Books on chaotic London

Chaotic London: August Reads 2016

Every month I find myself meandering around a theme in my reading. Somehow all the books manage to link to each other via their subject matter. This month, most of the books revolved around the theme of anarchy and the world in chaos, especially in London. There’s something about this city which has attracted revolutionaries since its foundation, whether in Guy Fawkes or his various literary incarnations.

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

The Man Who Was ThursdayWhen I picked up this book in the store, the blurb immediately grabbed me. The book “is a metaphysical detective story filled with poetry and politics”. Tossing up between this and the new China Mieville novel (hello September), I had to get it, given my obsessive love of genre bending detective stories. How could I resist a book which promised Gabriel Syme, a poet and a police detective? There are not enough poetical policemen I say.

He’s commissioned by a man in a dark room to infiltrate a ring of notorious anarchists… which mimicks the traditional adventure tales, but then delves into (dare I use the word Kafka-esque?) trail of bizarre cooincidences, culmulating in a world descendant into anarchy. Chesterton’s Christian metaphors are somewhat difficult to understand (even as a Christian), but there are some incredible quotes like this description of these special detetectives’ mission:
“The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a leger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed.”

I can see the influence of The Man Who Was Thursday in many later works, the notion of philosophical police cropping up in everything from Phillip K Dick to China Mieville. I wouldn’t be surprise if it has influenced my second book…

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

V for VendettaI’ve been reading through a lot of Moore’s work this year – my favourite so far is From Hell, and I may even attempt the epic that is Jerusalem coming out next month. V for Vendetta is set in London in a dystopian future, where the country is run by a totalitarian fascist state. It echoes other great dystopias like A Clockwork Orange and 1984, where surveillance and internment are used as tools of enforcement.

I love the way Moore tells stories; they’re rich and full of narratives that couldn’t work in any other medium than the graphic novel. The most exceptionally told chapter is that of the opening to This Vicious Caberet, where lines of music run under the illustrations by David Lloyd. I love what Lloyd writes in the introduction, that V for Vendetta is “for people who don’t switch off the news.”

The book has a very complex representation of characters – none of them are truly innocent, not even Evey, who is converted to V’s cause in a most harrowing way. As a woman it made me incredibly uncomfortable reading it, but it’s meant to be that way. Like her, we’re coerced into thinking V is a good guy because he stands up for freedom of speech and the importance of art, but he goes about this in a terrifying way, partly due to his own mental instability. We might agree with aspects of his ideals, but they’re enforced in violent ways against the state. This disjunct is spelled out clearly from Chapter One: The Villain. The book poses incredible questions about what makes a villain, and whether or not V is simply a creation of the state turning on itself.

Criminal River: A History of the London River Police by Stephen Wade

15930644Turning from fiction to facts, I read Criminal River as part of the research in my new book. It’s a fascinating history of a little known aspect of London’s police – the Thames River Police. They’ve been around longer than Scotland Yard, and it was fascinating to read about the level of depravity that happened on the river in the 1800s. Basically anything that wasn’t strapped down and guarded was ripe for theft. With millions of dollars of revenue coming in on the Thames each year, it was the primary source of industry for the city – think thousands of boats on the river each day. Some fascinating stories included the disaster response to a sinking steam boat, the threat of the Dynamiters on the river, and the dead bodies that washed up every day. It was a dangerous and difficult job, and respect to the men and women who died in service to bringing law and order to the River Thames.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of ShadowsLADY PIRATES!

Review done. *wipes hands*

I tells ya this is my fav recent fantasy series. It is fun reading for intelligent folks, especially those who like rogues, magic, cities, romance, pirates, thieves and magical jackets. There are plenty of gasps and surprises along the way, and I really enjoyed how V.E. Schwab built the tension up between the main characters in the lead up to the games. The first book in the series was one of the most entertaining books I read last year, and I think this might rejoin the same list again. For those who haven’t read it yet, the series focuses on four alternate Londons and the people who can pass between them. Grey = normal London, red = magical London, white = on the brink of the evil London, black = bad London. Of course, Black London isn’t content to sit and chill, oh no, it’s intent on bringing chaos to the ordered worlds.  The main female character, Delilah Bard steals the show.

And as a bonus book, I read…

Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas

Move Under GroundNot London this time, but everywhere between New York and San Fran, recounted by Jack Kerouac facing down the elder god invasion of America. I’d been meaning to read this since I heard about it. Nick Mamatas nails the voice of Kerouac in this very weird piece of fiction. While I’m familiar with much of the work of the beats and gonzo writers, I’m less familiar with Lovecraft. Still, as much as beatniks vs cthulhu seems like a gimmicky match up, it works here simply because there’s so much effort with the voice and style.

The book becomes meandering in the end, but there’s some brilliant writing in between.

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One comment

  • Elizabeth @ Earl Grey Editing September 5, 2016  

    How interesting that a theme should emerge like that! I’ll have to keep an eye out for it in my own reading (though I wonder whether review material will disrupt it or play into it).

    I really must get my hands on some of Victoria Schwab’s work sometime soon. I keep hearing such good things about her!

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