Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

GOLDEN SON by Pierce Brown

GOLDEN SON - Pierce Brown GOLDEN SON

Pierce Brown (pierce-brown.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

Two years after his victory at the Institute, Darrow au Andromedus, the Red who now lives the life of a Gold, is on the cusp of repeating the trick at the Academy, and gaining command of a fleet of Gold vessels. It is a surprise to everyone, then, when he is defeated in the final battle, and a bigger surprise to Darrow to learn that his sponsor and protector will be cutting him free following his failure to gain control of the fleet. In a race against time, Darrow must find a way to remain under the protection of House Augustus in order to stay alive long enough to progress his true mission: the downfall of the Gold’s Society from the inside. As civil war looms, Darrow will find his loyalties tested, and his own sense of identity increasingly blurred.

Returning to the world and characters he created in Red Rising, Pierce Brown takes us once again into the head of Darrow, the Red miner who has turned Gold in order to help free his people. Within a handful of pages, the reader will feel comfortable with this familiar world, with the idiosyncrasies of the language, and with the relationships between the characters. Of course, it is imperative to read Red Rising first, or very little will make sense. What Brown began sketching out in that first novel on a small scale, we now see on a much larger canvas, as the author expands the scope of the story out into the solar system, much of which has been colonised by the Golds. From the old ways that we grew used to on Mars – the ancient Roman setting an effect broken only by the occasional glimpse of technology – we move into epic space opera, fleets of gleaming spaceships, giant behemoths that make Battlestar Galactica look like a lifeboat, and the threat of looming war is apparent from the outset.

Much has changed in the intervening two years, and Darrow finds himself the centre of an odd circle of friends. Relations with Mustang, the girl to whom he grew close during their time in the Institute, and the daughter of his patron, are strained following his decision to enter the Academy. This is the first sign we, the reader, see that the transition from Red to Gold may have affected more than just Darrow’s body: there is a hunger for power (admittedly, we are fairly certain that it is all for the greater good, but there is still plenty of room for doubt), something that we might associate more with the Golds than with the lowReds from whence Darrow came. This is a theme that recurs throughout the novel, and Darrow frequently questions his own motives, seeing in himself a man he has no desire to be, a man his wife would not – could not – ever have loved.

As the story progresses, Brown begins to drip-feed us answers to some of the questions that remained unanswered at the end of the first book: who are the Sons of Ares, for example, and what, exactly is their game plan? As friendships shrivel and die, Darrow quickly comes to understand that he has some very dangerous enemies who know a little bit too much about his origins. It becomes difficult to know who can be trusted, who is waiting to plunge the knife once his back is turned, and the reader feels as helpless as Darrow since we know only what he knows. In a shocking revelation as the story heads towards a stormy and cliff-hanging climax, Brown pulls the carpet from under our feet and completely changes the nature of the game; everything we thought we understood about what Darrow is doing, what his mission is all about, is called into question in a single moment of magic.

All of the elements that made Red Rising such a special book are present and accounted for in this second outing, but the increase in scope allows Brown to play around a bit more with the ideas and concepts that make up this world he has created. Edge of the seat thrills coupled with scenes that take place on a cinematic scale make this an entirely engrossing read. Darrow, although changed from our first encounter with him, is still as engaging as ever, and it is his journey that we keep coming back for. In the tradition of the finest “middle volumes” of classic trilogies, Golden Son builds on the world created in the first volume, makes us rethink what we thought we knew, and finishes on a bang that will ensure we’re all waiting impatiently for the trilogy’s final instalment.

A stunning space opera of epic proportions, Golden Son is gripping and intense at times, tender and funny at others. It takes the story begun in Red Rising in unexpected directions and manages to be that most rare of beasts: the sequel that surpasses the original. If you enjoyed Red Rising, Golden Son will knock your socks off. If you’ve yet to experience Pierce Brown’s multi-coloured world, you will definitely want to be caught up before the third volume drops next year. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

January 21, 2015 Posted by | Action-Adventure, Science Fiction, War | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

GUEST POST: Researching The Widow’s Confession by SOPHIA TOBIN

tobin_sophia_13017_2_300 Name: SOPHIA TOBIN

Author of: THE SILVERSMITH’S WIFE (2014)
                 THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION (2015)

On the web: sophiatobin.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @SophiaTobin1

From day trips to directories: researching The Widow’s Confession

The Widow’s Confession is set during a summer season at a Victorian seaside resort. Researching the life of the Victorian tourist with its excursions, shell-collecting, sea-bathing and fireworks was a necessary pleasure, and a provider of many dramatic possibilities.

widow%27s confession blog tour graphics (2)Having pieced together various visual sources, my documentary research began with reading the newspapers for the period, searching for mentions of Broadstairs. I had prior knowledge of the town – I was brought up there – but the papers gave me the contemporary flavour I needed, historical texture and more information on its maritime culture. Through reading reports of shipwrecks I found descriptions of the sound of the lightships at the Goodwin Sands firing their guns to warn of a wreck, which became a defining motif in the book. Through the newspapers I also learned of events which served to drive some of the action, such as the Ramsgate Regatta, which became a pivotal scene. And when I read, in the London Standard, that Broadstairs was sought out by people who wanted privacy, in a moment I could hear my main character, Delphine, telling me it was ‘the perfect place to hide’.

Contemporary directories and guidebooks were hugely valuable to me, such as W. Kidd’s Picturesque companion to the Isle of Thanet, published in 1840, which described the most desirable shells collected by visitors – including the ‘beauty shell’ which found its way into the plot. As you might expect, the sources sometimes disagree (by 1851, Dickens was complaining that Broadstairs was too loud and busy; a guidebook printed that year described it as ‘very genteel and very dull’) but from such disagreements I could make my own decisions about how I saw the town, piecing together the sources and extracting a sense of atmosphere from them.

Swathes of research never made their way into the book, apart from brief mentions. When Theo describes a book he has been reading on archaeological finds at Reculver, justifying a visit, he is referring to a real book, written by Charles Roach Smith and published in 1850, which I pored over in the stacks of the London Library for an entire evening.

I don’t think you can beat an excursion for research purposes. I can still feel the icy wind whipping at my coat as I looked at the ruins of Reculver. Spending a summer weekend at Broadstairs, I watched the sky transformed by a summer storm, and lightning over the sea. A day later, a thick sea-mist fell, making everything ghostly, so that I could almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the creak of the lantern raised at the headland to signal to the boats. The town had given me, in days, a light-show of what I needed for the book. I have to admit, the best part of the research was watching lightning shiver over the summer sky.

January 19, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Guest Post, Historical Fiction | , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION by Sophia Tobin

widowsconfes_hardback_1471128121_300 THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION

Sophia Tobin (sophiatobin.wordpress.com)

Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)

£12.99

In the summer of 1851, Edmund Steele leaves the stresses of London behind and, at the behest of his good friend, heads to the seaside resort of Broadstairs and takes up residence with the town’s parson, Theo Hallam. It isn’t long before Edmund and Theo find themselves part of a group of incomers who, led by the headstrong Mrs Quillian, spend much of the summer on excursions. There are secrets aplenty – Theo and Edmund both have their own; as have the two American women who are part of their group, and the artist, Ralph Benedict, who has a knack for rubbing people the wrong way. Within days of the group’s formation, the body of a young girl is found on the beach. The local doctor claims it as a suicide, but each member of the group has his or her own reasons for believing it to be otherwise. When the body of a second girl is discovered later in the summer, it begins to seem as if Broadstairs is a dangerous place to be, and the incomers are viewed with suspicion by the town’s full-time residents.

widow%27s confession blog tour graphics (2)Sophia Tobin’s second novel takes us on a trip to Broadstairs, a place made famous by regular visits from Charles Dickens (while he doesn’t make an appearance in the novel, his presence is noted a number of times during the narrative), and introduces us to an odd assortment of central characters who each have something to hide. Bookended by excerpts from a letter written by Delphine Beck, the American widow who plays a central role in the proceedings, the story unfolds from multiple points of view as the summer progresses. This is an interesting approach, and allows Tobin to show us all of the characters from several different perspectives: each of these characters has something to hide, and this approach allows Tobin to cast suspicion on everyone, keeping the reader in the dark until the very end.

While the murders provide some impetus to the proceedings, they are almost a sidebar to the novel’s true purpose. An examination of the relationships that develop between strangers in a short period of time, Tobin’s narrative sheds light on the constraints and rules that defined how people interacted during the Victorian era. In stark contrast to modern social mores and rules of civility, many of the dark secrets that haunt these characters are trivial; it is difficult to comprehend how these things – which seem so normal to the modern reader – could have ruined lives or affected futures. Yet, without resorting to tiresome exposition, the author takes us to a place where we can have some empathy with these people, understand the pressures they are under and the impact these seemingly-unimportant decisions have on their lives.

The Widow’s Confession is, as you might expect, something of a slow-moving read. Categorised as a historical thriller, the thrills are few and far between – though the sense of threat is always present since we have no idea who the culprit is – the bulk of the novel focuses on the relationship between the characters, and the loves that blossom as the summer progresses. It’s an engrossing read all the same; the characters, and the interplay between them, perfectly-wrought to fill the spaces – and make us unaware of the fact that not much thrilling is happening – between the scenes of horror that face them in the lifeless forms of the young girls on the beach. The killer’s identity, when revealed, is pleasantly surprising, and their reasoning further evidence of the straight-laced times in which the story is set. By this point, though, whether or not the killer should be found is relatively unimportant to the reader, superseded in many ways by the petty deceits and arguments that define this small group of strangers.

A beautifully-written novel, The Widow’s Confession captures the tone of the writing of the period as well as the mood of the people. The characters are well-drawn, and the amount of information that Tobin holds back from the reader well-judged to add a bit of intrigue to the stuffed-shirt nature of the period. Tobin has already won acclaim for last year’s The Silversmith’s Wife; The Widow’s Confession builds on that solid foundation and is sure to win her an army of new fans. Intelligent and well-plotted, this is a novel with huge appeal for a wide range of readers.

January 19, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GOODHOUSE by Peyton Marshall

GOODHOUSE - Peyton Marshall GOODHOUSE

Peyton Marshall (www.peytonmarshall.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

In a near-future America, the genetic markers for violence and criminal behaviour have been identified, and the male relatives of anyone who has ever been charged with committing a crime are tested shortly after birth. Those found to possess the same genetic makeup as their criminal forebears are removed to the Goodhouse system, a series of school-cum-prisons across the country whose sole purpose is to nurture these boys away from any criminal predisposition so that they can safely join civilisation when they turn 18. James is one such boy, a resident of the Goodhouse system since he was three years old, he is a relative newcomer to the California Goodhouse; previously based at La Pine, Oregon, James was one of the few survivors of a Zero attack on the Goodhouse. Now, as the system prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and James approaches his own eighteenth birthday, he discovers that there are people who have a more sinister purpose for the Goodhouse system and that only he has the power, and the information, to expose their schemes to the world, and save the boys with whom he is incarcerated.

Peyton Marshall’s debut novel is the latest in a long and prestigious line of dystopias which take as their central conceit the idea of preventing crime before it happens, rather than dealing with the aftermath. While Goodhouse does have a number of plot holes (why is the Goodhouse system populated only by boys? And how, exactly, can security be so lax that these institutions can so easily be infiltrated by the Zeros who, presumably, share the same genetic markers as the boys on the inside?) it’s an interesting premise and one that Marshall examines in some depth as the story progresses, though never, it must be pointed out, at the cost of the story’s forward momentum.

We see this world through the eyes of James, a young man who has been in Goodhouse since he was three years old. James has no idea who his parents are – family records are destroyed and the boys are renamed, to prevent any future contact – and is facing the prospect of being released into the world once he turns eighteen. The recent attack on his original Goodhouse home, in rural Oregon, has seen him moved to California where things are done differently enough to make the transition jarring for James. Marshall has spent some time creating both the outside world, and the world inhabited by these boys in Goodhouse: they have developed means of communication that circumvent the almost-total ban on talking, and their assignment to different status levels are determined by past behaviour and have some impact on how they behave in the future (Level 1 brings with it perks and benefits that no boy wants to lose, if at all possible).

Into this strictly ordered world, Marshall introduces Bethany, a girl slightly younger than James who takes an unhealthy interest in him. Also taking an unhealthy interest is Bethany’s father, a doctor who lives and works on campus and who James recognises from his previous life at La Pine. Dr Cleveland pulls strings to ensure that he has almost-unlimited access to James, and from here things start to go south for the young man. Escape and re-incarceration ensue as we’re taken on a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat journey to an outside world where there are mixed emotions about the Goodhouse system and the boys who are under its care. James and Bethany discover that some of the medical research is less than legal, and that the company that funds much of the research is set to make billions of dollars at the cost of these boys’ lives.

Using first-person narrative, and telling the story from the point of view of James, who knows little of the outside world, it is no surprise that Goodhouse leaves a lot of questions unanswered or, at best, only briefly explained: who, for example, are the Zeros, and what is their problem with the Goodhouse system? These are concerns for the reader once the book is done; whilst reading, we find ourselves in the moment, following in James’ footsteps as he navigates this strange new world in which he finds himself. The story is constructed in a way that pulls the reader along, giving us – as it does James – very little time to stop and think as the tension mounts and the action explodes off the page.

Well-constructed, and nicely told, with a strong cast of diverse characters (despite the institutional setting) Goodhouse is an excellent debut, and a fine addition to the dystopian genre. While not perfect, it still has plenty to make it a worthwhile – and wholly enjoyable – read, and flags Peyton Marshall as a name to watch in the future. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you like your action fast and violent, and enjoy interesting takes on our possible future, then Goodhouse should definitely be on your list.

January 11, 2015 Posted by | Science Fiction, Thriller | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor_final_300dpi HORRORSTÖR

Grady Hendrix (www.gradyhendrix.com)

Quirk Books (www.quirkbooks.com)

US$14.95

It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the other end.

The Cleveland, Ohio Orsk store has been losing money since it opened, sales a fraction of those in the furniture giant’s other stores, and staff are coming in to work every morning to broken, damaged and soiled products on the shop floor. The day before a consultancy team are due from Head Office, the store’s deputy manager, Basil, recruits Amy and Ruth Anne to do a special overnight shift, a security measure to ensure that nothing is amiss when the consultants arrive. It isn’t long before strange things start happening – graffiti appearing on the walls of the women’s bathroom, strange noises on the shop floor and a distinctly unpleasant smell pervading the whole building – and before the night is out, there will be worse horrors to come and this small group will learn what it truly means to be stuck in a dead end job.

You will be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Grady Hendrix’s exceptional novel is an Ikea catalogue (the splendid front cover gives way to a map of the store, and a home delivery order form before the story begins). Nor is it a zombie novel, despite the opening sentence, above. The novel’s setting is an Ikea rip-off, “the all-American furniture superstore in Scandanavian drag”, and anyone who has ever set foot inside one of Swedish colossus’s shops will recognise it instantly, from the guided shopping experience (“the Bright and Shining Path”), to the Market Floor and the self-service warehouse. Hendrix’s attention to detail is second-to-none here, and he has even gone as far as naming his own product lines (some, admittedly, with questionable names: the Tossurs treamill desk; Balsak candles; Magog bunk beds).

It’s a difficult book to categorise: part satire on modern working life – and, indeed, modern shopping life – part turn-on-all-the-lights horror, Hendrix never lets the reader get too comfortable with one emotion or the other, flitting from laugh-out-loud (really!) to spine-chilling horror with an ease that is difficult not to admire, even as you’re looking over your shoulder to make sure that wasn’t someone breathing on your neck. The unique narrative style helps to keep the reader engaged in what might, in the hands of a less humorous author, have been a sustained and bleak journey into madness with no redeeming features.

The bulk of Horrorstör covers a relatively short period of time – the fateful overnight shift – so the small cast, and the fact that we see everything exclusively through the eyes of Amy, help to make it a more intimate, engaging read. While the plot might sound like something from a second-rate teen slasher flick, this is far from the cast you might expect in such a film: Basil, a man who has worked his way out of a bad neighbourhood into a life dedicated to the company; Amy, slacker twenty-something who is fooling no-one with her claims that she won’t be working retail for the rest of her life; Ruth Anne, fifty-something bubbly blonde who lives for Orsk and whose only wish is to send her customers out the door with a smile on their faces. These three, and the other uninvited employees who find themselves in the store – Matt and Trinity – are beautifully-drawn, each of them someone we know, someone we’ve probably worked with at some point in our careers, caricatures that nevertheless feel comfortably real, despite the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves.

The backstory that comes to light as we progress through the story – and the night – is by no means original to Horrorstör, nor is it meant to be. This is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a twist in the location, so it’s no surprise when we learn that the land on which this Orsk store was built has something of a past.

“But ghosts only haunt houses[…]”

“This is a building with bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms,” Matt said. “If that’s your definition of a house, then Orsk is a house. ‘A Home for the Everyone.’”

Which is not to say that you’ve seen Horrorstör before. Sure, there are elements of The Office here; a tip of the hat to the opening sequence of Shaun of the Dead, and a building that exhibits some of the same properties – and exudes some of the same ice-cold chill – as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but Grady Hendrix has produced something fresh, something original, something that will frighten even the most hardened fan of horror while, at the same time, making them laugh. If you’ve seen Ikea’s The Shining advertisement, you’ll begin to get some idea of just how creepy giant empty furniture shops can be; Horrorstör builds on this sense of wrongness to produce a haunting and disturbing masterpiece.

IKEA’s 2014 Halloween advertisement

Horrorstör is a beautifully-presented piece, from the Ikea catalogue-like front cover to the detailed illustrations of the various furniture items that you’re likely to find on the Orsk Showroom floor, it is, like Reif Larsen’s The Select Works of T. S. Spivet, a complete package that works best when story and design are combined. A wonderfully-written haunted house story, it will keep you up late into the night, and make you think twice about nipping to the local Swedish furniture superstore for meatballs or another Billy bookcase. Approach with caution, but do not miss at any cost.

January 8, 2015 Posted by | Horror | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 2014 Round-Up

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for my annual retrospective of what’s gone on at Reader Dad. There’s a lot to cover this year, so without further ado…

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, I have read 65 books this year, more than every year except last year, but I had an excuse for getting so much read last year! Of those, a massive 43 were by authors that are new to me (and a large percentage of those were 2014 debut authors). It feels like I’ve read a lot of crime this year, but when I look back on the list, I discover that my reading has been much more varied than I thought, covering everything from epistolary humour (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) to cannibalism (Season To Taste by Natalie Young), epic fantasy to Hitler satire. The list contains six translations, some of which you’ll find in the lists below and two re-reads, which are becoming a rarity these days when there are so many new books to read, and so little time in which to read them.

The big focus of the blog this year, aside from the reviews of dark fiction, was the #CarrieAt40 project that kicked off in April to celebrate Stephen King’s forty years as a published author. I’m delighted by the reaction, and would like to personally thank everyone who provided an essay: Keith Walters, Book Geek, Alison Littlewood, John Connolly, Bev Vincent, Sarah Langan, Mark West, Lloyd Shepherd, Steve Cavanagh, Simon Clark, V. M. Giambanco, Mason Cross, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Lotz, P. T. Hylton, Neal Munro, Simon Toyne, Lou Sytsma, Michael Marshall Smith, Kealan Patrick Burke, Andrew Pyper and Rob Chilver. I must also thank my good friend David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for putting me in touch with Mr Connolly, and Graeme Williams at Orion Books for putting me in touch with Andrew Pyper. Thanks, too, to Mr King’s publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, who were extremely supportive and especially the wonderful Hodderscape folks who were angels when it came to publicity. Special thanks have to go to the lovely Philippa Pride and Kerry Hood, Mr King’s editor and publicist, respectively, at Hodder, for their support, and to Anne Perry for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

#CarrieAt40 comes to an end at the end of the year when I will be closing the Big Vote. Response has been lacklustre so far, so rather than the “definitive” answer I’d hoped for, I’ll be presenting the favourites as they stand. Please feel free to point everyone you know at the vote in the meantime, and maybe in the next week and a half we’ll get close to that “definitive” level.

And so to the important bit: the list of my favourite books of the year. Last year’s approach seemed to work well, so I’ll be using the same approach this year: my favourite debuts, and favourite non-debuts of the year. As always, the list contains books that were first published in 2014, and they’re listed in the order in which I read them, so no significance should be attached to their position in the list. Oh, and please don’t take the “ten” literally! As always, links will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP TEN DEBUTS OF 2014

SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND by Natalie Young (Tinder Press)

At once gripping, wholeheartedly gruesome (Young seems to revel in the fact that just when you think you’ve experienced the worst there is, there is always something more still to be eked out of this incredible scenario) and darkly comic, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is one of the most original novels you’re likely to read, ever. With an attention to detail that is slightly scary, given the subject matter (Young has obviously done some thorough research), and the ability to make you want to simultaneously stop reading, and read faster, Natalie Young has done the unthinkable: she has taken an ordinary human being, placed her in an extraordinary situation, making her the villain of the piece in the process, and still manages to make the reader love her, root for her, want to see her succeed in her endeavours and, most importantly, get away with it. Often – and I know you’ll pardon the pun – hard to stomach, Season to Taste is like nothing you’ve ever read before, and pays dividends for those willing to stick with it and forge through the discomfort. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, and is guaranteed to stay with you for many years to come. I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited to see what Natalie Young has up her sleeve next; let’s just hope it doesn’t involve dinner.

   
RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

   
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

   
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

   
LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes [trans. Jamie Bulloch] (MacLehose Press)

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

   
THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

   
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker [trans. Sam Taylor] (MacLehose Press)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.

   
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.

   
THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma [trans. Agnes Broomé] (Head of Zeus)

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

 

MATT’S TOP TEN NON-DEBUTS OF 2014

THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.

   
THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton (Mantle)

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

   
IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans. Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

   
ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

   
THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

   
MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

   
THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

   
NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe (The Borough Press)

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

   
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve readThe Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

   
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

   
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

   
REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

   
A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

 

COMING SOON…

2015 should see a return to the usual schedule of reviews and guest posts, despite the fact that I’ve already read the best book of the year. Despite that, it’s already shaping up to look like an excellent year, with the return of Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and an announcement early in the New Year concerning Joe Hill. The year also brings with it new Daniel Polansky, the follow-up to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, to name but a few. Don’t forget that the #CarrieAt40 Big Vote closes at midnight on December 31st, so do please vote, and spread the word.

All that remains is to thank the publishers and publicists who have been so kind to me this year, and have kept me stocked up with wonderful reading material. Thanks also to the authors who take time out to write guest posts or answer interview questions, and to all those (mentioned above) who provided essays for the #CarrieAt40 project. And thanks to you, the readers, who make it all worthwhile; without you, I’d just be talking to myself, and I already do far too much of that.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and a happy, safe and prosperous 2015 to each and every one of you.

December 23, 2014 Posted by | Round-up, Top 10 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

National Socialism is routed at the 1933 elections by Communism, and its leadership exiled from Germany. Sentenced to a concentration camp, Adolf Hitler escapes and makes his way to London where, under his old nickname, Wolf, he sets up as a private detective. When a beautiful Jewish woman steps into his office in early November 1939 to hire him to find her missing sister, Wolf has no idea where the case will take him, except that he should have listened to his first instinct and thrown her out on the street. As his investigation progresses, Wolf finds himself on the wrong side of all the wrong people: the Metropolitan Police; all of the men and women who once formed the upper echelons of the Nazi Party; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and a mysterious man who is killing the prostitutes who congregate outside Wolf’s office, and framing the detective for their murders.

Most importantly, for the reader at least, is the fact that none of this is real; it is all the lucid fabrication of Shomer, a man who once wrote shund – Yiddish pulp fiction – for a living, and who now uses it as a form of escape from his current location: hell on Earth. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In what is perhaps the most original take on the Holocaust novel to date, Lavie Tidhar presents the events as a hard-boiled detective novel which at first glance appears to be set in an alternate timeline. As the novel progresses we discover that it is actually a fiction, a story within the story, the dreams and daydreams of an Auschwitz inmate named Shomer. The central story follows Wolf as he accepts a job from Isabella Rubinstein, a Jew, who wants him to use his connections to find her sister who went missing while trying to escape from Germany. From the outset, it is clear that the aim of the story is to belittle and humiliate Wolf, the reasons becoming more obvious as we learn of the story’s origins. During his investigation, Wolf encounters old colleagues – Hess, Goebbels, Klaus Barbie – and discovers that they all appear to have adapted to this brave new world better than he has himself. Coupled with the success – and imminent election as Prime Minister – of Oswald Mosley, a wannabe in Wolf’s eyes

To see Mosley, that clown, with such power! Even the man’s words were second-hand.

, it becomes obvious just how far Wolf has fallen since the heights of the Nuremberg rallies.

Interspersed with this central narrative, we catch brief glimpses of Shomer, the eponymous dreamer, as he dreams his way through his time in Auschwitz, talking to the ghost of his dead friend Yenkl when he is not reinventing the man at the root of his suffering as the hero of a pulpy detective story. We get brief flashes of his arrival on the train, the separation from his family, hard labour digging graves and a brief stay in the camp’s infirmary, where he crosses paths with fellow authors Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik. It is, as you might expect given the subject matter, a harrowing look at life in Auschwitz made no less powerful by the brevity of our visits. Shomer, like those around him, is little more than the blue-tattooed number on his arm, and the stories he invents are the only relief he finds from the daily horrors. The novel’s final line is heartbreakingly beautiful, an excellent summation of what is an extraordinary novel.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a brave novel for a man whose life has been shaped by the very events he is describing

The majority of my family, on both sides, died in [Auschwitz]

Tidhar explains in his historical note at the end). A far cry from the outright satire of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, A Man Lies Dreaming examines the dictator in a completely different way. The first-person excerpts from Wolf’s diary give us some insight into the character of the man, while filtering much of the narrative through the Chandler-esque voice. Despite the odd moment where Wolf comes across as a kind of Basil Fawlty impersonator (

He bashed the receiver against the phone box, over and over, splintering the casing, wantonly destroying the property of His Majesty’s General Post Office.

), he elicits a surprising feeling of empathy from the reader, despite what we know. Like Chandler’s well-loved Marlowe, Wolf does not come out of this case well, one beating following quickly on the heels of the one before, ritual humiliation, an impromptu circumcision, so that it’s a wonder that the man makes it to the end of the story in one piece.

This sort of alternative history is not new ground for Lavie Tidhar, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his alternate take on Osama. Brilliantly capturing the mood of a pre-war (war still looms very much on the horizon, though delayed by Hitler’s Fall) Britain while mixing it with the modern-day xenophobia that seems to be sweeping the country, spurred on by the likes of UKIP (some of whose slogans Tidhar uses to provide voice to Mosley’s supporters). The author’s deft touch sees Wolf, whose anti-semitic views survive his exile, become the object of racial hatred, rather than its purveyor, a state of affairs that is likely to have brought Shomer no small measure of happiness.

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

December 18, 2014 Posted by | Alternate History, Historical Fiction, Holocaust, Noir, Private Investigator, War | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE ABDUCTION by Jonathan Holt

THE ABDUCTION - Jonathan Holt THE ABDUCTION

Jonathan Holt (www.carnivia.com)

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£12.99

 

WALL STANDING IS NOT TORTURE.

AT 9 P.M. THIS EVENING, SHE WILL NOT BE TORTURED.

WATCH IT LIVE ON CARNIVIA.

When the teenage daughter of a high-ranking US soldier is abducted from one of Venice’s sex clubs, it seems that the protesters against the new US Air Force base at nearby Vicenza have graduated from nuisance to terrorists. But videos of Mia start appearing on Daniele Barbo’s anonymous website, Carnivia.com, and it quickly becomes clear that there are other motives for the kidnapping. Led to Dal Molin for different reasons, Colonel Aldo Piola and Captain Kat Tapo of the Carabinieri find themselves working together on this high-profile case in a race against time to find this young girl before it’s too late. With the help of Barbo, and US military liaison Holly Boland, they might just have some chance of success.

Jonathan Holt’s first novel, The Abomination, was one of my favourites of last year. With The Abduction he returns to the characters and locales (both physical and virtual) that made the first novel such a compelling read. This time around there is a sense of opportune timing, with the recent release of the so-called “torture memos”, since earlier leaked versions of these documents form the core message of Holt’s narrative: Mia’s captors use the memos to direct the course of treatment for the young girl, with each Torture/Not Torture session broadcast over Carnivia.com for the world to assess and decide.

Holt has his finger very much on the pulse, and uses an excellent device to appeal to the modern reader, who is also, most likely, a voracious consumer of social media; the abductors invite the public to take to the Internet and decide for themselves whether what they are watching (described by the US government as “not torture”) is #Torture or #NotTorture. Holt uses this device to examine the current state of what we think of as “news”, examining the traditional outlets (TV and newspapers) and also the impact of newer, less-regulated channels, such as political bloggers.

Alongside this fast-paced countdown, there is another mystery, which is what initially draws Aldo Piola to the Dal Molin construction site: a skeleton is discovered in one of the construction vehicles during a break-in by the same group that have purportedly abducted Mia. This skeleton is over seventy years old, and Piola finds himself unravelling a conspiracy that came to life towards the end of the Second World War, and which involves the police, the Church (including one of their highest-placed clerics), the CIA and the Christian Democrats, who governed Italy for over forty years. The two mysteries dovetail neatly as the book draws towards its climax, leaving the reader more than satisfied on both counts.

At the centre of this clever novel are the four characters we first met in The Abomination. In the time since the end of that previous novel, much has changed: Aldo Piola is under investigation by Internal Affairs over the sexual harassment claim filed by Kat Tapo; Kat and Holly’s friendship has terminated in a rather abrupt manner that means they haven’t spoken in some time; and Daniele Barbo has retreated back into himself and taken refuge once again in the virtual world he has created. A large part of the attraction of this novel (and its predecessor) is the focus on the relationships between the characters, and the different personalities that Holt has created for them: the outgoing and promiscuous Kat;, neat and ordered Holly; introverted, nerdy Daniele. It’s an interesting dynamic, a group of people that should not work well together, but which has as much drawing power as the book’s central mystery.

Holt also provides us with some insight into the mind of Mia and her abductors, as we watch some of the proceedings through her eyes. The sense of fear is palpable, to the point that we get a vicarious shiver every time there is a hint that something unpleasant is on the way. A rapport develops between Mia and one of her captors, despite the fact that she never sees him without his carnevale mask. This viewpoint also allows the author to examine the torture memos in more detail, and provide some context for their inclusion in the story.

The Abduction, like The Abomination before it, examines, in some depth, the Italian political, legal and justice systems, their respective problems, and their inextricable links not only with organised crime in the country, but also with the Catholic Church, which – to Holt’s mind, at least – rules supreme from the extraterritorial Vatican City at the heart of the country’s capital city. It’s an interesting slant on the old-fashioned police procedural, and a unique problem for crime fiction set in Italy.

Very much in the realms of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and their ilk, The Abduction is a mix of technological, historical and espionage thriller with a healthy dose of police procedural for good measure. Building on the world he has already created in last year’s The Abomination, Holt develops his characters, their background, and the shady Internet site that sits at the centre of the story, even further in this second outing. It’s a fast-paced and engaging read that works as a complete unit, while also providing deeper insight into the world of Venice and of Carnivia, laying further groundwork for next year’s third, much-anticipated (by me, at the very least) volume, The Absolution.

December 16, 2014 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Military, Spy Fiction, Thriller, War | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma

THE EXPEDITION - Bea Uusma THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY

Bea Uusma

Translated by Agnes Broomé

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£16.99

On 11th July 1897, three men – Salomon August Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel – set off from the northernmost point of civilisation in a hot air balloon. Their destination: the North Pole. Three days later they are forced to make an emergency landing. Then nothing for 33 years, until their bodies are found on the southernmost tip of White Island. For over 80 years, there has been plenty of speculation, but no-one has ever been able to explain how these three intrepid adventurers came to their end. Bea Uusma, while browsing a book at a boring party in the early nineties, became obsessed with the expedition and dedicated almost fifteen years to trying to piece together the final days of the Andrée Expedition.

Uusma’s short history of the Andrée Expedition, and her subsequent obsession with the reasons behind these men’s deaths, hooks the reader from the very first page. It’s an odd little book – odd in the sense of being extremely quirky – from the unexpected subtitle (“A Love Story”) to the engaging and conversational tone that the author uses throughout the book as she unfolds first the events of those few months in late 1897, and then the details of her own investigation into the unexplained deaths of these three men shortly after they arrived at a supposedly safe camping site. Along the way we gain some insight into who these three men were, through the remains of their journals, found along with their bodies, and contemporary accounts.

Uusma’s key point is that none of these three men were suited to the harsh conditions that they encountered when their balloon crashed. Unsurprising, considering the plan was to fly over the North Pole, drop a buoy to mark their achievement, and land within a couple of weeks in Russia or North America, depending on the vagaries of the wind. There is a comical element to the account of their short-lived flight, and three-month-long trek across frozen wastes, an examination of how different society was over one hundred years ago, how ill-equipped these men – and others who sought similar goals – were for what they were attempting; like the fact that their stores included formal wear for the three men so that they could attend dinner wherever they might land, or that, despite the weight of the sledges they dragged across the snow and ice, they managed to hold on to bottles of port and wine for over three months of their journey.

The Expedition: A Love Story is only partly about the disastrous journey of Andrée and his companions. The historical reportage is interspersed with a more personal narrative, as we follow Uusma’s own expedition: her examination and re-examination of everything she could get her hands on; her own attempt to follow in Andrée’s footsteps, and visit the remains of his camp on the southern tip of White Island. During the fifteen years, it became an obsession for Uusma (“Sometimes I think I became a doctor just to be able to find out what happened.”) and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, so that the book is impossible to put down once you’ve started reading. Besides these two parallel narratives, the book is filled with lists (“The Nature of the Mystery”, the various hypotheses over the years as to how these three men died), photographs, maps, tables, autopsy reports and journal entries, all used as evidence to support the theory that Uusma has developed during her research.

It is through the journal entries that we get some insight into the book’s second love story, as we read Nils Strindberg’s thoughts about the woman to whom he is engaged, Anna Charlier. It is, as you might expect, a heart-breaking story and the author manages to provide evidence from both sides.

As the reader might expect from a book of this type, Bea Uusma has produced her own theory as to what happened to these men. In a brief lapse into fiction, she shows us how they might have met their end, and why their diaries provide no clues. It’s a plausible theory, and one that the reader is likely to arrive at long before Uusma produces it, but as the author herself says:

There will never be an answer. The more I learn about the Andrée expedition, the more unsure I feel about what really happened. Can we really be sure they actually died? Were the bodies discovered on White Island really theirs?

Sure, the theory is supported by the evidence as presented within the pages of the book, but that’s not to say Uusma’s presentation of the evidence isn’t biased towards her theory. (For the record, I like it; it’s a sound theory and ties in with what Uusma discovered in the men’s journals, as laid out in detailed tables in the middle of the book.)

Bringing together the best elements of, say, Dan Simmons’ The Terror (the description of the environment, the sense of cold) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH (the personal nature of the historical narrative and the starring role that the author plays in it), The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that is very easy to overlook. Uusma’s writing style is beautifully developed with a unique and engaging tone that will captivate the reader from the outset, and Agnes Broomé’s translation manages to keep the subtleties of the author’s voice and personality, despite the often technical or unstructured nature of the text.

There are moments of sheer beauty in The Expedition: A Love Story, the type of things that one doesn’t expect to find in non-fiction of this type, observations that make the reader stop and think about what they’re reading. For me, there is a third love story here: there is a point, around page 34, where I fell in love with Uusma’s ability to tell a story.

As soon as I step ashore I get the feeling something’s wrong. Something’s off. Then I realise: everything’s in colour. I’ve stared at the black and white photos from the take-off so many times. Now I’m actually here, in the picture. And suddenly everything’s in colour.

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

December 9, 2014 Posted by | Non-fiction, Scandinavian | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough

DeathHouse THE DEATH HOUSE

Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Released on 26th February 2015

Toby is a Defective. When the results of a blood test announce his death sentence he finds himself taken forcibly from his family and transported to an old manor house on a remote island in the far north. Toby is not alone: the Death House, as its residents come to know it, houses a group of children aged between 10 and 18 who are all as doomed as Toby. Watched over by Matron and her nurses, the children await the first symptoms of illness which will signal their transfer to the sanatorium on the top floor of the house. No-one ever comes back from the sanatorium.

Toby and the other boys spend their days waiting for the end, each with their own little tricks to help pass the time. Toby refuses to take the sleeping pills that are handed out before bed, and so spends every night wandering the big house alone; this is his time, his secret. When a new batch of Defectives arrive, they bring with them Clara, who quickly invades Toby’s night time domain. As animosity turns to friendship and love begins to blossom, the pair realise that there are better things to do than sit around waiting to die.

First things first: Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel, The Death House, made me cry. Now that that’s out in the open, let’s talk about what you can expect from this beautiful little book.

It’s tough to pin Pinborough down: she is, perhaps, best known for the horror fiction that began her career, through dark crime novels and adult (by all accounts) re-workings of classic fairy tales. Then she throws us a curveball: last year’s wonderful The Language of Dying and, now, The Death House. Set on a remote island in an undefined future time (it has been 100 years since snow fell in England, is the best landmark we have), Pinborough introduces us to a group of boys and girls who have been hidden away from society because they have been classed as Defective.

We’re never quite sure what it means to be Defective: each child’s symptoms are different; it only strikes children under the age of eighteen; it’s a rare occurrence now, but was once a widespread plague. What we do know, as we watch events unfold through the eyes of Toby, one of the older boys in the house, is that these children are frightened and, despite the other children around them, very much alone. Assigned to different dormitories, battle lines are drawn, one dorm against the other, a tacit competition to see which group will last the longest before one of their members succumbs to illness.

What is fascinating here is how well-developed Toby is as a character. Pinborough manages to get inside this teenage boy’s head to show us how he thinks and reacts. Through flashbacks, we see a typical teenager with a one-track mind; as his relationship with Clara develops, and love blossoms, we see how quickly he matures, how his language and mannerisms change, and how it affects his relationships with the others in the house.

It’s easy to see, as we read, some of the novels that influenced The Death House. The most obvious, probably because Pinborough references it directly in the story, is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Rather than the desert island scenario, we find ourselves in a large, remote house, in the midst of a group of largely autonomous children who have formed into a number of factions. The formation of Ashley’s church causes these factions to fragment, and re-form, in much the same way that the boys’ allegiances change through the course of Golding’s classic novel. The other – and, for me, stronger – influence that we find is that of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the strangely emotionless and, ultimately, quite cruel Matron playing the role of Nurse Ratched.

At the centre of the novel, despite the science fiction or horror elements that set the scene, is the developing relationship between Toby and Clara. Full of innocence, it develops into the intense and emotional story of a pair of doomed lovers making the best of the very short time they have left to them. Omnia vincit amor, Virgil tells us: Love conquers all. It’s a message that forms the solid foundation of The Death House, but don’t be fooled; there is horror to come, scenes that will rock the reader to the core and drive us to question the author’s parentage. Pinborough has us in the palm of her hand from that opening line (“’They say it makes your eyes bleed. Almost pop out of your head and then bleed.’”) and there is no escape. Haunting and beautiful, The Death House will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

December 3, 2014 Posted by | Horror, Noir, Science Fiction | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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