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The 2015 Round-Up

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the year that has been. As is now “traditional”, I’ll be using this post to talk about my favourite books of the year, but first a quick blast through some of the non-bookish stuff that happened in the past twelve months.

For me, 2015 was always going to be significant because it’s the year in which I turned forty (so old!) and, thanks to my wife, I spent my fortieth birthday fulfilling the lifelong ambition of visiting KL Auschwitz and the nearby city of Kraków (I’ll talk more about this early in the New Year). 2015 also saw the release of the much-hyped latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, a film that did not disappoint, and which reawakened (pun most definitely intended) something of the child buried deep within this forty-year-old body, helped in no small way by the fact that I was able to share the experience with my six-year-old son, who bears all the hallmarks of becoming twice the nerd his father is.

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, Goodreads informs me that I have read 74 books, and I’m likely to finish both my current paperback and audiobook reads before the end of the day. Of these, 34 are by authors I have never read before, and 13 of those were debuts. A miserly seven were translated fiction, and you’ll find a few of them on the lists below.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that only 34 reviews were posted on Reader Dad during 2015, which falls way short of the 74 books completed. I can only apologise, and my only excuse is laziness. My aim for 2016 is to get back to a more regular review schedule and to review, if not everything I read, then the vast majority of it. As a result, many of the books in the top ten lists below don’t have links to existing reviews.

The lists, as always, are presented in the order in which the books were read, so don’t attach any importance to their relative positions.

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2015

ARAB JAZZ by Karim Miské [trans: Sam Gordon] (MacLehose Press)

Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (Orion Books)

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

DARK STAR by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon (Hodder & Stoughton)

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.

THE ENCHANTED THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfield (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I didn’t review this book at the time because I didn’t think I could do it justice. Told from the point of view of a prisoner on death row, it intertwines his story with that of an investigator tasked with getting the sentence of a fellow inmate commuted. Beautiful and haunting, it’s an accomplished first novel that will leave you gasping for more.

Small Angry Planet THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

Without doubt, the best piece of science fiction you’ll read this year, or any year. Following Rosemary Harper’s first few months as a member of the Wayfarer’s crew, this wonderful novel focuses very much on the characters as a way to tell its tale. And what a bunch of characters they are! Reminiscent of the dear-departed Firefly, the novel has an episodic structure that means each chapter is a self-contained “story” that, when combined, produces a fun, action-packed space opera adventure that should not be missed.

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman (Faber & Faber)

There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The-Loney THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray)

Another stunner that I failed to review at the time. Quietly disturbing and beautifully written, this is the horror debut of the year. Hurley is already on my must-read list.

 

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2015

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

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

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen (Harvill Secker)

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.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)

With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.

ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis (Picador)

All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz [trans: George Goulding] (MacLehose Press)

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.

As an aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was an exceptional follow-up to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and probably would have secured a place on this list had Fall of Man in Wilmslow not been released the same year.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (The Borough Press)

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

STALLO by Stefan Spjut [trans: Susan Beard] (Faber & Faber)

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

WAY DOWN DARK by JP Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Simon Toyne’s fourth novel, the first to be set outside the fictional world to which he introduced us in his Sanctus trilogy, cements his place as one of the finest genre writers working today. Clever and engaging, Toyne weaves a number of strands together to produce an exciting, page-turning read. As always, his characterisations are pitch perfect and his sense of place second-to-none – his small-town Arizona seems as real as the Turkish city of Ruin. A perfectly-formed thriller in the author’s own unique style, Solomon Creed is not to be missed by returning fans and Toyne virgins alike.

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

night-music-uk-225 NIGHT MUSIC: NOCTURNES VOLUME 2 by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

Best known for his Charlie Parker crime novels, John Connolly has a penchant for horror in the short form. This second collection of short horror stories contains some absolute gems, as well as a wonderful Lovecraftian novella in five parts, “The Fractured Atlas”.

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans: Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

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.

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne (Doubleday)

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”.

COMING SOON…

With 2016 looming, one of my resolutions is to try to review all of the books I read this year. The first review, that of Keith Lee Morris’ excellent Travelers Rest, should appear shortly before the end of the year. With new novels from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Daniel Polansky and Sarah Pinborough all due within the first half of the year, it’s shaping up to be another bumper year for readers of genre fiction.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2016. May The Force Be With You!*

 

* Well, it is the year of the rebirth of Star Wars, after all!

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND - Stuart Neville THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND

Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)

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

£12.99

Released: June 2015

After seven years served for the murder of his foster father, Ciaran Devine is released from the young offenders’ centre where he and his brother Thomas spent their teenage years. Probation Officer Paula Cunningham is assigned his case – a high-profile case at the time of sentencing, though neither Ciaran nor his brother were named at the time – and reaches out to DCI Serena Flanagan, who helped to put the young man behind bars, to get a better feel for what she can expect. Flanagan is convinced of Ciaran’s innocence, believing that he covered for his older brother. Now that he is back on the street, the women are convinced that he is falling into his old ways, being led astray by Thomas. When the son of the man they murdered – who shares Flanagan’s belief in Ciaran’s innocence  – is beaten, Flanagan and Cunningham concoct a means to separate the brothers, and attempt to get the truth from Ciaran, using any means necessary, despite the fact that it puts both women at odds with their superiors, and sees Flanagan playing dangerously close to the edge of breaking the law herself.

Those We Left Behind, the latest novel from Northern Ireland’s own Stuart Neville, reintroduces us to Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan, who we first met in Neville’s previous novel, The Final Silence. Along with the shift from his long-term series stalwart, Jack Lennon, there is a subtle change in tone in Neville’s writing towards psychological thriller, and marks Those We Left Behind as the first of his Belfast-based crime novels not to feature a heavily sectarian slant. In some ways, this mirrors the changing nature of crime in Belfast itself, as the city continues to try to distance itself from the stigma of the so-called Troubles.

Despite the short period of time that has passed since the events of The Final Silence, we find Serena Flanagan a very different person. We meet her as she returns to work following surgery to combat breast cancer. Flanagan’s career progressed in a time and a place where it was difficult enough to be a police officer, let alone a female one, and we see some of this as she readjusts to her job, and deals with the reactions – and obvious discomfort – of her mostly male colleagues. Neville also gives us a view into her family life, and the impact the cancer and the ensuing surgery has had on her marriage. It is little wonder, then, that she has changed so much in such a short period of time. She may be less sure of herself than was her previous incarnation, but we get a deeper insight into the character as the novel progresses, a fleshing-out that was necessarily missing from before, leaving no doubt that Flanagan is Neville’s finest creation since The Twelve’s Gerry Fegan, a complex, layered character about whom we still have much to learn.

Intertwining the narrative with occasional flashbacks, Neville shows us how the relationship between Flanagan and Ciaran develops, from their initial meeting during the investigation into the murder of his foster father, through to his current obsession with her. Despite the fact that the novel has a number of viewpoints – mainly Flanagan, Cunningham and Ciaran – the author manages to maintain suspense throughout, making the reader feel almost as if they’re inside Flanagan’s head for the duration. The violence, when it occurs, does so off-stage, leaving both reader and investigator to piece together the clues and come to their own conclusion. Whether it is the right conclusion remains in doubt until the story’s thrilling climax, a testament to Neville’s abilities as a plotter and storyteller.

Through all this, we watch as Flanagan deals with the aftermath of her illness and surgery, and its impact on her life, both personally and professionally. In one subplot, both these worlds collide with a bang, and we, as readers, find ourselves completely invested in Flanagan’s reaction, her need to meddle in a case that has nothing to do with her, but which affects her on a personal level. Throughout, Neville manages to find the right balance between examining the impact, and keeping the story moving.

 

As with his previous novels, Belfast plays a key role in the story. Here the author widens his scope, and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland, from Flanagan’s base in Lisburn, to the Serious Crime Suite of Antrim Police Station, to the seaside resort of Newcastle. Neville relies heavily on the geography of these places, giving the story a very definite sense of location and imbuing it with a distinct flavour of Northern Ireland.

 

With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen

I AM RADAR - Reif Larsen I AM RADAR

Reif Larsen (reiflarsen.com)

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

£16.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2013 Round-Up

And so, once more, to the end of the year and the requisite retrospective of my reading habits over the past twelve months here at Reader Dad. Regular visitors and Twitter followers will know that 2013 has been a year full of ups and downs (more downs, unfortunately, than ups) for me, what with five weeks of hospitalisation, two long bouts of antibiotic treatment and the complications and endless hospital appointments that come as part and parcel of such serious illness. Of course, the ups more than make up for the downs: on May 4th my partner and I became husband in wife in a beautiful, intimate ceremony in the House at the Stone Bell on the eastern edge of Prague’s beautiful Old Town Square.

If nothing else, long months of inactivity, not to mention the clock-watching existence that comes with lying in a hospital bed, gave me plenty of time to read, though not necessarily, to my unending shame, the time or opportunity to review every book I’ve read this year. And 2013 has certainly been a bumper year for great books, so much so that I was unable to get my favourites of the year down below the twenty mark, so I’ve opted for a slightly different approach to my favourites list, as you’ll see below. But first,

THE ROUND-UP

With one week left of my reading year, I’m currently working through book number 73, a number that leaves previous years in the dust. A massive 41 of these books are by authors that I have never read before, including 20 debuts. The others are mostly old favourites (four Stephen King books, another of Richard Stark’s wonderful Parker novels, the third part of George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire and the latest massive tome from Dan Simmons, to name but a few). The list includes only five translations this year, which is a huge drop on previous years. Genre boundaries have been much more difficult to define than in previous years, but the trend towards darkness continues.

2013 saw further expansion of the blog, with a number of nice milestones achieved, including the publication of our 100th post (and, indeed, our 100th review). This year also saw a number of competitions hosted on the blog, as well as further guest posts and author interviews. It also saw the first Reader Dad quote on a book that we’ve reviewed (perhaps my proudest moment) – the paperback edition of Craig Robertson’s Cold Grave – and also my first “glossy” quote, on the back cover of Jens Lapidus’ Easy Money. Reader Dad was also invited, by the lovely people at Hodderscape, to take part in their Review Project, which has given me the chance to read (and in one notable case, re-read) some classics of the various speculative fiction genres, a chance for which I am eternally grateful.

And with that, we come to the important part: my favourite books of the year. As I mentioned before, it has been a bumper year for great books, and when I went through the list I discovered that I couldn’t get my list of favourites down below twenty, so I’ve taken a slightly different approach this year: two lists, the first my favourite debuts of the year; the second my favourite books by established authors. As always, there will be a few more than ten in each list. This year I realised that if I’m not enjoying a book I should probably not read it through to the end. As a result I have, for the first time, maintained a list of abandoned books (there were 12) and, because of this, you won’t find a “most disappointing” entry this year, because all the disappointing ones ended up on that list. The usual criteria for these lists apply: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January  and 31 December 2013. The lists are presented in reading order. Links, as always, will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP 10 DEBUTS OF 2013

LEWIS WINTER - Malcolm Mackay THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.

   
Calamity Leek - Paula Lichtarowicz THE FIRST BOOK OF CALAMITY LEEK by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

With shades of The Truman Show and Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room, Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel nevertheless manages to present a unique and fascinating scenario that could well be happening – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – anywhere in the world right now. Populated by fully-formed and interesting characters – a feat in itself, considering the size of the cast, and the similarities between many of those characters – The First Book of Calamity Leek is presented as a story within a story that uses the vagaries of language to present the reader with the truth of the situation while never revealing it to the story’s protagonist and narrator. Wonderful writing and clever plotting mark Paula Lichtarowicz as an author to watch in coming years and The First Book of Calamity Leek as one of the finest novels of the year so far. Despite the cover, the book has broad appeal, and should not be dismissed as the chick-lit that it might, at first, appear to be. Miss this one at your cost.

   
Hobbs-Ghostman GHOSTMAN by Roger Hobbs (Doubleday)

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 by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz)

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.

   
THE ABOMINATION - Jonathan Holt THE ABOMINATION by Jonathan Holt (Head of Zeus)

One of the novels I, sadly, didn’t get around to reviewing this year is also one of my favourites. The first part of the Carnivia Trilogy, Holt shows us a dark and gruesome underside to the beautiful city of Venice and to the Catholic Church. Mixing the old world of the city with the future world of computers and virtual gaming, The Abomination presents and intriguing and enthralling mystery to the reader, and keeps it moving through the efforts of its trio of wonderful protagonists.

   
REVIVER - Seth Patrick REVIVER by Seth Patrick (Macmillan)

Crackling pace, believable science and characters worth spending some time with make Seth Patrick’s debut a must-read for fans of horror, crime, science fiction, noir. If you have ever enjoyed any of the myriad CSIs on television, or 2000AD’s Judge Anderson, then there is definitely something here for you. The ending, while wrapping up the events of the book, does leave plenty of room for a sequel, although Patrick has his work cut out for him following up Reviver. Without doubt, one of my favourite books of the year from an author whose novels are sure to become a regular feature on my bookshelves. You can’t afford to miss it.

   
The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison (Headline)

A.S.A. Harrison sadly died shortly before the book’s UK publication. But what a legacy she has left behind in this single, wonderful novel that is sure to become a classic of the crime genre in years to come. There’s something distinctly pulp-noirish about the novel, something that would make it sit comfortably on a shelf beside Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler. Beautifully-written and surprisingly engaging, The Silent Wife is a slow-burner that deserves the time it takes to get going. For me, it’s a surprise hit, and a book that I’ll be recommending for a long time to come. It’s just a shame we’re unlikely to see anything else like it.

   
MR PENUMBRA MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

Another favourite that I failed to review, Robin Sloan’s novel is part love letter to the written word (in all its forms) and part love letter to Google. It’s a beautifully-written and intensely satisfying puzzle that should be a must-read for fans of Neal Stephenson or William Gibson.

   
PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D by Simon Urban [tr: Katy Derbyshire] (Harvill Secker)

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
YOUR BROTHERS BLOOD - David Towsey YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD by David Towsey (Jo Fletcher Books)

Beautifully written, Your Brother’s Blood is literary horror at its best. David Towsey aims not for cheap scares or toe-curling gore, but for an all-pervading sense of doom that grows as we progress through the narrative. A gripping storyline and characters about whom we care (whether we want to see them live, or die slow and horrible deaths) ensure that the reader will be drawn completely into this relatively short novel. An intense and timeless tale of family and love, it is a wonderful introduction to an extremely talented new voice in genre fiction, and a great start to what promises to be a future classic.

   
gigantic-beard-that-was-evil-stephen-collins-cape-01-540x755 THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL by Stephen Collins (Jonathan Cape)

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

MATT’S TOP 10 NON-DEBUTS OF 2013

GUN MACHINE - Warren Ellis GUN MACHINE by Warren Ellis (Mulholland Books)

Extremely smart, very funny and intensely dark in places, Gun Machine shows that Warren Ellis is as comfortable in this form of storytelling as he is in the form for which he is better known. In some ways it’s quite depressing: this is the first book I’ve read in 2013, and I’m finding it hard to envisage a better one this year. Unlike anything else you’ve read, Gun Machine is a quick (barely 300 pages) and action-packed read that will keep you hooked from that opening line. Outlandish but very believable, it’s an excellent place to get to know this fine writer and will leave you hoping for more. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

   
THE EXPLORER - James Smythe THE EXPLORER by James Smythe (Harper Voyager)

Smythe’s second novel delivers on every level. It’s an intense and quietly horrific ride that keeps the reader hooked throughout. Literary science fiction that still manages to be cinematic in scope, The Explorer succeeds where The Testimony failed: it carries through on its early promises and presents a satisfying conclusion worthy of what has come before. Beautifully written and cleverly constructed, The Explorer establishes James Smythe as one of Britain’s best young writers. Don’t let the scifi tag deter you: what you’ll find behind that beautiful cover is a must-read for all lovers of great fiction.

   
NOS-4R211-669x1024 NOS4R2 by Joe Hill (Gollancz)

Joe Hill has been on this reader’s must-read list since discovering his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. His third novel,NOS4R2, is a genuinely frightening experience; Hill knows which buttons to press to get the reaction he wants, and takes great delight in their pressing. It is, for me, his best novel yet, the perfect combination of magical coming-of-age story and balls-to-the-wall horror-fest. You won’t look at Rolls-Royce in quite the same way again, and Charlie Manx is likely to haunt your dreams – especially if you have children of your own – for a very long time. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss it.

   
THE KILLING POOL - Kevin Sampson THE KILLING POOL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

The Killing Pool gives us a look at the unexpectedly dark underside of Liverpool through the eyes of the police and criminals that populate it. A noirish tale (Mersey Noir?), it entices the reader in with wonderful, stylish prose and engaging characters and ultimately leaves them reeling from a series of ever-more-shocking revelations. Like the drug users it portrays, it leaves us pining for more, stringing us along with the promise that this is only the first in a series of novels featuring Billy McCartney. Comparable to the aforementioned Peace and Ellroy (though with a much less abrupt writing style than either), The Killing Pool should appeal to fans of both, and to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction dark, ambiguous and surprising. Kevin Sampson has, quite simply, nailed it, producing if not the best, then certainly the most original piece of crime fiction so far this year.

   
Red Moon - Benjamin Percy RED MOON by Benjamin Percy (Hodder & Stoughton)

In some ways, what Percy has set out to do for werewolves feels a bit like what Justin Cronin did a few years back for vampires. What he has accomplished is a fine addition to the genre, a novel that breathes new life into an old trope and makes us want to immerse ourselves in this new world. Despite the budding romance between the two central characters, there are no sparkles here, nothing to interest the Twilight crowd. A modern-day parable (though I’ll be damned if I can work out what the moral is), this beautifully-written and captivating novel deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who calls themselves a fan of horror. We can only hope that the wide-open ending bodes well for further volumes in the series.

   
THE SHINING GIRLS - Lauren Beukes THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)

Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
JOYLAND - Stephen King JOYLAND by Stephen King (Titan Books / Hard Case Crime)

Love lost, love found, friendships forged. Ghosts and murdered girls.The carnival atmosphere of amusement parks in the summer. Many of these are not what we expect from Hard Case Crime. Many of them we don’t even expect from Stephen King. What Joyland is, then, is sheer delight, a slim but beautiful novel from one of the – if not the – greatest writers of his generation, and an unexpected treasure in a body of work spanning almost four decades. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: no-one tells a story quite like Stephen King. Joyland should be top of your list of must-read books this year.

   
DOCTOR SLEEP - Stephen King DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Late last week I found myself wondering how to sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written. This week, I discover that my job was easy when compared to the question how do you follow one of the greatest horror novels ever written?  With books like this, especially when the original is such a well-known and well-loved piece of work, there is always the potential for disaster. Far from that, Doctor Sleep is the perfect follow-up to the story that began with Jack Torrance’s interview for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is the perfect complement to The Shining, expanding the legend that King created back in 1977, and adding a host of new ideas to the mix. In answering the question of what Danny Torrance is up to now, King has finally completed the wider story of the Torrance family that The Shining, to a certain degree, left hanging, and has gone some way towards laying to rest the restive ghost of Jack Torrance through the actions of his son (for if the son bears the sins of the father, surely any reparations made should be paid backwards). Do you need to read (or re-read, for that matter) The Shining before you start in on Doctor Sleep? Technically, no. King has crafted a novel that stands well in its own right, giving brief glimpses into the events at the Overlook when required. But, as with all these things, going into Doctor Sleep with the story of Jack’s descent into madness fresh in your mind adds an extra level of enjoyment to the story. In either case, Doctor Sleep is a must-read and should prove, in particular, a comfortable re-start point for fans who may not have been keeping up with the author’s recent output. One of my books of the year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

   
The Abominable - Dan Simmons THE ABOMINABLE by Dan Simmons (Sphere)

Part historical fact, part thrilling boys’ adventure tale, Dan Simmons’ latest novel takes us to the top of the world, and keeps us on the edge of our seats for the whole journey. Cold and atmospheric, peopled with the type of characters that you want to spend as much time with as possible, The Abominable is an intelligent thrill-ride of epic proportions. The perfect companion piece to Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, it serves to remind the reader of one important fact: regardless of genre – and he’s tried quite a few – Dan Simmons is still one of the finest purveyors of fiction living today. If you’ve yet to try his work, this is the perfect starting place.

   
saveyourselfkellybraffet SAVE YOURSELF by Kelly Braffet (Corvus)

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.

   
OCEAN - GAiman

Language_of_Dying1-637x1024

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman (Headline)

THE LANGUAGE OF DYING  by Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)

Bundled together purely because I haven’t gotten around to writing reviews for them yet (expect them to appear at some point over the Christmas break), these books deserve all your attention. Beautiful and touching in their own ways, they’ll transport you from your everyday to somewhere new, though not necessarily better.

COMING SOON…

Stay tuned in 2014 for the usual mix of reviews, interviews and guest posts. Based on the books already piling up for January – March publication, it’s going to be a stellar year, with the final part of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy (The Sudden Arrival of Violence) and James Smythe’s follow-up to The Explorer (The Echo) two of the most notable books in that period, and at least one new Stephen King novel later in the year.

Thanks, as always, to the wonderful publishers and publicists who keep me stocked up with books (I could name them all, but this post has probably gone on long enough as it is; they all know who they are); to the fantastic authors who provide the reading material as well as the time and creative energy required to answer interview questions or write guest posts; and, most importantly, the visitors who keep coming back for more. Without you, I’d just be talking to myself, so it’s always good to have an audience. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2014.

PLAN D by Simon Urban

PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D

Simon Urban (www.simonurban.de/)

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker/)

£14.99

October, 2011. Much of the gas used by Western Europe comes from Russia, via a pipeline network that runs through the middle of the German Democratic Republic. Weeks before the leaders of the two Germanys are due to come together to discuss the future of the pipeline – cheaper gas for the West, more money for East Germany – an elderly man is found hanged from the pipeline, the arrangement of the body suggesting that the Stasi are up to their old tricks again. Martin Wegener, Hauptmann of the People’s Police, is assigned to the case, a case he expects to hand over the the Stasi themselves before the first day is through. But the case has a bearing on the future of the talks; the West insist on assigning one of their own men and he, in turn, insists that Wegener remain on board. As they dig, the dead man reveals one secret after another. The architect of the so-called Plan D, his death has massive implications for the future of the state. All Wegener has to do is stay alive – and stay out of the Stasi’s secret prisons – until he and Brendel can solve the case.

Simon Urban presents us with a vision of a modern-day Europe still divided by the Berlin Wall. While we spend the entirety of the novel tailing Hauptmann Wegener in his investigation, Urban does provide us with glimpses of what is happening beyond the Wall, mainly through the eyes of Wegener’s Western counterpart, Richard Brendel. It’s a fascinating vision, and provides as much entertainment – and, strangely, as much of the reason for wanting to continue reading – as the murder around which the plot revolves. Urban’s world is wonderfully constructed, and we see the fruits of an extra 25 years of Socialist rule on the people of the GDR, a country that has evolved, technologically, as much as its Western peers, albeit in a slightly different way. Here are a swathe of brand names we don’t know, technologies that are unheard of, yet are plausible at the same time: the Minsk mobile phones, which have models specifically for State Security operatives; the Phobos plastic cars, fuelled by rapeseed oil and smelling like chip pans as a result; the Navodobro, in-car guidance systems that run off a proprietary technology that doesn’t require access to the West’s Global Positioning Satellite network. This is a world where Socialist values still very much hold sway and "low cost" is always the name of the game. Foul-smelling air and greasy car windscreens are a small price to pay for these ideals.

At the centre of the story stands Wegener himself. A People’s Policeman, Wegener has a troubled past that has seen him crossing swords with the Stasi, the dreaded State Security, an organisation that is still very much alive, though much smaller than before, and with a much reduced remit compared to the organisation of terror that existed prior to 1989 (a period referred to in the book as the Revitalisation, during which the Wall was opened for a brief period). At least, that’s the official version. Wegener’s friend and mentor, Josef Früchtl, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Wegener found himself in trouble when he asked too many questions. Wegener has the added complication of his ex-girlfriend, Karolina Enders, a woman with whom he is still very much in love and who may have a direct connection to the case at hand, since she works for the Ministry for Energy Export. Paranoid and often deluded – much of the book finds us inside Wegener’s head, witnessing a seemingly endless dialogue with a version of Früchtl that lives on in his mind – Wegener has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue that makes him an intriguing and immensely engaging protagonist. The cast of supporting characters are equally as interesting, as is the history of this repressed country and the various organisations that Wegener encounters along the way.

Plan D is a surprising book – it’s not as heavy as the jacket material makes it seem. There are beautiful touches, and little glimpses of a dark and wonderful humour in the storytelling that transform police procedural-meets-political intrigue into something completely different, and altogether more pleasing. There are obvious comparisons to be made with the like of Robert Harris’ Fatherland and, while the era is completely different, and the points of divergence of the two alternate histories decades apart, Xavier March and Martin Wegener are most definitely two of a kind. It’s a wonderfully written, and obviously lovingly translated, novel that will have the reader, by turns, nailed to the edge of their seat and laughing at some minor incongruity or well-placed joke – often made at Wegener’s expense.

There’s no need for anyone to betray you, Martin, you do that yourself, you insane, horny, dumb idiot of a stallion, you’re the one whose professional interest is on truth, you’re the one chasing after it like a tribe of cannibals after Schalck-Golodkowski, you know the truth finds it own path, it can’t be stopped, it creeps into the light of day at some point, through the tiniest fracture, for the truth, my friend, is a brutal, five-second sauerkraut fart in a teeny windowless cellar room, one second before the masterclass of the Académie du Sommelier comes in.

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

RATLINES by Stuart Neville

Ratlines - Stuart Neville RATLINES

Stuart Neville (stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)

£12.99

It is 1963 and Ireland is preparing for an historic visit from US president, John F. Kennedy. The death of the third foreign national, a German businessman, in the space of a handful of days could threaten not only the presidential visit, but the relationship between Ireland the US; the dead men are all former Nazis living in Ireland with the blessing of the Irish government. They are all also overt warnings to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando and personal friend of the Irish Minister for Justice, Charles Haughey, that he is no longer safe. Albert Ryan, an officer of the Directorate of Intelligence and former member of Britain’s Armed Forces, is seconded to Haughey and charged with finding out who is carrying out these attacks.

So begins Lieutenant Albert Ryan’s investigation, and Stuart Neville’s fourth novel. Along the way we’ll encounter a host of former Nazis and French nationalists, Mossad agents, ex-army mercenaries, and the beautiful Celia Hume, as we watch Albert Ryan make his way carefully through the minefield that lies between duty and morality. Ratlines is, in many ways, a major departure for Stuart Neville. His first standalone novel, it is also the first not set in post-Troubles Belfast. Many of the themes he explores in his first three novels, though – the deep political and religious differences that divide Ireland in two being the most obvious example – are still very much in evidence here, if seen from a much different viewpoint than before.

Ryan is an interesting character – a Protestant from a small Monaghan town, he crossed the border during the Second World War and signed up with the British Army. To many of his countrymen, he is seen as a traitor and lickspittle, and this has repercussions for his family that he could probably never have foreseen; even in 1963, his parents are still dealing with the fallout of that rash decision. Twenty years later, he is a career soldier, albeit now working for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence, so he comes across as something of an innocent, a man very much out of touch with the modern workings of the world. No street-wise, wise-cracking detective here; think mid-Twentieth Century Jack Reacher, and you’re probably not too far off the mark.

Several of the characters – Haughey, Skorzeny – are modelled on real people and Neville’s narrative grows from a single fact – that Skorzeny spent some years living in Ireland with the permission of the Irish government – into a complex, engaging and plausible story in the vein of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil. As the story progresses, Ryan’s chain of command becomes less clear, and it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who he is now working for, or what promises he has made. This is a deliberate move on the author’s part, and is backed up by Ryan’s internal struggle between what he is employed to do – in this instance, protect the life of a famous war criminal – and what he feels is right – the expulsion of this man and all his kind from his country, exposing the corruption within the government at the same time. When it becomes apparent that there is also a lot of money at stake, it’s one more element to keeping the reader guessing just what Ryan’s intentions are.

At the heart of the novel is a knot of political tensions that shows a complex, and sometimes schizophrenic, side to Ireland. Tensions between Ireland and America on the eve of the presidential visit; potential tensions between Ireland and the fledgling Israeli state once Mossad discover the country is harbouring Nazi war criminals; the age-old tensions between Ireland and Britain that inevitably result in sectarian bigotry and outright violence. There is an excellent passage early in the novel, as Ryan thinks back to his days as a young boy working in his father’s shop, that shows how dementedly nationalistic the Irish can often be.

Would de Valera…side with Chamberlain? If it came to it, would he ask his fellow Irishmen to fight alongside the British?

Unthinkable, some would say. Old Dev would never sell his people out to the Brits.

But that Hitler, others would say, he’s bad news…

But he’s just a good nationalist, like us, looking out for his own people. Just like Old Dev did, like Pearse and Connolly did in 1916.

As a whole, the novel works very well. The ratlines of the title serve to tie several different stories together, and make sense of the many different groups trying to get their hands on Otto Skorzeny. It’s a cleverly plotted fiction built upon a solid and well-researched factual base. Part spy novel, part detective story, part examination of Ireland’s role in post-War Europe, Neville also manages to find a nice balance of action to keep the story moving quickly without losing any of its intelligence.

I’ve been a big fan of Stuart Neville since I got my hands on an early copy of his first novel The Twelve (The Ghosts of Belfast in the US). While I enjoyed the second and third parts of what turned out to be a loosely-defined trilogy (you can find my review of his third novel, Stolen Souls, here), neither quite lived up to the early promise of that sensational debut. Ratlines is, without a doubt, a return to form, proving beyond a doubt that Neville is more than a one-trick pony. His best novel since The Twelve, Ratlines takes Neville out of the post-Troubles niche and deals with subject matter that should open his work to a much wider audience than would previously have been interested. If you haven’t yet tried this young man’s work, Ratlines is an excellent place to start.

The 2012 Round-Up

It’s that time of the year again when the “best of the year” lists start to appear. Not wanting to be left out, and because I had some fun with it last year, I’ve decided to do another round-up, and remind everyone what my top ten (or so) books of 2012 are.

THE ROUND-UP

By the end of this reading year (Christmas Eve, for me), I will have read 63 books, one more than last year’s total and a personal best for me. While crime fiction still accounts for a large fraction of what I read this year (26 of the 63 books), my reading focus has shifted slightly over the course of the year. This is mainly due to very kind publicists sending review copies of books that I might not otherwise have picked up. There is still a theme running through much of my reading, but Reader Dad is now much less about “Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction” and more about the darkness that lies deep within the human soul. The list contains its fair share of horror and holocaust fiction and a handful of deeply disturbing character studies that appeal to the noir-lover that hides inside me.

Of the 63 books, a massive 32 are by authors that are new to me, including six debut authors and eight foreign authors whose work was published in English for the first time this year. The rest are a selection favourites both old (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson) and relatively new (Colin Cotterill, Justin Cronin). 2012 also saw some experimentation with the blog, moving away from posting only book reviews, to including author interviews, guest posts and even one book-inspired travelogue. As the year draws to a close and I look back at what I have achieved, I find that I’m happy with the format, and hope to include more interviews and guest posts as we move into 2013 and beyond. I am, of course, always happy to hear from my readers, if you have any suggestions or comments.

Without further ado, then, it’s time to look at my favourite books of the year. As with last year, there is only one criteria: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January  and 31 December 2011. As I mentioned, it’s been a bumper year, so whittling the list down to ten was nigh on impossible, so you’ll see an extra couple slipping in. The books are listed in the order they were read, with the exception of my stand-out, which I’ll list at the end. Links take you to the original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2012

The-Child-Who - Lelic

THE CHILD WHO by Simon Lelic (Mantle)

I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.

   
EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus [tr: Astri von Arbin Ahlander] (Macmillan)

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

   
ANGELMAKER - Nick Harkaway

ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)

Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.

   
untitled

TRIESTE by Daša Drndić [tr: Ellen Elias-Bursac] (Maclehose Press)

This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

   
wind-through-the-keyhole-stephen-king

THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (Hodder)

For the aficionado […] The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.

   
a-cold-season1

A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel,Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.

   
Railsea UK

RAILSEA by China Miéville (Macmillan)

Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.

   
TURBULENCE - Samit Basu

TURBULENCE by Samit Basu (Titan Books)

Credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy, Samit Basu arrives in the UK as an accomplished, some might say veteran, writer –Turbulence is his fifth novel, making him the best fantasy writer you’ve never heard of. That’s a state of affairs that you should rectify with all possible haste. Turbulence is a superhero novel like none you’ve seen before. A polished storyline, engaging characters and razor sharp wit combine to make this a must-read for everyone that has ever enjoyed a comic. It’s funny and action-packed, yes, but it’s also extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. It’s a perfect introduction to an excellent writer, and we can only hope that his back catalogue is made available in the UK in short order. It’s also an excellent start to a series that looks set to redefine the superhero genre for the twenty-first century. Kudos to Titan Books to bringing this excellent author, and this exciting series, to a much wider audience.

   
ALIF THE UNSEEN - G Willow Wilson

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson (Corvus Books)

G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.

   
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LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist [tr: Marlaine Delargy] (Quercus)

Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.

   
THE TWELVE - Justin Cronin

THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)

Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.

AND THE STAND-OUT

One book stood head-and-shoulders above the rest for me this year, so I felt it deserved its own section:

HHhH

HHHH by Laurent Binet [tr: Sam Taylor] (Harvill Secker)

HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completelyother. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.

AND 2012’S MOST DISAPPOINTING

2012 brought with it the realisation that I’m not getting any younger. With a full-time job and a three-year-old child, my reading time is limited. I don’t have to finish every book that I start, wasting countless hours or days trudging through a book I’m not enjoying because I feel I need to finish it. As a result I have abandoned more books in the past twelve months than in the previous twelve years combined. My most notable disappointment for the year, of all the books I finished, is listed below. Despite my less-than-glowing review, I’m excited by the prospect of James’ second novel, The Explorer, which is due to hit shelves in January.

THE TESTIMONY - James Smythe

THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe (Blue Door Books)

The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.

COMING SOON…

Expect more reviews and interviews in the coming months. I have already started into the pile of 2013 books that I’ve been collecting for the past few months, and there are some really exciting titles there. 2013 brings with it the prospect of new novels by Warren Ellis and Joe Hill, and two new works from Stephen King, including a sequel to one of his most enduring novels. It’s going to be a busy year, and I expect to have even more trouble selecting a Top Ten than I did this year.

All that remains is for me to thank the publishers and publicists who continue to send me books in return for an honest review and who, in doing so, ensure that I’m continually reading outside my comfort zone. I’d like to thank the authors who have taken the time to answer questions or provide guest posts. And, most importantly, thanks to my readers and visitors, without whom I would just be talking to myself. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2013.

TRAVELOGUE: The Church of Saints Cyril & Methodius (HHhH)

HHhH THE CHURCH OF SAINTS CYRIL AND METHODIUS
RESSLOVA
PRAGUE

As featured in: HHhH by Laurent Binet

Date of visit: 5th September 2012

Price of Adult Admission: Kč75 (≅£2.50)

When I started Reader Dad early in 2011, the plan was to stick to the book reviews and leave it at that. Now, a handful of interviews and a guest post later, I’ve decided to try something a little bit different, something that will, if it proves popular, be a very infrequent feature on the blog: the Travelogue.

Frequent visitors to the blog will surely know by now that I am an avid reader. I am that person who writes “reading” into the space on a form that asks about hobbies or pastimes. I also love to travel, and quite often combine the two: I’ll read fiction set in my destination in the hope of familiarising myself with a new city, or I’ll make sure I schedule in visits to landmarks I have read about as part of my trip. In this way, I have seen things like the standpipe and statue of Paul Bunyan in Bangor, Maine, which serve as inspiration for the landmarks in Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, as seen in his novel, It; the police station in Ystad, from where Kurt Wallander runs his investigations; the statue that stands in the centre of the small town of Banbridge, Northern Ireland, which commemorates Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who plays a central role in Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

As a student of the Holocaust, I also make it a point to visit related sites when I’m in their vicinity: Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe both evoke the same sense of terrible history and horrific awe, while the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest) and the bunker complex at Berchtesgaden show things from a completely different perspective, no less frightening for it.

Nestled in the heart of the beautiful city of Prague stands a little gem that combines these two travel rituals: a location with indirect connection to the Holocaust, and one that plays a central role in what is still the best book I have read this year. If I’ve done things right, clicking on the pictures below should show you a larger version. Unless otherwise stated, the pictures are my own, taken with a cheap compact digital camera (FujiFilm FinePix AV220) on the default settings; the quality is variable, but in my defence, we were on our way to the zoo, so I shot quickly and recorded what I could.

Resslova is a fairly short, but seemingly quite busy street in the New Town section of Prague. At its eastern end, it meets Charles Square and from there runs westwards downhill towards Jiráskův Bridge and the famous Dancing House. Partway down the street on the right-hand side stands the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the building that now houses the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.

From the east, the building appears out of nowhere – the front entrance of the church is on the westernmost corner, so the tourist has almost passed the building before realising what it is. According to J.M. Lau’s Prague: Then and Now, a beautiful coffee table book that shows how the city has changed during the relatively brief lifetime of the photograph, the church was built sometime between 1730 and 1740 and served as a home – complete with a 112-tomb crypt – for retired Catholic priests. One-time military barracks (1783) and centre for Czech technology (1869), the building was leased to the Orthodox Church in 1933.

Sheltered in a west-facing corner – the first indication to the west-bound tourist that they have reached their destination – is a shrine dedicated to the brave men whose lives ended inside on 18th June 1942.

The shrine centres around a small window, the surrounding stonework bearing the scars of the Nazi bullets that peppered it sixty years ago. Above the window, a plaque to the lost heroes.

Thinking I had seen all I was likely to see, I was very pleased to discover that the crypt is now the location of the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and that it was open for business. With reluctant partner and three-year-old in tow, I headed inside.

The entrance hallway is a large square room, a reception desk to the right at the bottom of the steps, two walls covered in information boards and glass cabinets containing exhibits (both facsimiles and real objects). The third wall bears a large glass cabinet filled with books. In the wall directly opposite the entrance is a door, a wrought-iron-and-yellow-glass affair that doesn’t look out of place in a church, and that presumably didn’t exist in June 1942.

The information boards recount the story that Binet tells us in his own unique way in HHhH: the effect of the war on Czechoslovakia, the capitulation to the Führer, and the beginnings of Operation Anthropoid, all illustrated by photographs and facsimile documents. On display, amongst other items, is the uniform worn by the Czechoslovak Army in Great Britain; a racial profiling kit; a sample of Kubiš’s bomb, and that cursed Sten Mk II that made life so difficult.

There is also plenty of documentary evidence: Gabčik and Kubiš’s training forms; photos of Heydrich’s Mercedes showing the damage caused by the bomb and, on one particularly harrowing board, photographs of Lidiče, one of two towns chosen by Hitler to bear the brunt of his wrath for the death of his senior officer.

Then, tentatively, through the door. I was fortunate to have the crypt to myself for the duration of my visit. The place is soaked in atmosphere, and the silence certainly helps. It’s a well-lit space, though presumably that wasn’t the case in 1942, probably three times as long as it is wide, and probably not much more than ten or twelve feet wide at its widest point. I completely failed to snap a picture of the place in its entirety, but hopefully the other pictures will help you piece it together.

Along the left-hand wall, three alcoves filled with the narrow entrances of tombs, almost like a morgue with all the doors torn off. Almost directly overhead, the narrow trapdoor through which the assassins entered the crypt and later, through which the Nazis threw gas grenades, and the traitor Karel Čurda pleaded with the men to surrender. At the far end of the long narrow space, a staircase leading up; it was this staircase that gave the Nazis their way in, once they found the entrance hidden behind a tombstone. On the right-hand wall, three more alcoves, the two closest to the staircase filled with tombs. The last alcove, that directly to the visitor’s right when he enters the crypt, houses the room’s only source of natural light: the other side of that small window that forms the centre of the shrine on Resslova.

Beneath the window is the beginnings of a hole, the work of desperate men searching for any means of escape. With gas grenades being tossed down their only real means of escape, and with the fire department pouring water through that small window overhead in an attempt to flood the crypt, these seven brave men sought to escape into the city’s sewer system. This hole is now home to a second shrine: notes from around the world praising the bravery of these men, and thanking them for their service, share space with small gifts, flowers, coins, little tokens of the world’s appreciation. It’s a touching and humbling sight, and I’m not afraid to admit that it brought a lump to my throat and a stinging sensation to my eyes.

This is the room where four of these men took their own lives (the other three died in a hail of bullets in the church upstairs), and it is, quite frankly, one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to stand. There are seven bronze busts along both sides of the narrow corridor depicting these brave men, as well as a final, shocking information board which shows pictures of the crypt in the aftermath of the invasion and pictures of the seven, the stark contrast between posed headshots and pictures of the bodies in situ.

Back outside in the entrance hall, stored in the glass-fronted bookcase, a multitude of books about Heydrich and Operation Antropoid. Proudly displayed amidst them, a handful of copies of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, in various languages.

While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – most people visit Prague for the fun times and its external beauty, and few wish to be brought down, even briefly, by something of this magnitude – the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius is well worth the visit for anyone who has read HHhH, or anyone who is at all interested in this period in European history. Today it stands as a monument to the bravery and sacrifice of a few men for the greater good – the elimination of the architect of the Final Solution.

It’s an atmospheric venue, but it is well-preserved and gives the visitor a good sense of what the members of Anthropoid endured during their fatal stay. Fans of the book are unlikely to take away anything new from the information boards, though the photographs put much of Binet’s sometimes light-hearted narrative into some sort of context. It’s the crypt itself that proves the biggest draw, but be warned: it’s an emotional journey, and one that will stay with you long after you emerge once more into the sunshine.

HHHH by Laurent Binet

HHhH HHHH

Laurent Binet

Translated by Sam Taylor

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)

£16.99

Released: 3rd May 2012

Laurent Binet’s debut novel, the oddly-named HHhH, appealed to me on two different levels: first of all, as an avid consumer of any and all information concerning the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and secondly, as a lover of the beautiful city of Prague. Unsure what to expect when I started to read this odd, but strangely engaging novel, I was not to be disappointed on either level.

HHhH ostensibly tells the story of the May 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, and of the consequences that followed. It is also Laurent Binet’s own story, the story of a man with a tale to tell and no idea how best to tell it. Amongst chapters detailing the rise of the Blond Beast, or of the convoluted journey that ultimately brought Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš to the north of Prague on the morning of May 27th 1942, we find chapters detailing the author’s research, his wishes for the novel, his neurotic analyses of certain phrases or paragraphs and whether they should remain in the final draft:

I have no evidence that Gabčík and Kubiš’s clothes were provided by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). In fact, it’s more likely that this was dealt with by Moravec’s Czech services. So there’s no reason why the NCO who looks after them should be British. Oh, what a pain…

Early in the book, Binet sets out his stall, and defines the parameters of this extraordinary novel: he will stick to the facts, with no embellishments. Where dialogue is required, it will be based on documentary evidence of some description, or it will serve to illustrate a point, and be marked as an invention of the author. What he ultimately produces is littered with invention and coloured by the personal opinions of a man who has been living with the story since childhood.

Hácha signs. “I have sacrificed the state in order to save the nation,” he believes. The imbecile. It’s as if Chamberlain’s stupidity was contagious…

If not for the polished prose and level of detail included on the central storyline, this could almost be an annotated early draft, littered with the author’s musings, notes and questions for further research. But that’s doing this wonderful novel an injustice, because it is a finely polished work, exquisitely researched and unbelievably tense. Binet references earlier histories, and fictional attempts at chronicling this period of history, or this group of monsters, including two of my own personal favourites – Robert Harris’ excellent alternative history of the Reich, Fatherland, and the wonderful BBC dramatisation of the Wannsee conference, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in the key roles of Heydrich and his own right-hand man, Eichmann – revealing an interest that verges on obsession.

Despite the interruptive style, HHhH builds in intensity as history pulls us inexorably towards the morning of May 27th 1942. The central storyline culminates in the 17-page Chapter 222 (the book is barely over 300 pages long, which should give you some idea of the average chapter length, and the relative importance of this one) and again in the 14-page 250th chapter, both of which seem designed expressly to take the reader’s breath away and keep them glued to the page. They succeed. The first details the assassination attempt itself and, from multiple viewpoints, the stories of each of the protagonists as they once again diverge from this nexus – Gabčík and Kubiš as they flee for their lives; Heydrich as he collapses and is rushed to hospital. The second details the siege of the church where Gabčík and Kubiš have holed up, waiting for the opportunity to flee the country.

Throughout, there is a sense of immediacy; the story is told in the present tense, in short, sharp bursts that would be the envy of any thriller writer. The author is a constant presence, and his personality and sense of humour infect the story, offering brief glimpses of light in otherwise dark places. Take, for instance, this offhand remark as the SS begin clearing the village of Lidice, a village removed completely from the face of the Earth on the orders of Hitler as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich:

Then the Germans begin to do what will soon become their favourite occupation: they divide the group in two. Women and children are locked up in the school, while the men are led to a farmhouse and crammed into the cellar.

HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completely other. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.

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