Category Archives: Books

Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

Police action, personal adventure, old school magic, a smattering of romance, and a 1960s Jag driven over 100mph through central London make for a heady mix of science and magic in Rivers of London.

This is Ben Aaronovitch‘s first novel set in the present day with a slight twist, starring some newly minted Police Constables who have a Harry Potter-esque experience when they discover that magic is a bit more real than they’d imagined, then all manner of things go bang and they’re stuck centre stage and have to save the day.

I found Ben’s writing style to be smooth and conversational and I enjoyed reading it at full speed, I picked up the first book in this series, turned a couple of pages and then suddenly two hours had gone by. There’s plenty of fast paced action sequences, some character development and a good old training montage

His universe has some simple and unique ideas that I think set it apart from other police procedural dramas, such a modern twist on elemental spirits and incorporating some interesting parts of London’s geography and history. In this world, magic is just another physical force, albeit one that is being kept quiet by The Establishment and one that carries interesting consequences all of its own.

Speaking of which, whilst the leading characters are all well rounded, there are just enough British institutions worked into the mix to let Ben pick much of the supporting cast off the shelf of characters (the B- and C-grades in Jasper Fforde’s back catalogue of generics), which allows them to serve their narrative purpose without having to all be explained from scratch.

I’ve read all four of the books published so far in this series and have enjoyed all of them, although a couple of the plot events left me with mental whiplash and my sisters and I going ‘did he really just do that?!’. For me, the most comparable novels are Charles Stross’ Laundry series, which are also a recommended read. This is travel reading at its finest, it’s not going to make you think particularly hard, but it will be enjoyable at every step of the way.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, isn’t the type of book that I would normally choose to read, but somebody at work thought it would be a good idea to start a small book club and this was their choice of reading for the first month, hence me writing up my mental notes for posterity. This book has apparently sold more than one million copies, possibly so that the author could hold his little finger to the corner of his mouth.

Dr Sacks is a highly experienced neurologist who qualified as a medical practicioner in the UK before moving to the USA in 1965, where his career has been based since. As I understand things, much of his approach and teaching was before the time when the sciences of neurology and psychology formally split, which allows him to provide perspectives of both the biology of the brain and the intangible machinations of the human mind.

This book was published in the early 1980s from some of his, presumably more unusual or noteworthy, case histories, but rather than just sticking to the dry facts, each patient’s unique situation is related to the reader with background information and narrative, with occasional formal references to other scientists’ works. As a technical reader, I appreciated the attention to detail, the inclusion of how the author arrived at his decisions and the efficient way he concisely wrote scenes.

The short story format made it easy to dip in and out of the book and should be familiar if you’ve ever read any of the fiction from Jack Sheffield, Mike Pannet or Gervase Phinn. The stories ranged from straightforward memory loss, to a woman who lost the concept of ‘left’ to a man with advanced Tourette’s syndrome who used medication to hold down a day job during the week then let loose as a gifted jazz drummer at the weekends.

Each patient’s story included many perspectives, opinions from the patient themselves, their nearest and dearest and Dr Sacks’ outside point of view. Unlike other clinical observation, it did not focus completely on what was lost, there were many positive notes from each situation that resonated with my natural optimism, such as the twins who communicated by quietly quoting prime numbers for each other to savour, or the people who came alive with artistic genius when performing music or painting. There was some points that were genuinely interesting to remember, such as many people requiring the feeling of a ghost limb for a prosthesis to actually work for them and realising just how much of one’s identity is derived from memory.

When we discussed it over cups of tea and pizza the other night, nobody owned up to having enjoyed reading it. I don’t think it was the authors intent to entertain, but it was certainly thought provoking and even scary in places. I don’t like things rocking my juvenile sense of immortality and reading about other people who’s very selves have been injured was a useful reality check, although it did also point out that there is always hope and a way forward.

I got the distinct impression that Dr Sacks wasn’t a very experienced author at this stage in his career. I felt some stories were more polished than others, sometimes the author resorted to refering to cultural stereotypes to quickly get a point across. I wondered for a while if this were actually an anthology from a number of authors, but instead believe this spanned a fair number of years of his professional work. There’s also an interesting shift in language in the nearly 30 year time gap, with some words being technically correct but carry much more sterotypical and meaning from their use in today’s culture. I wonder how many words would be changed by copy editors if it were to be written in this decade.

The bottom line is that it’s a bit like the film The Rabbit Proof Fence. I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad I’ve read it and I think it’s a good addition to my book collection, even though I very doubt I’ll open it again.

Nothing’s Impossible – Brian Blessed

Most of the books I read tend not to be worth writing about, being either ones I’ve read before or dodgy Sci-fi or Fantasy novels, but Brian Blessed’s autobiographical Nothing’s Impossible is noteworthy.

It’s a collection of some of the more interesting stories from his life, told in a very conversational and excitable way, which is entirely what we would expect from one of Yorkshire’s most larger than life characters. A friend asked “Does he roar in it?”. Yes, yes he does. In amongst spinning some good yarns, that is.

The choice of stories he included in the book give a good impression of what the author enjoys, tales of personal adventure be it spending 20 years finding somebody to pay for him making a film about Mount Everest, or him working with Judi Dench trying to learn to dance enough to cope with the West End musical “Cats”.

It’s a concise paperback that could be easily devoured in a lazy afternoon, but that by no means diminishes the entertainment you get from knowing that these tales really happened. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t put up with half of the discomfort he described from his mountain climbing escapades, so it really does go to show what one can do if one puts one’s mind to it.