Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

Today’s young people (what the government classes as the 18-24 year olds) may have a hard time gaining a proper perspective of the Berlin of the Cold War. A city divided between the British, Americans and French in the West, and the Russians in the East. The west would eventually coalesce into one beacon of democracy deep behind Winston Churchill’s iron curtain in communist Europe. To get from one side of the city to the other, to cross from one country to another, from one way of life to another, you had to go through an artificial border (as most borders are in fact). This was where the Berlin Wall came in. Designed to stop people crossing, to stop East Germans abandoning the soviet for the capitalist. Border guards, from one nuclear super power to another, would rarely act if someone was on the other side, maybe yards away, trying to escape across and being hunted by the other sides guards. It was across a border. It was an internal matter. For the most part, on German sufferance, the West and East were happy to posture in this city for forty-five years. A city and its people the pawns of nuclear rivals.

China Mievilles story of The City and The City, a truncating of the title of a book within the book, takes that very real historical situation to an existential extreme in a hard boiled noir masterpiece.

The ‘eastern’ cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma located somewhere, independently in the Balkans, sit side by side. Not exactly East and West Berlin, but as the writer coins “gross-topically” on top of one another. This street is Besz, this street is Ul Qoman, that street is both and neither. Over centuries two cities, two distinct cultures had overlapped and merged into two nations in one space. Citizens of one, walking the same streets, in the presence of the same skylines of citizens of another have to unsee what they are seeing if it belongs to the other nation. Grey, depressing, lifeless architecture sits right beside more modern, glass fronted high rises. Two cities with their own economies, police, fashion. The noise, the smells, the animals, the traffic… all have to be unseen and negotiated without doing the one thing that unites the two nations in fear;


The Breach is not Besz, it is not Ul Quoman. It belongs to neither, operates in both, and exists between. The Breach polices the distinctions between the two and ‘disappears’ in a haunting echo of a rogues gallery of 20th century dictatorships those who have transgressed the boundaries. Breach are the bogeymen, the KGB, the Stazi, Gestapo, the secret police. But who are Breach accountable to?

When the murder of a Canadian archaeology student takes place in Ul Qoma, and her body turns up in Beszel it is apparent to both nations police that a breach has taken place. And yet… where are Breach? Why haven’t they acted?

China Mieville dials back on his wonderful manipulations of language to present an accessible story set in a fictional city state of our world. His is a study of identity, of surveillance by the state and the extent to which paranoia is a comfort. Better to be paranoid than face reality?

As a historian, used to suspending my modern day views in the act of looking at the past I was well suited to reading this book. The unique nature of the two cities requires a blunt acceptance of it, to question it could lead only to confusion. Accept the premise, and jump right in and you can experience the story as a hard boiled detective case. A murder has been committed, a mystery created, and it must be solved. Mieville does superbly to build what is a small apparently localized crime into the birth pains of a revolution, an international incident. His way of introducing and explaining the rules of the world is gentle and builds beautifully on top of one another. Neil Gaiman on the back cover calls this ‘Fiction of the new century’.

It is indeed fiction of the new century. The lessons of the old century made ever prescient in a mind bending artistic novel. China Mieville constantly takes my breath away.


Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Fiction


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REVIEW: Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

REVIEW: Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

From the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, made into a heart wrenching and immensely successful film, and The House of Special Purpose about the last Russian Royal Family came my first non science fiction read of 2012 – Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the true historical event.

For those who are not aware of the most famous act of piracy to befall a British navy ship, the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ was an incident in the late 18th century on the eve of the French Revolution, just a few short decades after the death of the quickly mythologised hero Captain James Cook (a local boy from Marton in present day Middlesbrough, England). A frigate, captained by Lieutenant  William Bligh who had served with Captain Cook on his great voyages of discovery, was tasked with the most urgent mission in the Empire: the collection of a foodstuff known as the breadfruit which grew in great quantities on the remote island of Tahiti. No, the King wasn’t starving, nor did the Queen have pregnancy cravings. There had not been a poor harvest in England, and indeed the sole purpose of the entire venture was designed to make it unnecessary for the British Empire to have to supply the slave colonies in the Caribbean. The breadfruit was a hardy food stuff that the Kings Ministers intended to have planted in the Caribbean, thereby making it cheap to keep their fellow man in chains. A little ironic when some of those who sailed on the Bounty were not their by choice themselves (as is the case with the stories narrator). After reaching Tahiti and completing their harvest, the crew on the Bounty rebel against their captain seize his ship and promptly dump him and his few loyalists at sea in a little launch boat with a token gesture of food. The new pirates had absolutely no intention of swapping the heaven of Tahiti, for the hell of life in England’s Navy. Miraculously Lieutenant Bligh led his little band back to England to a hero’s welcome and what mutineers could be found in the forthcoming years were rounded up and tried in London to great public interest, soon superseded by the French Revolution.

That is the bare bones of the historical events, and relaying them to you here in no way undermines Mr Boyne’s novel which is not in fact about events but people, relationships between men – master thief and child prostitute, upper class officers born to their position and men who have risen on their merit, captain and servant boy, mutineer and loyalist. It retells in fascinating human detail the ego, the lusts, the needs of these men. It illustrates the conflicted nature of a ‘sea man’ like Bligh, having to deal with being stuck on Tahiti whilst the breadfruit is collected and almost literally crawling up the walls of his little hut to get back to sea – men like him, his hero Captain Cook and my ancestor Lord Admiral Collingwood were men who preferred to be at sea to being on land. Land was their sea, sea their land. They could not understand other men’s pangs for home port and land. Boyne paints a picture of gradually simmering tensions amongst the crew and still manages to spring the inevitable mutiny as a surprise, we are so immersed in the thoughts of our narrator – John Jacob Turnstile, captains servant – that his shock becomes our shock.

John Jacob (“Turnip”) Turnstile’s narration sees us travel from the streets of Portsmouth at the very bottom of the social ladder to a myriad of adventures. His constant occupation is a desire to escape. I was initially unhappy with how the author consistently brought the characters thoughts back to his days in Portsmouth ‘entertaining’ well-to-do gentlemen. Its a strange block for me, but I just cannot read about child abuse in any form and I find those people who buy novels solely about it quite bizarre. Yet here, eventually I realised that Boyle wasn’t using it as some cheap narrative gimmick but very appropriately as a foundation stone in the personality of our Turnip. It informs his interactions with everybody – fellow boys and men, authority figures, women. As a result I think the author has successfully managed a blending of social history – exposing the reader to life as it was for many in 19th century England – and riveting human drama.

We are, after all, made of the best and the worst of our experiences.

If you saw The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or read it, I highly recommend you get Mutiny on the Bounty, which is available on Kindle. I am certainly considering getting more John Boyne novels after the next couple of books I read. He seems to take a scattergun approach to his writing – sampling all sorts of different topics and genres and I look forward to seeing what other stories I can read from him.

If the real events described in the book and this review interest you then I strongly encourage you to do a little searching online for there is a wealth of diaries, logs, and memoirs from crew and officers that survive to this day. You may also want to learn about those mutineers who were never caught by His Majesty’s Navy and the controversial descendant’s at Pitcairn Island.

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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Fiction


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Review: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

Review: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

I’m not dead you know. Just working minimum wage, full time. I’m one of those now, the 99% (of employed people doing a job they don’t particularly like) until I find another teaching job. Whilst my energies are drained for little reward I have shied away from putting pen to paper on any more short stories of my own, (though I intend to return to writing up the ideas I’ve collected after I move into a new flat in the next few weeks) I have been steadily feeding my hunger for classic science fiction. Not your ‘Sci-Fi/Fantasy’ genre fiction, but far out speculative science based fiction writing… your Arthur C Clarkes of the world. The first review of 2012 then is the second Arthur C Clarke novel that I have read in recent weeks (I’m flying through them they are so readable) and the seventh piece of extended fiction from his extensive catalogue – The City and the Stars.

Hats off first of all to the cover art on the SF Masterworks release of this work. The other worldly green glow and futuristic cityscape gives an exotic appeal and completely masks the surprising premise of the book: That this ‘otherworld’ is in fact Earth, an all but abandoned Earth millions of years in the future where the last remnants of humanity cling on with an eternal fear, no phobia, of the outside world, outside universe. In a sense, The City and the Stars is both a narrative of the end of human endeavour and its rebirth.

What an incredibly well read and intelligent man Arthur C Clarke must have been, and so much I regret not coming to his works earlier. This story does what the best scifi always does – it tackles epic themes of our place in the universe, human nature, faith, control, free will, and even such minutiae as how people may ‘furnish’ their homes in the future. He forsees, writing in 1956, virtual reality and the use of avatars being the principal means of socialising and exploring, something that feels quite remarkable in a modern world of Wii Mii’s, World of Warcrafts, Second Lifes etc. He even tackles one of the thorniest issues of any speculative writing about ‘immortality’ – he has the male race genetically altered by scientists to no longer reproduce the traditional way. Sex becomes purely recreational and the unexpected effects of this are thought provoking and gently explored in the social interactions between the principal characters. The family unit no longer serves any meaningful function when people come into the world physically as adults and ‘check out’ when they choose, not when their biological ticker gives out. It is a work of astonishing vision and still readily accessible unlike some contemporary science fiction which appears to me to be written in an ancient tongue long since forgotten.

Arthur C Clarke does what a lot of popular advise for writers today warns against – it tells the audience things at times, rather than ‘showing’, though it certainly does that also. However it does not feel a cheap way of world building and lends it a kind of academic quality. He writes so confidently and so clearly that you accept his vision. However the real strength of his writing I found was in the way certain passages would make me just stop, re-read the last few paragraphs and reflect, daydreaming at work on the possibilities of it all. One thing i have noticed from having read Rendezvous with Rama and The City and the Stars is that his writing, whilst complete in its telling of a particular story and satisfying in itself… feels like a mere slice in time. As if you were reading a brief moment in the lives of these characters and that they really continue after you reach the back page. He builds living worlds in his books and that persistence of characters, even after the completion of the story is a great compliment.

What happens next? What happened before?

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, I ask of the sadly departed Arthur C Clarke…

Please Sir, Can I have some more?

Highly recommended for lovers of science fiction.

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Posted by on February 7, 2012 in Fiction, Reviews


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Book Review: Heaven’s Shadow by David S Goyer, Michael Cassutt

Book Review: Heaven’s Shadow by David S Goyer, Michael Cassutt

And so ends my summer of happy reading. What began with a Three for Two offer at a Doncaster Waterstones and took in books like The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman and Glen David Gold’s debut novel Carter Beats the Devil reaches its conclusion with a book that Guillermo Del Toro tells us on the sleeve to be a “Pulse-Pounding Tale” – Heavens Shadow by the writer of the Dark Knight (David S Goyer) and the Twilight Zone (Michael Cassutt). I’ll start with a disclaimer. As a teenager I read dozens and dozens of books from series like Sharpe and other historical fiction sagas. By my old age of 25, I’m pretty burnt out on on going books. I’ve discovered a passion for reading self contained novels that contain all the information I ever need to know between its two covers and leave no questions unanswered at its conclusion. If I had realised in the shop that Heavens Shadow was the first of a series of books from the Bat Zone team, I would not have bought it – regardless of how sumptuous the cover looked.

Lets be grateful for lazy book buying eh? Not doing my research meant I picked up a book that I read cover to cover in 7 days and was left panting for more. Before I go into the detail let me just give an overview of the book.

Set in the next decade, this science fiction tale feels immediately familiar in all its references to technology and procedures and tracks two competing international teams of astronauts (respectively called cosmonauts in Russian, and vyomanaut for India) as they race to be the first humans to touch down on a Near Earth Object. Not the moon, though that had been what everybody had trained for, but what appears to be a rogue meteorite approaching Earth from below the south pole. It’s going to miss, so no panic, but it does provide a unique opportunity for national pride and demonstration of technical feats. So off they go, only to find on their final approach massive volcanic activity on the meteorite causing it to tumble into orbit around the earth. Analysis by the brains in Houston and India confirm the unbelievable truth – those eruptions were not so much volcanic in nature as similar to thruster’s on a space ship. In other words, the NEO suddenly becomes a UFO with two unprepared crews landing on its surface unsure what to expect.

For what is clearly going to be an epic piece of science fiction writing by the authors, Heavens Shadow manages to accomplish the feat of building a near future world that seems very familiar. For anybody who keeps well read on science and space, almost everything referenced in this book has been talked about in journals and the media. It takes it from Science Fiction to Science Possible, which is the first step on the road to greatness for a Sci-Fi story in my opinion. It has been plotted to such an incredible detail that not one of its 400 beautifully laid out pages seems wasted. In fact the whole book feels like a prologue to the main event. ordinarily that would be a criticism, but the tension, wonder and sheer fantasy that is ratcheted up page by page leave you hoping the book doesn’t end. I am glad there will be a sequel! So many questions are open at the end of this book that thrill rather than frustrate, amongst which I wonder just how big are the writers thinking? Its a story that could span generations of characters.

Cassutt and Goyer do a sublime job of re-stoking the cold war space paranoia introducing the new players in the space race – Brazil, India, Europe, and preserving gratuitous displays of pig-headedness from American bureaucrats. The story lurches from petty politics, to the brink of galactic warfare between our old Super Powers, before throwing everybody in to the same mess together. From nuclear detonations, to the living dead, crash landings, extremely dangerous aliens, and the enforced conscription of thousands of humans into a conflict, a war, that we cannot begin to comprehend… its a story with all the big ideas and concepts. Its about how we treat each other, how we treat the memory of our loved ones and how we should face the wonders out in the universe which no matter how clever we think we are will always surprise us.

Heavens Shadow is published by an imprint of Macmillan in the UK but copyright is owned by Phantom Four Films and St. Croix Productions. This is no surprise. The clean way it is written and set out screams for a television adaptation. Cover to cover this could be an entire television season in one book. I look forward to seeing if anything develops and also waiting for its sequel Heavens War.

Shame I have to go back to reading textbooks for the courses I’m teaching. What a fun summers reading.

P.S. I’ve subsequently done some digging and the Heaven trilogy of books has been picked up by Warner Bros. to make into films. Bit of a disappointment as the number of cliff hangers and surprises in the book I thought would have made it great fodder for TV.


Posted by on August 12, 2011 in Fiction


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Book Review: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold


Today’s review is the second of three books I purchased on my last trip around the UK for a series of job interviews. At the start of the summer I purchased The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold and ‘Heavens Shadow’ by David S Goyer (he of  The Dark Knight) and Michael Cassutt (he of The Twilight Zone), from a Waterstones in Doncaster. It was unusual enough of me to be purchasing paperbacks since I buy most of my books on my lovely Kindle, but all the more unusual to buy from a Waterstones,  a company in recent years which gives bad names to brick and mortar book stores. They also treated my fiancée terribly when she worked for them. However I digress, this was a taint free branch store and I have to say, two books into my Three for Two deal, I am delighted with my purchases. Religion, Magic, hard Sci-Fi. I had quite the eclectic choice that day.

Carter Beats the Devil is the first novel from Glen David Gold who reveals a debt of gratitude to the UC Irvine Creative Writing Program as “the greatest learning experience of my life” It took him five years to write this book and vast quantities of his student loan to buy biographies and memoirs of magicians and other pieces of research. If you had doubts about the usefulness of creative writing programs or writing circles this should underline how valuable they are – with the right mentor, with the right class of fellow students reading and peer-critiquing, and suitable inspiration it can have incredible results – with a bit of luck. Glen David Golds debut here earns every one of its cover quotes; Addictive (Guardian), Electrifying (Independent), Magnificent (Charles Pallister), Magical (Independent on Sunday, yes I groaned at the pun pre-reading), Extraordinary (Daily Telegraph). It is all of them, and more than everything earns that description of magical. The writing is as magical as the characters and events described.

Charles Carter (‘the Great’ as he is proclaimed by Houdini in the novel) is a thoroughly likeable chap who finds tricks and illusions more readily understandable than the magic of stocks and bonds that his father and brother practice. This love affair with music sees him skip college, travel the world as a bit part ‘Kard and Koin’ man on a vaudeville show and eventually graduate to headline act before the real drama even gets going featuring cannons, murder, Presidential assassinations (x2), fallen women, blind persons dogs, Lions that roar on command, vanishing elephants, pirates, prohibition and discoveries that could change the course of the world (fought over by Radio executives on one side seeing money, Military men on the other seeing conquest, and Charles Carter seeing a neat trick). The book is fiction, inspired by real life, and it does what all great fiction and magic does – it disguises the point where reality ends and illusion begins. I’m not ashamed to say I kept googling events!

The author evokes a time of wonder and change transitioning from a period when travelling fairs were still largely animal fairs (slowly becoming rides and skill stalls) to the arrival of radio and dawn of television which the book takes as one of its three main plots. This sees the plots get so wrapped up and convoluted that you would doubt a magician could escape let alone the author but this is one trick Glen David Gold does with aplomb and he had me wanting to applaud aloud at his final chapters.

For a book to truly resonate with me it has to have a point – it has to say something meaningful by its final page and one line, a few paragraphs from conclusion did just this for me;

“There were never moments in your life when you actually saw something end, for whether you knew it or not something else was always flowering. Never a disappearance, always a transformation.”

Any person who reflects back on their life will see the truth in these words. I find myself in my own time of flux going from the end of studies into a life of work teaching but must acknowledge its not as clear as that as I began cover teaching whilst still training, and had stories published whilst doing both. So no part of my life had a hard end and abrupt beginning (besides my birth). You can apply that passage to good writing – character development should be a transformation over the passage of many pages not a sudden change. Look at the chronologically earliest chapter of this book and you find a boy completely different to the almost heroic, world worn magician at the end.

In closing I highly recommend this debut novel – many a night I’ve been nudged by a grumpy sleepy partner wanting me to turn out the light after I’d become engrossed in reading for hours – and will myself be looking to pick up Glen David Golds second novel Sunnyside featuring 800 Charlie Chaplin’s. A sample chapter is in the back of the edition of Carter Beats the Devil that I read.

Read this book and pass it on. Take Carter The Great – Everywhere! (cookie to the person who explains that reference).


P.S. Rumor has it that Johnny Depp is being courted to play the film version. This I would absolutely love.

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Posted by on July 31, 2011 in Fiction


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Review: ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman

Review: ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is as known for his excellent writing as much as for his raging against the Church and other religious organisations. His Dark Materials is essentially a story of a war between free thought and belief and corrupted doctrine. It is a particularly controversial topic for a Young Adult book, but superbly delivered and dressed up in fantastic characters. I was involved with a production of the stage play His Dark Materials by a youth theatre group in York a couple of years ago and heartily recommend it as a thought provoking entertaining read.

Given Pullmans record then, when you come across a book in the store titled ‘The Good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ the tabloid sensationalist in me bounced excitedly that here must be a quite visceral assault on the Church and Christianity as a whole. My fiancee couldn’t believe their was a book with such a title, but there it was and on purchasing it in a store in Reading I immediately went into a field and read the entire book in a few hours.

The Good Man… is Pullmans reimagining of the story of Jesus – a man no sensible person denies actually existed as the historical record is quite strong on this – but introduces a twist right from the start; Jesus has a twin called ‘Christ’. At this point I have visions of the author in one of those Spanish Inquisition torture devices. However here is the second major surprise; this retelling of Jesus’ life is quite favourable. Except for a few occasions there are no cheap shots by Pullman, no denigrating of the image of Jesus and in fact I found the Jesus of this book a much more appealing and accessible person. You get a feeling that Pullman respects the man, respects the ideas he preaches, and the real axe grinder comes with the character of Christ who Archbishop Rowan Williams correctly identifies as filling the role of Judas who is missing from the narratives band of followers. Christ represents the perverted ‘truth’ that history and the Church has handed down.

Christ tries repeatedly to convince his brother Jesus of the need for a church to organise and create a representation of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Jesus doesn’t buy it though, and in fact consistently tries to limit his notoriety instructing people he performs miracles on not to tell anybody. Of course they go and tell everybody. Christ retreats into the role of an observer, encouraged by a mysterious stranger to record Jesus life not in how it happened but in the ‘eternal truth’ of his actions. Christ, longing for the same kind of appreciation as his brother, is told by the stranger that he has a role to play to secure the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The book for me was a fascinating discussion of interpretations of stories such as Mary’s visit by an ‘Angel’, a faked resurrection and a collapse in Jesus’ personal faith when praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Rowan Williams finds this passage as a weakness in the text, coming as it does apparently from nowhere, but for myself as someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression I see it as representing a clear breakdown. Jesus has achieved much, but in this story is himself a believer in millenarianism  – that the end of days is imminent, and every day nothing happens weighs heavier on Jesus who begins to feel that he is misleading people into very dangerous actions in what was a violent society. It makes logical sense to me that Jesus the good man would have such a very human response to his disappointments, and Christ in his desire to make the truth of Jesus speak through time would naturally eradicate this or play it down in the recorded text. The fact that the passage exists in this book is a bit of an inconsistency since we are supposed to be reading the words Christ wrote from eye witness accounts and Jesus was alone during his prayer in Gethsemane. Pullman I guess had a point he wanted to make and made it, though i’m sure there could have been a better way of constructing that scene to make it fit with the overal text.

I view religion as being a forum for discussing the human condition. In that context, for both practicing Christians, people of other faiths and the secular I feel Philip Pullmans work is an excellent offering to the discussion. As a confirmed agnostic, I find the story told by Pullman inspiring and heart breaking. The good that man can do, and the evil it can do in the name of good deeds. On the back and inside of the book are printed the words ‘THIS IS A STORY’. It has a double meaning I think. On the one hand he’s reminding people that his is a work of fiction, but it may just also be a shot across the bows of the original text.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is in the Kindle store and as such a sample is available to read for free before purchasing.


Posted by on July 17, 2011 in Fiction


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Review: ‘Sin in the Second City’ by Karen Abbott

Review: ‘Sin in the Second City’ by Karen Abbott

Readers to the blog will recall that late last year I read a book called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a non-fiction, brilliantly vivid account of the Chicago World Fair 1893 and the exploits of a serial killer in the shadows of the festivities. The use of the principle figures own words and documentation to tell the story in such a narrative manner brought the period alive for me and hooked me on the story of this magnificent and brutal American city.

‘Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul’ by Karen Abbott is, amongst being a rather wordy title, another look into the Windy City’s very soul and picks up almost immediately after Erik Larsons book finishes. Indeed both books are published by the same company (Random House) and there is a little overlap in that Larson refers vaguely to the ‘disappeared’ women who travel from far and wide to Chicago in search of a better life. Karen Abbotts book picks up the tale of the disappeared and tackles the issues of ‘white slavery’, police and civic corruption and a nation wrestling with its own morals.

Much like the Devil, Sin is written exclusively from the testimony of people of the time, newspaper and county records and other recorded evidence. It is a marvellous feat in informative storytelling, and I do wish that all history books were written like this because the take up in colleges of History would be so much the higher. The language is never too dense, though it liberally sprays colloquialisms from the time which using the Kindle dictionary I was able to look up if I needed to. A very professionally laid out hyperlinked contents page, breaking the story up into vignettes that can last from two page turns to 20 page turns lends a certain momentum to the plot. You can put it down at any moment given the opportunities for a break, but its very lay out makes you want to keep pushing on. Once again Random House have included a wealth of original photography in the Kindle edition, maximising the potential of the format and providing a reading experience that is a real pleasure.

The figures at the heart of the story – the upstart madams known as the Everleigh Sisters, bitter and vengeful former Queen of the Levee Vic Shaw, Zoe Millard, Bathhouse John Coughlin, Hinky Dink Kenna, Ike Bloom, the Weiss brothers, Big Jim Colosimo (predecessor to Al Capone), Ernest Bell, Clifford Roe, Mayor Carter Harrison II (his father having featured prominently in Larsons book as mayor) – all loom larger than life. The portrait photographs of the notorious and grand, and the notoriously grand, alongside descriptions of their personality and quotes from their own lips provide intimate insights into real people living extraordinary lives.

It almost seems impossible to believe now, but the Levee district, being the designated segregated area for prostitution, gambling and drugs with the full endorsement of politicians and police at the turn of the 20th Century feels like a part of the fabric of life. At times you could almost be forgiven for agreeing with the principles that a ‘segregated’ area was better than driving it underground such is how well Karen Abbott draws the personalities of the people involved.

The central narrative line for Karen Abbotts work is this issue of White Slavery – innocent white American girls being tempted or forced into coming to Chicago to work in the vice trade and being unable to leave it until their ‘debt’ is paid. This was a toxic topic for politicians (who received much of their electoral money and votes from the vice district leaders) and reformers at the start of the 20th Century. They could accept foreigners working the vice trade but not the idea that the wholesome young American woman was being corrupted and coerced into a (very short, according to the reformers) life of sin. Still, the topic was a bit of a taboo and religious ministers and lawyers spent considerable time looking for that one story that could blow the whole issue up into a national crisis.

The Everleigh Club where working girls and punters had to meet criteria

Into this tension come Minna and Ada Everleigh who open arguably the most famous(They were referenced recently on an episode of crime drama The Chicago Code) brothel in the history of the United States – the Everleigh Club at 2131-2133 South Dearborn Street.  Naturally a target for reformers, they also alienated their fellow madams with their attempt to elevate the oldest profession in the world to some kind of classy respectable level. No drug abuse here, no stealing from the punters either. The Everleigh sisters ‘butterflies’ as they called their working girls were educated in order to hold their own in conversation with the leading men of the city, who after spending some hours listening to the ‘professor’ on the golden piano and enjoying the glorious Pullman Buffet in one of the themed rooms would then retire upstairs with one of the girls of their choosing. It wasn’t so much an act the Everleigh sisters were selling but an experience. And those ‘butterflies’ could earn more in one night at the Club than in a week at other brothels. Minna and Ada had to fight against the jealousy of their fellow madams, play the game of greasing the wheel of local politics and smile sweetly in the face of ranting preachers foreseeing fire and brimstone for the women.

Do the Everleigh sisters succeed in transforming the perception of prostitution? Do they be able to counter the attacks by fellow Madams, preachers and politicians alike? What is the ultimate destiny of the thousands of people working and living in the Levee? Download a sample from the kindle store, and I am sure you will purchase the full ebook (which isnt cheap but is worth every penny). It is as thrilling and unpredictable as the best fiction, and every word spoken, every major action taken… really happened, down there, in rooms like the Japanese Throne Room of 2131-2133 South Dearborn Street, Americas most famous brothel.

Did you know? The expression “I’m going to get laid” according to Karen Abbott can be traced back to South Dearborn Street. She believes it to be a corruption of “I’m going to get Everleighed”. That’s how famous Minna and Adas venture became – it won a permanent place in the English language.

Next: Having read up on 50 years of Chicagos history now, I am itching to get a book in the same style on the life of Al Capone which should link via Big Jim Colosimo to the items I’ve already read.

The Japanese Throne room was just one of many themed rooms including the famous Pullman Buffet.


Final Word: The Everleigh Sisters retired to New York with $1,000,000 cash. ($22m in 2007 terms)

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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Non-Fiction


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