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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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RAGDOLL by Daniel Cole

Ragdoll - Daniel Cole RAGDOLL

Daniel Cole

Trapeze (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

One body, six victims, body parts sewn together and strung from the ceiling of a London flat like a puppet. Immediately christened the Ragdoll Killer by the press, it is up to Detective Sergeant William Fawkes and his team at New Scotland Yard to identify the constituent parts. When Fawkes’ journalist ex-wife receives a list of six more people who are going to die – a list that includes Fawkes himself – the connection to the Cremation Killer, the case that made Fawkes a household name, is immediately obvious. But as Fawkes’ appointment with death approaches, the team must look to his past for answers and what they find there might not be what they expected.

Daniel Cole’s debut novel opens with a brief glimpse at the case that made William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, famous, and which also shaped the man he has become four years later. As a result, the reader goes into the main storyline with their eyes wide open, Wolf’s questionable approach to policing promising an intriguing investigation. Intriguing it most certainly is, and from the point that that opening courtroom scene fades to black, Ragdoll is the type of book that is almost impossible to put down.

There are many points that set Ragdoll apart from your average serial killer thriller, the dark central character and the rich vein of comedy being two of the most obvious. A cross between Boris Starling’s Messiah and Sky’s “A Touch of Cloth”, Cole manages to combine the best parts of both into something completely new and fresh. From the outset, it’s clear that the comedy won’t get in the way of an intense story, as it so often can. Ragdoll is gruesome and frightening, a real sense of menace plaguing the reader through its pages. The murders are startlingly original, usually completely unexpected and constructed in such a way that even the comic moments don’t relieve the tension.

The central cast of characters are memorable and go a long way towards making the reader feel comfortable in this world, drawing us completely into the story and, in many ways, giving us a stake in the outcome. From Wolf, damaged and downtrodden to smart-mouthed Baxter, a confident woman making a man’s world her own, and Edmunds, young and new to the squad, smart and keen to learn, despite the constant haranguing from more senior colleagues. Around this core are a set of lesser characters, no less well-developed: Finlay Shaw, a couple of years from retirement, with no desire to make any big splashes; Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea Hall, a bloodthirsty journalist who will do anything to be first with the story, regardless of what danger it places people in; and Elijah Reid, her Piers Morgan-like editor-in-chief, a man with no moral compass for whom nothing is too sensationalist.

This is an old-fashioned serial killer story where the reader is kept as much in the dark as the detectives. Nothing is told from the killer’s point of view, so Cole plays the motives close to the chest until the novel hits the three-quarters mark, at which point everything kicks into high gear. In many ways its adherence to the tried and trusted formula makes it feel fresh and new again, the power of the novel in the story itself, not in the ways in which it attempts to subvert the genre. While the comedy sometimes feels forced (although my own personal preference is to avoid outright humour, because what works for one person is likely to fall flat on its face for many others), it is never overplayed to the point that it feels annoying. For the most part, it’s a natural comic feeling, stemming from the characters themselves, much of it the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to expect from crime fiction.

Ragdoll started life as a pitch for a television show, and its origins are plain to see. There is a very cinematic feel to the story which, coupled with a sense that something is always happening somewhere in earshot, gives Cole a very distinctive voice. One of the most interesting aspects of his debut is the sense that we have walked into the middle of someone else’s life: there are no introductions, little in the way of backstory on any but the central characters, leaving us with a sense that these people have known each other for a long time, and that we’ve stepped into their lives for a very brief moment to watch one specific episode. So well is this managed that for one brief moment, I had to check that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series. It’s disconcerting, but it is a mark of the author’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to slow the story down to introduce us to the players.

Dark, funny, gripping. There is no easy way to sum up Ragdoll, except to say that it is an excellent debut, an accomplished and satisfying story that immediately boosts Daniel Cole into the ranks of “must-read”. With compelling characters and a story that grips from the outset, Ragdoll is guaranteed to be one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, and Daniel Cole a name we’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more of in the near future.

RAGDOLL Blog Tour Poster

SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

The Best Writers Are Onion Peelers by MICHAEL GROTHAUS

Mike_portraits_22Apr16-1 Name: MICHAEL GROTHAUS

Author of: EPIPHANY JONES (2016)

On the web: www.michaelgrothaus.com

On Twitter: @michaelgrothaus

Epiphany Jones, I’ve been told, is hard to categorize. When I ask people who have read it what kind of book they think it is they’ve replied “psychological thriller”, “literary fiction”, “crime”, “social satire”, “dark comedy”, “transgressive fiction”, and “a redemption story”.

Indeed, the story has elements of all those classifications: a page-turning plot (thriller) featuring a narrator named Jerry who is the personification of our society’s addiction to celebrity and sex (literary fiction, social satire). Jerry lives an isolating life (transgressive fiction) because he suffers from psychotic delusions—he sees people who don’t really exist (psychological thriller, dark comedy). When Jerry is framed for the murder of a colleague and theft of a Van Gogh painting (crime) by a woman who believes she talks to God, his life goes from bad to worse as he becomes entangled in this woman’s war with a sex trafficking ring that caters to the Hollywood elite–one that has links to his past Jerry could never have imagined (redemption story).

So yes, all of the classifications above are right. Epiphany Jones is a novel that explores the horrors of sex trafficking, isolation, and addiction on many different levels. In that way, it’s like an onion: peel back one layer only to find another. And for me, as a reader, the best books have always been onions and, as a writer, the novelists that have most influenced me are the ones who know how to peel those layers back. When I think of good “onion peelers” who have influenced my writing I think of a handful of novelists over the last 90 years whose stories work on so many different levels.

The most recent is Alex Garland, the British novelist who gave us The Beach. On first glance it’s a fun travel yarn–the story of Richard who leaves the UK to go off to have a fun holiday abroad. Peel back a layer, however, and the story becomes a commentary on the effects of mass media from the 90s. Peel back another layer and the story shifts to an examination of the animalistic nature that lies in all of us, and easily arises again soon after societal constrains are stripped away. And all of this is packaged in a page-turning thriller.

Almost a decade before Garland wrote The Beach, the Scottish novelist and journalist Gilbert Adair published a little-known novel called The Holy Innocents (the book is perhaps better known by the title given to it after it was made into a movie–The Dreamers). This is another onion. On the surface it’s a psychological drama about an American student’s adventure overseas studying in France–a story about both his cultural and sexual awakenings. Peel that layer back, and the same story is about the power of film and art to stir social change. Yet peel another layer back and the exact same story is revealed to be about the self-obsession of youth and the irreconcilability between the often stated desire of the young to “make a difference in the world” yet being too self-absorbed to actually recognize major events happening right outside their door. The Holy Innocents is a political commentary and cultural examination of youth packaged as one hell of a psychological drama.

Now jump back to the 1930s and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. On the surface, a science fiction novel. Set 500 years in the future it envisions the peace, stability, and health technology will one day bring us, but go one layer deeper and it becomes clear that Huxley was commenting on the anxieties of the 20th century, particularly worry among some how mass production and technological advances could strip away our individual identities. Peel another layer away and you realize that Brave New World isn’t just a science fiction story, nor only a social satire, it’s also a parody—it’s making fun of popular escapism novels of the day set in utopias. Science fiction, social commentary, and parody–all layered into one story.

There are plenty of other examples I could name, of course, but I think you get the point. The best novels are onions–and the onion peelers listed above have had a tremendous influence on my writing.

Epiphany Jones Blog tour

EPIPHANY JONES by Michael Grothaus

Epiphany Jones A/W.indd EPIPHANY JONES

Michael Grothaus (www.michaelgrothaus.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.

Jerry Dresden is something of a loner. Obsessed with sex and celebrity – and, very often, both at the same time – he spends his days working at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his nights in front of the computer, hunting down the latest faked images of the world’s most famous women. When one of his colleagues is murdered and a Van Gogh on loan to the Institute is stolen, suspicion quickly falls on Jerry. But he’s fairly sure he’s innocent. And when he meets Epiphany, a young woman who says she needs his help, he knows for certain he’s in deep trouble: Epiphany is the killer and the thief, and she has framed Jerry to ensure his cooperation. It doesn’t help that Epiphany thinks she talks to God. Following Epiphany from Chicago to Mexico, and from there to Europe – because of the promise of evidence of his innocence that Epiphany has in her possession – Jerry finds himself at the centre of a sex-trafficking scandal organised by Hollywood’s most powerful people, and unlocks dark memories that he has buried for almost twenty years.

I’m going to be perfectly honest: when it comes to sex in fiction, I’m not a big fan, especially when it doesn’t really (seem to) add much to the story at hand. So, for the first third of Michael Grothaus’ debut novel, I found myself constantly on the verge of packing it in. The novel’s opening line, above, more or less sums up the story’s central character, Jerry, a man who has taken masturbation to a whole new level, and who revels in sharing the details with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, Jerry is a funny guy, and finds himself in the middle of an intriguing mystery with an intense young woman for whom the word “captivating” seems to have been invented. So I persevered, and I would urge anyone who finds themselves in the same position to do the same. There is a point, around about the one-third mark where it feels like a switch has been flicked: the narrative takes on a much darker hue, and Jerry’s obsession takes a back seat to a new obsession with staying alive.

Told in the first person from Jerry’s point of view, the story gives us time to get to know our guide before throwing him in at the deep end. After losing his younger sister to leukaemia as a young boy, and being involved in the car accident that ended his father’s life, Jerry has gone off the rails. He suffers from delusions, often seeing people who aren’t there, and has a reputation with the people at work for inventing girlfriends. It comes as a great surprise to Jerry, then, when he discovers that Epiphany is, in fact, real. Unfortunately for him, her interest in him is not what he might have hoped for, and before long she is leading him on a dangerous journey across the world, all because the voices in her head told her that he could help.

In Jerry’s mind – and thus in the reader’s – Epiphany becomes a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, a young woman who believes she has a direct line to God, and is on a mission that he has sanctioned. In stark contrast to Jerry’s comedic persona, Epiphany is a tortured soul, a woman not afraid to use violence to achieve her goals. As the story develops, it becomes immediately clear what Epiphany’s background is, but even that doesn’t help to soften the blow of the bombshell that she drops on Jerry, and on us, when she reveals exactly how he can help her.

From its comic beginnings, Epiphany Jones grows steadily darker until it becomes a book that is incredibly difficult to read at times: Grothaus pulls no punches, dropping the reader into the middle of his child trafficking and sex slavery storyline right alongside Jerry. There are no artistic fades or camera-pans here, just a brutal realism – even filtered, as it is, through Jerry’s mind – that leaves the reader with no questions about where their sympathies lie. This marked contrast between the first and second halves of the novel brings with it a surreal sense that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a completely different story. We are, in a way, taken unawares, lulled into a false sense of security before being exposed to the true horror of the dark underbelly of the world.

Despite my qualms with the book’s beginning, Epiphany Jones is one of the strongest and certainly the most original debut I’ve read this year. It’s a beautifully-written piece, and the author knows how to strike the right balance between comedy and real-life horror to ensure that he doesn’t alienate any part of his audience. Underpinned by a strong plot, Epiphany Jones is, nonetheless, driven by its quirky characters and by the relationships between them. Michael Grothaus has produced a mature and engaging debut that is sure to divide readers right down the middle and that, for me, is the ultimate sign of a great storyteller. Not to be missed.

NORMAL by Graeme Cameron

normal_frontcover NORMAL

Graeme Cameron (www.graeme-cameron.com)

Harlequin Mira (www.mirabooks.co.uk)

£7.99

Erica has been abducted by the man who killed and dismembered her best friend, and is now living in a cage in his basement. Her abductor is a seemingly ordinary man with a penchant for murdering pretty young women. But things aren’t going as planned: at the local supermarket, a pair of blue eyes are his downfall, and he finds himself falling in love with Rachel; his relationship with Annie, who he had planned on murdering, but who he ended up saving from potential rape, is complicated to say the least; and neither he nor Erica is sure who has the upper hand in their relationship, or why exactly Erica is still living in the cage in his basement weeks after her abduction.

Normal_BlogTourBannerFor his debut novel, Graeme Cameron puts the reader inside the head of a nameless serial killer at the point where his life takes a very strange turn. The narrator is an interesting character – friendly and personable, a man who might live next door, and who you might stop to have a conversation with on your way past his house. Like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, there’s more than a hint of black humour here, but Normal presents us with something altogether darker and more sinister: this man targets young women, and seems unable to control himself when in their presence. There is no moral code here, nothing to redeem him in our eyes. And, yet, it’s impossible to dislike him, and when things start to go pear-shaped as the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he might find a way out, despite the horrible things we have watched him doing.

A number of factors conspire to make the narrator of Normal question his career choices: his meeting with Rachel, and the rapport that quickly develops between them; the arrival on his doorstep of the police, who have linked him – however circumstantially – to the disappearance of a prostitute. But there seems to be a foreshadowing of this in his treatment of Erica: he gives her a microwave oven so she can cook her own food because she says she won’t eat anything that he has prepared; he spends hundreds of pounds on clothes for her, and takes her from her cage into his home where he allows her to bathe, and eat, and watch television. And even he is unable to explain why he has spared her for so long, or why he is now treating her like a houseguest rather than a prisoner held against her own will. It is a decision that will haunt him, given the new direction his life seems to be taking.

Cameron focuses on the relationship between abductor and abductee, and paints it in a completely unexpected light for the reader. These two people feel like a married couple at the end of their tether with each other. Erica becomes suspicious of her abductor’s motives, and gives him hell when he disappears for extended periods of time. When his kindness towards her inadvertently places her face-to-face with a CID officer, her reaction is completely unexpected. Interestingly, on his dates with Rachel, our hero feels some guilt about Erica, as if he is cheating on her. It’s an interesting dynamic, and Cameron uses it to great effect to drive the story in the direction he wants it to go. This is Stockholm Syndrome taken to the extreme, with a reciprocal feeling from the man who, for all intents and purposes, should be calling the shots, but who isn’t.

Normal is wonderfully written, and blackly funny throughout. The comparisons with Dexter will be obvious for the humour alone, but Cameron draws on – and extends – a much broader-ranging sub-genre. The first person narrative puts us in the head of this psychopath, with access to his thought processes and justifications for what he does. Not since Lou Ford, the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s seminal The Killer Inside Me, have we been so closely involved with the workings of the sociopathic mind. Despite the humour, Normal is a chilling and gripping read, made all the more so by the seeming outward normality of the man at its centre (and the sometimes questionable motives of those he encounters). There is a mastery of the language here that allows us to laugh out loud while we’re trying to think through the consequences of the narrator’s every action, and to wonder at just how plausible a plot-line it is.

If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s Cameron’s repeated use of “innuendoes” to insinuate murders that the narrator hasn’t committed. Throw-away lines like “[She] made a hell of a mess” play on the reader’s expectations, only to pull the rug out from under us several paragraphs or pages later. While it’s an interesting trick, and fits nicely with the overall light-hearted tone of the novel, I feel it was overused: once is clever; twice, slightly funny; beyond that it just gets predictable and irritating. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a reasonably minor quibble.

Graeme Cameron has done a phenomenal job with Normal. Taking the serial killer formula and playing with it to see what new and interesting shapes he can make has resulted in a dark and hilarious examination of the psychopath next door, and how quickly our carefully constructed world can start to crumble around us. It is a brilliant first novel, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Cameron in the near future.

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING - Paula Lichtarowicz CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING

Paula Lichtarowicz

Hutchinson (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£16.99

Chief Hung Duong is head of the small police force in the southern Vietnamese town of Dalat. When his daughter Lila, blinded in a horrible accident, is to marry a local Party bigwig, Duong borrows 500 American dollars from Mr Mei, who has a finger in every one of Dalat’s criminal pies, and signs a contract that includes a clause that should (in theory) never affect him. When his new son-in-law is gunned down before the wedding is even finished, and the 500 dollars disappears, Duong discovers that a life of crime might be the only way to save Lila from a life of prostitution in Mr Mei’s brothel.

Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, feels like a wild departure from her 2013 debut, The First Book of Calamity Leek, but the two have more in common than will be obvious at first glance. For her second outing, Lichtarowicz takes us to rural Vietnam and gives us front row seats as the life of the local police chief, Chief Duong, falls apart around him. As with her previous novel, the strength of Creative Truths lies in the pitch-perfect characterisation, from the placid Chief Duong and his high-strung wife, through the manic Mr Mei and his odd mannerisms, and the huge cast of supporting characters who make this world feel vital and fresh.

A farcical comedy of errors, Creative Truths is an off-the-wall tale that relies on a series of bizarre events and coincidences to get from point A to point B. Its power is in the author’s ability to grip the reader from the first page, and not give him or her time to breathe as she relates this series of tall tales: the death of Duong’s new son-in-law and the subsequent activation of Clause 46cii in his contract with Mei; how a gang of animal activists stealing primates from the region’s businesses is deemed more important by Duong’s superiors than catching a murderer (and the shady business goings-on that back up the decision); the kidnap of international soccer superstar, Sam Porcini, and the harrowing events of his incarceration. And through it all, the disintegration of Duong’s family and – it would seem – his very sanity.

There is an otherworldly or timeless feel to the story and, as with Calamity Leek, there is a feeling that the story might be taking place on a plane different from our own. The isolation of the location and the backward nature of the town of Dalat conspire to make us feel out of our depth, putting us at Lichtarowicz’s mercy for the duration. As the story progresses, we begin to get glimpses of normality, hints that this is the world as we know it, despite never having seen this corner.

Lichtarowicz’s narrative combines the oddness of Nick Harkaway’s worlds with the laid-back approach to Asian-set storytelling that Colin Cotterill does so well. Often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a strange undercurrent that leaves us feeling uneasy (why, exactly, does Mr Mei insist on riding a menagerie of stuffed animals?), surfacing in a handful of well-placed – and well-written – scenes that will linger long after the book is finished. As coincidence piles on seeming coincidence and the various threads of the story begin to converge into a single coherent whole, it becomes obvious just how cleverly-constructed this tale has been, how well-manipulated we have been by the events that have unfolded before our eyes. Everything is meticulously planned, with not a single word out of place.

Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.

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.

SEASON TO TASTE by Natalie Young

season to taste - natalie young SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND

Natalie Young

Tinder Press (www.tinderpress.co.uk)

£12.99

She cleaned the nails with a nailbrush, rinsing in the sink; and then she brushed the skin with an oil brush to give it a good crisp. She rubbed all over the hand with olive oil and salt and then twisted the pepper grinder; and she laid his hand on a non-stick roasting tray, carefully straightening the fingers out.

And so we are introduced to the remarkable central character of this beautifully-written but often hard-to-stomach novel: murderess; cannibal; role model. After thirty years living with her husband, Lizzie Prain has had enough and so, one Monday morning when he is out in the garden, she quickly dresses, goes outside and staves his head in with a shovel. Determined that one type of incarceration will not be replaced with another, Lizzie – always practical – comes up with the perfect means of disposing of Jacob’s body: she will eat it, and then she will head to Scotland to start her life anew.

When we are introduced to Lizzie, she has already killed and dismembered her husband, and stored him, in sixteen individually wrapped and labelled packages, in the freezer in the garage. Now, free for the first time in over thirty years, we watch as this fifty-something woman adapts to life outside the shadow of her overbearing and often outright abusive husband. Stolid and practical, she has set herself an almost impossible task, and the reader is carried along as she sets about accomplishing it.

As the story progresses, and Lizzie slowly makes her way through the gruesome packages in the freezer, we learn in flashback what kind of life she has lived, how she met her husband and it becomes clear that the marriage has never been a happy one. Jacob’s overbearing personality, combined with constant jibes about Lizzie’s looks and manner, mean that this is by no means an equal partnership. And yet, on the occasions where Lizzie has walked out, she has never made it very far before returning home to the small cottage on the bend that has been their home since they met. There are moments – few and far between – of true tenderness between them, but they are constantly overshadowed by the darker times (like the time Lizzie watches, emotionless, from the kitchen window as Jacob attempts to hang himself from the tree at the end of the garden) and by the sheer mundanity of everyday life.

‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ he’d say.
‘Tea?’
‘Fuck’s sake, tea?’
‘Tea?’
‘You having tea?’

The story is driven by three distinct narratives. The first, and most prevalent, focuses on Lizzie herself and, while it isn’t told in her voice, it does give us some insight into the workings of this remarkable woman’s mind. It is in this narrative that we see the flashbacks and also Lizzie’s thoughts as she first prepares, then cooks, then eats the various pieces of her late husband. Interspersed with this are a handful of trips inside the head of Tom, the young man who lives on the farm at the end of the lane, and who works at the local garden centre. A friendship – a strange and fraught relationship – blossoms between these two central characters, interfering with Lizzie’s careful plans, and planting a seed in the mind of the reader that Jacob may not be Lizzie’s final victim. Alongside these, there are a set of notes, a numbered list of instructions and thoughts, written by Lizzie, presumably for Lizzie; there is something about them, though, that reads like a How To manual, which is presumably where the novel’s alternative title came from.

And so to the novel’s core, and the simple fact of cannibalism that drives it. Natalie Young has attempted to encapsulate the absurd premise of Season to Taste in a story that is grounded in reality and which, once you start, is almost impossible to put down. There is something surreal about the world in which we find ourselves as Young injects the unthinkable into the everyday. Like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, we come across the gruesome reality of the situation, almost unexpectedly, in he midst of the normal, the boring, the completely innocuous. As she describes the preparation of the “meat”, taking great delight in explaining Lizzie’s recipes, we find ourselves reading with a constant grimace plastered on our faces, a sick feeling deep in our stomachs that probably comes close to Lizzie’s own. And yet. And yet, Young is obviously someone who knows her way around a kitchen and enjoys the simple pleasures of preparing meals. There’s something about her descriptive power that we find ourselves salivating at the thought of the meal being prepared, despite the knowledge of what it contains. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Season to Taste is the revelation, not entirely unexpected, and mentioned only in a single throwaway line, that Lizzie is not partaking of these meals alone.

At once gripping, wholeheartedly gruesome (Young seems to revel in the fact that just when you think you’ve experienced the worst there is, there is always something more still to be eked out of this incredible scenario) and darkly comic, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is one of the most original novels you’re likely to read, ever. With an attention to detail that is slightly scary, given the subject matter (Young has obviously done some thorough research), and the ability to make you want to simultaneously stop reading, and read faster, Natalie Young has done the unthinkable: she has taken an ordinary human being, placed her in an extraordinary situation, making her the villain of the piece in the process, and still manages to make the reader love her, root for her, want to see her succeed in her endeavours and, most importantly, get away with it. Often – and I know you’ll pardon the pun – hard to stomach, Season to Taste is like nothing you’ve ever read before, and pays dividends for those willing to stick with it and forge through the discomfort. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, and is guaranteed to stay with you for many years to come. I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited to see what Natalie Young has up her sleeve next; let’s just hope it doesn’t involve dinner.

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.

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