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On 14th July, Penguin Random House will publish Go Set a Watchman, the recently discovered novel by Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.
With this in mind, PRH are encouraging as many book-lovers as possible to re-visit and read the all-time classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, in the run up to publication of Go Set a Watchman. Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 40 languages. UK librarians have ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one ‘every adult should read before they die’ (Guardian). Studied in schools across the world and an enduring favourite of millions of readers, its cultural significance remains unparalleled.
Like many in the UK, my own first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird came during GCSE English Literature, and it’s a book that has remained with me ever since.
From 21st-31st May, I will be taking part in the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)read’ campaign. A read-along for readers old and new, (re)discovering and discussing the book together to a loose ten day plan.
I would love to see as many people as possible join in, whether it’s the first time you’ve read this classic novel, or, like me, you have fond memories of reading the book at school. Or even if you’re a regular visitor to Maycomb, Alabama.
|FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW
David Lagercrantz (www.davidlagercrantz.se)
Translated by George Goulding
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
On a wet morning in early June 1954, Detective Constable Leonard Corell finds himself investigating the death of a mathematician in the sleepy Cheshire town of Wilmslow. Preliminary investigation points towards suicide, the man having died after eating a poisoned apple in a gruesome parody of Disney’s Snow White. His name is Alan Turing, which rings bells with Corell. It doesn’t take long to work out why: Turing was recently convicted of homosexuality. But there is more to this death than appears on the surface: Turing was followed for several weeks prior to his death and seems to have played a mysterious – and very secret – role during the Second World War. Going off-piste, Corell digs into the mathematician’s past, discovering the breadth of his genius as he attempts to find a reason behind his sudden suicide. But his digging alerts the British secret services and, as the Cold War rages, Leonard Corell is about to discover what happens to people who ask too many questions about the wrong subjects.
Alan Turing is a man who has seen something of a resurgence of popularity in recent years, what with the fiftieth anniversary of his death spawning a number of events last year, Benedict Cumberbatch immortalising him on the big screen in Oscar-bait The Imitation Game and his long-overdue Royal pardon at the end of 2013. David Lagercrantz’s novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, takes a look at the man’s life through the lens of 1950s England and shows just how surprising his current status as the man who broke Germany’s Enigma ciphers actually is.
The novel opens with Turing’s death, and follows Leonard Corell’s investigation as he first attempts to prove that it was suicide, and then tries to dig deeper into the man’s short and seemingly unhappy life. It quickly becomes obvious that the reader is at an advantage over Corell since we know who this dead man is, and the services he has rendered in the name of patriotism, whereas Corell is encountering him at a time when his war efforts were still a closely-guarded secret and the most anyone knows of him is that he was a mathematician who was recently convicted of homosexuality. Despite his feelings on the subject, Corell finds himself intrigued by this man of many secrets, and begins to dig into his past, formulating theories that come a little too close to the truth for the people for whom Turing worked until so recently.
Corell, through whose eyes we watch the aftermath of Turing’s death, comes across as an unsympathetic character early in the book. Born into a wealthy family which soon after lost both money and status, Corell is a bitter young man who dislikes his job, and the small Cheshire town in which he works. Many of the people he encounters during his investigation have lived the life he feels he should have lived: good school, Oxbridge education, high-paid job. When he encounters Turing, something long-dormant is awakened within him, and he finds himself yearning for that parallel existence, where mathematics and science are his central focus, rather than petty crime and small-town politics. By the book’s end, we find ourselves identifying more firmly with this young man who has proven to be more tenacious and more open-minded than we might have initially given him credit for.
Lagercrantz’s portrayal of Alan Turing is remarkably on-target. Seen through the eyes of Corell, and of the people with whom Turing lived, worked and, in some cases, the people he loved, we get a remarkably intimate picture of what his life was like in the years before he ended it. While he never preaches, Lagercrantz leaves us with a sense of horror and despair that a man who gave so much to his country could have been treated in such an inhumane manner because of his sexual preferences. It shines a light on the injustices Turing faced and that most likely drove him to take his own life while reminding us of just how much he achieved during his brief stint at Bletchley Park, and of the legacy he left a world that nowadays relies very heavily on his “universal machines”.
Lagercrantz touches on the Cold War mentality that suffused England – and most of the western hemisphere – during the early 1950s and introduces Corell to Britain’s fledgling secret services, for whom Turing worked before his sexual preferences became widely acknowledged. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is an excellent companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also features Turing in a prominent role: like Stephenson’s weighty tome, Lagercrantz’s novel is keen to expand the reader’s horizons, to open their minds to new ideas and new philosophies and is not afraid to shy away from long discussions of mathematical problems – most specifically the liar’s paradox, which formed the basis of Turing’s work on a universal digital machine – in order to allow us to completely understand not only Turing, but also the policeman who has become consumed by a desire to know who the mathematician was. Some readers may find this heavy going at times, but it forms an integral part of the story.
David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.
Ryan Gattis (ryangattis.com)
At the end of April 1992 Los Angeles burned for six days as large sections of the population rioted, following the acquittal of LAPD officers who were on trial for the brutal beating of a black man named Rodney King. As law enforcement and other emergency services concentrated their efforts on attending to the riots, the Chicano gangs of Lynwood take advantage of the chaos to settle some old scores. The death of Ernesto Vera – a young man with no connection to the gangs except that his younger brother and sister are members of one of the largest – sparks off an intense period of fighting that goes largely unnoticed by the outside world, and is recounted from the point of view of seventeen of the people – gang members, drug dealers, graffiti artists, nurses, firemen and members of the US Armed Forces – caught up in the events.
60 deaths were attributed to rioting…It is possible, and even likely, that a number of victims not designated as riot related were actually the targets of a sinister combination of opportunity and circumstance. As it happened, 144 hours of lawlessness in a city of nearly 3.6 million people contained within a county of 9.15 million was a long time for scores to be settled.
From this seed, the possibility of gangland warfare carried out under cover of much wider disorder and disruption, comes the central premise of Ryan Gattis’ ambitious new novel. Set against the background of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Gattis tells of the horrific death of Ernesto Vera as he walks home from work on the first evening of the riots, and of the quickly-escalating war that ensues between the gang of which his brother and sister are a member, and their biggest rivals.
Gattis pulls no punches as he relates his story and this, coupled with the first-person narratives that he uses, serve to plunge the reader into the midst of the action. All Involved is structured in chronological order, one section of the book for each of the six days of rioting, and is related from seventeen first-person, present tense points of view, beginning with Ernesto Vera himself, who opens proceedings by describing the events leading to his own death. What makes All Involved unique is the fact that each character gets only one chance to speak before the next picks up and continues the story, allowing the reader access to a broad range of narrators. This brings with it a better understanding of the personalities in play, the relationships between the individuals and the gangs, how different people perceive what’s going on, and how they live with what they are doing. While it necessarily leaves some dangling threads, it is impressive how Gattis manages to tell a complete and coherent story without a single re-visit to any of the characters.
From the outset, Gattis gets deep into the minds of each of his narrators, and gives each a unique voice, and a unique outlook on life. This feels like a collection of individual testimonies, intersecting stories told in the participants’ own words, with no filter, and no omniscient narrator attempting to plug the gaps or soften the sometimes jarring transition from one voice to the next. These are people who live their lives on either side of the fine line between law and outlaw, and Gattis captures them perfectly, recording the nuances of their speech, the slang and the accents in a way that makes these characters come alive for the reader.
The riots themselves remain firmly in the novel’s background, the catalyst for this series of events, but by no means an important part of them. All Involved contains a timely reminder, though, that recent trouble in the likes of Ferguson and Baltimore are not new phenomena, nor is the spark that often ignites the flame – as one character tells us, in Los Angeles alone, there seems to be a thirty-year cycle of racially-motivated rioting. Interestingly, despite who the central characters of this extraordinary novel are, the authorities come off in the worst light, be it the seemingly corrupt policeman, or the Sheriff’s Department’s Vikings, who seem to dole out beatings with impunity, or the cold, callous and anonymous Special Forces soldiers who take their own advantage of the lawlessness to hand out brutal justice of their own. The gang members – or at least the core crew that form around Ernesto Vera’s little sister – come off in the best light, and it is these characters for whom we feel the most sympathy and for whom we find ourselves rooting the most fervently.
All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.
I don’t remember exactly what it was about the cover of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that stopped me in my tracks, but I remember the first time I saw it, face-out in the New Titles section of my local Waterstones (or Waterstone’s, as it was back in 2008). It’s a striking cover, and the faux-newspaper style blurb on the back cover sucked me in immediately. It’s one of the rare books that I bought and started to read almost immediately, despite the fact that, until the moment I saw the book, I had never heard of it.
Anyone who has ever spoken to me about Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will be aware of my feelings on the subject: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of crime fiction ever produced in any language, helped along by the strong protagonists at the story’s centre, Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fail to live up to the promise of the first book and are, in my opinion, much too long to hold the reader’s attention. There is a lot of background information that could have been cut without sacrificing the story, and the Millennium Trilogy – which, in the end, is only average – could very well have been the incomparably brilliant Millennium Duology. But that’s beside the point.
Lisbeth Salander is not your average heroine. It’s probably more accurate to say that Larsson’s creation redefined the whole concept and created one of the most recognisable and enduring female characters in the history of crime fiction. Larsson has been branded as a misogynist by people who seem to have missed the central point of the Millennium books: yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book about the mistreatment of women at the hands of men (let’s not forget, the original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women), but for me, Salander’s very existence is all you need to see where Larsson’s sympathies lie.
Lisbeth is a character with a dark and, for the most part, mysterious past. We meet her mother briefly, and learn of the existence of a twin sister, with whom Lisbeth has little to no contact. It isn’t until later in the series that we learn the full story, and the role that her father – a Soviet thug – played in her upbringing. Now in her early twenties, she is seen by the state as mentally challenged, and placed in the care of a solicitor who has control of her entire life, a man in whose downfall the reader can take great delight, as it gives us the first real glimpse of who Lisbeth Salander really is.
With her tattoos and piercings, Lisbeth is as unconventional in her looks as she is in her personality. Fundamentally broken by the abuses in her past, she has found a way out of pain and misery to become a self-reliant adult who proves time and again that she is more than capable of looking after herself. A technical genius who can make computers acquiesce to her every wish, a skilled fighter and – strangely – a master of disguise, the socially-awkward Lisbeth is driven by a solid moral code that is often at odds with how people perceive her to be. The epitome of the modern day feminist, Lisbeth is a force to be reckoned with, and a character who endures beyond the confines of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, and the numerous films it has spawned, a fictional role model to which many – both men and women – aspire.
On a personal level, thinking back to when I first met Lisbeth brings me back to the period that introduced the “Dad” in my blog title to the “Reader”. I was halfway through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest when my son was born at the end of summer 2009, and I ended up having to finish the book by listening to the audio version – I have memories of trying to balance a week-old child in one arm and a huge hardback in the other, and failing miserably.
On 27th August this year (3 days before my son’s sixth birthday), Lisbeth Salander is set to return to our lives in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Swedish writer David Lagercrantz has taken on the unenviable task of bringing one of crime fiction’s most iconic characters back to life. If his novel Fall of Man in Wilmslow, which I will be reviewing here in the near future, is anything to go by, we seem to be in good hands. I’m looking forward to spending time with someone who feels like an old friend, a feminist icon who could just as easily be described as a nerd icon (as if we need any more!), and seeing where her next adventure takes her.
For now, though: Happy Birthday, Lisbeth Salander! May there be many more.
|DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY
Tom Bouman (www.drybonesinthevalley.com)
Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)
Henry Farrell is the law in the small northern Pennsylvania rural township of Wild Thyme. On a routine visit to Aub Dunigan, Henry finds a partially dismembered body on a remote part of the old man’s land. When the township’s bad boy, Danny Stiobhard (“Steward”), leads Henry to a second body, he becomes the prime suspect in both murders. But there is more going on here than meets the eye, and the residents of Wild Thyme seem to be shutting Henry out, keeping secrets to which outsiders should not be privy and, while Henry is the law, he is still very much an outsider.
The strength of Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the story’s central character and narrator, Henry Farrell. Henry is a veteran of the war in Somalia – having seen action in Mogadishu, or “the Mog”, as he refers to it – who has now settled in the small northern Pennsylvania township of Wild Thyme, as the township’s policeman. By his own admission a glorified patrolman, Henry is not equipped to deal with dead bodies or suspected murderers, so Bouman’s decision to place him in the novel’s central role is an interesting one. From the outset, he is a thoroughly down-to-earth narrator, a likeable guy to whom it is very easy to listen. What drives the story is Henry’s tenacity, his need to find out who this dead man is and how he died, as a way of bringing sanity and order back to his town.
The setting – a small township near the northern Pennsylvania border – is not your average small-town American setting. There’s something of a frontier feel to the place: these are people who want to be left to their own devices; they have no need of a police force, have no desire to pay taxes or accept the amenities that those taxes often pay for. They’re a half-step down from Survivalists, who maintain a healthy suspicion of the law, outsiders, and anyone else who isn’t part of the their small, closed community. This is offset somewhat by the dual encroachment of drug dealers in the nearby towns, and of fracking companies, who are buying leases across the township and beyond.
As Henry’s investigation progresses – a slow and difficult process, given how difficult it is to find people and get them to answer questions – he begins to see the town and its residents in a new light. He is also convinced that both suspects – Dunigan and Stiobhard – are innocent of the crimes, which is in direct conflict with the thoughts of the county sheriff, who is running the investigation. Henry’s history – his tour in Mogadishu, and a more recent run-in with a fracking company in the Midwest – play a major part in who he is, and how he conducts his investigation, and the unconventional manner in which he proceeds – often at odds with the sheriff or the state police – is what sets his story apart from the average small-town American crime novel.
It is difficult not to like Henry from the outset, and even more difficult to find someone else with whom to compare him. Despite the troubles of his past, he is a personable, friendly, chatty companion for the reader, often digressing or going off on tangents as the narrative progresses, talking about everything from how to hunt deer, to the best way to behead chickens, the subject sparked by something he has found while searching a house, or talking to a witness. He drinks a bit (though on both occasions where he pours himself a scotch, it gets poured back into the bottle almost untouched), hunts deer and plays the fiddle, a man who seems, at first glance, unusual police officer material, but whose sharp mind and ability to talk make him the ideal candidate for the job.
There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Graeme Cameron (www.graeme-cameron.com)
Harlequin Mira (www.mirabooks.co.uk)
Erica has been abducted by the man who killed and dismembered her best friend, and is now living in a cage in his basement. Her abductor is a seemingly ordinary man with a penchant for murdering pretty young women. But things aren’t going as planned: at the local supermarket, a pair of blue eyes are his downfall, and he finds himself falling in love with Rachel; his relationship with Annie, who he had planned on murdering, but who he ended up saving from potential rape, is complicated to say the least; and neither he nor Erica is sure who has the upper hand in their relationship, or why exactly Erica is still living in the cage in his basement weeks after her abduction.
For his debut novel, Graeme Cameron puts the reader inside the head of a nameless serial killer at the point where his life takes a very strange turn. The narrator is an interesting character – friendly and personable, a man who might live next door, and who you might stop to have a conversation with on your way past his house. Like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, there’s more than a hint of black humour here, but Normal presents us with something altogether darker and more sinister: this man targets young women, and seems unable to control himself when in their presence. There is no moral code here, nothing to redeem him in our eyes. And, yet, it’s impossible to dislike him, and when things start to go pear-shaped as the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he might find a way out, despite the horrible things we have watched him doing.
A number of factors conspire to make the narrator of Normal question his career choices: his meeting with Rachel, and the rapport that quickly develops between them; the arrival on his doorstep of the police, who have linked him – however circumstantially – to the disappearance of a prostitute. But there seems to be a foreshadowing of this in his treatment of Erica: he gives her a microwave oven so she can cook her own food because she says she won’t eat anything that he has prepared; he spends hundreds of pounds on clothes for her, and takes her from her cage into his home where he allows her to bathe, and eat, and watch television. And even he is unable to explain why he has spared her for so long, or why he is now treating her like a houseguest rather than a prisoner held against her own will. It is a decision that will haunt him, given the new direction his life seems to be taking.
Cameron focuses on the relationship between abductor and abductee, and paints it in a completely unexpected light for the reader. These two people feel like a married couple at the end of their tether with each other. Erica becomes suspicious of her abductor’s motives, and gives him hell when he disappears for extended periods of time. When his kindness towards her inadvertently places her face-to-face with a CID officer, her reaction is completely unexpected. Interestingly, on his dates with Rachel, our hero feels some guilt about Erica, as if he is cheating on her. It’s an interesting dynamic, and Cameron uses it to great effect to drive the story in the direction he wants it to go. This is Stockholm Syndrome taken to the extreme, with a reciprocal feeling from the man who, for all intents and purposes, should be calling the shots, but who isn’t.
Normal is wonderfully written, and blackly funny throughout. The comparisons with Dexter will be obvious for the humour alone, but Cameron draws on – and extends – a much broader-ranging sub-genre. The first person narrative puts us in the head of this psychopath, with access to his thought processes and justifications for what he does. Not since Lou Ford, the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s seminal The Killer Inside Me, have we been so closely involved with the workings of the sociopathic mind. Despite the humour, Normal is a chilling and gripping read, made all the more so by the seeming outward normality of the man at its centre (and the sometimes questionable motives of those he encounters). There is a mastery of the language here that allows us to laugh out loud while we’re trying to think through the consequences of the narrator’s every action, and to wonder at just how plausible a plot-line it is.
If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s Cameron’s repeated use of “innuendoes” to insinuate murders that the narrator hasn’t committed. Throw-away lines like “[She] made a hell of a mess” play on the reader’s expectations, only to pull the rug out from under us several paragraphs or pages later. While it’s an interesting trick, and fits nicely with the overall light-hearted tone of the novel, I feel it was overused: once is clever; twice, slightly funny; beyond that it just gets predictable and irritating. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a reasonably minor quibble.
Graeme Cameron has done a phenomenal job with Normal. Taking the serial killer formula and playing with it to see what new and interesting shapes he can make has resulted in a dark and hilarious examination of the psychopath next door, and how quickly our carefully constructed world can start to crumble around us. It is a brilliant first novel, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Cameron in the near future.
|THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND
Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)
Released: June 2015
After seven years served for the murder of his foster father, Ciaran Devine is released from the young offenders’ centre where he and his brother Thomas spent their teenage years. Probation Officer Paula Cunningham is assigned his case – a high-profile case at the time of sentencing, though neither Ciaran nor his brother were named at the time – and reaches out to DCI Serena Flanagan, who helped to put the young man behind bars, to get a better feel for what she can expect. Flanagan is convinced of Ciaran’s innocence, believing that he covered for his older brother. Now that he is back on the street, the women are convinced that he is falling into his old ways, being led astray by Thomas. When the son of the man they murdered – who shares Flanagan’s belief in Ciaran’s innocence – is beaten, Flanagan and Cunningham concoct a means to separate the brothers, and attempt to get the truth from Ciaran, using any means necessary, despite the fact that it puts both women at odds with their superiors, and sees Flanagan playing dangerously close to the edge of breaking the law herself.
Those We Left Behind, the latest novel from Northern Ireland’s own Stuart Neville, reintroduces us to Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan, who we first met in Neville’s previous novel, The Final Silence. Along with the shift from his long-term series stalwart, Jack Lennon, there is a subtle change in tone in Neville’s writing towards psychological thriller, and marks Those We Left Behind as the first of his Belfast-based crime novels not to feature a heavily sectarian slant. In some ways, this mirrors the changing nature of crime in Belfast itself, as the city continues to try to distance itself from the stigma of the so-called Troubles.
Despite the short period of time that has passed since the events of The Final Silence, we find Serena Flanagan a very different person. We meet her as she returns to work following surgery to combat breast cancer. Flanagan’s career progressed in a time and a place where it was difficult enough to be a police officer, let alone a female one, and we see some of this as she readjusts to her job, and deals with the reactions – and obvious discomfort – of her mostly male colleagues. Neville also gives us a view into her family life, and the impact the cancer and the ensuing surgery has had on her marriage. It is little wonder, then, that she has changed so much in such a short period of time. She may be less sure of herself than was her previous incarnation, but we get a deeper insight into the character as the novel progresses, a fleshing-out that was necessarily missing from before, leaving no doubt that Flanagan is Neville’s finest creation since The Twelve’s Gerry Fegan, a complex, layered character about whom we still have much to learn.
Intertwining the narrative with occasional flashbacks, Neville shows us how the relationship between Flanagan and Ciaran develops, from their initial meeting during the investigation into the murder of his foster father, through to his current obsession with her. Despite the fact that the novel has a number of viewpoints – mainly Flanagan, Cunningham and Ciaran – the author manages to maintain suspense throughout, making the reader feel almost as if they’re inside Flanagan’s head for the duration. The violence, when it occurs, does so off-stage, leaving both reader and investigator to piece together the clues and come to their own conclusion. Whether it is the right conclusion remains in doubt until the story’s thrilling climax, a testament to Neville’s abilities as a plotter and storyteller.
Through all this, we watch as Flanagan deals with the aftermath of her illness and surgery, and its impact on her life, both personally and professionally. In one subplot, both these worlds collide with a bang, and we, as readers, find ourselves completely invested in Flanagan’s reaction, her need to meddle in a case that has nothing to do with her, but which affects her on a personal level. Throughout, Neville manages to find the right balance between examining the impact, and keeping the story moving.
As with his previous novels, Belfast plays a key role in the story. Here the author widens his scope, and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland, from Flanagan’s base in Lisburn, to the Serious Crime Suite of Antrim Police Station, to the seaside resort of Newcastle. Neville relies heavily on the geography of these places, giving the story a very definite sense of location and imbuing it with a distinct flavour of Northern Ireland.
With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.
Lindsay Hawdon (lhawdon.co.uk)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Jakob is barely eight-years old, and he is running for his life, searching for shelter in a world that has turned against him. It is 1944, and Jakob is a half-gypsy, the oldest child of a Romany father and an English mother, living in German-occupied Europe. High on Hitler’s list of undesirables, Jakob’s gypsy heritage has condemned him to a less-than-human existence that can only end in one way if he stays where he is. So, he must reach Switzerland before he is found, but what chance does an eight-year-old child have against the might of the German army?
Just when you thought you knew about all the atrocities carried out during the Second World War, something else gets unearthed, or someone comes along to examine something in more detail, and uncovers fresh horror and pain. Based on the Romany Holocaust, Lindsay Hawdon’s novel is all the more intense for showing the horror through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy whose survival is, by no means, guaranteed.
Concentrating on the story of Jakob as he tries to evade capture, Hawdon uses flashbacks to supplement this young boy’s story, to show us where he came from, in every sense of the phrase. Flashbacks to the previous year show us Jakob on the run with his mother, brother and sister, as they try to find Jakob’s father, from whom they were separated during a pogrom on the town in which they had settled. During other flashbacks, we find the family all together though, horrifically, they’re wedged into railway cattle cars on their way to God knows what fate. Others show us the childhood of Jakob’s mother, the madness that drove her to the asylum where she met and fell in love with Jakob’s father, a man obsessed with collecting colours, a passion that he passed on to his eldest son.
In the main narrative, Jakob finds himself being helped by an old man named Marcus. Marcus has secret compartments under his stairs that he uses to hide people from the Nazis. He takes Jakob to his home and hides him in the smallest of these compartments, where he lives for months, his only companionship the two Jews in the neighbouring cubbies, and his daily trip outside to get fed and use the toilet. As the story progresses, a plan is hatched, and Jakob begins to receive more food to strengthen him for a run to the Swiss border. In his innocence, much of what is happening passes over Jakob’s head, though there are clues that point the reader to a more realistic conclusion.
There is much beauty between the covers of this stunning novel: the relationship between Jakob and his mother; the stories she tells; and the love that shines from the page not only between Jakob and his family members, but also between Jakob and the man who will become his saviour, Marcus. This beauty is balanced by moments of sheer horror that will leave the reader in tears – what lies at the end of that train journey; Jakob’s realisation as he leaves his cupboard under Marcus’ stairs for the last time. These and other scenes are designed to rip the heart from your chest and wring it dry; the contrast with the beauty, with the wonderful colours that infuse the whole story, makes the horror all the more stark.
Hawdon’s characterisation is masterful, to say the least. In a few short words, she can create a living, breathing human being out of thin air: Jakob and his family; the two men in the cupboards next to Jakob, each with their own stories to tell, their own pain-filled routes to these small spaces of solace and shelter; the German soldier who haunts Jakob’s dreams, one of the most evil characters you’re likely to encounter in fiction, who remains unnamed, and whose conscience makes his violence even more terrifying.
As well as Jakob’s story, this is the story of the Romany people, and the trials they faced during Hitler’s reign. As we learn about the history of Jakob’s family, it becomes clear that little has changed for the gypsy people in the thirty years or so that the novel spans: the pogroms and discrimination are nothing new, though the final outcome may have changed. What Thomas Keneally did for the Jews in Schindler’s Ark, so Lindsay Hawdon does for the Romany in Jakob’s Colours. There are obvious parallels between the two works, but what makes them so similar is the simplicity of their stories, the horror they evoke, and the sympathy that the author has for their subject. Schindler’s Ark won Keneally the Booker Prize; I’ll be very surprised if Jakob’s Colours doesn’t receive similar accolades in the coming year.
Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.
|Name: OLIVER LANGMEAD
Author of: DARK STAR (2015)
Literary Influences, Contemporary & Classic
Dark Star has a lot of influences, because it’s three things in one. It’s science fiction, it’s a detective story of the noir and hard-boiled brand, and it’s an epic in the classical sense.
The best place to start is at the beginning, because it’s possible to see the exact moment when a fairly predictable trend in reading became something else. I started out with Brian Jacques and Roald Dahl from the age of about six, and by the time I was half way through my teens, I had devoured everything written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, as well as a few other authors writing along the same lines. Then, at the age of sixteen, I was made to read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and everything changed.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what that book did for me. It was as if I had certain expectations about what books were, what books could be, and I could see the limits of that. Then experiencing a book like All the Pretty Horses opened my mind to a whole world of literary writing that I had not really considered before.
This is where it’s possible to start to see where Dark Star came from. Over the past few years, I’ve been reading pretty much anything and everything to broaden my sense of what a book can be. From Lovecraft’s grim and verbose short stories, to Philip Roth’s beautiful but horrible Sabbath’s Theatre (the best book I’ve never finished) to Bret Easton Ellis, testing the idea of vacancy in the lines he writes, and beyond. I’ve loved the architecture behind Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, and been in awe of James Joyce’s almost impenetrable writing in Ulysses, and spent even more time investigating what makes gothic classics, Frankenstein and Dracula, tick.
From science fiction, I cite China Mieville and Michel Faber as major influences. Specifically, Mieville’s The City & The City, which had a sense of wonder behind each discovery that I desperately wanted to kindle for myself, and Faber’s Under The Skin, which evoked such a sense of character in both its place and in its moods, that I hoped to see something similar in my own work. For Dark Star, I wanted the reader to feel a sense of discovery in a world that is disarmingly familiar. I wanted to evoke that 1920s noir kind of atmosphere, then give the reader glimpses of the science fiction beyond.
I chose a few books from the classic detective genre to look at in order to understand it better, and Raymond Chandler is the author I have to cite above all others. The Big Sleep was crafted so well to be what it was, and it is possible to see why it has had such a big influence on authors other than myself. This is one of the main sources from which those most treasured clichés and tropes come, which I hope I have treated well in my own book. Making a world that felt familiar, just like Chandler did, was important to me. Closer to the atmosphere that Dark Star would have, however, has to be Frank Miller’s Sin City. Sin City had the voice that I wanted to use; that gritty internal monologue, bitter and beaten by its surroundings.
Dark Star is a love story for three genres, however, and the third might surprise you. I hope that you’ve heard of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. I hope that you’ve heard of The Divine Comedy, and the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Because these are all epics, written in an ancient style, which I completely fell for and decided to try and emulate. I’m hoping that you’re wondering whether writing a science fiction noir in verse would work at all. Because I wondered that, as well. But… it does work. Some of those recognisable elements are there: the pentameter, the descent and the divine, and some of them are not, but Dark Star is undoubtedly written in the tradition of those ancient greats.
It all comes back to McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, in the end. When I read it, I thought that it was completely marvellous that I had never read a book like it before: that someone had tried something so ambitious, and had been so successful with it. It’s something that I wanted to try for myself. And the result of that is Dark Star.
To celebrate the release of this excellent novel, Oliver’s publishers, Unsung Stories, are very kindly giving away a signed copy of Dark Star and a signed Dark Star poster to one lucky winner.
To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is send a single tweet answering the following question:
Which book changed your expectations of what books can be?
Make sure you include the hashtag #DarkStarGiveaway as well as including @MattGCraig @UnsungTweets to ensure your entry is included.
The competition will close at midnight, Monday 30th March 2015 and the winner will be notified shortly thereafter.
Book & Publisher Information
Dark Star product page (Unsung Stories)
Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)
Prometheus, resident wonder-drug;
Pro’, Promo’, ’Theus, liquid-fucking-light;
Prohibited by city law and shot
By yours truly, Virgil Yorke, hero cop.
Virgil Yorke is a Vox Police Detective, assigned to the case of Vivian North, a young lady found dead in the city’s back alleys, her veins glowing so brightly, they shine through her skin. It looks like an extreme case of Prometheus overdose, but Virgil isn’t convinced, and when he is pulled off the case shortly after he picks it up, his instincts go into overdrive. But the city has bigger problems: Cancer, one of the three Hearts that power this remote human outpost, has been stolen, and the loss of energy is the least of the city’s worries; should it fall into the wrong hands, Cancer could become a superweapon that could destroy the entire solar system.
Oliver Langmead’s debut work – novel, novella, epic poem; none of these words seems just right – takes us to the city of Vox, a city on a planet that orbits a dark star. The city’s inhabitants have adjusted to the lack of light over the years, learning to read through touch (very few people can read actual words from a page by sight anymore), and carrying out their daily routine in a world where light is scare, and light bulbs one of the city’s most expensive – and rare – commodities. The science – or at least Langmead’s version of science – behind this interesting phenomena comes through in the story in bits and pieces, rather than as an all-in-one introduction to this strange new world. Langmead introduces us to Vox’s “ghosts” – people who have long since lost their minds, and who are now drawn to sources of light – to the little adaptations that make life in this environment possible, and to the strange invisible fire which means the citizens live in fear of candles, or cigarettes, or any open flame.
Dark Star is difficult to categorise genre-wise as well as format-wise. It’s Philip Marlowe imagined by Philip K. Dick and penned by Dante Alighieri. At its core, it’s a hardboiled mystery relocated in time and space, built around Virgil Yorke, a drug-addicted, wise-cracking, cynical cop who tells the story in first person and, most interestingly, in epic verse. Yorke is the stereotypical hardboiled policeman, who seems to have begun life as a cardboard cut-out of Marlowe or Spade. The setting injects the story with a massive dose of originality, the fruits of Langmead’s seemingly boundless imagination. Like his forebears, Yorke tends towards the unlucky, a target for beatings and stabbings that see him losing large chunks of the time that has been allocated to him to solve the case. He is surrounded by equally-engaging characters, many of whom have, we can only imagine, long and interesting backstories – Dante, Virgil’s hulking partner on the force, and the mysterious Rachel, another well-worn trope of the hardboiled genre: the femme fatale.
The book is an interesting concept, but the thing that sets it apart is the thing that is likely to be its biggest downfall when it comes to attracting readers. Like Homer’s Iliad, or Dante’s Commedia, Dark Star is written in epic verse, a long poem told in the first person. I have something of an aversion to poetry – my mind can’t seem to parse it in the same way that it parses prose – so I didn’t expect to get very far with Dark Star, much less enjoy it as much as I did. After the first handful of pages, the narrative structure loses its importance, and the story reads in a prose-like manner. Most of this is down to the strong and easily-identifiable voice of Virgil himself, a voice that makes us feel that we are listening rather than reading, and that the metre is nothing more or less than the cadences of the character’s voice as he recounts his tale. The structure gives the story an added dimension that makes these characters feel all the more real and vital than they might otherwise have been.
I have already mentioned the strength of Virgil’s voice as one of the key reasons that we keep reading, but this is a mystery novel, so there are obviously more: the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and the violence Virgil encounters restrained and in keeping with the rest of the narrative. The strangeness of this new world, and the darkness that enshrouds Vox are also key to the story’s success, and it feels that the city – a dark and dirty cross between Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond and Frank Miller’s Sin City – has plenty more stories to tell in whichever style Langmead chooses to tell them (I’m living in hope for a collection of short stories, myself).
One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.