Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Category

Alternate History

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.

unnamed (2)

An Interview with ZEN CHO

str2_shgzencho_sharmilla_12 FOR ONLINE Name: ZEN CHO

Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)

On the web: zencho.org

On Twitter: @zenaldehyde

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.

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

Thanks for having me!

Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?

You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.

I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.

A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.

A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?

Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.

There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?

I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.

And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?

The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …

With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?

Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.

Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.

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

I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?

I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.

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

Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.

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

I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

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

Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …

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)?

It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!

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

Thanks for the questions!

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

9781447299486 SORCERER TO THE CROWN

Zen Cho (zencho.org)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.

Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.

When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.

For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.

Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.

Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS - Aliette de Bodard THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Whilst searching the ruins of Paris’ Grands Magasins for vital resources, Philippe and his companion come across a newborn Fallen, an Angel ejected from The City and exiled to the mortal plain. Deciding to harvest the Fallen for artefacts that contain powerful magic, Philippe is caught when members of one of Paris’ great Houses appears to claim the newborn. Bound to the House by Selene, the Head of Silverspires, and to Isabelle, the newborn, after tasting her blood, Philippe has no option but to find a means of escape. Unrest is brewing in Paris, and another war between the great Houses seems inevitable; it’s a situation that could work in Philippe’s favour, but before he can take advantage, he unwittingly unleashes an unspeakable evil on the House, a shadowy creature that roams the Île de la Cité, picking off members of the Household. Along with Isabelle and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, Philippe discovers a decades-old secret that could destroy Silverspires.

Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel is set in a post-magical-apocalyptic Paris in or around the 1960s. Destroyed during a magical war that coincided, more or less, with the real world’s Great War, Paris is now a city divided into two main classes: the Houses and the Gangs. The Houses for the most part are run by – or heavily populated by – Fallen Angels, exiled from The City for infractions that they can no longer remember. Paris itself has suffered greatly as part of the war: buildings lie in ruins, provisions are scarce, especially for those not affiliated with one of the Houses, and the Seine is a magic-infested cesspool that humans and angels avoid at all costs.

When we enter this strange new world, we meet Philippe, a Vietnamese national who has ended up in Paris against his will: while he looks to be in his early twenties, Philippe was once Immortal, a member of the Jade Emperor’s court. Now hundreds of years old, Philippe has been in Paris for over sixty years, having been conscripted and shipped to France to fight in the war. Wielding a different flavour of magic to the city’s Fallen, Philippe is an enigma to the elders of House Silverspires of whom he becomes a captive before the story has barely started. His bond with Isabelle, a bond formed when he briefly tasted her blood, adds a further dimension to his captivity: Philippe has a constant watcher, and while Isabelle is new to the House, it is clear where her loyalties will ultimately lie.

Much of the action takes place in House Silverspires, which resides in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral and the other buildings on the Île de la Cité. De Bodard uses multiple viewpoints to give us a rounded understanding of how the Houses work, and of the relationships between the different Houses, without the need for much exposition. These viewpoints show us the House from a number of different perspectives: through the eyes of Philippe, who detests the House system for what it did to him during the war; those of Isabelle, the newest member of the Household; Madeleine, a mortal who spends her days working with magic, and dealing with an addiction that could see her expelled from the House should anyone discover it; and through the eyes of Selene, the Head of the House, and the direct successor of the House’s founder, First of the Fallen, Lucifer Morningstar.

Morningstar himself appears only in fleeting glimpses, in visions that Philippe has because of his connection to the evil that now stalks the House’s residents. There is little need for introduction, and de Bodard uses this to her advantage, tagging on the features that she needs for the Morningstar of her own world: the metal wings that were more than an affectation, the aloof manner. In many ways, each of the central characters is living in Morningstar’s shadow, some more literally than others, and despite being missing from both the story and the world – he hasn’t been seen for twenty years at the point Philippe enters House Silverspires – he remains a palpable presence throughout the novel.

The world de Bodard has created is beautifully-wrought, a post-apocalyptic nightmare unlike any you have seen before. There is a dangerous moment early in the narrative where it looks like the story may well stray into the realms of Twilight, but thankfully that proves not to be the case. This is a violent and dangerous world, populated by violent and dangerous characters, many of whom have the double advantage of being able to wield magic and being immortal. It is, strangely, a novel peopled by religious characters that manages to steer clear of the subject of faith (or Faith), bringing the religious mythology from a number of different backgrounds together in a seamless way to tell this gripping story that defies any single genre classification.

The House of Shattered Wings has all the ingredients a good story needs: a well-developed world populated by identifiable, engaging characters whose fate we care about from the moment we meet them and a story that keeps us turning the pages long past bedtime. Stylishly written, this is the most original piece of fiction – I find that “Fantasy” is far too restrictive – you’re likely to come across this year. A wonderful introduction to Aliette de Bodard, who is already an award-winning short story writer, The House of Shattered Wings is an excellent showcase for this mighty talent and adds yet another author to this reader’s “must-read” list.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

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

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

National Socialism is routed at the 1933 elections by Communism, and its leadership exiled from Germany. Sentenced to a concentration camp, Adolf Hitler escapes and makes his way to London where, under his old nickname, Wolf, he sets up as a private detective. When a beautiful Jewish woman steps into his office in early November 1939 to hire him to find her missing sister, Wolf has no idea where the case will take him, except that he should have listened to his first instinct and thrown her out on the street. As his investigation progresses, Wolf finds himself on the wrong side of all the wrong people: the Metropolitan Police; all of the men and women who once formed the upper echelons of the Nazi Party; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and a mysterious man who is killing the prostitutes who congregate outside Wolf’s office, and framing the detective for their murders.

Most importantly, for the reader at least, is the fact that none of this is real; it is all the lucid fabrication of Shomer, a man who once wrote shund – Yiddish pulp fiction – for a living, and who now uses it as a form of escape from his current location: hell on Earth. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In what is perhaps the most original take on the Holocaust novel to date, Lavie Tidhar presents the events as a hard-boiled detective novel which at first glance appears to be set in an alternate timeline. As the novel progresses we discover that it is actually a fiction, a story within the story, the dreams and daydreams of an Auschwitz inmate named Shomer. The central story follows Wolf as he accepts a job from Isabella Rubinstein, a Jew, who wants him to use his connections to find her sister who went missing while trying to escape from Germany. From the outset, it is clear that the aim of the story is to belittle and humiliate Wolf, the reasons becoming more obvious as we learn of the story’s origins. During his investigation, Wolf encounters old colleagues – Hess, Goebbels, Klaus Barbie – and discovers that they all appear to have adapted to this brave new world better than he has himself. Coupled with the success – and imminent election as Prime Minister – of Oswald Mosley, a wannabe in Wolf’s eyes

To see Mosley, that clown, with such power! Even the man’s words were second-hand.

, it becomes obvious just how far Wolf has fallen since the heights of the Nuremberg rallies.

Interspersed with this central narrative, we catch brief glimpses of Shomer, the eponymous dreamer, as he dreams his way through his time in Auschwitz, talking to the ghost of his dead friend Yenkl when he is not reinventing the man at the root of his suffering as the hero of a pulpy detective story. We get brief flashes of his arrival on the train, the separation from his family, hard labour digging graves and a brief stay in the camp’s infirmary, where he crosses paths with fellow authors Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik. It is, as you might expect given the subject matter, a harrowing look at life in Auschwitz made no less powerful by the brevity of our visits. Shomer, like those around him, is little more than the blue-tattooed number on his arm, and the stories he invents are the only relief he finds from the daily horrors. The novel’s final line is heartbreakingly beautiful, an excellent summation of what is an extraordinary novel.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a brave novel for a man whose life has been shaped by the very events he is describing

The majority of my family, on both sides, died in [Auschwitz]

Tidhar explains in his historical note at the end). A far cry from the outright satire of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, A Man Lies Dreaming examines the dictator in a completely different way. The first-person excerpts from Wolf’s diary give us some insight into the character of the man, while filtering much of the narrative through the Chandler-esque voice. Despite the odd moment where Wolf comes across as a kind of Basil Fawlty impersonator (

He bashed the receiver against the phone box, over and over, splintering the casing, wantonly destroying the property of His Majesty’s General Post Office.

), he elicits a surprising feeling of empathy from the reader, despite what we know. Like Chandler’s well-loved Marlowe, Wolf does not come out of this case well, one beating following quickly on the heels of the one before, ritual humiliation, an impromptu circumcision, so that it’s a wonder that the man makes it to the end of the story in one piece.

This sort of alternative history is not new ground for Lavie Tidhar, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his alternate take on Osama. Brilliantly capturing the mood of a pre-war (war still looms very much on the horizon, though delayed by Hitler’s Fall) Britain while mixing it with the modern-day xenophobia that seems to be sweeping the country, spurred on by the likes of UKIP (some of whose slogans Tidhar uses to provide voice to Mosley’s supporters). The author’s deft touch sees Wolf, whose anti-semitic views survive his exile, become the object of racial hatred, rather than its purveyor, a state of affairs that is likely to have brought Shomer no small measure of happiness.

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar

THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

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

£18.99

Released: 24 October 2013

In the summer of 1932, German scientist Dr Joachim Vomacht powers up a device that will change the world; the wave generated by this device will touch every person on the planet. Not everyone will come through the experience unchanged. Fogg and Oblivion are two such individuals, young British men who discover unusual talents in the wake of the Vomacht wave. Recruited by the Old Man, they join the ranks of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs – the Retirement Bureau – and find themselves at the centre of some of the Twentieth Century’s most important events. Recalled to the Bureau today, Fogg – much older, but relatively un-aged – must give account of his actions in Berlin immediately following the Second World War, because those actions have repercussions for all of the "changed", even now, almost seventy years later.

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, The Violent Century, takes us to a world where superheroes are real. And yet, even with these Beyond-Men, Übermenschen, heroes, the history of the world remains relatively unchanged compared to our own. World War 2 proceeds as expected, the same atrocities carried out in the name of racial cleansing; as does the war in Vietnam and the much less-publicised war in Laos. It is, as the Old Man points out early in the novel, as if the Beyond-Men have cancelled each other out; if only one side or the other had them, things might have turned out much differently. In some ways this observation, and the manner in which these heroes seem completely ineffective, reduces them to the mundane, despite the power any one of them might have to affect the course of history.

The story centres around Fogg and Oblivion, two friends – and, it is hinted, perhaps more even than that – who work for the superhero equivalent of British Intelligence, a shadowy organisation that spends much of its time observing, rather than doing. Tidhar sets up a wonderful contrast between the British powers, and those of other countries: the brash, costumed heroes of the United States; the Communist ideals that drive Russia’s Red Sickle; and the Aryan perfection of the white-suited Nazi representatives. In a series of flashbacks – Fogg’s account as he sits in front of the Old Man’s desk in the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, "tonight” – we catch glimpses of the century that has gone before: the moment of change in 1932; the recruitment process, and the initial training of Fogg and his fellow "changed" men and women; observing the war in Minsk, and in Paris, and elsewhere; and everything that comes after.

Jumping from time period to time period, recollections within recollections, Tidhar pieces together the history of these two men, and builds towards the final reveal, which will ultimately explain the relative coldness that exists between them in the here and now. In a world where superheroes are real, there is no need for the fictional kind and, as a result, some of the world’s greatest comics creators – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – put in cameo appearances as historians, experts in the field. Interestingly enough, it is these characters who have the best lines, and who shine the most light on the questions that the novel repeatedly asks: What makes a man? What makes a hero? "”With great power comes great responsibility,” Lee tells us, echoing one of the best-known morals of any superhero tale, as he speaks at the trial in Jerusalem of Vomacht.

– But what’s a hero? the counsellor says, again.

– It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me…you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.

– I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily – which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Shuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms to persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of the immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.

It’s as close as the novel comes to answering the questions, and we, the reader, are left to decide for ourselves who are the heroes, who the villains. The central characters of this tale are supported by a cast of faces both familiar and new: here is Alan Turing, attached to the training camp for these super-humans rather than Bletchley Park; here, the attendees at the Potsdam conference; a descendant of Vlad the Impaler (or, perhaps, the beast himself); Josef Mengele; Osama bin Laden. The Violent Century is a well-researched and lovingly constructed piece of fiction that, despite its science fiction elements, still manages to remain well within the bounds of realism.

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde

EYRE AFFAIR - Jasper Fforde THE EYRE AFFAIR

Jasper Fforde (www.jasperfforde.com)

Hodder (www.hodder.co.uk)

£7.99

review-projectThe following review is the first in a series of reviews for the Hodderscape Review Project, a project that I’m very happy and proud to be a part of. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, for anyone that has already read it, will seem the obvious choice of book to kick this fantastic project off, given that it’s the inspiration behind the Hodderscape team’s logo, Pickwick the Dodo. Check out the blog, and the reviews of my fellow participants, here.

Thursday Next is a LiteraTec, a member of the Special Operations Network (SpecOps) who specialises in literary crime. When the original manuscript for Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, Next is approached by the leader of SO-5, a top secret SpecOps department, who believe the theft to be the work of their quarry, one Acheron Hades. Following a disastrous stakeout, Next relocates to Swindon on the advice of some future incarnation of herself where she finds herself once more on the trail of Hades. When the manuscript for Jane Eyre is stolen, and Jane herself kidnapped, Next finds herself thrown once more into the deep end, tasked with rescuing Jane and restoring the nation’s most beloved book to its former glory.

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels have been on my radar for some time now but, like many others, I’ve never quite managed to get to them. So, receiving the first book, The Eyre Affair, as the first book in the Hodderscape Review Project gave me, as much as anything else, an excuse to finally give it a try. Am I glad I did? The jury’s still out, I’m afraid.

The plot is wonderfully-constructed, and Fforde has spent a huge amount of effort in building a world that will support its every twist and turn: this is an alternate 1985, a world with slightly more Victorian values than our own timeline (watch the speech patterns, and the large role that novels like Eyre and Chuzzlewit play in the national consciousness), but much more scientifically advanced than our own in some ways: gene-splicing is widely-used and accepted, which is why Next can have a pet dodo. The Crimean War is in its one hundred and thirty-first year, and Next – along with many of her contemporaries – is a veteran. This is a world where people can move between reality and fictional worlds, often on a whim, sometimes with the help of technology. And it is this ability that drives the central conceit of The Eyre Affair, the kidnapping of Jane Eyre.

The book is much darker than might be expected. Next is an edgy woman with a razor-sharp wit and a sharper tongue. The few outbursts of violence are shocking in their content and approach, especially coming, as they do, amongst so much light-heartedness and frivolity. This isn’t the type of book where people should be killed, but many are nonetheless. The on-going war, and the division it causes in the population, introduces a political tension that explains the existence of the Goliath Corporation, the giant multinational that has powers above even those of the more secretive SpecOps departments.

This evening several hundred Raphaelites surrounded the N’est pas une pipe public house where a hundred neo-surrealists have barricaded themselves in. The demonstrators outside chanted Italian Renaissance slogans and then stones and missiles were thrown. The neo-surrealists responded by charging the lines protected by large soft watches and seemed to be winning until the police moved in.

There are some deft touches – what happens when you kidnap the protagonist of a novel which is told from that person’s point of view, for example? – which might have raised the book to perfection had it not been for the niggles that turned me off continuing with the series.

The biggest problem, for me, comes in the naming of the characters, many of which seem like placeholders that Fforde used and forgot to change pre-publication. Jack Schitt? A LiteraTec called Paige Turner? A policeman with the unlikely moniker of Oswald Mandias? And let’s not forget the Big Bad himself, Mr Acheron Hades (who, if you can credit it, has a brother named Styx). While they fit with the book’s overall sense of humour, they do become something of a distraction as the story progresses. I should point out that I have problems with novels that are designed to be funny: I’ve never finished a Terry Pratchett, nor a Colin Bateman. I can take humour when it’s integrated into the storyline, but when a book sets out to be a comedy-fantasy or comedy-mystery, I find that much of the so-called humour usually falls flat. The Eyre Affair falls centrally into this category for me, and while I enjoyed elements, the humour was a big turn-off for me. Which is a shame, because The Eyre Affair has all the elements that should make this a winner for me.

At its heart, this is Fforde’s love letter to literature. The message here is that these classic works of fiction are not the exclusive domain of a small group of intellectuals, but works written to be enjoyed by everyone. As someone who hasn’t read Martin Chuzzlewit or Jane Eyre, it’s difficult to know if I’ve missed anything deeper (Internet searches show me that Fforde tinkered massively with the plot of Eyre for the purposes of the story), or if someone who has read them will come away having had a different experience; I do know that it’s not essential to know the works to enjoy or appreciate what Fforde has done.

While the humour and the character naming made this book assuredly “not for me”, I did enjoy the central plot and the world upon which it is constructed. Names aside, the characters are perfectly-drawn and it’s a shame they should be consigned to such obscurity (Fforde managed to make me despise Jack Schitt, for example, and hope for a sticky end for him). There are glimpses of genius here, and it’s obvious that Jasper Fforde is an author who bears more study (just not in the rest of this series). If you’ve enjoyed the novels of Nick Harkaway, I would definitely recommend this one. If, like me, you prefer your fiction with a little less canned laughter, it might best be avoided.

PLAN D by Simon Urban

PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D

Simon Urban (www.simonurban.de/)

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker/)

£14.99

October, 2011. Much of the gas used by Western Europe comes from Russia, via a pipeline network that runs through the middle of the German Democratic Republic. Weeks before the leaders of the two Germanys are due to come together to discuss the future of the pipeline – cheaper gas for the West, more money for East Germany – an elderly man is found hanged from the pipeline, the arrangement of the body suggesting that the Stasi are up to their old tricks again. Martin Wegener, Hauptmann of the People’s Police, is assigned to the case, a case he expects to hand over the the Stasi themselves before the first day is through. But the case has a bearing on the future of the talks; the West insist on assigning one of their own men and he, in turn, insists that Wegener remain on board. As they dig, the dead man reveals one secret after another. The architect of the so-called Plan D, his death has massive implications for the future of the state. All Wegener has to do is stay alive – and stay out of the Stasi’s secret prisons – until he and Brendel can solve the case.

Simon Urban presents us with a vision of a modern-day Europe still divided by the Berlin Wall. While we spend the entirety of the novel tailing Hauptmann Wegener in his investigation, Urban does provide us with glimpses of what is happening beyond the Wall, mainly through the eyes of Wegener’s Western counterpart, Richard Brendel. It’s a fascinating vision, and provides as much entertainment – and, strangely, as much of the reason for wanting to continue reading – as the murder around which the plot revolves. Urban’s world is wonderfully constructed, and we see the fruits of an extra 25 years of Socialist rule on the people of the GDR, a country that has evolved, technologically, as much as its Western peers, albeit in a slightly different way. Here are a swathe of brand names we don’t know, technologies that are unheard of, yet are plausible at the same time: the Minsk mobile phones, which have models specifically for State Security operatives; the Phobos plastic cars, fuelled by rapeseed oil and smelling like chip pans as a result; the Navodobro, in-car guidance systems that run off a proprietary technology that doesn’t require access to the West’s Global Positioning Satellite network. This is a world where Socialist values still very much hold sway and "low cost" is always the name of the game. Foul-smelling air and greasy car windscreens are a small price to pay for these ideals.

At the centre of the story stands Wegener himself. A People’s Policeman, Wegener has a troubled past that has seen him crossing swords with the Stasi, the dreaded State Security, an organisation that is still very much alive, though much smaller than before, and with a much reduced remit compared to the organisation of terror that existed prior to 1989 (a period referred to in the book as the Revitalisation, during which the Wall was opened for a brief period). At least, that’s the official version. Wegener’s friend and mentor, Josef Früchtl, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Wegener found himself in trouble when he asked too many questions. Wegener has the added complication of his ex-girlfriend, Karolina Enders, a woman with whom he is still very much in love and who may have a direct connection to the case at hand, since she works for the Ministry for Energy Export. Paranoid and often deluded – much of the book finds us inside Wegener’s head, witnessing a seemingly endless dialogue with a version of Früchtl that lives on in his mind – Wegener has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue that makes him an intriguing and immensely engaging protagonist. The cast of supporting characters are equally as interesting, as is the history of this repressed country and the various organisations that Wegener encounters along the way.

Plan D is a surprising book – it’s not as heavy as the jacket material makes it seem. There are beautiful touches, and little glimpses of a dark and wonderful humour in the storytelling that transform police procedural-meets-political intrigue into something completely different, and altogether more pleasing. There are obvious comparisons to be made with the like of Robert Harris’ Fatherland and, while the era is completely different, and the points of divergence of the two alternate histories decades apart, Xavier March and Martin Wegener are most definitely two of a kind. It’s a wonderfully written, and obviously lovingly translated, novel that will have the reader, by turns, nailed to the edge of their seat and laughing at some minor incongruity or well-placed joke – often made at Wegener’s expense.

There’s no need for anyone to betray you, Martin, you do that yourself, you insane, horny, dumb idiot of a stallion, you’re the one whose professional interest is on truth, you’re the one chasing after it like a tribe of cannibals after Schalck-Golodkowski, you know the truth finds it own path, it can’t be stopped, it creeps into the light of day at some point, through the tiniest fracture, for the truth, my friend, is a brutal, five-second sauerkraut fart in a teeny windowless cellar room, one second before the masterclass of the Académie du Sommelier comes in.

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

11-22-63 - Stephen King 11.22.63

Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)

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

£19.99

It’s a daunting thing, sitting down to write a review of a full-length Stephen King novel, for someone who hangs on every word the man has ever written. The problem is that remaining objective – reviewing the work at a remove, as it were – is next to impossible. Regular reader(s) of the blog will know that that isn’t the type of blog I run and will, I hope, forgive me a little hyperbole here and there as I work through the monster that is King’s latest novel, 11.22.63.

The title of King’s latest novel is a reference to one of those dates that lives in the global consciousness as a day that defined the world in which we live. It may take a person a moment or two to parse the significance (especially since it appears in the US format of month, day, year), but it will come to them eventually. It is, of course, the date of the assassination of John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA. King’s premise is simple, a question that most people have pondered at some point: if you could go back and change it (save Kennedy, assassinate Hitler, etc.), would you?

Jake Epping is an English teacher in a small Maine town. When the owner of the local diner – a man Jake knows only from eating regularly in his establishment – calls him and invites him to the diner, he reluctantly goes. Al has aged overnight, a process exacerbated by the cancer that is killing him, cancer that he did not have the previous evening, when Jake last saw him. Al spins a tale – a hole in time in the pantry of his diner that will take Jake back to September 1958, a visit that, no matter how long Jake spends there, will only take 2 minutes of 2011 time – and asks Jake for his help: go back to 1958 under an assumed identity, get a job, kill time for five years, and be in Dallas in 1963 to stay the hand that slew Jack Kennedy.

11.22.63 is pure King, from that familiar Down East accent, to the cast of characters that will become your friends during the course of the novel’s 700 pages, to that slightly off-kilter world that always leaves this Constant Reader slightly uneasy. No-one can tell a story like King can. In effect, this is a novel of three parts. The first section deals with Derry in late 1958. It took me a while to realise – even the tell-tale “There was something wrong with that town, and I think I knew it from the first” bypassed me initially – what King was up to here, and why Al’s “rabbit-hole” came out in September 1958, rather than sometime closer to the date of Kennedy’s assassination. It was the name Norbert Keene that did it for me, the owner and manager of Derry’s drugstore; this is a city in the aftermath of the events of King’s earlier novel, It, and King uses this to his advantage, infecting a key character with the evil in which the city is drenched, and giving Jake a reason to be there for Hallowe’en 1958. King introduces some of the key players from It into the events of this novel, cementing the history of that fictional town in place. Jake’s description of the city is spot on:

On that grey street, with the smell of industrial smokes in the air and the afternoon bleeding away to evening, downtown Derry looked only marginally more charming than a dead hooker in a church pew.”

When Jake finishes his work in Derry, he moves ultimately to the small town of Jodie, Texas where he becomes a part of the community and falls in love with one of his colleagues, the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill. It is here that Jake first decides that he might not want to return to 2011. It is, in his own words, when he “stopped living in the past and started living.” This love affair, of course, is fraught with peril for the man from the future, and King proves once more that no other writer puts their characters through the mill with quite as much élan as he does.

The final section of the book deals with the run up to November 1963, and follows Jake as he watches Lee Harvey Oswald, attempting to close what he calls the “window of uncertainty” on whether Oswald was a lone shooter. As we move toward the event itself, King has a decision to make as to whether this was the case, or whether one of the many conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death provides a better version of the truth, and it is interesting to see which road he chooses. Here, King is firmly in James Ellroy territory, and it shows in the tone of the narrative, even though 11.22.63 contains a more complete form of prose, a language that is unmistakably King. This section of the novel is littered with real people, and King does his best to make them his own, a sometimes difficult proposition with people as infamous as these.

King has been very clever with his method of time travel, building some important rules into the process: the rabbit-hole always takes the traveller to the same time on the same date, so there can be no jumping back and forward through time when things get hairy. Time passes as normal in 1958 but, regardless of the duration, the traveller will only be gone from 2011 for two minutes. The most important, perhaps, is that each visit affects a reset, and any changes made during a previous visit will be lost. These three key rules play important – and sometimes devastating – roles throughout the novel.

To make matters more difficult for Jake, the past becomes almost a sentient being. It is, Jake tells us, obdurate, and it also harmonises with itself. What this means is that, as Jake starts to move through the Land of Ago, we start to see connections between otherwise unrelated characters or events – characters that share the same, or very similar names, or faces, or personalities. We also come to see quite early on that the real city of Dallas and the fictional Derry are almost one and the same, with the same underlying malice defining them both. The obduracy is something that Al warns Jake of before his first trip, but it is Jake who discovers that the bigger the change, the more difficult it is to make. The past, we come to see, does not want to be changed, and this fact leaves us worried – if not outright frightened – of what Jake will face when he tries to change one of the world’s most defining moments.

As with most of his novels, it seems that King finds it impossible not to drop self-references in to see who is paying attention, or to give Constant Reader a little thrill that they are getting more for their money than a King virgin (he has been doing it as far back as the early Castle Rock novels, seeding references to The Dead Zone into Cujo, for example). As always, it seems King is having immense fun with these “Easter eggs”. How about the late ‘50s red and white Plymouth Fury in the parking lot of the mill, the first car Jake sees when he steps back in time? The whole first section which seems, at first, to be a twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to one of King’s most divisive novels? There’s even a sly reference to The Dark Tower, when Jake sets eyes on a car called a Takuro Spirit, echoing Eddie’s observation in that alternate, Captain Trips-raddled version of Topeka, Kansas. And a tip of the hat to Ellroy’s own masterpiece in the form of a rogue FBI agent by the name of Dwight Holly.

As you would expect from a man known for his love of pop culture (he had a regular column in the American magazine, Entertainment Weekly, called “The Pop of King” which he used to talk about books, films, music, entertainment in general), the attention to detail he applies to late-‘50s/early-‘60s America is second-to-none. Everyone smokes, and it’s the first obvious sign that Jake is in a world of a long time ago: the smell of tobacco smoke is ever-present, and there are very few characters who don’t smoke during their interactions with him or, at the very least, have a pack of cigarettes close to hand. King is careful to avoid anachronisms, but the world he has created is made more real by what we see around us – the products for sale in the shops, the cars on the roads, the very pollution being pumped into the air. It’s obvious that 11.22.63 required a massive research effort, not just in getting the details of Oswald’s movements right, but also in reconstructing the pop culture of the era. King takes it in his stride and the result is a world that feels as real in 1958 as it does in 2011.

King, a native of Maine, has an obvious love for the place and one of the things he does well is ensure that the reader is there, breathing the air, eating the lobsters (or, in this case, the Fatburgers). He knows the people and their foibles, and he wants the reader to know them, too. The most important outward aspect of this is the accent, and as always, he takes some time to ensure that what you’re hearing in your head is the same as what’s coming out of the characters’ mouths:

‘Key’s inside the front door.’ Doe-ah.

And the ever-present

Ayuh!

Reading a King novel is often like sitting on a park bench with an old-timer, listening as he spins his tales and spreads his gossip, and 11.22.63 is no exception. It’s a powerful novel, King’s considered answer to the question “if you could change it, would you?” What it boils down to, though, is that the events leading up to that fateful day play second fiddle to the more important personal relationship between Jake Epping, known in the Land of Ago as George Amberson, and Sadie Dunhill. But King is a man who enjoys unsettling his readers – it’s something he does very well, so why not? – so you can expect the course of this love to run not exactly true, as it comes up against the force of the obdurate past.

11.22.63 is the latest in a long line of masterpieces from a writer who, at the age of 63, is still at the top of his game, and still producing mammoth works at the rate of about one every year. It is a beautifully-imagined and wonderfully written story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It’s easy to dismiss King as a “horror writer”, but horror is only a small fraction of what he has produced in a career spanning almost 40 years; it’s easy to forget that the man responsible for one of the masterpieces of modern vampire fiction – ‘Salem’s Lot – or the mother of all post-apocalyptic fiction – The Stand – is also the brains behind Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It’s also easy to forget, reading as much as I do, just how brilliant a writer he is when I’m not reading him. 11.22.63 is a solid reminder of the fact that no-one tells a story like Stephen King does. A perfect read, more than deserving of its place on my Top 10 of 2011.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑