Book Review – Knights Of The Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

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Almost 2 years ago in Smock Alley Theatre I was asked, along with the far more qualified Tom Morris and Tara Flynn, to judge a literary death match as part of the Bram Stoker Festival. 3 contestants, 3 performances, 1 enthralled audience. It was a great night.

The winner on the night was a passionate guy with a brilliant story told with tons of style and plenty of delivery. I knew at the time that if we published a novel I’d be one of the first in the queue to buy it. Turns out, in a chat with him after, that he had a publishing deal and was writing one.  That was the first night I met Dave Rudden.

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Scroll forward to the beginning of 2016 and the deliciously titled Knights Of The Borrowed Dark lands on my desk. It’s the story of the equally delightfully titled Denizen Hardwick – just on the verge of turning 13 and living as an orphan in an inhospitable pile of an orphanage on the west coast of Ireland. One day two strange (to say the least) characters arrive to enquire about him, not soon after he’s summoned to Dublin to visit and aunt he never knew he had and next thing you know he’s thrown into a centuries old war between warriors, monsters, dimensions and worlds.

You might think there’s a familiar template here and you’d be right, there are only so many stories in the world after all, but KOTBD is different. Denizen is no ordinary protagonist. He’s cynical and pissed off most of the time, surrounded by a great, vivid supporting cast, there’s tons of atmosphere and there are more than enough crumbs being dropped to suggest that there are other interesting stories to look forward to later in the trilogy.

Add to this that Dave Rudden has genuinely gorgeous sweeps of words and sentence-stopping language to gape at and re-read and that goes a long way with me (you might have read 7 Harry Potter books but do you ever remember stopping at any stage to marvel at a beautiful sentence?)

The world of flashy new series-based YA is very, very crowded waters at the moment – Knights Of The Borrowed Dark is a great big vicious shark that leaps out of the water at you. This could be huge.

It’s out in March in Ireland, April in the U.K. and August in the U.S.

Book Review – The Last Days Of Jack Sparks

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It was nice to start 2016 (or, to be honest the last few days of 2015 while I was on holliers) with something that came to me in semi-mysterious circumstances, full of handwritten notes, post-its and printed e-mails…

Jack Sparks was a controversial journo-turned social media personality and author who had written books such as “Jack Sparks on a Pogo Stick” (where he travelled the length of the UK on said transport), “Jack Sparks on Gangs” (you get the idea) and “Jack Sparks on Drugs” (where, and detrimentally to his health he tried every drug known to man and ended up in rehab). You get the idea.

His next book was to be “…On the Supernatural” – his debunking of everything not-of-this-world from the perspective of a committed atheist and cynic. During the writing someone posted a video on his own Youtube channel that disappeared just as quickly. It appears to show something that can’t be possible and it leads him down a path that ultimately leads to his death. What we’re reading is a book compiled after the fact and framed by his brother in an effort to set the public record straight.

The book is genuinely creepy in places (and I don’t creep easily), rattles along in a kind of Bourne way from the UK to Italy, Hong Kong and America and spends the whole book screwing with your head by questioning the reliability of Jack’s own narration, Alistair’s writing of “the book” and even whether what you’re witnessing is actually supernatural, wibbly wobbly timey-wimey or all happening in Jack’s fecked up, fame-obsessed, social media fixated psyche.

As for Jack Sparks (because most of the story is his “notes” written as he’s researching the event that kicks this all off), imagine a cross between Piers Morgan, Louis Theroux and Richard Dawkins in a remake of The Exorcist for the social media age with a touch of “directed by Christopher Nolan” thrown in and you’re sort of there.

The story itself is cracking fun, messes with your head regularly and the ending was enough to make me force my other half to read it early just so I could have someone to discuss the pros and cons with or the way it went. Yeah, there are a couple of things I thought clunked and I would have been more thrilled had it finished a different way (the way I thought it was going) but it’s small beans and shouldn’t take from a very enjoyable thriller.

They’ve even gone to the trouble of creating an online footprint for him including a website with messages from his brother, deleted video and all at http://www.jacksparks.co.uk/ but I’d suggest leaving it until after you’ve read the book lest you spoil anything for yourself.

Should be lying on sun loungers everywhere this summer and flying off shelves when it comes out. But not in the poltergeist way. Don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as the supernatural…

Book Review – All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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There are ways to start a novel and ways to start a novel

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And thus begins one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Marie-Laure is the blind daughter of the widowed locksmith of the Paris Museum of Natural History at the outbreak of war. Werner and his sister live in an orphanage in a (no pun intended) dirt poor coal-mining town in Germany. This is the story of how their two extraordinary paths eventually intertwine many years later in the French coastal fortress town of Saint-Malo and the story of every other citizen of Europe engulfed in a crushing catastrophe beyond their control.

I’m not going to tell you any more, Read the bloody thing. It’s intricate and detailed like the town models that Marie-Laure’s father creates for her to get to learn her surroundings, full of extraordinary sweeps of language (there are many single lines that deserve to be mounted and framed!) and a story of compassion, love, family and how telling you the stories of individuals on both sides of a conflict is far more illuminating than any broad history ever can be. All of World War II is here.

After she’d finished it and before she put it at the top of my “to be read” pile, my wife said she thought it may have “ruined other books” for her. I honestly found myself rationing the last few chapters as I didn’t want the story to finish.

If anything beats it to this year’s International Dublin Literary Award I’ll be surprised.

Book Review – Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

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Beautiful.

Beatlebone is the most fantastic work of whatiffery – John Lennon comes to Ireland in 1978 to try to escape from crushing fame, the expectation of the world and, conversely, the domesticity of New York fatherhood by trying to get to an island he bought and let lapse into abandonment off the west coast in the late 60s. His foil, driver, spirit guide, aide-de-camp and the one tasked with both getting him there and hiding him from the pursuing press is local man Cornelius O’Grady.

I’m no expert, but his Lennon sounds pitch perfect on my page (I felt like reading him out loud at times) and his relationship with Cornelius is warm, adversarial and in places just laugh out loud funny. As always with Kevin Barry, even the real world isn’t real. Journeys are seemingly never-ending taking Lennon circuitous routes back to growing up in Liverpool, past almost mythical bars on the side of ancient lakes and hippy communes in abandoned hotels.

Yes, I did think it lagged a little about 3/4 of the way in (actually after Barry himself beautifully steps into the narrative and talks about writing in the locations we’ve already seen) but it’s a small speedbump.

After reading him both in novel, hearing him on radio and seeing him write articles in newspapers (if you didn’t catch his “The View From A Pagan Place” in the Irish Times last December, do yourself a favour and click here) I imagine Kevin Barry as some sort of 21st century bard both entirely a part of the modern world but with the ability to shift outside it at will when he needs to write things like this. Yes, there are sometimes whole sections you’ll need to reread, they are so beautiful.

He is, pretty much, the most nakedly talented writer Ireland has today. Long may that continue.

Book Review – The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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Peter is a pastor preparing to be separated from his wife Bea because he’s off to preach the gospel in a new world on a dangerous journey and he may never be coming back. However, this isn’t the 1700s, this is the future and the potential converts are non-human aliens on another planet and this isn’t a NASA project or even a governmental one but an entirely privately run operation.

Don’t be put off by it being an SF story as, like all truly great SF stories, it’s just hiding a far more contemporary (even historical!) narrative below. The tech is in the background (even the method of travel is a bit vague) and what matters is Peter’s burgeoning relationship with the native species and their adoration for what they call “The Book Of Strange New Things” – the Bible.

What you get is part religious allegory, part actual dissection of religions, love, nature, devotion (to a god and to a partner) and just plain part fairly unexplainable meditation about what distance does to relationships (Peter and Bea can communicate but only in text and then when he’s in the local village he has no contact with her for weeks).

The human race back on Earth seems to be tearing itself apart while he’s away but it’s told by Bea almost like incidental news about an ailing and far away relative and the base on the planet Peter is on has no access to contemporary news.

Look, I’m doing a bit of a ham-fisted attempt at explaining why I liked this so much (and I did), that’s why I’m not a professional reviewer, merely a reader who likes to point you in the direction of things or away from them as the case may be.

His mulling over of huge themes is great, his visualisation of the planet and the aliens Peter gets to know is impressive. Loved it, not for everyone but very clever literary speculative fiction so definitely for me.