Kelly Braffet (www.kellybraffet.com)
When Patrick Cusimano’s father kills a child while driving drunk, Patrick calls the police. The "right thing", morally, isn’t necessarily the right thing for the Cusimano family, and Patrick’s older brother Mike resents him for it. Layla and Verna Elshere are the daughters of a preacher; Layla is the face of her father’s campaigns and she rebels as soon as she’s old enough to feel that she knows her own mind. Joining a gang of outsiders, Layla finds herself fascinated by Patrick Cusimano and his family, and feels the need to save her younger sister from the same fate that she, herself, has only recently escaped. As the different parts of Layla’s life intersect, guided by the charismatic Justinian, it becomes clear that the choices these people have made in the past, the choices that define the life they currently live, have massive – and potentially fatal – implications for their immediate futures.
Save Yourself is the third novel from rising US star Kelly Braffet. Small-town America has long provided rich pickings for storytellers of all types, and Braffet starts out on familiar ground: on the one hand we have the Cusimanos, a pair of brothers from the wrong side of the track, stuck in dead-end graveyard-shift jobs, heading for the same fate as their father: a life ruined by alcohol and inertia. On the other side of the tracks, the Elsheres, a man who runs his own church and uses his young daughters as the faces of his various campaigns. Until, of course, the inevitable rebellion, and acceptance of a lifestyle that is the polar opposite to the one they have been forced to live during their formative years, facilitated by Justinian and the small group of outsiders that he keeps close.
Dark and slow-moving, this is very much a character-driven piece, and Braffet shows a deft turn of hand in presenting these people to the reader, making them leap from the page, and building a complex set of relationships between them that lead, ultimately, to the gloriously noirish finale. Patrick, who turns his father in to the police and sleeps with his brother’s girlfriend, is the ultimate black sheep. He is well-matched, then, with Layla who is an outsider in her own family, and finds more comfort with the small group of likeminded people she calls friends. Fascinated by Patrick because of the family history, the relationship turns darkly sexual, adding to the burden that already weighs Patrick down. Verna, bullied at school by the same crowd that gave her older sister such a hard time, welcomes the relief that comes with abandoning the life she knows and following in her sister’s footsteps. And Justinian, hardly more than a teenager, but with a strange "pull" that gives him power over the small band of misfits that he believes are his own, the dark, demented puppet-master that seems to be pulling all the strings.
As the story progresses, and we see how these relationships play out, it becomes clear that Layla and Verna have gotten themselves mixed up in a cult of sorts; the sort of cult that nurtures school bombers and shooters. Once this becomes clear, things spiral quickly out of control, and the pace picks up into a headlong rush towards some inevitable final showdown. There are no heroes here, and while it’s difficult to like any of the characters, Braffet makes sure we know where our sympathies lie, so that we become completely engrossed in the story, and completely invested in following these people to whatever bitter end is in store for them.
Save Yourself is dark, but not heavy-going, despite the heavy themes it examines: alcoholism, depression, outsiders and cults. There are some startling parallels with father-in-law Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (minus the supernatural elements), in the themes Braffet examines. And anyone who has found themselves engrossed in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Gus van Sant’s beautiful 2003 film Elephant will revel in the deconstruction of the psychology of young people, and the examination of what causes them to snap and head off to school, or the mall, or the cinema with an automatic weapon in their backpack.
Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.
|11 DOCTORS 11 STORIES
Eoin Colfer (www.eoincolfer.com)
Puffin Books (www.puffinbooks.com)
On 23rd November 1963, the BBC introduced the Doctor to the world. In the intervening fifty years, we have been excited, frightened and entertained by the adventures of this "mad man in a blue box" in no less than eleven different guises. To celebrate the golden jubilee of this timeless creation, eleven of the finest writers of Young Adult fiction in the world took one regeneration each, and crafted a short story for that Doctor. Originally published as a series of short ebooks, the eleven stories have now been collected into a beautiful trade-paperback edition by Puffin Books and released just in time for the 50th anniversary celebrations.
Presented in chronological order, the stories pit the Doctor, and a host of companions, both new and old, against the expected universe of evil aliens, some of whom fans have met before, others new to the Whoniverse (I’m never quite sure whether than relates to Doctor Who or the works of Doctor Seuss). William Hartnell’s First Doctor finds himself battling child-stealing soul pirates, the adventure influencing one of the most enduring tales for children to be written in the early 20th Century (Eoin Colfer’s “A Big Hand for the Doctor”); Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor goes up against the Lovecraftian Archons (Michael Scott’s “The Nameless City”); Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh finds himself on an unrecognisable Skaro, on an alternate timeline where Daleks form the cultural and scientific heart of the universe (Malorie Blackman’s “The Ripple Effect”); while Matt Smith’s Eleventh finds himself doing battle with the Kin, a time-travelling alien bent on destroying the Doctor’s pet planet, Earth (Neil Gaiman’s “Nothing O’Clock”).
The stories are uniformly excellent, well-researched and written with an eye to detail obviously designed to please the fans. Each Doctor comes alive at the pen of their respective author, and each author manages to isolate the unique characteristics of their specific Doctor and build a story that will appeal to fans of all ages. Along with the Doctors we meet many of the characters we love so much from the TV series; the Master (in his Roger Delgado guise) puts in a brief appearance in the Second Doctor story, while the Rani plays the role of central villain to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. Fifty years of television and eleven regenerations of the central character provides a huge cast of companions on which the authors can draw. In most instances, the companion of choice will come as no surprise: Susan for the First; Jo Grant for the Third; Ace for the Seventh; Amy Pond for the Eleventh. There are two, though, conspicuous by their absence from the book. Sarah Jane Smith is noticeably absent from the Fourth Doctor story, in favour of Leela, while Rose Tyler is absent from both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ stories. They seem like odd omissions, but the book doesn’t suffer from their absence.
While uniformly excellent, there are always going to be stories that stand out from the others. Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor story has a clever twist in the tale that will have the reader re-examining the tale for a second time with fresh eyes; Richelle Mead’s tale of the Sixth Doctor (“Something Borrowed”) is told in the first person by companion Peri Brown and pits him against fellow Time Lord, the Rani; Malorie Blackman’s Seventh Doctor story contains, probably, the weakest characterisation of the Doctor (which is a shame, since Sylvester McCoy was always "my Doctor"), but the story is well-told and shows a much darker side of the Doctor than we like to remember; Neil Gaiman’s closing story, with the Eleventh Doctor at the helm, is no less than we’ve come to expect from this excellent writer, and stands alongside his TV episodes, "The Doctor’s Wife" and "Nightmare in Silver" as one of the finest Eleventh Doctor stories you’ll find anywhere.
There is plenty here to please fans both young and old – and, for that matter, new and old – in a collection of stories that shows why the Doctor is such an enduring character. Always fresh, even when facing the same old foe, the Doctor, in whichever of his guises we meet him, and that faithful, iconic old police box that is so much bigger on the inside, are as much a joy on paper as they are onscreen. Thrilling, funny and as clever as we’ve come to expect from one of the finest shows to grace British television in the past fifty years, this is a collection not to be missed, an absolute must for fans of everyone’s favourite Time Lord and a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary.
Anders de la Motte
Translated by Neil Smith
Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
Released 5th December 2013
When Henrik “HP” Pettersson finds a mobile phone on the train his first thought is how much it might fetch if he tried to sell it. The phone receives a message, addressing HP by name, and he starts to look around for the hidden cameras. He has been invited to play a “Game” – he will be assigned tasks, and receive point and cash prizes for each task he completes. The tasks seem easy – steal the umbrella from a fellow train passenger, spray graffiti on an apartment door – and the pay-out out of proportion with effort he’s expending. But when one of his tasks draws his sister – a police protection officer – into the Game, HP soon discovers that the stakes are a lot higher than he first thought, and quitting isn’t as easy as he imagined.
Anders de la Motte’s debut novel, the first in a trilogy, takes no time at all in getting to the heart of the story. By the end of chapter one, HP has found the state-of-the-art phone – the number 128 on the back the only marking – and been invited to take part in the Game. Within this short period of time we learn a lot about HP – he’s a dropout, a petty hoodlum, a man in his thirties who goes through life with the attitude of a teenager who believes the world owes him a living – and we discover the Game, and the few rules that govern it, along with the novice player. In parallel, we meet Rebecca Normén, a police protection officer – a bodyguard to Stockholm’s political elite – a young woman struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated profession. Her job, and the vagaries of the Game, put her on a direct collision course with HP, a man with whom she is already intimately acquainted.
Game is fast-paced and action-packed, rarely taking time to pause, or allow the reader time to breathe. In HP, de la Motte presents a thorough unlikeable protagonist, but one who the reader is willing to follow through the course of the book, because his fate is always so uncertain, and the Game itself is so intriguing. The concept of the leader board – allegedly created specifically for HP – and the online videos appeal to the reader as much as to the player, making the whole scenario entirely plausible. Based purely on technology that is available now, and concepts with which we’re all familiar – that sense that Big Brother is always watching, or if not Big Brother then somebody with a video-capable mobile phone – we’re plunged into a realistic and dangerous situation along with HP.
There are tips of the hat here to a number of Hollywood greats – tips that stem from HP’s love of films and video games – most obviously Fight Club
Rule 1: Never talk to anyone outside the Game Community about the Game.
and, in one breath-taking set-piece, a thrilling homage to one of Hitchcock’s finest moments: the crop-duster scene from North-By-Northwest.
De la Motte shows promise for a first-time novelist. Throughout Game, we see an author in complete control of his work; in a number of well-written and perfectly-timed sequences, he manages to pull the wool over our eyes so that, despite the omniscient narrator, we’re on equal footing with HP and Normén: we never know more than they do, never more than we need to and, in some cases, we’ll finish a chapter only to discover that they know more than we do, due to some sleight of hand on the part of the author that leads us, momentarily, down the wrong path and shatters any illusions we might have that we can think this one through to the end.
The beautiful city of Stockholm plays a key role in the story, its island-based geography and many interlinking bridges providing HP the means he needs to escape from the scenes of his crimes, while not requiring much from the reader in the way of suspension of disbelief. Like Jens Lapidus’ Easy Money before it, Game shows a side of the city rarely seen from the outside.
Razor-sharp characterisation and non-stop action combine to make Game stand out from the glut of Scandi-crime novels currently on shelves. Anders de la Motte is a writer of no little skill, and his perfect pacing and careful rationing of the facts ensure that not only the ending, but the very next scene, will come as a complete surprise – if not outright shock – to the reader. It’s been some time since I was this impressed by the construction of a crime novel and, on the strength of this first offering, I’ll be diving into Buzz and Bubble (the second and third parts of the trilogy) as soon as they’re available. Not to be missed.
Check out the video below for a taster of what to expect.
|BEHIND THE SOFA
Edited by Steve Berry
All author royalties are donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Saturday 23rd November 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s longest-running science fiction drama, Doctor Who. As a long-time fan, I thought it would be nice to mark the occasion in some way and, thanks to those wonderful people at Gollancz and Orion, I’m able to do just that, by sharing one of the many celebrity memories that can be found in Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, which is available now.
I guess the interesting thing about my favourite Doctor Who memory is that it might not be real.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, mom would cut my hair herself to save money: just pop a bowl on, trim the edge with scissors. I like to think I was very much 1976’s Justin Bieber (or possibly the fat one from the Double Deckers). Like all socially awkward males of the future I was a Doctor Who fan, but what I saw through my child’s eyes was 10 times as amazing as what was actually on the screen. Imagination gave it leverage.
This is probably heresy but I don’t revisit classic Who because I know reality can never live up to my memories. My most vivid memory was of monsters that were essentially cloaked figures without any heads. I don’t remember what they were called but I was terrified.
I was watching this episode perched on a high stool in the front room as mom cut my hair. I’ve always been a terrible fidget, much to her annoyance. She’d tried everything to get me to sit still, with no success. Then, that day, she hit on the one thing that worked. She pointed at the screen and said “You know how they lost their heads, don’t you? Fidgeting whilst having their hair cut,” while ominously making snipping motions with the scissors.
That was it. I didn’t want to become a monster. I never again moved during a haircut. I still don’t. Not that my mom still cuts my hair. I’m tempted at this point to pick up the phone, call my friend, comic Toby Hadoke, and ask what these monsters were. In fact, I think of asking whenever I see him but I never have, as I suspect the real truth is much more mundane than what I remember and will only disappoint.
There may well never have been any cloaked headless figures, but there were for me.
Incidentally, I don’t think the terrors I remember were the same as the Headless Monks in A Good Man Goes to War but I guess it’s possible. These more recent creations were far less scary. Partly because, at the time of watching, I was nearly 40, and partly because I recognised the Fat Gay Married Anglican Marine as being Charlie Baker (another comic), who I worked with the week before in Jongleurs Portsmouth.
That sort of stuff never happens when you’re five.
Gary Delaney is a comedian. “Wanted to invent a Doctor Who monster that could disguise itself as a sofa”
Steve Berry decided to do something a little bit different to raise funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK. A life-long DOCTOR WHO fan, he began to interview celebrities, writers, actors and people who had worked on DOCTOR WHO, asking for their earliest memories of the show that sent us cowering behind the sofa. Now he presents the fruits of his four years of labour – a beautiful, touching book containing short articles and touching memories of one of the most successful TV shows ever. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of DOCTOR WHO – this is the perfect way to enjoy those 50 years!
This revised and expanded edition includes over 30 new entries from people such as Sophia Myles, Ben Aaronovitch, John Leeson and many more
Contributors include comedians Al Murray, Stephen Merchant, and Bill Oddie; actors Lynda Bellingham, Nicholas Parsons, and Rhys Thomas; writers Neil Gaiman, Jenny Colgan, Jonathan Ross and Charlie Brooker and politicians Louise Mensch and Tom Harris. In addition, there is input from a number of the writers, actors and production staff who were involved in creating DOCTOR WHO stories new and old.
Dan Simmons (dansimmons.com)
George Leigh Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North-East Ridge of Mount Everest in early June 1924. A couple of days later, another Englishman, Lord Percival Bromley – not officially part of Mallory’s expedition – disappeared from the same location along with a German climber. Richard Deacon Davis, "the Deacon" to those who know him, is on the summit of the Matterhorn when he hears the news. A friend of the Bromley family, the Deacon accompanied Mallory’s previous two expeditions to Everest. With the financial backing of the Bromley family, Deacon and his friends, French Chamonix Guide, Jean-Claude Clairoux, and the American Jacob Perry, stage a secret expedition to the mountain in 1925, ostensibly to find the body of Percival Bromley and return it to England, but also to attempt an alpine-style assault on the mountain. When their lower camps are attacked by what appears to be the mythical yeti, the Deacon and his team find themselves trapped on the mountain, the high altitude taking its toll the longer they remain above 26,000 feet. Facing an unknown but deadly enemy below and almost certain death above, the Deacon and his friends find themselves in a race against time that will not only ensure their survival, but determine the future face of Europe.
Back in 2007, Dan Simmons wrote The Terror, the massive fictional account of Sir John Franklin’s final fatal voyage in search of the Northwest Passage (inspiring my own visit to a local monument dedicated to Franklin’s second-in-command, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier). Simmons took the facts of the story and interwove a narrative that included a number of supernatural elements which, nonetheless, provided a plausible explanation of the fate of the crews of the HMS Terror and Erebus, while still hitting every single factual element of the tale (why, for example, there are graves on Beechey Island, or how the lifeboat that was found on the western shore of King William Island came to rest there). With his latest novel, The Abominable, Simmons takes a similar approach, shining his light now on the 1924 Mallory-led expedition to Everest. Rather than following the main expedition, Simmons mounts a fictional 1925 expedition and shows us the rigours of the northern regions of Everest without being tied to the absolutes of history (although, as with The Terror, what the Deacon and his friends find on the mountain tallies up with the current known facts about that fateful expedition). What Simmons doesn’t do – thankfully – is answer the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit of Everest before they died.
Simmons frames the story as the literary equivalent of the "found footage" genre, opening the novel with an introduction that describes his meeting with Jacob "Jake" Perry in his home state of Colorado in 1993. His purpose for visiting, he claims, is to interview the man about his experiences in Antarctica and he fails to pick up on the old man’s veiled hints about earlier, more dangerous, adventures. The bulk of the story is told in first person by Mr Perry who, having spent his final months on Earth writing his story down, sends the dozen notebooks to Simmons to do with what he will. It’s testament to Simmons’ skill as a writer, to his ability to absorb knowledge about a certain subject – in this case mountaineering – and present it to the reader in the offhand manner that an expert might, that it’s difficult to tell, for at least the first part of Jake Perry’s story, whether this is, indeed, fiction. The central characters – the Deacon, stiff-upper-lipped Great War veteran, French alpine expert Jean-Claude and the always-feeling-out-of-his-depth Perry – are beautifully-wrought, vividly individual and engaging enough to immediately take up permanent residence in the mind of the reader.
Towering over the novel, both literally and figuratively – as is only right for Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World" – is Mount Everest itself. Everest is one of those landmarks that seems to have become part of the human psyche: it’s a location that fascinates and enthrals, catching our attention when we’re young and pliable, and remaining with us as we grow older. Perhaps it’s this that makes The Abominable all the more engaging. Here, after all, is a detailed description of something most people can only ever dream of: an ascent of the tallest mountain in the world. Simmons goes to great pains to ensure we, the reader, are aware of the dangers: the sheer scale of the mountain and the fact that, should you fall, there is likely to be little more than a widespread mush by the time you hit the bottom, as far as five miles below; the high altitude, and the dangers it brings, the inability to take a full breath and the impact of an oxygen-starved brain on such dangerous terrain. And, most obviously, the cold. In a way, this is where Simmons excels: read Song of Kali and you’ll feel the oppressive heat and smell of Calcutta. Read The Terror and you can’t help but go searching for more layers to keep the heat in:
Irving clamps his mouth shut again, but the effect is ruined somewhat by the chattering of his teeth. In this cold, teeth can shatter after two or three hours — actually explode — sending shrapnel of bone and enamel flying inside the cavern of one’s clenched jaws. Sometimes, Crozier knows from experience, you can hear the enamel cracking just before the teeth explode.
On the mountain, we find an entirely new species of cold, but one that is no less dangerous. The high altitude, thin air and direct sunlight, all conspire to leave the climber sunburnt, despite the sub-zero temperatures in which they find themselves.
We’re also given a taste of the local political situation, the relationships between Tibet and the rest of the world, Nepal and the rest of the world, and Simmons even takes time to give us a quick look at the changing face of European politics following Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Pustch at the end of 1923. The combination of title and author, with the brief description of the book’s subject, will ensure the reader enters this novel with a certain set of expectations. Unsurprisingly for a Dan Simmons novel, these preconceptions work well for the author, while the multi-layered narrative ensures that what the reader experiences may not be exactly what they signed up for.
Everest is still 40 miles away but already it dominates not only the skyline of white-shrouded Himalayan high peaks but the sky itself. I suspect that the Deacon has brought a British flag to plant at the summit, but I see now that the mountain already bears its own pennant – a mist of white cloud and spindrift roiling in the west-to-east wind for 20 miles or more, from right to left, a white plume swirling above all the lesser summits to the east of Everest’s snow massif.
“Mon Dieu,” whispers Jean-Claude.
Part historical fact, part thrilling boys’ adventure tale, Dan Simmons’ latest novel takes us to the top of the world, and keeps us on the edge of our seats for the whole journey. Cold and atmospheric, peopled with the type of characters that you want to spend as much time with as possible, The Abominable is an intelligent thrill-ride of epic proportions. The perfect companion piece to Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, it serves to remind the reader of one important fact: regardless of genre – and he’s tried quite a few – Dan Simmons is still one of the finest purveyors of fiction living today. If you’ve yet to try his work, this is the perfect starting place.
Thanks to those lovely people at Transworld Books, we are celebrating the recent release of Sharon Bolton’s Like This, For Ever by giving away three copies of the book to lucky Reader Dad visitors. This competition is open to UK visitors only.
To be in with a chance of winning a copy of this brilliant novel, all you have to do is prove you’re human: post a comment below before midnight (GMT) on Sunday 17th November. Three winners will be drawn at random on Monday 18th November, and will be contacted shortly thereafter to arrange delivery.
Thanks, as always, for visiting. And don’t forget to follow the Like This, For Ever blog tour, which is happening all week. Details in the poster below.
|LIKE THIS, FOR EVER
Sharon Bolton (www.sharonbolton.com)
Barney Roberts is 11 years old and obsessed with two things: finding his mother, who walked out on him and his father while Barney was still too young to have much of a memory of her; and understanding the series of murders of five London boys, all exactly his own age, that have gripped the city for almost two months. As Barney begins to see patterns in the murders, he suspects the worst and enlists the help of his next door neighbour, the troubled Met detective Lacey Flint. Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Dana Tulloch has theories of her own, and Lacey Flint’s role in the case awakens her suspicions immediately. When a sixth boy disappears, these women find themselves in a race against time to find the identity of the killer and stop him before he claims another life.
Like This, For Ever is Sharon Bolton’s seventh novel, and sees a rebranding of the author from the familiar S.J. Bolton, including a complete re-release of the entire back catalogue. It’s my first Bolton read and, not knowing what to expect, was pleasantly surprised with what I found inside. Bolton puts us inside the head of young Barney from the outset, switching to established series characters as and when necessary. Barney is the lynchpin of the novel, and Bolton grooms him perfectly: an intelligent young boy with serious emotional problems, the most obvious of which is the almost-crippling OCD that plagues his every action. As we follow his journey, and see life through his eyes, we become sucked into his way of looking at the world, so his logic seems sound when he reaches the, perhaps, obvious conclusion as to the possible identity of the killer. We’re also given enough rope to believe that Barney might, somehow, be involved in the murders himself – after all, why, out of all the eleven-year-old boys in London, should we be most interested in this one?
From the start, Like This, For Ever captures the attention and imagination of the reader. As we follow Barney from one seemingly logical conclusion to the next, it’s impossible for us to start formulating our own theories, but each fresh twist, sleight of hand, stunning misdirection has us constantly scrambling to keep up, re-evaluating our options almost as often as we turn a page. The book is a slow starter – when the story opens, five boys have already been murdered, and this will remain the case for the majority of the novel. Around the halfway mark there is a sudden sense that Bolton has shifted gear and, from that point on, it is impossible to set this book down, even for the briefest of moments. As we approach the climax, everyone is a suspect and our emotional bond with these characters compels us to know what happens next?
The pages of this slick, clever novel, are littered with clues for the eagle-eyed reader, so while all of the suspects are plausible, the final reveal is intensely satisfying and entirely logical. Having read Like This, For Ever, it is impossible not to come away a fan of Ms Bolton. For me, too, the disappointment that I hadn’t discovered S.J. Bolton long before now.
The novel is an interesting starting point for the first time reader of Bolton’s work. While the story is self-contained, it is part of a larger series, and there is a lot of background that tended to go over my head for the most part (what, exactly, happened to Lacey during her time in Cambridge, and why has it had such an effect on her? And who is the mysterious, and unnamed, prisoner that she visits from time to time?). While I appreciate that authors in this situation need to find a balance between pleasing their existing fan base, and attracting new readers, there is a definite feeling that Like This, For Ever forms part of a more tightly-integrated series that requires the reader to have knowledge of what has gone before. It seems a fairly minor complaint, and is my own fault for reading the books out of order, but for me the series characters – Lacey Flint, Dana Tulloch, Mark Joesbury – seemed less important, more of a diversion than an integral part of the plot, than those introduced for the first time in this volume. Which, considering the book’s genre, is far from ideal. Which isn’t to say that the experience was spoiled as a result; far from it: not only did I thoroughly enjoy Like This, For Ever, but I now have a burning desire to answer the questions I asked earlier in this paragraph.
Sharon Bolton’s latest novel is designed to keep you on your toes, and awake long into the night. Its subject matter is intense and timely, and should strike a particular chord with parents in the audience. Tightly-plotted, perfectly-paced and with enough twists and deliberate misdirection to always keep the reader on uneasy footing, Like This, For Ever is the perfect example of the modern British crime thriller. For me, an absolute winner, it adds Sharon Bolton to my must-read watch-list for the future.
|A TAP ON THE WINDOW
Linwood Barclay (linwoodbarclay.com)
Heading home from an out-of-town job on a wet and miserable night, Cal Weaver stops at a red light close to Griffon, New York’s local hangout spot. When a teenage girl taps on his window and asks for a lift, Cal knows it’s the height of stupidity, but the fact that the girl recognises him as "Scott’s father" causes him to renege. In the darkness, he can’t see much, but he does notice the scratch on the back of her left hand. Claiming to feel ill, the girl asks Cal to pull into the nearby fast food restaurant. When she gets back into the car, the scratch is gone, the original girl replaced by someone new. When one of the girls turns up dead, and the other is reported missing, Cal finds himself dead centre of the police investigation. But there is more going on here than the disappearance of a teenage girl, secrets and political enmities that define the small town of Griffon and which, if he follows the trail, may lead Cal to some understanding of how his own son died eight months earlier.
Linwood Barclay recently described the first chapter of his novels as a hook designed to draw the reader into the story. In the case of A Tap on the Window, this is certainly very true: we’re as intrigued by this switch as Cal Weaver is, and the book quickly becomes that old cliché of reviews of thriller novels: unputdownable. Far from a cliché itself, though, the story is original and engaging, drawing the reader ever onwards, increasing the sense of mystery and tension in tandem, notch by notch, as we progress through the chapters.
Told from the point of view of Cal, a private detective and ex-policeman, we see the town of Griffon as he does: as an outsider who, despite having lived here for six years, still doesn’t have the full measure of the town. There is a Stepford or Midwich feel to the town, a certain quality that sets it apart from the rest of small-town America: the police force seem to be a law unto themselves, beating out-of-towners or young troublemakers rather than going to the trouble of processing them through official channels, sexually assaulting young women in the guise of searching them for illegal substances. The town’s mayor is a lone voice in condemning this approach, the vast majority of the townspeople happy to have a peaceful town, unaffected by the sort of trouble that plagues the city of Buffalo, a mere twenty miles distant. It’s this setup, a large group of otherwise seemingly normal people who live in fear of the big bad world bursting their tiny little bubble of peace and harmony, that makes the setting feel slightly odd and gives the reader the uncomfortable sense that what’s going on may not conform to our usual expectations.
Cal is an unwilling participant in the events of the novel, drawn into the mystery through sheer bad luck, and a nagging need to see the mystery through to the end. He’s a man with baggage: his teenage son threw himself from the top of a four storey building while high on Ecstasy eight months prior to the story’s opening, and it’s a burden that still weighs heavily on Cal’s mind, affecting his relationship with his wife, and also with the people in town who knew his son prior to his death. Cal has a short temper, which frequently leads him to trouble, and while the reader never suspects for a minute that Cal could have been involved in the death of the second young girl, it’s obvious to see why the police might view him as a suspect, under the circumstances. In some ways, this defect makes Cal more real for the reader, and certainly more human than his fellow Griffoners.
Barclay carefully has carefully constructed his plot, and his characters, to keep the reader in the dark as much as possible. It is impossible to know who to trust, and who to suspect, all helped by the first person point of view that removes any outside influence for the reader. When the revelations come, and they come thick and fast as the book approaches its climax, they are surprising and, best of all, satisfying. Barclay doesn’t make life easy for his central character, though, so expect to be shocked. It’s a wonderfully-written novel, a very literate thriller that manages to move at a cracking pace without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade: short chapters filled with short sentences, or screenplays barely re-written in prose form. Barclay has an ear for the language used in northern New York state and, as a result, the dialogue flows with ease, worthy, perhaps, of comparison to the dialogue of the late, great Elmore Leonard.
The perfect hook to get the reader interested in the first place, and enough substance to keep them turning pages once the scene has been set, Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, A Tap on the Window, is a masterclass in thriller writing. Intelligent, witty, exciting and with a touch of oddity that serves to set it apart from others in the genre, this is crime-fiction escapism at its finest. It’s my first experience with Mr Barclay; it certainly won’t be my last.
|THE VIOLENT CENTURY
Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Released: 24 October 2013
In the summer of 1932, German scientist Dr Joachim Vomacht powers up a device that will change the world; the wave generated by this device will touch every person on the planet. Not everyone will come through the experience unchanged. Fogg and Oblivion are two such individuals, young British men who discover unusual talents in the wake of the Vomacht wave. Recruited by the Old Man, they join the ranks of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs – the Retirement Bureau – and find themselves at the centre of some of the Twentieth Century’s most important events. Recalled to the Bureau today, Fogg – much older, but relatively un-aged – must give account of his actions in Berlin immediately following the Second World War, because those actions have repercussions for all of the "changed", even now, almost seventy years later.
Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, The Violent Century, takes us to a world where superheroes are real. And yet, even with these Beyond-Men, Übermenschen, heroes, the history of the world remains relatively unchanged compared to our own. World War 2 proceeds as expected, the same atrocities carried out in the name of racial cleansing; as does the war in Vietnam and the much less-publicised war in Laos. It is, as the Old Man points out early in the novel, as if the Beyond-Men have cancelled each other out; if only one side or the other had them, things might have turned out much differently. In some ways this observation, and the manner in which these heroes seem completely ineffective, reduces them to the mundane, despite the power any one of them might have to affect the course of history.
The story centres around Fogg and Oblivion, two friends – and, it is hinted, perhaps more even than that – who work for the superhero equivalent of British Intelligence, a shadowy organisation that spends much of its time observing, rather than doing. Tidhar sets up a wonderful contrast between the British powers, and those of other countries: the brash, costumed heroes of the United States; the Communist ideals that drive Russia’s Red Sickle; and the Aryan perfection of the white-suited Nazi representatives. In a series of flashbacks – Fogg’s account as he sits in front of the Old Man’s desk in the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, "tonight” – we catch glimpses of the century that has gone before: the moment of change in 1932; the recruitment process, and the initial training of Fogg and his fellow "changed" men and women; observing the war in Minsk, and in Paris, and elsewhere; and everything that comes after.
Jumping from time period to time period, recollections within recollections, Tidhar pieces together the history of these two men, and builds towards the final reveal, which will ultimately explain the relative coldness that exists between them in the here and now. In a world where superheroes are real, there is no need for the fictional kind and, as a result, some of the world’s greatest comics creators – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – put in cameo appearances as historians, experts in the field. Interestingly enough, it is these characters who have the best lines, and who shine the most light on the questions that the novel repeatedly asks: What makes a man? What makes a hero? "”With great power comes great responsibility,” Lee tells us, echoing one of the best-known morals of any superhero tale, as he speaks at the trial in Jerusalem of Vomacht.
- But what’s a hero? the counsellor says, again.
- It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me…you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.
- I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily – which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Shuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms to persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of the immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.
It’s as close as the novel comes to answering the questions, and we, the reader, are left to decide for ourselves who are the heroes, who the villains. The central characters of this tale are supported by a cast of faces both familiar and new: here is Alan Turing, attached to the training camp for these super-humans rather than Bletchley Park; here, the attendees at the Potsdam conference; a descendant of Vlad the Impaler (or, perhaps, the beast himself); Josef Mengele; Osama bin Laden. The Violent Century is a well-researched and lovingly constructed piece of fiction that, despite its science fiction elements, still manages to remain well within the bounds of realism.
Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!
|YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD
David Towsey (davidtowsey.blogspot.co.uk)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
Thomas McDermott has left his family, and his community in the small town of Barkley, and gone off to fight in a war in which he has no conviction. When Thomas returns home, he will be a much changed man – Thomas is dead, a Walkin’, an abomination in the eyes of his friends and neighbours, an abomination that cannot be allowed to continue existing. When the religious fanatics of Barkley decide that the offspring of the Walkin’ must suffer the same fate as their parents, Thomas flees into the wilderness with his daughter – a posse chasing close behind – in search of a rumoured haven for the his kind.
Set almost 1000 years in the future, where the Earth is a desolate place, a shadow of what it once was. According to the histories, Automated Man has long since fallen from scientific grace, the cause of which has been lost in the mists of time. What is known is that one of that age’s greatest discoveries led to a mutation in a large portion of the population that caused the dead to return to life, the mind active while the body continues on a steady downward path of decay.
David Towsey introduces us to the town of Barkley through the sermon of the fanatical Pastor Gray, immediately giving us some idea of the mind-set that drives the people of this small town. In parallel to this, we meet Thomas as he awakens at the bottom of a funeral pyre pit, partially-burned and almost immediately fully aware of what he has become. When one of Thomas’ comrades, also newly risen from the dead, stumbles into town, we learn how the people of Barkley, under the leadership of Gray, deal with the Walkin’, and their families. From there, the course of the novel seems strangely inevitable, as Thomas turns towards home, dooming not only himself, but his teenage daughter, Mary. And yet, there are surprises in store as we watch the dynamics of the important characters in this small town: the pastor and his acolyte, the law man, the grave digger, the elder, and Thomas’ wife, Sarah.
There is a post-apocalyptic feel to the novel, though there is no evidence of any single catastrophic event that might have led humanity to this point. This is a world with no technology, a world that has reverted to a much simpler time and, as such, Barkley feels like it’s located in some remote corner of the Old American West. Without the documentation and transcripts that act as chapter leads, this might be an old-fashioned weird Western – The Walking Dead meets Shane – or a tale set in some fantasy world, like Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country. As it is, the actual location matters little; this is a tale driven purely by the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves.
At the centre of the tale is the McDermott family; not only Thomas and Sarah and Mary, but also Thomas’ extended family – his brother ends up joining the posse sent out to hunt Thomas down. It’s a tale of the inexplicable bonds that keep a family together and make it whole, the love that exists between husband and wife, and between parents and children. There is no surprise when Thomas’ first thought upon discovering that he is now dead is to see his family once more, regardless of how dangerous it might be for him, or the harsh words spoken between him and his wife before he left for the front. Around the family are the other characters – the law man who may be sympathetic to their cause; the grave digger who has no desire to see more death than is necessary; and, most interestingly, the religious fanatics who believe they have been sent by some god or other to rid the world of evil. There is a long tradition of these characters in the horror genre (I’m always reminded most forcefully of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody); here, they work very well, because there is a ring of truth to them, a sense that we might see them on the evening news ranting about whatever pet hate drives them ever onwards.
Your Brother’s Blood is the first part of a series known as The Walkin’. Despite the name, and the subject matter, David Towsey’s debut novel bears no resemblance to that other modern zombie staple The Walking Dead (even though I’ve now mentioned it twice in the space of a single review). These are not George A. Romero-style zombies with an insatiable lust for braaaaaaaiiiiins!, but people whose physiology refuses to let them stay dead, allowing them to carry on as if nothing had happened. In some ways, it’s an examination of how war changes men, with resurrection presenting a much more literal change than the psychological impact normally implied.
Beautifully written, Your Brother’s Blood is literary horror at its best. David Towsey aims not for cheap scares or toe-curling gore, but for an all-pervading sense of doom that grows as we progress through the narrative. A gripping storyline and characters about whom we care (whether we want to see them live, or die slow and horrible deaths) ensure that the reader will be drawn completely into this relatively short novel. An intense and timeless tale of family and love, it is a wonderful introduction to an extremely talented new voice in genre fiction, and a great start to what promises to be a future classic.