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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

GUEST POST: On Locations by CONRAD WILLIAMS

Hell is Empty Name: CONRAD WILLIAMS

Author of: DUST AND DESIRE (2015)
                      SONATA OF THE DEAD (2016)
                      HELL IS EMPTY (2016)

On the web: conradwilliams.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @salavaria

When I teach creative writing at university (I’ve had a few gigs over the years at Manchester Metropolitan, Edge Hill and, in the new year, I’ll be at St John’s, York) I invariably include a class dealing with sense of place. In the strongest fiction, a location can possess as much impact as a character; can in fact almost become another character, real or especially imagined. Look at China Miéville’s Bas Lag novels, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Cormac McCarthy’s destroyed America in The Road, Iain Banks’ Scottish island in The Wasp Factory, William Golding’s island in Lord of the Flies. These are all fictional landscapes that provide a colourful, fertile background to their characters’ travails. These places are the novels, arguably. They are so exquisitely rendered that you feel you know them, that you could inhabit them.

In the crime novels I’ve written for Titan Books I very much wanted to make Joel Sorrell’s London a hyper-real city filled with shadows and light, texture and danger. Threat has to come from the antagonists, but it can also come from the urban surroundings. The city can feel alien even to those who spend their lives within it and Joel, as a loner, an outsider, is acutely aware of this. This loose sequence of novels is a missing girl trilogy, but also a trilogy of dereliction. Of duty, certainly, but more so where architecture is concerned. Each of the books end in crippled buildings because I wanted to have that sense of ruin and menace, as well as something positive rising from the dust: a worthy life, a father, a daughter, hope, love.

What is now the Renaissance Hotel, a beautiful reimagining of the old Midland, serving St Pancras station, was for a long time a shattered shell used as railway offices after its closure in 1935. Tours were made of the building in the mid 2000s and I signed up for one, having decided the hotel – surrounded by piledrivers and cranes and diggers – would make a great scene for the climax of my novel. Inside it was dusty, rotting, thick with shadow and old forgotten rooms, some of which had been sub-divided and were windowless places of filing cabinets and filth. The stealthy pursuit of the Four Year Old in Dust and Desire that draws Joel to a window leading out on to the roof of the train station was all mapped out as our group was taken along peeling corridors and that magisterial double staircase that, at the time, looked like some forgotten corner of Dracula’s castle.

Thinking about it, many of the set pieces that occur in this dereliction trilogy are found in and around buildings on the cusp of transformation or are ghosts of glory days long gone: the broken Liverpool docks and the sleeping giant of a hotel in Dust and Desire, a tired old tower block earmarked for refurbishment and a once bustling factory gone to seed in Sonata of the Dead, a squalid prison destroyed by fire in Hell is Empty. I guess they suggest the fragile, transitory nature of relationships. Everything gets demolished in the end. Everything is subject to decay.

31621_Hell-is-empty-Blog-tour

GUEST POST: On Writing FINDING HER by Anneloes Timmerjie

Finding Her Name: Anneloes Timmerjie

Author of: FINDING HER (with Charles den Tex) (2016)

On the web: www.anneloestimmerije.nl

‘You simply HAVE to hear this story.’ That’s how it started. The words were spoken by a good friend and film producer. He told the story and we hung on his every word. That is the kind of story it is. He wanted to know if we would like to write the screenplay. Of course we wanted to, except that we wrote the book first. Finding funding for the film takes time and this story just had to be told –seventy years of gathering dust in the folds of history was long enough.

The life of our main characters – Guus and Lienke Hagers – is not all that different of the life of thousands of people in the Dutch East Indies and the Pacific during WWII. That is why it is so compelling. They were separated from each other and they did not know where the other was or even the other was still alive. In exactly the same way the first husband of Anneloes’ mother disappeared in one of the Japanese internment camps. He died of neglected dysentery, never knowing that his son was born, that he had become a father.

Without the efforts of documentary film maker André Eilander the story of Guus and Lienke would never have been found. Eilander delved into the history of the 18th Squadron, an almost forgotten bomber squadron in Australia, and found story after story after story. He found Guus’diaries and photo books and flight logs, and he found Lienke’s memoirs and indications for political machination that are still felt today. He handed all his beautifully rich research material to us without any conditions.

Almost everyone wants to know how it is done, writing a book together. We didn’t know, we had never done it before. We have known each other for 36 years, we have been writing for as many years, most things we do together, but writing a book together was one thing we still had to learn. We did have one major advantage: a large part of the story was already there. All we had to do was figure out how to write it, because you need more than a true story to make a good story.

It was funny, and sometimes pretty irritating, to find out how we are different from each other. Charles, a fast writer, would propose a ridiculously short deadline for the first version. Anneloes, a slower writer, would protest loudly and manage to negotiate and extra two weeks. Still, it was important to have that first version soon, because it would prove that we could actually do it, write together. Not just according to ourselves, but according to our editor.

The process of writing, plotting and additional research was exciting. The simple fact that we could talk to each other about what we were writing, was a wonderful surprise, because we never do that. When we are each working on our own book, we can talk about almost anything except the work itself. That disrupts our concentration and tends to throw you out of your own story. When you write together that limitation doesn’t exist.

We spent the first week talking. We sat down opposite each other and brainstormed, thinking out loud and listening to each other. After that week we had outlined about ten chapters and we had developed a dramatic line. Once we had that we divided the work in the most obvious and role reinforcing way: Charles tackled the male things and Anneloes got to work on the female things. Charles, a born Australian, wrote about Australia, and Anneloes, of Indonesian descent, wrote about the Dutch East Indies.

That is how the first version was written, we each wrote our separate parts, Charles integrated them into one document and then Anneloes was the first to read the entire story, she scratched what she didn’t like and added what she missed, corrected things that were wrong, and she worked on creating a new ‘voice’ for the two of us, one in which our different styles of writing could grow to a new, common style. When she was done, she handed it over the Charles who proceeded to do the same thing. The manuscript went back and forth between us more than six times: writing, rewriting, changing, scratching, discussing, adding, changing the plot and adding new research. And then discussing it all over again.

Finding Her is based mostly on historical facts. The main characters and almost all the other characters really did exist. They lived the war. But to turn history into a novel, we took the liberty to simplify certain events or to enlarge them, sometimes we moved characters sideways in time and space, we dramatized developments and skipped others, all the while keeping in mind that it might have happened that way if fate had been just a little different.

Sometimes later research showed that our fictionalizing had actually brought us closer to what had really happened. Those are the precious little gifts of writing. The most beautiful reward came on the day the book was presented in the Netherlands. In the audience was a 93 year widow, a woman we didn’t know and had never met, and she told us and everyone present that our story was also her story, quite literally, because her husband was Guus’ navigator and she was in the same internment camp as Lienke.

A little while later we met and 85 year old woman who was in a different camp during the war. She had seen Guus’ airplane fly over the camp. She had seen how he threw leaflets out of plane with the name ‘Lienke’ written on them, because he was trying to find out where she was. This woman had picked up one of the leaflets, went looking for Lienke and couldn’t find her. She kept the piece of paper, thinking that one day she would find out who this Lienke was. Seventy years later she picked up our book in the bookstore, read the flyleaf and knew that she had found her.

Finding Her by Charles den Tex and Anneloes Timmerjie is now available, published by World Editions and priced £12.99.

IT by Stephen King

IT - Stephen King IT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£10.99

(he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts)

In May 1985 six people receive a phone call from a friend they have long forgotten reminding them of an oath they swore when they were just eleven years old. The phone call kick-starts the process of remembering the evil they fought in the small town of Derry, Maine, in the summer of 1958. For one, the sudden memories are too much, but for the rest of the Losers Club, the call must be answered – the evil has returned, and they swore, a long time ago, that they would return to Derry to face It again if It ever came back. Now, with the evil being that lives beneath Derry trying to thwart them at every turn, they must remember the events of August 1958, and try to reconnect with the magic that helped them survive that first encounter.

One of King’s bigger tomes, It is also one of the most controversial, dividing the ranks of even Constant Reader into those who love and those who loathe. In the opening scene, King presents us with one of the most enduring images from the book (and, indeed, the small-screen adaptation), as we follow Georgie Denbrough’s paper boat down flooded Witcham Street.

There was a clown in the stormdrain. The clown held a bunch of balloons, all colors, like gorgeous ripe fruit in one hand.

And so, instilling coulrophobia in an entire generation of readers with that single, wonderful image, King launches us into a horror that won’t end for twenty-eight years.

In 1958, we meet the members of the Losers Club as they are brought together by something much bigger than themselves. There are seven, a magic number in anybody’s book, and they take the misnamed Barrens for their own once school lets out for summer. The leader of this small band of misfits is Bill Denbrough, Stuttering Bill, the older brother of the young boy whose death started this current cycle of violence. Constantly on the lookout for Henry Bowers and his band of bullies, the group find themselves facing a much greater danger in the shape of the clown Pennywise, which seems to be the favourite face of the thing that lives beneath the streets of Derry.

In 1985, Mike Hanlon has stayed behind, acting as watchdog, and gathering what information he can on the town’s storied history. When Adrian Mellon meets his gruesome end at the hands of a man – according to witnesses – wearing a clown suit, it’s time to remind the others of their promise, and we meet these same characters in their adult form. They are now only six – the reawakening of memories about that fateful summer of 1958 proves too much for one of the gang – and they have forgotten most of their early lives in Derry – the friends that they are now meeting once again for the first time in over twenty-five years; the town of Derry itself; and, most strikingly, the events that led to their banishment of It.

King intertwines these two strands in a way that allows the reader to “remember” the events of the past at the same time as the members of the reconvened Losers Club. As events tend towards their climax, King evokes in us a sense of “doubling”, as children and adults approach the lair of It in lockstep, the narrative jumping back and forth in time without breaking the flow of action, little more than subtle clues to remind the reader that this is 1958 and that is 1985.

Running parallel to both these strands are a series of Interludes, sections taken from Mike Hanlon’s personal history of Derry, Maine, where we see the pattern begin to emerge, the twenty-seven- or -eight-year silence followed by eighteen months of violence before the cycle starts again. It is through these histories that we get a sense of the town itself, and the people who live there, and we begin to understand the nature of It – not Its origins, which we will learn later through Its own eyes, but how it has attained a king of symbiosis with the town and its inhabitants, so that strange goings-on (Henry Bowers attempting to carve his name in the stomach of Ben Hanscom, for example, or Beverly Marsh’s frantic flight along Lower Main Street, her crazed father in pursuit) go largely unremarked or completely ignored.

I have read It several times before, but this is my first visit as a man in middle age (and if that’s not a phrase to send you screaming to Juniper Hill, then nothing is), a man much closer in age to the 1985 protagonists than to their 1958 counterparts, and this elevated position provides the reader with a much different outlook on the proceedings. We can identify with the problems these people have in their lives; we can even, to a certain extent, identify with the total blank where their memory of their childhood in Derry should be. King’s examination of “magic”, of “faith”, of all the things that we lose as we grow older, and that provided these children with unimaginable power during their first encounter with It, starts to make much more sense, and we find ourselves more deeply invested in the fates of these characters. It’s a whole different experience to the coming-of-age tale that I remember It being on previous reads.

King has always been accused of being overly-verbose and a quick glance at It (the latest UK paperback edition clocks in at a hefty 1,376 pages) might give the prospective reader the idea that these accusations might be right. Trust me: you could not be farther from the truth. Every word in every scene combines to create a world that the reader can inhabit as easily as the characters on the page and a sense of terror that weighs on the reader from that very first glimpse of Pennywise in the drain.

I, Georgie, am Mr Bob Gray, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Examinations of bullying, abuse, racism and the cruelty of children to those who are different (the fat one, the one who stutters, the one with asthma) give the story and the town a deep sense of realism and allows each reader to identify with something personal to themselves. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, perfect. There are a couple of missteps as the story progresses (and, no, I’m not one of those people who feel that that pivotal moment in the tunnels under Derry is one of them), the most glaring the short-lived return of Henry Bowers to the town of his childhood after escaping from the Juniper Hill asylum. Like the proverbial deus ex machina, he appears, wreaks havoc, and vanishes in the blink of an eye when he might actually have been a more useful plot device later in the narrative. But let’s not be picky.

It is thirty years old this year, putting us now as far from 1985 as that fabled year was from 1958. This latest re-read proves to me that it’s a novel that continues to stand the test of time: there is little in the 1985 timeline to date the story, so it holds up well. The 1958 timeline is a different matter entirely, but the process of growing up, making friends and having fun in the seemingly endless days of summer is something that never changes, so the pop culture references make little difference. Our own childhoods are as strange to us as Stuttering Bill’s was to him, and that’s all that matters when it comes to the story.

As we, Constant Reader, have come to expect, the story is littered with self-references and sly winks designed to check that we’re paying attention. Take Henry’s magical ride as prime example.

…it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew that the engine rumbling under the hood was V-8 327.

It is one of King’s early masterpieces, taking over four years to complete. Suffused with horror, it’s something of a slow-burner that will hold you until the final page, and will play on your mind for a long time afterwards. A haunted house tale on an epic scale, it’s a prime example of King at the height of his early powers, and a book that will ensure you never look at Ronald McDonald in quite the same way ever again.

pennywise

‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

'SALEM'S LOT - Stephen King ‘SALEM’S LOT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£9.99

This review/essay originally appeared as part of the King For A Year project, and appears here in its original form, by permission.

…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.

Like many people of my generation – I was born about two months after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot – my first exposure to Stephen King’s vampire story was through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 mini-series adaptation, a series that still, almost forty years later, gives me the willies when I happen upon it while channel-surfing. I first read the book in my early teens, and have read it maybe half a dozen times since, and I am happy to report that it is still as fresh – and as bone-chillingly frightening – as it was that first time.

Late summer 1975: Benjaman Mears, a successful author recently widowed in a terrible accident, has returned to the Southern Maine town where he grew up to write a new novel. ‘Salem’s Lot, a town of some 1300 souls, hasn’t changed much in the almost thirty years of his absence, but that won’t be the case for long. Ben meets Susan in the town’s park – she is reading his book – and love blossoms quickly. But the disappearance of a young boy – Ralphie Glick – and the sudden death of his older brother, Danny, plunge the town into a unique kind of hell, and as the body count grows, Ben and Susan find themselves aligned with a small group of like-minded people – high-school teacher Matt Burke, Doctor Jimmy Cody, Father Donald Callaghan and young Mark Petrie – who are convinced that the town has fallen victim to a vampire, one of the new residents of the storied Marsten House which looms over the town from its high perch.

Like many of King’s earlier novels, ‘Salem’s Lot seems to have entered the global consciousness as a kind of byword for vampire infestation. Even those of us who haven’t read the book have probably seen David Soul’s turn as Ben Mears and James Mason’s masterful Straker, and have some idea of the direction the story takes. The book is a slow-moving, atmospheric behemoth, very different from King’s previous – first – novel, the slimline and spare Carrie.

The story unfolds over the course of September and early October 1975, beginning with the arrival of Ben and the mysterious new residents of the old Marsten House. Told from multiple viewpoints, this is King doing what he has always done best: the dynamics of small-town America, the relationships and petty intrigues that define every small town not just in America, but across the developed world. The town has a long and sometimes unsavoury history, and King spends time building the bigger picture – the great fire of 1951; the tragedy that surrounded Hubie Marsten and his family – the deviation from the main storyline to touch on this history, and to do a “flyover” of the town, are devices designed to put the reader in the centre of the action, in ‘Salem’s Lot itself.

When the horror begins, it comes as a shock, and the early targets of Messrs Barlow and Straker are designed to hit the reader hardest: Irwin Purinton’s dog hung from the town cemetery’s gates; the disappearance of young Ralphie Glick closely followed by the death of his older brother Danny. King’s strength here is in the power of suggestion: very little of the horror happens within the pages of the novel, and is often left to the imagination of the reader; subtle noises from the next room, or the slow pan of the metaphorical camera away from the action at the critical moment are used to astounding effect, forcing the reader to create the scene in their own head, and come to their own conclusions.

There are scenes that stick with the reader (and, to be honest, many of them play over in my own head as the corresponding scenes from the television series): the delivery of the large crate (presumably containing Barlow in his coffin) to the Marsten House by Hank Peters and Royal Snow, a beautifully-constructed piece of suspense that sums up much of the book in its cold-sweat inducing narrative, and the closing exchange between the two protagonists.

“What was down there?” Royal asked. “What did you see?”

“Nothin’,” Hank Peters said, and the word came out in sections divided by his clicking teeth. “I didn’t see nothin’ and I never want to see it again.”

The other image is that of young Danny Glick knocking on Mark Petrie’s bedroom window, a scene made all the more frightening by the seeming innocence of the source of evil. Given the choice between Barlow and Danny Glick, this reader would run screaming to the ancient creature that started it all.

King uses the story to examine the question of faith, and the symbols that we use to show our religious affiliations. Without straying from the accepted lore – sunlight, crucifix, garlic, holy water – the author uses Matt Burke and Jimmy Cody to provide logical explanations for these weapons against the vampire and, famously, Donald Callaghan to examine the difference between the religious symbol and the power that it possesses. What makes ‘Salem’s Lot special, makes it one of the defining works of modern vampire fiction, is its grounding in reality, the characters’ understanding that what is happening is ridiculous, unreal, something that should not happen to normal people in the normal world.

“…If you’re locked up, that will serve his purpose well. And if you haven’t considered it, you might do well to consider it now: There is every possibility that some of us or all of us may live and triumph only to stand trial for murder.”

It’s easy to say now that ‘Salem’s Lot is a classic of the genre, one of perhaps three books that epitomise the modern vampire novel (to my mind George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst come a close second and third), but take a moment to consider: ‘Salem’s Lot is the sophomore effort of a young writer who was, as yet, unproven beyond that slim first novel. Already there are signs of the writer King will become, many of the recurring themes in his work beginning in this blood-curdling masterpiece. And if it didn’t exist in the shadow of the great Dark Tower when it was first published in 1975, King made sure to bring it into the fold by re-introducing Donald Callaghan into his world over 25 years after the book’s publication.

In large part, I feel I’m preaching to the choir, but there are many who will have absorbed the basic points of ‘Salem’s Lot through some strange form of osmosis, and “know” it in much the same way that they “know” Dracula or Frankenstein without ever having read the original work. There is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than that creepy kid at the bedroom window, or the shuffling noises coming from the back of the truck; there is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than an ancient vampire and the havoc he wreaks on a small New England town. This is one of the finest works in King’s forty-year career, a book to be savoured again and again, safe in the knowledge that you will take something new away on each reading. And, in case you’re wondering: nothing sparkles here; this is horror fiction as it should be: dark, atmospheric and, best of all, frightening.

GUEST POST: The Problems With Time Travel by MARK MORRIS

Wraiths cover Name: Mark Morris

Author of: THE WOLVES OF LONDON (2014)
                 THE SOCIETY OF BLOOD (2015)
                 THE WRAITHS OF WAR (2016)

On the web: www.markmorrisfiction.com

On Twitter:  @MarkMorris10

Mark-Morris-Obsidian-Blog-Tour (1)I’ve been a big fan of Doctor Who ever since I was terrified by the Yeti, the Ice Warriors and the Cybermen when I was four, but although the Doctor is a time traveller, in the original series (1963-89) the show rarely tackled the machinations and complexities of time travel itself. However in one particular 1972 story, Day of the Daleks, the question was raised as to why a time traveller couldn’t simply go back and nip a potentially terrible situation in the bud before it developed – and furthermore, why, if they failed the first time, they couldn’t keep going back.

The obvious answer, in reality, is that such an ability would completely negate the drama and excitement of pretty much every story. The Doctor, however, came up with a catch-all phrase, a kind of cosmic or temporal rule, whereby continually revisiting the same timeline in order to change it was an impossibility presumably imposed by time itself. He called it the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.

When writing my OBSIDIAN HEART trilogy, I too had to consider not only this question, but countless others. The more I delved into the intricacies of time travel – its possibilities, its anomalistic qualities – the more I became convinced that time travel was, and always would be, impossible. For instance, if we were able to time travel, we would all be able to become multi-millionaires overnight by literally creating money out of nothing. How, you may ask. Well, consider this. Imagine if the present you was visited by a future version of you from (let’s say) ten years hence with a suitcase containing twenty million pounds. With that amount of money you could not only live comfortably off the interest, but you could also generate more money – a lot more money! – and then in ten years time all you would have to do would be to fill the suitcase you’d been given ten years earlier with twenty million pounds, and go back to give it again to your younger self – and on and on, ad infinitum.

Of course, if everyone did this it would lead to massive problems – economies crashing, money becoming worthless – but then that would change the future, which would mean that your future self couldn’t appear to you in the first place, thus creating an anomaly. But what if the item was smaller, less influential? What if your future self appeared, gave you a pen, and said, “Keep this for the next twenty years, and then on October 10 2036 travel back to October 10 2016 and give your past self this pen and the exact same instructions I’m giving you.” The question then, of course, would be, where did the pen come from? Where and how and when was it made? Because it only exists in the twenty year time loop as your possession, forever being passed back to your younger self. Which ultimately means it – like the money – was created out of nothing!

You can tie yourself in knots with this stuff – and I frequently did during the writing of OBSIDIAN HEART. Hopefully I managed to negotiate a safe route through the minefield, though as it’s such a complex subject there is always the possibility that I overlooked something. I guess only time will tell.

THE BONE TREE by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree - Greg Iles THE BONE TREE

Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£8.99

With the investigation into the death of Viola Turner still very much unsolved, Penn Cage finds that his father, Dr Tom Cage, may have been involved in more than some Ku Klux Klan killings. An FBI cold case team, of which agent John Kaiser is a member, have linked the Double Eagles with one of the most well-known killings in American history, and are keen to pursue it while the momentum is good. It’s an approach that doesn’t suit Penn’s immediate need to get his father to safety, and with the leader of the Double Eagles about to take control of the Louisiana State Police, that’s looking less likely by the minute. There is one lead, a lead of almost mythical proportions: a tree in the swamp where there is enough evidence to convict all of the Double Eagles and solve one of America’s greatest mysteries, and Penn’s girlfriend, Caitlin Masters, will stop at nothing to find it.

The Bone Tree picks up immediately where Natchez Burning left off, dropping the reader back into the middle of the action as if we’d never been away. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about jumping back in: the murder of Viola Turner is still unsolved; we’ve been learning more and more about the past of Dr Tom Cage, and with luck there should be plenty more to come; and while the epic stand-off that closed book one is now in the past, there are still plenty of bad guys to keep Penn and his motley band of crusaders very much on their toes.

It’s an excitement that lasts for only a short while, I’m sorry to say. While The Bone Tree takes us back to Natchez, Mississippi, a small town where so many questions have been left unanswered, it isn’t long before Iles sets out a new agenda for this second book in the series. The murder of Tom Cage’s old nurse takes a backseat along with the murders committed by the Double Eagles during the 1960s, and The Bone Tree becomes, to all intents and purposes, a second-rate Kennedy assassination conspiracy thriller. It is, to say the least, something of an anti-climax after the pulse-pounding Natchez Burning. Couple this with the fact that the main characters become much less likeable the more time we spend in their company, their selfishness overriding any of the other qualities they may have had – particularly Penn and Caitlin – to the extent that they become almost like sulky children playing at adulthood.

Which is not to say that The Bone Tree is a bad novel. It’s just not the excellent novel that it should have been had Iles stayed on track and given us a proper follow-up to Natchez Burning. As the book ends, 850 pages later, we find that we’re none the wiser about any of the questions raised by the first book in the series: who killed Viola Turner? No idea. What’s the deal with Tom Cage and his strange and incriminating silence? No idea. Are we likely to find out in the next book? Frustratingly, no idea, because who knows where Iles will take the story next?

The book does have some glimpses of brilliance: the scenes at the Bone Tree are chilling and affecting, enough to bring a shiver to even the most hardened of readers. And Iles proves that he’s not all about the cliché, taking the unprecedented step of killing off key characters to advance the story – The Bone Tree racks up a main character body count that is worthy of Game of Thrones. It’s just a shame that the Kennedy assassination gets so much attention, and the original story becomes little more than a series of sub-plots to round out the page count.

In many ways it feels like The Bone Tree could be skipped without losing much momentum on the overall story, though it’s probably just about worth the read for the aforementioned glimpses of brilliance. Iles has a lot of work cut out for himself in book three to make us care about the central characters again, and it’s likely that many readers will only return to the trilogy’s final volume to get the answers to the questions that we expected to find in The Bone Tree. In short, it’s a disappointing novel that has the potential to wreck what could have been an excellent trilogy.

THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG TOUR by Natasha Courtenay-Smith

THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG

Natasha Courtenay-Smith (natashacourtenaysmith.com)

Piatkus (www.littlebrown.co.uk)

£13.99

This week sees the release of Natasha Courtenay-Smith’s The Million Dollar Blog, a book that looks at the current state of play in the blogging industry and offers advice on how to stand out from the crowd. To celebrate the launch of this essential read for anyone currently running, or planning to run, a blog of any description, I – along with a number of my fellow bloggers – have been asked to take part in a blog tour with a bit of a difference. Rather than reviewing the book, we have been asked to talk about our own blogging experiences and, perhaps, offer tips that have helped us on our journey. I would highly recommend checking out the rest of the tour: there are some excellent pieces which give some insight into the world of the jobbing blogger.

My own experience with blogging started in the dim and distant past when people used LiveJournal to blog about how many hours they slept last night, or what, exactly, they did yesterday in more detail than anyone needs to know. After a couple of aborted attempts, I decided that it wasn’t for me, so I left it. Years later, Twitter came along and I found myself having conversations not only with like-minded readers, but with the people who wrote and published the books I loved to read. And so the idea formed: a blog that would concentrate solely on book reviews with little insight into my personality beyond what I thought of the book in question. The name came to me as I was staring at the WordPress registration screen, months-old baby in one arm.

Long-time readers of the blog will know that the blog has evolved – as has my reviewing style! – over its five-and-a-half-year lifetime, to include guest posts, interviews, a book-related travelogue and – my crowning achievement so far, in my own humble opinion – the wonderful essays that make up Carrie at 40. Adaptation is the nature of the game, providing content that will interest your readers and bring them back for more time and time again.

There are countless book review blogs out there in the big bad world, and you don’t need to look too far to find them. So, why bother? Why does my opinion matter, and why do I think anyone else would be interested in hearing it? Reader Dad, like many of the book review blogs, is a labour of love; it was never intended to make me famous or rich. It is, quite simply, a venue that allows me to share my love of books with the world. In my five-and-a-half years I have built up a small but consistent core following (hello there!) and it is for these people that I write. I have long been of the opinion that book review blogs are more likely to sway readers one way or the other than newspaper or magazine reviews. Why? The complete history of my opinions on books is available at the reader’s fingertips. It gives people a sense of what kind of reader I am, and lets them decide whether my taste is similar enough to their own for them to trust my reviews.

And there, for me, is the crux of the matter: trust. I write honest reviews (and would recommend anyone running a book review blog to do the same) and while I often receive free books, they are always sent in the implicit understanding that I will always be 100% honest about what I thought of them. There is nothing that sets me apart from a hundred other bloggers except that some people have similar tastes to me and have come to trust the reviews I write. It’s a winning formula: I get to keep banging on about books in the knowledge that people read what I write, and I get people talking about books which, let’s face it, is much better than talking about anything else!

Don’t let the overcrowded blogosphere put you off starting your own: there will always be someone out there who trusts your opinion over anyone else’s and if you can keep the conversation going with that one person, then you’re doing something worthwhile.

The Million Dollar Blog by Natasha Courtenay-Smith is out now, priced 13.99.

BLOG TOUR

NATCHEZ BURNING by Greg Iles

Adobe Photoshop PDF NATCHEZ BURNING

Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£7.99

April 2017 will see the release, in hardback, of the final volume of Greg Iles’ Unwritten Laws trilogy, Mississippi Blood. To help build excitement for the new book’s release, HarperCollins are running a global blog tour to get people interested in reading the first two books, Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree. I’m delighted to have been asked to take part. You’ll find my review of Natchez Burning below; be sure to check back on October 7th to find out what I thought of The Bone Tree.

Before that, though, HarperCollins have very kindly supplied me with a copy of Natchez Burning and a beautiful Greg Iles tote bag to give away to one lucky winner. To get your name in the hat, leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 11th September. I’ll draw one name from the hat on Monday 12th September and let the lucky winner know before lunch time.

“If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” A great writer said that, and for a long time I agreed with him.

Penn Cage first learns of the death of his father’s old nurse when the local DA informs him that his father is the prime suspect in her murder. So begins a chain of events that will see Dr Tom Cage on the run for his life, and former prosecutor Penn trying to solve a series of forty-year-old murders in order to prove his innocence. With the help of intrepid reporter Henry Sexton, Penn Cage discovers the existence of the Double Eagles, a Klan splinter group whose crimes against the coloured community of Natchez, Mississippi covered much darker motives than those of their white-sheet-clad brethren. As Penn and Henry continue to dig, they find connections to local multimillionaire Brody Royal and the operations of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. No longer sure who his father really is, Penn Cage finds himself in a race against time to prove his innocence before his own family become the latest victims of the Double Eagles.

Natchez Burning is the fourth of Greg Iles’ novels to feature (former) state prosecutor Penn Cage, though it is the first volume of the so-called Unwritten Laws trilogy, which will conclude next April with the publication of Mississippi Blood. As a first-time reader of Iles’ work, I’m happy to report that no prior knowledge of the character is required to dive into this dark and intricately-woven tale of the racial tensions that still plague America’s Deep South over forty years after the work of the Civil Rights Movement.

The story focuses on a series of crimes from the central portion of the 1960s ostensibly committed by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group called the Double Eagles. At the end of 2005, as New Orleans struggles to get back on its feet following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the nearby town of Natchez, Mississippi prepares for Christmas. Viola Turner, an elderly black woman who worked for Dr Tom Cage during the early 1960s before disappearing for almost 40 years, has returned home to die. When she is found dead in her sickbed, suspicion immediately falls on Dr Cage with whom, it is reported, she had a euthanasia pact. When Tom clams up, refusing to answer the questions of his son Penn, now serving as the mayor of Natchez, Penn begins to question what he thought he knew about his father. When Dr Cage disappears, Penn’s faith in the old man is shaken to the core.

Henry Sexton, a crusading reporter who has spent years trying to get to the bottom of the Double Eagles’ reign of terror finally gets one of them to talk. Glenn Morehouse is dying of cancer, and wants to confess his sins before he dies. When Henry hears of Tom Cage’s predicament, it becomes clear that he and Penn Cage could help each other, proving Tom’s innocence and bringing down one of the richest men in America in the process. But some of the Double Eagles are still alive, and the group has grown, the reins passing to a younger generation of tougher men, who will stop at nothing to ensure their own safety.

While Natchez Burning seems, at first glance, like a hefty investment – the paperback clocks in at over 850 pages – it’s a reasonably fast-paced read, the type of book that is extremely difficult to put down once you’ve picked it up. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve found myself sneaking a handful of paragraphs in every spare minute of the day. This is helped by the story’s relatively compressed timeline: aside from the opening chapters which give us some insight into the formation of the Double Eagles, and an introduction to some of their most important (to the story, at least) victims, the bulk of the story takes place over three days in the week before Christmas. Told from multiple viewpoints, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader – if not necessarily the characters, who each have a limited amount of knowledge – just how complex the story is while never quite giving us enough to piece together a solution: as the novel ends, Tom Cage’s motives for flight, for example, are as obscure as they were at the story’s beginning, though we begin to understand his character more as the days pass.

The story is told in a mixture of first-person present tense (from the point of view of Penn Cage) and third-person past tense for a range of other characters including Henry and Tom, Penn’s girlfriend Caitlin, and members of the Double Eagles like Sonny Thornfield and Forrest Knox. It’s an interesting approach that allows Iles to distance himself from Cage when he needs to: there are a couple of key scenes where we watch the action from another point of view and find ourselves questioning Penn’s motives, something that would have been impossible had we been watching through his eyes. While there is no doubt that Penn is the story’s hero, these scenes make him seem more human, more willing to bend the law if it means his father survives and keeps his freedom.

Natchez Burning gives an insight into the modern-day Deep South and shows that, in many respects, the darkness that enshrouded it during the 1960s is still very much in place today. “He broke the law,” one character tells Penn, “the unwritten law” as justification for the death of a black boy whose only crime was to fall in love with a white girl. What is most frightening for the modern audience, is the sense that this sentiment is as true for that character in 2005 as it was in 1964. There is a moment towards the end where Iles falls victim to cliché (the bad guy with a propensity for talk rather than action), but it’s a small blip in an otherwise excellent novel.

Dark and at times horrific, Natchez Burning is a fictional look at one of the worst periods of America’s history made more frightening by its roots in reality. It’s an examination of family and loyalty against a backdrop of racism and conspiracy. There is, in Iles’ opinion, plenty of blame to go around, and he spreads it liberally – the Ku Klux Klan, local police, the FBI. An excellent companion piece to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, with which it shares many themes, Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning is an incredible piece of fiction that I – and, indeed, you, if you have not already – should have read when it was first published in 2014. With the impending publication of the trilogy’s closing volume, there is no better time to catch up with the book that started it all.

INFLUENCES: My Influences by NICHOLAS SEARLE

NICHOLAS SEARLE Name: NICHOLAS SEARLE

Author of: THE GOOD LIAR (2016)

On Twitter: @searlegoodliar

It’s difficult to list the influences on my writing. There are too many and several of them are subliminal rather than conscious. Plus, there’s a risk when you cite influences that you’re inviting comparisons. Definitely not, in my case: I’m looking up at people not seeking to emulate them or imagine I’m on the same level.

Let’s start with the obvious: John le Carré. His key espionage books – apart from the wonderful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – were published in my adult formative years and seemed to sum so much up for me. I loved the serpentine plots but for me it was the characters and the integral cynicism – concealing idealism – and world-weariness that won me over. And, of course, the prose. I do think that spying is a rich vein for writers to mine, so long as they can do so convincingly. It contains a multitude of our most primal concerns in life. Who can I trust? Am I being disloyal myself? How can I make the right choice when faced with what looks like a range of bad ones? How do I balance heart and head? To see them distilled on the page in this setting can be very enriching. In common with several others, I think that when le Carré attempts to write ‘literary’ fiction (whatever that is) the end result can look mushy – The Naïve And Sentimental Lover being a prime example – and that recently he’s become a bit ‘shouty’ at times. But le Carré off form is often better than many others at the peak of their achievement, and it’s hard to beat the trio of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Likewise Graham Greene, who like le Carré breaks the rules and straddles the boundary between what he calls ‘entertainments’ and serious fiction. I think he makes a false distinction and admit to being confused about the differentiations between genres: there’s as much truth for me in The Third Man or Our Man In Havana as there is in The Power And The Glory. If there is one book though that distils the darkness it’s Brighton Rock, still as vividly terrifying and cruel, and modern, as it was back in 1938. And you can trace the lineage back to Conrad: not so much the overblown seafaring epics like Lord Jim, but the much tighter stories that plumb our souls such as The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness.

THE GOOD LIARI studied languages, so was fortunate enough to have been able to read some of the European classics of the mid-20th century in the original; and I loved their despair and desolation. I’ve a special place for Heinrich Böll and particularly Die Verlorene Ehre Der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum) and Ansichten Eines Clowns (a pretty poor English translation is long out of print). And I love Camus: the opening of L’Étranger (The Stranger) is possibly the best beginning sentence of any novel I’ve read.

I could go on. It seems perhaps scattergun but I admire immensely P.D. James, Richard Ford and Ian McEwan for the cool precision of their language that somehow conveys emotion. Kent Haruf’s brevity seeps feeling in each gap in the dialogue. And Kate Atkinson. Wow. In Life After Life and A God In Ruins she gives a masterclass in subtlety and complexity conveyed in the simplest of terms. She doesn’t treat the reader as a fool who needs to be led by the nose but challenges all the time and in the course of doing that tells fundamental truths, both about the thing that is fiction and about us.

And I haven’t even begun to describe my influences away from books, in film, TV, theatre and music!…

Nicholas Searle’s novel The Good Liar is out now from Penguin.

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