“The Life Assistance Agency” by Thomas Hocknell

I was about to start this review with an observation of how it’s the first one I’m writing up since I arrived back at university, and then remembered that I’m doing my best to schedule these far enough in advance for that to be irrelevant (mainly so that I can still actually post while in the depths of university stress and busyness). Oh well. At least now you know that I’m sitting at my desk in Newnham writing this for the first time in very many months.


Publication date: September 22nd, 2016

This book had an interesting and engaging plot. A struggling writer who has lost his literary agent after his latest cynical book debunking supernatural phenomena fails to sell finds a job in a Life Assistance Agency — basically detectives, but vaguer. It’s run by an old friend, and one gets the impression that Ben (that’s the protagonist) is only in to pass the time and hope he can cover the rent until he gets a real job. But being hired to find a man who has gone missing leads to a hunt across Europe involving Dr John Dee, alchemy, and scrying for angels. It turns out the LAA may be a full time job after all…

My main complaint with the plot itself would be that the pacing was somewhat slow. The book felt long, and in part this is because it uses excerpts from Jane Dee’s diary (and later, John’s too), which while they added to the backstory, often contained a lot of additional information that didn’t particularly move the story along. Since they were in the past, they also detracted from the immediacy and tension of the story happening in the ‘present’, which is always a danger when using flashbacks of any sort.

(Fun fact: I just typed that as flapjacks. This is why I shouldn’t write reviews after 1am. Again, not a relevant point given the whole scheduling malarkey, and the fact that that was a reference to my original Goodreads review, which I wrote because I knew I wouldn’t get around to actually doing this for ages. Oh, the internet, what a peculiar form of time travel.)

However, on the whole it was an interesting plot, and the characters were good at making their lives difficult for themselves. I have to say, I didn’t entirely understand the purpose of Scott’s girlfriend Ronnie. Or rather, I understand her purpose to the plot all too well — she’s there so that Ben can sleep with her and briefly screw up his friendship / partnership with Scott, though after this event she all but disappears from the book, only to help them out long-distance by transcribing diary entries. As a character, though, I know very little about her, and one doesn’t get the impression she’s got all that much agency, which makes for rather a male-dominated story.

I quite liked Ben as a character; he’s cynical, but he isn’t cruel with it, and he can be entertaining at times. That said, the witty similes did get a bit overwhelming after a while. One or two is great, but when they’re so liberally spattered it’s easy to grow tired of them, so maybe the writing could have been toned down and not tried so hard to be funny? I think that was generally the problem with the book — it just needed less.

Frankly, I didn’t like the writing style. It was long-winded, and I felt it needed a really solid edit just in terms of punctuation, because there were way too few commas in this book. Is it just me, or should dialogue that addresses a character by name always have a comma? E.g., “What are you reading, Kate?” “I’m reading a book about fairies, Finn; I think you’d like it.” That looks natural, and is easy to read. Whereas “What are you reading Kate?” is not only more ambiguous (perhaps a book is being read aloud to Kate), but doesn’t flow. Throughout this book, the dialogue’s full of the latter, and other commas are misplaced. It’s strange — the rest of the grammar’s pretty decent, but that was just a continuous thing, and it’s one of my particular pet peeves when it comes to punctuation, so I found myself constantly distracted.

If it weren’t for the slow pacing and the distracting commas, I might have found this an extremely engaging book — I’m all about magical detectives and history and terrifyingly eldritch beings that may or may not be angels. That’s fun. Like I said, I enjoyed the plot of this, and mostly liked the characters too. The execution, however, didn’t win me over, and so I was torn between a harsh 2* rating or a generous 3*.

So I’m going to opt for a 2.5 and say that with some more polish — perhaps a thorough edit and some tightening up of the pacing — this could be a very enjoyable book, but sadly, I just didn’t feel it was there yet.While I’m still pleased to have been approved for it on NetGalley, it didn’t click with me.

Rating: **


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