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4.0 out of 5 stars
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 13 September 2011
The Empire - so-called - of Greater Fallowfields has dwindled, and now even the Emperor has gone missing. In his absence, a Cabinet of Ministers meets but with no business to carry out, they amuse themselves instead by rehearsing a play. There is a feeling of unease. There isn't even a real crown - that is missing too. An imitation one is to be used for the Coronation, because "nobody makes anything here anymore". The Ministers stumble through their days, encountering a range of customs that might be at home in Gormenghast (though they are much less gothic). Their stipendiary sixpences cannot be spent: the post takes days to deliver because the postmen return home mid morning for their breakfasts: the Imperial Orchestra is staffed by serfs who endlessly rehearse the National Anthem (with daring variations, though this is apparently treason).

As in other books, Mills achieves a pleasantly defocussed tone by being non specific about references to the real world. For example, composers are mentioned, and we may guess who they are, but their names are not given. The approaching winter festival is the "Twelve Day Feast". The play that the Ministers are rehearsing may be MacBeth. Above all, the "I" who narrates the book - Composer to the Imperial Court (though the actual composition is carried out by one of the serfs in the orchestra) and one of the Cabinet - is never named, nor is his (they are all male, and indeed I don't think there is a single female character in the book, save perhaps for the dancing girls who are mentioned a few times but never appear) background (or any of the others) given. We are not told how or why they were summoned to join the Cabinet (in the absence of the Emperor) or where they came from. The creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is only intensified when Mills' narrator, browsing the Imperial library, encounters a book of fairy stories illustrated by what look like the cover art from his earlier books.

I suspect the effect this creates may divide readers: I rather liked it, as I liked the similar effect in The Maintenance of Headway where the city may have been London but equally may not. Possibly others may look for greater clarity about the book's setting.

What I did find slightly disappointing was the ending, which brings a rather abrupt resolution to the story. It wouldn't do to give too much away about this, but - as the title hints - Greater Fallowfield's musty existence is under threat. It is a threat which the ineffectual Cabinet is ill equipped to meet (or even recognise). As a result the horizons of the book open out rather - but then, almost at a stroke, the Empire is restored. Or so it seems. I think there is a hint of unease, a sense that the Empire may now be something of a theme park (signified by the restoration of the Cake - don't ask) but even so it all seems a bit hurriedly done.

Though I enjoyed this book, I'm only rating it 3 stars because of that ending (perhaps it would be 3-and-a-half if that was allowed). I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading it, though, and I may be missing something clever here.
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on 3 July 2014
Magnus Mills is back to his best here. I've read all his work and in my opinion it's the best since All Quiet on the Orient Express
It's a shame the novel isn't longer, I didn't want it to end!
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on 4 November 2011
I've come to love Magnus Mills' novels more with each book, and by this one I was reading each sentence with delight. His humour is so quiet, and yet deadly. The books are a paean to British boringness and puzzlement, to the deep desire for a cushy life at work (and he does the workplace better than anyone) that is continually being threatened by the ogres of effiency. Here Britain, or Greater Fallowfields, is shrunk to a dream Greenwich, and the ineffectual political class is the subject of often painful satire and many shaggy-dog jokes. Pointlessness is Mills' forte. If the first half is almost Lewis Carroll in its blissful incoherence, the second half subtly introduces the shadow of war, the threat of dictatorship, the possibility of the destruction of a peaceful, tolerant way of life, where nothing matters very much, and nothing ever gets completed. So ultimately a serious book, but a very funny and lovable one. Also, I should add, very poetic.
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on 15 October 2012
Magnus Mills has a fantastic imagination otherwise there's no way in which he could
write the way he does. I can well imagine some people may think he's mad until they realize he's making a very valid point about human behaviour. His books may not be very long but they say much more than many books with 4-500 pages. A Cruel Bird is yet another example of the way in which he makes you think about things - where are we heading? I've read everything Magnus Mills has written and will continue to do so - if you've not read any of his books then do yourself a favour and start now, you wont regret it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 December 2012
I adore Mills' first two books (The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express) and now religiously pick up every new book he writes. I have to say that nothing he's written since (including this book) has hit me as hard as those first two, but he is such a distinctive writer that I'm always glad to have the chance to peek into his world. It's a world like ours, but with a fairy tale or fable style, stripped down and with minimal detail. Even the language is simplified, to the point where a child could quite easily read it. But behind it all is the message of a satirist -- although what that message precisely is, Mills is far too canny to explicitly state.

The story is narrated by an unnamed man who has just been appointed by royal decree to be the Principal Composer to the Imperial Court Greater Fallowfields, never mind that he has no training in music whatsoever. He joins the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Postmaster General, the Astronomer General, the Comptroller for the Admiralty, the Surveyor of Imperial Works, the Pellitory-of-the-Wall, and the Librarian-in-Chief, as the cabinet to the "His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields." Unfortunately, his majesty is entirely absent, and in the absence of the emperor, the cabinet must keep Fallowfields running smoothly. However, in the days leading up to the "Twelve-Day Feast," it becomes evident that not all is well in the surrounding realms, as a group of traveling players bring ill rumors, and someone appears to be building a railroad headed straight for the imperial capital. Amidst all this is the usual Millsian oddness -- such as the orchestra of serfs which spends hours each day playing only the national anthem, or the "stipendary" sixpence each cabinet member receives once a week, but which is not accepted at either the candyshop or the tavern, and soforth.

It is exceedingly tempting (and possibly correct) to read the story as a fable about England ("Fallowfields" certainly invokes a kind of nostalgic Albion, a name that would be a good fit in Tolkein's own Shires, and there's a passage about street names that appears to be a thinly veiled allusion to London) resting on its historic laurels and sinking under absurd policy choices while the brutal efficiency of the City of Scoffers (China?) closes in from the east, and from the west a fleet arrives bearing men claiming to be "cousins" of the people of Fallowfields (and who are "earnest" and "swagger" and speak in superlatives, and thus appear to be Americans) offering salvation from the City of Scoffers. However, I'd be hesitant to extend the potential parallels our own world any further than that. For example, the imperial orchestra and its lead violinist play a large role in the book, but I have no idea where they fit into a larger interpretation. Or what is one to make of the schemers who forge imperial decrees for their own comfort? Or the role of the "Player King" and his traveling troupe of actors? Or that the characters all bear the names of various kinds of birds?

Personally, I didn't need answers to all these questions in order to enjoy the book, but I do wish the ending had been a little less abrupt. Unlike the rest of the book, which unwinds at a leisurely pace, it felt like Mills was in a rush to finish. If you like his other books, you'll probably like this, and if you've never read anything by him, it's as good a place as any to start. Just don't expect any answers... I'd be very curious to see what a filmmaker like Wes Anderson might do with one of Mills's books.
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on 22 January 2013
This was recommended by a friend whose views and values I respect. At no point did I wish I wasn't reading it but very rarely was I delighted by the words on the page, which is what I suppose I look for in reading. It did remind me of Gulliver's Travels, Kafka and Chesterton's The Man who was Thursday, which is not to say it is derivative but merely that everything other than outright lunacy belongs to some kind of tradition. But I would not rate it as highly as at least the first two of those: Kafka and Swift show genius in characterizing those who have lost character whereas Mills merely shows us characters without personality, which is low on reader stimulus for me. I thought the best chapter was the most Kafkaesque one - the seeking for employment in CoS towards the end.

I also felt the material was rather stretched to make a novel. It would have been good for a 30 minute TV sketch, perhaps even a bumper Christmas edition at 40 mins but by the end I felt I had been given a huge menu with not a lot on each plate.

However, this is merely to record my personal response and I have to admit I do not yet understand the book - for example the title - and it may be that it will haunt me and grow in power as it does so: this happens with a certain kind of book where various pieces of jigsaw fall into place after the reading.

Good enough to make me give Mr Mills another go next year but not good enough for me to join his many intelligent fans.
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on 19 January 2013
I bought this book for a friend who introduced me to Magnus Mills when his first book was published. He is a quirky but brilliant writer in my opinion. I have read all his books. I have read it on my kindle and enjoyed.
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on 1 September 2011
Greater Fallowfields is falling apart. The emperor is absent and it remains mired in tradition and past glories. Its currency isn't current, its clocks are out of sync with the rest of the world, the royal astronomer requires sixpence to make his scope work, and a Kafka like world of rules and regulations covers its daily existence.
Mills writes deceptively simply. Taken at surface the novel seems breezeingly uncomplicated. It is easy to read, light on exposition, and characters exist in isolation with little backstory other than their role or personal interests. The plot moves at a good pace and the novel contains few complicated words or sentences.
Yet there is clearly more to the novel than the plot. Like Swift, themes and allegories run throughout the novel and there are clear parallels that can be drawn with current situations. To name just a few it touches on empire, the notion of progress, rights and responsibilities, and the Shakespearean theme of appearance / reality. Think a postmodern Swift.
It's thought provoking, good to read and distinctive.
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on 20 June 2017
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on 30 April 2015
Have to apply a bit of a caveat to this review. I'm a big fan of Magus Mills. After reading his first book "Restraint of Beast" I've been hooked on his writing style that seems to capture something significant about the human condition. The narrators in his book tend to be nameless and bumble around aimlessly accepting some truly bizarre situations as entirely normal. "A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in" is no exception to this. I found it a joy to read from start to finish. The only slight criticism I have is the ending which is rather abrupt, but this fits in nicely with the rest of the book.
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