Sunday, 19 April 2009

A book to die for?

So here I am – back home in the messy muddle that is the closest I ever get to one piece - and those of you who pay attention will remember that back here I told you I would be part of a blog tour for John Baker's book 'Winged with Death' this week. Despite the internal muddle I can be surprisingly reliable...so here it is – my contribution to said tour (a few hours early...schools go back here on 20th...Monday morning could be messy this week).




Although we must have lived in the same county (Yorkshire, England) for some years, I first came across writer John Baker a year or so ago via Scottish writer Jim Murdoch's blog The Truth about Lies. I don't know how Jim came across John or vice versa...maybe they'll tell us in the comments...but I saw John's name and noted he wrote mainly crime fiction. I never got into reading his blog regularly (not sure why...it's a bit...clinical and impersonal for me, I suppose) but then, after a little while, every now and then he would turn up in one of my archive posts making lovely, friendly comments. He was a mystery, I thought, a man of mystery...fairly apt for a crime writer, I supposed.

Then last summer when I put my own book out I asked John to do a book swap (he had 8 books up to that point – I figured he must have something lying around the house going begging) and he did and I swapped him one 'More about the song' for one of his Sam Turner crime novels called 'Shooting in the Dark'. He wrote a good review of my 'Banging on about the song all the time' here but I didn't write about his 'Shooting in the Dark' (at least not more than a few lines somewhere...and I can't find them online now...more mystery...). It is a crime novel,'Shooting in the Dark', but I will give most books a go so I read it, didn't not like it, enjoyed some of it...but I couldn't think of anything particular to say about it...so I kept schtum (out of character, I know).

Then recently John sent me his new book, 'Winged with Death', and asked me to join the blog tour business. I am so glad I did because this book is something altogether different (I am not anti-genre fiction or anti-crime fiction but genres can so often deal in clichés...and crime fiction, particularly, can feature some of my least favourite clichés...piles of dead women, yet more mutilated women etc.). 'Winged for Death' is (almost) completely genre-free (hurray!) and, even better, it is an absolutely fantastic book. Elsewhere it has been called a literary crime novel but I would say it is only that in the sense that 'Crime and Punishment' is a literary crime novel. It is just a novel...a very, very good novel...and some bad things happen in it.

To read about how John ended up writing this particular book you should go and read the interview at This Writing Life (well worth a look – hurry there quickly...then come back and finish up here) and I might just add that 'Winged with Death' is about 1970s Uruguay, military terror, resistance, dancing (specifically the tango), love, sex, life, modern day England, policing, family, different viewpoints, movement and time. Did I say time? There is an awful lot about time in this book...enough for several PhDs...and though it is 291 pages it is a HUGE book in many ambitious ways that you will only understand if you read it...so I advise reading it, when you get a chance. It does touch on one of my old hobby horses (anything to do with Latin America...remember we talked about hobby horses here?) but most of all I found it a very vivid story – particularly the sections set back in the 70s. It is probably a good movie-possibility too – this could be it John, Hollywood calling...bring us back a souvenir...

My only problem with this fine book is the last chapter. I can't go into my reservations in this area without ruining your reading experience (and I would hate to do that) so you'll just have to read it and then we can talk it through (please don't give anything away in the comments if you have already read it – think of the others!). I have told John my feelings (and he has told me his...) but then finishing novels is notoriously difficult and finishing very good novels even harder still so there is no right or wrong, no final word on this matter. And despite my mixed feelings about the last chapter (which must remain, again most suitably, a mystery) I would still recommend this book to you all...again and again and again. It is one of the best new novels I've read in a while and you can take that with no hype, no nonsense and no sales pitch. Now I wonder how it will do out there in the big wide world. Will it get reviewed and into all the necessary retail locations? I hope so – it's a cracking read and every word laid down with passion and purpose. You could say the whole book is like a good tango in that sense. So I will. And I'll end on that thought too.

x

25 comments:

Dick said...

Had you anticipated the matter of that last chapter? I sensed it about half way through the book and my overall perception of pretty much everything within the narrative was informed accordingly. (Sorry - the congested language is an attempt at deliberate vagueness to all but those who have read 'WWD'!) As a result I had no trouble with the denouement. But maybe you had the same presentiments and still came to the smae conclusions.

I'm hosting 'WWD' on Wednesday.

Rachel Fox said...

I had considered the possibility of that ending, Dick, but I'd hoped it wouldn't materialise. My immediate reaction was one of huge disappointment but the next day I could see how it fitted the book as a whole (if not my world view!).
It's a very good book, don't you think? We'll find out on Wednesday anyway...
x

john baker said...

Just reporting in at the moment; to say I'm here, basking in the spring sunshine of that review, and with not a lot to say.
J.G. Ballard has gone and I woke this morning thinking of 'Hello America', his 1981 novel about an expedition to a North America rendered uninhabitable by an ecological disaster.
A century after General Motors went bankrupt, the most desirable method of transport are camels descended from ancestors in San Diego Zoo.
So it's good to be in Scotland.

Rachel Fox said...

You're not really in Scotland though, are you? Or is that a mystery too...
x

Jim Murdoch said...

I came across John simply by following links right back when I first began blogging - and that was a hard slog finding blogs actually worth reading on a regular basis. Glad I did though. Never thought to send him a copy of my book mind since he didn't seem to do many book reviews. I might send him my next one since he's not read the first just to see how it stands up on its own merits.

As for his book I've already written my own review and, yes, I do pass comment on that final chapter. What I have to stress is that it's not a bad final chapter by any means, far from it, but I wasn't expecting it. All the i's had been dotted and t's crossed and when I began it I thought to myself: What more has John go to say? Well, I found out. But you'll have to wait till May 4th to see what I really thought.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Jim, I kind of felt that the book was finished by the penultimate chapter (finished enough for me anyway). Still, it's not my book! The final chapter did turn it into a very different book in some ways though...and I still might tear those pages out one of these days...
x

john baker said...

No, I'm not in Scotland.
This business of self-promotion is quite difficult for those of us brought up not to push ourselves forward.
I know if it doesn't get done then nobody ever finds out about the book, and therefore it's something essential; there's no doubt about it being a choice.
Still makes you feel like some kind of low-life though.
Last chapters, eh?
I hate the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn, my favourite book. Absolutely hated what Twain did there the first time I read it, but it didn't stop me reading the whole book, including the finale, another thirty times.
Last time was just a couple of months ago.

Rachel Fox said...

Well if self-promotion is the only thing you do that makes you feel like a low-life then you can feel quite proud of yourself...I, on the other hand, have many shames that will never make it to these magic pages!

As for endings and so on...it's funny the intimate relationships we have with some of the books we read. No other relationship is quite like it! In some ways I liked that your book was unpredictable and didn't do what I wanted it to...and then I was annoyed with you for it too! No-one ever said it had to be straightforward...

x

Holly Baker said...

I read Winged with Death when it was still in manuscript form. I had a huge pile of printed A4 pages and I was on my way to South America, Montevideo to be precise. It weighed me down in a physical sense at first, but as I read the pages throughout my travels i left them strewn around Uruaguay wherever i went. I loved the book, especially the parts set in Uruaguay and it certainly added something to my experiences there. John Baker asked me what I thought of the last chapter before it was published. I did not anticipate what was coming at the end, it changed my perception of the book altogether at first, but after a while i came to like it and realised that it had not changed my feelings in any negative way towards the characters. I reassured John that he should keep the last chapter in, although I am sure he would have anyway! I will now read the book again in it's final version as I don't know if any of it has changed since I read it, I really hope it hasn't.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I am more reconciled to that last chapter (and more and more as time goes by). Not sure I'll ever be able to say I 'like' it though! But then I am a big softie. And of (at least part) Quaker stock. And that's all I can say without giving anything away...

So are you Baker daughter, Holly? OrBaker something else? None of my baking business of course...just nosy.
x

Holly Baker said...

I am indeed a Baker daughter, nose away, so it's not like I am biased or anything! No, I really don't think I am, although saying that I have enjoyed all John's books so far...I enjoyed Winged with Death the most though, so different from the others, like reading poetry.

Rachel Fox said...

How lovely...to read your Dad's books and enjoy them. Can't imagine that really but I imagine it must be exciting/strange at least. And I really am nosy so now I want to know all about you, Holly, and what you do and all kinds of other things! People are my subject (sometimes I wish they weren't of course...they can be very annoying!) but they are. I realised the other day that whilst some poets write nature poetry I write human nature poetry...or something like that. Ah well...
x

john baker said...

Looks like I'm corralling the troops here, bringing in my daughter (anyone else in the family to the rescue?) to support the last-chapter syndrome.
Actually I don't think it matters, for or against - it's something -like anything else in a novel - that you can take or leave. When a novel pulls me in and I'm engaged there are aspects that work and others that don't. That the perfect novel doesn't exist is one of the things that keeps people at it - trying to get there.
But flaws are important, too. I know in my Readers' group, the books that we get the most fun out of are the ones we disagree about. If everyone has hated a book or everyone has loved it, the discussion tends to fall flat.
Oh, and Jim, I'm already looking forward to seeing a copy of your second novel. Sometime soon?

Rachel Fox said...

Absolutely! If I want a novel that ends my way then I have to write it...no plans at present though.
x

The Weaver of Grass said...

Have any of you blogging comments people realised that this whole comments page reads like a mystery story? I shall jolly well have to read the book now to find out what it is all about!

Rachel Fox said...

I think you will enjoy the book, Weaver. He lives not far from you in York and does readings there sometimes. As for the mystery...he is obviously just a man who attracts it! I'm not even convinced that was his daughter further up...that would be far too simple a story...
x

john baker said...

Weaver, sounds like you're living somewhere in the North of England. There are a few reviews on the web and you can read the first chapter of Winged with Death on my site:
http://johnbakersblog.co.uk/extracts-from-my-novels/extract-from-winged-with-death/It shouldn't be a mystery to find out what the book's about.

John Baker said...

Thanks, Rachel, for having me here. Thanks for the great review and your comments, and to all the other commentors.
But mainly to you for facilitating all of this. It made me think and that is no mean accomplishment.
But it was good also just to be in this milieu, to absorb it.
Plus it nearly turned into a Baker family outing . . .

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, we do a lot of thinking over here. Very little else some days!
x

Mack said...

Well, this review and the comments have pretty much guaranteed that I must read this book. And it is available through Amazon which means that I don't have to deny the cats their premium food to afford shipping.

If anyone keeps track, I came to this review by way of John's Twitter feed.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Mack and thanks for calling in.
I have yet to do anything Twitterly. I usually get to these things a few years after everyone else...
Hope you enjoy John's book.
x

Susan said...

1970s Uruguay? sounds different.
Sounds hard to resist actually; I'll look for it--thanks for the non-spoiler review, btw!

Rachel Fox said...

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did Susan. I think you will.
x

Debi said...

Oh! I realise now how cowardly I've been compared to you. I too have serious reservations about that last chapter (think we might all have sussed it round about the same time in the narrative) but am more than prepared to accept/forgive given the strength of the rest of the book.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Debi
Yes, that last chapter...when I first read it I nearly threw the book out of the window! I felt betrayed, disappointed, annoyed. But then the next day (when I had calmed down a bit) I could see why it was a possible end for the book and, in some ways, preferable to a 'just fading out or stopping at nothing' type ending. I still don't like it but I can cope with it. Just. And I still think it's a very good book (which says a lot for the rest of it!) and it is John's work not mine so how he ends it is his choice of course.