Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

When I pick up a book to read, it’ll for be for two reasons:

  1. I think I’m going to enjoy it
  2. I think reading it will make me a better writer.

In most cases, it’ll be both, occasionally, it’s just one, and a book that fits neither I won’t bother finishing; life’s too short. I didn’t think Fifty Shades was a great book, but I also believe you can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes as well as your own, so I made it to page 12.

Anyway, I romped through Whispers Underground, the third book in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series, in about three days.

The whole series is set around a clandestine department of the Metropolitan Police Force tasked with dealing crimes of a supernatural nature. In Aaronovitch’s mind, London is teaming with ghosts, elves, goblins and gods, most of which, for obvious reasons, try to keep a low profile. But like everyone else, they need policing. Unlike everyone else, they can do magic, so to keep a lid on things, you need the Folly, an off-the-books division that has police officers that can also do magic. It’s a bit like Harry Potter, but a lot more adult and a bit more sinister

For me (even though I’m not a Hogwarts person) this is a killer setup, but even if it’s not your usual cup of tea, you might want to read it anyway, because it’s a bit of masterclass in writing.

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The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco

I read Silk a couple of years ago, and to this day it remains the best book I’ve ever read. In fact, it was so good, I couldn’t finish another book for months. But I realised … and I’m doing it again: this isn’t about Silk, this is about another piece from Alessandro Baricco’s multi-room writing studio.

I’m not sure how the Young Bride escaped my radar for so long, but when I found it, it was a day of joy. It’s an odd story; a dense, literary tale about a young woman who comes to live with a family of wealthy textile merchants. She has been promised to the Son of the family’s patriarch, but on her arrival she discovers the Son has travelled to England to study manufacturing. No one is sure when he will return, so she decides to wait for him, slowly becoming indoctrinated into the strange domestic and sexual rituals of the Family. After a time though, it becomes clear that the Son is no longer in England; he left the country to travel further, and has not been heard from since. The Bride, now bewitched by the Family, and weaving an intricate web of desire of her own, must face the possibility that the Son may never return.

Yes, it’s Alessandro Baricco, so you know it’s going to be a great book, though that doesn’t mean you’re going to like everything about it. I mean, I like a good poetic read as much as the next would-be writer, but sometimes I found the prose a little dense, to the point that it sometimes got in the way of the story, and that’s a shame because it really is a great story. The characters are perfectly flawed, the setting is immaculately crafted and the pace, while measured, is pretty much what a book like this needs. But occasionally, very occasionally, the story gets lost in the poetry.

But aside from that, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read that doesn’t builds to a gentle but satisfying end.

Seven out of ten

Film review: Queen and Slim

I saw this a few weeks ago, before the planet went south, so I haven’t had time to write up what I thought about it. Anyway, I’ve certainly got the time now, so here’s a very tardy review of Queen and Slim.

I want this picture on a T=shirt

Our two heroes find themselves on the run after a blind date ends with Slim shooting a police officer in self-defence. Understandably, the pair decide that turning themselves in will end in never seeing the light of day ever again, so they embark on a doomed road trip in a bid to get out of the country.

Now a few people describe the characters as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, which they’re not: Bonnie and Clyde were as guilty as sin, whereas these two were victims of horrendous bad luck. (I mean what are the chances of running into a racist police officer on a night out …). I lean more towards the ‘Thelma and Louise’ line of thinking: victims of circumstance who compound the problem with a series of bad decisions and new-found love and loyalty to one another.

The problem with a film like this is that you know pretty well from the first ten minutes how it’s going to end, so you’d better make sure that you have pretty good story to tell along the way. Fortunately, Lena Waithe, the writer and producer has a great screenplay, which is a little understated, relying on the huge talents of Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith to bring it to life. The film is not huge on action, but does manage to pack in plenty of tension. It relies a lot on wealth of diverse characters to keep things moving, along with the growing intensity between the two main players. Still it did seem to grind to a halt in one or two places, which sometimes made me feel that it lost pace and became a little bit disjointed.

However, that shouldn’t put you off from seeing it (though you probably can’t right now!). Queen and Slim works well as a love story and a political statement. I doubt anyone will listen, but that doesn’t mean the message shouldn’t be heard.

Nine out of ten