Tag Archives: London

Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.





Review: The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

The Mime OrderIt had been a while since I read Samantha Shannon’s first book, The Bone Season, and I have to admit that for the first few pages of the new sequel, The Mime Order, I was totally confused. So many characters! Who were they all? I mainly only remembered Paige and the mysterious Warden.

Fortunately, once the story got going the details began to come back to me. Paige is a dreamwalker, a particularly gifted voyant trying to survive in an alternate London where clairvoyant abilities are common but those who possess them are harassed, imprisoned, and worse by the totalitarian Scion government. If you haven’t read the first book, you should probably stop here, read it and then come back. Spoilers ahead!

When we last saw Paige, she was on a train with other escapees from a terrible prison run by the Rephaim, the secret alien overlords pulling the strings behind the Scion government. While Warden, Paige’s personal captor, treated her much better than other unfortunate voyant prisoners, she is not clear where she stands with him or what has become of him after the prison break. Not all of the escapees survive the re-entry into London, and while Paige wants to break free of Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord and employer, she realizes there’s no safety in solitude.

When someone murders the Overlord and almost all of his minions in a particularly gruesome fashion, Paige is suspect number one. Jaxon Hall plans to enter the melee, a contest to take the Overlord’s place, and preside over all of London’s voyant community. He expects Paige to fight at his side, forcing her to decide where her loyalties truly lie.

This is a fun series in many ways, but The Mime Order could be pared down considerably without losing much. The many, many words ending in -mancer also gradually wear the reader down. Hematomancer, cleromancer, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Warden still doesn’t seem like a three-dimensional character (in fact, there’s a slight Twilighty-y vibe to their relationship, minus the Edwardian stalker-level adoration.)

What kept me reading was the world building, the political structure of the voyant society, and the way the Mime Lords focus on their own petty interests while ignoring the greater threat looming overhead. Paige is an interesting character, even if those around her aren’t always quite as fully developed.

Genre: Dystopian urban fantasy.

Read it if: You would like a complete list of all the different words ending in -mancer; you prefer fight scenes involving spirit possession; you loved The Bone Season and really want to find out how the heck they got off that train.

Skip it if: You have difficulty tracking large numbers of characters (although this cute The Bone Season wiki might  help you there!); you haven’t read The Bone Season; or you were hoping for a clear, plausible explanation for why the Rephaim showed up in the first place.

Movie-worthy: Mmmm, yes, if the movie cherry-picked the best bits of the book.

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Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainEvery weekday Rachel takes the train into London, gazing at the row of houses next to a regular stop on the train’s route, watching in particular for one young couple whose happy married life she likes to imagine. She’s even named them: Jess and Jason. So far, so mildly creepy. When “Jess” goes missing and Rachel realizes she may have information that could help solve the mystery, we know we’re firmly in Hitchcock territory.

The missing woman’s real name is Megan, and she walked away from her home one Saturday night and never returned. The perspective alternates between Rachel, narrating her take on the investigation, and Megan, telling her story from a year before the disappearance.

It’s difficult to say much about The Girl on the Train without ruining the slow reveal as author Paula Hawkins subverts the reader’s expectations. Whatever you think you know as the story begins, prepare to be surprised. Even at the very end, when it becomes clear what really happened, the tension only builds. The fast pacing and alternating viewpoints make for a quick, intense read.

Genre: Irresistibly twisty thriller.

Read it if: You’re a fan of Gone Girl, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Hitchcock movies, unreliable narrators, or trains.

Skip it if: You don’t like surprises; you are hungover; you are too busy to read a whole novel in one sitting.

Movie-worthy: Definitely.

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellI love nothing more than a story that leaves you feeling like you wandered into a real and complete world, one that existed before you ever turned the first page and will carry on long after you’ve closed the book. In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke has created an absolutely plausible version of 19th century England, where the dusty study of theoretical magic is all that remains of a once great magical tradition.

When Mr. Norrell makes his public debut, he is the only known practical magician in the land. He works hard to keep it that way, squirrelling away all the books of and about magic, hoarding his knowledge like a miser. When Jonathan Strange appears on the scene, Mr. Norrell agrees to take him on as a student and the two men launch an uneven but mutually beneficial partnership–at least at first.

Clarke presents the magical elements of British history in such a matter-of-fact manner (complete with fictional footnotes!) that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that there never was such a thing as the King in the North, the legendary Raven King John Uskglass who ruled over the fairies before returning to England to claim his birthright and usher in a golden age. It’s easy to imagine Casaubon from Middlemarch studying the key to English magic, or John Childermass wandering into a Dickens novel.

While the tension between careless, impulsive, likable Jonathan Strange and his pitiably paranoid mentor drive the story, memorable secondary characters like the wild street magician Vinculus, the unperturbable Duke of Wellington, and the mad cat lady of Padua enliven even the most minor subplots. And in the end, it’s all tied together so brilliantly that I wanted to give the book a big hug. This novel sat on my shelves a long, long time because it was so daggone big–it turned out to be worth its weight in literary gold.

Genre: 19th century-flavored British realistic fantasy.

Read it if: You love classic British novels and would like them even better if they occasionally included sinister fairies; you loved The Once and Future King by T.H. White; you like your characters with human flaws and your endings with just the right dash of sadness.

Skip it if: You like your books short and sweet; you prefer your wizards with wands and your good versus evil; you are allergic to footnotes.

Movie-worthy: Apparently the BBC plans to debut a series based on the book sometime this year. I had mentally cast Tom Hiddleston as Childermass, but you can’t have everything.


Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange BodiesHow attached are you to your carcass? Is there a ghost in the machine, or are the two in fact one and the same? Marcel Theroux’s intriguing novel Strange Bodies explores the essence of consciousness and identity in a story that brings the Gothic novel into the digital age.

Before I go any further, I should probably mention how much I loved Theroux’s 2009 novel Far North. Makepeace Thackeray was an unforgettable character, a lone survivor in an all too plausible future of elegiac decline. So I pre-ordered Strange Bodies the second I heard about it, but tried to keep my expectations reasonably low, just in case.

As it happens, that wasn’t necessary. Strange Bodies is a very different story, but equally powerful in its own way, and Nicholas Slopen is a memorable, if significantly less sympathetic character.

When Nicholas wanders into a shop run by his old girlfriend, she doesn’t recognize him. He’s changed, but it’s been years since she’s seen him and once they get talking she’s sure it’s him. When Nicky comes back a second time and collapses in the middle of her book club, his ex discovers that the man she spoke with can’t possibly be who he claimed he was: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months.

What follows is a gripping, thoughtful and sometimes downright strange tale of humanity’s hubris in the face of mortality. Nicky is not an exceptional man; facing down middle age, he has achieved only moderate success as a Samuel Johnson scholar, his marriage has steadily deteriorated and his track record as a father is poor at best. Yet his entanglement in an international conspiracy to overcome death grants him a perspective few ever attain: to see himself as he truly is. To question what makes a human being unique, conscious, alive.

Genre: 21st century Gothic

Read it if: You love nothing better than a literary take on a genre tale; you wonder what Dr. Frankenstein would be up to if he were around today; you wish there had been more Samuel Johnson references on Dollhouse.

Skip it if: You don’t like to read books that make you think about mortality, failure or the general malaise of middle-aged existence; you really hate Samuel Johnson.

Movie-worthy: Hmmm. Christopher Nolan might be able to do something amazing with it.



Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House

It gets pretty bleak, people.

I began reading the classic Charles Dickens novel Bleak House in mid-February. I finally finished it: this morning. As I closed the book, having reached the last (unfinished) sentence on page 818, my sense of accomplishment was outweighed only by my sense of relief.

Don’t get me wrong, Bleak House is a classic for a reason. It is by turns amusing and heartbreaking, gripping and painstakingly descriptive. Even the most tangential characters are vividly depicted and memorable. Not to mention the fact that in Bleak House, Dickens provides a scathing critique of the contemporary justice system and the dire living conditions of the poorest members of society.

It was just so very long. All the many, many books on my shelves seemed to be calling my name the last two weeks. Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux, The Circle by Dave Eggers, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh, the book club books I haven’t even bothered to acquire yet–they were all crying out to be read. Meanwhile I was entangled in the interminable court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, as helpless to escape as poor Richard.

I am very glad, however, to have met the narrator of Bleak House, Esther Summerson. As a character she might almost appear too good to be true, except she clearly shows how much effort it costs her to be so generous and open-hearted. I wanted a happy ending for her more than I can say. (While it may seem silly to withhold spoilers on a book that first appeared in 1853, I won’t reveal here whether she gets one.)

And then there’s Esther’s opposite in every way, Harold Skimpole. Where Esther always weighs the impact of her actions on those around her, Skimpole rejects all responsibility for his behavior. This childlike demeanor has a certain appeal when Esther first encounters him, but by the end of the book it is clear that he has caused real damage in his pathologically selfish interactions with other people.

In summary, I am glad to have read this intricately plotted and surprisingly entertaining classic. And I am even happier to have finished it.


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Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallOccasionally when a book is widely hyped and roundly celebrated, my contrarian streak kicks in and I just don’t want to read it. And although I sometimes enjoy historical fiction, it’s not my favorite genre. Also, my hardcover copy of Wolf Hall is big, massive even, and heavy to lug around; that was enough to tip the scale in favor of leaving it on the shelf for the past couple of years. When it was selected for this month’s book club meeting, I shrugged and decided to finally read it, even if that meant hauling it around in my purse for a couple of weeks.

It was totally worth it. Thomas Cromwell is such a masterfully drawn character, so complex and alive and sympathetic, despite his failings and his flaws. I have to admit I had never heard of this particular Cromwell before (my twelve-year-old son stared at me in scornful shock when he heard that; he’d just finished Henry VIII: Royal Beheader, one of the Wicked History books, and couldn’t get over my ignorance.)

Maybe Cromwell is widely known and I’m just clueless, but I found his perspective the perfect vantage point from which to view the much more familiar history of Henry VIII and his kingdom. It’s always tricky to create a story where the ending is already widely known (spoiler alert: Henry marries Anne Boleyn! They do not live happily ever after!) Given my fuzzy memories of English history, the rest of the characters may as well have been straight out of Game of Thrones–I had no idea who was going to prosper and who would end up on the chopping block.

So much is going on in this book: political maneuvering, legal wrangling, religious conflict, financial dealings and good old fashioned manipulation are all in play with seemingly every decision or event. Watching Thomas Cromwell master the games played by those who consider themselves his betters is exhilarating. He is ruthless yet remarkably loyal, relentless yet exceptionally pragmatic, forceful yet seamlessly charming. What made me love him, though, were the thoughts he kept inside and shared with no one but the reader: that the frescoes he saw in Italy changed him forever, that it troubles him when a random servant remarks that he looks like a murderer.

Wanting to check whether he actually did look like a murderer, I googled the portrait Hans Holbein made of Cromwell and ended up geeking out a little and making an entire Wolf Hall Pinterest board of people and things from the book. A quick peek at Pinterest reveals that the Tudors are the subject of many a board already, probably thanks to the Showtime series about young Henry VIII and his court.

Wolf Hall left me with many questions about what is going to happen to Cromwell and the people he cares about, even if it’s a given that things are going to get a whole lot worse between Henry and Anne. Most intriguing of all is the title of the book. The family home of the Seymours, Wolf Hall is only mentioned a few times, almost as if everything in this first volume of Mantel’s trilogy points toward that destination without ever actually going there.

At least by waiting to read this remarkable book, I can indulge my penchant for instant gratification and start reading the next book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, right away…

Genre: Literary prize-winning historical fiction full of intrigue and suspense.

Read it if: You’re waiting for the next George R.R. Martin book (Ned Stark could have used Cromwell’s help, that’s for sure) and you don’t mind the absence of sex and dragons.

Skip it if: You have trouble distinguishing characters when every single person is named Thomas, Henry, George, Richard, Mary, Jane or Anne. Egad.

Movie-worthy: No doubt, but I think the Showtime series has already cornered that market.

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahIn this extraordinary novel, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores issues of race, class and identity by tracing the divergent paths of Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu comes from a family of modest means; her attendance at the private school where she meets Obinze is the result of her father’s dreams for her future. Obinze has been raised by a single mother but never wanted for money; his dream is to go to America, the setting for the novels he reads and the movies he watches.

When Ifemelu has the chance to go to the United States to college, after completing three years at a Nigerian university constantly disrupted by strikes, she takes it at Obinze’s insistence. Only after she arrives to find her aunt, a doctor, working three jobs to make ends meet while she studies to pass her certification exams, does Ifemelu realize how hard it can be to survive and succeed in the land of dreams. She makes a terrible mistake in a moment of desperation, and ends up cutting off all contact with Obinze.

In the meantime, Obinze completes college but can’t obtain a visa to the United States, no matter how many times he applies. He ultimately attempts to overstay his visa in the United Kingdom, resulting in his ignominious return to his homeland and an unexpected change in his fortunes.

The author deftly weaves varying perspectives into the narrative while still allowing Ifumele and Obinze to exist and act as real, believable human beings with complex motivations. Ifumele, impulsive and sometimes prone to self-sabotage, speaks her mind without hesitation; her blog entries on race in America make for frank and fascinating reading. Obinze, calm and self-possessed, does things he’s not proud of in order to succeed in the word as it exists. He looks at the life he’s built and feels the weight of who he’s pretending to be, the distance between his daily existence and the dreams of his younger days.

Both Ifumele and Obinze interact with a wide array of vivid secondary characters, each offering a unique viewpoint. Some of the best moments of the book are at the dinner parties they attend separately, when, like the French hostess, I found myself smiling in amazement at the discussion taking place before my eyes. Because no one in polite society talks openly about these questions, it feels like eavesdropping to hear what even fictional characters have to say.

Ifumele isn’t perfect, and many attendees at a recent book group discussion found her unlikable. Yet I really enjoyed spending time in her head, watching her sort through the complex and confusing aspects of American identity, along for the ride as she returned to her homeland with the same critical eye she’d been applying to the US. Even when she was making startling mistakes or dumping a perfectly good guy for arbitrary reasons, Ifumele was never boring, and neither was this captivating book.

Genre: Lively, intelligent international fiction

Read it if: You would like to see the United States, the United Kingdom and Nigeria through a prism of varying perspectives while being thoroughly entertained, or you liked Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair.

Skip it if: You like your characters two-dimensional and your endings mess-free.

Movie-worthy: Could be great! I wanted a visual on many of the elements of the book (like the singer Obinze’s mom was supposed to look like) so I made this geeky Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/encgolsen/americanah/ Still working on it!


Review: The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith

The Miracle InspectorIn The Miracle Inspector, a young couple in London struggle with communication issues–and life in a totalitarian state. In this alternate or future version of the city, women are not allowed to leave home without wearing a head-to-toe cover and veil; even then, they are only permitted to visit female relatives. The authorities claim this is for their own protection. Similarly, children no longer attend school, in order to keep them safe from pedophiles. This is no country for old men: they’ve all been taken into custody for some infraction or other, and effectively disappeared. No one trusts anyone else, constantly fearing a trap or a test by the authorities.

Lucas and Angela have a nagging sense that this isn’t right, but they have only the vaguest ideas of what the world used to be like. As the Inspector of Miracles, handsome, selfish Lucas has an enviable position in the Ministry. He regularly investigates reported miracles, with no expectation that he will ever find a real one. No one at the Ministry knows of his connection to Jesmond, a poet of the revolution, one of the few old men still around.

When Jesmond leaves his journal and a packet of letters with Angela, she begins to read them, slowly, in order to savor the unexpected experience of knowing another person. She yearns for something more than her narrow, circumscribed life but she can’t articulate what it is that she wants. Lucas promises that someday soon they will attempt to leave London for the imagined paradise of Cornwall, land of the ocean and freedom.

It doesn’t end well, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say so. Smith repeatedly offers tantalizing glimpses of stories, only to cut them off abruptly. When Lucas visits the home of a woman named Maureen, who has reported a miracle involving her young daughter, Christina, Lucas daydreams through her entire explanation of the supposed miracle. We never learn what Maureen believed to be miraculous about her disabled child. Through the deft use of deceptively simple sentences, Smith creates a feeling of foreboding and dread even while staying in the heads of her ignorant and all too human characters. They have no idea what they’ve lost, or what they’re likely to find.

This haunting and deeply disturbing book reminded me of the truly classic dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. It’s a story that makes you glad to look around and realize you’re safely home, that you can wake from the nightmare.

Genre: literary dystopia

Read it if: You are still haunted by the ending of 1984 and would now like to be haunted by something else.

Skip it if: You just love happy endings.

Movie-worthy: Very hard to imagine how anyone could do it justice.

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Review: Lost by S.J. Bolton

Lost SJ BoltonIf I had known exactly what this book was about, I never would have read it. A serial killer is targeting young boys in London, and the police are mystified. As the mother of three boys, the horror hit a little too close to home.

That being said, once I started reading it was too late; I had to know what would happen to Barney, the quirky eleven-year-old at the heart of Lost. Barney has an unusually perceptive mind and a knack for spotting patterns. His attempts to identify the killer were both daring and, as a mom, terrifying. (Do children really wander unsupervised through the streets of London? What the heck?) I was also intrigued by Lacey Flint, a damaged detective recuperating from a harrowing experience on a previous case, who happens to be Barney’s neighbor.

The tension increased to almost unbearable levels as the story proceeded. Bolton does a masterful job of casting suspicion on various plausible suspects, to the extent that I still had no sense of certainty about the killer’s identity until the very end of the novel.  At one point I seriously considered putting the book down so I wouldn’t have to know, in case my worst fears were confirmed. The conclusion, when it came, felt both shocking and inevitable, exactly as it should.

I could tell from the way Lacey interacted with other members of the police force and one particular prison inmate that this must be part of a series of books, but Lost was fully successful as a stand alone. (And now I have a whole new list of books to add to my reading list. Basically everything S.J. Bolton has ever written.)   Interestingly, this book was entitled Like This For Ever in the U.K. Why the difference? In this case, the British title sounds much more intriguing than the deceptively generic Lost.

And finally, a shout out to bookreporter.com for sending me this book as part of their Suspense/Thriller contest. Thanks for introducing me to another great author!

Genre: Relentless psychological thriller. With kids.

Read it if: You love Elizabeth George or Tana French, and you aren’t afraid of a little blood.

Skip it if: You have a pale, blond ten-year-old and you want to sleep at night.

Movie-worthy: It would make a great movie, but I don’t think I could watch it!