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THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Vanessa Ronan

The Last Days of Summer THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER

Vanessa Ronan (vanessaronanbooks.com)

Penguin (www.penguin.co.uk)

£12.99

Lizzie Curtis lives with her two young daughters at the edge of a rural Texas town towards the end of the 1970s or early 1980s. Her brother has spent ten years in jail for an unspecified crime against his ex-girlfriend. His sentence served, Lizzie takes him in, because he’s family, and because he has nowhere else to go. He is befriended almost immediately upon his return home by his eleven-year-old niece, Joanne, who knows nothing of his crime. The rest of the town, Joanne’s older sister included, have not forgotten Jasper’s transgression, nor have they forgiven him. Led by Eddie Saunders, the brother of the girl Jasper attacked, the town set out to harass and ultimately kill him, but not before they hurt him through the family that has taken him back in.

It is obvious from the outset, from the moment Reverend Gordon pays a visit to Lizzie on the eve of Jasper’s return, just where Vanessa Ronan’s debut novel is headed. The surprise is not in the oft-told tale of revenge, but in how it is told, in the unexpected relationship that flares between Jasper and his niece, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who will play a central role in his “rehabilitation”. While the suspicious minds of those around them, Lizzie included, think the worst about how close the pair are, Ronan presents a close friendship that is as innocent as it is beautiful.

While the story centres on the return of Jasper to the small community from which he was exiled, Ronan presents much of it from the point of view of the women who are now part of his life: his sister Lizzie, who has had a hard life, not helped by the fact that her brother went to prison, or that her husband was driven from town because Eddie Saunders and his crew thought he had a hand in Jasper’s crime. Raising two young girls alone, she has been an outcast for several years, since the death of her mother, her last remaining tie to the town and its residents. Katie, the older of the two girls, knows enough about her uncle’s crime to believe she has an opinion on it, but her biggest source of information are the very people who have suffered most because of his actions. In many ways, Katie’s actions are driven by ignorance, and the insecurity that comes with her need to be desired by the local high-school football hero, the son of Eddie Saunders’ best friend.

Joanne, Lizzie’s youngest daughter, is the most interesting of the book’s characters and, in some ways, the most fully-formed of the lot. Which is not to say that the others are flat, but we see much more of the world through this young girl’s eyes than we do of anyone else. The picture of innocence, her desire to be close to her uncle is born of a simple wish to know this man who is of her own blood. She has a refreshing outlook on life, the kind that we outgrow as we outgrow childhood itself, and this shines through in all her actions, and all her interactions with the other characters. Her curiosity drives an intense need to understand why Uncle Jasper spent ten years in prison, even though we, the reader, know that their closeness is unlikely to survive the truth. Like a car crash happening in slow motion, The Last Days of Summer shows us, as much as anything, Joanne’s coming-of-age, her abrupt and shocking loss of innocence.

For a debut novel, The Last Days of Summer is strongly-written and excellently paced. Driven by the heat of the Texas prairie, the story moves at a snail’s pace, tension building in increments so that the climax comes almost as a relief. With a descriptive power that may be second only to the likes of James Lee Burke or Larry McMurtry, Vanessa Ronan transports us to this small Texas town and invites us to watch as the events unfold. The language, and Ronan’s ability to manipulate it, are simply stunning, the story itself at times seeming like little more than a vehicle to showcase this incredible writing talent.

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

INFLUENCES: Magic on Every Shelf by VANESSA RONAN

Vanessa Ronan Name: Vanessa Ronan

Author of: THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER (2016)

On the web: vanessaronanbooks.com

On Twitter: @vronan

To celebrate tomorrow’s launch of Vanessa Ronan’s debut novel, The Last Days of Summer, I’m very pleased to welcome the author to Reader Dad to talk about her influences as a writer.

My parents had a huge bookcase when I was little. This large, somewhat unsightly, slightly unstable-looking thing covered an entire wall. My father had built it himself, rather primitively, out of pine. Over the years, it served its purpose well enough, that bookcase. It moved to several houses with us—a clear, lasting testament in each that my father was no carpenter. Every warped shelf in it though was full. My whole life. Far back as I can remember. In fact, the bookcase was so full that that made its instability all the more frightening! Or thrilling. Depending on perspective. To me, that bookcase held magic on each shelf. I used to stand in front of it, looking up, wondering what stories on the upper shelves hid just out of sight and reach. By the time I left home, I’m pretty sure I’d read every book on those shelves…

My brother and I were home schooled all the way until college. My parents, both literature professors, placed a strong emphasis on our reading and writing from a very young age. We were taught that books were special things to be always handled with care. So, I guess it was somewhat unsurprising that my brother and I naturally gravitated more towards the literary side of our studies. Writing stories and poems was like a game for us, and we read and edited each other’s work from a very tender age. Who knows, maybe had our parents been astrophysicists or mathematicians that would have naturally turned our focus another way, but they weren’t, and in many ways it is only now as I reflect back on my early influences that I begin to fully realize just how deep an impact the classics—Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens—we were read as bedtime stories, later had on my writing career.

We moved to Mexico when I was five. A small colonial village high in the mountains of Michoacan. We had planned to live there nine months, but ended up staying two and a half years! It didn’t take long before the limited supply of children’s books my mother had brought for us to read and study ran out. With no TV, books were like films to us and we were hungry for them. That was when my mother started reading us the classics, though, as we grew, more contemporary fiction was read to us as well. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay and The Once and Future King by T H White were the first two novels I fell in love with.

Most of my favourite writers I was first introduced to in childhood, though I have reread them many times as an adult. Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo has long been one of my favourite books. Cormac McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Tony Hillerman, and Larry McMurtry are my greatest influences and have been since I was small. I love poetry and C. K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, and Franz Wright have been especially influential. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell inspired me around the time The Last Days of Summer was in its fledgling stages, while Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony gave me the courage to keep my novel without chapters. Her description of her book as ‘a single telling’ really spoke to me.

In the last few years I’ve found documentary films and documentary style reality TV programs increasingly inspirational, and they have definitely had an influence on my writing. They are a brilliant resource for character research and development. Seeing different ways of life on the fringes of society away and aside from the mainstream has been my current fascination.

My writing has been described as “dark.” I think that surprises a lot of people who know me. I’m a pretty happy person. I smile a lot. Believe in good karma. But I happen to like dark stories, too. That bit of mystery. Bit of grit. I was raised on the original Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. Frankenstein and Dracula and The Shining were all bedtime stories before I was nine. Those early dark influences seem to have had a long-lasting reach…

It’s funny though, when I think back on my influences, I picture so many of those books that first inspired me where they sat on that bookcase my parents had. The pine one I mentioned before, so laden with books it looked about to keel over. I can see again the lines down their cracked spines. I can smell them. And it’s like I am a little girl again, standing there, looking up, just waiting for all the stories to rain down.

FINAL blog tour asset1

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne

THE  BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN - John Boyne THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

It is 1936 and seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his French mother, his German father having drunk himself into an early grave several years before. His best friend is Anshel Bronstein, a deaf Jewish child who lives on the ground floor of his apartment building. When Pierrot’s mother dies, his father’s sister takes him in, and brings him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is a housekeeper, and the house where she works is perched atop a mountain on the German-Austrian border, close to the small town of Berchtesgaden; this is the Berghof, and the master of the house is none other than the man who will soon become Führer of the Third Reich. Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot soon rediscovers his German heritage, but finds that his newfound power comes at terrible cost.

Almost ten years after the phenomenal The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne returns to the subject of World War II as seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy. While both the title and cover of this latest story are both very reminiscent of that earlier volume, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a very different beast, though one that, ultimately, examines the same core question – “nature or nurture?” – through a very different lens.

We see the world through the young and innocent eyes of Pierrot, though the third-person narrative allows the narrator to impart secrets to the reader that might otherwise be beyond the youngster’s comprehension. Precocious and likeable, we feel a blow at the death of his mother, and are glad when he finds a place at a small family-run orphanage where we get the sense that he will be well looked after. When his aunt brings him to live with her, we watch and understand Pierrot’s apprehension while at the same time feeling joy that he still has family who want to do their best by him. It is a joy that is short-lived, when we discover exactly where he is going.

For the most part, Boyne paints a very human picture of Hitler, a man with much on his mind for whom this young boy is excellent company. There are moments when the evil peeks out from under the mask, and even the most jaded reader will feel a chill as we see the monster within. As Pierrot – now Pieter – grows closer to Hitler, his relationship with his aunt, and with the house’s other servants grows ever more distant. We watch as Pierrot changes – first forgetting his Parisian roots and his friendship with Anshel, then alienating himself from what few friends he has been able to make at the school in Berchtesgaden, and from the people with whom he shares the house, even when the master is not in residence – and the change becomes most marked when Hitler presents him with a gift almost a year after he first arrives: his own Hitler Youth uniform, which bestows upon him a sense of belonging, and of power, that has long been missing from his life. There comes a point in the novel, a moment of shocking betrayal, where we witness the boy’s transformation into early manhood:

It was Pierrot who climbed out of bed that morning, but it was Pieter who returned to it now before falling soundly asleep.

As we have come to expect from the works of John Boyne, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is beautifully-written and well-researched. His evocation of the Berghof is enough to transport the reader to the Obersalzburg, and his characters are as full of life as any he has created. While it lacks the emotional kick in the gut that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides, it is no less intense an experience. (Regular readers will be pleased with the brief crossover between the two books, as Pierrot and Bruno come face-to-face at Mannheim train station.) It’s an engaging – and all-too-short – look at Pierrot’s journey to the very brink of evil, but it is also, at least indirectly, a very frightening examination of Hitler’s fabled charisma, and goes some way towards trying to explain how so many people might have been talked into doing so many bad things in the name of furthering the Reich, not least the once – and potential future – King of England who turns up with Mrs Wallis Simpson on his arm for a weekend retreat with the Führer. What is perhaps most frightening about the experience is how Boyne plays on our own feelings about this man, presenting him in a different light that contradicts everything we think we know.

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen

I AM RADAR - Reif Larsen I AM RADAR

Reif Larsen (reiflarsen.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)

£16.99

In April 1975, in New Jersey, Radar Radmanovic is born, a black child with white parents. While his father, Kermin, accepts the child’s “condition”, his mother, Charlene, is driven to discover some kind of cure. Her search leads the family to northern Norway and the mysterious Kirkenesferda, a group of puppeteers and scientists who claim to have some way of changing Radar’s skin colour. Thirty-five years later, a massive electromagnetic pulse plunges Kearney, New Jersey into darkness. Radar Radmanovic, now an engineer for a local radio station, races home to discover that his father has disappeared and may well have caused the pulse. When he tries to find his father, he discovers the remnants of Kirkenesferda, of which Kermin has been a member for over thirty years, as they prepare to depart the US to put on one of their mysterious shows. Drawn in by the mystery and the sense that he may be the only man who can fill Kermin’s shoes, Radar finds himself on a boat bound for the Congo, and the truth about who he actually is.

It has been a long wait for Reif Larsen’s second novel, whose 2009 debut The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet remains one of the most beautiful and engaging books ever produced. I Am Radar is very different in both tone and design, falling more into the realms of Neal Stephenson or Nick Harkaway than his first novel did, but still retaining some of the unique design elements for which T.S. Spivet’s journey will be remembered.

Ostensibly the story of Radar Radmanovic, a black child born to a white American mother and a white ex-patriot Serb in early 1975, it soon becomes clear that this novel has a much wider subject than the eponymous “hero”. I Am Radar gives us brief glimpses of Radar’s life: the first four or five years, and then the period thirty years later when his relationship with the enigmatic Kirkenesferda is rekindled. Interspersed with these stories are others: the story of Miroslav Danilović, who grew up during the terrible disintegration of Yugoslavia, and who would eventually become the core member of Kirkenesferda known as Otik Mirosavic; and the tale of Raksmey Raksmey, a foundling who would be present at Kirkenesferda’s disastrous Cambodian event and play an important part in the continued survival of the group. Threaded through these stories is the history of Kirkenesferda itself, the Røed-Larsen family and the seemingly well-informed book, Spesielle Partikler. In short, the scope of I Am Radar is vast, in terms of time, space and ambition.

Despite the book’s size, and the vast scope it contains, I Am Radar is one of the most engaging reads you’ll encounter in recent years. The central characters are, despite the often ridiculous scenarios in which they find themselves, well-drawn and reasonable people. The book’s opening section, describing the first four years of Radar’s life, sets the tone for the novel as a whole: here is the full range of human emotions laid bare on the page. There are hints of genius here, much of it original, some of it borrowed: Radar comes into ownership of his name in much the same way that Joseph Heller’s Major Major did – through the machinations of an over-enthusiastic father taking advantage of an overwhelmed mother’s mental state.

Kirkenesferda becomes the novel’s focus for much of the second half, yet they remain as mysterious at the book’s end as they were at its beginning. They are a group of puppeteers and scientists who perform shows for no audience, in the most bleak and remote areas on the planet. There is plenty of science behind their existence, behind the spectacles that they create, but Larsen does not dwell on the details, but rather uses external material – excerpts from books, photographs, newspaper clippings – to reinforce the novel’s reality for the reader. Like T. S. Spivet, in which drawings and margin notes form an integral part of the story, I Am Radar takes frequent breaks from the expected linear approach to storytelling to provide the reader with something a bit different, something that adds an extra dimension to the story above and beyond what the author’s words can provide. Also like his earlier novel, Morse Code plays a part in the proceedings, and its integration into the narrative – often overlaid with a visual representation of a drumbeat – is a beauty to behold.

Aside from the science, one of the novel’s main themes is that of war, and Larsen focuses on a number of modern-day conflicts as the interlinked stories of Radar and Kirkenesferda play out: first, the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s, as a backdrop to Miroslav’s young adulthood; second, the Cambodian civil war, and the role played by the Khmer Rouge, during the late 1960s and 1970s, as a backdrop for the differences in Kirkenesferda between our first meeting in 1979, and the group’s incarnation in 2010. Larsen pulls no punches in either case, and plunges the reader into the middle of the respective conflict, showing the horror of war from the point of view of the people closest to it.

Apart from the fact that Radar Radmanovic is in his mid-thirties by the time I Am Radar ends, there is a distinct feeling that the novel is a kind of coming-of-age story. Maybe “voyage of self-discovery” would be more appropriate, but it is difficult to get away from that sensation. Perhaps it is Radar’s childlike innocence when we reconnect with him in 2010, but it feels that we are watching his transition from boy to man, rather than the so-called eye-opening that a mature adult would experience. In many ways, Radar Radmanovic is a negative image of young T. S. Spivet, that young boy who was much too old before his time.

There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker

Harry Quebert THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR

Joël Dicker (joeldicker.com)

Translated by Sam Taylor

Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£20.00

Late in the summer of 1975, Nola Kellergan disappeared from the small seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire. Almost thirty-three years later, her body is found buried on Harry Quebert’s land, along with the original manuscript of the novel that made him famous. Arrested as a suspect, Quebert admits to having an affair with the fifteen-year-old girl that summer of 1975. His student and protégé, Marcus Goldman, struggling to begin his own second novel following the runaway success of his debut, heads to Somerset to prove his old teacher’s innocence. The more he digs, the more complicated the case becomes, and it soon becomes clear that Harry Quebert may not have been the only older man in Somerset with whom Nola was having an affair. Battling against looming deadlines, and the barriers thrown up by the tight-knit community of Somerset, Marcus must get to the bottom the mystery if he is to return his mentor to his rightful place as America’s finest novelist, and ensure his own career doesn’t end up in the toilet.

Every once in a while, a novel comes along that completely redefines how we look at fiction. I’m thinking of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While much less experimental – in terms of structure, at least – than both those titles, Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is most definitely one of those books. The Great American Novel, as imagined by a Swiss writer, it’s a pitch-perfect rendition of American life – both on the small-scale, small-town level, and on the larger-scale, country-wide view – with a wonderfully twisted mystery at its core.

Constructed around Harry Quebert’s rules for writing, the story is told by young Marcus Goldman, whose first novel brought him phenomenal success, and who is now struggling to put the opening of his second contracted novel on paper, much less have it finished within the next two or three months. Goldman discovers Harry’s relationship with 15-year-old Nola shortly before her body is found, and is convinced of his old mentor’s innocence from the outset. To help Harry out, and to escape the looming deadline and the threat of court action that missing it entails, Goldman heads to the small New Hampshire town that Harry calls home to start his own investigation, something that initially doesn’t go down well with Sergeant Perry Gahalowood, the State Policeman in charge of the official investigation. As their respective investigations progress, it becomes obvious very quickly that the story behind Nola’s disappearance is not quite as straightforward as it would, at first, appear. Of one thing, Marcus has no doubt: Harry and Nola were deeply in love, and were due to flee together to Canada on the night she disappeared. As one twist follows closely on the heels of another, Goldman and Gahalowood pool their resources in the hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery.

There is beauty on almost every page of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. Goldman’s voice, that of a small-town Jew turned New York hipster, is spot on, and he is the perfect guide through the town of Somerset, both in the present day, and during that summer of 1975 when Harry Quebert was trying to write his own second novel while falling in love with a 15-year-old girl. The parallels between Harry in 1975 and Marcus in 2008 are unmistakeable, and in both cases, the young Nola is the muse that can propel them to stardom.

Dicker’s strengths lie in his understanding of the American psyche, and his ear for dialogue which, considering the book was written originally in French, is remarkably close to the real thing. When Harry is arrested, it isn’t the fact that he may have murdered a young girl that scandalises the nation, but the fact that he may have slept with her (something that is never explicitly implied within the pages of the book). It is only after this revelation that Harry becomes a pariah, his books pulled from the shelves of bookstores, and from the syllabi of schools, across the nation. Harry Quebert, whether found guilty or not by a jury of his peers, will forever be tainted by this moment in his history.

a is a monster of a book, but Dicker’s writing style pulls the reader along at a rapid clip. The bulk of what we find out, we do so from the dialogue – Marcus’ conversations with Harry, and with the residents of Somerset; his conversations with Perry Gahalowood, and in the flashbacks to 1975 where we watch the carefully choreographed dance that will ultimately entwine the future of Harry Quebert with that of Nola Kellergan. The dialogue is wonderful and, as well as imparting information, gives Dicker the chance to inject some wit and levity into what is part tense mystery, part tale of deep and passionate love. This is especially so during conversations with Marcus’ mother (the stereotypical Jewish American mother):

[After trying to convince his mother that the man in his hotel room is Sergeant Gahalowood, and that he is not naked]
"Markie, in the name of your ancestors who fled the pogroms and for the love of your sweet mother, chase that naked man out of your room."

Or with Roy Barnaski, his abrasive publisher, whose unique view on the world, and eagerness to foist a team of ghost writers on Marcus do nothing to promote the world of publishing:

"Goldman, I paid you two million dollars for this fucking book, so it would be nice if you could be a little more cooperative. If I think you need help from my writers, just fucking use them!"

And especially in the wonderful scenes with Gahalowood, a man who, for me at least, will always speak in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.

"The thing is, Sergeant, I’m running an investigation too," I told him very seriously. "Tell me what you know about the case."
He laughed again.
"I don’t believe this. You’re running an investigation? That’s a new one. You owe me fifteen dollars, by the way."
"Why?"
"That’s what I paid for your book. I read it last year. A very bad book. Probably the worst I’ve read in my entire life. I would like to be reimbursed."

With the beauty of Dicker’s writing – and due credit needs to be given here to the very talented Sam Taylor, whose translation from the French is what makes this wonder sing for the English-speaking audience – it’s easy to get lost in the world of Somerset and forget that there is a murder to solve. Dicker uses this to his best advantage, sometimes throwing a revelation – or a new body – at us when we least expect it. Like the finest mysteries, the strength of the one at the heart of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair lies in the author’s ability to misdirect the reader – and the protagonist – without ever cheating us, or hiding clues from us, in the process. Each resolution seems as plausible as the one before, until some new piece of evidence comes to light. The final twist, that moment of elegant reveal for which every fan of crime fiction yearns, sees all the pieces fall into place, finally putting the reader on level footing with the author when it’s too late to cry "I saw that coming!".

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.

LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes

LOOK WHOS BACK - Timur Vermes LOOK WHO’S BACK

Timur Vermes

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£15.00

Adolf Hitler opens his eyes to find himself lying in the middle of a piece of waste ground in Berlin. The last few days – his final days in the Bunker – are a blur and it doesn’t take long for Hitler to realise that it is no longer April 1945, but the end of August 2011. Assumed to be a particularly good imitator who refuses to break character, Hitler gets a slot on a popular comedian’s show and his rants soon go viral on the Internet. It isn’t long before Hitler is more popular than he ever was at the height of his power, and he begins to plan, once more, for Germany’s future.

Timur Vermes’ highly satirical novel, Look Who’s Back, puts us firmly in the head of Adolf Hitler as he awakens in the 21st Century, unable to explain his long absence or the fact that he is still fifty-six years old despite almost seventy years having passed. Told in the first person by Hitler himself, we discover our own world afresh through the eyes of a man whose last memory prior to waking up is of his time in the Bunker in late April 1945. Vermes holds a mirror up to the modern world, and the reflection we see is far from flattering, as evidenced, for example, by this beautifully-written rant about the state of television programmes which, for me, hits the spot perfectly:

Practically deadened, I switch back to the rotund woman. Since my last visit [a matter of moments earlier] her adventure-filled life had been interrupted by a programme of advertisements, the end of which I just caught. Then the narrator insisted on explaining to me for the umpteenth time that this wretched bint had lost all control over her bastard halfwit excuse for a daughter, and all she had managed to accomplish in the last half-hour was to prattle on to a chain-smoking neighbour about throwing the little cretin out. “This entire coterie of hopeless cases belongs in a labour camp,” I declared vociferously to the television set.

What’s most interesting about this incredibly astute look at our modern world is how plausible it is. Not in the time travel/Hitler coming back from the dead aspect, of course, but in the novel’s key messages. Hitler is astounded – as is this reader – by how few people recognise him, most of the youth referring to him as Herr Stromberg. Our "hero", of course, is expecting immediate recognition and respect. Is he not, after all, the Führer of the Third Reich? It’s this lack of recognition, and the instant hit that this madman becomes, despite (or possibly because of) his racist and objectionable rants, that strikes the most fear into the reader. People can’t quite work out whether to take the whole thing as a joke and laugh (he is, after all, on a comedy show), or be offended by his rhetoric. Vermes’ message seems to be crystal clear here: we cannot learn from the past if we have forgotten what happened. While Hitler himself may never come back, someone with the same ideals, the same notion of how the world should be and – let’s face it – the same level of charisma, could easily rise to notoriety (in the good, "loved by the people", sense of the word) in this technologically advanced age where broadcasting is no longer limited to a few thousand people who can afford a wireless, or a television set. We are a gullible lot: if the TV or whichever tabloid newspaper we happen to pick up says it’s true, then it must be true. We’re obsessed with celebrity, and we form cults and shrines to the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most controversial, the most whatever people in the spotlight, and by doing so, we give them the power to pursue their own agenda and, quite literally in some cases, get away with murder.

With his choice of central character, Timur Vermes may well have found himself skating on very thin ice. How do you write Hitler and make him sympathetic enough to carry the reader for almost 400 pages? Somehow, he manages it, and we find ourselves fully engaged from the first page to the last. There is no doubt about it: monster or not, Hitler was a man of considerable charisma, and Vermes captures this side of him perfectly. Amongst the rants and the anti-Semitism (corralled somewhat by the brilliantly effective "the Jews are not a laughing matter"), there are moments of pure beauty that make us, if not forget, then at least put to the back of our minds, the terrible things of which this man has proven himself capable. Witness the fondness he feels for his typist, and the joy he feels when he realises that she and Hotel Reserver Sawatzki have become more than just colleagues.

From the outset, Look Who’s Back is a comedy of errors and misunderstanding, often with flabbergasting results. For example, the final word in the production meeting which sees Hitler secure his slot on Ali Gagmez’s popular show:

"There’s just one thing I want to get straight," Frau Bellini said, suddenly looking at me very seriously.
"What is that?"
"We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter."
"You are absolutely right," I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.

These misunderstandings serve to cement Hitler’s position, in his own mind at least, as a man on the rise, heading back in the direction of leadership and the fulfilment of his destiny, while meaning something entirely different to the person on the other end of the conversation. The net effect of this is that the reader is left feeling distinctly uncomfortable: there is more than a remote possibility that Hitler could come back to power because someone has inadvertently handed him the reins, believing him to be a harmless impersonator.

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

THE INVESTIGATION by Jung-Myung Lee

THE INVESTIGATION - Jung-Myung Lee THE INVESTIGATION

Jung-Myung Lee

Translated by Chi-Young Kim (www.chiyoungkim.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Fukuoka Prison, shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, is used for the incarceration of, amongst others, dissidents and those of anti-Japanese tendencies. For the most part , these people are Koreans, a race whose language has been outlawed and whose culture is slowly being eradicated by their Japanese oppressors. Inside the prison, Sugiyama Dozan, a guard known for his cruelty, has been brutally murdered. Watanabe Yuichi, a young conscript, has been tasked with investigating his death, and with taking over Sugiyama’s role of prison censor. Watanabe’s investigation brings him into contact with the Korean prisoners, Japanese guards, and the medical staff at the attached hospital facility. The picture of Sugiyama that begins to emerge is at odds with the guard’s public persona, and leads the young man to rethink not only what he thought he knew about his older colleague, but what he thought he knew about the workings of Fukuoka prison.

The murder and the ensuing mystery at the centre of Jung-Myung Lee’s beautiful novel is, seemingly, nothing more than window dressing, a pretext used by the author to allow us entry to this closed-off world in the midst of wartime Japan. As the novel progresses, the murder of the older guard – a man who has access to all mail and documentation moving in and out of the prison – takes on a greater importance, but the story of the three men at the centre of this extraordinary tale – a Korean poet, and two Japanese prison guards, one dead, the other tasked with investigating his murder – is what grabs the imagination of the reader, and keeps us turning the pages.

There are already comparisons with the like a Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind (the literary elements) and Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (for more obvious reasons). The book also has more tangential similarities to the likes of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet, it retains a sense of freshness (perhaps due to the setting and cultures involved, which are somewhat alien to many European readers) and Lee manages to surprise and delight as he weaves a tale based on the life of one of Korea’s best-known poets.

Like Shawshank  ("I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope."), The Investigation is a story about hope in the least likely of situations. As Watanabe’s investigation into the death of Sugiyama proceeds we begin to see deep into the older man’s psyche (even breaking away from the first-person narrative in which the bulk of the story is told to give us a closer insight into Sugiyama’s final months). He is affected by "culture" – the music of the piano that he helps to tune, the poetry of Yun Dong-ju, the writings of the various prohibited books that he keeps in his office in preparation for incineration as part of his duties as censor. This is a picture completely at odds with what we’ve already learned about this man, who issues brutal beatings to the Korean prisoners under his command, enforcing long periods in solitary confinement. Understanding dawns as the novel continues, and it becomes clear that the public persona is nothing more than a mask that conceals who Sugiyama truly is.

The Investigation is the story of two different men – the older Sugiyama and the teenage Watanabe – whose lives run in parallel from the moment Watanabe is chosen by the prison warden to investigate the older man’s murder. Watanabe’s life – the relationship he develops with Yun Dong-ju, the impact the Korean’s poetry has on him – is an echo of that already lived by Sugiyama. There are some beautiful touches here: the kites, for example, which allow the prisoners to feel a kind of vicarious freedom as they fly high above the prison walls take on a whole new meaning when we discover what they contain, and the strange friendship they have facilitated between those inside the walls, and a young girl who lives outside.

The novel also shines a light on the Japanese nation through the filter of one of its most notorious prisons. The spotlight here is on the oppression of the Korean nation, which was on-going long before the outbreak of the Second World War. These are a people whose language has been outlawed and who are branded as radicals and rebels at the slightest provocation. This is demonstrated in Yun Dong-ju’s enforced change of name to the Japanese Hiranuma, and his further dehumanisation as Prisoner 645. But there is always hope, and it often comes in the form of literature, something that plays a major part in the lives of all of the protagonists, from the poet and student Dong-ju, to Watanabe, who spent the majority of his formative years in his family’s second-hand bookshop, an experience that has obviously had an impact in shaping the man he now is.

My heart leapt with joy. I wanted to be even more like the bookworms – to be born in books, live among them, and die in a library.

Based on a true story, The Investigation is a beautiful, and often heart-breaking novel of despair and the hope that ideas and imagination can bring. A literary masterpiece masquerading as a mystery novel (something else is shares with Eco’s The Name of the Rose), it gives us a brief glimpse of hell before showing us the beauty in the everyday. It may well be my own inability to parse verse, but I feel that Yun Dong-ju’s poetry – which is scattered liberally throughout the book – loses something in translation, but this is a minor niggle that shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the story as a whole. Slow to start, The Investigation is worth sticking with until it hits its stride, at which point it becomes impossible to put down. Jung-Myung Lee is, by all accounts, a bestseller in his native Korea. The Investigation shows that his work has international appeal. If you’ve enjoyed any of the novels that have been mentioned in this review – or indeed, the excellent films that have been produced from them – then this is a book not to be missed.

THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton

THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER - Brian Payton THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER

Brian Payton (brianpayton.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

John Easley, a reporter for the National Geographic is ejected – along with every other journalist in the region – from the Aleutian Islands when the Japanese make their first incursion onto American soil. When his brother, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, is later shot down over the English Channel, John’s grief leads him to the decision that the people of America deserve to know the truth about what is happening in the Aleutians. Sneaking into Alaska and thence onto the archipelago, John finds himself stranded on the island of Attu when the plane he is on is shot down by the occupying forces. Given the choice between survival in this barren land or torture at the hands of the Chinese, John decides to take his chance with the elements. Back in his home town of Seattle, his wife, Helen, is beginning to worry about his silence, and about their parting words on the night he left to return to Alaska. Signing up with a USO troop, Helen leaves everything behind – including her ailing father – to go in search of her missing husband, convinced that he needs her help.

When Brian Payton’s The Wind Is Not a River opens, we find John Easley waking from unconsciousness following his parachute jump from a fatally-wounded plane. His knowledge of the chain, and the proximity of Japanese anti-aircraft fire lead him quickly to understand that he has found himself on Attu, one of the few islands in the long chain that is known to be occupied by enemy forces. Forced to remain on the beach where he has awakened in order to avoid the attention of the small army that is just over the ridge, he sets up camp in a small cave, the limited supply of driftwood his only source of fuel and the mussels and slower seabirds his only source of sustenance. This is a barren land, and Payton goes to great lengths to ensure that we are aware of  just how much trouble Easley is likely to be in this little-known part of the world: the lack of food, the less-than-clement weather, the lack of wood for burning.

"You’ll be attracting plenty of attention," Cooper observes [to John’s wife, Helen]. "We have a saying out here: ‘There’s a woman hiding behind every tree in the Aleutian Islands.’"

When John discovers a tea tin buried at the edge of the beach containing all the worldly possessions of a young native woman called Tatiana, along with a letter to her lover, John finds himself falling love with this person he has never met, while all the time wondering what has become of her and the people with whom she shared the small village now occupied by the Japanese. It is the thought of Tatiana, rather than his wife, that keeps him going through his darkest hours, and yet there can be no doubt that this man loves the woman he has left behind in Seattle. The letter in the tin contains the line that gives the novel its title, and its meaning – when John finally works it out – comes as something of a revelation that puts the entire situation into some kind of perspective.

But the story of John is only half the tale told in this remarkable novel. Alternate chapters are told from the point of view of Helen, and we follow her as she decides to leave her home and her ill father behind to go off in search of her missing husband. There is something deeply touching, irredeemably romantic, in this gesture and, despite the long shot we know Helen is taking, we can’t help but wish her luck and hope that the two lonely protagonists at the centre of this beautiful tale do finally connect. With the help of a USO troop, and a doctored CV, Helen finds herself heading to Alaska and points beyond not only at no cost to herself, but with the full blessing and protection of the United States military. Determined to speak to as many people – both on and off the military bases she will be visiting – as she can in the short time she has available, Helen’s determination to find her husband is matched only by her husband’s determination to stay alive and out of the hands of the Japanese.

Brian Payton centres his story in one of the most remote locations on the planet – the beautiful but desolate chain of islands that almost joins Alaska with Russia – during one of the least known battles of the Pacific Theatre. Combining the cruelties of war – and, as history has shown, there were few more cruel than the Japanese military – with the cruelties of nature, the author presents a story that is as stark and beautiful as the landscape in which it is set.

"This is how they fight." The staff sergeant points at the gruesome sight. "First, they kill their own wounded before coming after ours. Kill the helpless men, then blow themselves to smithereens. This is the value they place on human life. Even their own. Where’s the honour in that?"

The third-person narrative means that nothing is predictable, nothing certain. The ending, when it comes, is handled perfectly despite being absolutely devastating (make sure you have some tissues handy), and the story throughout is intimate, touching and, often, more than a little playful.

Together they tried pitching stones baseball-style at gulls and puffins.  The boy had superior accuracy, owing to his American childhood. Easley grew up playing hockey, a sport with no obvious correlation to hunting, unless they were hunting dark mice scurrying across a frozen pond.

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL by Stephen Collins

gigantic-beard-that-was-evil-stephen-collins THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL

Stephen Collins (www.stephencollinsillustration.com)

Jonathan Cape (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/jonathan-cape)

£16.99

The island of Here is a place where order reigns supreme. ‘Tidy’ is the watchword, and everything follows pre-defined patterns, and no-one stands out. Across the sea is There, the complete opposite to Here, a place where chaos rules and nothing is ever as it should be. At least, that’s what the inhabitants of Here believe, since anyone who has ever gone to There has never returned to tell their tale. Dave lives in a small house – exactly like every other house on his street – on the edge of Here. He has a tidy, ordered life: gets up at the same time every morning, follows the same route to work, performs the same tasks – analysing the same, unsurprising figures – and eats the same lunch from the same fast-food place, all the while listening to the same song – The Bangles’ Eternal Flame – over and over on constant repeat. Dave is completely bald, except for the single stubborn hair under his nose. A hair that one day grows into a giant beard that Dave cannot get rid of, throwing his life into chaos, and inherently changing the nature of Here.

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The Gigantic Beard that was Evil tracks Dave’s transformation from "everyman" to individual, a transformation that, however unwelcome, will change Dave’s outlook on life, and those of his neighbours and fellow islanders. It’s a beautifully-told story that follows a simple, linear progression from the daily grind to the freedom that we all, at some stage, wish for ourselves. Dave finds himself dreaming of There, nightmares that frighten the sheep that life in Here has made him, but which appeal to him nonetheless.

Stephen Collins has used the perfect medium to tell his story. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words never applied more than to this wonderful and touching tale. Simple, monochromatic, pencil-like drawings, which tie in quite nicely with Dave’s own pencil sketches, and almost childlike lettering, combined with a rhythmic, rhyming narrative make this a single-sitting, and completely engrossing, read; though be warned: there is more here than can be appreciated in a single sitting. While you’ll grasp the story, and enjoy Dave’s journey, many of the nuances and deeper meanings will require more in-depth examination, on a more leisurely second or third pass.

The light-hearted, almost comical, feel of the novel disguises the fact that Collins is addressing important issues: the fear of the unknown, of anything that doesn’t conform to our own view – by its very nature, limited – of what is normal and what is not. But it also looks at how attitudes change, how quickly the human race adapts and accepts. Dave loses his job (untidiness is not acceptable at the generic company where he works), finds himself unable to buy food ("no shirt, no shoes, no service" taken to the extreme), and ultimately restricts himself to his home where the gigantic beard spreading out across the neighbouring area becomes something of a tourist attraction. Things start to change in Here: streets become impassable, so people’s morning routines are upset, but a different route to work isn’t necessarily the end of the world. As always, there are the voices of dissent, people for whom the beard is a step too far, who call for Dave’s banishment from the island, unaware of the wider changes that are going on around them.

When the hairdressers are called in to try and tame the beard, to keep it from completely overrunning the island, the other inhabitants of Here find that their own tidiness is suspect: how does one get a haircut when the entire population of hairdressers has a new full-time job? Dave’s surge towards individuality (intended or not) has a knock-on impact on those around him, either because it is inevitable or, perhaps, because people see that different isn’t necessarily so bad, and acceptance leads to experimentation.

There is a surreal quality to The Gigantic Beard that was Evil that works well in the sequential art form. But the story is never less than engaging, the down-to-earth Dave a character with whom we can all identify to some degree or other (witness the repeated series of panels that show Dave’s daily trudge from front-door to office desk, a journey that will be eerily familiar to most of us). The beard as metaphor for chaos is perfect, and Collins uses a swirling, hair-like motif to identify There throughout the book.

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Beautifully-written, beautifully-illustrated and in a beautifully-presented package from Jonathan Cape, Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is a masterpiece, a work that deserves a place amongst the finest graphic novels ever produced. Don’t let the "graphic" aspect put you off this one; it’s as in-depth, intelligent and entertaining as any work of prose, and has the added benefit of making you want to go back and start again once you’ve reached the end. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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