Thursday, 26 May 2011

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages by Tom Holt

It feels as if this book has a cast of thousands - appropriately enough, since it's one of the ways in which the writing reflects the book's structure and theme, which unfolds gradually, although the reader begins to suspect what's going on well before the characters do.

Polly is a conveyancer for property developer Mr Huon. Her brother is a musician. When Polly notices that strange things are happening in her office - including the appearance of the word HELP in her diary - she turns to her brother for assistance, but he's preoccupied by his own problems. These began after he found a pencil sharpener in the pocket of a coat he'd collected from the dry cleaners. He tries to return it, but the dry cleaners has disappeared. Actually, we learn, the shop has moved, rather to the surprise of its owners, but they soon learn to adapt. Oh, and there's something nasty happening in the downstairs loo. It happens every day, at the same time. There's quite a few disappearances, in fact - piglets, people, a housing estate - and appearances can, of course, be deceiving.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages
is familiar fare from Tom Holt, right down to the amusing title - if you know and like his work you're on safe ground, because this is a good one (for me, at least, he can be just a little hit or miss, though there are more hits than misses). You're not going to get to know the characters as well as in some, because it's not a very linear story, but he's good at creating people you like at once - here, the white and black knights are a good example, you're immediately caught up in their dilemma, and in how it links in to the rest of the story.

What all this reminds me of most  - even down to the title - is Douglas Adams. Holt has been moving in that direction for some time - ever since, I think, The Portable Door (which is very good). I don't mean to imply that his writing is derivative - it's not, his voice is quite definitely his own - but that the philosophical bent feels like Adams, and the explorations of the possible permutations of a recognisable universe. Because it is recognisable - people react in familiar ways, so that it's easy to imagine yourself in place of Polly, or of Kevin who suddenly finds that he's a chicken. (If you were ever curious to know how that would feel, look no further!) Okay, Kevin's no Gregor Samsa - it's more Chicken Run than Metamorphosis - but Holt's not aiming for profundity, just fun with a little wry social comment on the side. And he does that very well.

This was a review copy from NetGalley, read on my Kindle. I downloaded it just before that option was disabled. I'm very happy to see that it's now back - thanks, NetGalley, that's good news.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

Although there was a sliver of gold in the eastern sky, the sun was not yet up as I barrelled along the road to Bishop's Lacey. Gladys's tyres were humming that busy, waspish sound they make when she's especially contented. 
Low fog floated in the fields on either side of the ditches, and I pretended that I was the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw flying to Heathcliff (except for the bicycle) across the Yorkshire moors. Now and then, a skeletal hand would reach out of the bramble hedges to snatch at my red woollen sweater, but Gladys and I were too fast for them.
In The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second Flavia de Luce mystery, Alan Bradley has come up with another book that I desperately didn't want to finish - young Flavia is so refreshingly acerbic about everyone around her, yet at the same time beset with private fears. Was she, as her sisters claim, responsible for her mother's death? She's had to develop a tough exterior to protect her against such accusations, and some readers have complained that the apparent malice between the sisters is unconvincing or unpleasant, but Flavia comes from a more buttoned-up era when it was quite usual for all sorts of resentments to fester beneath the surface (actually, a good deal of festering still goes on, viz. any agony aunt's advice about the dangers of family get-togethers like Christmas, but these days we are encouraged to express our feelings more openly, which may or may not be a good thing). Domestic tensions aren't helped by a father who is largely disengaged, a family retainer with a tenuous hold on mental health and a Wodehousian aunt. Add a rather nasty suspicious death, a policeman who's keen to discourage amateur interference and some dodgy substances, and you have a recipe for a classic crime story.

The precocious Flavia's voice carries the action deliciously - Bradley so evidently adores his young heroine, and his writing resonates with the atmosphere of a bygone England. I suspect Bradley might have spent the odd happy hour, himself, absorbing the acid delights of Nancy Mitford, because I detect in Flavia and her sisters a blood-tie with the young Radletts, while their ex-army Father is clearly an admirer of Lord Alconleigh. Inspector Hewitt, on the other hand, might have emerged from the pages of Georgette Heyer or Marjory Allingham, and is a worthy adversary for Flavia - he'd be an evener worthier ally, if only he could see it, because he infuriates Flavia by thwarting her attempts to help, thereby forcing her to embark on her own investigations, which she pursues with dogged determination and considerable deviousness. She is pure joy.