Monday, 6 July 2009

Fear and loathing in the Arctic Circle

Review - Revolver, Marcus Sedgwick

Fear. Whether you’re fifteen or fifty-five, fear is one of those constants in life that we all experience. The passing years may change that which causes you fear, but when in the grip of it, age is taken out of the equation.

Fear lies at the heart of Revolver. It may have ‘Orion Children’s Books’ on the front cover when it’s released later this month, but Sedgwick’s latest novel will resonate as much with adults as it does teenagers.

The story centres around fifteen-year-old Sig Andersson who we meet, in the year 1910, in a remote cabin north of the Arctic Circle. He’s alone, or at least he would be if it wasn’t for the dead body of his father, Einar, lying on a table. Inexplicably, Einar had tried to take his dogs across the frozen lake by their home at a time of year when he knew it would be melting. While Sig’s waiting for the return of his sister and step-mother, who have gone for help, and trying to figure out why his father would have risked his life, there’s a knock on the front door. It’s a stranger, a monster of a man called Wolff, who carries a gun and tells tales of hidden gold... and who is calling in the debt that Einar owed him.

Having set the scene beautifully, teasing the reader with half-morsels of information on which to chew, including the existence of his father’s revolver – ‘a gun is not a weapon’, Einar had told a young Sig. ‘It’s an answer to the questions life throws at you when there’s no one else to help’ – Sedgwick rewinds eleven years to tell the story of how the Andersson family reached this point.

The book weaves between the two timelines, with each revelation in the earlier story increasing the tension in the cabin as the threat from Wolff grows with each passing hour. Sedgwick takes great care in detailing the back story and the development of the relationship between Sig and Einar, particularly in the case of the revolver, which lies hidden in the store room just yards from where Wolff is holding the boy, so much so that the gun becomes a major character in itself, almost calling to Sig, pleading with him to be used.

At a 170-odd pages, Revolver is a lean, mean exercise in menace. Few words are wasted as Sig searches deep within himself for the courage to make a play for the revolver, while trying to buy time from Wolff. The stand-off between the two is like a game of chess, each probing for weaknesses.

Sig is a superb creation, a boy who wants to be a man who finds himself thrust into a situation which offers him that opportunity, and Wolff is a fine sparring partner, although there is a feeling that perhaps Sedgwick held back a little, despite the brutality his antagonist exudes.

Revolver is dark, no question, and as the tension mounts the turning of its pages soon becomes a necessity rather than a desire. But more than that it’s a coming-of-age tale, and an example of how a family’s love can endure against the greatest of odds, including overcoming a fear that leaves you stricken, unable to act in the face of death.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The forgotten author

It's funny what happens to our reading habits, and those favourite authors who we read religiously, hunting down every new release the moment it hits the shelves.

I was reading Nick Stone's blog earlier - Nick wrote the ultra-cool Max Mingus thrillers Mr Clarinet and King of Swords - and he mentioned that he was reading the new James Ellroy, Blood's a Rover, the final installment in his American Underworld trilogy.

Ellroy has fallen off my radar. Having devoured everything up to and including his utterly brilliant LA Quartet - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz - I bought American Tabloid, the first in the Underworld trilogy, but struggled to get into it.

In his early novels, and the trilogy featuring brutal cop Lloyd Hopkins, Ellroy had a sparse writing style, but it flowed beautifully. As the LA Quartet progressed, that style changed, until by White Jazz he was writing in what has been termed 'telegraphic prose', omitting all connecting words and using short sentences.

White Jazz, while a great book, had grated on me slightly, and I was coming off a run of particularly stylishly written books when I picked up American Tabloid. I read a few pages and put it down, aiming to return at some point in the future. That never happened, and I don't think I can find a reasonable answer as to why; Ellroy just slipped off my must-read list.

But Nick's post has rekindled a fire. I dismissed American Tabloid far too easily, and Ellroy's back catalogue deserves more. I've retrieved Tabloid from the bookshelf and dusted it off. It now sits with new friends, in a pile of to-be-read books. It's a fair chunk of a size, and the second in the series - The Cold Six Thousand - is even bigger. So this could take some time.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Maine's very own dark knight draws closer to the truth

Review - The Lovers, by John Connolly

Lovers of literature and film are suckers for a tortured soul, and souls don't come any more beaten and crushed than Charlie Parker, the dark hero of this, the seventh offering in Connolly's series about the Maine-based private investigator.

Forget last year's The Reapers, which focused on Parker's deadly sidekicks, Angel and Louis, with Parker supplying a third person cameo. While entertaining and faster than a speeding bullet, The Reapers was Connolly-lite, like supping a shandy when you what you really need is the most potent ale on the menu.

The Lovers opens with Parker working in a bar in Portland, having lost his private investigator's licence at the end of the last fully-fledged Parker novel, The Unquiet. He's been told by the authorities to keep his nose clean - spotless, in fact - and he's doing his best. But this is Parker we're talking about. Spurred on by revelations made by the dangerous and enigmatic Collector in The Unquiet, Parker begins an investigation into his father's suicide three decades ago in an attempt to understand what made Will Parker kill two unarmed teenagers, a boy and a girl.

Perhaps the greatest of Connolly's skills in developing this series has been the way he has balanced the undercurrent of supernatural influences on Parker's life with the possibility that we, the readers, are being totally suckered by an unreliable narrator who is slowly losing the plot following the death of his first wife and daughter, and the estrangement of his second love and daughter. The books have grown in intensity and the bleak mood of The Unquiet suggested a resolution to this issue was coming. The Lovers delivers it, and then some.

As Parker interviews his father's former colleagues, it becomes clear that there was a cover-up into the circumstances that led to his father killing the two young lovers, and indeed his suicide. The Collector had hinted at Charlie having secret 'friends', that even he doesn't know about, and as he peels away the layers of the cover-up, he learns that everything he thought he knew about his family - indeed, his own origins - has been an elaborate, but necessary, deceit.

Running parallel to Parker's first person-related investigation is the emergence of the lovers of the title, as they close in on Parker. This element is told third person, a device that Connolly has used increasingly in the Parker books, and further evidence to undermine the unreliable narrator theory.

The Parker novels have always had strong themes running throughout - loss, revenge, redemption, hope - and they are again present, but it's betrayal that forms the focus of The Lovers, and the strength of character to forgive that betrayal.

Be in no doubt - this isn't a James Patterson easy-to-digest thriller you're reading here. Crime novels, although that is far too broad a term to define this series, don't come any bleaker. There is humour, of course, and as usual it's bang on the money. But Angel and Louis, whose banter with Parker lights up the darkest night, are mere footnotes in The Lovers. And that is how it should be; this is Parker's story, or rather his father's story.

This is also not a book for newcomers to the Parker series. It does stand alone, as much as it can, but there is so much rich backstory here, with characters from earlier books making reappearances, that I can only imagine that, as an introduction to Parker, it would be something of a hollow experience.

For Parker fans, that is not an issue. The Lovers might just be the best Parker novel yet. It may not have a Mr Pudd, Brightwell or Caleb Kyle for a villain, or have the pace and action of earlier novels, but Connolly's writing is sensational. Much of the story is told either in flashback or recounted by characters to Parker; little happens in the here and now, and it takes some writing chops to create such an intense story with Parker, by and large, being talked at by others.

Connolly has hinted that he has the end of the Parker series in his mind. He knows how it will be resolved, it's just a question of how long it takes to get there. Given the developments in The Lovers, there is a sense that we are building to a crescendo and I don't think there will be too many books left. Three, maybe four. And this, too, is as it should be, as Parker deserves some closure. Still, it will be one hell of a ride getting there.

Monday, 8 June 2009

A love letter to Afghanistan

Review - Born Under a Million Shadows, by Andrea Busfield

The bottom paragraph on the back cover for this, Busfield's debut novel, describes it as a 'humorous and harrowing love letter to a troubled land' and you'd do well to remember that phrase - love letter - as you read it.

Sage advice to would-be novelists looking to snare an agent or publisher is full of 'show, don't tell', particularly early on in a manuscript, and the need to hook the reader immediately, to produce the goods and induce that 'move to the sofa' moment for said agent/publisher. And go easy on the back story, whatever you do.

But they say rules are there to be broken, and Busfield seems intent on doing just that. Million Shadows is narrated first person by eleven-year-old Fawad, a boy born in Kabul during the time of the Taliban. It opens very quietly, as Fawad describes life with his friends on the streets of Kabul, working the foreigners, his fractured home that he shares with his mother, his aunt and her brood.

It's scene-setting - beautifully done scene-setting at that - but after ten or fifteen pages I had one thought in my head... when's this thing going to start? What I hadn't realised was, it had. And it had the hooks in, too, but all with such subtleness that by the time the 'story' kicked in I was unaware that the author had slung a bag over my head and carried me off into her world.

The event which sparks the plot into action comes when Mariya lands a job as housekeeper for Georgie, an intelligent and sexy western woman who shares a home with two friends, James, a journalist, and May, an engineer. Fawad, understandably, develops a huge crush on Georgie, who has relationship issues of her own - she's in love with an Afghan warlord, Haji Khan, who Fawad soon learns isn't the kind of bloke you want the girl you love so achingly to be hanging around with.

The story unfolds slowly - Fawad tries to act as matchmaker between his mother and a guard; he gets a job working in a small store with a blind shopkeeper; the three westerners take Fawad under their wing and introduce him, unintentionally, to alcohol and sex education; and he watches, helpless, as Georgie's love for Haji intensifies before, inevitably, their world threatens to break apart around them.

Busfield first experienced Afghanistan while working as a journalist for the News of the World covering the fall of the Taliban. In interviews she does not hide the fact that she fell in love with the country, so much so that she made it her home, and this knowledge permeates everything that transpires to Fawad and his friends. It also explains the 'love letter' reference, because that's exactly what this is. Plot is secondary here; it's a look at a year in Fawad's life, a momentous year during which he grows from a child into a young man. A love letter from Busfield to a trouble-torn but beautiful country.

Her style might not suit everyone, but for those who are happy to wait for their riches there is much to admire here. She manages to give a history lesson without preaching, and outlines the politics without being political. Fawad isn't just a fully-rounded character, he all but steps from the pages and grabs you by the hand. The relationship between Georgie and Khan is deftly handled, when it could have come across heavy-handed and cliched, and most of the supporting cast - particularly Pir Hederi, the blind shopkeeper - are a delight. There's also some real humour on show here, and not just the obvious situational comedy, such as the incident involving Fawad, a knife and a Frenchman's ass.
There are issues which detract. Some of the word choices for Fawad's internal monologue feel awkward and out of place and at times the dialogue, especially between the westerners, doesn't work; it feels clumsy, almost forced in order to propel the story onwards, and this is in stark contrast to the exchanges between Fawad and friends, not to mention some of the long descriptive passages which bring the country and its natives to colourful life.

As debut novels go, Million Shadows is a fine effort, a beautiful, slow-burning story of unconditional love, tragedy and, ultimately, life-affirming hope. Well worth a read.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Murder. Adultery. Facism. Rotting hearts sent by post. Just your average day in the mind of author Andrew Taylor

Review - Bleeding Heart Square, by Andrew Taylor

There is something so beautifully sinister about Taylor's work that makes me hope I never have the pleasure of meeting him in person. Sure, he comes across as a perfectly sound bloke on his website (other than the dodgy one-eyed photograph), and he's married with children and a couple of cats and all that. But having read first The American Boy (the one featuring a young Edgar Allan Poe) and now this, I wouldn't recommend being stranded alone with the man.

Bleeding Heart Square is set in mid-1930s London and, as with The American Boy, Taylor has spun another complex web of intrigue and deception: A woman flees her abusive husband, seeking refuge with her father in a gloomy lodging house in the eerie-sounding square. The owner, a middle-aged spinster called Miss Penhow, hasn't been seen for four years, and a plain-clothes policeman lurks in the shadows, watching everything that happens in the square. And someone is sending parcels of rotting hearts to the house, addressed to Miss Penhow's estranged husband, the wonderfully menacing Serridge.

At the core of the story are two threads. Lydia lives in upper class splendour on a vast country estate. On the surface, she has everything. Beneath the surface, she's a prisoner to her manipulative bully of a husband, Marcus, a rising young politician within the British Union of Fascists. The book opens with her taking one beating too many, prompting her to flee to London and her father.

The second thread revolves around Rory Wentwood, a struggling journalist just returned from India, who is engaged to Fenella, the niece of the missing Miss Penhow. Snooping around Bleeding Heart Square under orders from his fiancee, Rory is coerced into taking a room at the lodging house by Detective Sergeant Narton, an enigmatic cop who is investigating Serridge and the disappearance of Miss Penhow.

When Lydia and Rory meet, they become embroiled in each other's stories as Rory tries desperately to hang on to Fenella, Lydia learns the disturbing truth about Marcus and both of them fall deeper into the murky world that Serridge inhabits and the evil that pervades Bleeding Heart Square.

Taylor isn't just one of the best crime writers around. He's one of the best writers, period. Bleeding Heart Square is a slow-burn. It has a measured pace to it - not for Taylor the short, sharp edge-of-your-pants cliffhanger chapters that James Patterson churns out. Taylor lands the hook in your mouth without you realising it and before you know it you're turning those pages, drawn into the gothic atmosphere that all but rises from the page to devour your senses.

Part of the story's intrigue is down to Taylor opening each chapter with a present tense, first person passage (the rest of the book is third person), in which the reader takes on the increasingly sinister persona of one of the characters who is following Miss Penhow's missing journal. It's a clever ploy, but one which could have backfired in the hands of a lesser writer.

The time and place that Taylor evokes is frighteningly vivid, a period of social and political uncertainty, with the fascist subplot adding to the suspense that gradually builds throughout the book. All this work would, of course, be wasted if Taylor had dropped the ball with his characters, but he can't be faulted here either.

Lydia's slow transformation from aristocratic wallflower who is waited on hand and foot to independent, streetwise woman is a masterclass in character development, and each of the supporting cast are given ample room to breathe and come to life. It's Serridge, however, whose memory lingers longest, a wonderful creation of charm, mystery and utter villainy, although the wretched Marcus isn't too far behind.

The beauty of coming late to an established author like Taylor is that you have a backlist of books to catch up on. It's been four years between reading The American Boy and Bleeding Heart Square. Rest assured I won't wait as long next time.