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.
It’s that time of the year again when the “best of the year” lists start to appear. Not wanting to be left out, and because I had some fun with it last year, I’ve decided to do another round-up, and remind everyone what my top ten (or so) books of 2012 are.
By the end of this reading year (Christmas Eve, for me), I will have read 63 books, one more than last year’s total and a personal best for me. While crime fiction still accounts for a large fraction of what I read this year (26 of the 63 books), my reading focus has shifted slightly over the course of the year. This is mainly due to very kind publicists sending review copies of books that I might not otherwise have picked up. There is still a theme running through much of my reading, but Reader Dad is now much less about “Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction” and more about the darkness that lies deep within the human soul. The list contains its fair share of horror and holocaust fiction and a handful of deeply disturbing character studies that appeal to the noir-lover that hides inside me.
Of the 63 books, a massive 32 are by authors that are new to me, including six debut authors and eight foreign authors whose work was published in English for the first time this year. The rest are a selection favourites both old (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson) and relatively new (Colin Cotterill, Justin Cronin). 2012 also saw some experimentation with the blog, moving away from posting only book reviews, to including author interviews, guest posts and even one book-inspired travelogue. As the year draws to a close and I look back at what I have achieved, I find that I’m happy with the format, and hope to include more interviews and guest posts as we move into 2013 and beyond. I am, of course, always happy to hear from my readers, if you have any suggestions or comments.
Without further ado, then, it’s time to look at my favourite books of the year. As with last year, there is only one criteria: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. As I mentioned, it’s been a bumper year, so whittling the list down to ten was nigh on impossible, so you’ll see an extra couple slipping in. The books are listed in the order they were read, with the exception of my stand-out, which I’ll list at the end. Links take you to the original review, where it exists.
MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2012
THE CHILD WHO by Simon Lelic (Mantle)
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.
EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus [tr: Astri von Arbin Ahlander] (Macmillan)
Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.
ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.
TRIESTE by Daša Drndić [tr: Ellen Elias-Bursac] (Maclehose Press)
This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (Hodder)
For the aficionado […] The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.
A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel,Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.
RAILSEA by China Miéville (Macmillan)
Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.
TURBULENCE by Samit Basu (Titan Books)
Credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy, Samit Basu arrives in the UK as an accomplished, some might say veteran, writer –Turbulence is his fifth novel, making him the best fantasy writer you’ve never heard of. That’s a state of affairs that you should rectify with all possible haste. Turbulence is a superhero novel like none you’ve seen before. A polished storyline, engaging characters and razor sharp wit combine to make this a must-read for everyone that has ever enjoyed a comic. It’s funny and action-packed, yes, but it’s also extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. It’s a perfect introduction to an excellent writer, and we can only hope that his back catalogue is made available in the UK in short order. It’s also an excellent start to a series that looks set to redefine the superhero genre for the twenty-first century. Kudos to Titan Books to bringing this excellent author, and this exciting series, to a much wider audience.
ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson (Corvus Books)
G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.
LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist [tr: Marlaine Delargy] (Quercus)
Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.
THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)
Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.
AND THE STAND-OUT
One book stood head-and-shoulders above the rest for me this year, so I felt it deserved its own section:
HHHH by Laurent Binet [tr: Sam Taylor] (Harvill Secker)
HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completelyother. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.
AND 2012’S MOST DISAPPOINTING
2012 brought with it the realisation that I’m not getting any younger. With a full-time job and a three-year-old child, my reading time is limited. I don’t have to finish every book that I start, wasting countless hours or days trudging through a book I’m not enjoying because I feel I need to finish it. As a result I have abandoned more books in the past twelve months than in the previous twelve years combined. My most notable disappointment for the year, of all the books I finished, is listed below. Despite my less-than-glowing review, I’m excited by the prospect of James’ second novel, The Explorer, which is due to hit shelves in January.
THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe (Blue Door Books)
The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.
Expect more reviews and interviews in the coming months. I have already started into the pile of 2013 books that I’ve been collecting for the past few months, and there are some really exciting titles there. 2013 brings with it the prospect of new novels by Warren Ellis and Joe Hill, and two new works from Stephen King, including a sequel to one of his most enduring novels. It’s going to be a busy year, and I expect to have even more trouble selecting a Top Ten than I did this year.
All that remains is for me to thank the publishers and publicists who continue to send me books in return for an honest review and who, in doing so, ensure that I’m continually reading outside my comfort zone. I’d like to thank the authors who have taken the time to answer questions or provide guest posts. And, most importantly, thanks to my readers and visitors, without whom I would just be talking to myself. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2013.
|WHERE I LEFT MY SOUL
Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Released: 10th October 2012
I am always slightly surprised when I come across a book that deals with a period of history of which I have been woefully ignorant. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, the French author’s first novel translated into English, presents just such a period, dealing with the decades following the end of the Second World War during which the French Empire appears to have completely collapsed, leaving an entire generation of young men feeling used and betrayed by their government.
One such man, André Degorce, stands at the centre of this short, bleak novel. Having joined the French Resistance at the age of 19, halfway through 1944, he finds himself captured by the Germans. In May 1945, he leaves the camp at Buchenwald weighing five and a half stone. Almost exactly nine years later, he leaves a re-education camp in Vietnam, having been captured by the Viet Minh. Now, 1957, Capitaine Degorce is at war again, this time in the Northern African climes of Algeria, and this time the shoe is on the other foot.
Degorce, now a torturer, has been tasked with capturing Tahar, one of the commanders of the National Liberation Army. Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a man with whom he was captured in Vietnam, has joined him once again in Algeria, seemingly enjoying his new role much more than the Capitaine. When Tahar is captured, Degorce senses a kinship and during the short period when Tahar is his prisoner, the Algerian also becomes a confessor. When Tahar is transferred to Andreani’s care, Degorce is lost, unable to comprehend what he has become.
The bulk of the story takes place over the course of three days at the end of March 1957. These third-person narratives from the point of view of Degorce are interspersed with a first-person rant in the voice of a much older Lieutenant Andreani, a stream of bile and invective aimed at Degorce, a man once respected, even loved, now reviled and considered a traitor. What slowly unfolds as the story progresses, are the portraits of two men broken in very different ways by the same circumstances. On the one hand, Degorce, a man filled with remorse, increasingly questioning the tactics he uses on a daily basis, unable to comprehend why he is slowly becoming the same as his captors in Buchenwald and Vietnam; on the other, Andreani, a man willing to do anything in the name of his country, remorseless and happy, the perfect tool.
Ferrari states in his preface, that it’s not about the war, nor the politics:
“…it was not French wounds, nor even history, that interested me; I was only interested in the trajectory these officers followed, as a paradigm of the way in which man, as he plunges into his own inner darkness, loses his soul.”
In this, at least, he succeeds. We meet André Degorce as his world is about to collapse around him. Through a series of flashbacks we discover how he has arrived at this point, and can infer certain things about the choices he has made. The capture of Tahar, and the similarities Degorce sees between himself and his captive, serve to push him over the edge, and we witness a man whose world is falling apart around him: his remote and crumbling relationship with his family, who have no idea to what lengths he has gone in the service of his country; and his position within the army, a job that suddenly seems irrelevant to him, his unquestioning loyalty now at an end, a source of embarrassment and shame.
“He was no longer even trying to shake off the grip of humiliation. He was simply waiting for the whole charade to be at an end. It occurred to him that Jeanne-Marie would see his picture in the papers next morning and would in all probability be proud of him. If she were to learn one day what he was really doing here she would be unable either to believe it or to understand it. And she would be right: in spite of all the logic in the world, it was at bottom impossible to understand and it was better for his wife to remain in permanent ignorance.”
In parallel with this, we also witness the descent of Horace Andreani into the same pit. It is a descent on a much different trajectory, taking over forty years to complete, and it is driven by the Lieutenant’s hatred of his one-time Capitaine.
The narrative is at times dense and slow-moving, particularly in the Andreani sections, where sentences span half a page, and paragraph breaks are few and far between. Despite the daunting appearance, Andreani’s voice is engaging enough, and what he has to say interesting enough, to allow the reader to make short work of these sections. The Degorce sections are more conventional, and give us a more detailed look at the soldiers’ time in Algeria, and the work they do: torture both physical and psychological in the name of dismantling a terrorist network that existed long before such a thing was considered the norm. Ferrari’s writing is beautiful, his compact novel giving us at once a shapshot of a specific time and location, but also a timeless scenario that could well be playing out in a handful of countries right now. The war, the politics, as was Ferrari’s intention, are secondary to the main story: a look at two men’s descent into hell, and the broken husks that remain.
Where I Left My Soul is a short, powerful tale that presents a look at the human soul in all its darkness. Behind that beautiful Monica Reyes cover is an equally beautiful tale that shows Jérôme Ferrari’s understanding of the dark side of humanity. It’s a quick read, but one that will remain with the reader for a long time afterwards, a consequence of strong characters and engaging storyline. In a year already bursting with wonderful reads, Where I Left My Soul still manages to stand out.
|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.
|BED OF NAILS
Translated by Siân Reynolds
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
When his friend kills himself on stage in a seedy nightclub in Paris, John Nichols leaves the isolation of his camp in southern France’s Lot and heads to the country’s capital to identify the body. But something doesn’t quite feel right, and John finds himself investigating his friend’s final days in an attempt to find the truth. Inspector Richard Guérin, exiled to Suicides following a scandal two years previously, has found a thread linking together a dozen suicides over a period of two years. John’s friend may well be the latest in a long line of assisted suicides, and together these two men aim to prove it.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Bed of Nails, Antonin Varenne’s third novel, is not your average piece of crime fiction. As the novel opens, two men are dead, though neither of them seem to have been murdered. The first has stripped naked and run, smiling, along one of the busiest roads in Paris until a head-on collision with a truck ends the frolic and the man’s life. The second, an American fakir, has bled to death on stage after suspending himself from a pair of hooks through his chest. There is nothing to suggest these deaths are suspicious, except in the minds of the story’s two protagonists.
The characters are the key to this story, and Varenne has injected each with enough life to leave the reader wanting more from them long beyond the end of their participation in this odd little tale. Caricatures and stereotypes abound, but the characters – and the story, for that matter – never seem stale. Guérin is the inward-looking obsessive policeman, his yellow mac as much a symbol of who he is as the badge he carries. His assistant, Lambert, is the stereotypical French policeman of a hundred films – tracksuits and indolence. The American, John Nichols, is an over-exaggerated Davy Crockett, while even the old men that patrol the streets of the village where he lives might have been plucked from a Stella Artois advertisement. Throw in a beautiful German artist who strips naked, covers herself in paint and throws herself at canvasses, and an old ex-convict who bears a striking resemblance to the late Edward Bunker, and you begin to get some sense of just what to expect.
This is part gritty police procedural, part tragicomic examination of modern life and the inventive ways – and associated motives – in which some people leave it behind. In Guérin, Varenne gives us the shell of a once-great man. A scandal two years earlier – the details of which we don’t learn until later in the book, in a revelation as grotesquely funny as it is shocking – has led to his removal to the wilds of Suicides. But his mind – the mind of one of the force’s greatest detectives – continues to work, and he quickly becomes obsessed with these suicides that he believes have had some outside assistance, to the point that the obsession has an adverse affect on his emotional stability and physical wellbeing. It is his driving desire to find the truth that carries the story along, and ultimately leads him to John Nichols and the death of the fakir. Here we find a more concrete story, involving Gulf War veterans and CIA cover-ups. The fakir’s suicide provides the perfect pivot around which these two seemingly unrelated cases revolve.
Bed of Nails is a beautifully-written novel and, even in translation, Varenne’s flourishes and narrative tricks shine through. There is the hint of a hard-boiled novelist here in some of the phrasing, and the staccato dialogue. Here, too, you will find a Paris that you are unlikely to find in the tourist guides – no Eiffel Tower, no Champs Elysées; this is a Paris where tourists rarely stray. The City of Light and Love has a dark and seedy side, and it is here that we find Varenne’s assortment of freaks and misfits, and spend time in their company.
It’s an unconventional crime novel that nevertheless has the power to shock and entertain. A strong cast of characters and a dark sense of humour are the story’s strong points, and help to carry the reader through some of the more surreal aspects of the plot. Varenne has no trouble getting inside the heads of his protagonists, and has a talent for bringing his readers along for the ride. Bed of Nails is another winner from the consistently excellent MacLehose Press and, while Antonin Varenne may be something of an acquired taste, he’s definitely worth a try. If your tastes are remotely similar to mine, you’ll be counting down the months until his next novel.
|THE BLACK PATH
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Late last summer, MacLehose Press published Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Despite multiple attempts in my review to convince people that it was the third book in the series, it turns out that it was, actually, the fourth. MacLehose’s latest Larsson release, bearing the much less unwieldy title of The Black Path, is the missing third book:
Do you remember what happened?
Rebecka Martinsson saw her dead friend lying there on the gravel in Poikkijärvi. And the world shattered. And they had to hold onto her to stop her walking into the river.
This is the third book.
Once again we find ourselves in the cold and snowy wastes of Sweden’s little section of the Arctic Circle. When a woman is found, frozen solid, in an unoccupied fishing hut, Kiruna detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke are called in to investigate. When she thaws out, she is quickly identified – she has recently been in the news, after all – as part of the Kallis Mining management team. She appears to have been tortured before her death and, as the detectives investigate they discover that she is something of an enigma, even to those closest to her. Assisted by Rebecka Martinsson – freshly released from a psychiatric hospital and now working in the much less stressful environment of the Kiruna public prosecutor’s office – a second death is soon uncovered, shedding a whole new light on the investigation and the seemingly untouchable people involved.
Many of the elements that made Until Thy Wrath Be Past a winner for me are present once again here: the distinctly Swedish feel; the supernatural elements (much more subtle than previously, but definitely present); the wonderful characters and pitch-perfect story-telling. The Black Path is told in good part in the form of flashbacks, from various different points of view (Mella’s is, perhaps, conspicuous by its absence, although she remains central to the plot). Through this manner we get to watch the central characters develop, not only Martinsson, but also the dead woman, her brother, her friend, and various other characters that will have important roles as the plot plays out. This is a book defined by its characters and their relationships with each other; there is undoubtedly a mystery to be solved, but it is much less important than the interpersonal dynamics (if I can be allowed that small digression into management-speak) that led to the murder, Larsson once more focussing on the why rather than the who or the how.
The two main characters (I’m still slightly baffled by the fact that these books are all identified as “A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation”), while only appearing for around half of the book between them, are still the most powerful driving force behind this story. Here we have two very different women – the fragile and insecure Martinsson, and the brash, no-nonsense Mella – who somehow grow as friends as the story progresses and seem to fit comfortably together, despite their differences. There is a description early on that, for me, summed up the differences perfectly:
Martinsson watched them and thought there was a faint, but clearly perceptible sensual signal in that way of pushing aside the hair, the fingers following the strand of hair to the very end. On their way back to the knee or the arm of the chair, the tips of the fingers fleetingly brushed the chin or the mouth.
Mella watched the same movements and thought they were always bloody fiddling with their faces, like junkies.
These are quirky, loveable characters that, for some reason, remind me of the characters from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. It’s a difficult balance to strike: the dark business of murder and corruption coupled with characters whose sanity depends on their sense of humour, and the banality of their everyday lives, without ever reaching the level of satire or outright comedy. Larsson achieves it, seemingly effortlessly, producing a story that moves from horror to laughs and back again in the blink of an eye.
The Black Path is, ultimately, a collection of character studies disguised as a piece of cleverly-plotted crime fiction. Three-dimensional characters, beautiful, freezing locations and a puzzle that will keep you guessing to the end combine to make this a compelling and hugely entertaining read. Åsa Larsson proves, once again, that when it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, she is the one to beat, and cements her place on my own personal “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.
Otto de Kat
Translated by Ina Rilke
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
A brief flick through previous entries in this blog will show the reader that I have something of a fascination with the events of the Second World War. Not so much the war itself, but the individual stories that make up the fabric of time during which those terrible events occurred. Dutch writer Otto de Kat’s latest novel, Julia, is one such story, a surprising and heart-breaking vignette that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power through the eyes of a young, love-struck Dutchman.
Julia opens in the early 1980s. Chris Dudok, a man in his early seventies, is found dead on the floor of his study, apparently having taken an overdose along with his bowl of porridge. On his desk is a newspaper, an old German paper, dated 2 April 1942. On the front page, a list of names, circled in red. From there, we are taken back to Lübeck, February 1938, where a much younger Chris Dudok is working in a factory, sent to Germany by his father to gain some experience before he takes control of the family’s own manufacturing business. While in Lübeck, Chris meets and falls in love with Julia Bender, a young woman outspoken against the growing Nazi presence. As events culminate in Kristallnacht, in November of the same year, Chris flees back to the Netherlands, abandoning Julia at her command. It is a decision that will overshadow the rest of his life, and which will leave him filled with regret.
De Kat tells his tale in a series of flashbacks, the story coming together in three distinct time periods. Here is Chris in his seventies, on the night before he takes his own life, reminiscent and regretful. Here is the same man in his early twenties, full of life and love, in a country that is slowly succumbing to the grip of dictatorship, the world on the verge of war. And then there is Chris in the in-between years, trapped in a loveless marriage, possessing unwanted responsibility following the sudden death of his father and the passing of the reins to him. Behind everything lies the shadow of Julia, a young woman that we – and Chris, seemingly – know very little about:
Those moments in her company…Years hence it would be those moments, that time, that would count as the happiest he had known. Taken all together, what did they add up to? A few days, a fortnight?
We see Dudok’s life as a series of snapshots, as if we are seeing pages from the diary that he left in the car on his final night. De Kat shows us Germany in 1938 through the eyes of an outsider. Hitler is never mentioned by name, but his presence is felt in those pre-war scenes, and he is referred to as “the radio man” throughout. Chris watches his rise with the cynical and detached eye of the foreigner, unable to see what others see in him, why his ideas are finding footholds in the minds of the local population:
The radio man was a disaster, worse than Chris had initially believed. As for the never-ending palavers in Holland, the stultifying compromises, the wavering, all that was better than falling for the great lie of the national soul, the fixation on a mythical perception of blood and soil, the idiocy of one group being held superior to another. It was nauseating, loathsome, and also frightening.
There is an immediate rapport with Julia, an objector, the sister of a traitor to the cause, who becomes a shady underground figure and sends Chris away, ostensibly to keep both of them safe. There is an interesting juxtaposition of these two main characters – they share similar views, reached through different thought processes, yet one, in the eyes of the law, is a traitor, and the other not.
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.
|UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST
Translated by Laurie Thompson
MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)
Released: 4th August 2011
In the early spring thaw, the body of a young woman is discovered floating in the river Torne, in the northern extremes of Sweden. It doesn’t take long for police to discover that it’s the body of Wilma Persson, who went missing along with her boyfriend during the depths of winter late the previous year. Unable to accept the obvious explanation – that the couple died accidentally while diving – District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella ruffle feathers in an attempt to get to the truth and bring the couple’s murderer to justice.
Until Thy Wrath Be Past – the title comes from a quotation from the Book of Job – is Larsson’s third novel featuring the troubled Prosecutor who is adjusting to life above the Arctic Circle in the Swedish city of Kiruna. It’s a straightforward police procedural where the identity of Wilma Persson’s murderer is never in question, not least to the investigators at the centre of the novel. Even so, it is oddly gripping, driven to a large extent by the why rather than the who or the how of many traditional crime novels.
Martinsson and Mella – presumably there is a reason the latter is not included in the series title – are a pair of down-to-earth women. Martinsson is readjusting to life in the quiet city of Kiruna after time spent living and working in Stockholm. She’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown brought on by one of her previous cases and trying – with varying degrees of success – to get back to a normal way of life. Mella is the tough-as-nails, break-all-the-rules detective with a stable family life – a loving husband and four children keep her busy out of hours. The biggest problem with taking Wrath as your starting point for this series – as I have done – is that you miss a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. This is a standalone case which is completely self-contained within the covers of the book, at least in terms of the main plot. But there is two books’ worth of history here that define these people and how they interact with one another. It would be impossible to write the novel without some reference to what has gone before, but it can be frustrating for the first-time visitor to this part of the world. I’d recommend considering The Savage Altar as a starting point and working your way forward.
Around half of the novel is told from the point of view of the victim. The opening chapter describes the dive and the drowning and is expertly written: told in the first person, it will leave you short of breath and eager for more. Wilma appears to Martinsson early in the novel to provide assistance – an act which Martinsson remembers as a dream. There is a touch of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones in the handling of Wilma’s story and a kinship with John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels – this is a human drama that straddles the line between crime and supernatural “horror”.
There is something distinctly Swedish – unpronounceable names, of which there are many, aside – about how Larsson tells her story, something laid-back about her prose that reminds me of the first time I read Henning Mankell, which would be the best comparison I could come up with should someone ask the question “who is she like?” While Larsson’s Kiruna and Mankell’s Ystad could not be farther apart and still be in the same country – Ystad sits serenely on the south coast while Kiruna rests in the triangle where the borders of Sweden, Finland and Norway meet – they could not be more similar: there’s something positively rural about both places, and much of the police work seems to take place outside of the city proper while still falling under the purview of the city’s police force. Larsson’s sense of place is well-defined, and Kiruna and its surroundings come alive within the pages of the book.
In the ever-growing pantheon of Scandinavian crime fiction, it is sometimes difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Based on Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Åsa Larsson is definitely worth your time and attention. I suspect that as the series grows, so will this writer’s reputation until it’s Åsa that people think about when they hear the name Larsson. This is an absolute must-read for fans of the Wallander novels in particular and anyone who enjoys Scandi-crime in general.