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War

GUEST POST: On Writing FINDING HER by Anneloes Timmerjie

Finding Her Name: Anneloes Timmerjie

Author of: FINDING HER (with Charles den Tex) (2016)

On the web: www.anneloestimmerije.nl

‘You simply HAVE to hear this story.’ That’s how it started. The words were spoken by a good friend and film producer. He told the story and we hung on his every word. That is the kind of story it is. He wanted to know if we would like to write the screenplay. Of course we wanted to, except that we wrote the book first. Finding funding for the film takes time and this story just had to be told –seventy years of gathering dust in the folds of history was long enough.

The life of our main characters – Guus and Lienke Hagers – is not all that different of the life of thousands of people in the Dutch East Indies and the Pacific during WWII. That is why it is so compelling. They were separated from each other and they did not know where the other was or even the other was still alive. In exactly the same way the first husband of Anneloes’ mother disappeared in one of the Japanese internment camps. He died of neglected dysentery, never knowing that his son was born, that he had become a father.

Without the efforts of documentary film maker André Eilander the story of Guus and Lienke would never have been found. Eilander delved into the history of the 18th Squadron, an almost forgotten bomber squadron in Australia, and found story after story after story. He found Guus’diaries and photo books and flight logs, and he found Lienke’s memoirs and indications for political machination that are still felt today. He handed all his beautifully rich research material to us without any conditions.

Almost everyone wants to know how it is done, writing a book together. We didn’t know, we had never done it before. We have known each other for 36 years, we have been writing for as many years, most things we do together, but writing a book together was one thing we still had to learn. We did have one major advantage: a large part of the story was already there. All we had to do was figure out how to write it, because you need more than a true story to make a good story.

It was funny, and sometimes pretty irritating, to find out how we are different from each other. Charles, a fast writer, would propose a ridiculously short deadline for the first version. Anneloes, a slower writer, would protest loudly and manage to negotiate and extra two weeks. Still, it was important to have that first version soon, because it would prove that we could actually do it, write together. Not just according to ourselves, but according to our editor.

The process of writing, plotting and additional research was exciting. The simple fact that we could talk to each other about what we were writing, was a wonderful surprise, because we never do that. When we are each working on our own book, we can talk about almost anything except the work itself. That disrupts our concentration and tends to throw you out of your own story. When you write together that limitation doesn’t exist.

We spent the first week talking. We sat down opposite each other and brainstormed, thinking out loud and listening to each other. After that week we had outlined about ten chapters and we had developed a dramatic line. Once we had that we divided the work in the most obvious and role reinforcing way: Charles tackled the male things and Anneloes got to work on the female things. Charles, a born Australian, wrote about Australia, and Anneloes, of Indonesian descent, wrote about the Dutch East Indies.

That is how the first version was written, we each wrote our separate parts, Charles integrated them into one document and then Anneloes was the first to read the entire story, she scratched what she didn’t like and added what she missed, corrected things that were wrong, and she worked on creating a new ‘voice’ for the two of us, one in which our different styles of writing could grow to a new, common style. When she was done, she handed it over the Charles who proceeded to do the same thing. The manuscript went back and forth between us more than six times: writing, rewriting, changing, scratching, discussing, adding, changing the plot and adding new research. And then discussing it all over again.

Finding Her is based mostly on historical facts. The main characters and almost all the other characters really did exist. They lived the war. But to turn history into a novel, we took the liberty to simplify certain events or to enlarge them, sometimes we moved characters sideways in time and space, we dramatized developments and skipped others, all the while keeping in mind that it might have happened that way if fate had been just a little different.

Sometimes later research showed that our fictionalizing had actually brought us closer to what had really happened. Those are the precious little gifts of writing. The most beautiful reward came on the day the book was presented in the Netherlands. In the audience was a 93 year widow, a woman we didn’t know and had never met, and she told us and everyone present that our story was also her story, quite literally, because her husband was Guus’ navigator and she was in the same internment camp as Lienke.

A little while later we met and 85 year old woman who was in a different camp during the war. She had seen Guus’ airplane fly over the camp. She had seen how he threw leaflets out of plane with the name ‘Lienke’ written on them, because he was trying to find out where she was. This woman had picked up one of the leaflets, went looking for Lienke and couldn’t find her. She kept the piece of paper, thinking that one day she would find out who this Lienke was. Seventy years later she picked up our book in the bookstore, read the flyleaf and knew that she had found her.

Finding Her by Charles den Tex and Anneloes Timmerjie is now available, published by World Editions and priced £12.99.

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”.

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre

THE GREAT SWINDLE - Pierre Lemaitre THE GREAT SWINDLE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

As the Great War approaches its end, Lieutenant Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle decides to make one last bid for glory. Sending two scouts over the top, he shoots them in the back, and uses their deaths as the perfect excuse for one final push against the enemy. When Albert Maillard discovers what he has done, he almost dies as a result, buried alive in a shell crater. After the war, Albert and Édouard Péricourt, the man who saved him from his fate, and suffered a terrible mutilation as a result, live together in poverty, all of their money going towards the morphine that Édouard needs in order to keep functioning. Pradelle, meanwhile, is living the life of luxury, having married into the rich Péricourt family, who believe Édouard to be dead. His business – the exhumation of dead French soldiers from temporary graves and relocation to government-sanctioned war graves – is booming, but Pradelle is less interested in how the result is achieved than in the money it brings. Albert and Édouard, meanwhile, have come up with the perfect plan to make money, a scheme that will see them swindle the whole of France to fund a comfortable retirement to the colonies.

In a massive departure from the work that made his name, the Camille Verhoeven novels, Pierre Lemaitre turns his attention to France in the interwar period, beginning with the final days of the First World War in October and November 1918. It is here, in the trenches in rural France, that we meet the trio of characters whose stories The Great Swindle will tell: on the one hand, the timid Albert Maillard, a peacetime bank-teller turned soldier who has seen his share of action, having been wounded in the Somme; on the other hand is Henri d’Aulnay-Pradelle, a man who “reeked of money and looked like a crook”, a man from a rich background playing at war, and hoping for glory and advancement through the ranks. The third man is Édouard Péricourt, the son of a rich Parisian, an artist and flamboyant homosexual who has been disowned by his father, and sought escape in the ranks of the French army. The fates of these three men become inextricably entangled during the taking of Hill 113, and their futures are decided when Albert quite literally stumbles upon evidence of Pradelle’s betrayal of the unit.

Of the three, Albert seems the most level-headed, despite the terrible nightmares that haunt him following his near-death experience at the bottom of a shell crater filled with mud. He has been changed by this war, a man trying to earn a living in a country where he is essentially persona non grata: those who died for their country are the heroes; those who returned are failures, men who went off to fight for their country and couldn’t even die. Albert has the additional burden of the severely disfigured Édouard, a man to whom he owes his life, and who he nurses through the pain and the subsequent, inevitable, morphine addiction. Lemaitre spends little time in Édouard’s head; it’s a dark place and, though we feel sorry for this man whose life essentially ended in those final days of the war, we can’t help but despise him for his treatment of Albert, and for the coming betrayal that seems obvious to us from early on. The final corner of this strange triangle, Pradelle is the embodiment of evil, a schemer out to make money at the expense of others and who chooses his friends based on their contacts and influence. As another character notes,

[…he [Pradelle] was a loudmouth, a chancer, a rich bastard, a cynic – a word much in vogue sprang to mind: “profiteer”.]

He is a character that it is easy to hate, and when his world starts to crumble – as his swindle is uncovered by the fascinating civil servant Joseph Merlin – it is with no small amount of glee that we stand back and watch.

The Great Swindle of the title is the plan put in place by Albert and Édouard to sell fake war memorials and abscond with the money before anyone realises what has happened. Albert is initially against the idea, while Édouard is filled with excitement and enthusiasm – at least, outwardly. Unlike Pradelle’s con, which is based on a real scandal, the war memorial swindle is the creation of Lemaitre, but it is beautifully-constructed and entirely believable, a hangover, perhaps, from the involved plotting required for the Verhoeven novels.

Lemaitre’s style is evident throughout, and The Great Swindle is an exciting mix of light-hearted caper and dark examination of a country – and a people – recovering from one of the darkest periods of human history to date. Alongside the clever money-making scheme, the author examines the psychological effects of the war on three very different individuals who came out of the war with very different experiences, and in various states of mental and physical “completeness”, for want of a better word. The story – and the post-war France – is fleshed out with a host of other characters whose interactions with the central trio drive the story to a rewarding and tear-inducing climax. Characters like Marcel Péricourt, the father of Édouard, a man who believes his son has been killed in the trenches, and who is learning how much he has lost through re-discovery of his son’s art and the few memories that he retains; Léon Jardin-Beaulieu, Pradelle’s business partner and a man whose sister and wife are both sleeping with the handsome ex-soldier; and Joseph Merlin, the dishevelled civil servant tasked with inspecting the grave sites for which Pradelle is responsible, and whose gruesome discoveries will lead to one of the biggest scandals France has ever seen. Merlin is an odious man, in every sense of the word, but he is also one of the novel’s standouts, a beacon of honesty in a world gone mad with greed.

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

Exclusive Excerpt from Sven Hassel’s WHEELS OF TERROR

image005 WHEELS OF TERROR: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Sven Hassel (www.svenhassel.net)

Jordy Diago (jordy-diago.blogspot.co.uk)

Weidenfeld & Nicholson (www.wnblog.co.uk)

£16.99

This week sees the UK publication of the graphic novel adaptation of Sven Hassel’s 1959 novel, Wheels of Terror. Adapted by Hassel’s family, and brought to life by the stunning artwork of Spanish artist Jordy Diago, the book is published to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

To celebrate the book’s release, the publisher have very kindly made the complete Chapter 9 available to Reader Dad for everyone to enjoy. Click on the image below to download the PDF file and enjoy this beautiful, if gory, glimpse at life on the Front.

chapter9

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW - David Lagercrantz FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW

David Lagercrantz (www.davidlagercrantz.se)

Translated by George Goulding

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

On a wet morning in early June 1954, Detective Constable Leonard Corell finds himself investigating the death of a mathematician in the sleepy Cheshire town of Wilmslow. Preliminary investigation points towards suicide, the man having died after eating a poisoned apple in a gruesome parody of Disney’s Snow White. His name is Alan Turing, which rings bells with Corell. It doesn’t take long to work out why: Turing was recently convicted of homosexuality. But there is more to this death than appears on the surface: Turing was followed for several weeks prior to his death and seems to have played a mysterious – and very secret – role during the Second World War. Going off-piste, Corell digs into the mathematician’s past, discovering the breadth of his genius as he attempts to find a reason behind his sudden suicide. But his digging alerts the British secret services and, as the Cold War rages, Leonard Corell is about to discover what happens to people who ask too many questions about the wrong subjects.

Alan Turing is a man who has seen something of a resurgence of popularity in recent years, what with the fiftieth anniversary of his death spawning a number of events last year, Benedict Cumberbatch immortalising him on the big screen in Oscar-bait The Imitation Game and his long-overdue Royal pardon at the end of 2013. David Lagercrantz’s novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, takes a look at the man’s life through the lens of 1950s England and shows just how surprising his current status as the man who broke Germany’s Enigma ciphers actually is.

The novel opens with Turing’s death, and follows Leonard Corell’s investigation as he first attempts to prove that it was suicide, and then tries to dig deeper into the man’s short and seemingly unhappy life. It quickly becomes obvious that the reader is at an advantage over Corell since we know who this dead man is, and the services he has rendered in the name of patriotism, whereas Corell is encountering him at a time when his war efforts were still a closely-guarded secret and the most anyone knows of him is that he was a mathematician who was recently convicted of homosexuality. Despite his feelings on the subject, Corell finds himself intrigued by this man of many secrets, and begins to dig into his past, formulating theories that come a little too close to the truth for the people for whom Turing worked until so recently.

Corell, through whose eyes we watch the aftermath of Turing’s death, comes across as an unsympathetic character early in the book. Born into a wealthy family which soon after lost both money and status, Corell is a bitter young man who dislikes his job, and the small Cheshire town in which he works. Many of the people he encounters during his investigation have lived the life he feels he should have lived: good school, Oxbridge education, high-paid job. When he encounters Turing, something long-dormant is awakened within him, and he finds himself yearning for that parallel existence, where mathematics and science are his central focus, rather than petty crime and small-town politics. By the book’s end, we find ourselves identifying more firmly with this young man who has proven to be more tenacious and more open-minded than we might have initially given him credit for.

Lagercrantz’s portrayal of Alan Turing is remarkably on-target. Seen through the eyes of Corell, and of the people with whom Turing lived, worked and, in some cases, the people he loved, we get a remarkably intimate picture of what his life was like in the years before he ended it. While he never preaches, Lagercrantz leaves us with a sense of horror and despair that a man who gave so much to his country could have been treated in such an inhumane manner because of his sexual preferences. It shines a light on the injustices Turing faced and that most likely drove him to take his own life while reminding us of just how much he achieved during his brief stint at Bletchley Park, and of the legacy he left a world that nowadays relies very heavily on his “universal machines”.

Lagercrantz touches on the Cold War mentality that suffused England – and most of the western hemisphere – during the early 1950s and introduces Corell to Britain’s fledgling secret services, for whom Turing worked before his sexual preferences became widely acknowledged. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is an excellent companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also features Turing in a prominent role: like Stephenson’s weighty tome, Lagercrantz’s novel is keen to expand the reader’s horizons, to open their minds to new ideas and new philosophies and is not afraid to shy away from long discussions of mathematical problems – most specifically the liar’s paradox, which formed the basis of Turing’s work on a universal digital machine – in order to allow us to completely understand not only Turing, but also the policeman who has become consumed by a desire to know who the mathematician was. Some readers may find this heavy going at times, but it forms an integral part of the story.

David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon

JakobsColours JAKOB’S COLOURS

Lindsay Hawdon (lhawdon.co.uk)

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

£14.99

Jakob is barely eight-years old, and he is running for his life, searching for shelter in a world that has turned against him. It is 1944, and Jakob is a half-gypsy, the oldest child of a Romany father and an English mother, living in German-occupied Europe. High on Hitler’s list of undesirables, Jakob’s gypsy heritage has condemned him to a less-than-human existence that can only end in one way if he stays where he is. So, he must reach Switzerland before he is found, but what chance does an eight-year-old child have against the might of the German army?

Just when you thought you knew about all the atrocities carried out during the Second World War, something else gets unearthed, or someone comes along to examine something in more detail, and uncovers fresh horror and pain. Based on the Romany Holocaust, Lindsay Hawdon’s novel is all the more intense for showing the horror through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy whose survival is, by no means, guaranteed.

Concentrating on the story of Jakob as he tries to evade capture, Hawdon uses flashbacks to supplement this young boy’s story, to show us where he came from, in every sense of the phrase. Flashbacks to the previous year show us Jakob on the run with his mother, brother and sister, as they try to find Jakob’s father, from whom they were separated during a pogrom on the town in which they had settled. During other flashbacks, we find the family all together though, horrifically, they’re wedged into railway cattle cars on their way to God knows what fate. Others show us the childhood of Jakob’s mother, the madness that drove her to the asylum where she met and fell in love with Jakob’s father, a man obsessed with collecting colours, a passion that he passed on to his eldest son.

In the main narrative, Jakob finds himself being helped by an old man named Marcus. Marcus has secret compartments under his stairs that he uses to hide people from the Nazis. He takes Jakob to his home and hides him in the smallest of these compartments, where he lives for months, his only companionship the two Jews in the neighbouring cubbies, and his daily trip outside to get fed and use the toilet. As the story progresses, a plan is hatched, and Jakob begins to receive more food to strengthen him for a run to the Swiss border. In his innocence, much of what is happening passes over Jakob’s head, though there are clues that point the reader to a more realistic conclusion.

There is much beauty between the covers of this stunning novel: the relationship between Jakob and his mother; the stories she tells; and the love that shines from the page not only between Jakob and his family members, but also between Jakob and the man who will become his saviour, Marcus. This beauty is balanced by moments of sheer horror that will leave the reader in tears – what lies at the end of that train journey; Jakob’s realisation as he leaves his cupboard under Marcus’ stairs for the last time. These and other scenes are designed to rip the heart from your chest and wring it dry; the contrast with the beauty, with the wonderful colours that infuse the whole story, makes the horror all the more stark.

Hawdon’s characterisation is masterful, to say the least. In a few short words, she can create a living, breathing human being out of thin air: Jakob and his family; the two men in the cupboards next to Jakob, each with their own stories to tell, their own pain-filled routes to these small spaces of solace and shelter; the German soldier who haunts Jakob’s dreams, one of the most evil characters you’re likely to encounter in fiction, who remains unnamed, and whose conscience makes his violence even more terrifying.

As well as Jakob’s story, this is the story of the Romany people, and the trials they faced during Hitler’s reign. As we learn about the history of Jakob’s family, it becomes clear that little has changed for the gypsy people in the thirty years or so that the novel spans: the pogroms and discrimination are nothing new, though the final outcome may have changed. What Thomas Keneally did for the Jews in Schindler’s Ark, so Lindsay Hawdon does for the Romany in Jakob’s Colours. There are obvious parallels between the two works, but what makes them so similar is the simplicity of their stories, the horror they evoke, and the sympathy that the author has for their subject. Schindler’s Ark won Keneally the Booker Prize; I’ll be very surprised if Jakob’s Colours doesn’t receive similar accolades in the coming year.

Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.

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.

GOLDEN SON by Pierce Brown

GOLDEN SON - Pierce Brown GOLDEN SON

Pierce Brown (pierce-brown.com)

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

£16.99

Two years after his victory at the Institute, Darrow au Andromedus, the Red who now lives the life of a Gold, is on the cusp of repeating the trick at the Academy, and gaining command of a fleet of Gold vessels. It is a surprise to everyone, then, when he is defeated in the final battle, and a bigger surprise to Darrow to learn that his sponsor and protector will be cutting him free following his failure to gain control of the fleet. In a race against time, Darrow must find a way to remain under the protection of House Augustus in order to stay alive long enough to progress his true mission: the downfall of the Gold’s Society from the inside. As civil war looms, Darrow will find his loyalties tested, and his own sense of identity increasingly blurred.

Returning to the world and characters he created in Red Rising, Pierce Brown takes us once again into the head of Darrow, the Red miner who has turned Gold in order to help free his people. Within a handful of pages, the reader will feel comfortable with this familiar world, with the idiosyncrasies of the language, and with the relationships between the characters. Of course, it is imperative to read Red Rising first, or very little will make sense. What Brown began sketching out in that first novel on a small scale, we now see on a much larger canvas, as the author expands the scope of the story out into the solar system, much of which has been colonised by the Golds. From the old ways that we grew used to on Mars – the ancient Roman setting an effect broken only by the occasional glimpse of technology – we move into epic space opera, fleets of gleaming spaceships, giant behemoths that make Battlestar Galactica look like a lifeboat, and the threat of looming war is apparent from the outset.

Much has changed in the intervening two years, and Darrow finds himself the centre of an odd circle of friends. Relations with Mustang, the girl to whom he grew close during their time in the Institute, and the daughter of his patron, are strained following his decision to enter the Academy. This is the first sign we, the reader, see that the transition from Red to Gold may have affected more than just Darrow’s body: there is a hunger for power (admittedly, we are fairly certain that it is all for the greater good, but there is still plenty of room for doubt), something that we might associate more with the Golds than with the lowReds from whence Darrow came. This is a theme that recurs throughout the novel, and Darrow frequently questions his own motives, seeing in himself a man he has no desire to be, a man his wife would not – could not – ever have loved.

As the story progresses, Brown begins to drip-feed us answers to some of the questions that remained unanswered at the end of the first book: who are the Sons of Ares, for example, and what, exactly is their game plan? As friendships shrivel and die, Darrow quickly comes to understand that he has some very dangerous enemies who know a little bit too much about his origins. It becomes difficult to know who can be trusted, who is waiting to plunge the knife once his back is turned, and the reader feels as helpless as Darrow since we know only what he knows. In a shocking revelation as the story heads towards a stormy and cliff-hanging climax, Brown pulls the carpet from under our feet and completely changes the nature of the game; everything we thought we understood about what Darrow is doing, what his mission is all about, is called into question in a single moment of magic.

All of the elements that made Red Rising such a special book are present and accounted for in this second outing, but the increase in scope allows Brown to play around a bit more with the ideas and concepts that make up this world he has created. Edge of the seat thrills coupled with scenes that take place on a cinematic scale make this an entirely engrossing read. Darrow, although changed from our first encounter with him, is still as engaging as ever, and it is his journey that we keep coming back for. In the tradition of the finest “middle volumes” of classic trilogies, Golden Son builds on the world created in the first volume, makes us rethink what we thought we knew, and finishes on a bang that will ensure we’re all waiting impatiently for the trilogy’s final instalment.

A stunning space opera of epic proportions, Golden Son is gripping and intense at times, tender and funny at others. It takes the story begun in Red Rising in unexpected directions and manages to be that most rare of beasts: the sequel that surpasses the original. If you enjoyed Red Rising, Golden Son will knock your socks off. If you’ve yet to experience Pierce Brown’s multi-coloured world, you will definitely want to be caught up before the third volume drops next year. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

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

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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