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An Interview with OWEN LAUKKANEN

OwenLaukkanen Name: OWEN LAUKKANEN

Author of: THE PROFESSIONALS (2014)
                 CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE (2014)
                 KILL FEE (2015)
                 THE STOLEN ONES (Forthcoming, May 2015)

Owen Laukkanen graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program before spending three years as a reporter in the world of professional poker. He lives in Vancouver, where he writes the successful Stevens and Windermere series.

Thank you, Owen, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure! Thanks very much for having me.

The Stevens and Windermere books are set in and around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It seems an odd location, not as instantly-recognisable as, say, New York or Los Angeles, especially to us non-Americans. What’s the logic behind the setting and why choose it over those other places, or even your native Vancouver?

There’s kind of a funny story about how the books came to be set in Minnesota, which was not something I’d planned to do. I’d spent very little time in the Twin Cities before I wrote The Professionals, so I was really unprepared to have to go back and set a series there.

I’m one of those writers who doesn’t think before he types, which is to say, I like to start with a character and a crime and let the story unfold as it wants to. The Professionals is about a group of nomadic kidnappers, and I started the book somewhat arbitrarily in Chicago.

Being nomadic, they needed somewhere to go from the Windy City, and I (again, pretty arbitrarily), sent them north to Minnesota, whereupon I needed some law enforcement to act as foils for the group, and voila, in came Stevens and Windermere.

I’d really intended for the kidnappers to be the main characters of the book, and it wasn’t until the book was finished that my American publisher broached the idea of creating a series around Stevens and Windermere, and I found myself suddenly having to do a lot of research about the Twin Cities as I prepared to write the second, and later books.

That said, I feel pretty lucky to have happened into this Minnesota locale, as it gives me plenty of excuses to visit Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both of which are wonderful. And the state as a whole is a lot like Canada, where I’m from, so it’s not an entirely alien place to be writing about.

As far as setting a book in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada, I confess to being a little bit of a mercenary. Put plain, books set in Canada don’t seem to sell very well, internationally or at home. There’s a notion that in order to succeed in Canada as an artist, you have to be seen to have succeeded in America, and I wanted to reach as wide a readership as I could.

I’ve spent enough time in the United States that I feel I can write about it credibly, but I do sometimes think wistfully about setting something in Vancouver, which is certainly rife with its own criminal possibilities.

In the early books of the series, at least, Kirk and Carla aren’t your average police procedural partners, given that they work for different agencies (Stevens for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Windermere for the FBI). The job titles inform a lot of the dynamics between the pair. How did the relationship develop as you began writing the series, and did you have a specific goal in separating the pair?

Essentially, the relationship developed out of jurisdictional necessity. Stevens is a state policeman, and I imagined that he would be the first agent called to deal with The Professionals’ band of kidnappers, but I knew he would need FBI help.

As I said, I initially intended for the pair to act as foils for my criminal protagonists, so I didn’t give very much thought to their relationship at first. In fact, I think Windermere is a little one-dimensional in the first book, as I figured she would be more of a plot device than a main character.

It was really a lot of fun to go back and explore their relationship, and especially Windermere as a character, in the second book, Criminal Enterprise, though obviously it’s difficult to keep coming up with reasons that an FBI agent and a state policeman would work together on multiple cases. I think I’ve come up with a workable long-term solution by now, but it’s been something of a challenge to keep them together without straining credibility too much.

Speaking of dynamics: the sexual tension between this pair is palpable from the outset; despite this, the relationship remains (reasonably) professional throughout. Do you feel that the sexual tension is necessary, or important, in helping you develop the characters?

That’s a good question, and it’s certainly something that readers seem to have strong feelings about, one way or the other! I think the sexual tension served a purpose, especially in the early books, as it helped to flesh out the characters and give them lives outside of the investigation they were conducting.

Obviously, characters are more interesting to read about when they’re fully realized and have relatable wants and needs, and I think it’s easier to make a bad guy into a compelling character, simply by virtue of their reasons for committing crimes. I wanted to give the reader a reason to tune into the police chapters, too, and sexual tension seemed like a pretty straightforward way of making them interesting.

That said, readers do tend to take sides, and I’ve received more than a few emails asking when Stevens and Windermere will finally hook up, or begging me to cut the tension out entirely so Stevens can focus on his wife. I think as the series moves on and the characters grow and develop a bit more, the romantic element might wax and wane, but I do think it’s been useful.

You’ve written (or, at the very least, published here in the UK) the first four books of the Stevens and Windermere series in fairly rapid succession. Do you have plans for future volumes in the series, or any plans to write non-series books?

I do! At present, I’m revising the fifth book in the series, which will come out in North America in 2016, and I’m under contract for a sixth book as well. The fifth one is quite dark; the series seems to be getting darker as I go, but I think it might be the best book of the lot.

And I actually have a young adult novel coming out under a pen name very soon! It’s called HOW TO WIN AT HIGH SCHOOL and is written by “Owen Matthews,” and comes out in North America on March 3rd. I have no big plans to jump ship to the YA side of things completely, but it was really fun to work on something completely different. It’s actually the first novel I ever wrote, when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I kept it in the proverbial drawer for a decade or so before dusting it off and realizing it wasn’t as embarrassing as I might have feared.

My real dream, though, is to write a series of nautical adventure novels, and I’m tinkering with the first one right now, though finding time has been difficult with the Stevens and Windermere series, and this YA novel.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I remember reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school and really admiring the language and the imagery it evoked, and wishing I could create something so vivid and alive. I think that’s the book that first made me want to be a writer.

I probably tend to hew closer to the James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard models, with their short, punchy sentences and minimal description. Bret Easton Ellis is another writer whose minimalist style I admire, though I find the content kind of hit-or-miss.

And I was lucky enough to have one of my all-time favourite authors, a Cherokee-Canadian writer named Thomas King, as a creative writing professor in university. He’s probably been the most influential, just as far as the technical aspect of writing is concerned. He taught me how to look critically at my own work and to cut, cut, cut anything that doesn’t serve the story, which is invaluable knowledge for any writer.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I find that the writers I admire most are those who can seemingly pull beautiful, evocative, lyrical sentences out of thin air. I’m not one for much description in my writing, in part because whenever I try to wax rhapsodic about anything, it comes off as purple and overwrought.

But I really envy writers like Michael Chabon, Raymond Chandler, Patrick DeWitt and Amor Towles (among many, many others) for the beauty of their prose, where my own work, in comparison, serves a rather more workmanlike function.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Owen Laukkanen look like?

Typically, a day in my life involves a lot of procrastination! I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, and I try to get about five thousand words written each day, which allows me to get a first draft of a novel hammered out in about four to six weeks. Mind, they’re not particularly good words, but at the very least, I get a draft out and then can settle into the more difficult task of editing my pile of words into something resembling a novel.

Last September, my girlfriend and I adopted a puppy, a year-old rescue pitbull named Lucy, and as my girlfriend works a normal job, it usually falls to me to keep the puppy occupied. So I take the dog for a long walk along the ocean in the morning, and in the afternoon, I write while the dog sleeps it off. If I time it right, I can get the five thousand words in before the dog wakes up and demands her evening walk.

That said, I do find it a little tough writing when there’s a giant mass of sleeping dog cuddled up against me, or better yet, wanting to play. I generally can’t resist her, so the writing is coming a little slower as of late!

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My main advice is to finish the damn draft. In my experience, there are a lot of aspiring writers out there who spend their time tinkering with the first ten chapters of their novel, but whose desire to get the beginning perfect prevents them from actually finishing the thing.

I’m a huge advocate of giving yourself permission to write an absolutely horrible first draft, because then at the very least you have a novel with a beginning, middle and end, and you can then set about revising it into something publishable. But if you’re stuck with the first thirty pages of something, no matter how beautifully written, you’ll never get your book published. So my main piece of advice is to write a first draft, no matter how awful.

My second piece of advice is to learn how to edit your own work as critically as you would your worst enemy’s, and to pick out and cut anything extraneous from your text. This often requires a lot of holding one’s nose, as it’s painful to cut out wonderfully written passages that do absolutely nothing to further your plot, but the sooner you learn to do this, the better.

If you can identify the flaws in your own work and learn to correct them, you’re miles ahead of the game.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading a novel called Where All Light Tends To Go, by an American author named David Joy. It’s partly for business and partly for pleasure, as he and I share an American publisher and will be doing a couple of events together when The Stolen Ones, my fourth, comes out in March.

The publisher sent me a galley of his book, and so far it’s really good, unflinching rural noir. I’d have read the book even if I’d have had to pay for it, so I’m doubly lucky.

If the Stevens and Windermere should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Oh man, this is a question I’ve been asked a fair bit, and I never have any good answers for it. I like Aisha Tyler (from Archer) or Zoe Saldana for Windermere, but for Stevens, I’m lost. As for directors, The Professionals was influenced to a pretty major extent by Michael Mann’s Heat, and I would go nuts if he ever got his hands on a Professionals script.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Oh, good question, and impossible to narrow down. I’d like to have a beer with John Steinbeck, preferably on the docks in Monterey, and since my tastes skew to the nautical, I also wouldn’t pass up a drink with Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, either.

I also confess a weakness for, ahem, British theatre of the late 19th century, so I would happily drink with Oscar Wilde and/or George Bernard Shaw, as well. In all of the above instances, the drink would be alcoholic, and my contribution to the discussion would mostly be my attempting to avoid saying anything foolish, which actually sums up most of my interactions with other people, be they literary titans or otherwise.

Thank you once again, Owen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks again for having me! This was a lot of fun.

KILL FEE by Owen Laukkanen

KILL FEE - Owen Laukkanen KILL FEE

Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

7.99

The billionaire picked a heck of a day to die.

One of Minnesota’s richest men is gunned down in the driveway of the Saint Paul Hotel, in downtown Saint Paul, less than a hundred yards from where Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are sitting on a bench, enjoying a sunny April Saturday. The shooter escapes, but not before Stevens and Windermere see his face, and the emptiness in his eyes. Working together, and with the resources of the FBI behind them, the pair soon track the shooter, as he prepares to kill again in Windermere’s old stomping ground, Miami. As the body count mounts, and the FBI fail to find anything linking the victims, they discover the existence of Killswitch, a highly-secure and well-hidden website that allows people to purchase assassinations and that seems to be operating under the auspices of the Department of Defence. Working in the dark, and against the clock, Stevens and Windermere must find the owner of Killswitch before he can accept any more commissions.

Owen Laukkanen’s detective duo – Minnesota BCA’s Kirk Stevens and the FBI’s Carla Windermere – return for their third outing in Kill Fee. One of the problems Laukkanen was always going to face with this teaming was the plausibility of having them work together on a long succession of cases. This is a problem he solves for the longer term as the novel comes to a close, but for this outing, placing them at the scene of the crime effectively side-steps any problems he might have had, and makes their involvement, and their partnership, seem completely natural.

As with previous outings, Kill Fee is told from multiple points of view as the story progresses, including those of the story’s criminal elements. The plot device – the murder-for-hire website – is an update of the age-old hitman storyline that feels like it might have been plucked from today’s headlines. What makes it all the more believable is Parkerson, the man behind it, who comes across as an ordinary everyday businessman who runs the website on the side as a way of generating some extra cash, in the same way that he might sell his IT skills, or his family hierlooms on eBay.

Following the Saint Paul hit, and the identification of his killer, there is a subtle shift in Parkerson’s fortunes. As we watch his world slowly crumbling around him, and get to know more about the man behind Killswitch, we are forced to question how well we know those people who are closest to us. As with both Arthur Pender (The Professionals) and Carter Tomlin (Criminal Enterprise), Parkerson is the man next door, a theme that serves to ground this series of novels in reality and gives the reader a more immediate sense of danger as the story moves towards its climax.

Back in the driving seat once again are Stevens and Windermere, the unlikely team who nevertheless work so well together. The relationship has evolved somewhat since we first met them in The Professionals, though some things remain a constant: the sexual tension continues, though here it serves a more obvious purpose than in the previous two books. Here Kirk has some competition for Carla’s affections in the form of Derek Mathers, her young, good-looking FBI partner and this leads to a number of standoffs between the three characters. As the novel comes to a close, there is a feeling that this irritant, which serves mainly to distract from the central plot, may finally have been put to bed (pardon the pun), leaving room for a bit less teenage angst in the coming books of the series.

As the characters develop, Laukkanen’s work goes from strength to strength, his unusual pairing – characters who feel a little bit more alive and real with each passing novel – and uncommon setting making the Stevens and Windermere series something of a breath of fresh air in an otherwise crowded genre. By turns funny and tense, Kill Fee is an excellent addition to an already-excellent new series. Relatable characters combined with a plausible and well-constructed plot make this a fun and satisfying read that is perfect for anyone who claims to enjoy a good crime novel. Kill Fee puts Owen Laukkanen firmly on my must-read list and I’m already counting down to the arrival of the series’ fourth book later this year.

The 2014 Round-Up

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for my annual retrospective of what’s gone on at Reader Dad. There’s a lot to cover this year, so without further ado…

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, I have read 65 books this year, more than every year except last year, but I had an excuse for getting so much read last year! Of those, a massive 43 were by authors that are new to me (and a large percentage of those were 2014 debut authors). It feels like I’ve read a lot of crime this year, but when I look back on the list, I discover that my reading has been much more varied than I thought, covering everything from epistolary humour (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) to cannibalism (Season To Taste by Natalie Young), epic fantasy to Hitler satire. The list contains six translations, some of which you’ll find in the lists below and two re-reads, which are becoming a rarity these days when there are so many new books to read, and so little time in which to read them.

The big focus of the blog this year, aside from the reviews of dark fiction, was the #CarrieAt40 project that kicked off in April to celebrate Stephen King’s forty years as a published author. I’m delighted by the reaction, and would like to personally thank everyone who provided an essay: Keith Walters, Book Geek, Alison Littlewood, John Connolly, Bev Vincent, Sarah Langan, Mark West, Lloyd Shepherd, Steve Cavanagh, Simon Clark, V. M. Giambanco, Mason Cross, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Lotz, P. T. Hylton, Neal Munro, Simon Toyne, Lou Sytsma, Michael Marshall Smith, Kealan Patrick Burke, Andrew Pyper and Rob Chilver. I must also thank my good friend David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for putting me in touch with Mr Connolly, and Graeme Williams at Orion Books for putting me in touch with Andrew Pyper. Thanks, too, to Mr King’s publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, who were extremely supportive and especially the wonderful Hodderscape folks who were angels when it came to publicity. Special thanks have to go to the lovely Philippa Pride and Kerry Hood, Mr King’s editor and publicist, respectively, at Hodder, for their support, and to Anne Perry for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

#CarrieAt40 comes to an end at the end of the year when I will be closing the Big Vote. Response has been lacklustre so far, so rather than the “definitive” answer I’d hoped for, I’ll be presenting the favourites as they stand. Please feel free to point everyone you know at the vote in the meantime, and maybe in the next week and a half we’ll get close to that “definitive” level.

And so to the important bit: the list of my favourite books of the year. Last year’s approach seemed to work well, so I’ll be using the same approach this year: my favourite debuts, and favourite non-debuts of the year. As always, the list contains books that were first published in 2014, and they’re listed in the order in which I read them, so no significance should be attached to their position in the list. Oh, and please don’t take the “ten” literally! As always, links will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP TEN DEBUTS OF 2014

SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND by Natalie Young (Tinder Press)

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.

   
RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

   
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

   
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

   
LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes [trans. Jamie Bulloch] (MacLehose Press)

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

   
THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

   
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker [trans. Sam Taylor] (MacLehose Press)

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

   
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.

   
THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma [trans. Agnes Broomé] (Head of Zeus)

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.

 

MATT’S TOP TEN NON-DEBUTS OF 2014

THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.

   
THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton (Mantle)

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

   
IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans. Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

   
ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

   
THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

   
MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

   
THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

   
NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe (The Borough Press)

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

   
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve readThe Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

   
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

   
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

   
REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

   
A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

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.

 

COMING SOON…

2015 should see a return to the usual schedule of reviews and guest posts, despite the fact that I’ve already read the best book of the year. Despite that, it’s already shaping up to look like an excellent year, with the return of Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and an announcement early in the New Year concerning Joe Hill. The year also brings with it new Daniel Polansky, the follow-up to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, to name but a few. Don’t forget that the #CarrieAt40 Big Vote closes at midnight on December 31st, so do please vote, and spread the word.

All that remains is to thank the publishers and publicists who have been so kind to me this year, and have kept me stocked up with wonderful reading material. Thanks also to the authors who take time out to write guest posts or answer interview questions, and to all those (mentioned above) who provided essays for the #CarrieAt40 project. And thanks to you, the readers, who make it all worthwhile; without you, I’d just be talking to myself, and I already do far too much of that.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and a happy, safe and prosperous 2015 to each and every one of you.

THE PROFESSIONALS by Owen Laukkanen

THE PROFESSIONALS - Owen Laukkanen THE PROFESSIONALS

Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£7.99

In the beginning, the whole thing had been Marie’s idea. It had started as a joke, some throwaway line spouted off one rainy night in Seattle, the gang holed up at Sawyer’s place bitching about the job market over cheap beer and pizza, scholarships almost gone and graduation upon them, nobody but Mouse with a future to speak of.

Arthur Pender and his friends have finished college, graduating with degrees that are practically useless in a dead job market. When one of them suggests, as a joke, that they turn to robbing banks or kidnapping, Pender sees a plan that could work: kidnap someone rich, ask for a paltry ransom, say $60,000 – almost guaranteeing that he won’t go to the police on his release – and move to another city immediately after the job. It’s a plan that has worked well for almost two years, until they pick the wrong man. Now, with the FBI and the Mafia on their tail, Pender and his friends need to find a way out of the country without getting themselves caught or killed.

From the first page, where we watch Pender’s crew perform a well-oiled kidnap routine, Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, has the reader by the throat. The plan that Pender has put in place is surprising because of its originality, a concept that shines throughout this beautiful little thriller. What is, perhaps, most surprising of all, is the fact that we identify so readily with Pender and his group of friends. There’s something about them that puts us firmly in their camp, that makes us want them to succeed, despite the multiple crimes they have committed over the course of two years; The Professionals is, in some ways, a modern day reworking of Robin Hood, without the "give to the poor" part, and the Robin Hood character (in this case, Pender) is the man around whom the whole story revolves.

Laukkanen’s debut is, ostensibly, the first in the Stevens and Windermere series (the second book due later this year, and the third and fourth instalments currently works in progress) but, because of the focus on the "bad guys’, it feels more like a standalone thriller that has the occasional appearance from a pair of quirky cops. Kirk Stevens is a member of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and is the first person to put together a string of separate incidents and identify them as the work of a serial kidnapper. When he realises that the crimes cross state lines, he is only too happy to hand the case off to the FBI, in the form of young agent Carla Windermere, who, in turn, is only too happy to keep Stevens involved. The pair work well together, and are a joy to watch in action, despite the slightly heavy-handed attempt at sexual tension which, thankfully, doesn’t get too much airtime.

Pender and gang have more to worry about than the FBI, in the blocky form of D’Antonio, a man who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical piece of Mafia beef, but who turns out to be a man of some intelligence and heart. His backstory – that of a long-serving Mafia enforcer – isn’t touched on, but it’s a story we’re all familiar with from watching the Godfather films, or The Sopranos, and Laukkanen does an excellent job of endowing him with a sense of barely-restrained violence that makes him at least as interesting as the other characters in the book.

I have no idea why, but there are portions of the book that remind me of Steven Spielberg’s early directorial effort, The Sugarland Express, though there are barely any points of similarity between the two. There’s something very laid-back about this novel, despite the frantic pace at which the action moves, and it serves to set The Professionals apart from other novels in the genre, raising it above the category of just another buddy-cop story or chase novel, to that rare category of "something you’ve never seen before". Make no mistake, regardless of how this book is marketed, or how the series progresses, this is the story of Arthur Pender and his friends; they are the people we’re rooting for, the antiheroes of this piece. Which is not to say that Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere don’t have what it takes to carry a series, but to me it feels more like a spin-off (think Sam & Twitch) than something that was planned that way.

With a plot that moves at a breakneck speed, and characters – good, bad and elsewhere along the spectrum of grey – that are engaging, likeable and, best of all, human, Owen Laukkanen has burst onto the scene with one of the finest thrillers you’re likely to encounter this year. I do have a couple of minor niggles with some of the directions the plot takes, but I’m putting it down to the pressure under which the characters are operating, and dismissing them as not overly important to the overall direction in which the story goes. It’s a smart and violent story that grabs the reader from the first page to the last, and it makes this reader, at the very least, excited for what is still to come. For now, I can only recommend that you get in on the ground floor, and enjoy.

THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee

THE UNDERTAKING - Audrey Magee THE UNDERTAKING

Audrey Magee (audreymagee.com)

Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

In order to temporarily escape the madness of the Eastern Front, German soldier Peter Faber turns to marriage. It is a marriage of convenience, the bride one Katharina Spinell, chosen from a catalogue, a girl he has never met. The benefits are mutual: ten days’ honeymoon leave for him; a war pension for her should he die on the battlefield. In Berlin, the attraction between them is immediate and mutual, and when Peter returns to the front, he leaves more than a memory; Katharina is pregnant and must raise the child alone while Peter moves ever eastwards, fighting a war that is always on the verge of being over.

Audrey Magee’s first novel is a thing of beauty. Split between the ever-shifting Eastern Front, and the relative comfort of Berlin, it shows two sides to the horrors faced by ordinary Germans during the Second World War, horrors often forgotten in favour of the atrocities committed by the upper echelons of the same army for which Peter Faber fights. On the one hand, we have Peter and the small unit of men with whom he lives and fights. Here is the reality of war: the front line, manned by the soldiers at the bottom of the pecking order, while those further up give orders from positions of relative safety. Magee presents these as a series of almost surreal, horrific snapshots, brief glimpses of battle and the aftermath, all seen from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. Why, exactly are they fighting? What will they gain? For Peter, at least, there is good enough reason in the form of his wife and child back in Berlin.

‘Why are you here?’
‘Cannon fodder for that lot in Berlin.’
‘Not that again.’
‘It’s all there is. You can hide behind your wife and child, kill all around you for your wife and child, but you’re really not doing it for them. You’re doing it for the fat bastards in Berlin.’

The other half of the story focuses on Katharina and her family in Berlin. Katharina’s father works for an important member of the Nazi Party and, as a result, receives certain perks that make the lives of the Spinells more comfortable than those of many people around them. We get a brief glimpse of the type of work Mr Spinell, on the orders of the charismatic Dr Weinart, does when Peter is on leave: their job is to evict the Jewish population of Berlin from their homes and send them packing to points east. A large apartment, plenty of food, even a Russian girl to take the pressure of housework from Katharina and her mother, turn out to be less than sufficient payment for the sacrifice the Spinells will ultimately make in the form of their son, Katharina’s brother, a solider also fighting on the Eastern Front. Set against the nightly bombing of the city, and the increasing scarcity of food, the story of the rise and fall of the Spinell family is strangely inevitable while also being heart-breaking to watch. Close to the book’s end, Magee manages to destroy us completely with one single sentence.

For the most part, dialogue forms the backbone of the story, with descriptive narrative very much taking a back seat. Magee’s ability to present a situation purely in dialogue (often without dialogue tags – ‘he said’, ‘she said’) is second to none, scenes running for pages at a time consisting of little more than fragments of speech spoken by two, three, four characters at a time. In these scenes, Magee accomplishes two things: to convey to the reader exactly what is going on, and what the context is; and to simulate a realistic conversation without ever leaving the reader wondering who said what, despite that fact that we’re rarely told explicitly. The characters in this remarkable novel, despite the subject – let’s face it, what could be more generic than a group of soldiers in the midst of war? – are all fully-drawn, each with a unique personality and recognisable voice.

The tone of The Undertaking has an element of the light-hearted. In many ways, this is a consequence of the dialogue-led nature of the story. Despite that, Magee never lets us forget exactly what is going on. We, the reader, find ourselves on the front lines with the men of Faber’s unit, filthy, hungry and cold with no idea if we’ll make it through the next five minutes, let alone to the end of the day. Halfway through, the story takes a sinister twist as Faber finds himself in the centre of the clusterfuck that was the Battle of Stalingrad. Around the same time, Katharina and her family seem to fall out of favour and things take a turn for the disastrous as shortages of food, fuel and medication take their toll on a family already torn apart by personal loss. The disappearance of Katharina’s husband compounds their problems, branding them, by association, as cowards and denying Katharina – due to the lack of any evidence that he ever died – of the war pension that was hers by right of marriage.

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

EAST OF INNOCENCE by David Thorne

East-of-Innocence - David Thorne EAST OF INNOCENCE

David Thorne

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

It’s an old joke, well-worn. What’s the difference between God and a lawyer? The man sitting across the desk from me, eyes fixed on my face, doesn’t look like he’d appreciate the punch line.

Daniel Connell, son of an Essex hard-man, is a big-time lawyer fallen on hard times. Following a disagreement with one of the partners at the high-powered law firm where he worked, the hulking Connell finds himself back in the town where he grew up, practicing a variety of law that is very different to the cases he was used to in the City. Terry Campion, policeman and client, turns up at Daniel’s office, beaten and bruised, and hands him a collection of discs. Terry has been beaten by a group of fellow policemen, and the discs contain video evidence of the assault. Unknown to Terry, they also contain something a lot more valuable to his attackers, and to the family of young Rosie O’Shaughnessy, missing presumed dead. Daniel’s other case, Billy Morrison’s injury in a hit and run accident, turns out to be less accidental than Billy might like to believe, and brings Connell in contact with local crime boss, Vincent Halliday who, with an offhand remark, begins Connell’s search for his mother, a woman he believes walked out on him and his father when he was only a few days old. Making no friends, and facing violence at every turn, Connell sets out to find his missing mother, and to seek the downfall of Baldwin, the psychotic policeman whose assault on Terry Campion is the least of his crimes, and of Vincent Halliday, whose decision thirty-seven years earlier sealed the course of Daniel’s life of abuse and terror at the hands of his father.

Connell’s career choice is, interestingly, what sets David Thorne’s debut novel aside from many others in a similar genre. He isn’t a policeman, not a private detective. And yet, his role as lawyer, and the community in which he practices, combine to make him a sort of everyman who has the habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (for him; for us readers, it’s perfect, a mystery thriller with a hint of a difference). Connell is a big man, and as we learn about his background, it becomes clear that the choice of law probably surprised many of the people who knew him. Even now, at thirty-seven years old, Connell is introduced (and, on more than one occasion, introduces himself) not as "Daniel Connell", but as "Frankie’s boy", which tells both the person to whom he is being introduced, and the reader, all we need to know about Daniel and his father, and the kinds of circles in which they move.

Connell is instantly likeable (quite a feat for a lawyer, if you follow the joke that opens the novel to its logical conclusion), a decent, honest and surprisingly gentle man in the body of a giant thug.  His search for his mother, at times irritating, as it takes away from the action/thriller-based subplots, becomes key to the novel as we realise just how well this man has turned out under the circumstances, and how much better things might have been for him under the care of a much more caring parent. Connell’s father is a nasty and abusive alcoholic, a man who revels in handing out punishment, even to the giant that his son has become.

The people who surround Connell are as well-drawn as the central character, and Thorne spends considerable time evoking the small Essex town where these people live and do business. Connell’s best friend is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, a man considerably changed since his return from war less one leg; Vincent Halliday comes across as the typical East End gangster, an unpleasant man – getting on in years – who relies on hired muscle to do his dirty work; and Baldwin, a police officer who has taken the power and authority of the office to the extreme, a man who sees himself as above the law, and who will stop at nothing when he feels that his position is in danger.

Baldwin smiled reasonably. ‘If you don’t tell me,’ he said, ‘I’m going to cut your finger off.’  He raised his eyebrows, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘On that bandsaw.’

In Baldwin, Thorne has created one of the most morally reprehensible figures in British crime fiction, a man the reader loves to hate, but one so charismatic, so utterly evil, that he still manages to steal every single scene of which he is a part.

Connell tells the story in a well-developed voice, in a present tense which lends some immediacy to the proceedings. There are moments of sheer horror with darkly humorous interludes, and even some genuinely touching moments as we follow Daniel on his quest to locate his lost childhood. He’s a quick-witted and sharp-tongued protagonist who makes an instant impression on anyone he meets, including the reader.

‘Look,’ I say. ‘This is my office. I have client confidentialities to respect, other cases to take care of. No offence, but it’s going to be hard to do that with some hired goon standing in the corner.’ Eddie frowns. ‘By hired good, Eddie, I mean you.’

East of Innocence is the first novel from a talented writer who cut his teeth on TV and radio comedy. His origins definitely shine through in the novel, despite its dark tone and subject matter – Daniel Connell is a witty and intelligent man, and we like him almost instantly upon meeting him. By turns gruesome, touching, violent, funny, East of Innocence is never less than engaging and always unpredictable. It’s a wonderfully written example of gritty British crime drama that we’re as likely as not to see on our TV screens in the near future, peopled with strong and engaging characters, most notably the story’s central character who is more than capable of carrying a series of books, if Thorne can find a way to keep each entry fresh and interesting. His debut is definitely a winner.

SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet

SAVE YOURSELF - Kelly Braffet SAVE YOURSELF

Kelly Braffet (www.kellybraffet.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

When Patrick Cusimano’s father kills a child while driving drunk, Patrick calls the police. The "right thing", morally, isn’t necessarily the right thing for the Cusimano family, and Patrick’s older brother Mike resents him for it. Layla and Verna Elshere are the daughters of a preacher; Layla is the face of her father’s campaigns and she rebels as soon as she’s old enough to feel that she knows her own mind. Joining a gang of outsiders, Layla finds herself fascinated by Patrick Cusimano and his family, and feels the need to save her younger sister from the same fate that she, herself, has only recently escaped. As the different parts of Layla’s life intersect, guided by the charismatic Justinian, it becomes clear that the choices these people have made in the past, the choices that define the life they currently live, have massive – and potentially fatal – implications for their immediate futures.

Save Yourself is the third novel from rising US star Kelly Braffet. Small-town America has long provided rich pickings for storytellers of all types, and Braffet starts out on familiar ground: on the one hand we have the Cusimanos, a pair of brothers from the wrong side of the track, stuck in dead-end graveyard-shift jobs, heading for the same fate as their father: a life ruined by alcohol and inertia. On the other side of the tracks, the Elsheres, a man who runs his own church and uses his young daughters as the faces of his various campaigns. Until, of course, the inevitable rebellion, and acceptance of a lifestyle that is the polar opposite to the one they have been forced to live during their formative years, facilitated by Justinian and the small group of outsiders that he keeps close.

Dark and slow-moving, this is very much a character-driven piece, and Braffet shows a deft turn of hand in presenting these people to the reader, making them leap from the page, and building a complex set of relationships between them that lead, ultimately, to the gloriously noirish finale. Patrick, who turns his father in to the police and sleeps with his brother’s girlfriend, is the ultimate black sheep. He is well-matched, then, with Layla who is an outsider in her own family, and finds more comfort with the small group of likeminded people she calls friends. Fascinated by Patrick because of the family history, the relationship turns darkly sexual, adding to the burden that already weighs Patrick down. Verna, bullied at school by the same crowd that gave her older sister such a hard time, welcomes the relief that comes with abandoning the life she knows and following in her sister’s footsteps. And Justinian, hardly more than a teenager, but with a strange "pull" that gives him power over the small band of misfits that he believes are his own, the dark, demented puppet-master that seems to be pulling all the strings.

As the story progresses, and we see how these relationships play out, it becomes clear that Layla and Verna have gotten themselves mixed up in a cult of sorts; the sort of cult that nurtures school bombers and shooters. Once this becomes clear, things spiral quickly out of control, and the pace picks up into a headlong rush towards some inevitable final showdown. There are no heroes here, and while it’s difficult to like any of the characters, Braffet makes sure we know where our sympathies lie, so that we become completely engrossed in the story, and completely invested in following these people to whatever bitter end is in store for them.

Save Yourself is dark, but not heavy-going, despite the heavy themes it examines: alcoholism, depression, outsiders and cults. There are some startling parallels with father-in-law Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (minus the supernatural elements), in the themes Braffet examines. And anyone who has found themselves engrossed in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Gus van Sant’s beautiful 2003 film Elephant will revel in the deconstruction of the psychology of young people, and the examination of what causes them to snap and head off to school, or the mall, or the cinema with an automatic weapon in their backpack.

Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.

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.

NO WAY BACK by Matthew Klein

No-Way-Back-by-Matthew-Klein NO WAY BACK

Matthew Klein (matthewklein.org)

Corvus (corvus-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Jim Thane is a restart executive, a Silicon Valley veteran who specialises in taking on failing companies and turning them around, making them profitable. Jim’s latest assignment has taken him to the oppressive heat of Florida, where Tao Software needs his specialist skills. Within days, Jim has discovered that someone has been embezzling – to the tune of three million dollars – from the company, and that the previous CEO was involved with a very unsavoury crowd. Caught between the FBI and the Russian mob, Jim quickly discovers the real reason he was given this job and just how much danger comes as part of the package.

On Monday morning, at one minute past nine o’clock, I sit in a Florida parking lot counting cars.

It’s an old trick, the easiest way to take a company’s pulse: arrive at the beginning of the business day – on the dot – and see how many employees have bothered to show up. You can tell a lot about a company from its parking lot.

No Way Back has the feel of two different novels glued together in the middle. In this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the transition from one to the other is much less jarring than that statement might lead you to believe. At the centre of the story is its narrator, Jim Thane, a Silicon Valley veteran who now specialises in rescuing or salvaging failing technology companies. When the story opens, Jim has been clean for two years, but spent most of the previous decade drinking, taking meth and paying high-class prostitutes for sex. Somewhere in that deep and distant past, a past of which he is now extremely ashamed, he was responsible for the death of his only son, who drowned in the bath whilst in Jim’s care. This tragedy has forced a wedge between Jim and his wife, and the tension between them is palpable in the numerous scenes they share.

The first half or so of the book concerns Jim’s efforts to turn Tao Software around. The company haven’t made any money for years, mainly because they have nothing to sell – their only product is very much still in development and no-one seems to have thought about how, or to whom, they might sell it anyway. Klein’s background in the industry provides him with plenty of material, and it’s often presented in a blackly humourous way that skewers both the industry and the individuals that work within it. As someone who has been making a living in software development for close to fifteen years, I found it cut very close to the bone, at once perfectly accurate and laugh-out-loud funny. With little more than the occasional nod to the threat that Jim will ultimately face, Klein still manages to make this first section of the novel extremely readable and strangely exciting. Which, given the novel’s corporate setting, is something to shout about.

The trouble starts on a Tuesday afternoon in September.

As the second section of the novel begins, Klein shifts up a couple of gears and brings the threat into the forefront of the narrative, taking Jim completely out of his comfort zone. As the pressure builds, Jim starts slipping into old habits, and when he discovers that his neighbours are watching his house, he starts realise that nothing is quite what it seems. Tension mounts – along with the body count – until the shock ending, one of only many twists and turns the reader will encounter along the way. For me, this final twist was one too far, and raised as many questions about the preceding narrative as it answered. Suddenly things that we had taken for granted no longer made any sense. While it by no means ruined the novel for me, it left me feeling slightly cheated and a little bit flat.

Jim Thane is a character that the reader will love to hate; his current job and his horrible past combine to leave very few likeable qualities, and yet we still feel sorry for him when we see how he is treated by his wife, or how his life begins to fall apart at the seams as he digs into Tao Software’s history. That said, he’s an engaging narrator and often brings some comic relief to otherwise tense situations. The combination of thoroughly unpleasant central character and corporate subject matter should make No Way Back the ultimate snooze-fest, but what we find is the complete opposite: engaging and entertaining, we are compelled to keep going, as much to see if Jim can turn the company’s fortunes around, as to find out what’s happening with the Russian mob.

Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. A slightly misjudged ending is the only thing holding it back from “excellent”. There is a ready-made audience in Klein’s peers in the software industry, or anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment, but No Way Back will also have a much wider appeal and should be perfect for anyone who likes their thrillers to have a slow build and an ending that packs a punch.

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