Book review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

a ladder to the sky john boyneAfter loving The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I was looking forward to reading John Boyne’s latest novel.

A Ladder to the Sky is the story of an attractive young man, Maurice, who wants to be a writer. He uses his looks and charm to attach himself to a series of successful authors across the world. He builds his own career as a novelist by stealing stories from them, while leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

Boyne is having fun with the well-worn question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and wondering what would happen to an author who could write good prose but couldn’t invent a story of his own. I’m not sure I accept the premise – I’ve read plenty of literary novels where the prose is gorgeous but the story weak and unrealised and that doesn’t seem to stop them winning awards. But it’s a fun idea and a playful treatment.

I loved the black comedy and Maurice’s trajectory through literary circles. It’s a world that’s familiar to me from the days when I was on the fringes of traditional publishing, albeit at a lower level. I think the constant hustling, the fine line between adoration and envy, the comparisonitis are due to the fact that the conventional markers of success – salary, job title, professional qualifications – are absent so your status is always shifting. The intriguing question is why Maurice, with his good looks and easy opportunism, doesn’t inveigle himself into a more glamorous and lucrative business.

Perhaps the same things that make people want to write and be among writers – the love of the craft, the desire to belong to a world of books and ideas – apply to him too. It suggests that his passion for literature is genuine, even if the rest of him is a lie.

A few real writers make an appearance in the novel which is fun and adds to the writerly in-jokiness of the thing. There is an interlude written from the point of view of Gore Vidal which is quite entertaining if you’re a fan, and works by Maude Avery, the fictional novelist from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, are namechecked.

The irony, of course, is that Maurice is constantly inventing in life, with his trail of deceit and manipulation. But it seems Maurice can’t get to the end, and that’s true of this novel as well.

In the later part of the book we learn about key events from Maurice’s point of view. This only works if he has something to add, a radically different perspective, an intriguing justification. He doesn’t. Boyne also has an annoying tic of writing dialogue scenes as if they were verbatim, which means he often repeats at length stories the reader has already read. Why he can’t just write ‘I told him about the death of my mother’ and move on, I don’t know.

Maurice was most interesting when seen through the eyes of others, when he had the dark allure of a cool, calculating psychopath. When you start learning what he thinks himself, it’s quite banal. Perhaps that’s the intention, he is, after all, a man who can’t make up a story, but that and a slightly laboured twist meant that, for me, the end of the book didn’t live up to the rest.

I received a copy of A Ladder to the Sky from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Book review: A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

a treachery of spies manda scottOrléans detective Inès Picaut is called in to investigate the murder of an elderly woman, who has been killed in the manner of traitors to the Resistance in World War Two. The murder coincides with a security conference in the city, including key US personnel, and she is under political pressure to run a speedy but low-profile investigation. However, some key figures at the conference seem to be interested in the story of the dead woman.

This is one of those books where you feel completely immersed in the story. As it’s quite long, I read it over a few days and found myself simultaneously wanting to race through it and not wanting it to end.

The book focuses mainly on the French Resistance and the British agents who worked with them. There is a lot of wonderful detail about cryptography and spycraft. The protagonists are all clever and brave and resourceful. Some are eccentric and cool under pressure. Others are passionate and strong. All experience terrible losses.

It is most fascinating in the insights it gives into the work of undercover agents practising many layers of deception, with complex loyalties and conflicts. These same ambiguities were present in institutions which were looking beyond the war to secure their own interests. As the narrative moves between the past and the present, you are kept guessing about who was betrayed and who survived – and the terrible choices they had to make.

The police-procedural element of the book plays a fairly small part and I was more interested in the story in the past than in the investigation in the present day, but it was fascinating to learn how the events of the past still resonate, not just on the individuals involved but on the political and security networks of the West.

A Treachery of Spies combines crime, espionage, history and international relations in a complex, absorbing and pacy thriller.

I received a copy of A Treachery of Spies from the publisher via Netgalley.
View A Treachery of Spies on Goodreads

For another great spy novel, take a look at my review of London Rules by Mick Herron

 

Book review: You Were Made for This by Michelle Sacks

you were made for thisI must admit I’m not generally a fan of the domestic thriller. The ones I’ve looked at seem to present a very narrow view both of women and of families, and to favour pace over prose.

I thought I’d give this a go though, because it includes that endlessly fascinating trope of escaping the rat race to live the dream.

Merry and Sam are living with their baby in rural Sweden, in a cottage he inherited from a relative. He is trying to establish himself as a filmmaker, she is caring for their baby, baking and growing vegetables. They have left their home in New York under slightly murky circumstances.

We see first the beauty of this new life, then its downsides. It is the arrival of Merry’s childhood friend, Frank (Frances), that brings things to a head.

The positive about this book is that the writing is gorgeous. You get a real sense of the beauty of the Swedish countryside and the appeal of the life they are living. Later, you see how the same setting can be claustrophobic and threatening. It’s the ideal combination – you get to both bask in Merry and Sam’s idyllic lifestyle, and to see it fall apart and realise it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

I didn’t enjoy the story, though. In part this is to do with the structure of the book. We already see the problems in Merry and Sam’s life before Frank’s arrival, then we have to repeat the same journey from envy to disillusionment from her point of view. When the crisis happens in their lives, there is a police investigation in which the protagonists are interviewed and go over much of the same ground yet again.

More than this, though, I found this book profoundly depressing in what it says about women. There are various archetypes in the book, all of them negative. Frank is successful in her career and travels the world but it’s only because her mother didn’t love her enough. She’d give it up in a heartbeat to have what Merry has.

Merry feels confined by her new life but can’t think what else to do. Sam takes it for granted that Merry should do all the household chores. Neither Merry nor Frank seem to think any less of him for it, nor to question what they themselves expect.

The three protagonists are depressingly predictable. There is no grit that makes them run against type, no sense that they have complex emotions and drives that exist beyond the frame of the story. I had a strong reaction to the twist at the end, but I don’t think it was the one I was meant to have.

Sam is a former anthropologist with an interest in masks and Merry was a set designer. They are interesting choices but I didn’t feel the implications were explored. Are these characters more interesting than they appear? Has their potential been stifled by the limited roles they are allowed to play? Or were they made for this?

I received a copy of You Were Made for This from the publisher via Netgalley.
View You Were Made for This on Goodreads

For a more interesting and nuanced domestic noir, take a look at my review of The Woman in the Window

 

Book review: Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

elon musk by ashlee vanceI only really knew about Elon Musk as a pop-culture figure before so I was interested in reading this biography. I’ve learnt more about his work as an inventor and a manufacturer in the fields of solar power, electric cars and space travel and IT, though as always I’m wary of drawing too many conclusions when I’ve only read one book on a subject!

The book gives a comprehensive account of Musk’s life and his work to date (the book was first published in 2015), from the financial company that became Paypal to Tesla, Space X and SolarCity. You learn about his unconventional and talented family and an upbringing that was privileged in some ways and extremely difficult in others. It seems that from an early age he had an exceptional ability to absorb knowledge and to visualise and invent complex processes in his mind. He also has phenomenal energy and determination.

A couple of interesting points stood out. Firstly, that Musk does believe in making things. There’s a quote at the beginning of the book to the effect that the best brains of our generation are spending their days getting us to click ads. Musk wants to create something real and tangible and he has a sense of mission.

The other thing I found interesting is that his businesses develop and manufacture most of their products in-house. For a generation, conventional wisdom has been that it is more efficient to outsource to specialists. This has had disastrous consequences for our public services, where private companies reduce standards and working conditions, pocket profits and leave taxpayers with losses.

Musk has demonstrated that the opposite can be true – that doing work in-house means you keep control of quality, timing and product development. With complex supply chains, there is always someone else to blame when things go wrong (though equally, pay and conditions of his workers do not seem to be a priority for Musk).

Although the book does address criticisms of Musk, it is quite a positive account overall. This doesn’t chime with some of his behaviour, particularly in the light of his recent comments about the divers involved in the Thai cave rescue, which polarised opinion on him.

We seem unable to accept that people can be exceptionally talented in one area and flawed in another. Perhaps it’s time to retire that tired term ‘role model’ and understand people in their complexity.

I received a copy of Elon Musk from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

Audiobook review: This is How It Ends by Eva Dolan

this is how it ends eva dolanElla is young anti-gentrification activist and Molly is a veteran of campaigns from Greenham Common to the present day who is living in a London block. They have joined forces to campaign against the block’s demolition and redevelopment of the area. This Is How It Ends begins at what should be a highpoint for them as they have successfully crowdfunded a book on their campaign, but something terrible happens at the celebration party. The way they deal with this event changes everything.

The narrative structure is very interesting. From the point of the event the stories of the two characters are told in alternate chapters. We follow Molly’s into the future and see the consequences of their actions. Ella’s story is told backwards from that night, to see how they reached that point. We learn about both their lives, their involvement in political action and how they became close. Although they are very different characters that they both embody an intriguing mix of toughness and vulnerability. It becomes clear they have been drawn together both by their political interests and a personal need.

I loved the writing and clever structure. It was interesting to see such a rich portrayal of political life, and the different characters each with their motivations. Molly’s backstory, going right back to the 80s, was particularly interesting as she weighed up the sacrifices she’d made.

There’s a great twist at the end which made me want to go back and read it all again. It felt right as it wasn’t only intriguing on a plot level but made me think again about the book’s themes and see everything in a new light.

My thoughts on the audiobook

The two points of view are read by different narrators. I liked the reader of Molly’s first-person narration, though unfortunately she struggled with Ella’s Durham accent and made her sound Scottish!

Ella’s story is told in the third person and I can see why casting it was more problematic. The story is set in London but Ella is from a middle-class Durham family, so what should it sound like? The point of view is third-person subjective. Should it be a representation of Ella’s voice, or her world? It didn’t quite feel like either.

The narration sounded far too posh-southern. If the voice is supposed to represent Ella, it should have her accent. Conversely, if it’s representing her world it should sound a bit more scuffed around the edges. The narrator did do a good Durham accent for Ella’s dialogue but she made her voice very high and girlish and quite unlike how I imagined the tough character of Ella.

It says something about the quality of the writing that I loved this book despite my difficulties with the narration!

View This Is How It Ends on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of London Rules by Mick Herron

Eight Million Ways to Die written and narrated by Lawrence Block

eight million ways to die lawrence blockSince I discovered Lawrence Block a few years ago I’ve read a lot of his novels and was a bit surprised to find I haven’t reviewed one yet. Eight Million Ways to Die is the fifth in the Matt Scudder series. It’s one of my favourites and the audiobook is narrated by the man himself!

I must admit I approached it with some trepidation. Which of us hasn’t sat through a live author reading on a hard seat with a fixed grin, as they mumble and shuffle their papers, longing for it to end so we can get to the bar? Often authors aren’t great performers and can’t project the music that’s in their head. In this case, though, Block did something more. His prose is very distinctive and he captured the rhythm and the downbeat mood just as I heard it in my head.

Scudder is a rootless former cop turned unlicensed investigator, living in a cheap motel. A prostitute called Kim wants to leave her pimp but is afraid to tell him, so she enlists Scudder’s help. The first thing Scudder has to do is find the enigmatic man, who is known only as Chance and appears to have no regular routine or social circle. When Kim is murdered, Scudder feels that he failed her and is determined to find her killer.

While the Scudder novels are firmly rooted in New York, many have a timeless quality to them. Often the only thing that reminds me they are not contemporary is the technology (in the early books Scudder spends a lot of time feeding dimes into payphones). Eight Million Ways to Die was first published in 1982 and it vividly portrays that period in New York’s history, when crime was out of hand, the news was full of senseless killings, and danger felt both ubiquitous and unavoidable.

Against this backdrop, Scudder is trying to fashion a new life for himself, one where he knows what is right and manages to do it. Drink and bars have always been a big part of Scudder’s story, but this is the first book in the series where he acknowledges his alcoholism.

At the centre of the crime and chaos of the city, the case and his attendance at AA give him a kind of structure and safety. The stories from the newspapers and from the people he questions in his investigation are interspersed with the stories from the people at AA meetings, though Scudder is not yet ready to share his own.

For me this is one of the most atmospheric Scudder novels and hearing it read by the author makes it even more special. It resonates today. The cacophony of headlines threatening to overwhelm Scudder are like the continual intrusive beeps and tweets of social media.

Scudder tells a man at AA that he is struggling to cope with all the bad news in the papers. The man suggests he just stops reading them.

View Eight Million Ways to Die on Goodreads

Liked this? John K Snyder III has written a graphic novel based on this book. Take a look at Crime Fiction Lover’s review

 

 

Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner

inside the bone box anthony fernerNicholas Anderton is a successful neurosurgeon, married to a lawyer, with two adult children. But he is also grappling with obesity after a series of crises in his personal and professional life. Now, his weight is threatening his ability to do his job. His wife, Alyson, is not inclined to be supportive and is dealing with issues of her own.

Nicholas is a complex and contradictory character. He is an accomplished neurosurgeon but has little time for philosophical discussions on the nature of the mind, preferring to see himself as more like his butcher father – good with his hands, with an instinctive understanding of anatomy. He has succeeded in a profession that requires great discipline and stamina but he is unable to stop himself from eating.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Nicholas and Alyson, though we only see Alyson at home, and hear about her life as it relates to her husband. Perhaps this reflects how Nicholas sees her, his curiosity limited to how she affects him.

Nicholas spends his day looking deep into the brains of others but his own remains mysterious to him. How far are we shaped by our minds, and how far by the confines of our body?

This slim novel asks some big questions, with compassion, wry humour and elegant, understated prose.

I received a copy of Inside the Bone Box from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Inside the Bone Box on Goodreads