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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

An Interview with VIC JAMES

VicJames2 C JAY DACY Name: VIC JAMES

Author of: GILDED CAGE (2017)

On the web: www.vicjames.co.uk

On Twitter: @DrVictoriaJames

Vic James is a current affairs TV director who loves stories in all their forms, and Gilded Cage is her debut novel. She has twice judged the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, has made films for BBC1, BBC2, and Channel 4 News, and is a huge Wattpadd.com success story. Under its previous title, Slavedays, her book was read online over a third of a million times in first draft. And it went on to win Wattpad’s ‘Talk of the Town’ award in 2015 – on a site showcasing 200 million stories. Vic James lives and works in London.

Thank you, Vic, for taking the time to chat with us.

My very great pleasure, Matt!

The first thing that strikes the reader as they start Gilded Cage is the strange new world you have created, a contemporary Britain in an alternate universe, where ten years in slavery is mandatory for all commoners. Where did the idea for the “slavedays” come from, and how did the world develop as the story progressed?

I’m a current affairs TV producer/director by trade, and the story idea came to me while working on a BBC2 series called The Super Rich and Us – a slightly silly title for a serious look at widening wealth inequality and stagnating social mobility. I was speaking to billionaires, getting a glimpse into their world, and the thing none of them doubt is their ability to change the world through their wealth. That seemed to me to be almost the same as magic.

But I didn’t want this magic to suddenly appear. In the world of Gilded Cage, it has always been present, and 400 years ago the magical elite seized power in a reimagining of the Enlgish Civil War. The slavedays system was created at that time, so it takes the form characteristic of that period: a kind of indentured service. But the experience as described in Gilded Cage is a distillation and concentration of all that’s most unfair in our world today: grinding work, dwindling opportunity, educations wasted on unrewarding jobs, unaffordable homes, etc etc.

As for how it progresses, well, history is a theme in the books: learning from, repeating, or avoiding the mistakes of the past. You’ll have to wait till book 3, BRIGHT RUIN, to see which of those it is!

The book shows this world from the viewpoints of two very different families: the Hadleys who are just starting their ten-year period of slavery; and the Jardine’s, who are at the opposite end of the social scale. Do you find that there is much difference in how you write these different outlooks on the world, or is it relatively easy to switch between one and the other?

It’s much easier than I expected! Partly that’s thanks to my own family background: my parents are from the East End, my dad left school with no qualifications and my mum dropped out to marry him as a teenage bride. Then I won a scholarship to a school full of rich (if not terribly academic) kids, and went to Oxford where I met people who had actual titles and family fortunes in the millions and, yes, billions.

But I think it’s also because, whatever our class or background, whatever that top layer of perception or prejudice, deep down we all want the same things: freedom, love, justice, autonomy.

And on a related note, which is your favourite character to write?

Probably no surprises here, but I do love writing Silyen, the dangerous and gifted youngest son of the Jardine family. I have to ration writing from his perspective, because his goals and motivations are a key part of the plot drivers, alongside Luke and Abi Hadley’s pursuit of justice and truth. But there is more from his POV in book 2, and more again in 3 as his true interests become clear. In book 1, readers sometimes get the impression that Silyen is (i) all-powerful and (ii) has a master plan. But – without spoilers – we come to see that’s not quite the case!

Alongside the novel’s central plot, there’s a lot of political manoeuvring and back-room dealing, which, in turn, leads to a very complex, very involved plot. How much of Gilded Cage did you need to plan before you started writing the book? And did you find that your end-point changed as a result of unexpected events?

Great question! I absolutely loved this aspect of writing the book. I love twisty plots, and that moment at the end when you look back and see that everything you needed to know was there all along. Still, it turns out that writing a book like that is more effort than the best examples of the genre make it look!

I began the series knowing where it ended. In fact, the beginning and end were the first two things that came to me: a girl running desperately towards a wall, and a boy … no! Wait! You nearly had me there.

Because I know my characters inside and out, the action begins and ends in their motivation, so if I ever hit a knotty bit of plot (ie. what I think should happen) I can sort it out by simply working through how my characters would respond (ie. what they tell me happens). We usually agree. When we don’t, they win.

Dystopias must be an increasingly difficult sell in a world that seems to be moving in that direction itself. While there are elements (e.g. the magic) in your tale that are pure fantasy, do you feel that there’s a possibility of life imitating art if things continue as they are?

Life is art is life. It’s a continuous dialogue. These books could only have been written now, and I’m sure readers will spot plenty more current parallels in book 2, as well!

What’s next for the Hadleys, and how far into the trilogy have you already planned? Do you see further books set in the same world?

Terrible challenges. Momentary happinesses.

To the end.

And I’ll let you answer that third question when you’ve finished book 3, because it assumes we end in the same world we’ve started in. *cackles in all-knowing authorial fashion*

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Simply can’t answer this. As a child I was the bookish equivalent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner – I hoovered up everything. That dust bag is my imagination.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

We all write our own books. I can tell you one book I adore, and that is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I also love Nabokov’s Pale Fire. And some particularly twisted Japanese folk tales.

GildedCage_UKcoverWhat does a typical (writing) day in the life of Vic James look like?

Wake. Sit at desk. Write. Coffee. Write. Lunch. Write. Tea. Write. Supper. Write. Sleep.

(Wait, I should have put something in there about getting dressed, right…?)

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.

To expand: As an unpublished author, it’s very easy to feel – or be made to feel – that writing is an indulgence, or an impossible dream. It isn’t. But it is exhausting, painstaking, and there is never a guarantee of success. Improve your odds by making it a priority. When the idea for Gilded Cage came to me, I knew it could be ‘the one’. I was also in the middle of a massive project at work. So I cut everything that wasn’t work or writing: ie. sleep, and a social life. It was worth it.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

My TBR is as tall as a towerblock right now. And there’s no such thing as reading that’s not for pleasure. The very act is pleasurable.

If Gilded Cage should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

For the director, anyone with ambition and vision – books 2 and 3 just get bigger and bigger. For the cast, whoever walks into an audition and speaks in my character’s voice. You know it when it happens.

And while we all wait for the movie *drums fingers* may I recommend the audio book? I got my dream narrator, Avita Jay, and sat in on 2 of the 4 recording days and she is absolutely sensational. Her performance paints the scenes as you listen. And her performance of Dog alone is worth the price.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy. I’d get him to tell me tales of his adventures – and whether he really did die, stabbed through the eye in a Deptford pub. Ale would be the tipple of his time, but I would take him to Bar Nightjar in Old Street, for devastating cocktails – I’m sure he’d fit right in.

Thank you once again, Vic, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

My absolute pleasure, and thank you so much for having me!

Gilded Cage by Vic James is the first instalment of the Dark Gifts Trilogy. It is published in paperback 26 January 2017 by Pan Macmillan, priced £7.99. Be sure to check out the other steps on the Blog Tour.

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The 2016 Round-Up

Another year coming to an end (and one many of us will be very happy to see the back of), which means its time for me to do a quick round-up and list my favourite books of the year. I’m late getting this out this year, so if you’re looking to buy any of these books as presents, you’ll need to get the finger out!

THE ROUND-UP

Goodreads informs me that I have read 84 books during this year, which is considerably more than any previous year. A massive 55 of these were by authors I haven’t read before, and 23 of those were debut works. 2016 was an excellent year for fiction debuts, and my debut Top Ten below was much more difficult to produce than the non-debut Top Ten. This years figures also include a miserable 4 pieces of translated fiction.

Unfortunately, last year’s laziness persisted, meaning that not every book that I read got a review on Reader Dad. My aim is to do much better in 2017, and I have given the site a bit of a spruce-up in anticipation of a much more active year. As a result, many of the books in the lists below don’t have links to existing reviews, but I’ll try to summarise quickly why I loved them so much. The books appear in the order in which they were read and, as always, only books originally published in the UK during 2016 are included.

So, without further ado…

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2016

IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS by Rebecca Mackenzie (Tinder Press)

The first book I failed to review is also one of the earliest I read this year. Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods introduces us to 10-year-old Henrietta Robertson, the daughter of British missionaries attending a boarding school in China. As the threat of war looms in the background, Etta finds herself at the heart of the Prophetess Club, convinced that she is privy to God’s divine will. A beautiful coming-of-age story that is by turns hilariously funny and darkly sinister.

   
TALL OAKS by Chris Whitaker (twenty7)

Welcome to Tall Oaks, the epitome of small-town America, a town in mourning following the disappearance of a young child. As the child’s mother leads the search, constantly bombarding the town’s sheriff with requests and information, the rest of the small town’s residents try to get on with their lives, despite the ever-present spectre. Comic noir at its very best, Tall Oaks is a showcase for Chris Whitaker’s already-impressive talent. The characters are the driving force behind this story, and they will remain with you long after the story has finished. This is an absolute gem.

   
HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt [trans: Nancy Forest-Flier] (Hodder & Stoughton)

HEX reads like the work of a much more mature and developed author, so it’s a surprise to discover that it is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut. Tension and horror combine to make this a story that is impossible to put down, as the deepening sense of unease suddenly flares into all-out shivers that run the length of your spine. Wonderfully written – and presented here in an excellent translation by Nancy Forest-Flier – and perfectly-judged, HEX is old-fashioned horror with a modern-day twist done right. It’s a story that will stay with you long after the lights have gone out, and places Thomas Olde Heuvelt high on this reader’s must-read list.

   
THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Vanessa Ronan (Penguin)

While The Last Days of Summer doesn’t appear to be my usual fare, this is one of those cases where the book cover seriously lets down the story within. This is humanity laid bare, with all of our foibles and petty arguments on show for the world to see. This is a book that I can’t help but unashamedly and unreservedly recommend to anyone, and Vanessa Ronan proves that she has a talent that will quickly set her amongst the greats of whichever genre she chooses to write in. I’m an instant fan, and will be watching Ronan’s career with an eagle eye in the years to come. Do not miss this book.

   
SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad (Hodder & Stoughton)

Brilliant writing and a story that is relevant to every person who has ever used a networked device combine to make Sockpuppet one of the standout debuts of the year. Behind the apt (if coincidental) grinning pig on the front cover is a story that grips you from the outset and leaves you wishing for more as the final page is turned. Darkly comic but intrinsically frightening, this is a cautionary tale of an all-too-possible near future and marks Matthew Blakstad as an extremely talented new voice in the world of speculative fiction.

   
THE COUNTENANCE DIVINE by Michael Hughes (John Murray)

Deftly tying together four different stories from four different time periods, Michael Hughes’ debut novel is a sublime work of art. Beautiful writing gives us four very distinct and recognisable voices as we follow John Milton’s seminal work from its creation in 1666 to its significance on the Millennium bug in 1999. This is, quite possibly, the best book I’ve read this year.

   
THE WOLF ROAD by Beth Lewis (The Borough Press)

The Wolf Road is a novel that ignores genre boundaries in order to be the best story it can be. Beth Lewis writes with a confidence and sense of control that belies her debut novelist status. Through the characters, the language, the geography, the brief world history, she has constructed a complex and satisfying story that is at once thriller and horror, Western and crime drama, speculative fiction and character study. The result is so much more than the sum of all these components: an engrossing story built around a unique and memorable protagonist, a standout piece in a year filled with big-name releases. Get on at the ground floor – you’ll be hearing a lot about Beth Lewis in the coming months and years, so take the time to enjoy that sense that you’ve discovered The Next Big Thing before everyone else.

   
VIGIL by Angela Slatter (Jo Fletcher Books)

Vigil is a brilliant debut novel from an exciting writer who cut her teeth on short stories. Pacy and engaging, it’s a book that demands to be finished once it has been started. Verity Fassbinder is a name, and a character, not quickly forgotten by the reader, sure to become a staple of the genre as the series progresses, as instantly recognisable as, say, Sookie Stackhouse or Katniss Everdeen. Angela Slatter is a confident and talented writer whose ability to build worlds is surpassed only by her skill in populating them. A complete story in its own right, Vigil is, nevertheless, the first book in a series, and it leaves the reader gasping for more as it draws to a close. Already one of my favourite books of the year, I can’t help but recommend this to everyone.

   
SECURITY by Gina Wohlsdorf (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

One of this year’s gems, Security is one of the finest horror novels to be produced in quite a while. Slick, clever and with a clear, engaging voice it should put author Gina Wohlsdorf firmly on the map, alongside some of finest young writers working in the genre today: Lebbon, Keene, Littlewood, Langan. It’s a book that cries out for a second read, if only to plug the inevitable gap until the author’s second novel, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys intelligently-written horror fiction. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2016

TRAVELERS REST by Keith Lee Morris (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

Reminiscent of King’s Desperation and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Keith Lee Morris’ latest novel – the first to be published in the UK – is an intense and gripping story that succeeds in its aim to unsettle the reader, to turn what we think we know on its head and leave us stranded with the Addison family in the strange little town of Good Night, Idaho. Wonderful writing and excellent characterisation combine to keep the story very much grounded in reality, despite the unnerving and unusual sights we will see during our stay in the Travelers Rest. A fine new voice in horror fiction, Keith Lee Morris shows an impressive talent and a deep understanding of his chosen genre. I’m interested to see where his talents take him next; in the meantime, Travelers Rest should be on your list of books to read this year.

   
13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Having skimmed through my reviews of previous Pinborough novels, I can see they are overflowing with gushing hyperbole. 13 Minutes shows that every word of it is true, as if we needed any further confirmation following last year’s stunning The Death House. This is the work of a writer at the very top of her game, one who is comfortable turning her hand to any subject, any genre. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it, drawn in by the characters who are barely restrained by the book’s pages and by the author’s glorious ability to manipulate the reader in the same easy manner that she manipulates her creations. If you haven’t read Pinborough before, 13 Minutes is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then what are you waiting for? While you may not know what to expect story-wise, there’s one guarantee: there are very few writers as talented and as readable as Sarah Pinborough and 13 Minutes is an excellent new addition to an unsurpassed body of work.

   
THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.

   
THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

   
END OF WATCH by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Perhaps the strongest book of the trilogy, End of Watch is a welcome return to the unnamed city that is the home of Bill Hodges and the assortment of characters with whom he consorts. As with all of King’s work, the characters are key, though the reader can’t help but be impressed by the groundwork the author has already laid in earlier volumes to support the grand finale that he presents here. Despite his age, King shows that he is still as relevant, still as in-touch with the world we live in, as younger generations of writers, and proves, once again, that when it comes to transporting the reader into his fictional worlds, he remains without equal.

   
THE CITY OF MIRRORS by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)

Without a doubt the best of the trilogy, The City of Mirrors provides a satisfying conclusion to the story started over six years ago. I can almost guarantee that readers will come away from this volume with an intense desire to go back to the start and read through to the end. It’s a project I will be undertaking myself in the near future. Justin Cronin is a master storyteller and his post-apocalyptic vision stands alongside the genre’s finest. With The City of Mirrors, a wonderful story in its own right, he also shows an ability to deliver on the promises he made in earlier volumes. An engrossing plot coupled with characters who are at once familiar and strangely changed – whether because of the four years that have passed in real time since we last met them, or because of the twenty years that have passed in the course of the narrative it is difficult to say – brings a fitting close to one of the best pieces of horror fiction produced in the past decade. This is hopefully not the last the genre has heard of Justin Cronin. I can’t help but recommend this – and the preceding two volumes of what can only be described as his masterpiece – unreservedly.

   
LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent (Penguin Random House)

Liz Nugent’s writing is beautiful, the voices of the three narrators perfectly pitched, the quirks and tics we might expect in their speech beautifully translated to the written form. From the opening page, Nugent holds the reader in the palm of her hands, so the gut-punch she delivers as the novel draws to a close feels like a physical thing, leaving the reader stunned and disbelieving, emotionally drained yet already hoping for more more MORE! I missed Nugent’s debut, Unravelling Oliver, when it came out in 2014, but it’s definitely on my must-read list even as I try to recover from the effects of this one. An incredible novel, Lying in Wait is a lightning-fast read that should be an essential item for anyone packing for holiday. It cements Liz Nugent’s place as one of Ireland’s finest living novelists, and places her, at the very least, on this reader’s “must-read” list.

   
UNDYING: A LOVE STORY by Michel Faber (Canongate)

Undying: A Love Story is less love story and more love letter, the poems all addressed to Eva herself. It’s an intimate and devastating insight into what can only be described as a very personal experience of two people who are obviously very much in love. It is essential reading, but should only be started when you’re sure you have time to read it cover to cover. Keep a box of tissues handy, but be prepared for moments of pure beauty amidst the darkness. Beautiful, life-changing, unmissable.

   
A CITY DREAMING by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Shifting his focus from fantasy worlds to the one in which we live, Daniel Polansky gives us his version of New York. Well, the dark and magical underbelly at any rate. With writing and characterisation that made The Low Town Trilogy such a success, A City Dreaming is engrossing, captivating and, at times, very VERY funny. Reminiscent of Gaiman at his best, A City Dreaming shows Polansky back on top form.

   
THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

Emma Donoghue’s latest novel takes readers back to the Irish Midlands in the middle of the 19th Century. Hired by the council of a small village, Nightingale alumnus Lib Wright’s job is to watch 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell for two weeks in an attempt to determine how the girl remains healthy despite the fact that she hasn’t eaten a bite in four months. With a fine grasp of how the Irish work, and an uncanny ability to tell a story that keeps the audience captivated start to finish, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is her finest since Room.

   
PAINKILLER by N. J. Fountain (Sphere)

Part examination of the oft-misunderstood phenomenon of chronic neuropathic pain, part thriller, N.J. Fountain’s latest novel takes the reader on a twist-filled journey through the life of Monica Wood. A full review of Painkiller will appear on Reader Dad soon.

AND AN HONOURABLE MENTION…

Technically, since this book was originally published in 2006, it shouldn’t be included in this year’s list. But the release of the beautifully-illustrated Tenth Anniversary Deluxe Edition is all the excuse I need to give it an honourable mention.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne & Oliver Jeffers (Doubleday)

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

COMING SOON . . .

2017 is already shaping up to be an excellent year of fiction, with the first three books I have read that are due out in January already almost certainly claiming a place on next year’s best-of lists. Expect a revitalised Reader Dad in the New Year with a busy January already planned.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2017.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne

Boy-in-Striped-Pyjamas-Cover THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (www.oliverjeffers.com)

Doubleday (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

Bruno is nine years old when his father’s job forces the family to pack up their beautiful Berlin home and move to the desolate Polish countryside. This is Out-With, a cold and unpleasant place where neither Bruno nor his sister want to stay, both missing their friends and the hustle and bustle of central Berlin. There is a window in Bruno’s bedroom, and it overlooks the tall barbed-wire fence that stretches for miles in either direction at the end of their garden. From the window, Bruno can see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living on the other side of the barbed wire fence, all of them dressed in the same striped pyjamas and cloth caps. It strikes Bruno as unfair, so many people over on the other side of the fence while he is on this side, alone but for his sister (a Hopeless Case), until the day he decides to go for a walk, and makes a friend in Shmuel, a boy from the other side.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an instant classic when it was first published in 2006. Ten years on, and it is still as powerful and touching as it ever was. In it, we meet Bruno, and watch events unfold through his young, naïve eyes. Bruno is the son of the Commandant of the Auschwitz (Out-With) concentration camp, and finds himself uprooted from his happy life in Berlin (where he spends his days with his three best friends for life) and transplanted to a “horrible” new home in the middle of nowhere.

While it is obvious to the reader, with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, what is going on, Bruno’s innocence, and the immediacy of what he finds himself in the middle of, give us a fresh perspective on a well-known story. Terrible things are happening here, but Bruno’s young and idealistic mind refuses to let him consider this, seeing the barbed-wire fence not as an enclosure, but simply as a wall preventing him from making friends with the hundreds of children who obviously live on the other side of it. And in the way of all small boys, Bruno cannot comprehend a scenario in which his father is evil, even if he is more than a little distant. To the reader, of course, his father’s attitude – not to mention his acceptance of the position – show his true colours.

‘No, not them,’ said Bruno. ‘The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They’re all dressed the same.’

‘Ah, those people,’ said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. ‘Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.’

When Bruno meets Shmuel, a young boy on the other side of the fence, his opinion of Out-With begins to change, but not as we might expect. Shmuel shares Bruno’s birthday, and is the son of a Polish watchmaker. Nothing but circumstance – the vagaries of their parents’ religions – separates the fates of these two boys, putting one outside the fence – well-fed and cared for – and the other inside – starving, overworked and, though neither of the boys can possibly understanding, facing almost-certain death. Bruno begins to enjoy his time here, and his long talks with Shmuel, seeming to wilfully ignore the horror of Shmuel’s circumstances – rebuffing tales of horror inside the camp with tales of his own misfortune, like the fact that they have left a five-storey house in the middle of Berlin to live in a three-storey house in a far-away place.

While Bruno and Shmuel form the heart of the story, Boyne populates the narrative with all manner of interesting characters, many of whom seem strange to the young boy who acts as our guide. From aloof Father and unhappy Mother, to Kurt, the young soldier with an evil temper, a questionable background and a soft spot for Bruno’s sister and mother, and Pavel, the vegetable-cutter and waiter who claims to have been a doctor in a former life, all of these characters are instantly recognisable stereotypes who nevertheless pop off the page, fully-formed and full of life. Even the (aptly-misheard) Fury and his beautiful blonde companion seem like interesting people in the eyes of Bruno.

For the book’s tenth anniversary, Doubleday have produced a beautifully-packaged “Deluxe Illustrated Edition”, with art by the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. As a fan of Jeffers’ work (one of the many joyful discoveries I have made in fatherhood), he seemed like a strange choice to illustrate such a dark and ultimately horrific novel. But having re-read the book and admired Jeffers’ artwork, I’m now convinced that he was the right – perhaps the only – choice. His simplistic drawings, filled with childlike beauty, match the childlike narrative perfectly, though often showing us proceedings from a more adult, and sometimes very shocking, perspective.

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

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.

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