I hope you will forgive this break from the usual straightforward literary(?) criticism for this personal note to explain the relative quiet at Reader Dad of late, and to apologise to authors, publishers, publicists and potential readers for the lack of reviews written and published on the site since mid-February.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will already be aware that 2013 thus far has been something of a challenging time for me. This past Saturday, May 4th, saw my family and that of my fiancée gathered in Prague for our wedding, an event that is stressful enough for those involved without one of the parties spending most of the preceding three months either admitted to, or frequently attending, hospital. Thanks, though, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1B at Lagan Valley Hospital (go on, give them a virtual round of applause) we made it, and the day went off without a hitch (well, apart from the obvious one).
A combined total of five weeks as a hospital in-patient, not to mention the fact that I’ve been off work since early February, has given me plenty of reading time (by this time last year, I was working my way through book number 23; I’m currently on 2013’s 30th book). Limited Internet access for the same period meant that reviews were few and far between: at the moment I’m sitting on a backlog of fourteen un-reviewed books.
It is a sad fact that if I don’t review a book almost immediately after reading it, it isn’t worth me reviewing it at all. I read so much that it’s difficult to remember what I felt while reading the book to such a degree that I could produce a solid and reliable review several months later. There will, of course, always be those stand-out books that remain with me for much longer, and I will attempt to review these more completely in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, there are those “lost” reads, and after much deliberation, I have decided on a bite-sized review of each so that people can see whether I enjoyed them or not, and what the highs and lows of 2013’s first quarter or so have been for me.
For the readers, I apologise that there aren’t more complete reviews of the following books. They have all been uniformly excellent, and I can recommend them unreservedly.
For the publicists, my sincere apologies that these books have not been given the same treatment as others, despite the fact that I have read and enjoyed them all. For September at Transworld, Jon at Gollancz, Angela at Orion, Nicci at MacLehose, Bethan at Chatto & Windus, Becci at Head of Zeus, Sophie at Titan and Alison at Atlantic, my particular apologies for the books listed below.
For everyone, while I have you here, I also wanted to mention an experiment I will be trying at Reader Dad over the next month or two. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, and the introduction of his iconic character, Parker, University of Chicago Press have finally obtained worldwide rights for the publication of the entire Parker series. In honour of this, I will be running a Parker@50 event here at Reader Dad, with in-depth reviews of the entire series appearing over the course of the coming months. I hope you’ll join me for this.
In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank you all for your continued support of Reader Dad, and I look forward to welcoming you back to a more regular schedule in the coming days and weeks. Enjoy the mini-reviews below.
Yours most sincerely,
Roger Hobbs (www.rogerhobbs.com)
£9.99The unnamed narrator of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel is a ghostman, the member of a heist team responsible for disguises and safe dispersal and disappearance of the team after the job. When an Atlantic City casino is robbed, he receives a call from a man he’d much rather forget. The ghostman has just forty-eight hours to retrieve the money, with the FBI and rival gangs on his case.
What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.
|DREAMS AND SHADOWS
C. Robert Cargill
£14.99As an infant, Ewan Thatcher is stolen from his parents by faeries and replaced with the changeling Nixie Knocks. Several years later, the young boy Colby Stephens meets Yashar, a djinn, who grants him a wish: to be able to see beyond the veil, to the world of faerie, of myths and legends. C. Robert Cargill’s first novel follows the first thirty years or so of the lives of these three boys, and charts their impact on the real world around them, and the magical world that lies just beyond the veil.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.
|RAGE AGAINST THE DYING
Becky Masterman (beckymasterman.com)
£12.99When we first meet Brigid Quinn, it is as Gerald Peasil is trying to abduct her, thinking her to be much more frail than she turns out to be. And therein lies the heart of this unusual story. Elderly lady detectives traditionally fit into the more “cosy” crime stories – Jessica Fletcher, for example, or the grandmother of them all, Jane Marple – so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Brigid is a retired FBI agent and that Becky Masterman’s debut, Rage Against the Dying, is anything but cosy.
As a much younger woman, Quinn hunted serial killers with the FBI. Small and blond, she was the perfect bait for a certain type of predator. As she grew older, it became time to pass the baton, and Quinn’s trainee was killed by the very killer they were trying to catch. Now in her retirement, Quinn finds herself pulled back into the case when young Jessica’s body is finally found, and they have a man in custody claiming to have killed her all those years ago.
Quinn is as far from those stereotypical old lady detectives as it is possible to be: a chequered past at the Bureau and an unusual reaction to Peasil’s attempted abduction leave the reader with the distinct impression that this is a dark and deeply flawed character. As the novel takes one dark turn after another, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is more than capable of looking after herself, while keeping her loved ones as far removed from the trouble as possible. Surprisingly, I loved Rage Against the Dying, and look forward to seeing what’s next for Brigid Quinn. It helps, I think, that Ms Masterman isn’t afraid to make her character suffer for the reader’s enjoyment. And there’s not a knitting needle in sight.
OUTSIDERS: ITALIAN STORIES
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Outsiders is a collection of six stories and essays from leading Italian writers examining the concept, as the title might suggest, of not belonging. Uniformly excellent, the collection does have a couple of stand-out moments, which are worth the price of admission alone.
Roberto Saviano’s The Opposite of Death is the story of a young woman in rural Italy widowed before she is even married. Her fiancé has gone to war in Afghanistan, never to return. Written in the same style as Saviano’s reportage – it’s difficult to tell whether The Opposite of Death is fact or fiction, or some combination of the two – it’s a touching account of a young woman’s attempt to carry on with life in a town that she has lived since birth, but where she feels she no longer belongs. As we’ve come to expect from Saviano, it’s a story that brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, without ever resorting to anything other than straight, factual reporting.
Piero Colaprico’s Stairway C introduces carabinieri maresciallo Pietro Binda to the English-speaking world. A man is found murdered outside a social housing complex in Milan. Binda finds himself faced with an endless line-up of possible suspects, from the drug dealers who live on stairway C, to friends and possible lovers of the man. Binda is a breath of fresh air in a genre bursting at the seams with depressed, alcoholic, drug-taking detectives. Stairway C is but a taster of the Italian policeman’s exploits, and we can but hope that the wonderful MacLehose consider translating some of the novels into English in the near future.
|THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES
Chatto & Windus (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/chatto-windus)
£14.99Tristan Hart is a medical student, madman and deviant. He is obsessed with pain; in his more lucid times it is the nature of pain and how to prevent it. His ultimate desire is to find the perfect scream, and in this guise his obsession is causing maximum pain without inflicting permanent damage.
Despite the odd title, which might suggest a more supernatural, or fantastical storyline, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama. Beautiful writing – Wolf expends a lot of effort in ensuring language is used to its full effect – and stunning book design – including everything down to the font used, and old-fashioned capitalisation of nouns – combine to create a fully immersive experience for the reader. Thankfully, the story is worthy of the attention lavished upon it and the reader will come away unsure of whether to love, hate or feel sorry for Tristan Hart. Whichever, it’s a story that will remain with the reader for some time after the final page, and showcases Jack Wolf as a new author that we’ll be watching out for.
Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
£16.99One-time horror master Graham Masterton makes the jump to crime fiction with the first in a series of novels featuring Cork’s only female Garda detective, Katie Maguire. When work on a farm outside Cork turns up the bones of eleven women, Katie Maguire is assigned to the case. The bones have been in the ground for a long time, but it’s clear that they were skinned alive, and that there is something ritualistic about the killings. As Katie comes under pressure to consign the case to the history books, an American tourist disappears. Her bones, similarly stripped, are found laid out in an arcane pattern on the same farm.
White Bones is a wonderful introduction to Katie Maguire, a character with more than her fair share of crosses to bear – sexism in the workplace the most obvious, but longstanding tension at home over the death of a child doesn’t help. Despite (or possibly because of) that, she’s the perfect lead, and gives Masterton free rein to examine issues outside of the central plotline. The author lived in Cork for five years, and takes great delight in showing off his knowledge – from local geography and history, to grasp of the local dialect and inter-character banter. Despite the fact that much of the action takes place outside of the city, Masterton still manages to make Cork an important character in itself, and it helps to ground the novel and give the reader a sense of place.
A welcome addition to the genre, Masterton isn’t afraid to stick to his roots, and introduce a hint of the supernatural into the proceedings. Broken Angels, the second Katie Maguire book, is due from Head of Zeus in September this year. It’s on my “must read” list. I guarantee it will be on yours too once you read White Bones.
|WEB OF THE CITY
Harlan Ellison® (harlanellison.com)
Titan Books / Hard Case Crime (titanbooks.com / hardcasecrime.com)
£7.99Harlan Ellison® is best known these days for his science fiction work, and for his penchant for controversy. His first novel, originally published in 1958, was an examination of New York’s street gangs, inspired by Ellison’s experience going undercover in a Brooklyn gang. Rusty Santoro wants out. Given a glimpse of two possible futures by his teacher, he knows which one he wants and school, rather than the gangs, is the way to achieve it. But quitting the gangs is not quite as easy as it seems, and Rusty quickly discovers that his is not the only life in danger from his actions.
Web of the City is a short, violent piece of work that fits perfectly into the Hard Case Crime library. Ellison perfectly evokes New York of the late 1950s, and focuses on the young men who make up the gangs that effectively ran entire neighbourhoods during the period. Most striking for the modern reader, perhaps, is the age of these boys: barely old enough to hold a license to drive a car, they are armed to the teeth and elicit fear wherever they go. The story has aged well, and will appeal to a modern, jaded audience, who don’t mind a bit of blood with their cornflakes. It still has the power to shock – the knife-fight between Rusty and the new president of the Cougars is frightening in its intensity and violence – and it is this power that will set it apart even from much of today’s crime fiction.
The Hard Case Crime/Titan edition of the book includes three related short stories, which are all also worth the read, despite the fact that one of them is a rehash of a large section of the novel with a different ending, which lends a completely different tone to the piece. Grease meets Battle Royale, Web of the City is pure Hard Case, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction.
Graham Rawle (www.grahamrawle.com)
Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)
£14.99Everyone knows a Riley Richardson. He’s the local anorak, carrier bag always in hand, always happy to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen about his chosen specialist subject, be it books (ahem!), or model trains, or whatever. In Riley Richardson’s case, that subject is bubble-gum cards, and Riley is on a life-long mission to find the elusive card 19 from the 1967 Mission: Impossible TV series. When a grey-haired man who looks remarkably like the leader of the Impossible Mission Force drops a playing card in a deserted alley, Riley picks it up, and finds himself on a quest to save the Princess of Wales, and to find that fabled card.
The story itself is wonderful, driven by the quirky character of Riley Richardson, a man with a quite different outlook on life than the rest of us. There’s a definite feel-good quality to the story, and Rawle has an uncanny ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the least appropriate moment. What sets The Card apart from everything else, though, has to be the design and construction quality of the overall package. Printed on a heavier, glossier stock than you tend to find in a paperback book, the author uses different fonts, emphasises different words, and includes little markings in the margins to produce a work of art that is much more than the story held within. The most beautiful part of the book is, without doubt, the fact that it contains full-colour representations of the various cards that Riley finds along the way, all designed and illustrated by the author himself. The Card is, quite simply, an absolute delight.
|THE FIRST BOOK OF CALAMITY LEEK
Calamity Leek is a teenage girl who lives, along with her many sisters, in a walled compound known as The Garden. Under the watchful, and more than a little demented, eye of their Aunty, the girls perform their daily chores and undertake their training which will eventually take them out into the big bad world where their job will be the destruction of the male population. When one of the sisters attempts to escape over the wall and brings back news that contradicts what they have been taught, the girls begin to question the worldview that has been presented to them by their aunt, and their elusive Mother.
When Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel opens, the reader finds themselves plunged into the middle of a fully-realised world with little idea of what’s going on. The concept of the Garden, and the stories of what lies beyond (roving bands of blood-thirsty Injuns) evoke tales of the post-apocalypse. As the novel progresses, we quickly learn that the truth is much simpler, and much darker. Around the quarter mark, the names of all the girls that live in the Garden are listed, and it becomes obvious that there is a pattern to how these young girls, sisters only in that they are the victims of a heinous crime, have been named.
‘Maria Liphook, Sandra Saffron Walden, Dorothy Macclesfield, Annie St Albans, Truly Polperro, Nancy Nunhead,…’
Aunty, a failed stage actress, presents a worldview to the girls based on the musicals she so obviously adores (and which provide each of the girls with their first name), musicals which all share a strong female protagonist and in which men are often portrayed as domineering, often tyrannical, strong characters to which the women are expected to play second fiddle (Calamity Jane, for example, or My Fair Lady). The girls believe they are being groomed as assassins, who will be unleashed upon the world when they come of age to begin the extermination of the demonmales. The truth, of course, is much more sinister and, while Calamity herself doesn’t have the faculties to work it out, there are enough clues in the narrative to leave the reader in no doubt as to what the Garden is, and what is being done to these poor girls.
In the background lurks the elusive Mother, who worships her long-dead daughter, and who is constantly on the lookout for a replacement, much to the disgust of Aunty. The dynamics between these two women, each damaged in her own way, reveal much of the underlying story to the reader, while keeping the horrible truth hidden from the girls who have never had a chance to learn any better. Lichtarowicz handles these characters beautifully; there is something comedic about them and their interactions with each other, but we are never in any doubt as to how evil they are. They often tread the fine line between human and caricature, without ever overstepping the mark; we, the reader, maintain, for the duration, a healthy fear of them both, and the things of which they are capable.
What makes the book so special, so instantly loveable, is the voice of the protagonist herself, young Miss Calamity Leek. Full of innocence and wonder, the first-person narrative is extremely engaging and cleverly constructed, so that Calamity can tell us everything we need to know without ever realising the import of her own words. It’s impossible not to like the narrator, and her simple, straightforward manner makes what has happened to her and her “sisters” all the more abhorrent when we eventually work out what it is. Her innocence also makes for a spine-tingling climax – never has the question “Is there a kitchen there?” carried so much weight – showing that Lichtarowicz already has an excellent grasp on what makes a story work.
With shades of The Truman Show and Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room, Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel nevertheless manages to present a unique and fascinating scenario that could well be happening – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – anywhere in the world right now. Populated by fully-formed and interesting characters – a feat in itself, considering the size of the cast, and the similarities between many of those characters – The First Book of Calamity Leek is presented as a story within a story that uses the vagaries of language to present the reader with the truth of the situation while never revealing it to the story’s protagonist and narrator. Wonderful writing and clever plotting mark Paula Lichtarowicz as an author to watch in coming years and The First Book of Calamity Leek as one of the finest novels of the year so far. Despite the cover, the book has broad appeal, and should not be dismissed as the chick-lit that it might, at first, appear to be. Miss this one at your cost.
James Smythe (james-smythe.com)
Harper Voyager (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/voyager/Pages/Voyager.aspx)
Released: 17 January 2013
My name is Cormac Easton. I am a journalist, and, I suppose, an astronaut.
In the middle of the twenty-first century, man strives, once again, to further his knowledge. Turning once more to space, the vessel Ishiguro is launched, its purpose simple: to take man further from Earth than he has ever been, and return him safely home. It is a mission designed to re-kindle humanity’s natural curiosity, and to usher in a new era of space exploration. When they awake from the stasis in which they have spent the first few weeks of their journey, the crew discover that their pilot is dead, his bed somehow malfunctioned. Four of the remaining five crew members die, one by one, over the course of the following few weeks, leaving a single survivor: Cormac Easton. A journalist, his sole purpose was to document the trip, and he has none of the skills that his fellow crew did. All he can do is sit and wait; wait until the Ishiguro reaches its furthest point and turns back towards home.
Regular readers may remember that I read and reviewed James Smythe’s debut novel, The Testimony, last year. So it was with no small amount of trepidation – and a certain amount of excitement – that I sat down to read this, his second offering. The Explorer, on the surface, takes Smythe into a completely different genre, this time into the realms of hard science fiction. What we discover as we read, is that space, the isolation offered by a deep-space vessel, and all the other trappings of the genre, are little more than the backdrop for an intense and often surprising character study.
It’s impossible to talk about too much of the plot without giving everything away, so in the interest of avoiding any spoilers I’ll be as vague as possible, while still hopefully conveying some sense of the gist of the story. At the centre of things stands Cormac Easton, the lone survivor on a weeks-long deep-space flight. As the story opens, Cormac gives us a brief overview of how his crewmates died, and we watch boredom and insecurity set in as he spends most of his days staring at control panels, unable to do anything to change the ship’s course. Luckily for the reader, the boredom never breaks from the confines of the page. From the opening sentence, we’re hooked, drawn into the story in a single, masterful stroke that guarantees we will still be on board at the final page.
One of the first things I did when I realised that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again; let me wallow in it, swim around in missing them as much as I could.
Cormac, it turns out, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. As Smythe expands on the brief overview we are given at the novel’s opening – without ever breaking out of Cormac’s character – we quickly learn that this man is not exactly all that he seems. As we watch his humanity and sanity slowly dissolve in the loneliness of space, and with the help of flashbacks detailing how he secured his place on the mission, Smythe hits us with a number of revelations, each packing more of a punch than the last, and each renewing our suspicion of our narrator, making us question his motives, his sanity, his whole story. There are similarities to, and themes shared with, the likes of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lem’s Solaris, but The Explorer manages to be completely original and Smythe always manages to retain the upper hand with the reader, moving the plot in the opposite direction to the one we expect or dropping a bombshell that changes the very nature of our relationship with Cormac, never letting us get too comfortable with the proceedings, or too close to a working theory about what’s going on.
Smythe’s second novel delivers on every level. It’s an intense and quietly horrific ride that keeps the reader hooked throughout. Literary science fiction that still manages to be cinematic in scope, The Explorer succeeds where The Testimony failed: it carries through on its early promises and presents a satisfying conclusion worthy of what has come before. Beautifully written and cleverly constructed, The Explorer establishes James Smythe as one of Britain’s best young writers. Don’t let the scifi tag deter you: what you’ll find behind that beautiful cover is a must-read for all lovers of great fiction.
|THE HUMAN PART
Translated by Owen F. Witesman (www.suomitranslation.com)
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Lieutenant Richard Guérin, the protagonist of Antonin Varenne’s Bed of Nails had a theory of interconnectedness that revolved around a red thread tied around the ankles of people who were linked in some way. It’s not until around three-quarters of the way through Kari Hotakainen’s beautiful novel, The Human Part, that we discover that this novel deals with exactly the same theory, and the meaning of that fantastic cover becomes apparent: this time the thread is replaced by red yarn (the old woman at the heart of this story and her husband were once the proud owners of a yarn shop), but the theory remains the same. I have since learned that the red thread linking these two extraordinary MacLehose Press books has a name: the Red String of Fate.
My name is Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas, and everything that I say will be printed word for word in this book.
So opens Kari Hotakainen’s tenth novel, with a meeting between an elderly woman and an author who has run out of ideas. The author is paying good money, and Salme sees an opportunity to help her family – they have recently suffered a catastrophic event, and Salme’s husband has not spoken since. There is friction immediately – the author is keen to take the bones and add enough fiction to flesh it out and make it sellable; Salme has a deep-seated distrust of, and dislike for, fiction and gives the author “a little bit of a tongue-lashing over this”. Her story is one of ideals, omitting the details she wishes to omit, and paints a picture of her three grown children that has them happy, healthy and holding down stable and well-paid jobs. The reality, if that is actually what we’re presented in the other sections of the book, turns out to be much different.
The Human Part is structured so that we see things from the points of view of all of the key players. Salme tells her story in a number of sittings, and these are related in the first person, as if they might have been transcribed directly from the Dictaphone used to capture the story. We then meet the grown children, and discover that their fates are much different to what we have learned from their mother. What is, perhaps, most interesting about the book, is that we’re never quite sure why this discrepancy exists: is Salme outright lying, rather than just omitting some details, as she would lead us to believe? Are the children lying to their mother, so that the ideal life she describes for each is the life she believes they lead? Are the sections describing the children pure fiction, invented by the author to make this old lady’s story seem more interesting and entertaining. There are subtle clues throughout, but Hotakainen leaves it to the reader to decide. Either way, Salme’s dislike of fiction would seem well-founded.
At the heart of the story lies the catastrophic event that has prompted Salme’s need for money. When the event happens – it is described around three-quarters of the way into the book – a light goes on inside the reader’s mind, and all of the seemingly chance encounters between characters suddenly take on a whole new meaning. The closest I can come to describe it is that feeling most people get when they reach the end of The Sixth Sense – that moment of revelation that leaves you open-mouthed in astonishment and wondering how you might have missed what now seems so obvious. In this case, the clue is embedded in the cover – that red yarn that connects everyone and everything together – but it’s still extremely clever how Hotakainen manages to make all the pieces fit so neatly together.
Outright hilarious in the early stages – the character of Salme is wonderfully-wrought, and the postcards she sends to her children are at once cringeworthy and beautiful (“I could see from your expression last time that my boy hasn’t been having luck in the world of women. Listen to your mother:…If she eats greedily, uninhibitedly, she will be frisky and warm in bed too.”) – and with a satirical, tongue-in-cheek view of modern Finland, the novel ultimately descends into darkness and violence as the family pulls together to find a way through their terrible time. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that it never loses its charm and the characters never lose the sympathy or empathy of the reader.
This seems an unusual one for me, and I’m not afraid to admit that the beautiful cover was what enticed me to check what was inside. The Human Part is not at all what it seems and, at its core, is exactly what I usually look for: a book that examines the darkness at the heart of the human condition. It’s beautifully-written, in an excellent translation that manages to lose none of the subtleties that give the story its sense of ambiguity – a sense that should give every reader a slightly different experience. A beautiful package that won’t disappoint on any level, it will leave the reader – as it has me – pining for translations of Hotakainen’s back catalogue as soon as possible.
|THE SEA ON FIRE
Kim is a man in his mid-thirties who has spent the vast majority of the latter half of his life travelling the world and diving some of its most beautiful spots. Nowadays he is living in Brixton with his wife and three daughters, the call of the sea a constant background noise. When his friend and long-time diving partner Garland Rain turns up and offers him a three-week job as a dive guide in the Red Sea, Kim jumps at the chance and, despite his wife’s disapproval, heads to Egypt and the freedom of the sea. Their boat, the Shang-Tu, belongs to a man named Teddy King, a small-time crook who thrives on cruelty, violence and drugs. It doesn’t take long for the party to start, and Kim quickly finds himself drawn in, much to the disgust of his friend. As the trip progresses, it soon becomes clear that the people on the boat have no intention of following rules and procedures, so it’s no great surprise when one of the divers disappears.
Told from the first-person perspective of Kim, The Sea on Fire starts slow and, with only a handful of exceptions, remains slow throughout. For perhaps the first third of the novel, it’s difficult to treat these characters as fictional, as Cunnell introduces us to Kim and Garland and the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves. For this first section, it’s a book about diving written by a man with a deep love of the subject and it reads like an autobiographical account of a young man in love with life, with the sea and with the art and science of diving. The reader only really becomes aware that this is a piece of fiction when the boat journey starts and partying commences. From that point onwards it is clear to everyone, except our narrator, that things can only go horribly wrong, and from around the halfway mark, The Sea on Fire is as suspenseful as any thriller, despite the slow pace.
For the most part, the novel is an examination of the end of freedom that usually comes with the responsibility of parenthood, the forced settling down and, for most, the end of many things young people take for granted – the freedom to travel, to have dangerous hobbies, to not need to work simply to pay bills. It’s clear from the outset that Kim feels this deeply, and his life in Brixton with a wife and three children leaves him feeling claustrophobic, pining for the open sea where he feels he belongs, and the sense of freedom he feels while submerged in the water. It’s no real surprise, then, that he falls for the party atmosphere on the boat, the abundance of alcohol and drugs, and the presence of the young and willing woman with whom he spends his nights; it’s a return to his natural state, to the person he believes he has never quite stopped being. There are, of course, consequences – the disappearing diver and the stain it is likely to leave on his and his partner’s reputations is the least of these; there are greater consequences on his return to England, and his internal struggle makes this a compelling read. At first, Kim seems a strange character to tell the story, but he has, without doubt, the most interesting story to tell, and the only story likely to appeal to non-divers.
Cunnell has managed to squeeze plenty into a book barely three-hundred pages in length: Kim’s internal struggle and his rapid descent into chaos; the disappearance of the diver and the aftermath which, despite my original statement that The Sea on Fire is a slow book, still manages to pack a considerable punch and forms the central plot around which the rest of the novel is built; there is also a message about the conservation of the world’s reefs, the damage that is done every day by careless divers and the consequences this will have for the reefs, the wildlife that relies on them, right up the food chain to the people causing the damage in the first place. It’s a unique and very interesting novel (and I should probably mention the fact that I am coming at this as someone who has had no prior interest in diving) and it is clear that, in some ways, parts of it are autobiographical, in that Kim and the the author share the same passion for the sea and the ecosystem it supports.
The Sea on Fire is a bit of a departure from my normal reading preferences. It’s a slow novel that builds towards a suspenseful climax. It is probably best described as a “literary thriller”, but that does serious injustice to the vast bulk of the book, which is a story about divers and their craft. Cunnell manages to keep it interesting throughout and, despite the slow pace of the story, it is a quick and entertaining read, even with the sometimes over-technical discussions. Cunnell has done an excellent job of bringing his characters and the Red Sea to life and leaving the reader with an almost cinematic view of this beautiful part of the world. It’s a surprising little gem, and won’t disappoint.
Iain Banks (www.iain-banks.net)
Little Brown (www.littlebrown.co.uk)
I didn’t have to read too far into Iain Banks’ latest novel, Stonemouth, to realise that I’ve been more than a little unfair to him over the course of the past few years. As a younger man, I read The Crow Road, having enjoyed the BBC television adaptation. I remember very little about either TV series or novel – vague memories of a game played while driving at night that involved identifying cars in the distance by the shape of their taillights – except that I enjoyed both immensely, which should speak more to my atrocious long-term memory than to the skill of the author. Since then, I have avoided Banks’ work, a little voice in the back of my head repeating the mantra that here was an author with nothing to offer me, a man who exists too far along the literary spectrum to appeal to my baser sensibilities.
As Stonemouth opens we find ourselves standing on a bridge with Stewart Gilmour. Stewart is back in his home town – the north-eastern Scottish town of the book’s title – after a five year exile, punishment for an unnamed sin committed against the Murstons, the town’s premier criminal family. He has returned for a funeral, the funeral of Donald Murston’s father, at the old man’s request, and it is immediately clear that he is back under sufferance, and with the understanding that he is gone again as soon as the funeral is over. As Stewart settles in, and gets reacquainted with old friends, we begin to get glimpses into his past, growing up in Stonemouth, and his budding relationship with the girl who would turn out to be the love of his life, Ellie Murston. And, as the weekend progresses, it becomes apparent that not everyone is aware of Stewart and Donald’s agreement, leaving the young man wondering if he’s likely to make it through his stay in one piece.
Stonemouth is part coming-of-age story, part (lost) love story, part small-town gangster story. It’s a frequently laugh-out-loud portrait of life in a small town as seen through the eyes of someone who has been away for some time and has returned to find something at once familiar and completely alien. Banks has tapped into a younger generation, and his portrayal of these people – people in their mid-twenties, straddling that fine line between the last lingering remnants of youth and true adulthood – is spot on. Everyone we meet over the course of this weekend is introduced to the reader in terms of their school relationship to Stewart – he was in the year above, she was two years below, he was in the same year – as if everything in this town revolves around, and is defined by, school. There are also more obvious traits, which quickly begin to get under the reader’s skin, but which do define people of a certain age in this country, such as the ubiquitous question mark, turning random statements into meaningless questions:
Jolie played with her empty G&T glass, revolving it on the white tablecloth. ‘Oh, just because they take over your life. They become your life. I sort of had plans? But, well.’
The novel simmers with barely-repressed violence throughout, and when we learn exactly what Stewart has done – in a reveal about halfway through that is, quite simply, a work of genius – it’s clear why the Murstons are out for his blood. Aside from Ellie’s brothers – certifiably nuts, each and every one – there’s the imposing figure of Powell Imrie, and every wannabe on the streets of Stonemouth out to make a name for himself by bringing the head of Stewart Gilmour to Donald Murston. Banks knows how to ratchet up the tension and there are a handful of scenes that leave you forgetting to breathe. When violence does finally erupt, it comes from an unexpected direction, catching the reader completely unawares, and is all the more effective for it.
Stonemouth shows a writer comfortable and confident in his chosen field. Perfectly plotted and beautifully written, it presents a cast of characters that fairly leap off the page from the outset. It is a funny novel – there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments – but its power lies in characters with whom we can identify – the banter between Stewart and best friend Ferg, for example, spotlights two very believable people that we may have, at some stage in the dim and distant past, known or even, in some cases, been – and a story in which we can invest to the point where the outcome is as important to the reader as it is to Stewart Gilmour. Banks is a writer not to be missed (and certainly not to be consigned to the “too literary for my liking” shelf) and, on the strength of Stonemouth, is arguably one of the most entertaining and exciting talents working in Britain today. He is a writer worth your attention, and Stonemouth should be on everyone’s “must-read” list this year.