Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Underground thoughts

Thoughts at the half way point of: Underground Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube  by Andrew Martin

One of the problems with history books, no matter how interesting the subject, is that facts have to be shared and as a result sometimes the narrative gets pulled back from heading off in other directions.

That problem does crop up here when there are moments when you want to get past the chronological timetable to explore just what happened in certain parts of the underground. Most of the time though the writing keeps you going with the promise that the delights of the future will come in time.

The attraction of this book was that as a regular user of the underground - my route to work includes North Greenwich to Bond Street on the Jubilee and then the Central Line to Oxford Circus - there is the desire to know more about it.

Despite the age of the network the tube is constantly evolving and it remains a constant source of conversation for its users. You just have to look at the excitement that the possible extension of the Bakerloo Line down to Catford is causing to get a glimpse into just what being on the network means.

Pick up an Evening Standard regularly and the tube, usually over crowding, will make its way onto the front pages, which it did recently with problems at Oxford Circus.

The Standard should know all about it because of its position as London's evening newspaper and as a journalist Andrew Martin brings a lot of that same style to this book. So far he has talked of the development of the rube and the mix of dreamers who wanted to improve the world to companies and individuals who hoped to make money.

Trying to make money out of it became a sought after mirage, which was largely popped by the experiences of the Circle Line, but thanks to those that tried the capital was left with a decent tube infrastructure.

There is still more of this book to consume but it is worth sharing thoughts at this stage for those looking for a history of the tube that is not too heavy and has enough additional anecdotes to make it come alive for the current underground user.

A full review will follow soon.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: Moon over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Having established most of the themes of his books in Rivers of London there is perhaps no surprise that this is more of the same with different ghosts to battle and a different part of London central to the action.

The first book, Rivers of London, concentrated on the Covent Garden area but this moves focus slightly towards Soho with the Cafe Royal and some of the dingy strip clubs that populate the side streets being venues for some of the action. You still get the history lessons about those parts of the capital and some of the major events and it is from something that happened in the second world war that the main story develops.

At the same time we get to know Peter Grant, the main character, that bit better and find out that as well as a policeman, trainee wizard and son of a jazz musician he is also a lover.

Some of the threads left at the end of the first book are picked up here and developed and others remain largely in the background, presumably with the intention of being picked up in the third or fourth volumes.

This is a darker book compared to the first, which had its moments as well, and there are some scenes that will impress themselves on your dreams. But the humour is there to create a good balance.

As Grant develops more of his skills the story of the police wizards, and magic more generally, starts to unfold. This is when it does get a bit Harry Potter with the idea of good and evil and the thought that there could be a Voldemort type figure out there waiting to try and put Grant and his boss out of business permanently. That is left hanging with the main case solved and the disruption to London and explained away by a Met keen to brush the existence of magic well under the carpet.

In many senses this is a second book that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the first.  The danger is that the casual reader will find the barriers to entry too high. All of the ingredients are here for this to run and run with different areas of London providing the backdrop for another story. it will be interesting to see what lies ahead in the third book and whether or not it will keep that edgy feeling or go more in the direction of explaining the wizard's story, which might not deliver quite the same experience.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

One of the cover lines describing this book asks you to imagine what would have happened if Harry Potter grew up and joined the police. In a very basic sense that provides a guide to the pages within but it also falls well short.

The Harry Potter reference comes because of the magic in the story. The idea of a policeman having the ability to talk to ghosts and as a result the chance to become a wizard's apprentice forms a large part of the story.

It gives Ben Aaronovitch a chance to introduce vampires, creepy ghosts that inhabit the bodies of innocent Londoners and an insight into the training of an apprentice wizard with lights formed by the mind one of the main speels that gets worked on.

As well as having fun introducing the idea that the modern streets of London could be populated by vampires and ghosts there is also a lot of mileage to be had in the main character Peter Grant because he is a young officer in the Met who has a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cunning that makes the whole wizard's apprentice premise much more believable.

But for me the other main character in the book isn't Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last English wizard who lives in the Folly, an old building protected by magic, but it is London itself.

Set around Covent Garden and involving moments when the story of the City goes right back to its formation this is a tour through a particular area of the capital. Plenty of history is thrown in and facts about the police, the theatre and the area but it is usually done with a light touch. As a result you are learning about the story of London and the idea of wizards being employed by the Metropolitan Police feels as if it could legitimately be part of that tale.

The story is delivered with a mix of humour and when needed graphic horror as Grant gets to grips with the ghost of a frustrated actor. But there are other threads here that you know will be picked up in other books, including the references in the title, to the Rivers of London. It comes as no surprise to find out there is a Father Thames with his brood of children named after Thames tributaries. But there is also Mother Thames and the battle between the two runs as a backdrop throughout the book.

So on one level Peter Grant is Harry Potter in the Police. But on another this is so much more because the world he inhabits is not a fictional land of Hogwarts but London. The same London that is waiting for anyone to pop up at Covent Garden tube and stroll through. The ability to use the capital as a backdrop, provider of mystery and history is what makes this book stand out.