Because of medical service interaction making me into a singularity of unnecessary stress (I am the kind of person who can worry themselves into a black hole-level panic over a GP’s appointment, and this one was the next stop along the line), I abandoned anything remotely responsibility-like over the weekend and following two days, and proceeded to plough through a newly-purchased (and signed!) copy of “Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch in a single afternoon.
It was a return to form, hovering somewhere around the first book in the series (“Rivers of London”) and the third (“Whispers Underground”) in terms of quality, and chasing the major plot arc that was introduced in the second (“Moon Over Soho”). The series has a genuinely engaging selection of regular characters and treats the one-offs as potential returnees, so everything feels solid, real, and well-constructed. This unremitting attention to the dimensions of characters extends to the landscape – it’s a cliche to say that the city is a major character in any given book, but when the book is set in London that’s almost a requirement. Ours is a city with a great deal of character, and to neglect that would be borderline criminal.
Happily Ben Aaronovitch has not at any point in this series been in the habit of neglecting the character, shape, or foundations of my beloved home. He’s also given such seamless attention to two fictional locations (Skygarden and the Stromberg House) that until the aftermatter I was convinced that both of them were real, and was even plotting to see if my Art Fund card would get me into the Stromberg house (a National Trust property in the book) for free! I’m not sure whether this is a testament to my gullibility or to Aaronovitch’s well-painted landscapes, but it made for an amused feeling after finishing the book.
The copy I got, from the Covent Garden Waterstones, also contains a short story concerning a genius loci of that very bookshop, which was charming and pleasant and reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman in ways that occasionally make me shake my head when Neil Gaiman does it. That, I suspect, is a case of familiarity breeding contempt: when you read a lot of someone’s work, you start to see the strings and hear their voice and see their preoccupations in their text.
Granted, if the someone is China Mieville it’s one book and half-way through it that you see the preoccupations and favoured word of the month…
Having finished “Broken Homes” one day, I decided to make good my sudden surge of desire to read fiction again and ate up “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett in less than an afternoon.
My only reason for choosing it was that I’d been loaned the book a while back and it had proceeded to sit on my “read this sooner or later because you’ve borrowed it you dickhead” pile for an egregious amount of time, but it’s thematically appropriate. After “Broken Homes”, a book about dodgy geezers in London, I read “Dodger”, a book about dodgy geezers in (Victorian) London.
As I have been a fan of Pratchet since I was roughly 11, and am 30 now, it’s probably no surprise that I had a wonderful time, as one tends to while reading Pratchett. There were no alarms and no surprises, and that, too, was an entirely pleasant process given that I was straining my intestines in fear over going to a hospital appointment in two days time.
Pratchett brought all of the humanity and wryness and gentle combination of affection and unflinching acknowledgement of the darker sides of mankind and specifically poverty-stricken mankind that he usually brought to the Discworld novels, and applied it to early-Victorian London. I appreciate that as I appreciate Aaronovitch’s witty, familiar poetics about the modern city; they are both writers who have poured a deluge of research into their cities – Pratchett drawing a great deal on the history of London for the unshakeable and distinctive foundations of Ankh-Morpork. I was in love with AM from very early in my life, and I suppose one can credit that for the delight with which I now absorb London’s seedier parts.
My favourite part of “Dodger” is the ease and joy with which Pratchett picked up the most unpleasant failing of “Oliver Twist” – the anti-semitic caricature of Fagin – and gracefully inverted it, making Solomon Cohen a genius, a fugitive, a kind man, and a man full of wit and sarcasm and references that fly over the narrator’s head but land with a satisfying plop in the mind of the reader. Again, “affection” is probably the word I’d use to describe the process; Solomon Cohen is a character written with a great deal of love.
Two books about dodgy geezers in London down, I merely picked up the largest book on the “you’ve borrowed this, hurry up and ever read it” pile, and it, too, turned out to be – so far – about a dodgy geezer, in London. It even references toshers, the profession attached to the titular character in the Pratchett book.
This third book, Nick Harkaway’s “Angelmaker”, is much denser than the Aaronovitch or the Pratchett. Harkaway relies on cramming in every possible detail and thought of the characters to illustrate both the individuals and the landscape, which makes for slower going than the well-timed touches of Aaronovitch and Pratchett, but it is still a highly enjoyable read: Harkaway’s “show AND tell” approach to storytelling is not too off-putting. Also, so far there have been clockwork bees, and I am easily sold on gimmicks like that.
(for those keeping track, I am also sporadically reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” on the Kindle and have reached the 90% mark; Lawrence is nearing Damascus and I am distressed by what will surely follow; for non-fiction I am ploughing through “Hiding the Elephant” and taking copious notes).