Cold Hands by John J Niven: 'Donnie’s in the dark'
Cold Hands by John J Niven, out now in hardback (William Heinemann, £12.99)
Close Your Eyes by Ewan Morrison, out now in hardback (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)
When a writer changes their name on the cover of their new book it’s a safe bet there’s been an equivalent change of style within the pages.
Iain Banks famously slaps in an ‘M’ when he’s writing science fiction, and recently Christopher Brookmyre became plain Chris when he began writing more serious crime novels. And so to John Niven, or John J Niven as he is now.
Niven is a former record company A&R man who used his music business experience to write his first novel, Kill Your Friends, in 2008. A satire on the industry, it was extremely violent and shocking, but also downright hilarious in places. Fast forward through a few more satirical novels and Niven has now added the middle initial for his first foray into thriller writing with Cold Hands.
The humour of Niven’s previous work is gone, replaced by a depth and empathy for his characters that few modern thrillers can match. We begin in remote Saskatchewan, Canada, where Scottish ex-pat Donnie Miller is counting his blessings.
Having escaped some terrible traumas in his past (which we gradually learn about), he now lives with a beautiful wife and son in a huge house, spending his days banging out film reviews for the local paper, that his wife edits, and working on a screenplay.
But that rural idyll is destroyed when the family dog goes missing. That event acts as the catalyst for a descent into personal hell for Donnie and his family, as the ghosts of his troubled past in Scotland come back to haunt him with a vengeance.
The pace, dialogue and narrative voice are all pitch-perfect, and the flashback scenes of Donnie’s childhood are frighteningly realistic. Niven proves himself expert at creating a sense of foreboding, and when all Donnie’s worst fears come to pass, the author clearly uses his own experience as an occasional screenwriter to ramp up the tension to almost unbearable levels.
A thriller that delivers on every level, Cold Hands is a fantastic change of style and pace for Niven. Long may his new seriousness continue.
Equally serious but in a rather different way is another fantastic book, Close Your Eyes by Ewan Morrison. The writer’s fourth literary novel, Close Your Eyes is by far his most accomplished, an intense and compelling account of a girl’s upbringing in a Scottish Highland commune, and her subsequent search for her mother as a grown-up.
Switching between two timelines, this is both a lyrical, moving account of motherhood and an astute piece of commentary on the ways in which our society and our families have changed irrevocably over the last 40 years.
To pack all that stuff into a deeply personal tale that keeps you turning the pages is a testament to Morrison’s subtle skill as a writer. Few male writers manage to tap into the emotional well as deeply as Morrison does, yet he has the clear eye for the bigger picture and the writerly craft at his disposal to deliver a piercing critique of the world we live in.
Morally complex, emotionally resonant – Close Your Eyes is a fine, fine piece of work.
And another thing…
Million-selling author Stephen Leather was booed and heckled at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival recently for advocating cheap ebooks, piracy, crowd-sourced editing and fake ‘sock puppet’ personas for viral marketing. Still a controversial topic in the book world, it seems.
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The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)
Subtitled ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’, Wilde’s last play before his well publicised fall from grace following imprisonment for homosexuality is a boisterous farce that pokes fun at Victorian stuffiness and which introduces the redoubtable Lady Bracknell, who speaks one of the most famous stage lines with ‘A handbag?’ The shenanigans begin when sober country squire John Worthing visits London in the guise of his imaginary younger brother, a wastrel called Ernest, intent on proposing to the lovely Gwendoline, daughter of Lady Bracknell. The plot thickens and it’s soon outrageously, LOL funny. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/844 Words: Jenny Parrott