January books — from The Midnight Mayor to Nazi Germany

A Madness of Angels, or the Resurrection of Matthew Swift by Kate Griffin

Also The Midnight Mayor, or the inauguration of Matthew Swift

I had read The Minority Council late last year. Of course it turned out to be number 4 in the series — don’t you hate that, not starting a series at the beginning. But I loved the book so much that I willing hunted out the first at the Library. (This is not a difficult task, as I can request them online and hey presto! they appear at my local branch.)

To the books…..

Matthew Swift was an reasonably good sorcerer before he was killed. After he was resurrected he became an amazing one. This is not giving anything away. He is dead before the book begins, and the opening pages describe his resurrection, and the resurrection within him of the blue angels. The blue angels/Matthew Swift draw magic from electricity and phone lines, giving them power that very few magical creatures can withstand.

Griffin has taken the traditional element of fantasy, such as magic, wizards, sorcerers, fairies and so on and woven them into something new and dynamic. I am new to the concept of Urban Magic, so her ideas may be mainstream within this genre. However I would be very surprised if that was the case. London sits firmly in the centre of her creation and it is the movements, patterns, history that creates the magic.

I love the real London, and I love the London Griffin has created. I can easy believe in the gritty, powerful magic of the city.

An example of this urban magic — Swift uses his Oyster card to fend off an dangerous creature, Hunger, at an Underground barrier. He explains later that

…everyone and everything has its own unique magic. The underground’s magic is defined by the rhythms that go through it. It’s like a heartbeat, a pulse, the flow of life like blood through its veins, describing in every detail the shape of power in its tunnels. When you go into the underground, you buy a ticket, you pass through the barrier, you enter its tunnels, you take the train, you use your ticket, you exit through the barrier. This part of what defines it, this is part of what makes the taste of magic different, heavy, crowded, full of dirt and noise and life and strength. If you know that this magic is there, if you understand the rhythms that shaped it, it is a very simple matter to harness it to a spell that utilises to the full its unique signature.

There is the Beggar King, and the Bag Lady — “She isn’t simply a bag lady….she is The Bag Lady, the queen of all those who scuttle in the night, gibbering to themselves, and the voices that only they can hear. She is the mistress of the mad old women in slippers who ride the buses….she is the lady of all dirty puddles…..However, when the pigeons were nested for the night, it was to the Bag Lady that my gran would always offer her prayers.” There is a litter monster, the last train and, in The Minority Council, fairy dust, more powerful and more addictive that any drug found in our world. There is the spirit of the train conductor, who helps Swift after accepting a gift of The Train Journey’s Companion.

Switft’s urban magic doesn’t work in the countryside, or even in the large London parks like Regents Park.

It sounds cute, and parts of it are endearing, much of it witty. However it is also strong and violent. Right from the beginning of each book Swift has to fend off  monsters that are overpoweringly awful.

Angry. Attacked, burnt, attacked, hurt, attacked, fled, attacked, attacked, attacked, gunning for us, gunning for me, gunning for my….for people who stopped to help. (From early into  The Midnight Mayor)

The action pulls you along and you discover what the blue angels are and who brought Swift back to life. He is no superhero, but a well drawn character who, while making mistakes, also knows when to use a can of spray paint, an Oyster card or the by-laws of the Underground!

And by the way, her distinctive writing is pretty good too! I am so looking forward to reading the third book. I just hope there is a fifth, sixth, seventh etc!!

A man without breath by Philip Kerr

(Warning, this review has a big spoiler in it.)

Many years ago I read a trio of stories by Kerr about his detective, Bernard Gunther. What made these stories standout in the vast genre of crime fiction was that Gunther was a detective in Berlin in the late 1930s. In these stories Gunther had to tread carefully, while holding onto his own moral compass. So, when I saw this one on the Library shelves I wanted to read it. And I got about to thirds of the way through when I decided not to finish it. This is most unusual for me, especially as I had got so far.

It wasn’t the awful subject matter of the story, although that was pretty gruesome. It is set in March, 1943. Gunther is working for the German War Crimes Bureau and has been sent to Smolensk, in German occupied Russia, to investigate a mass grave found in a forest. If it is the grave of thousands of Polish officers who had been murdered by the Russians, it is good propaganda for the Germans. If it is where the SS murdered thousands of Jews, then it must be a secret that stays buried.

Smolensk is a frozen town filled with anxieties and fears, with not much food or hope. Other murders happen that Gunther is drawn to solving.

What countered the foul taste in my mouth while reading this was that Gunther and others are determinedly anti-Nazi. Kerr’s research has found events that shine like a beacon in this dark time.

One was a protest. On February 28th 1943 Berlin’s last Jews were rounded up for deportation. A couple of thousand were held in the Jewish Welfare Office. They were Jews who had non-Jewish wives. The wives protested outside the office and, miraculously, their husbands were released. They were the only Jews who were not deported. As Gunther, the narrator, muses:

……it begged the question, what might have been achieved if mass protests had taken place before? It was a sobering thought that the first organised opposition to the Nazis in ten years had probably succeeded.

What made me close the book [spoiler alert!] was when Gunther murdered a man, and it wasn’t one of the baddies. It wasn’t done in an argument or rage. Gunther uses the Greater Good Argument, but I don’t think that was good enough. He is a detective in the Philip Marlowe mould — hard bitten but with a core of decency. That’s why he is anti-Nazi. That’s why I couldn’t countenance his murder of another anti-Nazi.  I don’t want my Good Guys to behave like the Bad Guys. That’s why I had to close the book.

November Books

It’s a while since I have published about the books I am reading. I have been reading, just not letting you know. 🙂

So, this month I found a new author, reread an old book and read others from two of my favourite authors.

The new author:

Kate Griffin — “The Minority Council” 

Matthew Swift has become the Midnight Mayor, the person who keeps Londoners safe ~ “the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls.”  He does that by using magic, the magic of the city, electricity.

London, a city I love, is a major character in the story. It made me wonder about the other cities that could have so many layers, physical and metaphorical. Melbourne doesn’t have them yet, but places like London and New York certainly do. I think it is about history and diversity and literature and class, that all mix together to allow writers use these cities as such powerful, believable characters

But it is the night streets that is Swift’s world and magic is woven into the fabric of that world.

As we moved, our shadow turned and turned again, a sundial’s darkness moved by street glow, and our shadow was not our own. Sometimes we thought it had wings of black dragon-leather. Sometimes we thought its hands dripped, staining the cracks in the paving stones as it passed. I could feel the places where the bikers moved, those thin points in the architecture of the city where here became like there and it was possible to jump the gap without mucking around with the spaces in between. Ley lines crackled underfoot, following the passage of the underground tunnels, the old water pipes, the silent whirling gas, the dance of electricity. We put our head to one side and could hear the voices in the the telephones lines overhead…

It is a cruel world. Young vandals have their souls sucked out by vigilante monsters. Fairy dust is the newest drug.

“Are we talking …. like cocaine?”

“Yeah, if getting screwed out of your fucking brain by a sex goddess is like going five minutes with your grandma in the rain.”

And the fairy godmother is no fairy godmother

“You really have no idea, have you? Fairy godmother is going to take you down, chop you up and serve you as sushi.”

But then Swift is not really himself either.

I loved Griffin’s London. I loved how the magic was an integral part of it. I loved her writing. Listen to another passage, where again she describes a London just below the surface.

We walked through the subways beneath Waterloo, where the beggars huddled beneath changing light and white stalagmites that hung from the ceiling cracks, and south again, past the silent black guns of the Imperial War Museum and towards that strange place where distances started to warp and the centre of the city met inner city and had a fight that left both bleeding by the one-way signs.

This is the fourth in a series. I dislike starting a series in the middle, but it happens when you randomly pick a book from the Library shelves. So I will find the others, and begin at the beginning. I recommend that you do too.

The book from my shelf:

Diane Ackerman: The moon by whale light

It is subtitled: ‘and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians and whales’. You may remember that I enjoy reading natural history books, and I enjoyed reading this for a second time. Ackerman is a journalist with a fascination for the natural world. She travelled to many places to gather the information for the book. At one point she was lying on top of alligators, holding them down while scientists took samples, measured length and teeth, and determined their sex. She describes all the creatures in her book with love, and makes you love them too — if only for the time of reading! I am not sure that her writings would foster a love of saltwater crocodiles.

As you can tell from the title, Ackerman has a beautiful, poetic way of writing. She is in Patagonia to be with the whales:

At sunset, an orange fur lay along the horizon and the sea grew blue-grey. Areas of wet sand, exposed by the withdrawing tide, shone like an array of hand mirrors. Venus appeared overhead, bright as a whistle blow, with the small pinprick light of Mercury at its side. As night fell, the shallows shimmered like ice and the frantic winds began to sound like freight trains.

And then to Antarctica to be with the penguins:

The mountains, glaciers and fjords bulged and rolled through endless displays of inter-flowing shapes. The continent kept turning its shimmery hips, and jutting up hard pinnacles of ice, in a sensuality of rolling shifting, cascading landscapes…..And yet it could be blindingly abstract, harrowing and remote, the closest thing to being on another planet, so far from human life that its desolation and iciness made you want to do impetuous, life affirming things: commit acts of love…..touch voices with a loved one by way of a satellite…..be passionate and daring, renew the outlines of your humanity.

I am not sure if it is in print. If you come across it, snap it up and enjoy.

Two more books from two of my favourite authors:

Terry Pratchett: Snuff

It is not as funny nor weird as many of his other Discworld stories. But it is funny and it does have weird bits. And it has many of his familiar and wonderful characters. Sam Vines goes on holiday and soon finds that the countryside is a hot bed of mayhem and murder — as well as a lot of poo.

However, as in many of his books, Pratchett makes comment on our world. This time he addresses racism. As reviewers on Goodreads have said, there is a darkness in this novel. The Goblins are the lowest of the low, vilified, on the margins of Discworld society and blamed for the ills of the world. Sam Vines investigates the murder of a young goblin girl and helps to uncover many prejudices, and worse. As well he learns much about the unexpected complexities of the Goblin culture.

Louise Penny: A rule against murder

The fourth in her series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I find her books very difficult to put down. At the same time I want to, because I want them to last. I was transported to her world of the French Canadian countryside, and caught up in the terrible family that Gamache has to investigate. But he investigates with such patience, he listens to what is said, and what isn’t said. If I was a policeman I would want Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be my boss!

But once I left the world I wondered about the family. It was so unlike mine that I found myself doubting, and thinking about the inconsistencies. Would they always behave with such cruelty to each other? Why do they return to each others’ company? The mother is so awful why did the step-father love her for so long, much less marry her? Would Marianna really be able to keep that secret about her child? (Notice how this is a Spoiler Free Zone? 🙂 ) If you have read it I would love to know what you think. Am I being naive?

However, it is not enough to make me stop reading her books. Again, I really enjoy her writing. Her characters are interesting and the settings well evoked. And the food they eat ~ delicious!

What have you been reading? Any recommendations?