Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson

NightBlind-BF-AW-2-275x423 NIGHTBLIND

Ragnar Jónasson (ragnar-jonasson.squarespace.com)

Translated by Quentin Bates (graskeggur.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

The violent death of Siglufjördur’s police inspector heralds a new age for the small northern Icelandic town. There are rumours of drug deals gone bad, police corruption and the involvement of the town’s mayor and deputy mayor. Ari Thór Arason, Siglufjördur’s remaining policeman, recovering from illness and dealing with the stresses in his relationship with the mother of his son, requests the help of his old boss, and together they investigate, leaving no stone unturned, no skeletons in any of the town’s closets, unravelling, as they go, a fifty-year-old mystery surrounding the house where the police inspector was murdered.

Nightblind is the second of Ragnar Jónasson’s novels to be published in English, even though it is the last of a five-book series published in the author’s native Iceland. Readers of Snowblind expecting to pick up where the first book left off may be disappointed, but if, like me, you missed that first book, it makes Nightblind a good jumping-on point, safe in the knowledge that it’s a reasonably stand-alone piece of fiction.

The book opens with the death of Herjólfur, the new police inspector of the small town of Siglufjördur, a remote town in the far north of Iceland with few links to the rest of the country due to the mountains and sea that surround and isolate it. Ari Thór Arason, the town’s remaining policeman, is finally starting to feel welcome as a local after five years serving the town and is unsure how best to look at Herjólfur’s tragic demise: as the tragedy it is; as a near miss, since it should have been him on duty when the murder took place; or as the long-awaited opportunity for Ari Thór himself to step up into the role of police inspector. As he and Tómas, Herjólfur’s predecessor who has since moved to Reykjavik, investigate, it becomes clear that Herjólfur may have been involved in shady deals, and all clues seem to point to the man who has recently become the town’s mayor, and the mysterious young woman whom he has chosen as his deputy and who is on the run from her own tortured and dangerous past.

With the exception of Tómas, who we really only see through the eyes of others, Jónasson gives us in-depth access to the minds of the central characters. What becomes immediately obvious is how unlikeable each and every one of them is: from Ari Thór whose self-interest and self-pity quickly wear thin, to Mayor Gunnar Gunnarsson whose private life is in danger of encroaching on his public life, to Siglufjördur’s resident criminal whose seemingly innocent mention of Ari Thór’s family hides a world of dangerous intent. In many ways Tómas is the only character with an ounce of humanity, an illusion perhaps created by the distance Jónasson maintains between him and the reader.

The town of Siglufjördur is an integral part of the story, and becomes a character in its own right. With a similar feel to the eponymous location of British television’s Fortitude, this small town likes to keep itself very much to itself, despite recent developments that allow more traffic to flow through the small town centre. Set at the onset of winter, Jónasson gives us some idea of the harsh conditions that have created this small, tight-knit community who spend three months of every year in almost complete darkness due to the mountains that surround them. There are a number of key themes that run through the book, giving the story an added depth that can sometimes be lacking from straight crime fiction, especially crime fiction of this length (Nightblind comes in at barely 200 pages). The most obvious of these is the sense of belonging or, more correctly, the feeling of not belonging; none of the key characters – Ari Thór, Herjólfur, Gunnar, Elín – are Siglufjördur natives, and it shows, despite their public roles within the community. There is a sense that the town is keeping something to itself, and one wonders what the locals know that we – and the story’s central characters – do not.

Other themes feel very closely linked together: no less than three of the characters are currently, or were at some point in the past, being unfaithful to their wives, husbands or partners. Without introducing spoilers, it’s sufficient to say that these traits don’t help in endearing the characters to the readers. Tied closely with this is the misogyny and violence against women – again, in more than one unrelated instance – that, in some ways, forms the very foundation of the story. Despite the small-town setting and the sometimes-laid-back nature of the people who live there, Nightbllind has a dark heart that turns this slim volume into something special.

Tensely plotted and perfectly paced, Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is something of a revelation. There is no need to understand the backstory of these characters (thankfully, since three of the earlier books aren’t yet available in English!) in order to fully appreciate the events of the story. It’s a clever whodunit with a cast of memorable – though, to varying degrees, unpalatable – characters in whose stories, beyond all reasonable expectations, we find ourselves totally invested and a beautiful desolate setting that is as cold as it is exotic. I, for one, will be adding Snowblind to my reading list, and will be looking forward to the further adventures of the townspeople of Siglufjördur. In the meantime, I can’t help but recommend Nightblind to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction on the darker side.

February 2, 2016 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Scandinavian | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN by Dolores Redondo

Adobe Photoshop PDF

THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN

Dolores Redondo (www.doloresredondomeira.com)

Translated by Isabelle Kaufeler

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£7.99

The body of a young girl found on the banks of the Baztán River in Spain’s northern Navarre region calls for the expertise of the homicide squad from the nearby capital, Pamplona. Heading the team is Inspector Amaia Salazar, who finds herself returning to her childhood home town, Elizondo, to investigate this horrendous crime. As the body counts starts to rise, Salazar finds herself dealing with the stresses of the case, as well as the family strains that her move to Pamplona caused. Local mythology and superstition serve to further complicate an already complex investigation; meanwhile, the killer is still on the loose, and the frequency of his crimes is escalating quickly.

As Dolores Redondo’s debut novel opens, the reader gets the distinct impression that they have been here before; this is textbook crime fiction, a crime we’ve witnessed a hundred times over, and a troubled investigator who is likely to mirror a hundred others we’ve already spent time with. It doesn’t take long for Redondo to disabuse us of this notion, and set out her stall as something new, something interesting, a writer willing to take risks, and take the genre – and its readers – out of its comfort zone.

Amaia Salazar, the character at the centre of this rich and layered story, is like no fictional detective you have encountered before. As her backstory unravels, and the case progresses, we find ourselves in the presence of a strong, if troubled, person whose life has been shaped by her horrific and traumatic childhood. Tensions between her and the two sisters who stayed behind in Elizondo are palpable from the outset, and when one becomes a suspect in the case, Salazar’s sanity begins to unravel. Flashbacks to the Spring of 1989 gives us glimpses of her life as a girl growing up in this small, provincial Spanish town, and offers some insight into the person she has become. This is a troubled detective who is unlikely to take solace in the bottle, like so many of her predecessors, but for whom family and the promise of motherhood is the refuge she needs, even when she doesn’t realise it herself.

Alongside all this pressure, Amaia also finds herself dealing with a large dose of sexism, both on the institutional level, and in the eyes of small-minded, small-town people. Her assignment to the case by the Police Commissioner immediately causes friction with fellow Inspector, Fermín Montes, who immediately sets out to make her life more difficult. Interestingly, the rest of Salazar’s colleagues have a much more modern outlook, with her Deputy Inspector, Jonan Etxaide relishing the opportunity to learn from her.

Characterisation – and while Salazar is definitely the strongest character in the book, as you might expect, she is certainly far from the only strong or interesting character you’ll meet in the small town of Elizondo – aside, the other great strength in The Invisible Guardian, is in Redondo’s ability to instil a wonderful sense of place. Basing the action in a real small town in the northern reaches of the country, the author shows us a side of Spain that we tend not to see otherwise: it is February, and the Navarre region, nestled against the foothills of the Pyrenees, is cold and damp, a far cry from dense heat that we expect to find from a story set in this part of the world. But Redondo’s Navarre is much more than its geographical location; it is the people that inhabit it and their petty dislikes and superstitions, and the myths and legends that have sprung from these superstitions over the course of hundreds of years. The Invisible Guardian is soaked in these stories, these myths, and the investigation into the deaths of Ainhoa Elizasu and the other girls is inextricably linked with the beliefs of both the investigators, and of the townspeople with whom they are surrounded. Take this wonderful exchange, which, outside ultra-Catholic Spain, might seem a little odd:

She looked at Iriarte and pointed at him with her finger.

‘Inspector, can you bring me the calendars from your desk?’

Iriarte was back in barely two minutes. He put a calendar with a picture of the Immaculate Conception and another with a picture of Our Lady of Lourdes on the table.

The very name with which the media tag the killer, basajaun, shows just how deeply ingrained these beliefs, religious or otherwise, are in this little corner of the world and this underpinning is what gives Redondo’s novel its freshness, what makes it stand out from the crowd.

Forget Scandi-noir. When it comes to European crime fiction, it’s time to start looking elsewhere than the frozen wastes of the continent’s north. Dolores Redondo’s first novel shows that excellent crime fiction can come from Europe’s southern reaches as well. Steeped in atmosphere and driven by one of the most engaging protagonists to emerge for some years, The Invisible Guardian breathes new life into an old, creaking genre and paves the way for a new wave of fine Euro crime. The first book in The Baztán Trilogy, the second and third books of which are already available in Redondo’s native Spain, The Invisible Guardian is an accomplished and beautifully-written – not to mention ably translated, by Isabelle Kaufeler – work that will leave you gasping for more as your fingers whittle quickly through the final few pages.

January 27, 2016 Posted by | Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

EXTRACT From THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN by Dolores Redondo

Adobe Photoshop PDF THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN

Dolores Redondo (www.doloresredondomeira.com)

Translated by Isabelle Kaufeler

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£7.99

To celebrate the paperback release of Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian, the first book in The Baztán Trilogy, we here at Reader Dad are very happy to be part of the Blog Tour. Below, you’ll find a brief extract from the novel. Check back later to see my review of the novel.

Amaia was pleased to see that everyone present was respecting the entry point that the first officers on the scene had established. Even so, as always, it seemed to her that there were just too many people. It was almost absurd, and it may have been something to do with her Catholic upbringing, but whenever she had to deal with a corpse, she always felt a pressing need for that sense of intimacy and devotion she experienced in a cemetery. It seemed as though this was violated by the distant and impersonal professional presence of the people moving around the body. It was the sole subject of a murderer’s work of art, but it lay there mute and silenced, its innate horror disregarded.

blogtourbannerdoloresShe went over slowly, observing the place someone had chosen for the death. A beach of rounded grey stones, no doubt carried there by the previous spring’s floods, had formed beside the river, a dry strip about nine metres wide that extended as far as she could see in the gloomy pre-dawn light. A deep wood, which got denser further in, grew right up to the other bank of the river, which was only about four metres wide. Amaia waited for a few seconds while the technician from the forensics team finished taking photographs of the corpse, then she went over to stand at the girl’s feet. As was her custom, she emptied her mind of all thoughts, looked at the body lying beside the river and murmured a brief prayer. Only then did Amaia feel ready to look at the girl’s body as the work of a murderer. A pretty brown colour in life, Ainhoa Elizasu’s eyes now stared into endless space, frozen in an expression of surprise. Her head was tilted back slightly and it was just possible to make out part of the coarse string buried so deep in the flesh of her neck it had almost disappeared. Amaia leant over the body to look at the ligature.

‘It’s not even knotted, the killer just pulled it tight until the girl stopped breathing,’ she said softly, almost to herself.

‘It would take some strength to do that,’ observed Jonan from behind her. ‘Do you think we’re looking for a man?’

‘It seems likely, although the girl’s not that tall, only five foot one or so, and she’s very thin. It could have been a woman.’

Dr San Martín, who’d been chatting with the judge and the court clerk accompanying her until this point, bade her a rather flowery farewell and came over to the body.

January 27, 2016 Posted by | Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TRAVELERS REST by Keith Lee Morris

Travelers Rest TRAVELERS REST

Keith Lee Morris

Weidenfeld & Nicolson (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

On the long drive from Seattle to South Carolina, the Addison family – Tonio and Julia, their son Dewey and Tonio’s brother, Robbie – are forced off the highway by a massive snowstorm and find themselves in the small town of Good Night, Idaho. Taking a room in the town’s only hotel, the Travelers Rest, they settle down to wait. One by one, they separate from the group and find themselves reliving the same nightmare day after day, catching glimpses of each other but never quite able to regroup. As past and present merge, the family learns of Good Night’s mining-town origins, and discovers that they’re not the first people to fall foul of the Travelers Rest’s questionable hospitality. With time running out, it is up to the individual family members to break the cycle and make a bid for freedom.

As the novel opens, Morris alternates the narrative – a trick that continues throughout the novel – to show us the dynamics of this family: Tonio is taking younger brother Robbie back to South Carolina as part of a court-ordered rehabilitation program, so there is already tension between the brothers; Julia and Robbie’s relationship, although not necessarily sexual in nature, is much stronger than that between the brothers, or even that between husband and wife; and ten-year-old Dewey, who seems much wiser than his years, can feel – if not understand – all of the tension around him. Things begin to fall apart almost immediately upon their arrival in Good Night, as Robbie disappears in the middle of the night, heading for the town’s watering hole, across the quiet main street.

From there, each family member becomes separated from the others, and each finds themselves in a different version of reality, reliving the same day over and over as the snow continues to fall. Essentially a haunted house tale, Travelers Rest follows in the footsteps of The Haunting of Hill House, Morris opting for a quiet, unsettling sense of horror that grows on the reader as the story progresses, rather than an all-out attack on the senses. The strength of Morris’ story-telling lies in his characterisations – this is very much a character-driven piece – not only of the Addison family, but of the denizens of Good Night whose paths they cross: Hugh and Lorraine, who own the town’s diner, and from whom we get much of the backstory, as they explain to Dewey the town’s “hunger”, and the souvenirs that it likes to keep; Stephanie, Hugh’s sister, who guides Robbie through these extraordinary events; and the smarmy and officious Mr A. Tiffany, proprietor of the Travelers Rest.

The tension is palpable throughout the story: without introducing a ticking clock, Morris still manages to impose a sense of deadline on the reader, a feeling that time is running out. The seemingly endless snow gives the book a claustrophobic feel, yet we understand from early on that it’s not the reason the Addisons are here, or that they have stayed so long.

“I know it sounds weird,” Hugh said, “but people get drawn here. It has a magnetic quality.”

Morris’ writing brings with it a certain immediacy, an intensity that draws the reader in and forces them to be part of the world he has created. The hotel affects different people in different ways; we see each of these different worlds through the eyes of the sufferers, and it’s clear that for many, escape is not something for which they strive.

Reminiscent of King’s Desperation and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Keith Lee Morris’ latest novel – the first to be published in the UK – is an intense and gripping story that succeeds in its aim to unsettle the reader, to turn what we think we know on its head and leave us stranded with the Addison family in the strange little town of Good Night, Idaho. Wonderful writing and excellent characterisation combine to keep the story very much grounded in reality, despite the unnerving and unusual sights we will see during our stay in the Travelers Rest. A fine new voice in horror fiction, Keith Lee Morris shows an impressive talent and a deep understanding of his chosen genre. I’m interested to see where his talents take him next; in the meantime, Travelers Rest should be on your list of books to read this year.

January 13, 2016 Posted by | Horror, Thriller | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 2015 Round-Up

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the year that has been. As is now “traditional”, I’ll be using this post to talk about my favourite books of the year, but first a quick blast through some of the non-bookish stuff that happened in the past twelve months.

For me, 2015 was always going to be significant because it’s the year in which I turned forty (so old!) and, thanks to my wife, I spent my fortieth birthday fulfilling the lifelong ambition of visiting KL Auschwitz and the nearby city of Kraków (I’ll talk more about this early in the New Year). 2015 also saw the release of the much-hyped latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, a film that did not disappoint, and which reawakened (pun most definitely intended) something of the child buried deep within this forty-year-old body, helped in no small way by the fact that I was able to share the experience with my six-year-old son, who bears all the hallmarks of becoming twice the nerd his father is.

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, Goodreads informs me that I have read 74 books, and I’m likely to finish both my current paperback and audiobook reads before the end of the day. Of these, 34 are by authors I have never read before, and 13 of those were debuts. A miserly seven were translated fiction, and you’ll find a few of them on the lists below.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that only 34 reviews were posted on Reader Dad during 2015, which falls way short of the 74 books completed. I can only apologise, and my only excuse is laziness. My aim for 2016 is to get back to a more regular review schedule and to review, if not everything I read, then the vast majority of it. As a result, many of the books in the top ten lists below don’t have links to existing reviews.

The lists, as always, are presented in the order in which the books were read, so don’t attach any importance to their relative positions.

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2015

ARAB JAZZ by Karim Miské [trans: Sam Gordon] (MacLehose Press)

Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (Orion Books)

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

DARK STAR by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

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.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon (Hodder & Stoughton)

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.

THE ENCHANTED THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfield (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I didn’t review this book at the time because I didn’t think I could do it justice. Told from the point of view of a prisoner on death row, it intertwines his story with that of an investigator tasked with getting the sentence of a fellow inmate commuted. Beautiful and haunting, it’s an accomplished first novel that will leave you gasping for more.

Small Angry Planet THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

Without doubt, the best piece of science fiction you’ll read this year, or any year. Following Rosemary Harper’s first few months as a member of the Wayfarer’s crew, this wonderful novel focuses very much on the characters as a way to tell its tale. And what a bunch of characters they are! Reminiscent of the dear-departed Firefly, the novel has an episodic structure that means each chapter is a self-contained “story” that, when combined, produces a fun, action-packed space opera adventure that should not be missed.

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman (Faber & Faber)

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.

The-Loney THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray)

Another stunner that I failed to review at the time. Quietly disturbing and beautifully written, this is the horror debut of the year. Hurley is already on my must-read list.

 

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2015

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

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.

THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen (Harvill Secker)

There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)

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.

ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis (Picador)

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.

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz [trans: George Goulding] (MacLehose Press)

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.

As an aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was an exceptional follow-up to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and probably would have secured a place on this list had Fall of Man in Wilmslow not been released the same year.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (The Borough Press)

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

STALLO by Stefan Spjut [trans: Susan Beard] (Faber & Faber)

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

WAY DOWN DARK by JP Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Simon Toyne’s fourth novel, the first to be set outside the fictional world to which he introduced us in his Sanctus trilogy, cements his place as one of the finest genre writers working today. Clever and engaging, Toyne weaves a number of strands together to produce an exciting, page-turning read. As always, his characterisations are pitch perfect and his sense of place second-to-none – his small-town Arizona seems as real as the Turkish city of Ruin. A perfectly-formed thriller in the author’s own unique style, Solomon Creed is not to be missed by returning fans and Toyne virgins alike.

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

night-music-uk-225 NIGHT MUSIC: NOCTURNES VOLUME 2 by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

Best known for his Charlie Parker crime novels, John Connolly has a penchant for horror in the short form. This second collection of short horror stories contains some absolute gems, as well as a wonderful Lovecraftian novella in five parts, “The Fractured Atlas”.

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans: Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne (Doubleday)

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

COMING SOON…

With 2016 looming, one of my resolutions is to try to review all of the books I read this year. The first review, that of Keith Lee Morris’ excellent Travelers Rest, should appear shortly before the end of the year. With new novels from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Daniel Polansky and Sarah Pinborough all due within the first half of the year, it’s shaping up to be another bumper year for readers of genre fiction.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2016. May The Force Be With You!*

 

* Well, it is the year of the rebirth of Star Wars, after all!

December 23, 2015 Posted by | Round-up, Top 10 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne

THE  BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN - John Boyne THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

It is 1936 and seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his French mother, his German father having drunk himself into an early grave several years before. His best friend is Anshel Bronstein, a deaf Jewish child who lives on the ground floor of his apartment building. When Pierrot’s mother dies, his father’s sister takes him in, and brings him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is a housekeeper, and the house where she works is perched atop a mountain on the German-Austrian border, close to the small town of Berchtesgaden; this is the Berghof, and the master of the house is none other than the man who will soon become Führer of the Third Reich. Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot soon rediscovers his German heritage, but finds that his newfound power comes at terrible cost.

Almost ten years after the phenomenal The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne returns to the subject of World War II as seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy. While both the title and cover of this latest story are both very reminiscent of that earlier volume, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a very different beast, though one that, ultimately, examines the same core question – “nature or nurture?” – through a very different lens.

We see the world through the young and innocent eyes of Pierrot, though the third-person narrative allows the narrator to impart secrets to the reader that might otherwise be beyond the youngster’s comprehension. Precocious and likeable, we feel a blow at the death of his mother, and are glad when he finds a place at a small family-run orphanage where we get the sense that he will be well looked after. When his aunt brings him to live with her, we watch and understand Pierrot’s apprehension while at the same time feeling joy that he still has family who want to do their best by him. It is a joy that is short-lived, when we discover exactly where he is going.

For the most part, Boyne paints a very human picture of Hitler, a man with much on his mind for whom this young boy is excellent company. There are moments when the evil peeks out from under the mask, and even the most jaded reader will feel a chill as we see the monster within. As Pierrot – now Pieter – grows closer to Hitler, his relationship with his aunt, and with the house’s other servants grows ever more distant. We watch as Pierrot changes – first forgetting his Parisian roots and his friendship with Anshel, then alienating himself from what few friends he has been able to make at the school in Berchtesgaden, and from the people with whom he shares the house, even when the master is not in residence – and the change becomes most marked when Hitler presents him with a gift almost a year after he first arrives: his own Hitler Youth uniform, which bestows upon him a sense of belonging, and of power, that has long been missing from his life. There comes a point in the novel, a moment of shocking betrayal, where we witness the boy’s transformation into early manhood:

It was Pierrot who climbed out of bed that morning, but it was Pieter who returned to it now before falling soundly asleep.

As we have come to expect from the works of John Boyne, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is beautifully-written and well-researched. His evocation of the Berghof is enough to transport the reader to the Obersalzburg, and his characters are as full of life as any he has created. While it lacks the emotional kick in the gut that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides, it is no less intense an experience. (Regular readers will be pleased with the brief crossover between the two books, as Pierrot and Bruno come face-to-face at Mannheim train station.) It’s an engaging – and all-too-short – look at Pierrot’s journey to the very brink of evil, but it is also, at least indirectly, a very frightening examination of Hitler’s fabled charisma, and goes some way towards trying to explain how so many people might have been talked into doing so many bad things in the name of furthering the Reich, not least the once – and potential future – King of England who turns up with Mrs Wallis Simpson on his arm for a weekend retreat with the Führer. What is perhaps most frightening about the experience is how Boyne plays on our own feelings about this man, presenting him in a different light that contradicts everything we think we know.

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Fanboy Gushings, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Holocaust, War | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre

THE GREAT SWINDLE - Pierre Lemaitre THE GREAT SWINDLE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

As the Great War approaches its end, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle decides to make one last bid for glory. Sending two scouts over the top, he shoots them in the back, and uses their deaths as the perfect excuse for one final push against the enemy. When Albert Maillard discovers what he has done, he almost dies as a result, buried alive in a shell crater. After the war, Albert and Édouard Péricourt, the man who saved him from his fate, and suffered a terrible mutilation as a result, live together in poverty, all of their money going towards the morphine that Édouard needs in order to keep functioning. Pradelle, meanwhile, is living the life of luxury, having married into the rich Péricourt family, who believe Édouard to be dead. His business – the exhumation of dead French soldiers from temporary graves and relocation to government-sanctioned war graves – is booming, but Pradelle is less interested in how the result is achieved than in the money it brings. Albert and Édouard, meanwhile, have come up with the perfect plan to make money, a scheme that will see them swindle the whole of France to fund a comfortable retirement to the colonies.

In a massive departure from the work that made his name, the Camille Verhoeven novels, Pierre Lemaitre turns his attention to France in the interwar period, beginning with the final days of the First World War in October and November 1918. It is here, in the trenches in rural France, that we meet the trio of characters whose stories The Great Swindle will tell: on the one hand, the timid Albert Maillard, a peacetime bank-teller turned soldier who has seen his share of action, having been wounded in the Somme; on the other hand is Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, a man who “reeked of money and looked like a crook”, a man from a rich background playing at war, and hoping for glory and advancement through the ranks. The third man is Édouard Péricourt, the son of a rich Parisian, an artist and flamboyant homosexual who has been disowned by his father, and sought escape in the ranks of the French army. The fates of these three men become inextricably entangled during the taking of Hill 113, and their futures are decided when Albert quite literally stumbles upon evidence of Pradelle’s betrayal of the unit.

Of the three, Albert seems the most level-headed, despite the terrible nightmares that haunt him following his near-death experience at the bottom of a shell crater filled with mud. He has been changed by this war, a man trying to earn a living in a country where he is essentially persona non grata: those who died for their country are the heroes; those who returned are failures, men who went off to fight for their country and couldn’t even die. Albert has the additional burden of the severely disfigured Édouard, a man to whom he owes his life, and who he nurses through the pain and the subsequent, inevitable, morphine addiction. Lemaitre spends little time in Édouard’s head; it’s a dark place and, though we feel sorry for this man whose life essentially ended in those final days of the war, we can’t help but despise him for his treatment of Albert, and for the coming betrayal that seems obvious to us from early on. The final corner of this strange triangle, Pradelle is the embodiment of evil, a schemer out to make money at the expense of others and who chooses his friends based on their contacts and influence. As another character notes,

[…he [Pradelle] was a loudmouth, a chancer, a rich bastard, a cynic – a word much in vogue sprang to mind: “profiteer”.]

He is a character that it is easy to hate, and when his world starts to crumble – as his swindle is uncovered by the fascinating civil servant Joseph Merlin – it is with no small amount of glee that we stand back and watch.

The Great Swindle of the title is the plan put in place by Albert and Édouard to sell fake war memorials and abscond with the money before anyone realises what has happened. Albert is initially against the idea, while Édouard is filled with excitement and enthusiasm – at least, outwardly. Unlike Pradelle’s con, which is based on a real scandal, the war memorial swindle is the creation of Lemaitre, but it is beautifully-constructed and entirely believable, a hangover, perhaps, from the involved plotting required for the Verhoeven novels.

Lemaitre’s style is evident throughout, and The Great Swindle is an exciting mix of light-hearted caper and dark examination of a country – and a people – recovering from one of the darkest periods of human history to date. Alongside the clever money-making scheme, the author examines the psychological effects of the war on three very different individuals who came out of the war with very different experiences, and in various states of mental and physical “completeness”, for want of a better word. The story – and the post-war France – is fleshed out with a host of other characters whose interactions with the central trio drive the story to a rewarding and tear-inducing climax. Characters like Marcel Péricourt, the father of Édouard, a man who believes his son has been killed in the trenches, and who is learning how much he has lost through re-discovery of his son’s art and the few memories that he retains; Léon Jardin-Beaulieu, Pradelle’s business partner and a man whose sister and wife are both sleeping with the handsome ex-soldier; and Joseph Merlin, the dishevelled civil servant tasked with inspecting the grave sites for which Pradelle is responsible, and whose gruesome discoveries will lead to one of the biggest scandals France has ever seen. Merlin is an odious man, in every sense of the word, but he is also one of the novel’s standouts, a beacon of honesty in a world gone mad with greed.

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

November 12, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, War | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

DUST AND DESIRE by Conrad Williams

DUST AND DESIRE - Conrad Williams DUST AND DESIRE (A Joel Sorrell Novel)

Conrad Williams (conradwilliams.wordpress.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

London-based private investigator Joel Sorrell has gotten himself entangled in a most bizarre missing person case. Hired to look into the disappearance of his client’s brother, Sorrell begins to believe that he may be on a wild goose chase, especially when his client vanishes into thin air. When the body-count starts to rise – most notably the man who cuts his own throat on the landing outside Sorrell’s apartment door – Joel discovers that there are ties here to his old stomping grounds in Liverpool. As he investigates, he begins to understand that someone from a past Joel would much rather forget is out for vengeance, and Joel is the target. But why him?

In a departure from his usual horror fare (Williams, in case you haven’t read him, is one of the most exciting British horror writers since, say, Ramsay Campbell or James Herbert), Conrad Williams finds himself in the guise of downtrodden London PI Joel Sorrell as he faces a case that will test him to the limits, and force him to examine his life so far. From the outset, it’s obvious that Sorrell is a man with a tough-guy reputation protecting a soft inner core, a damaged character with a history that haunts his every move and decision: his wife was murdered when he was still a trainee policeman, and his teenage daughter disappeared several months later, apparently unable to cope with her father’s approach to grief.

Sorrell is hired by Kara Geenan to find her brother who has disappeared, and Sorrell accepts the case despite his better judgement. In typical hard-boiled fashion, it isn’t long before he finds himself beaten and in trouble with the police in the form of a humourless man with whom he trained. The man he is trying to find seems not to exist, and when he attempts to get in touch with Kara, he discovers that she has disappeared. His investigation brings him into contact with a host of colourful characters, from the hulking doorman Errol, to the self-important Knocker, and a handful of ex-girlfriends, all the while attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life with his cat Mengele and the beautiful vet who is as lonely as he is.

The first-person narrative allows Joel’s personality to shine through in his strong voice. The writing is stylish, but not at the cost of substance, full of wit, yet tinged with the sadness that is a constant in Joel’s life. From the opening lines, there is a very definite hard-boiled feel to the narrative, something familiar, yet far from clichéd, a fresh take on an age-old voice. Often laugh-out-loud, there is a natural feel to the writing that leaves the audience feel less like a reader, and more like a listener.

I came out of the Beehive on Homer Street and trod on a piece of shit. Big surprise. I’m always doing it. It was the end of a pretty rough day, and the noble gods of misery obviously didn’t fancy me toddling off to bed without pissing in my pockets one last time. I looked down at my shoe. The piece of shit said: ‘Can you get off my face now?’ I lifted my foot and let him stand up.

While Dust and Desire (a reworking of Williams’ 2010 novel, Blonde on a Stick, released by Titan in anticipation of a second and third Joel Sorrell thriller next year) is a departure from the author’s horror roots, there is a darkness here that belies those roots and blurs the lines between the two genres. The occasional violence is shocking in its intensity and graphic in its execution. The frequent side-trips into the mind of the serial killer leave the reader feeling disturbed, somehow unclean, at once understanding his twisted logic and wishing that we didn’t. His status as a “leapling” gives him added dimension and makes him, somehow, even more disturbing – it’s not every day we come across a four-year-old serial killer.

Dust and Desire is Conrad Williams doing what he does best, regardless of genre: crafting a story that we want to read, and that draws us in from the first page. Beautifully-realised characters and an engaging plot combine to make this one of the must-read crime novels of the year. The prospect of more of the same in next year’s Sonata of the Dead and Hell is Empty fills this reader with joy and excitement. Conrad Williams brings a wealth of experience to the genre, yet gives us a fresh new voice that immediately places him at the front of the burgeoning Brit Noir scene.

November 10, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Fanboy Gushings, Noir | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King

BOBD THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

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

£20.00

When people think of Stephen King, they most often think of the massive tomes that helped to make his name: The Stand, It, Needful Things. What we often forget is that King is as comfortable writing short fiction as he is writing in the longer form, and that he has produced over 120 pieces of short fiction in his forty-year career, enough to fill six collections (this, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is the sixth) and four collections of slightly longer pieces. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collects twenty pieces, written since the publication of Just After Sunset in 2008, into an accessible and wonderfully-annotated single volume that marks the end, as do the earlier collections, of another period of the author’s writing career.

I’ve made some things for you; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, come a little closer. I don’t bite. Except…I suspect you know that’s not entirely true.

I have been considering the worth of the short story collection in this day and age where everything is so readily available on the Internet. My ponderings began when I read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings earlier this year and discovered that I had, in fact, already read most of the pieces it contained. As a King collector, I like to keep my ear to the ground, and tend to pounce on new short stories when they’re released (yes, I am still using the “I only buy Playboy for the stories” excuse). So, when The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was announced, my first thought was: it’ll be a lovely addition to my collection, but I’ll probably have read the vast majority of it before; a thinking process that was verified when the table of contents was released further down the line.

But…

Having read it (or re-read, as the case seems to have been), I can now see the merit in collecting these works together. Many of them have been revised for re-publication, while others are brand new and, in one case, the story is available for the first time in King’s native English as part of the collection. In the main, it’s an excellent excuse to revisit some of the excellent stories that King has produced over the course of the past decade or so. The stories themselves cover a wide range of topics and genres, from the all-out horrific opener, “Mile 81” to the touching and blackly funny “Premium Harmony” which sees a young man lose his wife and his dog in one fell swoop; from the hilarious one-upmanship that drives “Drunken Fireworks” to the post-apocalyptic vision of the book’s closing story, “Summer Thunder”.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from these twenty stories; each one contains a little window onto the world and shows us, as only King can, the people who inhabit it and the stresses that, but for the grace of whichever god you believe in, might be our own. Some are more memorable than others, of course, but I suspect this might be as individual as each reader’s taste in music, or television, or… For me, the standouts are those stories that leave us with plenty to think about, which ask the question “what if?”, and invite us to extrapolate on the answer.

The Little Green God of Agony” is one such story and gives pain a physical form that can travel from one body to another. As someone who has suffered chronic pain for over twenty years, it’s a story that speaks directly to me, and I understand Newsome’s need to try every possible treatment, regardless of how off-the-wall it may seem and also, to some extent, his nurse’s accusations that much of his suffering is down to his own laziness and unwillingness to break the cycle of pain. The Little Green God is an image that appeals to me, and that haunts me in the dead of night when the pain chases sleep away.

The Dune” presents us with a simple enough premise: a dune on which writing appears from time to time, and the man who has discovered that each time a name appears on the dune, that person will die quite soon afterwards. It’s old-fashioned horror, but it’s the beautiful sting in the tail that makes this one stick with the reader. “Drunken Fireworks”, on the other hand, is as far from horror as it’s possible to get. In King’s fictional Castle Rock, two families – one local, one from out of town – have a rapidly-escalating fireworks competition every Fourth of July. The outcome is inevitable, but it’s the characters that drive this story, especially Alden McCausland, the man whose story this is: it’s the kind of character study in which King excels, the pitch-perfect Maine voice, and the examination of small-town life and how outsiders fit – or more often fail to fit – into the ideals that we hold so dear.

Ur”, originally written as a marketing gimmick for the then-new Amazon Kindle, has been given something of a facelift, but manages to maintain its solid core: on the surface, it’s a parable on the dangers of technology, but it’s once again the human element that causes most of the trouble. This is one of those “what if?” stories that will play over and over, especially when you go looking in the settings menu of your e-reader. For fans of baseball, King has included “Blockade Billy”, a wonderful novella that was originally published as a lovely little hardback in 2010. This is King the prestidigitator in his element, a story that manages to hide its true nature until the very last paragraph.

In many ways, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is the perfect companion piece to King’s instructional 2000 book, On Writing. Each of the stories here contain a short introduction explaining the story’s origins and what King was trying to achieve when writing them. It’s a brief but educational look into the workings of King’s mind, and his approach to writing fiction. It also serves to date-stamp, in a way, each story, allowing the reader to follow the progression of a writer who, by his own admission, is still perfecting his craft.

King has come a long way since the publication of his first book of short stories, 1978’s Night Shift. Clearly the work of the same brilliant mind, it’s clear that the stories that make up The Bazaar of Bad Dreams come with extra baggage, the weight of experience that can only come from living life. There’s much less focus on the “horror” elements (take a look at the table of contents for Night Shift and you’ll see what I mean), and much more on the “human” elements; many of these stories are unsettling or downright frightening, but more because of how close to the bone they strike than because of how much they can gross us out (with the exception, maybe, of “Mile 81”) or their reliance on the easy scare: the ghost, or the giant rat, or the vampire. They are the work of a much more mature writer, a writer at a vastly different stage of life than the twenty-something who wrote “Graveyard Shift” or “Children of the Corn” and the book’s publication clears the decks for a new stage of King’s writing, something we’ll be able to measure in another decade or so when collection number seven comes our way.

There are a couple of stories that are noticeable by their absence from the book’s table of contents. The fact that I’ve noticed is one of the downsides of that desire to keep up-to-date that I spoke about earlier. The most obvious (although there are probably more that I have missed) are “In the Tall Grass” and “A Face in the Crowd”, both of which were produced alongside a co-writer, son Joe Hill in the first instance, Faithful co-writer Stewart O’Nan in the second. Their omission seems odd, but fills this reader with hope: is King aiming to become the literary Tony Bennett and give us a Duets-style book of collaborations somewhere down the line?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

November 2, 2015 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Crime Fiction, Fanboy Gushings, Horror, Short Story Collection | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

INFLUENCES: The Sum of our Experiences by JASON STARR

JasonStarr Name: JASON STARR

Author of: SAVAGE LANE (2015)

On the web: www.jasonstarr.com

On Twitter: @JasonStarrBooks

"Who are your influences?"

This is a question all writers get, and I think I’ve given a different answer each time I’ve been asked.

To some degree, it depends on my mood. If I’m feeling a little haughty and literary, I’ll usually think of Hemingway first, and Gertrude Stein, but I’m not sure he was an actual influence? I liked Hemingway’s simplicity, but I didn’t connect with all of his themes. The reality is I was reading a lot of Hemingway in particular when I started taking writing seriously in college, so it has seemed natural to call him an influence. For similar reasons I’ve cited Raymond Carver and John Cheever as influences. I was a fan of Carver’s style and Cheever’s characterizations, but I don’t think they really affected my actual writing. I’ve  also cited playwrights like Beckett,  Mamet, and Pinter, but I’m not sure in actuality they had an affect on my writing–especially my novel writing. I wrote plays in my twenties so naturally I was reading a lot of plays.

In other moods I’ve gone right to my favorite crime writers as my major influences and give shout outs to Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and Elmore Leonard. I was certainly reading a lot of crime fiction when I started writing crime fiction, but were these writers actual influencing my writing? Would my writing be different if I hadn’t read Leonard? Probably, but in other moods, I think Beckett had the biggest affect on me.

Sometimes when I’m answering the influences question, I feel like I’m giving lists of some of my favorite writers in various genres, rather than listing influences. So maybe the true answer to the influences question is that there is no answer. Maybe our real influences are a sum of our experiences, the novels we’ve read, and movies and TV shows we’ve seen, and it’s impossible to pinpoint the actual influencers. Maybe this is why my answer to this question has been so fluid–because it should be.

October 27, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Influences, Thriller | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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