Friday, 23 November 2018

Homegrown Hero by Khurrum Rahman

Khurrum Rahman burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2017 with his brilliant debut East of Hounslow (which I reviewed here: Homegrown Hero is his hotly anticipated sequel and once again we’re with Jay Qasim, a British born Muslim reluctantly recruited by MI5 as an agent (an informant in the police’s parlance). After the events of the first book he’s been dropped by MI5, much to his relief, and is trying to reestablish some sense of normality. But The Teacher, the head of the jihadi group Qasim infiltrated is still at large and some in MI5 want Jay to help them to finish what they’ve started. Meanwhile some within the jihadi group have learnt that Qasim was the one who betrayed them and set an assassin on his tail. While far right thugs and an assault on a Muslim girl leading to her suicide set in motion a powerful subplot.

All this is promising material and certainly current, but the question is, does Rahman pull it off with the aplomb of East of Hounslow? Or does Homegrown Hero suffer from the dreaded second book hurdle?

As with the first book, I firstly have to get my little bugbear out of the way and one which I alluded to at the start. An agent to the intelligence services is what an informant would be to the police, while those employed by the agencies, their staff, are intelligence officers. Many a writer gets such details wrong and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that some countries have agencies which straddle the law enforcement/intelligence divide and don’t obey this rule. A good example of this is the American FBI, both a law enforcement agency and one like MI5 that deals with domestic intelligence, which calls it’s employees agents (confusingly, the CIA which is solely engaged in intelligence, calls its staff officers and its informants agents). Rahman is to be applauded for getting such details right. 

The above might appear to be a small doctrinal issue, but it speaks to a wider realism in the narrative. Post-911 Western intelligence agencies were under enormous pressure to prevent further attacks and this was exacerbated after every successive outrage. As always their response was two pronged and both were controversial. The first is electronic surveillance and the Snowden revelations amongst others have demonstrated the controversy that comes with that. The second is human intelligence, the recruitment of agents. A number of revelations have come about in recent years of how intelligence officers have gone to great lengths to recruit agents - offering inducements and where that doesn’t work, engaging in coercion and even blackmail. MI5 has been accused of such behaviour on a number of occasions and there have been reports in the press, and human rights groups have lodged complaints, alleging their officers bullied and harassed Muslims in an attempt to recruit them as agents. 

Most spy novels are told from the perspective of the intelligence officer, very few are told from the perspective of the agent. This is similar to crime novels where the vast majority are told from the perspective of the police and very few are told from the perspective of the informant. Where agents or informants do feature in fiction, they’re all too often seen through the eyes of the police or intelligence officers. So they’re portrayed as perhaps shifty and untrustworthy, mercenary or licentious, certainly with motives that are questionable. This might well be understandable and certainly reflects how they’re seen. I’m lucky to know a number of police officers and once discussed the issue with an officer whose work entailed running multiple informants (for a large regional police force in England). I asked how he felt about them and he was blunt in his contempt. When meeting with them he had to pretend to be able to tolerate them, like them even, but his real feelings were clear. To be sure his informants were criminals, whereas some of the informants intelligence agencies recruit will be ordinary people with access, such as Muslim’s in the local community, but the fact remains that distrust can remain especially where the informant is coerced. Jay Qasim, the protagonist of East of Hounslow and Homegrown Hero is such a person, coerced into working for MI5 and then treated appallingly, and his story is told with real humanity and warmth.

If this wasn’t all, the second character the author introduces into Homeland Hero, the assassin, is equally well drawn. He’s a sleeper jihadi, one sent decades before to inculcate himself into British life until one day he’s activated. While this character's predicament isn’t as firmly based in reality as Qasim’s treatment at the hands of MI5 (as far as I know at least) there have been sleeper agents in service to the KGB and its successors and much discussion has been had as to the psychology that must go into that. Only a few years ago a whole host of sleeper agents were discovered in the US and then deported back to Russia, some having adult children who had grown up in America with no idea of what their parents were doing. Rahman gives his sleeper assassin real personality. He’s a man who’s fallen in love with a non-Muslim woman and her child and is reluctant to embrace his calling once he’s activated. I ended up liking this character as much as Qasim and the novel is nail biting at the finale when both characters lives are on the line

One final aspect of this book which I must not overlook, and one which might not be guessed from this review, is the humour. For despite dealing with serious and weighty issues, there are comedic elements to both Homegrown Hero and the previous title, East of Hounslow. Qasim with his quick wit and street smarts is a character with real charisma and his internal monologue can bring on more than the odd chuckle. This not only makes one warm to his predicament but also counteracts some of the darker scenes, thus bringing the narrative a little light.

So conclusions? Homegrown Hero is a worthy book 2 and one which is well worth a read. With both titles the author has managed a remarkable feat, penning popular fiction that tackles weighty topics while not being afraid to pack a punch and broach controversy. With a splash of humour, a likeable protagonist, and a sympathetic antagonist you can’t help but root for too, there really is little not to like.

5 out of 5 stars  

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton

Jaxie Clackton is an abused teenager, the product of a dysfunctional family upbringing. His father is a violent drunk, while his mother who’s spirit was long ago broken by the man she married, has died after a protracted battle with cancer. Now it’s just Jaxie alone with his father who’s beatings show no sign of relenting. Jaxie has fantasised about killing his father, but is far too intimidated to try. The family live in a small rural town in Australia where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Mr Clackton’s overbearing nature is not a secret. Due to his circumstances, Jaxie has been in a lot of trouble in his life. He’s not shy of using his fists himself and has been expelled from school. So when Jaxie arrives home one evening to find his father crushed to death by a car he was fixing up, he reckons he will get the blame, that people will conclude he brought the car down on his father’s head.

So Jaxie runs.

There’s one person in Jaxie’s life that he cares for, his cousin Lee, with whom he’s fallen in love. Lee is the daughter of his mother’s sister and lives quite far away. Jaxie and Lee were also found together by Mr Clackton who told Jaxie’s mother and aunt (Lee’s mother). So his welcome at his aunt’s is uncertain. Instead, he hopes to elope with Lee. 

But first he has to get there.

So begins an oddysey into the bush and across the Australian outback. Jaxie is well used to hunting, having done so with his father, so he’s equipped to survive. Even so, he soon runs into challenges. Food is not a problem, shooting kangaroos and dressing them for their meat is something he’s done many times before. But how to keep the meat from spoiling, or attracting wild dogs? Then there’s water, which in such an arid landscape is always in desperate short supply. While searching for solutions, he stumbles upon Fintan MacGillis, a recluse living alone in a hut. At first he’s suspicious of the man, especially when he discovers he used to be a priest; Jaxie fears Fintan might be a peadophile, that this might explain why the old man is living alone in the middle of nowhere. Soon though they reluctantly and hesitantly become friends.

The Shepherd’s Hut is a sparse book written in terse sentences. It’s a book about Jaxie, yes, but it’s also about Fintan, and more than that, the landscape they make their home. This is a book as much about the Australian bush, the outback, as it is about the human characters. In an age where much of the world’s population resides in cities and urban sprawl, where modern telecommunications mean we can communicate with people across the globe, and where air travel has not just enabled international travel, but ensured there are few places untouched by tourism, it is easy to forget that any wilderness remain. This novel reminds us that not only do such places still exist, but that they do precisely because of their inhospitality. The outback here is an unforgiving and brutal place, one where few people could survive for long.

The sense of place that the author imbues The Shepherd’s Hut with is complemented by its characters, for it takes a certain robust resilience to survive in such a landscape, a toughness that few possess. Fintan has been dumped there, regularly supplied by his mysterious benefactors, though he kills and dresses goats who wander onto his grounds. Jaxie is more than that, a born survivor, and one with a purpose. He’s determined to be reunited with Lee and this gives him the motivation to surmount the odds.

The Shepherd’s Hut is a brilliant novel and one penned by a clearly talented author. I have never read anything by Tim Winton before but am already looking to purchase titles from his back catalogue. A paean to people's ability to survive the odds and to a brutal yet beautiful Australian wilderness, this is not a book to miss.

5 out of 5 stars  

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Angel in the Shadows by Walter Lucius

This is the second novel in the author’s Heartland trilogy, the first title in the series being Butterfly on the Storm, which I reviewed here: The Dutch author has been compared with Stieg Larsson, and certainly there’s similarities between this series and Larsson’s Millennium series.

Angel in the Shadows starts precisely where the previous title closed and continues with that title’s labyrinthine plot of international corruption. At heart, the story is of a Russian oligarch, Valentin Lavrov, who uses his power and wealth to corrupt people around the world in pursuit of greater riches and power. 

While the protagonist of the series is investigative journalist Farah Hafez, there’s a strong supporting cast, including her friend and fellow journalist Paul Chapelle, and Dutch Detective Radjen Tomasoa. Each of these lead their own investigations, Paul Chapelle’s linked to that of Hafez,  that of Radjen Tomasoa a separate strand.  There’s an equally large cast of villain’s.

In the previous novel, an Afghan boy dressed in girls’ clothing, makeup and jewellery was the victim of a hit and run on a deserted street on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Hafez starts to investigate, immediately guessing that the boy is a victim of Bacha Bazi, an afghan tradition of dancing boys who often fall prey to paedophiles. This leads her to uncover a paedophile ring, at the centre of which is a powerful Dutch politician, finance Minister Ewald Lombard. This in turn leads her to uncovering the wider corruption of Valentin Lavrov. In Angel in the Shadows, Hafez continues her work, which takes her to Indonesia.

I gave Butterfly on the Storm four out of five stars and I do recall really liking that novel, but for some reason Angel in the Shadows did not impress me so much. To be sure there’s a lot to like about this book. It’s settings are vividly described and brought to life, it’s characters well drawn, and its tale of corruption, oligarchs, and Russian undermining of foreign powers is nothing if not current. But unlike the last novel, there’s something more formulaic about the sequel. High octane thrillers which have their characters trotting the globe are nothing new, and when done well, are an exciting read. Butterfly on the Storm achieved this, but I felt Angel in the Shadows was not so successful and that the author was trying to hard to have his characters travel to locations new.  Also, things which didn’t bother me in the last book did this time around.  Farah Hafez is an adherent of Pencak Silat, the Indonesian martial art, and while in the previous book it was an interesting feature of her character, in this novel the sections where she met a Pencak Silat master in Indonesia just felt like filling.  In fact, weirdly this novel felt too long, despite it being shorter than the last (the paperback of Butterfly on the Storm is 528 pages, while Angel in the Shadows is 464).

I think the main reason I liked Butterfly on the Storm so much in comparison to Angel in the Shadows is because in the first novel there were some bold set pieces which really blew the reader away. The initial set up of the child victim of Bacha Bazi was striking and deeply disturbing, while later there are some explosive moments, quite literally. Towards the end of the novel, there is a massive set piece on a motorway, which results in a huge pile up. This is a scene that needs to be read to be believed and really makes the novel soar. Angel in the Shadows has none of this and while there are some moments of great drama, even some surprising and shocking moments, the novel just seemed pedestrian by comparison.

In conclusion, to me Angel in the Shadows suffers from second book syndrome. There is a silver lining however. Unlike Butterfly on the Storm, which ended on a cliff hanger, from where Angel in the Shadows started, this second novel ties up all loose ends. This means the third and final instalment in the series can start from a fresh page. No doubt the characters will find that the conspiracy and corruption continues (and there are hints of this in Angel in the Shadows) and that they still have much work to do. Hopefully then, in crafting a novel that doesn’t have to continue so directly from what’s gone before, the author can produce something that meets the expectations left from the first in the series.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe

On 20thDecember 2004, a gang of robbers ripped off the Donegal Square West Headquarters of Northern Bank in Belfast, netting approximately £26.5 million in Sterling and other currencies. This was the largest bank robbery in Irish history. While a small amount of the money has been recovered, and one person convicted of money laundering offences, the vast majority of the cash has never been found. Neither have the perpetrators been identified, though the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) believe it to have been committed by the IRA. Richard O’Rawe’s new novel, Northern Heist, is inspired by this robbery.  Reading it, I was reminded of another novel, which coincidentally was published in 2004, the year of the Northern Bank heist.

Judas Pig was published by the now defunct publishers The Do-Not Press and was penned by a man writing under the pseudonym Horace Silver (taken from the acclaimed jazz artist). It has nothing to do with the 2004 robbery or even Northern Ireland. Instead, Judas Pig is an East End Gangland roman à clef. The novel tells the story of Billy Abrahams, gangster and right-hand man to violent psychopath, Danny. Judas Pig has since become something of a cult sensation; a number of leading journalists made no secret of the fact that they knew who the author really was, that his tale was authentic; the author went into hiding fearing repercussions; online members of the reading public, turned amateur detective, tried to guess his identity. After being accused in the pages of the Sunday Times of being a gangland boss, David Hunt, an East End businessman, sued the newspaper for libel. During the trial it emerged that Horace Silver was in fact a man named Jimmy Holmes, and the character Danny, was modelled on Hunt. David Hunt lost his legal action against the Sunday Times and was forced to pay substantial damages. 

The reason for recapping this history for this review, is that the buzz surrounding the publication of Northern Heist is very reminiscent to that which surrounded Judas Pig. While Richard O’Rawe is no gangster and there is no suggestion that any of the characters in Northern Heist are based on him or real people, his pedigree does grant the book more than a hint of authenticity. O’Rawe grew up in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, was politicised and joined the IRA. Imprisoned in Long Kesh, he became the press officer for the IRA inmates there. In later years, he’s published three authoritative non-fiction titles on The Troubles, including an acclaimed biography of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four.

Northern Heist tells the story of James “Ructions” O’Hare, a major criminal and experienced armed robber. Ructions uncle, Panzer, heads up the family firm and Ructions is his right-hand man. This is something Panzer’s son, Finbar, resents. At the beginning of the novel, Ructions is in the final stages of planning a huge robbery, an act which they believe will net them more money than all their previous jobs combined. It’s to be a tiger heist: their gang will kidnap the families of two of The National Bank’s managers, then force the managers to empty the bank’s vault for them, under the threat of doing their families harm. Alongside the logistical challenges of such a robbery, they need to avoid detection from the police, but also the predatory advances of the IRA, who tax criminals and are sure to want a hefty slice of any proceeds. 

Like Judas Pig, Northern Heist is an oddly amoral novel. Most crime novels, even those written from the point of view of criminals, attempt to give their protagonists at least a veneer of morality, even if it is somewhat skewed. Northern Heist does no such thing, but rather tells the story of the planning, execution, and aftermath of the heist with almost clinical detachment. With military-esque precision, Ructions puts his plan into action and pulls off the heist. So, the family of the two bank managers are kidnapped and traumatised, Ructions and his men hardly shedding a tear. Without divulging too many spoilers, there is one scene at the end of the book which tries to soften this somewhat, but only goes someway to doing so.

Does this matter? To some extent it does. While Ructions in particular, but other characters also, are well drawn and well imagined, it is difficult to warm to any of them. Quite simply, it’s difficult to cheer for, and be in the corner of, someone willing to traumatise innocent families. I read a lot of crime novels and am no fan of cozy mysteries, rather my particular favourite sub-genre is noir. So, I’m used to reading novels populated by flawed and not particularly nice individuals. The trick for an author is to invest them with just enough qualities that the reader can take to them. A good example of this is James Ellroy’s novel White Jazz, the protagonist of which is a corrupt police officer and slum landlord, a man who performs hits for the mob and is in a sexual relationship with his own sister. Yet somehow, Ellroy manages to make this loathsome individual, if not loveable, at least likeable, and one can’t help but cheer him on. O’Rawe doesn’t do any of that here, and even Ructions, his novel’s main protagonist, is not someone I took to in any way.

That said, Northern Heist is not a normal novel in the same way that Judas Pig wasn’t. Certainly, it’s met with a similar reaction. The Northern Irish newspapers have been full of speculation as to what O’Rawe knows about the real robbery, that of the Northern Bank. His past in the IRA has led many to wonder whether he has inside information, perhaps having been told by people still involved in that life. But if he does, was the robbery perpetrated by a criminal gang as described in the novel, with the IRA having no involvement? Or might O’Rawe’s novel be a cunning ploy to throw those still looking for the money off the scent of the real robbers, i.e. the IRA? 

In interviews O’Rawe has dismissed such speculation, asserting that he has no inside information. He states that he has absolutely no idea who committed the infamous Northern Bank robbery, that his novel is pure fiction; yes, it is inspired by a true story, but one that he’s only read about in the newspapers and watched on television. 

I have no reason to doubt the author’s integrity, but it’s undoubtedly true that in his past life he met the kind of people - IRA members and criminals - who would commit such an act. And it is this insight which gives the novel its frisson. Arguably, the characters that populate Northern Heist are truer to the real-life criminal underworld than those which populate other crime novels, for who would traumatise innocent families but these people? In the same way the characters that populated Judas Pig were curiously despicable and loathsome, so too are those that stalk the pages of Northern Heist.

Northern Heist is O’Rawe’s first novel and I wonder whether he will write another. If so, will any of the characters of Northern Heist return? I hope so, in the same way I hoped the author of Judas Pig would write a sequel (he did, though Amazon forced its withdrawal after threats of legal action). Just like Judas Pig before it, Northern Heist is a fascinating insight into a world most of us will happily never encounter. And just like Judas Pig, despite its unsympathetic and loathsome characters, it’s a strangely compelling and enjoyable read. Perhaps then both Judas Pig and Northern Heist should be judged not like other crime novels, but in a special category all of their own.

4 out of 5 stars

I Always Find You by John Ajvide Lindqvist

This is the second novel in a proposed trilogy by the Swedish horror writer (the third and final instalment forthcoming) and is a sequel to I Am Behind You, which I reviewed here:

Whereas I Am Behind You was just surreal, I Always find you is really a very odd book. In fact, I would almost go as far as to describe it as experimental. For a start, the protagonist is called John Ajvide Lindqvist, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because it is, it’s the name of the author. Secondly, the protagonist informs the reader that at the time of the events of this novel, he was an aspiring magician who often performed street magic in Stockholm, but that these events contributed to him becoming a horror writer. And yes, the real John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of this novel, used to perform street magic in Stockholm and before writing horror was a magician. Is this novel autobiographical in any way? Certainly some reviewers on Amazon have asked this very question, what with the protagonist’s biographical similarities to the author. It’s undoubted the author has based his character on himself, but what of the events in the book? Well, whether the reader believes them to be based on true events will depend how much they give credence to the supernatural.

The story itself is straightforward enough. A young man (John Ajvide Lindqvist), trying to make it as a magician in the big city, moves into a crummy apartment. His neighbours are a diverse lot, albeit not the most charming of people. He’s lonely and struggling financially. There’s something very strange in the shower block, a black substance dripping from the ceiling and into the bathtub. It calls out to them all psychically. They have the urge to cut themselves and plunge their arms into it’s depths. When they do, it transports them to another world, an endless field of grass, where they take on the forms of their inner natures. Soon obsession builds as they each become preoccupied with this other world, to the extent that this world seems dull and lacklustre. What this obsession makes them do becomes more horrific over time.

I won’t say anymore for fear of divulging spoilers, but what I will say is that the plot of this novel could have been told in a more conventional way. Indeed, many of the author’s earlier works, such as his highly regarded vampire novel, Let The Right One In, were more conventional and yet extremely good. This time the author has opted for a much more experimental style and I have to say that for me it does not work.  Quite apart from the protagonist’s similarities to the author, the writing itself is experimental. The narrator regularly talks to the reader. While this is normal to a certain extent in first person narratives, the author takes this further in I Always Find You, to the extent that I would categorise the writing as at times breaking the fourth wall. The fourth wall is a performance convention in television and theatre whereby actors don’t address the audience and thus break the illusion that they are unaware of being watched. One of the best examples from recent years of this rule being successfully broken is when Frank Underwood speaks to the viewer in Netflix’s House of Cards.

The fourth rules applies to novels as well and while all first person narratives break it to a certain degree, the John Ajvide Lindqvist of this novel (the character not the novelist) breaks it enough to be noteworthy. Whether in theatre, television, or the written page, when the fourth wall is broken well, such as in House of Cards, it is a very effective and compelling technique. Unfortunately, I felt it did not work in I Always Find You. Perhaps it was because the novel is just so weird generally, or perhaps it’s just the writing didn’t translate well from Swedish into English, but I found myself really noticing this as an issue. Personally, I think that when a reader finds themselves noticing how a novel is written, rather than what is written, there’s a problem. I found myself noticing, really noticing, how this novel was written, to the extent that it distracted me from the narrative. 

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this novel much anyway, it really didn’t do it for me as a story, but I have to say I nearly gave up at points with this book. It’s only because I quite enjoyed the first book in the series that I persevered. Some people laud experimental novels and criticise convention. But there’s a reason most novels are more conventional and it’s because, with a few honourable exceptions, more experimental writing just doesn’t work very well. And conventional doesn’t have to mean unoriginal or boring, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s own work proves that. Few horror readers would accuse Let The Right One In of being unoriginal or boring. It was a brilliant novel which met with well-deserved success, both with the critics and the reading public, and leading to not one, but two movie adaptations.

Personally, I hope the author writes a more traditional horror narrative for the third title of this trilogy.

2 out of 5 stars