Book Review: A Ladder to the Sky

A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne, tells the story of Maurice Swift, a handsome Yorkshireman and son of a farmer who is determined to leave his upbringing behind and become a renowned author. When the tale opens he is working as a waiter in West Berlin. Here he meets Erich Ackermann, an aging Cambridge professor whose latest novel has just won The Prize. To satisfy his publishers Erich has taken a year’s leave of absence to perform on the expected circuit of literary events across Europe and America, promoting the book that has unexpectedly brought him fame. He is drawn to Maurice as a moth to a flame, the young man’s good looks and knowledgeable admiration of Erich’s work unlocking desires that have lain dormant for decades.

Erich agrees to read some of Maurice’s writing and is disappointed to find it skillfully constructed but mundane. Unwilling to lose touch he offers to employ Maurice as his assistant on tour. With this foothold the aspiring writer enters the rarefied world of the literati with its jealousies, conceits and ruthless ambition. Always on the lookout for a story idea, Maurice encourages Erich to talk to him about his experiences growing up in Germany under Hitler. Erich harbours a terrible secret that he decides to share.

The plot jumps forward in time to a beautiful and secluded villa on the Amalfi Coast where Gore lives with Howard. Key figures from the world of literature, the arts and politics along with those who believe they will benefit from mixing with these supposed titans have all passed through. Now Maurice has found a way to receive an invitation to stay. Like other aging authors, Gore is tempted by the young man’s mix of admiration and contempt, his confidence and allure. There is much verbal sparring, name dropping and one-upmanship highlighting the tensions, pretensions and sensitivities of authors who, even when revered, are forever alert to the danger of eclipse by newer rivals’ work. Maurice may have by now written a book that garnered wide attention but the cost was high and lacking the esteem he seeks.

A decade later Maurice is married to Edith, an up and coming writer, but has not yet found the continued success he believes is his due. The couple have recently moved to Norwich where Edith is to teach creative writing at UEA while adding the finishing touches to her second novel. Maurice has no firm plans but hopes to pick up ideas, perhaps from her students. What he discovers will catapult him into the world to which he aspires. He will not allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story continues in New York where Maurice founds and runs an exclusive literary magazine, seeking out new writers and granting him access to their ideas. By the end of the novel he is living in London and being courted by a young writer himself, a situation he intends to work to his advantage.

The decades over which the story is set allows for tight plot progression, the pace of which effortlessly maintains reader engagement. Despite Maurice’s behaviour, the terrible actions he justifies to himself as necessary, there is much humour. Authors are often asked where they get there ideas. This tale provides an interesting study into who owns intangible and regularly reinterpreted inspirations. The denouement is ace.

I would offer a comparison to an amalgamation of Patricia Highsmith and Sebastian Faulks but wonder if this would somehow irritate the author who may prefer simply to be recognised as the talented writer he undoubtedly is. Having read this book readers will likely view the authors they queue to meet at festivals and events in a different light. Expertly constructed it provides engrossing literary entertainment, and a deliciously subversive dig at the author’s world.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

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Book Review: Old Baggage

In Lissa Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Heart, the reader is briefly introduced to Mattie Simpkin, an elderly lady who was once a suffragette. Old Baggage is set a decade earlier and offers further details on the life of this idiosyncratic character. Neither book relies on the other for its story but, having enjoyed the earlier work, I was delighted by the links that exist.

The tale opens in 1928. Mattie is walking across Hampstead Heath when she is assailed by a memory, her momentary distraction enabling a thief to make off with her handbag. In attempting to waylay the malefactor she injures a girl who then threatens legal action. Mattie’s good friend, Florrie Lee, steps in to help, offering the girl, Ida Pearse, a position in the house where she lives with Mattie. Florrie works as a Health Visitor and is the more practical and empathetic of the pair. She grew up in a poor household whereas Mattie came from a wealthy family. This disparity is more significant than Mattie can realise. The causes she cares about are linked to female equality and aspiration which can be stymied by family circumstances as much as legislation.

Mattie went to university in a time when these institutions refused to confer a degree on a woman, however well she did in their exams. As a suffragette she was imprisoned and badly treated leading to a lifelong contempt for upholders of law and order. When she sees how little Ida knows about the rights Mattie has spent her life fighting for, the older woman decides this is indicative of an important matter that she can address. She places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting girls to join a club which she will use to propagate her views. As she says to a friend:

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is not the only suffragette looking to influence the young people of London. The idea for the girls’ club was inspired by an encounter with another old friend whose outlook has moved towards Fascism. The two groups, which the ladies set up, hold their meetings on the Heath and soon become rivals leading to a confrontation. Mattie has been foolish in her dealings with the attendees at her club – favouring one for personal reasons – with cataclysmic results.

The minor plot threads and contextual references add depth to what is an entertaining and accessible story. Mattie is a wonderful character, her drive, intelligence and willingness to take responsibility for her headstrong actions and their consequences an inspiration. Florrie offers a different perspective, quietly supporting and mopping up after her friend. The varied milieu offer a stark reminder of the importance of the welfare state.

It takes skill to write a book that is congenial and captivating whilst offering the reader interesting topics to chew on. The attributes and actions of the characters demonstrate how multifaceted an individual can be, and how often one judges on incomplete information. Old Baggage is funny, tender, fervent and affecting. It does not shy away from important issues but neither does it preach. It is a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Gig Review: John Boyne at the Marlborough Literature Festival

Last weekend I attended the Marlborough Literature Festival – you may read about my first day experiences here. Day Two was more straightforward as traffic had returned to manageable levels in the town. I was also familiar with the venues, knowledge that helps anyone prone to unnecessary anxiety.

Unless an author is of particular personal interest – Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel come to mind – I tend to eschew larger events, prefering the intimacy of a bookshop venue. However, having so much enjoyed his latest work – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (you may click on the title to read my review) – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen to John Boyne speak. Plus he is Irish. I do like to support writers from my home country, even those as successful as him.

Held upstairs in the town hall, this event was chaired by Tony Mulliken who has worked with the National Book Awards and The London Book Fair. He appeared to be enjoying the ensuing discussion as much as the audience.

Following introductions, John was asked about the impact of the success of his fifth novel, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, and what he thought of the popular film adaptation. John admitted that it changed his life, enabling him to do what he had always dreamed of and become a full time writer. He told us that he liked the movie, that he had worked on it himself. He also pointed out that a film doesn’t change a book, but it does bring more readers to the author’s works.

Moving on to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John explained that this was a story about love, invisibility and anger at how his protagonist, Cyril Avery, is treated. Set over seventy years – ten chapters in seven year leaps – it opens when Cyril is still in the womb. John did not wish to portray Cyril’s pregnant and unmarried mother, Catherine, as a victim but rather as a strong, independent woman. He prefers to write his female characters in this way.

John then read from the book. This was one of several readings, each of which had the audience in stitches. The story weaves humour and pathos with a warm, impressive adroitness. Its author proved himself a fine, live entertainer.

John explained that although he plots his novels in advance he then allows them to develop. His plan for this book was to tell the story of a seventy year old man looking back on his life. After he had written Catherine’s denouncement by the church, he found the tone of his writing changed. A particular type of humour evolved with Cyril’s adoptive parents. John enjoyed writing in this way, deciding that readers did not need six hundred pages of misery. He hadn’t really done humour before but the change of direction opened a floodgate in his head and he enjoyed the process.

Irish people will know of the teatowels and bar towels and other touristy paraphenalia featuring the eight great Irish writers, all men. He decided that Cyril’s adoptive mother would be an author horrified by the thought of popular success, whose latest novel would suddenly threaten to put her face on such ephemera. Her husband is a dodgy banker whose foolish actions upset the family equilibrium. Both these characters provide much humour despite their sometimes casually cruel behaviour.

The book is historically accurate featuring an emerging homosexual growing up in a country where being gay is still illegal. John was asked what personal echoes exist in the book. He pointed out that all writers feature shadows of themselves. He wanted to write about how terrifying and misunderstood the AIDs crisis was having experienced the fear of it as a teenager in the 1980s. He also talked of the fear of the twenty foot walk, from bedroom to sitting room to come out to parents, and the huge repercussions on all their lives from there. John mentioned the pressure put on gay men to ‘try’ sex with a woman, the suggestion that maybe they might enjoy being married. Few considered how cruel this would be to the woman.

To develop Cyril’s character, to allow him to grow up, Cyril had to be taken out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland. When he eventually returns, having finally experienced love, the country has changed. The decriminilisation of homosexuality along with the revelations of the extent of abuses within the church allowed more liberal attitudes to develop. There was mirth from the audience when John mentioned the ongoing support of his country’s European friends.

In discussing endings, John does not feel a need for happiness so much as authenticity. He does though enjoy placing well known real public figures in his books and representing them in a certain way.

John was asked about his influences and mentioned John Irving, for his sexual misfits, and Dickens, for his orphans. John enjoys writing children without adults to solve their problems.

Another question asked was why Julian, Cyril’s best friend on whom he had a crush, could not see that Cyril was in love with him. This was because everyone loved Julian, he was used to being adored. Also, it was the 1950s when such behaviour would not be expected. Cyril did not feel he could be honest with Julian which demonstrated a lack of trust in their friendship.

John was asked about how he treats priests in the book. He wanted to start with the hypocrisy. He didn’t want it to be another church book but it is set in decades when the church was still a major social force. John grew up living next door to priests and nuns. He was an alter boy. These were not good memories.

Asked about the notable Irish voice throughout the story John was asked about translations and how this voice could be retained. He talked of the skill of the translator in capturing nuances. He also pointed out that he could not read the translations so would never know.

Did John set out to write a social history of Ireland or to write about Cyril? Both. He wanted to highlight the massive changes in attitudes in Ireland through the eyes of a particular person.

Has John been approached for film rights for this book? Yes, in a way. They have been sold to Ridley Scott as a ten part series. Of course this is no guarantee that the project will be taken further.

I found this a fascinating talk as well as being a highly entertaining event. If you haven’t already read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.

I will be writing about the final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival in the next few days.

Book Review: A Dangerous Crossing

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A Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys, is set on a luxury passenger liner travelling from Tilbury, England to Sydney, Australia in the five weeks leading up to Britain entering the Second World War in September 1939. The story is told from the point of view of twenty-five year old Lily, a waitress and former domestic servent who, along with several other young women, has gained a government assisted passage aimed at providing the wealthy down under with the types of servants they desire.

Lily is a pretty and straightforward working class girl but she harbours painful memories of heartache that she wishes to leave behind. As she befriends the strangers with whom she is to share the crossing she comes to realise that they too have secrets and that, despite their enforced proximity, the discriminatory judgements of fellow passengers can be as insidious here as on dry land. The treatment of the Jewish travellers was particularly painful to read.

There is disquiet when a couple from first class choose Lily and her new tourist class acquaintances as their companions for the voyage. This leads to entanglements that she struggles to deal with. We have come a long way in terms of behaviours wider society will accept.

Lily had to leave school at fourteen in order to help support her family and this journey offers her a chance to enjoy not just the exotic locations they visit en route but also an ease and lifestyle alien to her experience. What she is unprepared for is the intensity of both the relationships and resentments that form, and the inability to step back from her fellow passengers given their incarceration onboard a vessel at sea.

The writing is engaging and the characters drawn from a variety of walks in life. There is a carefully constructed build up to the denouement yet, although neatly done, this left me dissatisfied. I was more upset by Lily’s treatment of Maria than about the outcomes for her cohort of damaged and self-absorbed bright young friends. The time period is well evoked with its prejudices and casual entitlement. What I struggled to conjure was the warmth of empathy. I wished there to be someone willing to take a stand, even though the reluctance to act, given personal circumstances, was understandable.

I suspect that my lack of satisfaction with this book may be down to the expectations I had formed based on other early reader’s more positive reactions. I desired more depth, a challenge to convention. The tale has been well received by many but wasn’t for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne, tells the life story of Cyril Avery, a man born into an Ireland that I recognised all too well. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at what is, at times, a heart-breaking story. In places the style of writing brought to mind the work of John Irving, to whom the book is dedicated, but this is a much more nuanced, hard hitting yet always compelling read.

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 to Catherine, the sixteen year old, unwed daughter of a Cork farmer. As soon as her condition becomes known she is condemned as a whore by the village priest in front of his entire congregation. He assaults and then banishes the teenager, with the full cooperation of her large and present family.

Catherine makes her way to Dublin where she sets about creating a new life for herself. She understands that, alone and financially insecure as she is, this will not be possible with a child. The convents, well used to dealing with ‘fallen women’, take her son when he is three days old and offer him to a wealthy, married couple who have asked for a baby to adopt. Cyril is accepted, although regularly reminded throughout his life that he is not ‘a real Avery’.

Charles and Maud Avery raise the boy in comfort but not perhaps as conventional parents would. Although never in material want, he feels bereft of affection. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian, the handsome and charismatic son of Charles’ solicitor. Julian is unlike anyone Cyril has previously known and he is immediately smitten. The boys become room mates at boarding school and have various, sometimes risqué, adventures. Cyril though has a secret that he cannot bring himself to tell even his best friend.

Ireland in thrall to the Catholic Church. Its sanctimonious attitudes, rampant hypocrisy and mysogeny are brilliantly evoked. Its preoccupation with other people’s sex lives and the indoctrination of guilt lead to horrifying cruelties and acceptance of widespread and very public vilification when those who do not conform to narrow behaviours are found out.

When Cyril’s secret is revealed he travels abroad but can never quite escape the bullies intent on forcing their flawed beliefs on all. Prejudice and related intolerance are damagingly widespread.

At moments in his long life Cyril does find happiness. He also makes mistakes and at times causes suffering for others. He sees the way the world is changing and regrets that he was born too soon to benefit.

The author is an impressive story teller and this ambitious work is masterfully crafted. With just a few lines he can touch the heart of an issue yet is never didactic. Events recounted are sometimes horrifying, but by not dwelling on the misery what comes across is the strength of those who stand up for what is right, and the benefits to society of increased empathy.

I loved this book. It is a powerful, poignant and beautiful tale. It will, I hope, be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Sirens

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Sirens, by Joseph Knox, is a hard hitting crime fiction novel set in the underbelly of Manchester. Its protagonist, Aiden Waits, is a disgraced detective working covertly in an attempt to keep his job and stay out of jail. He is required to infiltrate the inner circle of a drugs baron. He has a weakness for the product.

Written in the first person the story opens with Waits working a standard night shift and realising it is a year since he got caught up in the events which make up this tale. He had been drinking in the city bars and clubs, observing activity linked to the supply of drugs. He recalls what happened next, his account tinged with regret.

Waits is asked to keep an eye out for Isabelle Rossiter, the seventeen year old runaway daughter of a wealthy politician. She has been linked to Zain Carver, a crime lord famed for the parties he holds in his home. She is mixing with the girls he uses in his business. Sometimes they disappear.

Waits is aware that there is more going on than he is being told, and that he is playing a dangerous game. He gains access to Carver and sets out to earn his trust, a transient concept in this line of work. Waits is attempting to set up a sting operation but to do so must get involved with Carver’s shady operations. When a brick of heroin goes missing events turn personal. The lies he is telling both sides catch up with him and Waits’ enemies close in.

The demand for drugs exists in all strata of society, from the hobos in the abandoned warehouses through the wide variety of pubs and clubs to the thrill seeking party goers in the mansions owned by the conspicuously wealthy. With so much money to be made the power of a drugs lord relies on product veracity and fear of retribution. Carver’s empire finds itself under threat.

The writing is dark and tense, the death toll high. The troubled Waits fits right into the world created. This is a powerful and compelling slice of noir presented in an accomplished narrative, impressive in a debut. A recommended read for all fans of crime fiction. The author is undoubtedly one to watch.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: I’m Travelling Alone

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I’m Travelling Alone, by Samuel Bjork (translated by Charlotte Barslund), introduces the reader to Holger Munch and Mia Krüger, former members of a special unit in the Norwegian police department’s Violent Crimes Section. When the story opens Krüger is living alone on a remote island property and planning to take her own life. Munch has been dispatched to try to talk her into rejoining the unit following the disturbing murder of a child, an investigation that he hopes will also facilitate his return from the backwater he was banished to following an as yet undisclosed incident in their past.

Krüger is skilled at spotting clues that others miss, forming theories and associations that have enabled her to solve many complex crimes. When she notes that the murdered child has the number 1 scratched onto a finger nail she suggests that further murders will follow. This proves to be correct. A game of cat and mouse ensues as the reformed team race against time to work out motive and find suspects. Just as they are finally beginning to make headway it gets personal. Concerns are raised that neither Krüger nor Munch will be capable of the impartiality required to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The plot offers many threads for the reader to ponder: pre-school children washed and dressed as dolls found hanging from trees; a mysterious religious retreat created in woodland; potential clues presented as codes and riddles. It is not just children who are murdered but also animals. There is a possible link to a care home for the elderly.

I found the story telling slow to start. The background offered was of interest but the measured pace lacked the tension I have come to expect from crime thrillers. I wondered if the tale would work better on television where the brooding, Norwegian landscapes could add to the suspense.

The characters were as I would expect in Nordic fiction although the protagonists had irritating quirks that were repeatedly mentioned. Krüger was forever taking a lozenge, Munch lighting another cigarette. When the pace finally picked up these mentions ceased, as did the persistant reminder that they were functioning on too little sleep. My attention was not sufficiently diverted by what action there was to ignore this manner of writing.

The final hundred or so pages pulled together all of the carefully crafted threads and it was then a thrilling race to the denouement. There were twists that I had not guessed and satisfying endings. The members of the crime team had become three dimensional and I cared about how things would pan out for several of the supporting cast.

Although newly released in English translation, the book is already an international bestseller in at least half a dozen European countries. This is the proposed first in a sequence of novels featuring Krüger and Munch. Perhaps the slower opening pace was felt necessary as a stage setter for the series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.