Invective by Andy Owen

InvectiveInvective is the story of Ismael. Whilst studying medicine at university he discovers that he was adopted after his birth father carried out a suicide bombing. His Indian adoptive parents have brought him up with love and provided him with a thoughtful and rounded education but he yearns to find out more about his father, his Pakistani Muslim culture and whether he has inherited any of his father’s violent sense of adventure. As a result he embarks on a journey of discovery in which he combines befriending a local group he meets via a mosque with working for the British intelligence service

The word invective means “vehement or violent denunciation, censure, or reproach” and whenever the theme of a clash between Western and Islamic cultures is discussed now it always feels that harsh language is prevalent and offence will be both aimed and taken. It is difficult to consider such a nuanced and complex area without people trying to insist on forcing you on to one side or other of the black and white, dualistic public debate. But novels give us an opportunity to explore these issues from the perspectives of different characters and attempt to look past our own prejudiced lenses to gain empathy and understanding.

The really interesting aspect of the book is that Ismael is caught in the middle of these two competing philosophies, each of which is trying to convince him to their side. We see his internal struggle to understand both sides and which he should commit too, but we also see how both of these philosophies are full of contradiction. Muj, the group’s leader, is able to provide a very strong deconstruction of Western Civilisation exactly because there are so many flaws in it for him to draw upon, however, his leap to a violent, self-aggrandising solution highlights both his lack of a positive alternative and his own hypocrisy.

It is not hard to imagine though how someone could be swayed by a charismatic figure so clearly highlighting all that is wrong with the West, cross reference that with the actions of western governments and the rhetoric of the western media and consider themselves to be in a position of resisting violence, even more so for those who are actually living (and dying) on the end of the destruction caused by those governments. By the same token Western civilians, protected from the realities of wars in other regions by distance and home comforts, are similarly swayed by charismatic messages in their media. Hypocrisy and a lack of vision for a better alternative are as prevalent on either side that Ismael might turn to, and as both are clear that you are either for them or against them a thinking person can find themselves trapped in the middle.

The novel itself is fairly succinct and the narrative moves quickly so it does not require a huge investment of time on the reader’s part. The pages turn with a natural flow and Ismael himself is a very likeable, sympathetic character. Its impact, which is conversely substantial, is largely in the final of its four acts where the protagonist reflects on everything that has happened and starts to form his experiences into a philosophy. Both the process and its conclusions are useful in reflecting upon one’s own experience, prejudice, empathy and understanding of the world we find ourselves in. Given the scale of current events and the heat of the global debate it is a reflection we would all be wise to make.

70% of the sale of this novel will be donated to War Child, charity no. 1071659

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

ChimesIn a world where the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is blasphony, all appears lost. But Simon Wythern, a young man who arrives in London seeking the truth about what really happened to his parents, discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.

The Chimes is the debut novel of Anna Smaills in which a dystopian England has been stripped of words and memory and where music has been elevated to the highest plane. The book essentially splits into two parts. In the first we are absorbed into the world to understand how it works and its impact on the lives of the people we meet, whilst in the second having become accustomed to our environment we are faced with the struggle to overcome and break free of the control of a totalitarian system.

The dominant role that music plays in the world that Smaill has created gives her story an original and absorbing context. Communication even takes place through the means of musical direction and the language the author uses to describe the world and events in it is filled with musical reference. The implication of the world that music is also used to rob people of their memory is also a fascinating concept and raises deep questions about what makes us who we are and the part that our memories play in our identification of self.

Reading The Chimes at a time when I have been watching a relative decline through a combination of old age and dementia made this element of the novel resonate even further. Is there a point at which the loss of our memories changes both who we are and our very nature? To what extent are our memories actually a burden? Why do we sometimes accept the loss of control and release from who we are?

When Simon Wythern arrives in London he is quickly adopted by the Five Rover pact and their charismatic leader Lucien. Each morning they tell the “Onestory” which reminds them of the “Allbreaking” when dischord ruled only to be brought into harmony by the ruling Order and their Carillon instrument. In the evening the Carillon plays out Chimes, music composed by the Order’s finest musicians to wipe away memory and keep disorder, or free thought, at bay.

This first phase is beautifully written and the reader is soon drawn into the initially disorientating world as Simon lives day to day as a pact runner and Lucien gradually helps him realise his talents and opens up his mind to both his own past and the Order’s. With this slow and all absorbing start the second half, as Simon and Lucien undertake their quest to overthrow the Order, seems to happen all too quickly and as a result the two parts jar a little with each other. It feels a bit like the upfront investment in understanding this strange world is paid back a little short at the end.

Despite that this remains an engaging debut. Despite a proliferation of dystopian fiction, the world is original and well-drawn and there are interesting, appealing characters in the gently blooming love affair between Simon and Lucien and also the emotional tension of the latter’s sister, whose own world crashes in on her in heart rending fashion. These and the role of memory in both our individual and collective identification and harmony give the reader plenty to dwell upon.

Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov

jihadiA former intelligence officer stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist who has an agenda of her own, and her annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment but who is the real terrorist. Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions.

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I have been looking forward to reading Jihadi ever since I heard that Orenda Books had agreed to publish it, despite knowing very little about it beyond that striking, likely controversial, title. I expected to be challenged by it and anticipated that the divisive and destructive Western narrative about Islam would be challenged as well. I probably also quite enjoyed the prospect of supporters of that narrative having their hackles raised by a controversial interrogation of their rhetoric.

But having now read it, what I love about Yusuf Toropov’s novel is that the reality of his challenge is not rooted in more confrontation but rather in understanding and as a result he has maybe revealed to this reader a little of the true nature of a much maligned religion.

There is also no sign of preaching, Toropov does not beat you over the head with his message but rather blends it seamlessly into the beautifully written narrative of an entertaining, heartbeat quickening, page turner. Jihadi is not a manifesto. It is a top class debut novel that tells an exciting and engaging story about people caught up in crazy situations. It is painfully relevant at this particular moment in time, but whilst that makes it an urgent read it should not detract from the fact that it is also a rollicking good one.

The empathy that the author shows to all of the book’s characters is exquisitely realised and ensures that the reader builds a relationship with each of them, whether they like them or not. In a novel that could well be greeted with a broad spectrum of reactions and which deals with people who in the global media are portrayed as separate and divided, this is crucial. Whatever a character does, and some of those things are horrific to contemplate, they are not reduced to those actions, they remain human.

So what we end up with is a genuine thriller that excites and enthrals but also calls out for us to think. We can sleepwalk through all of the meaningless distractions that modern life wants to throw at us, we can be overwhelmed by the decisions taken far above our heads by powers that we feel wholly unable to influence or we can try to the best of our ability to consciously walk a path that leads to truth and justice, with hope.

In the same way that I have enjoyed reading the likes of Kati Hiekkapelto deliver powerful social commentary within first rate crime novels, it is exciting to find Yusuf, and publishing stable mate Paul Hardisty, elevating the thriller genre to a new level of provoking intelligence. This is the first novel I have read in 2016 but I cannot imagine that I will read a better one all year.

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The Author

Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim writer. He’s the author or co-author of a number of nonfiction books, includingShakespeare for Beginners. His full-length play An Undivided Heart was selected for a workshop production at the National Playwrights Conference, and his one-act playThe Job Search was produced off-Broadway.Jihadi: A Love Story, which reached the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, is his first novel. He currently lives in Northern Ireland.

Jihadi: A Love Story is available now as an e-book and will be published in paperback in February 2016.

Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

nightblindI do enjoy a good murder mystery and Ragnar Jónasson once again delivers exactly that and more. Nightblind sees the return of Ari Thór Arason five years after the events of Snowblind. His boss Tomas has been promoted to a new role in Reykjavík but, despite being Siglufjörður’s only remaining policeman, Ari Thór was overlooked for his own step up as an outsider arrived to lead the local department. Maybe this disappointment is why he doesn’t know his new boss as well as he perhaps should and has made little effort to ease the new man’s move to a new and isolated location.

In his personal life Ari Thór has been reunited with his girlfriend Kristen. They now have a child and are settled in this close community in the north of Iceland, but tensions remain as the long dark winter looms and when the new inspector is shot dead whilst investigating drug dealing on the fringes of the town, Ari Thór is once again thrown into an all consuming investigation that leaves him little time to think about the needs of his family.

The classic whodunit remains at the heart of the book and it is a clever and absorbing one as we are introduced to more of the characters who make up Siglufjörður on the edge of the water and surrounded by mountains. The reader quickly slips back in to the day to day life of Ari Thór, an appealing central character as well as a clever and sharp detective who pieces together the threads expertly in what is a complex mystery.

Alongside the investigation is a strong narrative of domestic violence and the impact it has on victims, perpetrators and associated family members. According to Refuge 1 in 4 women in the United Kingdom will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime and 8% will do so in any given year, whilst globally 1 in 3 women will experience violence at the hands of a male partner. It is a serious, highly relevant subject and it is good to see the tradition of Scandinavian Noir raising difficult issues being continued here.

Despite this strong and powerful thread, which also touches upon the way that the state cares for people with mental health issues, this is a very entertaining read and an excellent addition to the Dark Iceland series, which is due to continue with two more books that will fill in the five years between Snowblind and Nightblind. If you enjoy crime novels this is definitely a series you will want to add to your bookshelf.

In the author’s note at the end of the book Jónasson takes the time to thank the people of Siglufjörður for the loan of their town and though it seems harsh to wish further, even fictional, deaths upon them his books have certainly helped build a personal rapport with their home and I have to admit a desire to walk those streets and share in the non-violent aspects of Ari Thór’s story. To help with that we are also presented with a wonderful postscript beautifully written by the author’s late grandfather about the period of darkness that is the setting for Nightblind. It’s a lovely touch and only adds to the readers absorption into the setting.

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You can follow the Nightblind blog tour, or catch up on previous days, using the diary below.

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Where Nobody Knows Your Name by John Feinstein

NobodyLast summer I spent three weeks in the USA and took the opportunity to indulge a long held interest in the game of baseball. Ever since the New York Mets 1986 World Series victory was covered by Channel 4 I had been intrigued by the game and that was further fuelled by W P Kinsella’s wonderful book Shoeless Joe, the resultant film Field of Dreams and a canon of other movies about the sport.

My stay in New York unfortunately coincided with the Yankees being in town rather than the Mets, but I swallowed my allegiances and headed to Yankee Stadium to see the hosts demolish long time rivals the Boston Red Sox in my first ever live game. I loved the whole experience, except maybe the catering stand prices, thrilled to finally be watching a game.

John Feinstein’s book is about life in the minor leagues away from the glamour and big pay cheques of the majors. It’s a fascinating introduction to the journeys of players, coaches, umpires and announcers as he follows the fortunes of a colourful cast of characters as they seek to either achieve or recapture their dreams of being in the “Bigs”. As a football fan in England who supports a Championship club and also follows non-league football the book resonates across sports.

If you are interested in baseball and would like to know more about the game and the people invested in it I cannot recommend this book, from a National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame member, enough.