|THE SHINING GIRLS
Lauren Beukes (laurenbeukes.com)
When Harper Curtis murders an old woman, he finds the key to a house to which he instinctively knows the way. In the bedroom of the house he finds the names of girls scratched on the walls next to mementoes and trophies, threads linking them together in an intricate web. Harper is a murderer, and these are his shining girls, spread across time, awaiting his visit. Kirby Mazrachi is one of these girls, the only one to survive Harper’s attack. Obsessed with her assailant, Kirby begins to look for similar cases and discovers the impossible: she was attacked by a man who cannot possibly exist. Her investigations bring her to the killer’s attention, and now Harper is back to complete the circle.
I’m always on the lookout for novels that bring a fresh new perspective to often tired old genres. In the case of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, the tired old genre is the serial killer novel; the biggest problem with her fresh perspective – a time travelling serial killer – is that it’s extremely difficult to pull off well and very easy to mess up completely. Fortunately for us readers, Beukes has taken the road less-travelled and produced a fresh-voiced crime/science fiction crossover that is, to put it succinctly, stunning.
The action takes place in and around the city of Chicago, and spans various periods from 1931 to 1993. Beukes, a native South African, captures the soul of the city perfectly and makes it one of the few constants, one of the few things we can rely on not to shift beneath our feet, in an otherwise twisted and ever-surprising narrative. Harper Curtis, the antagonist of the piece, and in some ways its central character, is a nasty piece of work, a man driven by the House, or more correctly, by the list and the trophies he finds in the bedroom of that house. His nemesis, the young Kirby, is damaged and obsessed, determined to find the man who tried to kill her and exact her revenge, whatever the cost. At times extremely unlikeable, Kirby still gives the reader someone to rally behind, if only because she is a better alternative than the despicable Harper upon whom to shower our sympathies.
The time travel aspects of the novel are introduced early in the story, so it is immediately obvious that this is no straightforward serial killer novel. As the story progresses, it becomes clear just how many strands there are to this narrative, and how difficult it must have been to get on paper without any massive holes in the various timelines or logic. As a result, later chapters are full of Easter Eggs and pleasant surprises for the careful and attentive reader. It’s easy to see that plotting was a long and laborious process, but it pays off in spades: the reader is never sure what to expect next, and right down to the book’s epilogue, Beukes manages to hold secrets back from us that, when slotted into place, complete the picture as neatly as the final, central piece of any jigsaw puzzle.
The Shining Girls is more than just cleverness and gimmicks, though. The time travel aspects serve the central storyline, rather than the other way around. At its core, the novel is a crime thriller and while the time travel adds an extra – if you’ll pardon the pun – dimension to the overall experience, it still provides a satisfying read for fans of the serial killer genre. With the introduction of sportswriter Dan, Beukes has also created the possibility, should she wish to hang around the thriller scene for awhile, of an on-going series with a recurring character (and let’s face it, stranger things have happened).
Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Simon Toyne (simontoyne.net)
Released: 12th April 2012
Regular visitors may remember that around this time last year, I reviewed Simon Toyne’s debut novel, the wonderful thriller, Sanctus. I liked it so much that it ended up on my best of the year list. So it was with that all-too-familiar mix of excitement and trepidation that I awaited Toyne’s second novel; excitement because it forms the second part of a planned trilogy, and trepidation that it might not live up to expectation. I’m happy to say that any worries I might have had were laid to rest almost immediately upon opening the book.
The Key follows on immediately after the end of Sanctus. Unfortunately, due to the close links between the two books, it is almost impossible to give a brief overview of this novel without including spoilers for its predecessor. I will try to keep these to a minimum, and will most definitely not be revealing the outcome of Sanctus.
Liv Adamsen and Kathryn Mann are in hospital along with the surviving members of the Sancti from the Citadel – who have all suffered massive haemorrhaging as a result of the removal of the Sacrament from the mountain – while Kathryn’s son Gabriel has ended up in police custody. From the opening chapter, Toyne widens the scope of this second novel, introducing us to The Ghost, a Bedouin warrior who deals in ancient relics found in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. In the Vatican, Cardinal Secretary Clementi has set plans in motion that will re-float the Church financially, and in the ancient Citadel that looms over the city of Ruin, the remaining monks attempt to adapt to life without the Sacrament and its green-robed guardians.
A verse in a notebook belonging to Kathryn Mann’s father – the so-called Mirror Prophecy – sets Liv and Gabriel on a journey into the Iraqi desert, the fate of the world in their hands and the power of the Catholic Church set against them.
Like Sanctus, The Key is a fast-paced and intelligent thriller. Interestingly, the reveal that defined the closing section of Sanctus is not mentioned here until around 200 pages in – when we first see Liv, she has no recollection of what has happened in the Citadel, and we are re-introduced to this key plot point piece by piece as Liv’s memories resurface. It’s a nice trick: on the one hand, it opens the book to a wider audience than just those people who read the first book (although I would highly recommend reading them in order); on the other hand, readers of Sanctus are forced to do some of the work in recalling what has gone before.
All of the characters that made Sanctus such a success are back, and it is interesting to see how they have evolved over the relatively short time period that the two novels cover – The Key picks up around a week after the end of Sanctus. The balance of power has shifted, most noticeably within the mountain stronghold, and none of the characters have survived the events unscathed, emotionally or physically. They are joined by a host of new characters who are equally well-drawn: Cardinal Secretary Clementi who may be in too deep as he engages in shady dealings in an attempt to hide the fact that the Church is broke; the mysterious and creepy Ghost, scouring the desert for ancient relics and selling them on the black market; the massive Dick, a man with a love for words who, for this reader at least, evokes the memory of another giant of literature: Daniel Bunkowski, better known as Chaingang, from the series of novels by Rex Miller that bear the giant’s name. Here too, much to my delight (and, if the search terms that lead you folks to my little corner of the web are correct, much to the delight of many other people), is the city of Ruin in all its glory, still taking centre stage despite the fact that much of the action takes place elsewhere.
It doesn’t take long to realise we’re on solid ground here with a writer who has proven that Sanctus was not just beginner’s luck. With the exception of a mystery that really isn’t – which will by no means ruin the enjoyment of the story, but did leave this reader feeling slightly flat – The Key is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that requires some deductive reasoning on the part of the reader. It’s a solid storyline that builds on the foundations laid in Sanctus, and while it lacks something of the previous book, The Key is still amongst the best thrillers you will read this year. It marks Simon Toyne as a man to watch, one of a new breed of young, vibrant writers who set new standards of excellence in their chosen genres.
Zoran Drvenkar (www.drvenkar.de)
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
I will admit that when I saw the cover of Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry – the first of the German author’s novels to be translated into English – my first thought was that it was a novel aimed at a young adult audience. What lies behind that stark white cover – or the stark black version, which is just as striking – is much darker, and more complex than I had imagined; “young adult” it most certainly is not.
A group of four Berlin friends approaching the end of their twenties decide to open an agency that will apologise on your behalf. They decide immediately that they will only take on corporate commissions and, under the leadership of Kris, a young man who knows exactly what to say, they find themselves earning more money than they could have dreamed. They move to a villa on the shores of the Wannsee and make it both home and base of operations. When Wolf, Kris’ younger brother, arrives at an appointment on the top floor of an apartment block in the run-down Kreuzberg area, he has no way of knowing what lies in wait for him, and what consequences it will have for his life, and for the lives of his friends. A woman hangs on the wall, one nail through her crossed wrists, another through her forehead, at her feet a paper bag containing a threat that means Wolf cannot just walk away; their job is to apologise to this dead woman, and then to clean up the murderer’s mess.
Drvenkar uses multiple points of view to tell the story of this group of young people and the man who has decided to use them for his own ends. Using first, second and third-person narratives, the author sows confusion in the mind of the reader, leaving us unsure of whom to trust until the story reaches its dark and violent climax. As the story progresses, and we come to know these characters who are moving slowly into darker territory, towards an inevitable evil, we start to learn some of the murderer’s motivations; it’s an unpleasant story of ritual child abuse – sometimes graphically described – by two very unpleasant characters, spanning the course of several years. Sorry is a tough and at times unpleasant read, but ultimately, as the pieces slot into place, and we learn exactly what is going on, it is also a very rewarding read.
It will take some time to become used to the multiple viewpoints. It’s easy to make assumptions – something that the reader should avoid at all costs – about story portions told in the first or second person, especially when for the vast majority of the book, the killer is referred to as “You”; it’s a disconcerting feeling, which adds to the overall atmosphere.
You drive the nail through the bone of her forehead. It takes you four more blows than the hands did, before the nail pierces the back of her head and enters the wall. She twitches, her twitch becomes a quiver, then she hangs still.
The book does have some problems, and it is almost a shame to mention them. At least one important thread seems to remain unresolved, something that may well have been done by design. It is difficult to describe in any more detail than that without including spoilers. There are also times when the narrative seems quite clunky. For the most part, the story is told in the present tense, with past tense used where appropriate to describe things that have already happened. There are places – and more than a few – where tenses become interchangeable across the course of a handful of sentences, sometimes leaving the reader to try and parse exactly what is happening. It’s difficult to work out, though, if this is down to the complexity of the writing, or slips in the translation. As I said, it’s almost a shame to mention them, and neither of these points is unlikely to mar the enjoyment of this excellent novel.
Sorry is a cleverly-plotted piece of intrigue. Drvenkar is a writer who is sure of what he’s doing, and proves it by constantly surprising even this most jaded reader of crime fiction. It’s a dark and violent novel that, because of some elements, will not appeal to everyone; it should, however, find many fans outside the crime genre: there are times when Sorry teeters on the edge of horror. Despite the aforementioned clunkiness, the excellent story – original, exciting and very well-conceived – shines through to make this a must-read for fans of tough, gruesome fiction. Drvenkar is a prolific writer, but Sorry is his first novel to receive an English translation. It’s unlikely it will be the last time we see his name on British bookshelves and, if he can continue telling stories like this, it won’t be long before he becomes a permanent fixture on my own must-read list.
As the end of the year approaches, I have decided to break from the straightforward review posts that have populated Reader Dad to date, to do a brief round-up of the year’s reading, including my Top 10 of 2011 and my Most Disappointing of 2011.
If you have checked out my newly-added Reading List section, you will know that I have been recording everything I’ve read since 2003. My reading year runs from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, because I like to have the decks cleared in time to enjoy the influx of new books that Christmas typically brings for the avid reader. By the end of this reading year, I will have read 62 books, which is my best year “since records began” (my current read, Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is likely to take me the rest of the week to complete). Of those, eight are 2011 debut novels for the authors in question. A further two are the first novels by established foreign authors to be translated into English. Twenty-two others are the first books I have read by their respective authors, and the rest are a mixture of favourites both old and new.
The focus of my reading this year has been on crime fiction, with over half of the books read falling into that genre, or one of its many sub-genres (including those books I have been categorising as “thrillers” for want of a better description). Holocaust/war fiction, science fiction, horror and westerns have all featured, and the list even includes a non-fiction title.
There is only one criteria for the lists below: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. For this reason, a couple of my favourite books of the year haven’t made it on to the list, but deserve honourable mentions nonetheless. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four beautiful novellas to rival his earlier Different Seasons, which gave us “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (source of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (and the film of the same name) and “The Body” (upon which Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me is based). Thaisa Frank’s beautiful Heidegger’s Glasses tells the tale of an underground compound filled with scribes whose sole purpose is to respond to letters addressed to people who have been killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Using original letters, and with a cast of sympathetic characters, it’s an excellent and extremely touching novel. Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which was reissued by Hesperus late in 2010 is a must-read for anyone that enjoys to read. Simon Lelic’s third novel, The Child Who, won’t be published until early January, so you can expect to see it on my 2012 list.
The following lists are in reading order, as I can’t imagine how I would be able to rate them against each other. And, chances are, an extra one or two have snuck in. Hyperlinks will take you directly to my review (where it exists).
MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2011
SANCTUS by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)
Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.
A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.
THE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees (Quercus)
The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books.
If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.
PLUGGED by Eoin Colfer (Headline)
Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.
It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer.
OUTPOST by Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.
BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano (MacLehose Press)
Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been.
Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.
KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall (Orion)
Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (Granta)
Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.
REAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Books)
Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.
THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)
Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.
The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience.
JULIA by Otto de Kat (MacLehose Press)
In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.
IT may seem premature to include a book that I have yet to finish in my list of the best of the year but, at over halfway through I’m completely captivated by the story, and loving being transported once more into the world of Stephen King. The tips of the hat to King’s earlier classic, It, have only helped to cement this, for me, as a brilliant novel.
AND THE MOST DISAPPOINTING OF 2011
Because there was some talk on Twitter early in the month about balancing the “best of the year” with the “most disappointing” or “worst” of the year, I’ve decided to do just that. Anyone reading through the posts on Reader Dad will most likely spot immediately which book didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’m being kind and calling it my “most disappointing”:
THE OBELISK by Howard Gordon (Simon & Schuster)
A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24 box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.
In the coming weeks, look out for my review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 to see if it warrants its position on the Top 10 *ahem*. Reader Dad’s first interview will also be appearing around the turn of the New Year, so check back to see my chat with one of my favourite authors. I will also be posting reviews for a slew of novels due for publication early in the New Year, so will be kept busy reading over the Christmas break.
It just remains for me to thank my regular reader, and everyone that pops in from time to time, for your support over the past ten months. I’d like to thank the wonderful publishers and publicists who have taken a punt on a newbie and provided me with some excellent review material. And I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2012.