|A MAN LIES DREAMING
Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
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.
Jonathan Holt (www.carnivia.com)
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
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.
|THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY
Translated by Agnes Broomé
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
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.
|THE DEATH HOUSE
Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
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.
‘Books are a uniquely portable magic.’
– Stephen King, On Writing
When birthdays or Christmas roll around, there’s nothing I like more than the book-shaped parcels that are an inevitable purchase for someone who loves to read. In our family, they’re invariably accompanied by the joke that never gets old (really, Dad!) about how it’s a bicycle or a bottle of whiskey. But it’s better than either of those things: it’s a hunk (usually, given my reading preferences, a rather large hunk) of paper and card that has the power to transport me out of my everyday life, and into something – or somewhere – completely different.
Maybe it’s for this same reason that books are always my first port of call when it comes to buying gifts for other people. New baby? The Fisher Price My First Book is perfect (at least it was when Fisher Price were still producing it). Sister’s wedding? How about a hardcopy of Edward Monkton’s A Lovely Love Story to commemorate the fact that it was the piece I opted to read during the ceremony? What child can resist F. Paul Wilson’s brilliant The Christmas Thingy at this time of year? Or the many adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh at any time of the year? And what adult can resist the charms of young Jack, the narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room, or the myriad characters that form the central core of Stephen King’s Under The Dome?
I like to think of myself of something of an evangelist (though not of the Billy Graham type): I love to promote reading and try to do what I can to spread the love for books, so when I buy gifts for the young’uns, they’re books that I loved at that age and which I believe still hold the power to enthral and astound. It’s an encouragement to read, and in some ways a subtle hint that reading is an acceptable pastime, something that they shouldn’t be afraid of doing, or of being seen doing. With adults, it’s about sharing the books that I’ve loved with others, a much more personal – and personalised – version of the posts that you find on Reader Dad.
No matter what, there’s a pact between the recipient and I, an unspoken promise that it’s something I think they’ll enjoy, something that is much more than the paper on which it is printed. It’s a ticket to another world; a brief glimpse into another life; a gift that will bring hours, if not days, of escapism and entertainment.
My family have resigned themselves to the fact that there is a very good chance that a gift from me won’t be a bicycle or a bottle of whiskey, and I’m happy to say that I’ve even converted some of them to my way of thinking. And it’s great to see that I’m not alone: projects like World Book Night and Neil Gaiman’s All Hallow’s Read are evidence that there are plenty of like-minded people in the world, who love to give and receive books as gifts. All in all, I can’t imagine a greater gift than that of reading, or of something new and amazing to read.
Thanks to the wonderful Quercus family who will be running the #GreatestGift campaign throughout December; I’m delighted to have been asked to take part, and look forward to following the campaign as fellow bloggers and vloggers have their say.
Thanks also to Quercus, who have provided a wonderful bundle of books, as well as some lovely #GreatestGift stuff (gorgeous postcard, poster and bookmark, right), that will be given away at the end of today to one lucky winner. The books in question are all books I’ve read this year, and you can expect to see some of them in my list of favourite books later this month. Click on the links to see my reviews:
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Jöel Dicker
Research by Philip Kerr
Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell
Irène by Pierre Lemaitre
To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is send a single tweet answering the following question:
Which book would be your #GreatestGift?
Make sure you include the hashtag #GreatestGift as well as including @MattGCraig @QuercusBooks to ensure your entry is included.
The competition will close at 6 PM this evening, 1st December 2014 and the winner will be notified shortly thereafter.
Follow the #GreatestGift hashtag on Twitter, find details of the full campaign at the Quercus blog, and be sure to check out Book Addict Shaun tomorrow for more on #GreatestGift and another giveaway of another amazing bundle of books.
|THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE
Anthony Quinn (anthonyquinnwriter.com)
No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)
In the dying days of 1917, the body of young woman is washed ashore on the west coast of Ireland, near Sligo. She is in an old and decomposing coffin. Before her death, she sent a letter to London, to the poet William Butler Yeats and his Order of the Golden Dawn, foretelling her own death, and asking him to seek out her murderer should it come to pass. A noted spiritualist and supernatural investigator, Yeats charges his young apprentice, the ghost-catcher Charles Adams, with travelling to Sligo to find her ghost, and find out how she met her end. Met by suspicion and loathing, Adams finds himself in a country torn apart by political and religious sectarianism, where the English are less than welcome, and where the supernatural will be the least of his worries.
Taking a break from his Inspector Celsius Daly novels, Anthony Quinn takes the reader back to Ireland in the early part of 1918. Europe and much of the rest of the world is at war, but it seems to have little effect on this part of western Ireland – Sligo and its surrounding areas – which is dealing with its own troubles. It is almost two years since the events of the Easter Rising and many of the rich people who call this part of the country their home – ex-patriot Englishmen, for the most part – have been hounded from their manors and estates and sent on their merry way back to whence they came. This is the heart of Irish nationalism, the domain of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Daughters of Erin.
It is into this politically-charged environment that Charles Adams arrives at the behest of his mentor, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, an Englishman with no concept of the history of this place, or the current mind-set of the people he is likely to encounter. Charged with finding the ghost of Rosemary O’Grady, it quickly becomes clear that a more natural course of investigation is likely to yield more results. Adams begins asking questions that see him viewed with suspicion by the locals, and brings him into contact with both the local constabulary, and with the Daughters of Erin, in the guise of Yeats’ old lover, Maud Gonne. Adams also finds himself plagued by Wolfe Marley, an Irishman who is employed as a spy by the British Admiralty.
Despite the supernatural elements – or the suggestion of supernatural elements – the mystery at the heart of The Blood Dimmed Tide has a wholly natural explanation, something mundane yet very cleverly constructed to allow the user to catch glimpses of the truth as the novel progresses, while still withholding enough to surprise us in the final act. What is most interesting is how each of the two central characters – Yeats and Adams – approach the question of how and why young Rosemary O’Grady died. Yeats, obsessed with the supernatural, has become an investigator of sorts, a debunker of fake mystics and psychics in much the same way that Houdini was. For him, there is no other way to determine the cause of death than by finding and asking the dead girl’s ghost. Adams, on the other hand, takes a more grounded approach, despite his reputation as a ghost-catcher of some talent. For him, the political environment in which he finds himself when he arrives in Sligo raises more questions about the girl’s death and sends him on his inevitable collision course with the locals, and the local powers-that-be.
The Blood Dimmed Tide is a wonderful character-driven mystery that is defined in large part by place and time. Nowhere else could the story have taken place than the tumultuous west coast of Ireland in the dying days of the Great War: the environment in which Charles Adams – and, later, W.B. Yeats himself – finds himself, and the atmosphere that Quinn generates for the reader are as important to the story as the murder victim herself. Along our journey, Quinn introduces us to secret occult societies, Irish rebels, the last remnants of the British Empire in Sligo and smugglers. All this plays out as war rages in mainland Europe, and German U-boats lurk off the coastline, an ever-present threat for some, and a potential ally for others.
Quinn has done an excellent job evoking the spirit of Ireland in the years following the Easter Rising, and examines the politics of the time by placing an Englishman – and an Englishman with no clue as to what he’s letting himself in for, at that – into the middle of this powder keg of emotions and barely-restrained violence. His characters are well-drawn, his use of the first person allowing us to see inside the mind of young Charles Adams as he undertakes his mission. These sections are interspersed with third-person narratives, which give the reader some insight into the other characters we encounter. The inclusion of Yeats seems superfluous, and indeed he is a character who spends much of the time on the side lines, but it does leave this reader wondering if there are deeper themes at play here, things I might have picked up on had I read any of Yeats’ work in the past (shameful, I know!), or if he’s just a vehicle to introduce the supernatural aspect of the tale. Either way, it’s interesting to see this side of one of Ireland’s most famous sons.
The Blood Dimmed Tide is a dark and gripping tale that takes the reader to Ireland’s very own Wild West. Beautifully written, with a cleverly-constructed mystery at its core, the story blends crime fiction, politics and occultism in a way that keeps the reader interested in every aspect of the story: the political situation as much as Rosemary O’Grady’s cause of death or the insight into the various rebel factions. The book is likely to appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, or those interested in the work on the occult carried out by Houdini around the same time period as the novel’s setting, and introduces Anthony Quinn as a fascinating new voice in the latest wave of Irish crime fiction writers, and one that I’ll be watching closely in the future.
|Name: DAVID BALDACCI
Author of: ZERO DAY (2011)
On the web: davidbaldacci.com
On Twitter: @davidbaldacci
To celebrate the launch of David Baldacci’s latest novel, The Escape, as well as the paperback publication of his fourth Will Robie novel, The Target, we’re very pleased to welcome the author to Reader Dad as part of his blog tour.
I’ve been waiting for this moment since I finished the first novel in the John Puller series, Zero Day. Now the third novel in that series – The Escape – is out and we finally learn the answer to a question posed in Zero Day: What is the deal with John’s brother, Robert? When we first meet him he’s a prisoner at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, America’s most secure military prison. He’s serving a life sentence for treason. What exactly did he do? And, more importantly, is he really guilty?
I enjoy foreshadowing questions like this in a series. Readers have to be a bit patient to get the payoff, but hopefully it will be worth it. Writing about the military is a little dicey. First, I have a lot of readers who wear the uniform and so I’m conscious that I have to get all my facts as accurate as possible. I don’t want people who carry guns to be mad at me! Secondly, there is a mass of technical jargon and military acronyms in that world that soldiers use matter-of-factly, but which can be confusing for the layperson. Thus, I’ve tried to be judicious in their use and when I do employ them I try very hard to explain clearly what they mean and why they’re important to the plot. I don’t roll this stuff out willy-nilly; it has to be integral to the plot. And with all my research I always end up leaving most of it on the table. After all, I’m not writing a textbook.
So, in The Escape I tried to do multiple things. I wanted to develop John Puller’s character more, and in doing so flesh out the relationship he has with both his brother and his father. And in the novel I laid out another bit of foreshadowing about another important Puller family member. That will pay off in a future novel! Until then, enjoy The Escape.
All the lights, cameras and consoles instantly went out. And then the quiet was replaced with urgent cries and the sounds of men running. Communication radios crackled and popped. Flashlights were snatched from holders on leather belts and powered up. They provided only meagre illumination.
And then the unthinkable happened: all the automatic cell doors unlocked.
Military CID investigator John Puller has returned from his latest case to learn that his brother, Robert, once a major in the United States Air Force, and an expert in nuclear weaponry and cyber-security, has escaped from the Army’s most secure prison. Preliminary investigations show that Robert – convicted of treason – may have had help in his breakout. Now he’s on the run, and he’s the military’s number one target.
John Puller has a dilemma. Which comes first: loyalty to his country, or to his brother? Blood is thicker than water, but Robert has state secrets that certain people will kill for. John does not know for certain the true nature of Robert’s crimes, nor if he’s even guilty. It quickly becomes clear, however, that his brother’s responsibilities were powerful and far-reaching.
With the help of US intelligence officer Veronica Knox, both brothers move closer to the truth from their opposing directions. As the case begins to force John Puller into a place he thought he’d never be – on the other side of the law. Even his skills as an investigator, and his strength as a warrior, might not be enough to save him. Or his brother.
|Name: ANTHONY QUINN
Author of: DISAPPEARED (2012)
On the web: anthonyquinnwriter.com
On Twitter: @ajpquinn
To celebrate the launch of his most recent novel, The Blood Dimmed Tide, I’m very pleased to welcome Anthony Quinn to Reader Dad to talk about some of the books that have influenced his own writing. My own review of his latest novel will be available later this week.
Like every crime fiction writer I have my personal card catalogue of literary influences that I can rhyme off at the drop of a hat to anyone who is interested – Rankin, Le Carre, Deighton, Rendell, PD James, Ellroy, Leonard – and if you really want to get me droning on for hours just bring up Graham Greene and his subtle shading of good and evil, and the way he charts personal failure in the face of war and death.
To be honest, however, this mental list is an answer to a different, much more superficial question, one that might be phrased: What are your favourite books? Or who do you most try to imitate as an author? Literary influence is about much more than writing within the same genre, or borrowing style and subject matter. Sometimes the biggest influence a book can have on an emerging writer is one that can never be perceived or measured by even the most discerning of readers.
I’m talking about metaphysical or psychological influences. While some of the reasons that prompted me to start writing crime fiction were very personal, the galvanising factor was reading other writers’ works, principally that of the crime fiction vanguard emerging from Northern Ireland at the end of the Troubles, novelists like Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Adrian McKinty and Colin Bateman. All great writers with fascinating and original voices, whose books, most of which are set in Northern Ireland, have helped kick away the inhibitions preventing Irish writers from following that old creative-writing course advice – write about what you know.
Growing up during the Troubles, writing about what you knew was taboo. You had to be careful about what you said. The phrase ‘and whatever you say, say nothing’ was a mantra for survival. Even after the ceasefire, tales about the Troubles were usually ignored. Lurking somewhere at the back of people’s minds was the superstitious fear that talking about those dark days might somehow increase the chances of a return to the past.
Neville et al gave me permission to write about something I had been suppressing for years. They made it acceptable to write about the destructive spirals of violence and revenge that overshadowed my childhood, the malevolent stupidity of paramilitaries and terrorists, the blurred lines between lawmakers and lawbreakers, and the tricks of betrayal and cover-up. Most of all they showed how it was possible to write about the Troubles in a thrilling way. They also convinced me in my contrary way that the landscape of Northern Ireland, its people and their conflicts weren’t being represented fictionally in the way I thought they deserved. For these reasons, they are the most powerful influences on my writing. They gave me the licence to explore, in my opinion, deeper narratives within the Troubles.
These days I don’t so much read their books as eavesdrop on them (a loss to the reader in me). Their fiction has illuminated mine, but I’m wary of their words or ideas ever creeping onto my page.
Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.
Aficionados of the horror genre will instantly recognise this couplet as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, an excerpt from his fictional Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon. Referenced in Stephen King’s latest work, it forms one of the story’s central themes and provides a clue that Revival, the second King novel to appear in this, his fortieth year as a published author, is a return to the genre in which he made his name during the late seventies and most of the eighties. There is a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour to this story, though with a twist that is very much King’s own.
At the age of six, Jamie Morton, the youngest member of a large family living in small-town Maine, meets Charlie Jacobs, the town’s new minister and a man with a strange obsession with electricity. Following a tragic accident, Jacobs denounces God from the pulpit and disappears from Jamie’s life. But their paths are destined to cross again, and over the course of the next fifty years or so, they meet several times, each time Jacobs running a different scam, more obsessed by what he calls “the secret electricity”, and slightly more unhinged than the time before. Jamie has problems of his own and by the time he is in his early fifties he finds that he is in great debt to his old minister, and agrees to help him in one final experiment, the culmination of almost fifty years of research and experimentation.
For most of this hugely engrossing novel, King concentrates on the human aspect of the story. We watch as Jamie Morton grows from childhood to early adulthood and beyond to late middle age. What we know of Charlie Jacobs we learn through those time periods when the two men’s paths cross. While the scam is always different – Portraits in Lightning; the healing ministry – the subject of electricity remains a constant, and it quickly becomes clear that Jacobs has something planned, something related to the tragic accident that deprived him of his family when Jamie was still counting his age in single figures.
There are themes here that we have come to expect from Stephen King stories over the years: the question of faith plays an important part, here examined with a small twist that plays faith in the unknown (God) against faith in science (electricity) yet never manages to definitively separate the two; there is personal tragedy; examinations of the dynamics of family, and how they change over the years as the glue that holds them together first stretches, then, often, breaks altogether; the battle against addiction. Most importantly, as the Lovecraft quote that forms Revival’s core might suggest, is the question of death and what awaits us on the other side.
King never portrays Jacobs as a villain, yet the reader comes away with the distinct impression that if there is a villain in this piece, Jacobs would be it. There are parallels here with Rupert Angier from Christopher Priest’s excellent The Prestige (the obsession with electricity, and the attempts to turn it to one’s own will), and with King’s own Leland Gaunt; in this instance, rather than providing things, Jacobs provides cures, but the ultimate price that the buyer pays is no less substantial, and no less dangerous. As Mr Gaunt himself might advise: caveat emptor. There are also echoes of Pet Sematary: Jamie receives visits from the dead that feel very similar to the visits Louis Creed receives from Victor Pascow in that earlier novel. Through misdirection and clever plotting, King leads us to believe that we understand what Jacobs is trying to achieve, pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and presenting us with something even more horrifying than we might have guessed.
There are, as always, links to King’s other works scattered throughout his latest novel. The most obvious is with last year’s Joyland, a place where Charlie Jacobs has set out his stall at some point during his career as a showman and charlatan. Once again, King immerses the reader in the world of “carny”, tying the two novels inextricably together, despite their widely different subject matters.
In the closing act, the tone of the novel changes completely, as King leaves his examination of the human aspect behind and presents us with a brief, but extremely disturbing, glimpse of balls-to-the-wall horror in a perfectly-judged tribute to the greats of the genre, people like Lovecraft and Machen, Ashton Smith and Derleth, the giants upon whose shoulders King has built his own career. You thought Pennywise was frightening? Or Kurt Barlow? Or the concept of Dreamcatcher’s “shit-weasels”? They all pale in comparison to the vision King presents in the closing pages of Revival, a vision that will make us re-examine all of the questions King has asked us to answer during the reading of this novel: that of faith, of family, of death. Abrupt and shocking, it shows that, even after forty years at the coalface, King still has the power to frighten and unnerve the reader, in ways that will stay with us long after we’ve finished the book and moved on to something else. Despite the Lovecraftian connotations, King presents a vision that is entirely of his own devising, and which asks us to reconsider any beliefs that we hold about who we are, where we come from and to where we are ultimately heading.
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.
Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)
Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache…when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.
Ig Perrish may not remember what he did the previous night, but he does remember the previous year, the year since the woman he had loved since they were fourteen had been brutally raped and murdered, a hideous crime for which Ig was the prime suspect. But these new additions, these horns growing from his temples, are game changers: when people see them they feel compelled to tell Ig their deepest darkest secrets, and it isn’t long before he discovers the true identity of Merrin’s killer. After that, it’s a matter of letting human nature take its course, unleashing the demon that so desperately wants to get out and sending Merrin’s killer to the hell in which he belongs.
I first read Joe Hill’s sophomore novel when it was published back in 2010; the imminent cinematic release of Alexandre Aja’s film adaptation in British cinemas was good enough reason to revisit Horns, and I’m happy to discover that it holds up well to that second read. At the centre of this dark and often blackly comic novel is Ig Perrish, a young man whose whole life has been pulled out from under him following the murder of his long-term girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Unable to provide a satisfactory alibi, Ig has been the only suspect since the murder took place a year earlier, and the lack of substantial evidence is the only thing keeping him out of prison. His new appendages, and the strange power they have over the people Ig meets, mean that he will quickly get to the bottom of the mystery.
Hill tells the story in a very non-linear form, jumping from one time period to the next, giving us brief glimpses of the relationships between the central characters – Ig, Merrin and Lee Tourneau – at various points between their initial meeting in their early teens, through young adulthood, to the present day. The identity of Merrin’s killer is revealed early in the novel, and is as shocking, at that point, for the reader as it is for Ig himself. As we get further glimpses into the lives of these people, the shock begins to wear off and we begin to see that nothing is quite as it seems or, to be more precise, quite as Ig Perrish believes it to be.
As time passes, Ig grows more and more to resemble the archetypal demon: the horns grow larger; the skin turns a deep red following an incident in a burning car; and Ig takes to carrying a pitchfork to protect himself. But there’s an interesting juxtaposition here: the more demonic Ig becomes, the more it becomes clear that he is the least demonic character in the novel. The revelations forced out of the people he meets by the horns on his head show a dark and unlikeable side to many of the people Ig loves:
“I can’t see any of my friends. I can’t go to church. Everyone stares at me. They all know what you did. It makes me want to die. And then you show up here to take me for walks. I hate when you take me for walks and people see us together. You don’t know how hard it is to pretend I don’t hate you. I always thought there was something wrong with you. The screamy way you’d be breathing after you ran anywhere. You were always breathing through your mouth like a dog, especially around pretty girls.”
This from Ig’s grandmother, Vera, who gets her comeuppance shortly afterwards in one of the novel’s many laugh-out-loud moments. The evil here is of a more human nature than the demonic one the reader might expect; there is a mundane explanation for the rape and murder of Merrin, an all-too-familiar, plucked-from-the-headlines quality that is more frightening than the man with horns around whom the story is constructed.
Hill uses the story to examine the question of faith (Ig and Merrin meet in church and for most of his short life, Ig is the very definition of humanitarian), and the difference between “good” and “evil” as concepts. Bad things happen to good people, he tells us, and sometimes good people need a little help to get their own back. Do the horns and the pitchfork make Ig Perrish a demon, or just a man with a demonic outer shell? Hill leaves it to the reader to decide.
Lacking the bone-chilling scares that he gives us in both Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2, Joe Hill’s Horns is no less frightening for its close examination of the evil things of which mankind is possible. This is a wonderfully dark tale with a very definite sense of humour that often leads the reader to laugh out loud.
Dale sat breathing strenuously in the muck. He looked up the shaft of the pitchfork and squinted into Ig’s face. He shaded his eyes with one hand. “You got rid of your hair.” Paused, then added, almost as an afterthought, “And grew horns. Jesus. What are you?”
“What’s it look like?” Ig asked. “Devil in a blue dress.”
An instant classic, Horns commands the reader’s attention from the first page to the last and serves as an excellent starting point for Joe Hill virgins. I, for one, can’t wait to see the film adaptation, despite the fact that the Ig in my head bears no resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. This is a must-read, if you haven’t already, and well worth a revisit if you have.