Mort by Terry Pratchett

833444No question about it, Mort is definitely Terry Pratchett’s best Discworld novel yet. For many, Death is one of Pratchett’s best, and most fully fleshed out characters—no pun intended—and he properly comes to life (okay, I’ll stop now) in Mort, the fourth book in this high-end epic fantasy series.

“I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.”

Pratchett is on top form here, and Death is as hilarious as ever with his witty comments and dry humour. At the beginning of the novel, we see that Death has decided to take on an apprentice—Mort—who is a young boy of sixteen that suddenly has a job prospect that he never could have imagined. Free board—albeit in Death’s mysterious house with its many shades of black and three-dimensional rooms full of sand-timers—and access to the company horse. What more could he ask?

Quickly, and somewhat inevitably, life as Death’s apprentice unfortunately isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and when Mort takes an interest in a princess whose soul he should be ushering into the afterlife, things quickly begin to backfire. This time Pratchett’s narrative seems to be tighter, more assured. It’s impossible not to have a feeling that the plot bumbles along randomly—what with Pratchett’s random, unexpected asides and subplots. Yet Mort feels less jumbled, with a clear direction—and it’s a better novel for it.

The thing that really makes this story, however, is the different light in which we see Death portrayed. Viewed in the others novels as a hooded, scythe-wielding, emotionless figure, Pratchett subverts this and we finally see Death as he does not want to be seen. Without wanting to reveal too much, Death has his own agenda for taking an apprentice, as he pours over his ledgers and tries to go on his own mini, hilarious adventures. After all, Mort allows him to have a rare night or two off.

Pratchett is really at the top of his game here, and Mort is perfect: a light-hearted and fun read, with a surprisingly moving message at its heart. I’m currently mourning the fact I have to wait until the eleventh Discworld novel—Reaper Man—to get to the next instalment in the “Death” sub-series—but I’m sure that in the meantime, Pratchett has many more delights and wonders up his sleeves.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

9317452At the risk of revealing myself as terribly uninformed, I had heard people comment positively on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, but had, for some odd reason, formed the opinion that it was some sprawling non-fiction epic which chronicled the history of England’s capital. I think I might have got mixed up with the works of Edward Rutherfurd—but enough of my silliness.

Rivers of London is, in its own way, a history of London—but of a secret, magical history unbeknown to most of the everyday, ordinary citizens that pile into its tube stations by the hour. It seems obvious to say, but even very early on Aaronovitch’s novel reminded me of the works of Neil Gaiman—particularly the magnificent Neverwhere. It’s easy to see why: both deal with the unknown, unseen magical creatures that lurk in the shadows of the sprawling metropolis that is London.

In Rivers of London, we meet Peter Grant, a London Metropolitan Police constable trying to climb the ranks and prove himself to his superiors. Called to a murder near Covent Garden, he suddenly—while waiting for his friend and fellow officer Lesley to go get coffee—finds himself taking a witness statement from a ghost—and if that isn’t weird enough, it isn’t long before he is being inducted into an off-shoot section of the police force purely formed to study the supernatural goings-on in London. With him, it now contains two members.

Aaronovitch’s novel is a riot, and is clear that as we race through the city’s teeming streets that the author has a real passion for London; there is a feeling that the capital isn’t just being described, it has instead come alive. Peter quickly embarks upon a journey to a much higher calling, and his character is wonderful; his light, self-deprecating humour is a treat, and a perfect compliment to the Aaronovitch’s soft and often hilarious dialogue.

So why, do I hear you ask, have I rated this only three stars? Sadly, despite how good the cast of characters was—and I cannot wait to read more of them in the subsequent sequels—the plot did not hold my attention enough. It was far from confusing and not particularly difficult to follow, but I will be hard-pressed to recommend this book, purely for lack of a gripping, memorable storyline. Sure, the narrative was suitably quirky and entertaining, but it was mainly Aaronovitch’s interesting and eccentric characters that kept me flipping the pages.

Rivers of London is light and fun—a quick read even at just under 400 pages. It has an original premise, has been lovingly crafted, and will leave you laughing aloud often. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of other similar fantasy novels containing the supernatural—such as Gaiman’s Neverwhere—but it is definitely worth a read.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

17824793Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize and has received largely positive reviews—praising the author’s ability to make more human the larger, urgent political questions that are asked daily on the news.

The novel focuses on three Indian men—Randeep, Avtar and Tochi (Tarlochan)—who are representative of modern India, and Navinder, a Indian-British woman who offers the only glimmer of light and softness in Sahota’s dark, heavy narrative.

The Year of the Runaways is a keenly observed account of young men trying to make it in Britain—working illegally; becoming involved in fake marriages in an attempt to gain a visa; all the while trying to maintain an upbeat attitude and stay positive about the future. At times this seems impossible: awful living and working conditions mean tensions are as frayed as one would expect in a Sheffield house where a dozen or more young men suffer from lack of sleep and food.

Sahota plays with his chronology, shifting from past to future and back again as we learn the histories of our characters and the sacrifices they have all made to try secure a better life for them and their families. This information offers an extra layer to an otherwise pedestrian narrative; the prose at times seems dull and workmanlike, as paragraphs and pages drag on with descriptions of job-searching and the characters’ difficulties finding food and sometimes a place to live.

It may sound cold, but Sahota didn’t move me enough; I was often left feeling largely disappointed that I couldn’t invest enough in Randeep, Avtar, Tochi and Navinder’s lives. Of course, the overarching themes—immigration; the naïve dreams of young individuals coming from war-torn countries hoping to find a better life in Britain—are perhaps more important than ever before, and warrant discussion. Yet Sahota’s novel just doesn’t quite do it for me.

The novel had its moments: the way in which Tochi calmly discusses with Navinder his reasons for being in Britain, despite the horrors—like so many others—he has suffered, packed an emotional punch. Yet as the novel wound towards its rushed “let’s try tie this all up quickly” epilogue—which disappointed in its neatness—I found myself increasingly uninterested in how things would turn out.

It’s not difficult to see why The Year of the Runaways made the 2015 Man Booker shortlist—for its big political questions and important themes—but this one just wasn’t for me. Call me heartless—but I expected Sahota to deliver more.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

untitledJust in case you thought the late Stieg Larsson’s first book in the Millennium series— The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—was a fluke, back he comes with this explosive sequel. Larsson pulls no punches in The Girl Who Played with Fire, which is every bit as good as—or arguably better than—its predecessor.

This time, there’s none of the slow build up that was, on reflection, perhaps necessary in the first instalment. Our main players on the stage are set—and we’re ready to dive straight in. Larsson plays on our—and indeed the character—familiarity, as Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist quickly become embroiled in a double murder investigation—and it is difficult to know who to trust.

A year on from the Wennerström success and everyone at Millennium magazine is still on a high: publically, their reputation is through the roof, with circulation going well and themed articles in the pipeline. However, perhaps inevitably, they won’t stop there: a young, ambitious couple—Dag Svensson, a journalist that reminds Mikael of his younger, hungrier self; and his girlfriend Mia Johansson—have come to the magazine with some key information.

Together, they have put together a detailed, revealing exploration of the effects of sex-trafficking in Sweden, including a comprehensive expose of high-ranking figures—in the police, media and government—involved in abusing young girls. Once again, Sweden is set for some explosive headlines, and certain people will not want that information coming to the public attention.

Salander, not one to miss out on something she feels strongly about, begins to investigate the material herself. This time, the desire to remain anonymous and not tell anyone of her actions backfires horrendously, and it isn’t long before she is the subject of everyone’s attention: Dragan Armansky, her one-time boss; Mikael Blomkvist, with whom she has cut off all contact; and the police, who are ready to bring her in, and are out for her arrest.

The media attention has exploded; Salander’s face is all over the news, details of her personal life and tortured childhood printed across the internet for all to see. As she goes into hiding she realises that there’s more to this than meets the eye; her past has come back to haunt her in the worst possible way. Even for a woman of Salander’s means and talents, there may not be a way out. After working all her life to remain anonymous, Lisbeth’s story has begun to leak out.

The action in The Girl Who Played with Fire is relentless. Larsson unravels the mystery one page at a time, but it never feels slow—there’s enough high-octane car chases and fights to keep us thoroughly engaged. The book races towards its furious denoument and the reader is left breathless and stunned. There is no other choice: Larsson’s finale— The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—awaits.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

22501028Disclaimer: I’m a little bit on the fence with this one. Despite Anne Tyler‘s long and distinguished career—including publishing 20 novels in just over 50 years and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons (1988)—the 2015 Man Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread is the first of her books that I’ve actually read. Overall, I’m a little disappointed.

If there’s one thing Tyler’s writing is commonly known for, it is exploring American family and marriage; the everyday, ordinary details of life. Her latest novel is no different: Denny Whitshank embodies the idea of detachment versus attachment; a longing for freedom battling against the need to settle down and mature. His mother Abby is the picture of devout, familial love.

The story here is that there is really no story. Tyler chronicles the multitude of arguments, exasperations, secrets and jealousies that make up every family narrative. There’s nothing wrong with her writing, at times both beautiful and charming as we explore the Whitshank family across multiple generations. Linnie and Junior, their son Red and his wife Abby—in addition to their four kids and three grandchildren. The jumps from past to present, and vice-versa, are never jarring—indeed the different viewpoints occasionally bring about interesting revelations not spotted before.

The problem is, this happens too rarely: for some people the slow, meandering narrative that unspools—rather like its title suggests—is what will make the story what it is. The tiny nuances of the novel may intrigue and delight as the novel begins to surrender its secrets. Unfortunately, there’s no big climax, nothing revelatory enough to warrant the build up. Of course, that’s the point: there isn’t supposed to be—but so often was I left wanting more. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood.

Tyler writes quirky, eccentric characters, but designs them in a way that the Whitshank family could be any of us: each with our flattering attributes, and those not so endearing. Perhaps this is why it is difficult to invest in any of the family—at times I struggled to feel a thing for any of them, despite the fascinating way in which Tyler explores the family dynamic, pointing out that we can all be blind to other people’s wants and desires.

Overall, this was far from a bad read. Tyler writes with enough verve and humour to carry the book forward—but I think in some ways this is a Marmite book. Harbouring a need for high-octane action and a page-turning “thriller”? A Spool of Blue Thread is not for you. If, on the other hand, you would prefer a slow-burning mediation on what family really is all about—there may just be nobody better than Anne Tyler.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

2732977In 2008, the English translation of the late Stieg Larsson’s Swedish crime novel Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men Who Hate Women”)– The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–burst onto the scene, both in the United Kingdom and the United States—subsequently debuting at number four on the New York Times Best Seller list. Now, a full seven years later, and indeed 11 since Larsson’s death, it’s still easy to see why.

Despite a slow start, the first book in Larsson’s Millennium series (originally a trilogy but now expanded, somewhat controversially, by David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) rocks along at a rate of knots, the 500+ pages disappearing in a blur of intrigue and tension, as we unintentionally form strong opinions about the author’s brilliant and expansive cast of characters.

Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist under a lot of pressure. Having lost a libel case against influential industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, his reputation is in tatters, while his magazine Millennium is bleeding cash with advertisers pulling out left, right and centre. Then, a lifeline: Henrik Vagner, CEO of the once powerful Vagner Cooperation offers him an assignment. Blomkvist must live and work on Hedeby Island to—ostensibly at least—write a book on the colourful history of the Vagner family. His real goal is to resolve a mystery that has plagued Henrik for over 35 years: the disappearance of his granddaughter Harriet from Hedeby. Vagner offers him a ridiculous salary, convinced Blomkvist can unearth new details that will unmask the murderer and, against Mikael’s better judgement, he accepts.

It is in investigation that will take him much deeper into the darkness that haunts the Vagner family then he ever imagined. Soon, as the clues unravel, he needs a research assistant, and through this he is introduced to Lisbeth Salander—whose own powerful and heart-wrenching narrative we have been told alongside Blomkvist’s. Pale and slender, her slight frame makes her appear as 15-years-old—when in fact she is an adult in her own right. Lisbeth has had a rough childhood, in and out of foster care, suffering sexual abuse from those she trusts.

Salander is a brilliant invention on Larsson’s part: socially inept, folded within her own private world where her computer hacking talents get her through the day. Her interaction with Blomkvist is the real treat of this novel, as she learns to mature—and even trust. If that wasn’t enough, Larsson sends them to the very depths of hell as they begin to find answers to mysteries that have been left for decades.

It is no surprise that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become one of the most well-received crime novels of the 21st century. Larsson writes with an assured touch and in this reader’s eyes, the series only improves as it progresses. I think most of us will agree: it’s a crying shame that Larsson never got to write more books and ultimately see what a worldwide success the Millennium series became.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

349286It is, in all honesty, very difficult to review the third book in a series—and even more so when practically every word of the late Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld series has already been dissected, analysed, and reported back on through countless reviews.

Nevertheless, Equal Rites abandons the characters and story of the previous two novels in the series, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic in order to start off a new thread entirely: Pratchett’s ‘Witches’ sub-series—which has spawned six novels of its own.

So while I did spend some time mourning the absence of Rincewind and Twoflower—both of whom, I am sure will return—it didn’t take that long to get used to Pratchett’s new “main” characters: “Esme”, or Granny Weatherwax—the witch who has become one of the most popular and enduring Discworld characters—and Eskarina Smith, a young girl who is to be the Disc’s first female wizard.

The story is of her journey to the Unseen University in order to become initiated officially as a wizard, and her trials and tribulations on her way there—and indeed when she arrives. In most ways, however, this plotline takes the back-burner compared to our full introduction to Granny. She has a wry comment for everything and it is a riot watching her navigate the “real” world—one she hasn’t really ever set foot in, preferring to spend her time in relative obscurity living in the village of Bad Ass. Yes, you heard that correctly.

Pratchett is at his best when creating scenes that have you laughing aloud and then realising awkwardly you’re on public transport. Granny falling into a bear pit when trying to start her broomstick; the close-to-the-bone descriptions of “headology”, a phrase that is wonderful in its simplicity.

Equal Rites is short, fun and light. In just over 200 pages Pratchett crafts a neat little tale that never feels rushed, and although some of others have commented and said his later books are much smoother and more assured, this feels as good of an introduction to the Discworld as any. I feel privileged to have many more left to enjoy.