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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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GUEST POST: Cosenza by THOMAS H. COOK

Thomas Cook Name: THOMAS H. COOK

Author of: TRAGIC SHORES (2017)

On Twitter: @thomashcook

Thomas H. Cook, an author best known for his crime novels, turns his pen to describing his many travels in his latest book, Tragic Shores, which examines some of the darkest places on the planet. It is available now from Quercus Books priced £20.00 and is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, well worth the read. I’m very pleased to welcome Thomas to Reader Dad with a brief excerpt from the book.

One day nearly twenty-five years ago, my family and I were travelling through Italy. It had been a very long day, and the weather was very hot. My wife, who was always the driver in our family, was tired. She wanted to take a nap before going on.

She was good at naps. She could take a ten-minute one and wake up fully restored. My daughter Justine and I couldn’t nap at all. So while Susan snoozed happily behind the wheel, Justine and I went for a walk.

We were in the town of Cosenza, on Italy’s western coast. There is not much to recommend Cosenza. It didn’t even have what Justine had come to call “broken pot museums.” The river that runs through the town is equally nondescript. It is the Busento, and it is short and brown, and not at all lovely.

Justine and I ended up strolling along the banks of the Busento. Justine was twelve years old, and although she was a wonderful travelling companion, always curious and adventurous, and never one to complain, on this sweltering afternoon, I could tell that she was both mentally and physically exhausted.

We stopped in a mercifully shaded area along the river and peered down at it.

There wasn’t much to see. The Busento was not the Tiber, the Thames, the Hudson, or the Seine. Predictably, Justine was unimpressed.

I had not expected anything to happen that day. Certainly, I hadn’t expected anything to happen that would so vividly confirm a proposition that had been building in my mind. As we’d travelled about Europe, using Madrid as our base, I’d come to notice how much deeper our experience as a family was when we visited dark places. We’d been to Disneyland as a family, as well as the huge water park outside Madrid, but it was at sights of grim renown that we’d had our best conversations. Could it be that the most valuable family vacations, and the most memorably, were had not in amusement parks, no matter how extravagant, but in sites where tragic events had taken place?

Tragic ShoresAt Cosenza, I tested this theory.

As we stood in the shade, I nodded toward the poor little Busento, then related a tale I’d probably picked up from the travel guide.

“Alaric is buried in that river,” I said. “He was the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire.”

Justine seemed barely interested. “How do you bury somebody in a river?” she asked.

“Well, in this case, slaves were used to dig a channel,” I answered. “The river was then rerouted to flow into that channel. Then Alaric’s grave was dug in the old riverbed. Once he was buried, the slaves filled in the channel they’d dug and the river resumed its original course.”

I saw that this story had made the Busento a bit more interesting to Justine, but not all that much. So what if some emperor was buried here? It was still hot, and she was still tired.

And so I added, “And after the river was back in its channel, all the slaves were put to death so that none of them could reveal the exact place where Alaric lies.”

It was then I saw the unique light that comes from darkness, that feeling of empathy that is the distinguishing mark of human beings.

It was an empathy for human life we wanted to encourage and broaden and share. And so after Cosenza, my family and I made a point of visiting some of the darkest places on earth. We went to Auschwitz together, to the salt mines outside Krakow, to Elmina, the great holding cell of slavery, in Ghana, to Waterloo, as well as many other dark places around the world, travels that taught us both individually and as a family, that there is much to be gained where much has been lost.

As a father, I encourage other families to do the same.

BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano

beauty-and-the-inferno BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO

Roberto Saviano (www.robertosaviano.it)

Translated by Oonagh Stransky

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£16.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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