newest novel of Canadian poet Steven Price and it’s a prodigious work. At 730 pages I could have done with a portable lectern to hold it whilst reading it. Once I had picked it up I was captivated. The characters, story and settings are vivid, sympathetic, well-formed and enthralling. If I did not already know that Steven Price was an acclaimed poet by the bio that accompanied the book I would have guessed as much after a few pages.  
The story concerns William Pinkerton, son of Allan Pinkerton founder of the Pinkerton detective agency. Pinkerton, a hulking Civil War veteran, is stalking the streets of Victorian London looking for a lady called Charlotte Reckitt, who he believes is the key to finding one Edward Shade and elusive and some believe mythical master criminal. Allan Pinkerton was obsessed with Shade and went to his grave having failed to apprehend him. William inherits his father’s mania and becomes fixated on finding out what happened between Shade and his father. Some of Pinkerton’s friends and associates think that Shade did not exist, that he was a made-up person or a cover for a criminal gang.

The descriptions of Victorian London are vivid and poetic. Smoke, fog, smog, grime, dirt, soot and effluent are in abundance. People and buildings appear dimly in orange or brown lights and are then lost as the smog closes around them.  

Price’s writing style is measured and allows readers to get to grips with characters and plot themselves without being spoon-fed. There are slow-burning introductions to characters. Unusually, no speech marks are used but it does not affect the reading experience, I quite liked it.

Pinkerton is not the only person interested in Charlotte Reckitt. Adam Foole, an ageing entrepreneur, gambler and criminal has travelled to Liverpool from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Reckitt. Foole is accompanied by a young girl named Molly and a gigantic shaggy man named Japheth Fludd to whom he is friend, boss and family.  

For his part, Pinkerton is assisted by his father’s old associates and Scotland Yard detectives. One of my favourite characters was Inspector Blackwell, a diligent detective with a love of puns. Moments of dark humour light up the grimy London atmosphere. On examining a decapitated head and dismembered torso at a mortuary, Pinkerton’s asks ‘What happened to her hair?’

The story rolls backwards and forwards between Pinkerton’s present investigation and his past life as a Union soldier and young detective assisting his father’s business. We are also given insights into Adam Foole’s early life and relationship with Charlotte Reckitt. The scenes switch from London to take in the U.S and South Africa. All feel vivid and real.  

Pinkerton and Foole’s mutual interest in Charlotte Reckitt brings them in contact with each other and their relationship is at turns one of common interest and mutual mistrust. Foole’s shady dealings are the antithesis of what Pinkerton represents but it is Pinkerton who often appears as a bully who uses suspect methods to persecute those who stand in his way of discovering Edward Shade.  

Some of the main themes of the book are obsession, the treatment of children and women, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, how much we can know people and how much they really know themselves.  

Criticisms? None of note. A comb of parlour matches is described in the early pages but I suspect they would not have existed in Victorian England at this time. After landing in Liverpool, there is talk of ‘travelling up to London’ but I would think that ‘travelling down’ would be more appropriate. However, these are of no consequence. 

 By Gaslight is an exceptional, compelling and very satisfying novel that I would recommend highly.  

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Bleeding London – Geoff Nicholson (Harbour Books – 2014)

A novel about love, dedication, violence, sex, finding meaning in life and revenge, in which London itself is arguably the biggest character.  This is a wonderful book, one I itched to read when work or sleep prevented me from doing so.

Mick Wilton, a gangland enforcer from Sheffield, travels to London to avenge his girlfriend Gabby who tells him that she has been violated by six men whilst she was performing for them.  Mick does this without hesitation or planning, for him it’s simply the right and logical thing to do.  Mick’s disdain for the capital, unwillingness to seek even basic assistance (such as directions), inventive violent streak and complete lack of knowledge about London is humorous and engaging.  

Mick decides to buy a map and finds himself in London Peculiar, a wonderful  sounding establishment stocked with books and maps of the capital.  Mick is assisted by Judy Tanaka, a London born girl who is half Japanese.  Judy is obsessed with London.  Having only a list of names, Mick turns to Judy to suggest some areas of London where the men he is after might live.  Judy is fascinated by what Mick may be up to and becomes embroiled in his activities. 

Despite being violent and unpredictable, Mick makes some insightful and often funny remarks on life and his surroundings.  At one point he gives his opinion of the song ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’.

Well, you know, I’ve always thought it’s a really poxy song.  I mean it’s not good enough to to love a place just because you happen to come from there, is it?  Loving it just because you’re a Londoner is rubbish. Itt’s not a reason, it’s just a prejudice. 

We are introduced to Stuart London, a man who thinks his own name is ridiculous but loves London and operates a company that offers themed walking tours with his wife Anita.  The success of the company means Stuart finds himself surplus to requirements and becomes aimless and disaffected.  His replacement activity involves walking every street in London.  Stuart’s thoughts about his plans to carry out his walk, what sorts of streets are included, how he will document what he sees and his determination that it will not be a ‘sightseeing’ trip is very absorbing.  Stuart identifies with Pepys but feels at a disadvantage because Pepys lived through more momentous times. 

Judy is the link that connects Mick and Stuart.  One man is beginning to love London and the other is becoming tired of it.  

The book was originally written in 1997 and there are references to the use of phone boxes, video cassettes and Littlewoods that alert you to the fact that it was not written more recently.  

Finally, just look at the cover, it’s brilliant.  

Thi is a thoroughly enjoyable book and I would not hesitate to recommend it.  

Book Review: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. (Abacus – 2015)

Pretentious, melodramatic and excruciating. I’m sorry to say I found this book something of a trial and would have given it to a charity shop after 50 pages had it not been for the fact that it’s my book club choice for July and I felt I should persevere.
The book tells the tale of Monsieur Jean Perdu, owner of the ‘Literary Apothecary’, a floating bookshop on the Seine. Monsieur Perdu is middle-aged, single and believes he can cure people’s emotional needs by talking to them and recommending a suitable book. Feel ill yet? I did.  

Jean lives in an apartment at 27 Rue Montagnard. A young novelist called Max Jordan, who has written a book about the inner lives of men and their frailties, also lives in the building. One day, an attractive divorcee named Catherine moves into the building, she has no furniture and in finding a spare table to give to her, Jean opens up a room and part of his life that has not been examined for 20 years.   

Although he seems expert at helping others with their emotional pains, Jean has hidden an old trauma from which he has not recovered; a former lover called Manon. In attempting to find some redemption and meaning, Jean and Max go on a metaphorical and physical voyage on the book barge (Literary Apothecary is an appalling name).  

The ensuing journey heaps emotion, melodrama and wincingly bad prose and scenes into a slag-heap of regrets, creepy decades-long fixations, tears and catharsis. Fierce emotion and wholly unbelievable dialogue abounds. Jean recalls conversations he had with his lost love, Manon, who said to him;

Who knows Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognised each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.

In my notes I simply wrote ‘FFS’.

At as top on the journey they enter a garden where there is a lady painting. She is naked apart from a hat. Without introduction or explanation the lady asks Max to play the piano. When asked her name she says;

Forget about names. There’s no need for them here. Her we can call ourselves whatever we want.

At a stop in Avignon it is noted that Jean does not like the place;

This city didn’t appeal to Jean; it seems to him like an hypocritical whore, living off her past papal glories.

Seriously, who thinks like that? “How was your trip to Weston-Super-Mare Dave?”

“Well the kids had a good time, but I think of Weston as a haughty dowager duchess, resentful of the youth and vitality of others.”  

It’s not right is it.  

Whilst I might be happy to tell people how this book made my teeth grind and the flesh creep up my spine, I could not recommend this to anyone, ever. 

Book Review: Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (Windmill Books)

Good reviews help sell books.  It’s usual for a book to have some fizzing words of praise either on it or in it.  This book positively drips with enthusiastic reviews from newspapers, magazines and other authors.  A positive review from a few months back was one of the reasons I bought the book.  

Perhaps only a fool or a soulless numpty with no respect for good writing would disagree with the many, many reviewers who loved this book.  I hate to admit that 262 pages in, I could not, would not, read any further and I will try to explain why.  

First of all, something of the story.  Our protagonist is Joshua Joseph Spork (Joe Spork) a large man whose father was a notorious gentleman criminal.  Joe has assiduously avoided his old man’s life of crime and specialises in repairing mechanical and clockwork devices.  His life takes a surprising and potentially life-limiting turn when he is given a mysterious mechanical book to repair, reputed to be the ‘Book of Hakote’ whose astounding properties are gradually revealed.  

The female lead in the story is given to Edie Banister, a octogenarian  ex-secret agent and stone-cold killer.  Spork’s entry into the dangerous world of international espionage and clockwork doomsday devices is largely due to Edie.

There is a whole supporting cast of friends, lovers, henchmen, secret societies and mad dictators.  It is innovative, layered and carefully crafted.  It feels as though it could be set in London between 1880 and 1960 but Harkaway makes numerous references to real-life people and events that means it is set in the present.  Some examples:

Policemen who shoot plumbers nine times in the head for being diffusely non-white

Resentful Irish aviation bosses

There are many thought-provoking ideas in the book.  There is an order of Ruskinites whose ideology is based on the philosophy of John Ruskin, art critic, painter, social thinker and philanthropist.  Ruskin argued that truth, beauty and religion are inextricably linked.  If nothing else, I have this book to thank for piquing my interest in Ruskin and making me find out more about him.  

Also, Harkaway has something to say about the alienation caused by mass production and division of labour.  

Why then is this getting the ‘did not finish’ treatment.  Without boring you I will briefly list the reasons:

1. There are enormous side-stories, back-stories and digressions that would give Neal Stephenson a run for his money.  Some help to move the story forward, some don’t.

2. Clockwork bees, mechanical automata, a secret government agency that operates from a steam train.  Rats, I’ve gone and picked up another book that could loosely fit in the steampunk canon.  I will never know if zeppelins drift into the story past page 262.

3. The wealth of characters all seem to speak with the same voice, like a Victorian civil-servant.  Whilst I fully respect the considerable and laudable abilities of Mr Harkaway to demonstrate his prolixity in great, some might say leviathan-like, passages full of verve and linguistic wit; it does become, in many ways, rather tiresome.

I am sure that many people have enjoyed, and will enjoy, this book.  If you have not read it, give it a try you may love it.  Sadly it just did not click with me.  Oh well, plenty more fish in the sea.

Book Review:  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – by Haruki Murakami (Vintage:2003)

After reading this book our book-club was asked to sum it up in one word.  The results were:

Disparate

Layered

Overwhelming

Strange

Pointless

Surreal

Fanciful

Endless

Convoluted

The book tells a chapter in the life of Toru Okada, a polite and generally mild-mannered man who has no job and seems to drift by on good luck and the kindness of others.  Toru’s cat disappears and later so does his wife Kumiko.  In attempting to find them, Toru is helped and hindered by an odd cast of characters.  An old soldier who can see the future, two sisters who profess to have psychic powers, a teenage girl who takes risks and has a thing about wigs, a cold, dismissive, possibly evil brother in law and a fashion designer whose services to the phenomenally wealthy entail more than clothes.

There is a focus on the minutiae of Toru’s life, interspersed with events and reminiscences that are at turns bizarre, gruesome or dreamlike.  Symbols abound and I found myself getting a bit bogged down trying to work out their meaning rather than just enjoying the story.  

Some of the themes in the book include, free will versus fate, how well we know each other and ourselves and what it means to have no role or function in society.

Periods of contemplative calm are broken by odd events but the plot feels thin.  Everything happens but nothing happens.  I felt as though Murakami could have just gone on writing, adding to this book chapter by chapter for the rest of his life.  It’s that kind of book.  When I finished it, my head remained full of the strange episodes, it felt akin to waking from a disturbing dream.  

I didn’t dislike this book but neither would I say it was a great read.

Book Review: Killing & Dying – Adrian Tomine (Faber and Faber 2015)

Books like this make me wish I had interesting, creative and meaningful ideas and artistic talent.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous of Adrian Tomine.

The bookseller at Foyle’s in Birmingham told me how good this book was as I was paying for it.  It was a nice piece of decision reinforcement; a bit of a pat on the back and a cry of ‘good taste fella.’

Tomine’s graphic novel/comic contains six diverse stories with unusual plots or settings.  The book examines the relationships between fascinating and sometimes flawed characters.  It draws the reader in.

The first story, perhaps my favourite, is ‘A brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture.”  Gardener Harold combines the disparate world’s of horticulture and fine art to create some truly ugly living sculptures.  Harold meets resistance and derision from neighbours, friends, family and the existing clients of his gardening business.  His attempts to sell his idea and the various ways people attempt to avoid telling him that it is rubbish are highly comical. The comic is presented as a series of 6 ‘four frame’ stories in black and white followed by a nine frame colour piece.  It’s as if it was taken from the pages of a daily newspaper with the colour page featuring as a special in the Sunday edition.

Amber Sweet tells the awkward tale of a girl who receives unwanted attention due to the fact that she looks like a famous porn star (the Amber Sweet of the title).  The girl’s life and relationships with men and women are ruined by the misunderstanding. The girl gets little sympathy, even from her female friends, but a chance meeting with Amber Sweet allow her to make sense of things.  This is a thoughtful piece on pornography and the objectification of women.

‘Go Owls’ sees two baseball fans hook up after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  Dennis Barry is a prematurely aged minor drug dealer and general ‘waster’.  The lady in the story is not named but simply referred to by Dennis as ‘Babe’.  At an obvious low point in her life she perhaps sees the chance of support, companionship and love but suffers a series of blows, both mental and physical.  We can laugh at Dennis, who is one of life’s losers, but his treatment of his ‘Babe’ is creepy and wrong.  This is not a hard-boiled tale of domestic abuse by any means.  It is a contemplative account of a man’s manipulation of a woman.

The next story, ‘Translated from the Japanese’ is a short but beautiful example of Adrian Tomine’s artwork.  We never see the lady who narrates the story.  Instead we see a journey she takes through her eyes.  Casual observations of everyday surroundings are impeccably rendered.  The story is short and enigmatic; definitely one to ponder over.  

‘Killing and Dying’ refers to two things that a comedian can experience on stage.  This is the tale of a teenage girl who wants to be a standup comedian and her relationship with her parents who want to be supportive but struggle somewhat to see comedy as a great career path.  The story is told in pages of 20 frames and each is a stamp-sized study of expression and emotion.  

The final tale, called ‘Intruders’ follows a US war veteran struggling to reintegrate on his return home.  By a strange coincidence he has the opportunity to hang out in his old family home during the day when the current owners are out at work.  It’s a peculiar set-up but quite an effective piece on alienation.  

This is a brilliant book – one to read, enjoy and think about again and again.  Highly recommended. 

Book Review:  A Red Sun Also Rises – Mark Hodder (Del Rey 2012)

I stumbled across this book in a pound shop.  The front cover highlights that the author was a winner of the Philip K. Dick award.  Might be a cheap hidden gem, I thought.  Wrong!

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you may be able to make some useful assumptions based on the establishment that is stocking it.

The cover and the hyperbole on the back suggested a steampunk novel.  The initial tale of a rather weak Victorian country vicar, named Aiden Fleischer, seemed reasonably interesting.  Fliescher takes pity on Clarissa Stark, a lady whose body has been badly damaged in an accident leaving her in constant pain with twisted limbs.  Ms Stark wears very dark, leather bound goggles – one of the few nods to steampunk in the novel.

Fleischer’s fondness for a local young lady, leads to him being blackmailed.  He decides to flee by becoming a missionary and travels with Stark to a remote tropical island. Whilst on the island, Fleischer and Stark fall through an apparent rip in ‘space-time’ to another planet.  I really should have stopped reading there but I carried on like a fool.  

Life is too short to go into too much details but the remainder of the book was filled with some painfully melodramatic and cringeworthy dialogue, aliens with crazy names and a very tenuous grip on understanding their own life-cycle and improbable triple-stage metamorphosis.  

Fleischer undergoes an amazing transformation from a craven man of the cloth to a muscle-bound sword-wielding agnostic warrior.  If this book were ever to be filmed (saints preserve us!) this section would be a montage.

Somehow references to Jack the Ripper are shoehorned into the book, I suspect to remind the reader that it’s set in the Victorian era.

This being nominally steampunk, there is, of course, an airship.  

The plot was needlessly convoluted and when the resolution came I scarcely cared.  My eyes and brain felt tortured by the horror of this ludicrous shambles.  

As a final twis of the knife, the final chapter manages to shunt in a time-lapse, the Second World War and the Bermuda Triangle.  This just left me feeling angry and insulted.

I have read this book so you never have to.