After the disappointment of book number two (see my post on The Parrots by Alexandra Shulman), I had high hopes for book number three. And I wasn’t let down.
The story begins when the improbably named local attorney Autopsy Bliss places an ad in the local newspaper, cordially inviting the devil to town. Why? Well the clue’s in the name – ‘autopsy’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘to see for oneself’. Autopsy wants to see the devil for himself. This coincides not only with a deadly heatwave, but with the arrival in town of a young black boy who calls himself Sal and proclaims himself the devil responding to the invitation. But is he really the devil, or just a traumatised boy?
For the town of Breathed Ohio, smothered by the heatwave and looking for someone to blame for several local tragedies, the centre cannot hold. Meanwhile, cracks are appearing in the baked earth of the Bliss family and the events of the summer will change their lives forever.
This book is a slow-burner, the sentences drip like melted ice cream, the words slowly smoulder like barbeque charcoal. You can almost feel the heat of the summer – or is it hell? – rising off the page.
I loved the imagery and language, and lines such as ‘He had felt the connection of another man, and in the clay of loneliness, he shaped it into something he called love’ left me open mouthed. Despite being so evocative, the language always feels spare and never flowery.
Sal, who is full of anecdotes about heaven and hell, explains that God allows suffering because He wants to see for Himself what we’ll do, and downplays the devil’s role in creating misery. But this book forces the reader to look behind the Judeo-Christian façade and asks us to think about the real nature of evil.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me goes back to the character’s name that seemed so ridiculous when I saw it on the book jacket: you have to see for yourself. I hope you never come face to face with true evil, but I do urge you to read this wonderful book for yourself,
I try not to read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads until after I’ve finished a book (when I find it incredibly interesting to compare my impressions with others’) because I find it can colour my views as I am reading. About a third of the way through this book, though, I was running to Amazon to find out if everybody else thought it was as awful as I.
This novel, by British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman centres on an upper-class London family, who run a high-end art gallery and associate with Russian oligarchs and the like. The arrival of a strange, co-dependent brother and sister from Italy sends their perfect world into a spin (etc. etc. etc.).
So what did the good denizens of Amazon make of this novel? I was surprised to discover that what several Amazon reviewers hated about this book were the parts I most enjoyed – namely the depiction of the elite lifestyle that the characters enjoy.
For me, the best bits were the descriptions of how Olga the oligarch’s wife plans to renovate her country estate, how the family celebrate an extravagant Christmas at their own country pile, and the schmoozy soirees at the Mayfair art gallery. Amazon, meanwhile, thinks that these parts are smug and irritating and make the characters unsympathetic.
The other reviews were overwhelmingly positive. But for me, the rest of the novel was stiflingly boring. A real shame, as I had eagerly looked forward to it – probably because I knew I would enjoy the bits mentioned above.
The ‘plot’ is pretty much non-existent, despite a teasing flash-forward prologue promising drama involving a medical evacuation helicopter. Said drama, however, does not in fact materialise until the very last pages, and has an abrupt, disconnected feel to it.
Minor spoiler alert: the extra marital affairs which form most of the ‘plot’ are boring, clichéd and eye-rollingly predictable (hence why only a minor spoiler).
So if, unlike me, you read this review before purchasing the book, do yourself a favour – don’t bother. What a shame for book two of 2017.
This is the sixth book in Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, it centres on a fictional division of the Metropolitan police which deals with supernatural crime (codenamed ‘Falcon’). In this instalment, PC Peter Grant investigates a case involving the daughter of a local river goddess caught up in the drug-related death of a wealthy teenager.
I love this series. It’s deadly funny, with strong crime-solving plots that carry you through at breakneck speed. However, there are a few elements of the supernatural world that I find slightly under-developed.
Aaronovitch blends the supernatural with the police procedural, hilariously mocking the parlance of modern policing (think risk assessments, cost-benefit analysis and stakeholder engagement) as PC Grant couches his supernatural encounters in terms that his superiors will understand.
The central character is one of the very best things about this series. PC Grant is funny, intelligent, irreverent and self-deprecating. The book is narrated in his unique voice, which is maintained exceptionally well and is totally believable (even if the frequent (intentional and realistic) grammatical errors set my teeth on edge).
The other characters are great, too. Not as well developed as Peter’s, but somehow perfectly painted in just the right (smallish) amount of detail. The hijab-wearing DC Sahra Guleed gamely throws herself into the unfamiliar world of supernatural operations, while DI Stephanopolous and DCI Seawoll, who would rather get on with more down-to-earth policing, thank you very much, react with resigned exasperation as they are forced to acknowledge yet another Falcon-related incident.
However, the book is far from perfect. Throughout the series I have been plagued by a slight uneasiness about the supernatural mythology that frames this fictional world. The practice of magic by humans is given a pseudo-scientific, vaguely steampunk, framework, with a legacy centred around Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and the Enlightenment.
Spells are classified and categorised with Latin nomenclature. But the descriptions – the attempted explanations – of spell casting are less developed than in, say, Debora Geary’s A Modern Witch series. An explanation is attempted – something to do with sensing the formae created by another practitioner and then somehow copying them with one’s mind. With this sort of urban fantasy slash police procedural it is understandable that a ‘rational’ explanation should be attempted rather than asking the reader to completely suspend disbelief. But I don’t really buy into it.
Another aspect of the mythology that I don’t quite ‘get’ is that of the London river goddesses. I like the idea – Mama Thames is the Goddess of the River Thames between the estuary and Teddington Lock (from where Father Thames assumes jurisdiction). Her daughters are the goddesses of the tributaries, both buried and extant, that feed into the Thames within London. So we have Beverley Brook (girlfriend of our hero Peter), Lady Tyburn, Effra, Fleet, Brent and so on.
Interestingly, Mama Thames is Nigerian. It is explained that she was once mortal, a Nigerian nurse, who committed suicide in the 1950s by jumping into the Thames and was subsequently incarnated as the river’s goddess. Her court, a warehouse in Wapping, is hot and humid, with banana trees growing and the smell of plantain in the air. In other words, a mini-Nigeria. Her ‘daughter’ rivers are also of Nigerian heritage. No-one could call this set-up clichéd or predictable, but I’m not quite sure I ‘get’ the explanation. I wonder whether there was supposed to be a goddess of the Thames before the 1950s. Or whether the tributaries are her biological daughters or if they were similarly ‘made’ from mortals. And it is not clear what powers, perks and responsibilities come with being a river goddess. But maybe that’s just me.
Of course, I also must mention the typos that cropped up in this first hardback edition. They were distracting and annoying and I doubt the manuscript was proofread. It is rumoured that when an author gets to a certain stature that their books are guaranteed to sell (for example, a long-awaited sixth-in-the-series), publishing houses try to save money by cutting out one or more of the editing stages. Why bother making the product perfect when it is guaranteed to fly off the shelves no matter what? This is, of course, a crying shame and I wish I had thought to mark all the errors as I found them and send the book off to the publisher with one of my business cards, but I can’t be bothered now!
This won’t work as a standalone book – you need to read the whole series in order. And I would whole heartedly recommend you do just that.
Please feel free to chime in below with your opinions if you've read this book or others in the series!
This year I have set myself the challenge of reading 40 books. Pre-baby I'd have gone for the big 52, but that may be a tad too ambitious! I shall be posting a review of every book here on my blog, and welcome your comments and discussion.