Author Peter May reveals the inspiration for Coffin Road

Bestselling crime writer Peter May reveals why he chose the real-life Coffin Road as the inspiration for his latest book

Peter May

Peter May pendant le salon Polars du Sud à Toulouse en 2013.

Coffin Road, the title of my new book, has a certain ring to it. But much as it might sound like a good title for a crime novel, in fact it is the name of a real road in the Outer Hebrides.

The Isle of Lewis is largely flat with peat bog covering most of its interior, but as you make your way down to the Isle of Harris, a rockier landscape begins to emerge. Millennia of geological upheavals on earth formed these islands. They are the result of shifting continents clashing and cracking the earth’s crust. Erupting volcanoes spewed lava and left a trail of molten granite which forced its way through the gneiss in sheets and veins. Ice-age glaciers carved mountains and valleys out of this rock and shaped the Harris that we see today.

It is a landscape so primitive and barren that it passed for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Peter May_the real coffin road

The real coffin road, Isle of Harris

Which brings us to the coffin road itself. When bedrock lies only inches beneath the skin of soil that covers the east coast of the island, digging a grave and burying the dead is impossible. So in centuries gone by, men from villages on the east side of Harris had to carry their dead over the hills to reach deeper, sandy soil on the west of the island where they could lay their loved ones to rest.

And so the coffin road of reality is not so much a “road” as a rough track hewn out of necessity. It traces a four kilometre route that climbs from Loch Airigh on the east side of the island, high up over the hills, past lochans and across rough, rocky countryside, before descending through salt marsh to the stunningly beautiful Luskentyre beach on the west coast, where the deep machair soil could accommodate the bodies of those who had passed.

It was a journey that could not have been easy for those men, carrying the dead weight of countless bodies over rocky ground in all weathers. But the long hard trek that it must have been was a necessity, a practicality, a fact of life – or death – for those folk who carved out their existence on the island. It was also a ritual, and perhaps a time when, at one with the elements, and carrying the weight of a corpse, it gave time to consider one’s own mortality.
Peter May_luskentyre beach
For one man in my book, the coffin road holds many secrets – about life, and death.
When he staggers ashore on Luskentyre beach (above), apparently the survivor of a boating accident, he remembers nothing about who he is, how he got there or what has happened. But he is filled with a deep-rooted sense of dread, and a primeval drive to fill in the blanks and restore meaning to his existence.

A map, with the coffin road traced in marker pen, is the only clue he has. A route he knows he must follow to find the truth. He has no idea where it will lead him, but following in the footsteps of the dead is his only way forward.

Coffin Road (Hachette NZ) is available now. Peter May is visiting New Zealand in February and will be speaking at an event in Dunedin on Thursday 25 February. Tickets at http://www.unibooks.co.nz/

cv_coffin_road

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thirteen_ways_of_lookingThe novella and three short stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking each centre on a character in search of a lost connection – a lost intimacy – with another person, or God, or hope. Or, rather, the characters aren’t seeking to re-connect so much as learn to live without connection. They’re learning how to be alone, which can be lonely but not necessarily: the stories flash back through memories, childhoods and relationships. These are the parts I enjoyed the most, more than the meanderings the stories sometimes go through on the way to these memories.

It’s not a passive read, which is good. You’re presented with puzzles (the first story is a whodunit) and confronted with some morally tricky choices (some brutal abuse and the question of forgiveness), which is also good. It would probably be a great Book Club choice – it’s short and full of “things to discuss” and will “make you think”. But…

I guess here I should be upfront: I didn’t like this book very much. I found it irritating, more often than not. The writing was too close to the surface – it was Writing – and I prefer for writing to be invisible so I can get lost in the story and characters. Not that I don’t like it when writers do great or interesting things with language – I love words! and language! and experimentation, sometimes! – but, hmm. Something about these stories made it seem like they were writing exercises rather than stories. And because each of them dealt with quite hefty issues – Issues – it all felt a bit heavy-handed to me.

I’m sure there are dozens of readers out there who’d disagree with me. In fact, going by the boatloads of fancy accolades on the cover of the book, I suspect I’m a bit too much of a grumpy or cynical reader for this writer. (I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes at the earnest, black & white, gazing-out-the-window, chin-on-hand, scarf-wearing author photo inside the back cover. In fact, I think one look at that photo sums the book up – if you’re on-board with its tone, give the book a go; if it gives you the giggles, step away.)

If you’re going to read something with this title, I’d suggest the Wallace Stevens poem, which opens each chapter of the novella, for showing new ways of looking at familiar things (and it’s shorter). Or if you’re interested in writing, seek out the excellent documentary about Wellington’s creative writing school, IIML.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Thirteen Ways of Looking
by Colum McCann
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408869840

Book Review: Dead Joker, by Anne Holt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dead_jokerDead Joker is the fifth of a planned nine books in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series by Norwegian author Anne Holt.

After several years with the Oslo Police department, Holt set up her own law firm then went on to serve as Norway’s Minister for Justice for two years. This background is evident in her writing, as the descriptions of procedures and the frustrations of policing are believable.

Holt grabs the reader’s attention right from the start, when Chief Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is called in after the wife of Chief Public Prosecutor Sigurd Halvorsrud is found decapitated in the family home. Halvorsrud is covered in blood and his fingerprints are on the weapon, but he claims the murderer was Ståle Salvesen, a man he’d prosecuted years before.

Despite the seemingly overwhelming circumstantial evidence, Wilhelmsen is unconvinced of Halvorsrud’s guilt – until a witness says he saw Salvesen commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, days before the murder.

Dead Joker has a number of stories running alongside the murder that at first seem unconnected – a well-known journalist with a past he takes great care to keep hidden; Halvorsrud’s mentally ill daughter who seems more worried about her father being in jail than the death of her mother; and a reclusive author who cut off his ears when he was 13 – but when a second body is found beheaded while Halvorsrud is on bail, the plot moves into deeper and darker territory.

Just when things start to become clear, another twist is thrown into the mix to muddy the waters. Deciding who is on her side is driving Wilhelmsen crazy, and her superiors are starting to question her ability.

While she and long-term police colleague Billy T. struggle to make sense of all the evidence, Wilhelmsen also has to come to terms with the fact Cecilie, her partner of 20 years, is terminally ill. Who or what will win the battle for her attention?

This fast paced novel is up there with the best crime fiction. Hard to put down, Dead Joker is a great read, with every plot line neatly resolved by the final page. If you enjoy Stieg Larsson, Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham, you will love Anne Holt.

Don’t let the fact this is the fifth book in the series deter you; after reading my first Rankin book (about the eighth he’d written), I went back and read them in order and I also plan to do that with Holt’s books – she’s that good.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Dead Joker
by Anne Holt
Published by Corvus
ISBN: 9780857898142

Book Review: Strictly Between Us, by Jane Fallon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_strictly_between_useStrictly Between Us
is a tale of loyalty, betrayal, love, lust, good intentions and double-dealing. Tamsin is the star of the show, and the supporting cast are her long-time best friend, the best friend’s husband, and Tamsin’s personal assistant.

Fallon doesn’t waste any time setting up the action. Halfway down the first page we see … well, I can’t say what without spoiling a major plot point. It’s a fairly full-on way to start a book, and shows two of the main characters in a less than flattering light. Which is probably the point.

The pace remains fast throughout the 400+ pages, and zips back in time a little way to explain the first page scene, and the repercussions that reverberate throughout the rest of the story. The story is primarily told from Tamsin’s point of view in first person, which took me a little while to get used to. As the story progresses we also hear from Tamsin’s personal assistant Bea from time to time, also in first person, which presents another interpretation of events.

Fallon has been described by The Guardian as writing “Chick Lit with an edge”, which is about as apt a description as any. The writing style of Strictly Between Us and the worlds that the characters inhabit suggest a readership that is well informed, well-travelled, and connected to all that is currently fashionable. It is very ‘here and now’, with descriptions of hipsters, retro pub interior design and coffee preferences peppering the story. For me, Fallon’s edge is her pacing; the story moves along at a cracking pace, and I found myself spending more time reading than I intended to, to see what Tamsin was going to do next.

I don’t know if it’s because the blurb on the back cover gives away a huge clue or I’ve got better at reading between the lines after a summer spent in the company of authors Robert Galbraith and Gillian Flynn (both of whom keep the reader guessing for much longer), but I saw the major plot twist coming a mile off. This shouldn’t put potential readers off, as there’s a lot of the story dealing with the resolution of the crisis. The characters are reasonably complex; with the exception of Michelle who felt more like a sketch, the main protagonists are three dimensional and flawed. And while the story wraps up in a conventional sort of way, there is a last little plot twist that adds a bit of relish, and a touch of real life, to the story.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Strictly Between Us
by Jane Fallon
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9781405917711

Book Review: Mutant City, by Steve Feasey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

Mutant City ticks all the boxes for me with a fast-paced plot, good hooks and a punchy storylinecv_mutant_city

I found Mutant City by Steve Feasey to be a surprisingly enjoyable mix of a science fiction doomsday and some believable throws to real world scenarios.

As you start reading the book you are quickly introduced into a grim and distressing lab in which children are held captive and experimented on by the government – not unlike the stories we hear about from animal welfare groups about how we treat the animals we use for testing on products.

A sense of relief is brought about when we realise that ‘Silas’, the strange man entering the laboratory soon after our story begins, has incapacitated the authorities supervising the horrific treatment of these children and is a friend there to rescue the children.

The story then skips thirteen years into the future when the children who escaped the confines of the lab so many years ago are now threatened as they begin to realise the effects of those experiments so many years ago.

Steve Feasey uses effective hooks in every chapter to enthral and draw readers deeper and deeper into his delicately woven masterpiece. Mutant City is a fast-paced and intriguing book that I will definitely be reading again who knows how many times.

As a reader I can be incredibly picky, I know what I want from a book and can get quickly bored if I don’t get it. However, Mutant City ticks all the boxes for me with a fast-paced plot, good hooks and a punchy storyline which is similar to my all-time favourite series ‘Virals’.

Review by Ishan Brailsford
Supplied as part of the Allen & Unwin Ambassador Programme

Mutant City
by Steve Feasey
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9781408865088

 

Book Review: Adventurer at Heart, by Nathan Fa’avae

cv_adventurer_at_heartAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

OK, I’ll admit it. Before reading this book, I had no idea who Fa’avae was. Not a clue. But then, his world is still something of an unknown quantity to many of us. Adventure racing (also called expedition racing) is a multi-disciplinary team sport involving orientation skills, usually over an unmarked wilderness course. Races go can be anywhere from two hours up to two weeks in length. and also involve a range of principle disciplines like trekking, mountain biking, and paddling. Some could even include climbing, abseiling, horse riding or skiing. Premier events, including the World Championships, of which Fa’avae was a three year champion, involve mixed gender teams of four racers over a number of days. Teams can rest up, but there’s no suspension of the clock, making it a grueling sport of mental and physical endurance and skill.

At the height of his career Fa’avae was certainly a heavyweight in the world of adventure racing. From loser to top adventure racer Fa’avae’s story is a humble yet proud account. Growing up as probably the only Pacific Island juvenile delinquent in Nelson he was, in his own words, a ‘little sh*t’ – petty crime, wagging school, the whole shebang! But, as the book reveals, things changed and after many failures, Fa’avae grew to take on many challenges. He has qualified for the Olympics, been an Outward Bound instructor and won three World Championships plus a stack of other titles.

This is the perfect book for anyone who wants a bit of armchair action. It’s a simple personal account, but a warm telling of his life to date (Fa’avae is only in his mid 40’s), highlighting a competitive career that began with his first attempt in 1991, as an 18-year-old, at competing at the Speights Coast to Coast Longest Day event and concluding with his swansong − captaining Team Seagate to another victory in the Iron Bound Challenge adventure race in Malaysia. That event was in October 2015. So the ink on this book is still pretty damp.

Don’t rule this book out as yet another sports hero story either. It’s not just about the wins or the endurance, although running a team in a six day event over mountains, rivers and tropical forests with virtually no sleep is pretty intense. No. The most enduring irony is that one of the world’s most respected adventure racers also suffers from a condition that’s completely at odds with the demands of the sport. Halfway through his career, Fa’avae was diagnosed with an atrial flutter − which is basically an abnormal heart rhythm, he tells us. The drama builds when he casually adds that corrective surgery in 2001 didn’t quite go to plan and unexpectedly escalates to atrial fibrillation (that’s the ‘code red stuff, folks). Subsequent procedures in 2005 should have corrected all that and Fa’avae went on to lead the Seagate team to their first Adventure Racing World Championship title in France.

Fa’avae actually began this book about 5 years ago when he first considered giving it away, or at least winding down, and was planning to make a go of the after dinner circuit. He actually shelved the idea after making an initial attempt before eventually picking it up again. It was only the untimely death of his mother that made him rethink the writing gig. He reckons it’s best to get it all down, you never know what’s around the corner. And what an adventure!

As well as telling his story, Fa’avae tells us some of the skills needed to inspire young adults, especially those who went to the Outward Bound courses, and the joys of fatherhood. Fa’avae’s book ticks the box as a damn good inspirational read, and he is a great role model for Pacific Island young men (and all young men in general). I hope he comes to my town one day, as I’d love to hear him speak. I’m googling Adventure Racing now – does it play on Sky Sport?!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Nathan Fa’avae: Adventurer at Heart 
by Nathan Fa’avae
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213629

Book Review: Queen of Shadows, by Sarah J Maas

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

‘Be prepared to lose yourself in the most dangerously captivating series ever.’cv_queen_of_shadows

Sarah J Maas’s writing has never let me down. Her books, filled with elaborate, twisting plotlines and the best-developed characters, seem to come with a guarantee of being unputdownable. Queen of Shadows was no exception.

Queen of Shadows  is the highly anticipated fourth book of the ‘Throne of Glass’ series. In this book, Aelin Galathynius returns to claim what is rightfully hers, embracing her destiny as the Queen of Terrasen. Gone is her past self: Celaena Sardothein, the enslaved assassin trying to hide from her past. This time round, it is Aelin who returns to Adarlan and she does so prepared to fight for her friends, her people and her country. Yet, her evil foes are not as weak as she would like them to be (Of course, since one of them is the King of Assassins and the other, the King on the Glass Throne). The only question is, will Aelin be able reap vengeance from her previous masters or will she be the one to pay? Read it to find out and once again, be drawn into our favourite badass heroine’s story as she battles for the greater good.

Although I preferred the intrigue and romance of the first and second books more, I nevertheless enjoyed Queen of Shadows with its brilliant characters, vivid fantasy universe and racing plotline. If you are looking for a book with a strong, sassy female protagonist, a heart-pumping narrative and a beautiful yet dangerous fantasy universe to lose yourself in, then look no further than Queen of Shadows.

Warning: I advise you to wait until the weekends to read this book because once I picked it up, I found myself unable to put it down.

Reviewed by Elinor Wang, as part of the Allen & Unwin Ambassador programme.

Queen of Shadows
by Sarah J Maas
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9781408858615