The hidden world of London Below – Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I’ve not been here for quite a while, as day to day life has kept me busy. While I have been reading continuously, I just haven’t had a chance to write about it. Having an hour or two free on an afternoon that looks to turn thundery, it’s good to get back in the saddle.

I first saw Neverwhere, when it was adapted in the late 1990s for the BBC in the United Kingdom. I liked the idea of there being another London, London Below, actually sharing the same physical space as the place we see in the waking world. Without spoiling the story for anyone who wants to read it (I would recommend it), it revolves around Richard Mayhew in London Above, the city everyone knows, and an act of kindness that pushes him into contact with the other London and a dazzling array of strange but very detailed characters. Once this has happened, he becomes essentially invisible in London Above, and in danger from two of my favourite evil characters, Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar. These people, if you can call them such, have been around for centuries. In their pursuit of the Lady Door, they end up at Mayhew’s door, and are not convinced by his protestations of innocence.

Another of Gaiman’s nice touches is that many of the places familiar from a map of London appear as through a mirror darkly, i.e. beware the Black Friars. Old Bailey is another great character, and funnily enough, since listening to an audio adaptation, in my mind’s eye, I see Bernard Cribbins – how could it be anyone else?

This is a world of talking rats, floating markets, and angels. What struck me about London Below was just how hostile many of the inhabitants were to Mayhew. There was very little sympathy, or even empathy. Mind you, life down there looks brutal, and an altruistic worldview would probably get your throat slit sharpish.

There’s a lot to take in in this book, from alternate realities to resurrection, and a great deal of treachery. Very little is ever what it seems, and almost everyone / everything has an agenda. I found it to be an outstanding read, and very hard to put down. In this, it is like just about everything else that Neil Gaiman has written. It has parallels with “American Gods”, where we are shown “behind the curtain”, and travel with people who have an entirely different perspective to our own. If you have an evening or afternoon free, I would suggest you find a copy of this, and dive in.

First line: “The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself”

Last line: “And they walked away together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway”

Favourite character: Difficult to choose, but most likely Old Bailey.

Rating: Spellbinding (5/5)

In favour of audiobooks

Lots of people like to read, that much is clear. How many of you like to listen to books as well? Previously the domain of those with impaired vision, audiobooks are becoming really popular across the board, with an explosion of good books available online. As a child in Glasgow, I remember seeing talking books on cassette, along with the large print books, and associated them with elderly readers. Thankfully I’ve since been proved wrong, and audiobooks offer a great way of reaching more people. Despite having a copy of Dracula on my shelf for about ten years, I didn’t finish it until earlier this year, spurred on by a brilliantly produced audiobook. Other providers are available, but I tend to buy mine from Audible. Their website can be reached here.

Personally, I find it very relaxing having a book read to me. So much so that I often drift off to sleep with my headphones on! I like long stories, and two that I have on my player at the moment are The Lord of the Rings and The Stand, by Tolkien and Stephen King respectively. Both are voiced by excellent narrators, which is a distinct advantage. There’s nothing worse than being able to hear the narrator trying to ingest the microphone, or worse, use woefully bad voices for your favourite characters.

Another advantage of listening to a book is that you don’t need to carry it with you, just a media player. Having spent the last few months travelling up and down the length of Scotland by coach and train, it has been a real advantage. Saves on eye-strain too, which is always a bonus.

There are down-sides to this, of course. Nobody hunts for second hand audiobooks in old bookshops with great character, and nobody is ever going to stand and browse your collection, sparking interesting book conversations. Nothing beats the feeling of a good book in your hand either, or that lovely musty smell that old books have. Still, in this case, it is convenience that wins. Of all of the audiobooks I own, I have paper copies of all but one. At the moment, I am rereading the Lord of the Rings (from here on in, abbreviated to LOTR) using both the hard copy and audiobook. When I head off on the coach next week, I will carry my mp3 player, and listen to it there too.
Anyway, I like audiobooks, and will definitely be buying some more in future. I’ll be buying plenty of real paper books too, but for travelling, I don’t think they can be beaten. What do you think?

The Stand

This post is about another of my favourite books. I’ve tried reading books that I thought I ought to have a crack at, and sometimes it works, most times not. So, another book that I have several copies of, “The Stand” by Stephen King.

Ultimately, this book is about the battle between good and evil. That should really be Good and Evil, for they are major forces. The release of a biological weapon (called Captain Trips) from a US facility causes a pandemic to spread across the world with a terrifying mortality rate. Soon, most of the human world is dead or dying. King lets us see this happen from a number or angles, none of which is pleasant. A soldier escapes from the facility when the containment fails, packs up his wife and child and sets out across the States, ultimately crashing into a petrol station where some old friends are hanging out and shooting the breeze. From there, things only get worse. The military tries to stem the spread of Captain Trips, but the chaps in white coats in their desert labs have been a bit too clever this time, and containment proves futile.

For the survivors – not everyone dies, only about 99% of the world’s population, things go from bad to worse. Visions start coming to those able to percieve them, either of an elderly black woman, or something terrible coming through the corn-fields. Depending on their nature, people are drawn to either of the two visions. The emissary of evil in this case is the Walking Man, Randall Flagg, drawing forces to him. The elderly lady is Mother Abigail, in Nebraska. The various groups of survivors criss-cross the country, heading for either Nebraska or Las Vegas, which Flagg has taken as his headquarters. Again, as with many of King’s novels, the characters are what drew me in. Good or bad, they all seem like real people, who would have an opinion on things. You might not like them, you might pray you never cross their path (or they yours), but they seem real. Another thing is that with the good characters, they are almost never wholly good, as you might find in a Bulldog Drummond or Richard Hannay story (nothing wrong with that, either). One of the only characters I can think of in this story, other than Mother Abigail, is the Judge. He knows the consequences of doing what he feels is right, and does it anyway. True grit. For the rest, they have the normal human mixture of desires, fears and dreams. The same goes for those on the side of evil. Many aren’t what you would call dyed-in-the-wool evil, just corrupt, venal, out to consolidate what little power they have in the new world order.

The idea of a post-apocalyptic America was intriguing too. It reminded me strongly of “Earth Abides”, though with a great deal more detail and more characters. Can you imagine walking through any large city, once almost everyone else has died off? Walking over the cracked asphalt at O’Hare, once the aircraft have fallen silent forever. Would you stay sane, retain your humanity? I don’t know. That’s a question we would each have to ask ourselves.

As with quite a few of the books I’ve reviewed, I can’t say too much, for fear of spoiling what I think is a great read. I liked the characters a great deal, particularly Trashcan Man.
The Stand was originally released in a “cut” version, because the publishers thought that such a large book wouldn’t sell well. I was lucky enough to come to it when it had been released in it’s un-cut form, with hundreds of pages back where they should have been. The major difference is on the final page, in a “coda” of sorts, which changes the complexion of the entire book. You’ll need to read it to see what I mean, but removing that last page would make a massive difference, you’ll see.

So, a mammoth book about the ultimate struggle between good and evil. For me, it is up there with the Lord of the Rings, just an entirely different kind of book. Both are great.

Rating: 9/10 – it doesn’t get much better than this!


If you could somehow change history, or even had the chance to go back in time, would you? This is the central theme of Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63. The date of course refers to the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. There will be no spoilers here – I won’t mention the outcome of the book, but thought that it was an excellent idea – the kind of thing that King is well known for.

Imagine being told that there was a way, a “door”, if you like, that always took you to a certain time and place. Even better, it is always the same time and place when you go through, and regardless of how long you stay in there, days through to years, about two minutes will have passed when you return. A fantastic concept, and it had me hooked from the start. Another idea that had me thinking about it for weeks was – if you did go back to 1958, how would you manage to blend in? Think of all of the phrases you couldn’t utter. All of the knowledge you couldn’t reveal, or you would likely end up in either police custody or an asylum for the insane. In fact, turning the coin over, imagine if someone purporting to be from 2062 arrived in the US, or Europe today; what would happen to them? It would depend on what they said, did and looked like, I think. See? I finished this book a month ago, and he’s still making me look at it from different angles! No wonder I love his writing.

The protagonist in this book, once he has had the concept proved to him, decides to return to the past in order to try and right a terrible wrong. One of his adult learning class had nearly died as a child when his father ran amok with a hammer and killed the rest of the family on Halloween night. Again, I won’t spoil the book, as finding out if he could do it or not is a major part of the story.

As the story progresses, he returns to 1958 in order to try and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Of course, this raises some very interesting questions – would the world have been a better place if JFK had lived? There are certainly indications that the remainder of the 1960s would have been quite different. This is what interested me as a reader. When I first heard that King was writing this story, my gut reaction was “of course things would have been better”. Gut reactions are not usually particularly well thought out or reasoned, hence their name. Clearly, the assassination was a terrible thing, in common with any murder. That it left itself carved into the American psyche is pretty clear. If it didn’t happen, would everything be sweetness and light? Given human nature, and the state of the world back then, I doubt it. King uses an interesting phrase throughout the book: “History has a way of harmonising with itself”. I think that awfulness would still find a way to manifest itself, just wearing a different mask.

The story is significantly complicated by the fact that as the protagonist settles in to wait for Oswald to come back from the USSR, he meets and falls in love with someone, Sadie. Sadie comes from a time when divorce is not nearly as common as in our present age, and has some serious baggage, in the form of a violent husband, in tow.

Another thing that I liked about this book was that I learned things. Yes, the book is fantasy, but many of the events throughout the book were real. Imagine being able to sit through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not only know how it was going to turn out, but who would say what, and when! Imagine how that would feel today, if someone told you in real detail, how the Arab Spring in Libya would turn out, before it really kicked off. When I watch old American or British civil defence films from the late 50s and 60s, I get a real sense of how close nuclear Armageddon was, and how frightening it must have been. Growing up as a child in the Seventies, on the tail end of it all was scary enough, but that must have been dreadful. In the book, you get a real sense of what it must have been like at the time.

It’s funny, but for a book that I really want to talk about, I can’t, for fear of spoiling it! I’ll focus instead on what I think made it such a great read. It has been one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one of the few that has had me sitting up in bed until 2-3AM, just to see how things turn out. First, characters. As always, King manages to create characters who feel like real people. Thinking about half a dozen characters, they feel as though they could be standing here in the room with me. Two other authors who can do this for me are Robertson Davies (The Salterton Trilogy, Murther and walking spirits) and John Irving (The world according to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, A prayer for Owen Meany). This is one of the best gifts an author can confer, in my opinion. Secondly – great ideas. This book is founded upon an incredible “what-if” scenario. Thirdly – great attention to detail. He gives a great impression of what it would be like to live in the late 1950s, from haircuts to clothing, accents to cars. So much so that I think it would be very difficult to fit in without drawing attention to yourself. Fourthly – he imbues this book with a world-view that runs through many of his books. It also connects to places mentioned in previous novels, like Derry, where something is clearly terribly wrong. King also has a view of the innate goodness of (some) people in small towns which I find comforting. I’m thinking here about Deke Simmons, Mimi Corcoran and Sadie Dunhill. Their behaviour justifies my faith in humanity.

So, in summary, I thought that this book was exceptionally well written, full of absorbing characters and rich historical detail. It kept my interest up to and beyond the final page, and the fact that I am thinking about it a month after finishing it says a lot. Go read it!

First line: “I have never been what you would call a crying man”

Last line: “Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years, and we dance”

Rating (1-10): 9 Amazing.

Against a dark background

What can I say about this book by Iain M.Banks? Well, it is one of my favourites, has influenced how I run roleplaying games, has an absolute kickass female protagonist, and just flat-out rocks.
The book is set in a star system (Thrial) with lots of worlds, but separated from other systems by such vast gulfs of space that the inhabitants are alone. Most of the worlds have been terraformed, giving a great deal of living space, but they cannot reach beyond the limits of their own system. Vast dark dust clouds obscure great segments of space, hence the title, “Against a dark background”.

First lines:

“She put her chin on the wood below the window. The wood was cold and shiny and smelled. She kneeled on the seat; it smelled too, but different. The seat was wide and red like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody’s tummy”

This is from the prologue, with Sharrow, the main character, taking a trip as a child. Sharrow is the target of a religious cult, the Huhsz, who believe her to be the final obstacle before their faiths apotheosis. Her only chance is to try and find a weapon of unspeakable power, one of the so-called Lazy Guns. The book revolves around her quest for the Lazy Gun, while diving deep into her past.

Banks has an interest in families that were once wealthy, had status and land, and then fell upon hard times. Such is the case here. Sharrow refers to her relatives, and recollects holidays spent at expensive mansions, before it all had to be sold off.

The book is full of ideas, too many to list here, certainly not without spoiling the story. I think it is the mark of a good story when one of my favourite characters is an android, and the idea of a combat team being attuned to one another by a bioengineered virus is amazing. A world where one organism covers most of the planet is another great idea, and of course, there is the idea of the Lazy Gun.

Banks likes to surprise, and this book is no exception (SPOILER BELOW). Sharrow takes part in a conflict, and during a space battle sees a cruiser that has been badly damaged:

“The external view she had now – flagged as thousand magnification – showed a wrecked excise clipper spinning slowly in front of her, its black hull flayed and pitted, its rear end gone, ruptured plates fluting tumorously  from the craft’s waist  to shred away to nothing from about three-quarters of the way back, ending in a glinting mess of metal.

There was something biological, even sexual about the ruined ship, its matt-black skin like dull clothes ripped apart to reveal the flesh beneath, exposed and open. She’d never seen a ship so badly damaged.

She thought, Poor fucker; lift that driver’s chow-bucket off its hook and send it back to Stores…then realised that this was the view from Miz’s ship; he was following her, and what she was looking at was her own craft. She was the unfortunate pilot she’d been consigning to oblivion”

Masterful. Still gives me chills when I read it.

Unlike many of Banks’ books, this one is not set in the Culture, and has no connection with it. Indeed, with a million light-years separating Thrial system from its nearest neighbour, connection is impossible. The book has everything from humour, romance, nostalgia, melancholy and ladle-fulls of action. It is a refreshing change in science fiction to have a strong female protagonist, who takes absolutely no crap from anyone. Clever, resourceful, sexy, you gotta love Sharrow.

I was lucky enough to meet Iain M Banks, and let him know that this is my all-time favourite book, bar none. In response, he blinked, smiled and said “Blimey, thanks very much”. Nice guy – even signed it for me. It isn’t every day that you get the chance to tell an author how much you appreciate his writing, and I was glad of the chance.

There is a lot in this book, and I won’t spoil it for you. I would recommend it heartily, even if you really enjoyed the Culture novels and worry that you won’t like this. It is different from the Culture books, certainly, but the trademark elements of what makes a great Banks book are here – good plot, good characters, lots of action, great ideas.

Last line:

“A little later the monowheel vehicle spun backwards out of the sewer outfall, pirouetted vertically like a saluting mount, swung down across the greasy slope of stones at the base of the House’s walls, dodged uncoordinated gunfire from a nearby tower and accelerated quickly across the tide-flooding sands”


This is going to be a brief post, as I can’t really say too much without spoiling the book for other readers.

Even though Dan Simmons has been writing books for decades, this was the first of his that I’ve read. The basic setting is in the far future, when humanity is established across many worlds in the Web, with travel through portals and FTL travel in “spin-ships”. Beyond the web is Hyperion, a world with an enigma. Known as the “Time Tombs”, an assemblage of bizarre empty artefacts appear to be moving backwards in time, and patrolled by an entity known as “The Shrike”. The world is on the edge of civilised Human space, and under threat from the Ousters, renegade humans with a reputation for savagery and brutality.

A final pilgrimage is being made to the Shrike, of seven individuals from very different backgrounds. In a similar fashion to the Canterbury Tales, each person tells their story, and this is what makes up the bulk of the novel. I was struck by Simmons’ ability to write characters with very different personalities and perspectives, from poets to military leaders, and almost anything in between. The writing style seemed to vary from character to character, which was refreshing. Some of the cyberpunk writing late on in the book reminded me of Gibson and Sterling from the late Eighties, whereas some of the descriptions of trying to save aquatic species from Old Earth brought Arthur C. Clarke to mind.

One thing that comes across clearly in this novel is that each of the travellers has been, or is, suffering. This theme runs throughout. I found myself wanting to read more of the characters, and would have been quite pleased to have had books devoted to them.

All in all, I thought that this was an excellent book, and will read the sequel, “The Fall of Hyperion” quite happily. It’s a shame that I can’t discuss it in more detail, but if anyone has read it and feels like talking about it, you can message me. Is it worth reading? In my opinion, definitely.

In praise of dictionaries, and regional variation

I was reading the dictionary in bed late last night / early this morning. Not a standard English dictionary, but one charting words in Scots. I was surprised to find a vast array of words I had never heard. Given that the volume is almost five hundred pages long, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but it did. Here are half a dozen examples which could probably be used for a Scots version of “Call my bluff”:

Jurr – the noise of a small waterfall descending among stones and gravel.

Mourie – A gravelly sea-beach.

SlorkThis has two definitions – To make a disagreeable sound in eating, and to walk through slush with wet shoes that regorge the water in them.

Phring – Wife or consort.

Grue – half-formed ice.

Stravaig – To saunter or wander aimlessly

While one or two of these suggest their meaning through the sounds they make, the others are baffling. I had heard the term “Stravaigin” before, as this is a restaurant in the West End of Glasgow. Didn’t know what it mean though, until recently.

There’s a lot to be said for reading the dictionary. At the very least(!), you learn new words. My favourites are those that give you some idea of the origin of the words, such as two of my Gaelic dictionaries. Take the word “tarbh” for example. This refers to a bull. Pronounced “Tar-rav”, it comes straight from Latin, “taurus”. Many other words have an agricultural origin, or are related to the turning of the seasons. How much more evocative is “An Dùbhlachd”, the dark / stormy days, than “December”?

Getting back to English, particularly the variant spoken in Scotland, I first encountered regional variation as a child, moving from Glasgow to Midlothian. Most noticeable was the glottal stop, and using the word “ken” for “know what I mean?” at the end of sentences. For the glottal stop, think of someone saying “bottle”, and ending up with “bow-al”. In Arabic they go further, and have two letters that consist almost entirely of the glottal stop. When learning, they say that the only time westerners use those muscles is to retch, so if you feel ill when you say it, you’re getting close to the right pronunciation! Back in Scotland, the biggest variation I’ve noted is in Aberdeenshire, where “Doric” is spoken. There, I was greeted in friendly fashion with “Fit like, loon?”. Confusing, to say the least. Down here, near Glasgow, it would be “How’s it going, son?”. Doric has a wide range of words that are unfamiliar to me. The local paper, the Press and Journal, has a page devoted to Doric each day, and I felt proud if I could get through it with a good grasp of the subject under discussion. This is not in any way to disparage Doric. As an aside, there is a brilliant sketch about Doric-speaking Scots interacting with their Standard English-speaking counterparts. Search for ‘Doric call centre‘ on YouTube for it.I love the fact that such a small country can have so much dialect variation. For my North American readers, Scotland is about a quarter the size of Montana (30,000 square miles, as opposed to approximately 145,000).

So, Standard English has its place, but I love the wide range of non-Standard words in Scots. There is also a strong sense of identity and belonging in speaking some of these words. I see and hear the same things when Geordies (people in Newcastle upon Tyne) say particular things, such as “Haway hinny, we’re gannin’ doon the ‘Toon”. Lovely. In Britain, we’ve historically had linguistic input from a variety of sources, including Europe, Scandinavia and Ireland. Since the middle of the twentieth century, we’ve also incorporated phrases and words from further afield. I frequently use the word “shufti”, in the sense of having a look at something. This was brought back by British soldiers from the Middle-East, and Arabic.

What I’d like to know from my friends from outside the UK is this: Do you find that there is a lot of regional variation in your speech? Luxembourg for example, is a tiny country, but do people up north near Wiltz and Hosingen speak a different dialect to those down near the French border? What about Germany? I’m pretty sure that they use different expressions between north and south, but perhaps my friends can answer that. In the United States, it is readily apparent that significant regional variation exists, just compare a speaker from the Louisiana bayou to someone from Washington State. But what about people living in the same state? Do you hear a lot of variation from one end of (for example) Nebraska to the other?

This is intended to be an open discussion, so please let me know what you think. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on regional variations, or just what you think of dictionaries!