Books wot I red: How to be an Alien, Rivers of London & Dark Cargo

Welcome to one of my rare book review posts. Once again (rather pitifully) I have just about managed to read three books in a year, but I wanted to write a few things about them as they’re all good reads.

In 2016 I became friends with Anita, writer of the Books and Soul blog and a Hungarian trying to start a more permanent future in the UK. While we’ve lost contact a little in recent times, I remembered her recommendation of How to be an Alien by George Mikes (which I’d enjoyed reading a few pages of) – and was recently given it for my birthday.

This is a very short read (less than 100 pages with a lot of illustrations) but it’s a wonderfully humorous historical document of how a Hungarian found the British when he moved to England in. It was first published in 1946, but the comparisons to the modern day are frighteningly accurate and relevant.

You know you’re on solid ground in the preface: “Some years ago, I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me – to my great surprise – whether I would marry her. “No,” I replied, “I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.” She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, and retorted: “I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.””

You’ll find out all about tea, the weather, the art of understatement and of course the joys of compromise: “Bargaining is a repulsive habit; compromise is one of the highest human virtues – the difference between the two being that the first is practised on the Continent, the latter in Great Britain.” I’m not sure how many of these stereotypes this book started, if any, but it is a wonderful exploration of the British ‘condition’.

After four weeks at No.1 on the ‘What’s next on the list?’ hit parade (see below), I finally got to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. It was big on my radar as it ticked so many of my top book boxes: a slightly comedic police drama, set in the present day, based in London and with a bit of an other-wordly twist.

I very much enjoyed the premise here: a London bobby who thinks he’s normal, but that can see ghosts – which sees him enlisted as the police’s first apprentice wizard in years. Yup, magic is returning to London and it’s up to our hero, PC Peter Grant, to step up and put a stop to it.

Much like the first of the Bryant and May novels, ‘Rivers of London’ has the problem many first-in-series books has: trying to balance the story with giving you a solid backstory and introducing you to both long-term and short-term characters. Aaronovitch just about gets away with it, with the yarn ripping along at a fair old pace. That said, the characters themselves seemed a little predictable and cliched, while the ‘set piece to set piece’ flow jarred with me a little more than I’d expect for what is a very solid and standard way of storytelling.

That said, I’ll definitely look out for the next book in the series (‘Moon Over Soho’) as I read enough good stuff here to make me want to give the series at least one more chance to become a favourite. Having read a lot of books in this vein (police, London, mystical), I think it’s simply becoming harder to impress me and stand out.

Not content with knocking off my number one read, I followed that with reading the novel that had been in second spot: Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. I should preface this by saying Andy is a mate, but if I hadn’t enjoyed it I simply wouldn’t have written about it here. The novel is self-published through Amazon and available both in paperback and Kindle form.

I’m not sure if mystical pirate fantasy is a big genre, but that’s what we have here: a 17th Century pirate crew gets in above their heads with a powerful Caribbean spirit who makes it his business to take revenge on them for capturing him.

If you like historical nautical novels there’s an admirable level of detail here, which draws deeply from the rich history of the region. But (unsurprisingly) it was the mysticism and voodoo elements that really drew me in. It’s something I know nothing about, but found fascinating – but it never bogs the story down. Behind the ships and sorcery there’s a fast evolving plot with all the twists and turns you’ll need from an action adventure story.

Much as in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, Rice has no problem dispensing with leading characters when you least expect it – so don’t get too attached! But its certainly not a problem, as life was short and brutal in piracy’s golden age. My only complaint was the prose were a little overwrought for my taste, but that’s a ‘me’ thing – and I have no experience of reading historical nautical novels. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it if it sounds like your kind of thing – or if you fancy something a bit out of the ordinary: a great yarn with some genuinely original ideas.

What’s next on the list?

Having knocked off numbers one and two of the list this time around, I can see the new number one disappearing off the list fast too, but what will be joining it? Very possibly a few of this lot – and even more possibly a whole bunch of Fowler’s Bryant & May books (as I’m falling behind!). It’s embarrassing he is writing them faster than I read them…

  1. London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler. New entry! Bryant and May are back for another instalment – so of course go straight into the number one ‘must read’ spot. It’ll be interesting to see where they can go after the somewhat doom-laden conclusion of the last book – but as three more books have already followed this one, something must be happening! Time to catch up…
  2. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Second time on the list. Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  3. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Second time on the list. A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.
  4. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Second time on the list. Having recently been reading about the Cold War, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  5. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. New entry! Hard to believe I’ve never actually read this, despite it sitting on my shelves for years – and me having done a degree covering sociology! While I understand what Marxism and communism are, it’s time I read the true source material.

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