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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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SNATCH by Gregory McDonald

Snatch - Gregory McDonald SNATCH

Gregory McDonald (www.gregorymcdonald.com)

Hard Case Crime (www.hardcasecrime.com)

£7.99

Two eight-year-old boys from very different backgrounds. Two sets of less-than-competent kidnappers. In the hands of Gregory McDonald, almost anything could happen.

Like many people of my generation, my first exposure to the work of Gregory McDonald was the wonderful 1985 film Fletch, in which Chevy Chase took on the role of one of McDonald’s most famous creations. The film, as they tend to do, led me to the books, and I discovered in McDonald one of crime fiction’s finest stylists. The latest addition to Hard Case Crime’s excellent line-up reproduces two of McDonald’s standalone short novels in their usual OTT livery.

Snatched, the first of the two novels, is arguably the best of the pair, and showcases McDonald doing what he does best: using his ear for dialogue to bring his characters to life. Teddy Rinaldi is ambassador to the United Nations for a small country in the Persian Gulf. While preparing to present a new resolution to the UN, Teddy’s 8-year-old son Toby disappears: he gets on a plane in New York, and fails to get off it again in San Francisco. Toby is to be used as leverage to ensure Rinaldi’s new resolution does not pass. There is one small problem: the men behind the kidnapping have no idea where the child is, or who has him.

What makes Snatched special is the humour that underpins much of the action, and the relationship between Toby and his clueless captor, a man paid to do a job who has subsequently lost contact with his employer. This is a battle of wits that develops into something akin to a partnership, the reader never sure which of the pair is in charge. Like the best of McDonald’s Fletch novels, Snatched is presented with a minimum of narrative and a maximum of dialogue, each character unique in the way that they speak, the tics that they have, the language they use. The scenes shared by Toby and kidnapper Spike ensure that we feel more empathy for the tough-talking criminal than we do for Toby’s parents (and I’m speaking as a parent), or for the odious Colonel Turnbull, the so-called good guy of the piece.

The second novel, Safekeeping, takes a different tack, and introduces us to Robby Burnes, the son of a minor English nobleman killed in the Second World War. Shipped off to New York, Robby finds himself in the lackadaisical care of journalist Thadeus Lowry and subsequently kidnapped by a woman who recognises him from the paper and thinks there might be money to be made in ransoming him back to Lowry. This second novel takes itself much less seriously than the first, and while McDonald’s gift with dialogue helps to carry it, it is a much more narrative-driven piece, written in a flowery, over-the-top language that makes the whole thing feel like little more than a farce. It’s an interesting find for McDonald completists (this its first publication since 1985), but beside Snatched it presents as little more than filler, a similarly-themed piece to fill out the page-count.

Don’t let that put you off: the tale of Toby Rinaldi’s kidnapping is worth the price of admission alone, a fine showcase for Gregory McDonald’s talents and a fine addition to the ever-excellent Hard Case Crime line. Snatch, as the collection is named, is an excellent jumping-on point for anyone yet to experience the creative genius of Gregory McDonald. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that it has been a while since we last visited with Fletch.

LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR by James Grady

LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR

James Grady (www.jamesgrady.net)

No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)

£8.99

This month sees the release of the hotly anticipated sequel to Six Days of the Condor. It has taken forty years, but James Grady has finally revisited his most famous creation in Last Days of the Condor. To celebrate, No Exit Press are running a blog tour for the next two weeks, and I’m extremely happy to have been invited to take part.

 

The man once known as Condor is living and working once more in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Recently released from a secret CIA insane asylum, and checked on a regular basis by case officers, the man whose name was once Ronald Malcolm is attempting to adjust to the “normal” life of an American man in his sixties. When one of his case officers is crucified over his fireplace, and Condor is framed for the murder, he finds himself once again on the run, a fugitive from the law, and from the combined weight of the USA’s intelligence services. But this time he is not alone: Faye Dozier, the murdered man’s partner, believes in Condor’s innocence and embarks on a secret mission to bring him in alive so that he can once again clear his name.

It is over forty years – both in real time and in James Grady’s fictional Washington, D.C. – since we first met the man whose codename was Condor. Now in his sixties, Condor has a long and dark history of working for the CIA, a history that has been suppressed, in his own mind, to the point that he barely remembers those six days in the early seventies – or much else about his career for that matter – following a stint in a secret CIA insane asylum in Maine. It’s an interesting starting point – when we first meet Condor, we know more about him than he does himself, despite the forty year gap since we last met him. Through Faye, Grady provides us with brief glimpses at Condor’s more recent past, and we begin to slowly understand how he got from nerdy bookworm to one of the Agency’s most valuable and dangerous assets.

There are many parallels with Condor’s earlier outing, but Grady manages to avoid many of the clichés that might have turned Last Days of the Condor from straight sequel into a kind of Die Hard 2 (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”) or Lethal Weapon (“I’m too old for this shit!”). This time around, Condor-Vin-Malcolm is much more experienced in tradecraft so his disappearance is much more a planned event than the blind luck that marked much of his first adventure. He also has a benefactor who is both inside and outside the organisations that are hunting him: Sami, a man who is in the city running a training exercise, has a past with both Condor and Faye, and plays a similar role to the unnamed old man from the first novel. There are ulterior motives at work here, and they are slowly revealed to the reader as the novel approaches its climax.

Last Days of the Condor also provides a stark contrast to its 1974 predecessor, and shows how much the world has changed in the interim. Condor’s modern-day flight is made much more difficult – and his hunters’ job conversely much easier – by the technology that we now take for granted: smartphones and GPS, ubiquitous security cameras and a much more real-time news cycle and everything that social media brings to the table. Condor may be on the run for a similar reason, but the experience – for both Condor himself, and for the reader – is vastly different from what we’ve seen before, and what we might have expected.

Grady’s Six Days of the Condor has an interesting history – Grady has been the subject of KGB investigation, and that organisation used his novel as the basis for at least some of their organisational structure. It is, in short, always going to be a tough act to follow, but Grady manages it with some style in this return visit to Condor. Once again, his focus is on the current state of the art, and the possibilities that stem from it. What if? is the question that drives his narrative, and the results show that he has lost none of the edge in the past forty years that made Six Days of the Condor one of the finest espionage novels ever written.

Grady’s writing style does take some getting used to, although it should appeal to fans of James Ellroy. Short, sharp sentence structure and rapid rotation around multiple viewpoints keep the reader on their toes, and keeps the tale interesting. It also gives Grady the chance to reveal some of the details of the missing forty years in Condor’s life while still keeping them suppressed in the central characters own memories. Once the reader gets the rhythm, though, it’s a novel that moves at a breakneck pace, always managing to remain one step ahead of even the most canny reader.

The obvious question is: do you need to read Six Days of the Condor first? The short answer is no: because Condor himself remembers little of what happened that first time around, there is no reason why the reader needs to have the back story, so Last Days works as a standalone novel. The longer answer is, as always, that it makes more sense to read the books in the correct order. Six Days of the Condor is the only book my local library refused to lend me at the tender age of fifteen: too much sexual content, they said. Maybe for the late 1980s, but it’s positively tame compared to much of what is published today. It has taken me twenty-five years to finally get around to reading it, and it is the classic that everyone claims. The back story does bring something else to the reading of Last Days, a book that is destined to become a classic in its own right, setting the adventures of Condor alongside those of George Smiley or James Bond as some of the best spy fiction you’re likely to read.

In short, Last Days of the Condor is everything that readers of Condor’s earlier adventure could have hoped for. Sharp, intelligent and surprisingly funny, it’s a book that builds tension from the first page, and keeps the reader glued to the page until the very last word. Sadly, given the super-spy’s age, it is likely to be Last Days for him; if so, it’s the best send-off any fictional character could have hoped for.

The TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (re)read Challenge

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On 14th July, Penguin Random House will publish Go Set a Watchman, the recently discovered novel by Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.

With this in mind, PRH are encouraging as many book-lovers as possible to re-visit and read the all-time classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, in the run up to publication of Go Set a Watchman. Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 40 languages. UK librarians have ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one ‘every adult should read before they die’ (Guardian). Studied in schools across the world and an enduring favourite of millions of readers, its cultural significance remains unparalleled.

Like many in the UK, my own first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird came during GCSE English Literature, and it’s a book that has remained with me ever since.

From 21st-31st May, I will be taking part in the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)read’ campaign. A read-along for readers old and new, (re)discovering and discussing the book together to a loose ten day plan.

I would love to see as many people as possible join in, whether it’s the first time you’ve read this classic novel, or, like me, you have fond memories of reading the book at school. Or even if you’re a regular visitor to Maycomb, Alabama.

You can find the official Go Set a Watchman channels here on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. For the (Re)read challenge, we’ll be using the hashtag #TKAM.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula Le Guin

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS - Ursula Le Guin THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS

Ursula Le Guin (www.ursulakleguin.com)

Orbit (www.orbitbooks.net)

£7.99

hrpv2The third title in the Hodderscape Review Project was Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, the first book in her Merlin Trilogy. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish it, so you won’t find a review here. The fourth title brings the series back to solid ground with Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 Hugo and Nebula winning classic The Left Hand of Darkness. Don’t forget to check out what my fellow reviewers thought over at the Review Project site.

Genly Ai is an Envoy, the First Mobile to the planet of Gethen from the Ekumen of All Worlds. He bears an invitation for the humanoid inhabitants of Gethen – known to outsiders as Winter, due to its constant arctic weather – to join this League of Worlds and share in their knowledge and resources. Greeted with mistrust by the androgynous inhabitants of Winter, Genly soon discovers that the person he least trusts is the one who has the most faith in him, and he must play a dangerous game to ensure his own survival and the future enlightenment of the people of Gethen.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that is almost 45 years old, introduces us to a far distant planet, and an alien race, through the eyes of an Earth-born human who now serves as an Envoy for a League of some 80 planets populated by human and humanoid races. When we first meet Genly Ai, he has been on Gethen/Winter for a number of years, an honoured guest of the people of Karhide. Despite the fact that he can almost pass for a native, Genly is different in at least one major way: the people of Gethen are androgynes who, once every month, choose a mate and become a member of one or the other sex for the period of their fertility. Once this short period is over, they return to their original sexless forms, unless they have been impregnated, in which case they will remain female for the duration of their pregnancy.  Genly’s constant maleness is one of the many reasons he is viewed with an element of mistrust by the natives.

While in Karhide, Genly is championed by the Prime Minister, Estraven, who, on the eve of Genly’s audience with Karhide’s King reveals that he can no longer support the Envoy. Estraven’s exile forces Genly’s own flight, first from the capital city of Erhenrang and ultimately to the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, where he will learn a valuable lesson about trust, in a series of political machinations that make George R. R. Martin’s Westeros look positively friendly.

At the centre of the novel is the question of sex, and the innate strangeness of a human race where there are no males or females. Le Guin describes many of the characters as effeminate, while using male pronouns throughout. It does take some getting used to, although it does lend the Gethenian characters more humanity than might a gender-neutral pronoun such as it. The people of Winter do not have the concept of war, and there are hints throughout that the lack of a male dominance might be behind this peacefulness. Le Guin describes other worlds as "bi-sexual" and, for this reader at least, it took some time to realise she was talking about the gender-split of the worlds’ inhabitants, rather than their sexual orientation.

As might be expected from a novel almost 45 years old there are elements which date this novel. The off-world and far future nature of the novel hides this to a certain extent, but there is always something about the language that gives away the age of a novel like this. In The Left Hand of Darkness, there is a certain quaint sexism – Genly and Estraven’s discussion about Earth’s women, and their differences to the planet’s men, for example – but it works within the context of this androgynous world. It might be interesting to see Genly’s response in a novel written in 2013, rather than one written in 1969. Perhaps more interesting, considering the novel’s vintage, is the lack of racism: Genly’s racial profile is revealed naturally, and without comment, partway through the story, and no further mention is made.

Genly’s story unfolds through a series of chapters told in the first person from Genly’s point of view, in the first person from Estraven’s point of view, and in the form of Gethenian myths and legends which serve to open Winter to the reader, and to explain the behaviour of the natives when certain events occur. This fractured narrative structure ensures that we’re never entirely sure how the story will end. With 80 worlds already part of the Ekumen, we know that Genly is not the first Envoy to set foot on an alien planet. We learn that in the long history of this Union or League, many First Mobiles have died at the hands of the natives who have felt threatened by the individuals or by what they represent. Genly’s success is by no means assured, and his survival is as delicately balanced. It’s a beautifully-constructed story that moves at a relatively sedate pace that allows us to get to know the characters and this interesting new world, while never slowing enough to leave us bored or hoping for something interesting to crop up around the corner.

A classic of the genre by one of science fiction’s greats, The Left Hand of Darkness is (shamefully) my first exposure to the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Part philosophy, part thrilling adventure (there is an ice-bound episode that might make the perfect companion for, say, Dan Simmons’ The Abominable), Le Guin gives us unparalleled world-building with unique and engaging characters who give us insight not only into this new and interesting world, but into the human condition itself. A short but unforgettable read, The Left Hand of Darkness deserves its place in the annals of science fiction, and on the shelves of anyone who calls themselves a fan of the genre.

THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY by A. A. Milne

THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY

A. A. Milne

Vintage Classics (www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/)

£7.99

Anyone who has perused Reader Dad at any point during its so-far short life could not help but notice that I like my fiction dark and, if at all possible, violent. So, it will probably come as something of a surprise (as it does to most people) that one of my favourite pieces of fiction is A. A. Milne’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s one of those strange facts of life that just can’t be explained. I was unaware, until very recently, that Milne had also dabbled in the mystery genre, having published The Red House Mystery in 1922.

The Red House of the title is a country cottage owned by Mark Ablett. As the novel opens, we find Ablett entertaining a handful of guests, among them the young Bill Beverley. At breakfast one morning, Ablett announces to his guests – as well as his cousing Cayley, who plays the roles of secretary, confidante and business advisor – that his brother, the wastrel Robert, has returned from his 15-year exile in Australia and will be visiting the Red House that very afternoon. When Robert arrives, the guests are off playing golf, and only Mark, Cayley and the servants are present in the house. A shot rings out just as Anthony Gillingham arrives to visit his friend, Beverley, and along with Cayley, he finds Robert dead, lying on the floor of the office, and Mark nowhere to be seen.

In some ways, The Red House Mystery is an homage to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Gillingham taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes to Beverley’s ever-eager Watson. As the plot unfolds and we gain more information, Gillingham walks us through a number of equally plausible theories, and we learn the secrets that the Red House holds at the same time as our amateur sleuths. In other ways, the book is a playful satire of the entire mystery genre – Bill’s boyish keenness about the matter at hand, Gillingham – a man with a photographic memory – falling accidentally into the role of sleuth, and still managing to outthink not only the murderer but the police as well – but Milne manages to avoid cliche, despite the hidden passage and an abundance, of Christie proportions, of suspects.

When the final reveal comes, it’s not entirely unexpected, and sharp-eyed readers will have picked up on the clues Milne scatters throughout the story, but it’s no less satisfying a book for that – the joy of this novel comes more from the journey than the destination, and Milne provides us with a cast of likeable characters and an interesting enough mystery to keep us entertained throughout this light and entertaining whodunit.

The only thing that disappoints about The Red House Mystery is that it was Milne’s only foray into the genre. The book earns its “classic” status, and deserves a much wider readership that it presumably enjoys (I say presumably because it’s not a book I’d heard of until recently, but maybe I’m underselling it). If you’re a fan of a good mystery novel – cosy or otherwise – that exercises, in the words of one of Gillingham’s contemporaries, “the little grey cells”, then this should be top of your list.

Once you’ve finished, give Winnie-the-Pooh a(nother) read. You’ll thank me for it.

COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY by Hans Keilson

COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY

Hans Keilson

Translated by Damion Searls (www.damionsearls.com)

Hesperus Press (www.hesperuspress.com)

£9.99

Hesperus Press are new to me. For a while now, it seems, they have been publishing long overlooked foreign fiction that has never before been translated to English, or hasn’t been available for a long time. Hans Keilson, still alive according to what I can find out about him online, at the goodly age of 101, was forced to flee from Germany to the Netherlands during WWII. He’s Jewish, which shows this short novel in a somewhat different light. Comedy in a Minor Key was originally written in 1947.

As the story opens, we find ourselves in the home of young Dutch couple Wim and Marie as a doctor examines the man who is lying dead in their guest room bed. Outside, the sounds of planes and distant explosions as allied forces make their way across the English Channel and Holland, striking out for Berlin. It is some undefined point during the Second World War. The dead man is Nico, a Jew who the couple has been hiding for the past year. As the story progresses, we get to meet Nico as he arrives, and at various points throughout his year-long stay with the couple, intertwined with the story of how Wim, Marie and the doctor plan to resolve the predicament in which they now find themselves.

By modern standards, this is quite a short novel – around 100 pages, all in, which is the perfect length for Keilson to tell the story he wishes to tell without any unnecessary padding. The characters come immediately to life (although, admittedly, it took me several chapters to come to terms with the fact that the couple at the centre of the story are in their late thirties, rather than their mid-fifties, which may be more a sign of the times than anything else), and we find ourselves immediately thrust into the centre of things. The tone of the novel, surprisingly given its subject matter, is almost light-hearted, and flashbacks give us a picture of three people who are making the best of a bad situation. Nico has his dark moments, his periods of hating Wim and Marie for their relative freedom, but he’s a realist, and knows that they are the only reason he is still alive. Meanwhile, the young couple are coming to terms with the fact that they have a stranger living upstairs, a man who, if he were found out, could be the nail in their own coffins.

It is surprising, then, that the circle of confidence grows, and more people become aware of their situation. It’s a clear indication that this is a simple tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: Wim and Marie aren’t part of any underground resistance movement, secret warriors out to subvert the tyrannical regime under which they’re forced to live; they are an ordinary couple, doing their best to help out a fellow human in dire straits because they have the means to do so.

Towards the end, the story takes a darker turn and we follow Wim and Marie, however briefly, into hell. But overall, it’s an upbeat story and everyone, the reader included, comes away feeling a little better about the world. Imagine the Diary of Anne Frank as told to Joseph Heller – there are moments of pure farce here, but also moments that remind us exactly what’s going on, and exactly what’s at stake.

A surprisingly uplifting read. Keilson gives us a real testament to man’s humanity to man in the face of so much inhumanity: this is not a true story, but it’s probably not far from the truth for many people throughout Europe in those dark days. It’s a novel that is likely to remain with me for some time to come, and one I will revisit in the future. Well done to Hesperus Press for making it available to an English-speaking audience.

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham

 

The Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham

Penguin Modern Classics (www.penguinclassics.co.uk)

£8.99

John Wyndham’s classic, post-apocalyptic novel turns 60 this year. I first read it maybe 20 years ago, because it seemed to fit in the same category as books like Robert C. O’Brien’s Z FOR ZACHARIAH and William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, both of which were on my GCSE English Literature curriculum at the time. I’ve read it a couple of times since; it’s one of those books that bears repeated visits, and I suspect I’ll visit it again in a decade or so.

The novel is told from the point of view of William Masen, a biologist who specialised in Triffids, which are used as a cost-effective and more sustainable alternative to other edible oils. When the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, Masen is laid up in hospital, temporarily blinded by a Triffid sting and as a result is unaffected by the strange blindness that strikes the vast majority of the world’s population. Emerging into an eerily quiet London, Masen begins the difficult task of finding other people, and picking up the pieces.

TRIFFIDS, despite the title, is a story about human endurance and the stupidity that oft-times overcomes us. We follow Masen and his new-found lover Josella Playton, as they move through this strange new world, becoming affiliated with groups large and small, forcibly parted and eventually reunited, and we encounter the all-too-real horrors that Wyndham has placed in their path: the plague, the violent gangs who shoot first and ask questions later, the crazy Christian fundamentalists – surely Miss Durrant is a fore-runner for Mrs Carmody in Stephen King’s novella, THE MIST – and behind it all the insidious menace of the strange plants for which the book is named.

Strangely, the Triffids seem nothing more than a mere nuisance for the vast majority of the book: 8 foot tall plants with a 10-foot long sting that can kill instantly if it strikes correctly, or often enough. Plants that can be disabled with a single well-placed shot. Masen and company have more trouble with their fellow man than with the man-eating plants whose origin no-one seems to know. But as the novel approaches its climax, the threat that the Triffids pose becomes more apparent. Here we begin to see the first traces of an intelligence that no-one, least of all our narrator, has suspected. As the remaining population begin to form small communities, and move away from the plague-ridden cities, the Triffids begin to make their move, surrounding compounds and waiting for the inevitable moment when they will overcome the man-made defences.

Sure, the language is somewhat archaic – what else should one expect from a piece written in the early 1950s – but THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS holds up well. It could have been written as recently as last year – I imagine the outcome would have been much the same: without electricity, mobile phones, the Internet, where would we be? And if none of us could see, would we fare any better against a strange and deadly life-form over whom our only advantage is sight than our 1950s counterparts?

Wyndham had a flair for these post-apocalyptic visions, and the one thing he always managed to get spot-on was the human reaction to whatever threat he put in their way. TRIFFIDS stands the test of time: 60 years old and remains one of the finest pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written. Expect it to stay with you: there is no neatly-wrapped bow on top of this package. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Wyndham shows you the horror, takes you to a point of seeming safety, the eye of the storm, and leaves you there, with the Triffids lurking just outside the safe zone, to draw your own conclusions.

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