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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG TOUR by Natasha Courtenay-Smith

THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG THE MILLION DOLLAR BLOG

Natasha Courtenay-Smith (natashacourtenaysmith.com)

Piatkus (www.littlebrown.co.uk)

£13.99

This week sees the release of Natasha Courtenay-Smith’s The Million Dollar Blog, a book that looks at the current state of play in the blogging industry and offers advice on how to stand out from the crowd. To celebrate the launch of this essential read for anyone currently running, or planning to run, a blog of any description, I – along with a number of my fellow bloggers – have been asked to take part in a blog tour with a bit of a difference. Rather than reviewing the book, we have been asked to talk about our own blogging experiences and, perhaps, offer tips that have helped us on our journey. I would highly recommend checking out the rest of the tour: there are some excellent pieces which give some insight into the world of the jobbing blogger.

My own experience with blogging started in the dim and distant past when people used LiveJournal to blog about how many hours they slept last night, or what, exactly, they did yesterday in more detail than anyone needs to know. After a couple of aborted attempts, I decided that it wasn’t for me, so I left it. Years later, Twitter came along and I found myself having conversations not only with like-minded readers, but with the people who wrote and published the books I loved to read. And so the idea formed: a blog that would concentrate solely on book reviews with little insight into my personality beyond what I thought of the book in question. The name came to me as I was staring at the WordPress registration screen, months-old baby in one arm.

Long-time readers of the blog will know that the blog has evolved – as has my reviewing style! – over its five-and-a-half-year lifetime, to include guest posts, interviews, a book-related travelogue and – my crowning achievement so far, in my own humble opinion – the wonderful essays that make up Carrie at 40. Adaptation is the nature of the game, providing content that will interest your readers and bring them back for more time and time again.

There are countless book review blogs out there in the big bad world, and you don’t need to look too far to find them. So, why bother? Why does my opinion matter, and why do I think anyone else would be interested in hearing it? Reader Dad, like many of the book review blogs, is a labour of love; it was never intended to make me famous or rich. It is, quite simply, a venue that allows me to share my love of books with the world. In my five-and-a-half years I have built up a small but consistent core following (hello there!) and it is for these people that I write. I have long been of the opinion that book review blogs are more likely to sway readers one way or the other than newspaper or magazine reviews. Why? The complete history of my opinions on books is available at the reader’s fingertips. It gives people a sense of what kind of reader I am, and lets them decide whether my taste is similar enough to their own for them to trust my reviews.

And there, for me, is the crux of the matter: trust. I write honest reviews (and would recommend anyone running a book review blog to do the same) and while I often receive free books, they are always sent in the implicit understanding that I will always be 100% honest about what I thought of them. There is nothing that sets me apart from a hundred other bloggers except that some people have similar tastes to me and have come to trust the reviews I write. It’s a winning formula: I get to keep banging on about books in the knowledge that people read what I write, and I get people talking about books which, let’s face it, is much better than talking about anything else!

Don’t let the overcrowded blogosphere put you off starting your own: there will always be someone out there who trusts your opinion over anyone else’s and if you can keep the conversation going with that one person, then you’re doing something worthwhile.

The Million Dollar Blog by Natasha Courtenay-Smith is out now, priced 13.99.

BLOG TOUR

UNDYING: A LOVE STORY by Michel Faber

undying UNDYING: A LOVE STORY

Michel Faber (www.michelfaber.com)

Canongate (canongate.tv)

£12.99

Something of a mini-review today, in order to share a surprise book that I inhaled in a single sitting and feel the strong urge to share it with the world.

On 7th July 2014 Michel Faber’s wife, Eva, died of multiple myelomas – cancer of the bone marrow. In his first poetry collection, Undying: A Love Story, Faber documents his wife’s final months, and his own first steps as a widower through a series of poems that run the gamut from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-wrenching misery.

I have mentioned before on this blog my aversion to poetry, so I was apprehensive going in. It’s a slim volume – barely 120 pages – but within a handful of pages the reader becomes so engrossed in this intimate account of suffering and death that the medium barely matters. It is beautifully written, and the poetry allows Faber to tell his story using a spare language that still manages to evoke a deep empathy in the reader: we feel what the poet feels, and we will never be quite the same again.

The poems are arranged, as described by Faber in his touching Foreword, “in their appropriate place in the narrative of losing and grieving for Eva.” As a result, this collection represents a journey, from diagnosis, through horrific treatment and all that it involves, through death, funeral, and the coping mechanisms employed by a man in his fifties who has just lost his world. Some of the poems are designed to strike fear in the heart of the reader (the list of side effects for example, that make up “Contraindications”), some a sense of hope, however fleeting (“Remission”) and at least one will make even the hardest heart melt, and the most stoic reader cry

For twenty minutes, thirty maybe,

my eyes were closed.

That was the time you chose.

What comes after is succinctly recorded in poems like “Risotto” (the last mouthfuls of his dead wife’s cooking) and “Your Plants” (“I never asked for them./I never promised anything.”). The standout for me is the wonderful “Don’t Hesitate To Ask”, where Faber answers those well-meaning folk who offer help, “anything at all”.

Wait for me while I break

down the boardroom door

and drag the high and mighty fucker

out of his conference with Eternity

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

THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma

THE EXPEDITION - Bea Uusma THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY

Bea Uusma

Translated by Agnes Broomé

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£16.99

On 11th July 1897, three men – Salomon August Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel – set off from the northernmost point of civilisation in a hot air balloon. Their destination: the North Pole. Three days later they are forced to make an emergency landing. Then nothing for 33 years, until their bodies are found on the southernmost tip of White Island. For over 80 years, there has been plenty of speculation, but no-one has ever been able to explain how these three intrepid adventurers came to their end. Bea Uusma, while browsing a book at a boring party in the early nineties, became obsessed with the expedition and dedicated almost fifteen years to trying to piece together the final days of the Andrée Expedition.

Uusma’s short history of the Andrée Expedition, and her subsequent obsession with the reasons behind these men’s deaths, hooks the reader from the very first page. It’s an odd little book – odd in the sense of being extremely quirky – from the unexpected subtitle (“A Love Story”) to the engaging and conversational tone that the author uses throughout the book as she unfolds first the events of those few months in late 1897, and then the details of her own investigation into the unexplained deaths of these three men shortly after they arrived at a supposedly safe camping site. Along the way we gain some insight into who these three men were, through the remains of their journals, found along with their bodies, and contemporary accounts.

Uusma’s key point is that none of these three men were suited to the harsh conditions that they encountered when their balloon crashed. Unsurprising, considering the plan was to fly over the North Pole, drop a buoy to mark their achievement, and land within a couple of weeks in Russia or North America, depending on the vagaries of the wind. There is a comical element to the account of their short-lived flight, and three-month-long trek across frozen wastes, an examination of how different society was over one hundred years ago, how ill-equipped these men – and others who sought similar goals – were for what they were attempting; like the fact that their stores included formal wear for the three men so that they could attend dinner wherever they might land, or that, despite the weight of the sledges they dragged across the snow and ice, they managed to hold on to bottles of port and wine for over three months of their journey.

The Expedition: A Love Story is only partly about the disastrous journey of Andrée and his companions. The historical reportage is interspersed with a more personal narrative, as we follow Uusma’s own expedition: her examination and re-examination of everything she could get her hands on; her own attempt to follow in Andrée’s footsteps, and visit the remains of his camp on the southern tip of White Island. During the fifteen years, it became an obsession for Uusma (“Sometimes I think I became a doctor just to be able to find out what happened.”) and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, so that the book is impossible to put down once you’ve started reading. Besides these two parallel narratives, the book is filled with lists (“The Nature of the Mystery”, the various hypotheses over the years as to how these three men died), photographs, maps, tables, autopsy reports and journal entries, all used as evidence to support the theory that Uusma has developed during her research.

It is through the journal entries that we get some insight into the book’s second love story, as we read Nils Strindberg’s thoughts about the woman to whom he is engaged, Anna Charlier. It is, as you might expect, a heart-breaking story and the author manages to provide evidence from both sides.

As the reader might expect from a book of this type, Bea Uusma has produced her own theory as to what happened to these men. In a brief lapse into fiction, she shows us how they might have met their end, and why their diaries provide no clues. It’s a plausible theory, and one that the reader is likely to arrive at long before Uusma produces it, but as the author herself says:

There will never be an answer. The more I learn about the Andrée expedition, the more unsure I feel about what really happened. Can we really be sure they actually died? Were the bodies discovered on White Island really theirs?

Sure, the theory is supported by the evidence as presented within the pages of the book, but that’s not to say Uusma’s presentation of the evidence isn’t biased towards her theory. (For the record, I like it; it’s a sound theory and ties in with what Uusma discovered in the men’s journals, as laid out in detailed tables in the middle of the book.)

Bringing together the best elements of, say, Dan Simmons’ The Terror (the description of the environment, the sense of cold) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH (the personal nature of the historical narrative and the starring role that the author plays in it), The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that is very easy to overlook. Uusma’s writing style is beautifully developed with a unique and engaging tone that will captivate the reader from the outset, and Agnes Broomé’s translation manages to keep the subtleties of the author’s voice and personality, despite the often technical or unstructured nature of the text.

There are moments of sheer beauty in The Expedition: A Love Story, the type of things that one doesn’t expect to find in non-fiction of this type, observations that make the reader stop and think about what they’re reading. For me, there is a third love story here: there is a point, around page 34, where I fell in love with Uusma’s ability to tell a story.

As soon as I step ashore I get the feeling something’s wrong. Something’s off. Then I realise: everything’s in colour. I’ve stared at the black and white photos from the take-off so many times. Now I’m actually here, in the picture. And suddenly everything’s in colour.

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

Hospital Reading Round-up, or: A Letter of Apology

Dear Reader,

I hope you will forgive this break from the usual straightforward literary(?) criticism for this personal note to explain the relative quiet at Reader Dad of late, and to apologise to authors, publishers, publicists and potential readers for the lack of reviews written and published on the site since mid-February.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will already be aware that 2013 thus far has been something of a challenging time for me. This past Saturday, May 4th, saw my family and that of my fiancée gathered in Prague for our wedding, an event that is stressful enough for those involved without one of the parties spending most of the preceding three months either admitted to, or frequently attending, hospital. Thanks, though, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1B at Lagan Valley Hospital (go on, give them a virtual round of applause) we made it, and the day went off without a hitch (well, apart from the obvious one).

A combined total of five weeks as a hospital in-patient, not to mention the fact that I’ve been off work since early February, has given me plenty of reading time (by this time last year, I was working my way through book number 23; I’m currently on 2013’s 30th book). Limited Internet access for the same period meant that reviews were few and far between: at the moment I’m sitting on a backlog of fourteen un-reviewed books.

It is a sad fact that if I don’t review a book almost immediately after reading it, it isn’t worth me reviewing it at all. I read so much that it’s difficult to remember what I felt while reading the book to such a degree that I could produce a solid and reliable review several months later. There will, of course, always be those stand-out books that remain with me for much longer, and I will attempt to review these more completely in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, there are those “lost” reads, and after much deliberation, I have decided on a bite-sized review of each so that people can see whether I enjoyed them or not, and what the highs and lows of 2013’s first quarter or so have been for me.

For the readers, I apologise that there aren’t more complete reviews of the following books. They have all been uniformly excellent, and I can recommend them unreservedly.

For the publicists, my sincere apologies that these books have not been given the same treatment as others, despite the fact that I have read and enjoyed them all. For September at Transworld, Jon at Gollancz, Angela at Orion, Nicci at MacLehose, Bethan at Chatto & Windus, Becci at Head of Zeus, Sophie at Titan and Alison at Atlantic, my particular apologies for the books listed below.

For everyone, while I have you here, I also wanted to mention an experiment I will be trying at Reader Dad over the next month or two. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, and the introduction of his iconic character, Parker, University of Chicago Press have finally obtained worldwide rights for the publication of the entire Parker series. In honour of this, I will be running a Parker@50 event here at Reader Dad, with in-depth reviews of the entire series appearing over the course of the coming months. I hope you’ll join me for this.

In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank you all for your continued support of Reader Dad, and I look forward to welcoming you back to a more regular schedule in the coming days and weeks. Enjoy the mini-reviews below.

Yours most sincerely,

Matt Craig

Reader Dad

Hobbs-Ghostman GHOSTMAN

Roger Hobbs (www.rogerhobbs.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/doubleday)

£9.99

The unnamed narrator of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel is a ghostman, the member of a heist team responsible for disguises and safe dispersal and disappearance of the team after the job. When an Atlantic City casino is robbed, he receives a call from a man he’d much rather forget. The ghostman has just forty-eight hours to retrieve the money, with the FBI and rival gangs on his case.

What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.

   
dreams-and-shadows-cargill DREAMS AND SHADOWS

C. Robert Cargill

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

As an infant, Ewan Thatcher is stolen from his parents by faeries and replaced with the changeling Nixie Knocks. Several years later, the young boy Colby Stephens meets Yashar, a djinn, who grants him a wish: to be able to see beyond the veil, to the world of faerie, of myths and legends. C. Robert Cargill’s first novel follows the first thirty years or so of the lives of these three boys, and charts their impact on the real world around them, and the magical world that lies just beyond the veil.

There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.

   
Rage against the dying - masterman RAGE AGAINST THE DYING

Becky Masterman (beckymasterman.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

When we first meet Brigid Quinn, it is as Gerald Peasil is trying to abduct her, thinking her to be much more frail than she turns out to be. And therein lies the heart of this unusual story. Elderly lady detectives traditionally fit into the more “cosy” crime stories – Jessica Fletcher, for example, or the grandmother of them all, Jane Marple – so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Brigid is a retired FBI agent and that Becky Masterman’s debut, Rage Against the Dying, is anything but cosy.

As a much younger woman, Quinn hunted serial killers with the FBI. Small and blond, she was the perfect bait for a certain type of predator. As she grew older, it became time to pass the baton, and Quinn’s trainee was killed by the very killer they were trying to catch. Now in her retirement, Quinn finds herself pulled back into the case when young Jessica’s body is finally found, and they have a man in custody claiming to have killed her all those years ago.

Quinn is as far from those stereotypical old lady detectives as it is possible to be: a chequered past at the Bureau and an unusual reaction to Peasil’s attempted abduction leave the reader with the distinct impression that this is a dark and deeply flawed character. As the novel takes one dark turn after another, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is more than capable of looking after herself, while keeping her loved ones as far removed from the trouble as possible. Surprisingly, I loved Rage Against the Dying, and look forward to seeing what’s next for Brigid Quinn. It helps, I think, that Ms Masterman isn’t afraid to make her character suffer for the reader’s enjoyment. And there’s not a knitting needle in sight.

   
outsiders

OUTSIDERS: ITALIAN STORIES

Roberto Saviano (www.robertosaviano.it)
Carlo Lucarelli (
www.carlolucarelli.net)
Valeria Parrella
Piero Colaprico
Wu Ming (
www.wumingfoundation.com)
Simona Vinci

Translated by
Abigail Asher
Ben Faccini
Rebecca Servadio
Mark Mahan
N.S. Thompson
Chenxin Jiang

Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£12.00

Outsiders is a collection of six stories and essays from leading Italian writers examining the concept, as the title might suggest, of not belonging. Uniformly excellent, the collection does have a couple of stand-out moments, which are worth the price of admission alone.

Roberto Saviano’s The Opposite of Death is the story of a young woman in rural Italy widowed before she is even married. Her fiancé has gone to war in Afghanistan, never to return. Written in the same style as Saviano’s reportage – it’s difficult to tell whether The Opposite of Death is fact or fiction, or some combination of the two – it’s a touching account of a young woman’s attempt to carry on with life in a town that she has lived since birth, but where she feels she no longer belongs. As we’ve come to expect from Saviano, it’s a story that brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, without ever resorting to anything other than straight, factual reporting.

Piero Colaprico’s Stairway C introduces carabinieri maresciallo Pietro Binda to the English-speaking world. A man is found murdered outside a social housing complex in Milan. Binda finds himself faced with an endless line-up of possible suspects, from the drug dealers who live on stairway C, to friends and possible lovers of the man. Binda is a breath of fresh air in a genre bursting at the seams with depressed, alcoholic, drug-taking detectives. Stairway C is but a taster of the Italian policeman’s exploits, and we can but hope that the wonderful MacLehose consider translating some of the novels into English in the near future.

   
Raw Head - Jack Wolf THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES

Jack Wolf

Chatto & Windus (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/chatto-windus)

£14.99

Tristan Hart is a medical student, madman and deviant. He is obsessed with pain; in his more lucid times it is the nature of pain and how to prevent it. His ultimate desire is to find the perfect scream, and in this guise his obsession is causing maximum pain without inflicting permanent damage.

Despite the odd title, which might suggest a more supernatural, or fantastical storyline, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama. Beautiful writing – Wolf expends a lot of effort in ensuring language is used to its full effect – and stunning book design – including everything down to the font used, and old-fashioned capitalisation of nouns – combine to create a fully immersive experience for the reader. Thankfully, the story is worthy of the attention lavished upon it and the reader will come away unsure of whether to love, hate or feel sorry for Tristan Hart. Whichever, it’s a story that will remain with the reader for some time after the final page, and showcases Jack Wolf as a new author that we’ll be watching out for.

   
White Bones - Graham Masterton WHITE BONES

Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£16.99

One-time horror master Graham Masterton makes the jump to crime fiction with the first in a series of novels featuring Cork’s only female Garda detective, Katie Maguire. When work on a farm outside Cork turns up the bones of eleven women, Katie Maguire is assigned to the case. The bones have been in the ground for a long time, but it’s clear that they were skinned alive, and that there is something ritualistic about the killings. As Katie comes under pressure to consign the case to the history books, an American tourist disappears. Her bones, similarly stripped, are found laid out in an arcane pattern on the same farm.

White Bones is a wonderful introduction to Katie Maguire, a character with more than her fair share of crosses to bear – sexism in the workplace the most obvious, but longstanding tension at home over the death of a child doesn’t help. Despite (or possibly because of) that, she’s the perfect lead, and gives Masterton free rein to examine issues outside of the central plotline. The author lived in Cork for five years, and takes great delight in showing off his knowledge – from local geography and history, to grasp of the local dialect and inter-character banter. Despite the fact that much of the action takes place outside of the city, Masterton still manages to make Cork an important character in itself, and it helps to ground the novel and give the reader a sense of place.

A welcome addition to the genre, Masterton isn’t afraid to stick to his roots, and introduce a hint of the supernatural into the proceedings. Broken Angels, the second Katie Maguire book, is due from Head of Zeus in September this year. It’s on my “must read” list. I guarantee it will be on yours too once you read White Bones.

   
WebOfTheCity WEB OF THE CITY

Harlan Ellison® (harlanellison.com)

Titan Books / Hard Case Crime (titanbooks.com / hardcasecrime.com)

£7.99

Harlan Ellison® is best known these days for his science fiction work, and for his penchant for controversy. His first novel, originally published in 1958, was an examination of New York’s street gangs, inspired by Ellison’s experience going undercover in a Brooklyn gang. Rusty Santoro wants out. Given a glimpse of two possible futures by his teacher, he knows which one he wants and school, rather than the gangs, is the way to achieve it. But quitting the gangs is not quite as easy as it seems, and Rusty quickly discovers that his is not the only life in danger from his actions.

Web of the City is a short, violent piece of work that fits perfectly into the Hard Case Crime library. Ellison perfectly evokes New York of the late 1950s, and focuses on the young men who make up the gangs that effectively ran entire neighbourhoods during the period. Most striking for the modern reader, perhaps, is the age of these boys: barely old enough to hold a license to drive a car, they are armed to the teeth and elicit fear wherever they go. The story has aged well, and will appeal to a modern, jaded audience, who don’t mind a bit of blood with their cornflakes. It still has the power to shock – the knife-fight between Rusty and the new president of the Cougars is frightening in its intensity and violence – and it is this power that will set it apart even from much of today’s crime fiction.

The Hard Case Crime/Titan edition of the book includes three related short stories, which are all also worth the read, despite the fact that one of them is a rehash of a large section of the novel with a different ending, which lends a completely different tone to the piece. Grease meets Battle Royale, Web of the City is pure Hard Case, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction.

   
The Card - Graham Rawle THE CARD

Graham Rawle (www.grahamrawle.com)

Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£14.99

Everyone knows a Riley Richardson. He’s the local anorak, carrier bag always in hand, always happy to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen about his chosen specialist subject, be it books (ahem!), or model trains, or whatever. In Riley Richardson’s case, that subject is bubble-gum cards, and Riley is on a life-long mission to find the elusive card 19 from the 1967 Mission: Impossible TV series. When a grey-haired man who looks remarkably like the leader of the Impossible Mission Force drops a playing card in a deserted alley, Riley picks it up, and finds himself on a quest to save the Princess of Wales, and to find that fabled card.

The story itself is wonderful, driven by the quirky character of Riley Richardson, a man with a quite different outlook on life than the rest of us. There’s a definite feel-good quality to the story, and Rawle has an uncanny ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the least appropriate moment. What sets The Card apart from everything else, though, has to be the design and construction quality of the overall package. Printed on a heavier, glossier stock than you tend to find in a paperback book, the author uses different fonts, emphasises different words, and includes little markings in the margins to produce a work of art that is much more than the story held within. The most beautiful part of the book is, without doubt, the fact that it contains full-colour representations of the various cards that Riley finds along the way, all designed and illustrated by the author himself. The Card is, quite simply, an absolute delight.

BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano

beauty-and-the-inferno BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO

Roberto Saviano (www.robertosaviano.it)

Translated by Oonagh Stransky

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£16.99

If, like me, you’ve gone all this time not knowing who Roberto Saviano is, here’s the nutshell version: in 2006 Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist living and working in Naples, Italy, published Gomorrah. Part journalism, part literary novel, it details the workings and business dealings of the Camorra criminal organisation. Since shortly after publication, Saviano has had a price on his head, and has been living under protection in various undisclosed locations.

Beauty and the Inferno is a collection of essays and articles which, with a number of exceptions, have been written since the publication of Gomorrah. The book is split into five sections of roughly-related essays. The first and third sections (SOUTH and BUSINESS) deal directly with the Mafia, and it is these sections that showcase Saviano at his passionate best. His writing is urgent and angry – at the criminal organisations that rule his small corner of the world with an iron fist, and also at the people of Italy for their apathy which, he believes, is one of the key reasons the country is in its current state.

The second section of the book (MEN) is a series of profiles – and, in some cases, obituaries – of men (and one woman) who have affected Saviano in some way, and who he holds in high esteem. Here are stories of men who have defied all odds to live a full and rewarding life, men like the footballer Lionel Messi and the pianist Michel Petrucciani. Here also the tale of Saviano’s meeting with the man Johnny Depp made famous in the movie Donnie Brasco.

The fourth section (WAR) looks at the depiction of war in literature and the big screen. Saviano provides us with in-depth views on the novel that provided the source material for both Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as well as a brilliant piece on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, and the subsequent film of the same name. The final section (NORTH) is perhaps the weakest of the book. Three of the six essays in this section were written earlier in Saviano’s career and the difference is immediately obvious. Prolix and unwieldy, they are saved only by the section’s bookends: it begins with an essay about Saviano’s address to the Swedish Academy – the home of the Nobel Prize for literature – coupled with the speech that he gave; and ends with a piece about Anna Politkovskaya, a woman – Saviano’s Russian counterpart in many ways – killed because of her writings about the conflict in Chechnya. This section is ostensibly about writing, and the power of literature, and gives some insight into why Saviano continues to produce essays like these.

Saviano has a distinctive style, never more apparent than when he is talking about the Mafia. Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been. Most of the essays feel like very good thriller writing, in that they leave the reader breathless and wishing for more. Saviano is old beyond his years; reading Beauty and the Inferno it is sometimes easy to forget that this is a man barely into his thirties. And he has an important message, one aimed directly at the people of Italy, but one which applies indirectly to many other countries.

There are some parallels with the articles of Chris Rose, whose 2006 collection, One Dead in Attic – a compilation of his Times-Picayune columns – is a chronicle of life in New Orleans following the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rose shows the same anger for the corrupt government in his adopted city, and the apathy of the people of New Orleans and America. Both men have the same underlying message: “don’t let me be the voice in the wilderness. We can change this, but we all need to pull our weight.”

Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.

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