Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (not just for children).

This is a great adventure story set in a steam punk version of Victorian England where clockwork robots work as servants, airships rule the skies and villainous villains do dastardly deeds to feisty children. 

Bunzl has achieved, in this story, a superb children’s adventure. It aimed at junior children, around 9-11, but has lots to enjoy for older readers and parents. The story begins with the crash of an airship, piloted by John Hartman crashing as it is pursued into the night. John sends his clockwork fox, Malkin, with a message to his daughter,  Lily. The airship crashes, John is presumed dead and Malkin flees into an unfamiliar darkness with hybrid half clockwork humans and their mechanical dogs giving chase. As he is a clockwork fox, Malkin rushes to find a safe place to hide before he winds down or before he is shot by those who give chase. Lily is unhappily residing at boarding school when she hears of her father’s disappearance. She is already an outcast for throwing the occasional punch and generally not conforming, so she receives little sympathy and is taken away by her governess, who is not all she seems. Back at home, Lily’s governess begins to asset strip the family mansion whilst searching for a perpetual motion machine John Hartman is rumoured to have perfected. Lily wants to run away but has no friends to run too, except her ailing godfather who lives in London. But is he all he seems?

Are you gripped yet?

The story is formulaic and holds few surprises for an older reader. The characters are simply drawn good or evil, with little complexity in between. The narrative is fast paced and everything about the story is plot driven. It has a cinematic quality and is certainly set for a big screen adaptation.What makes it worth reading is the brilliant creation of an alternate history and the inventive clockwork characters, such as Mrs. Rust the cook with interchangeable hands as culinary tools. I defy anyone to read the story and not wish they had a clockwork pet fox at the end.  


High Rise by J.G. Ballard:Why have I never read this before?

If the job of an opening line is to grab the reader’s attention, Ballard’s novel does not disappoint.

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

Now, I am a big dog lover but I confess I was intrigued enough to continue. The book the retraces the previous three months and how an urbane professional such as Dr. Laing ends up roasting an Alsatian on his balcony. 
High Rise is a dystopian narrative of how swiftly social niceties fall apart in a new architectural tower block inhabited by the professional classes. The story starts with Dr. Laing, recently divorced, living in a single flat part way up the high rise. Laing plays squash, attends drinks parties and works as a lecturer at a medical school. He generally enjoys a life of languid isolation, though pressured to engage socially by his sister who also lives in the tower block. Things begin to change for Laing when Royal, the building’s architect and inhabitant of the penthouse, declines a squash engagement, and a rich jewellers wife begins to disagree with some of the families who live on the lower levels. Minor disagreements are exacerbated as the building begins to experience power fluctuations and occasional blackouts. Then, two deaths occur, an Afghan hound is drowned in a swimming pool and the rich jeweller plummets to his death from the roof.
Ballard guides the reader through the narrative by focusing on a few key characters, Royal the architect, Wilder, a filmmaker who lives with his wife and two children on the second floor and Laing. The women in these men’s lives begin at the peripheries of the story and gradually move to the centre as civilised lives move to tribal packs and then disintegrate into primal survival. Ballard questions the nature of humanity, of the values of class and society in the same way H.G Wells shows human degeneration in The Time Machine. The curious part of High Rise is that, in essence, all the people who live in the tower block are ‘haves’, no one is actually poor, but some are poorer that others. Ballard questions how we live together, what binds people to certain patterns of behaviour and how we identify our ‘tribe’. Though written in the 1970s it remains as pertinent today, almost half a century later, as it holds up a mirror to the idea of a civilised society.
I will definitely read more Ballard soon. The only book I’d read by him previously was Empire of the Sun so I believed he wrote historical fiction. Any recommendations on what Ballard book to read next would be welcomed!