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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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UNDYING: A LOVE STORY by Michel Faber

undying UNDYING: A LOVE STORY

Michel Faber (www.michelfaber.com)

Canongate (canongate.tv)

£12.99

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

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

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

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

For twenty minutes, thirty maybe,

my eyes were closed.

That was the time you chose.

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

Wait for me while I break

down the boardroom door

and drag the high and mighty fucker

out of his conference with Eternity

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

SAVAGE LANE by Jason Starr

Savage-Lane-cover SAVAGE LANE

Jason Starr (www.jasonstarr.com)

No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)

£6.99

Mark and Deb Berman’s marriage has hit a rough patch: she believes he’s having an affair with their next door neighbour, Karen. That may not be the case, but it doesn’t stop Mark constructing a rich fantasy life for Karen and himself, and the fact that everyone else in town believes the same thing as Deb doesn’t make things any easier. But Deb has a secret of her own, one that will prove fatal for her, and will put Karen at the mercy not only of her delusional husband, but of someone much more dangerous.

Welcome to Savage Lane, an exclusive address in the rich New York town of Westchester. This is were Mark and Deb Berman live with their children, and where Karen Daily has settled following her recent divorce with her own two kids. From the outset, we can feel the tension as a palpable force, as it quickly becomes obvious that things are far from good between Mark and Deb, and that next-door neighbour Karen is at the centre of their troubles.

While the plot sounds like something from Dynasty, Starr blindsides us almost immediately by showing us what’s going on in Mark’s head: there is an obsessive quality to his thoughts about Karen, and their relationship – nothing more, in her eyes, than simple friendship – takes on a much deeper meaning, as he misinterprets their closeness – text messages, pet names – for something much more than it is. It’s an unsettling look into the mind-set of the true obsessive, and leaves the reader feeling more than a little uncomfortable as we find ourselves following him down this dark path. His obvious desire for Karen, and his reactions to the inevitable joking that this will bring from friends and colleagues lead people to believe that something is actually going on between them, and all the talk only serves to prove to Mark that there is more here than friendship.

Mark’s wife, Deb, can’t help but hear these rumours, and when she sees Mark holding Karen’s hand, it’s easy for her to make the leap from rumour to fact. What makes Deb so interesting is that, despite attempting to take the moral high ground, she doesn’t have a leg to stand on: Deb is having an affair of her own – a real affair – with a young man who may be more dangerous than her obsessive husband. When she attempts to break the affair off, things take a sudden dark turn, and her boyfriend’s attention, too, is soon focussed on Karen.

There is something very over-the-top about almost every aspect of Savage Lane, from the writing style to the myriad affairs and relationships that pepper the story, which at times stretch our credibility to the limit. But what Starr achieves in the midst of all this, is a brilliant examination of the obsessive mind at work. From very early in the novel, the reader is aware of the fact that there is something lacking in Mark Berman’s makeup, something important that should make him “human”; it’s a portrait that leaves us cold and unsettled, that reminds us that evil is most often found in the most mundane of places, a portrait that will make us re-evaluate everyone we know.

Savage Lane is not without its problems. For me, the biggest of these is the fact that Starr is not content with giving us one obsessive. While the introduction of Owen Harrison allows him to show the difference between the man who is obsessive in thought only, and the man who has taken the dangerous step across the line into violence and murder, it’s a stretch to believe that they might exist in the same small town, and be involved with the same two women. It’s a fairly major plot point, and asks a little too much of the reader given the story’s otherwise solid grounding in reality.

Despite its flaws, Savage Lane is a well-rounded and thought-provoking psychological thriller. Dark and unsettling, its strengths lie in the author’s ability to imagine the worst and present it as acceptable in the mind of his protagonist. A tale of love, lust and obsession, it draws the reader in and manages to convey, using alternating viewpoints, both the mundaneness of suburban life, and the evils that lurk within the minds of seemingly respectable people. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for the duration of the novel, you’ll find it to be an enjoyable and engaging read by an author with a surprising – and not always in the most pleasant sense of the word – insight into the human condition.

THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton

THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER - Brian Payton THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER

Brian Payton (brianpayton.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

John Easley, a reporter for the National Geographic is ejected – along with every other journalist in the region – from the Aleutian Islands when the Japanese make their first incursion onto American soil. When his brother, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, is later shot down over the English Channel, John’s grief leads him to the decision that the people of America deserve to know the truth about what is happening in the Aleutians. Sneaking into Alaska and thence onto the archipelago, John finds himself stranded on the island of Attu when the plane he is on is shot down by the occupying forces. Given the choice between survival in this barren land or torture at the hands of the Chinese, John decides to take his chance with the elements. Back in his home town of Seattle, his wife, Helen, is beginning to worry about his silence, and about their parting words on the night he left to return to Alaska. Signing up with a USO troop, Helen leaves everything behind – including her ailing father – to go in search of her missing husband, convinced that he needs her help.

When Brian Payton’s The Wind Is Not a River opens, we find John Easley waking from unconsciousness following his parachute jump from a fatally-wounded plane. His knowledge of the chain, and the proximity of Japanese anti-aircraft fire lead him quickly to understand that he has found himself on Attu, one of the few islands in the long chain that is known to be occupied by enemy forces. Forced to remain on the beach where he has awakened in order to avoid the attention of the small army that is just over the ridge, he sets up camp in a small cave, the limited supply of driftwood his only source of fuel and the mussels and slower seabirds his only source of sustenance. This is a barren land, and Payton goes to great lengths to ensure that we are aware of  just how much trouble Easley is likely to be in this little-known part of the world: the lack of food, the less-than-clement weather, the lack of wood for burning.

"You’ll be attracting plenty of attention," Cooper observes [to John’s wife, Helen]. "We have a saying out here: ‘There’s a woman hiding behind every tree in the Aleutian Islands.’"

When John discovers a tea tin buried at the edge of the beach containing all the worldly possessions of a young native woman called Tatiana, along with a letter to her lover, John finds himself falling love with this person he has never met, while all the time wondering what has become of her and the people with whom she shared the small village now occupied by the Japanese. It is the thought of Tatiana, rather than his wife, that keeps him going through his darkest hours, and yet there can be no doubt that this man loves the woman he has left behind in Seattle. The letter in the tin contains the line that gives the novel its title, and its meaning – when John finally works it out – comes as something of a revelation that puts the entire situation into some kind of perspective.

But the story of John is only half the tale told in this remarkable novel. Alternate chapters are told from the point of view of Helen, and we follow her as she decides to leave her home and her ill father behind to go off in search of her missing husband. There is something deeply touching, irredeemably romantic, in this gesture and, despite the long shot we know Helen is taking, we can’t help but wish her luck and hope that the two lonely protagonists at the centre of this beautiful tale do finally connect. With the help of a USO troop, and a doctored CV, Helen finds herself heading to Alaska and points beyond not only at no cost to herself, but with the full blessing and protection of the United States military. Determined to speak to as many people – both on and off the military bases she will be visiting – as she can in the short time she has available, Helen’s determination to find her husband is matched only by her husband’s determination to stay alive and out of the hands of the Japanese.

Brian Payton centres his story in one of the most remote locations on the planet – the beautiful but desolate chain of islands that almost joins Alaska with Russia – during one of the least known battles of the Pacific Theatre. Combining the cruelties of war – and, as history has shown, there were few more cruel than the Japanese military – with the cruelties of nature, the author presents a story that is as stark and beautiful as the landscape in which it is set.

"This is how they fight." The staff sergeant points at the gruesome sight. "First, they kill their own wounded before coming after ours. Kill the helpless men, then blow themselves to smithereens. This is the value they place on human life. Even their own. Where’s the honour in that?"

The third-person narrative means that nothing is predictable, nothing certain. The ending, when it comes, is handled perfectly despite being absolutely devastating (make sure you have some tissues handy), and the story throughout is intimate, touching and, often, more than a little playful.

Together they tried pitching stones baseball-style at gulls and puffins.  The boy had superior accuracy, owing to his American childhood. Easley grew up playing hockey, a sport with no obvious correlation to hunting, unless they were hunting dark mice scurrying across a frozen pond.

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

JOYLAND by Stephen King

JOYLAND - Stephen King JOYLAND

Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)

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

£7.99

The safety bars came down with a clank, and a few girls tuned up with preparatory screams. Clearing their vocal chords for dark-ride arias to come, you might say.

There was a jerk, and we rode into Horror House.

Summer, 1973. University of New Hampshire student Devin Jones heads to North Carolina to take a summer job in a beachside amusement park called Joyland, little realising that his long-time girlfriend is using the opportunity to split up with him. Devin takes to the work like he was born to it, particularly when it comes to “wearing the fur” of the park’s canine mascot. Joyland has a dark side: Horror House, the park’s only dark ride, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young woman who was murdered inside during the summer of 1969. Devin’s obsession with the woman’s death drives him to stay on at the park after the season has finished, in the hopes that he might see her ghost for himself or, at the very least, understand what happened to her.

Joyland is Stephen King’s second Hard Case Crime novel, following The Colorado Kid back in the line’s infancy. Like Kid, the story of Joyland is constructed around an unsolved murder but, unusually for the Hard Case books, the mystery is neither the driving force behind the narrative, nor its main attraction. Unlike Kid, the mystery at the heart of Joyland has a logical solution that brings at least one aspect of the book to a satisfying close (not, in my opinion, that the murder in the earlier novel needed to be solved). Despite Glen Orbik’s beautiful cover, the novel doesn’t have the pulpy, hard-boiled feel that we’ve come to expect from Hard Case Crime, which is something else that it shares with its predecessor.

Telling the story through the eyes of a sixty-year-old Devin Jones looking back on the summer that made him, King takes us to Joyland and quickly gives us a feel for the place: the different rides, the shies, the Wiggle-Waggle Village for kids aged 3-7, and those areas of the park that are only ever seen by its employees like the administration block and Joyland Under. The park is inhabited by a host of characters from different backgrounds: the greenies, like Devin and his friends Tom and Erin, one of a cadre of Hollywood Girls, tasked with taking pictures of the park’s punters; the old hands, such as Lane Hardy; and then those designated “carny-from-carny”, the people through whose veins the carnival life runs, whose fathers and grandfathers made a living in the business. The building blocks of the type of rich and colourful world that we have come to expect from King.

Outside of the park are the characters of Annie and Mike Ross, who play an important part late in the novel. Wheelchair-bound Mike has a gift that should sate the appetites of readers waiting for Doctor Sleep later in the year: the child gets messages from beyond, catches glimpses of things that haven’t yet happened. Couple this with the ghost that stands at the centre of the story, and it quickly becomes evident that Joyland is not your average Hard Case Crime novel. Part mystery, part horror, part coming-of-age story (of sorts; the protagonist is twenty-one, so we’re playing fairly fast and loose with the definition of that one) and part tale of love, Stephen King’s latest is an unexpected beauty, a well-constructed piece of fiction that stands up in its own right, regardless of which genre label is applied. At turns funny, terrifying and thrilling – much like Joyland’s Thunderball rollercoaster, maybe – it builds to a heart-rending climax for which you might want to have some tissues handy.

There is a vintage feel to the tale, although the writing style is very much modern-day King, including the staple devices that we often find in his later work: the made-up language, for example, this time known as “the Talk”, and based on real carnival lingo with that special twist that makes it all his own. Constant Readers will likely instantly recognise the narrator: he’s a regular King character, though his name changes from book to book. He is the storyteller, the old man with the thick Down East accent that invariably, in this reader’s head at least, sounds exactly like the book’s author.

King has been publishing books for almost forty years (next year marks the fortieth anniversary of his debut, Carrie), and I have been an avid fan – a Constant Reader, if you will – for the past twenty-five. What constantly amazes me each time I pick up his latest novel, is the breadth of his writings. For many years he was lauded as the Master of Horror, and non-readers often have their own perception of what he writes. Most, I’m sure would be surprised by how far from the mark they are. Joyland is an excellent example of the man’s skill and craft, the perfect turn of phrase that can send a shiver down the spine, or bring a tear to the eye or a lump to the throat.

All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.

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.

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