Thursday, 11 September 2014

What I've Been Reading: London Under, I Will Repay, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Used for review purposes.
"I don't want to be a day bird," said Plop, "day is NASTY."

Okay, reviews for the week 26/08/14 to 01/09/14.

I heard about Peter Ackroyd's London Under at about the time it first came out, and finally bowed to the pressure of being in a bookshop and wanting it a couple of months back. If you have a copy, read it. It is an absolute delight.

Lyrical and beguiling, it drags you deep down into the London clay, into the strange magic of the Underground, the silent sterility of the telegraph wires, the gradual sink of history into the mud. Ackroyd captures the depth and power of the places under the earth, the fear and the energy of a metropolis. London Under is a love-song to a London that is at once infernal and sacred. It bewitches. It makes you want to travel those secret, dim, waterlogged paths. It makes you want to use big words to describe them.

If I have one complaint, though, it is that it isn't that useful as an informative book. Ackroyd's prose is masterful, and you traverse themes in a giddy stream of facts, of mood, of place, but buggered if you can remember any of it afterwards. I was fascinated as I read, but like surfacing from a shamanic journey, I got to bring very little home with me. I was also a little disappointed that it didn't namecheck Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, but I shan't hold it against him.

Anyway, a reading book, rather than a reference one, but a must for all affecionados of the subterranean life.

For a total change of mood now, I will now talk about Baroness Orczy's I Will Repay, or as it is perhaps better known as 'Ooh, The Scarlet Pimpernel, did well, I should probably write a sequel'.

I think the sheer harshness of my judgement on this one is probably less the fault of the work itself, and more a result of the circumstances in which it has been read. I encountered The Scarlet Pimpernel at around twelve or thirteen, when my head was full of Richard E. Grant in the BBC adaptation. I read the novel in one sitting, leaning against a radiator in the school library. All later re-readings have been informed by the breakneck rapture which attended that first time. But - due to my school library's poor stocking habits, and my own pigheaded attitude towards reading series - I never actually got round to any of the later books.

Until now.

'Number of pages' is a sure sign of quality.
Visiting the lovely Chapel Books in Westleton (a brilliant shop, give them all your money), I laid my hands on this rather smashing omnibus. Yet while I attempted to recreate my original experience via the simultaneous consumption of many cups of tea and a dangerous quantity of chocolate, there appears to be no condiment sufficient to change the nature of this book. And this book's nature is a remarkably obvious romance strung on the bones of a somewhat transparent heist. Don't get me wrong; at twelve, I would have devoured it. At *ahem, cough, splutter, none of your business*, I am wide awake to its flaws. It is mushy, it is predictable and it is incredibly right-wing.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it, because it does still possess a certain charm. I just doubt that it's a book to which I doubt I will be returning.

Time for another total mood change - well I'm nothing if not eclectic - we have Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a book I bought at the same time, and on the same advice, as C. Robert Cargill's Shadows and Dreams. As such, I've been avoiding it. Actually, I'd been avoiding it anyway. It seemed too much of a piece with the teenage-girl-and-generic-mythic-creature YA romance trend which was dying off around the time I purchased it. It wasn't so much that I dislike that plot, rather - like the rest of us - I was fatigued by it and not really looking to read anything else in that vein.

Yet while the opening chapters did not fill me with confidence, the story soon started to stretch at the confines of that genre. It began to change into something other, something far more adult, something powerful, even something important. As I was drawn into the world Karou inherits, the world in which Akiva battles, the YA Romance padding fell away, and I was left with a brutal tale of war, of exploitation, of power and prejudice. Reading it was almost like an insight into an authorial mind, where the conception for a fraught love-story matured with the telling into something darker, sadder and more cynical.

Gods, though. I wish this were a YA book. It is so important that books like this are given to teenagers, books that strip back our learned moralities and make us question things.

I got caught up in it. By the time I was half-way through, I was trembling. It's a magical book, a heart-wrenching, harrowing book that builds towards perfect, exquisite conclusion, a blow laid hard against you at just the right moment to break your heart...

And then it trails off to a weak finale and the promise of a sequel. A sequel which I now have to read, a sequel which - apparently - isn't anything like as good.

 It should have stopped. It should have finished. That ending should have been perfect.

I bloody hate sequels.

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