So, September’s here already and instead of thrusting us straight into autumn/fall (my favourite season), she seems to have brought a late summer with her. August was a skinny month for reading… just two books. But one of them was an absolute cracker. In fact, Fadugba’s novel has left me with the kind of book hangover that’s made it hard to start something new.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
I chose this as one of my birthday books, using a very generous voucher from some chums.
The book explores Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries – a (literally) underground detective agency in 1950s London. When one of their own is killed on their premises, it sets in motion a number of interrelated investigations and we follow Marion Lane, a first year apprentice, as she tries to solve the multiple whodunnits.
Tonally, it felt like an Agatha Christie; if Poirot or Miss Marple had pitched up, they’d have been in keeping with the setting, characters and plot. One reason I chose the book was that Stuart Turton reviewed it so highly. I am a fan of his book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and thought his endorsement might mean Marion Lane was similar. Sadly, Turton’s novel was far more sophisticated and clever than Willberg’s novel. For instance, I wasn’t sure if Marion Lane was aimed at an older YA audience or adults. Also, the plot wasn’t twisty enough for a whodunnit, in my opinion. I guessed all of the outcomes – and whilst I enjoyed the sense of smugness that gifted me, I do prefer to be surprised by some elements in a crime novel.
It felt like the kind of book you’d enjoy reading on a wintery Sunday, in front of the fire, with a blanket, cake and tea. Comfortable and enjoyable but not exhilarating or challenging.
The Upper World by Femi Fadugba
In an interview (you can read here), Fadugba claims that physics = maths + metaphors. I love this. I love love love this. And it’s exactly how he tackles the physics and time travelling elements in The Upper World.
As with every good book, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for fear of ruining it. Essentially, Fadugba introduces two characters in two different timelines. In the present, we meet Esso, a young boy living in Peckham and trying to survive school, friendships, family and stereotypes. His mother gifts Esso a notebook full of letters and scribblings from his absent father, which explain the Upper World, physics, space and time. Once Esso begins reading it, he starts to experience unfathomable things. In the second timeline, fifteen years in the future, Rhia is a struggling football star from Peckham. She lives with a foster family and has unanswered questions about her past and her mother.
Fadugba takes us on a real and metaphysical journey as Esso and Rhia’s timelines collide – the result being the Upper World. At different points, the novel made me feel really clever (I’m getting it, I’m getting it) and at others, I felt really dim (I’m just going to reread that last section 389656 times). In hindsight (is that a metaphysical joke?), I wish I’d read a printed version of the book instead of listening to it on Audible. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Moutchi and Weruche Opia were exemplary narrators, but I think I needed to see some of the more complex ideas as ink on paper. That is literally my only criticism and, really, it’s a criticism of my own choices!
The Upper World ticks every box for me: interesting science fiction, very well developed characters, compelling premise, a plot that rattles along at a brisk pace, satisfying conclusion coupled with the hope of future books, a lack of unnecessary romance, and a strong level of realism. Whilst the present timeline is evidently set many years from now, given the level of tech the characters access, much of it is familiar. The depiction of life in London for young Black people, the inner city school system and the lives of people in the care system are all well-handled and not glazed over.
I’d like to know more about Esso’s father and the village of his heritage, given Fadugba clearly hints there is an acceptance of the existence of the Upper World there. But that’s a wish-list not a criticism! It’s also exciting that Netflix have picked up the rights for a film adaptation. Sometimes that makes me nervous because I worry they’ll ruin the book but I’m keen because the producers have been working with Fadugba.
I really can’t recommend this book strongly enough.