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A Ladder to the Sky

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Member Reviews

This is a reasonably compelling and certainly a dark exploration of ambition, and how far anyone will go to achieve their goals. Maurice Swift has only one desire – to be a writer. But writers need ideas and unfortunately Maurice doesn’t have any. So he decides to steal other people’s. This leads him to some very questionable acts of literary theft, and some even more questionable ways of using other people for his own ends. There’s some very good storytelling here, and some good writing. Certainly the premise is an interesting and thought-provoking one. Maurice himself is a fascinating character, and the reader has constantly to wonder whether he is misguided, immoral or perhaps completely amoral. He’s so manipulative that at times my credulity was stretched to the limit, though. I certainly enjoyed the book but it does have its problems. One is that there are simply too many subplots, some of which are quite unnecessary. For example, there’s a storyline concerning Edith’s (Maurice’s wife) sister and her divorce, which adds nothing to the narrative and in any case is too extreme to be true to life. Then, although we need Edith’s story and it is important we hear her point of view, the dialogue between her and Maurice is often clunky, and she seems to be addressing the reader rather than her husband. On the plus side, the slow reveal is well-paced as we gradually plumb the depths of Maurice's character. I also enjoyed the glimpses into the literary world with its rivalries and jealousies, and there’s a nice little cameo of Gore Vidal. A largely successful psychological drama with some interesting ideas, but a little overwritten and one which would have benefited from some editing.
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When Erich Ackermann first meets the young man in a café he is flattered by the admiration of a man so many years younger. As it turns out, Maurice is also a writer like him and Erich believes to discover the aspiring young man he once was in his new acquaintance and he immediately falls for him. Erich takes him on his tour around Europe to promote his book and the more time they spend together, the more the elderly scholar opens up and reveals secrets of his past to his young companion. He will regret this blind trust just as others will, too. Maurice, the charming handsome writer is quick in beguiling and clever at deceiving those who seem closest to him.

John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.

I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.

Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.
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I'm not going to say anything about the plot as you should go into this novel not really knowing what to expect but I shall say that it is becoming my experience that when you pick up a John Boyne story you are in very safe hands. Every book is about something completely difference but each book is a work of literary brilliance that never fails to draw you in and keep you hooked. Although this book is completely unlike The Heart's Invisible Furies (which I utterly adored), darker elements abound and Maurice Swift won't steal your heart like Cyril Avery though he may just steal your story, it is once again a novel worth reading, talking about, lending to friends and then reading all over again. I am in awe of Mr Boyne's talents and shall now go and investigate his earlier works I may have missed.
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I read and reviewed John Boyne's book 'The Heart's Invisible Furies' last year and predicted that it would become one of the talked about books of 2018. A Ladder to the Sky is another that will pick up that mantle.
 It is a superb book, very well written and an absolute gem! I love it when a book has a main character that you love and loathe at the same time. Maurice is a despicable character and one you will love to hate.
I highly recommend this book and give it 5 shiny stars!
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A finely crafted piece of literary fiction or a cheap throw-away psychological thriller? Both? Neither? I’m still weighing up my thoughts on this, but either way I found this book hugely enjoyable.

In this cleverly structured novel we first observe an ageing writer who is visiting Berlin as part of a European tour to discuss his work. The writer reflects on his life of celibacy – he being a homosexual who, it seems, has never found the courage to act on his inborn predilection – when he spots an attractive waiter. Their subsequent meeting and the events that follow are beautifully and sensitively described. In the course of conversation, the writer opens up about his life and reveals a terrible secret from his early years.

In the next section we start to observe events through fresh eyes. This time it’s another writer who we’d already briefly met. The ‘waiter’ appears again too and we learn something of events that transpired following Berlin, but the focus is really on this pair now. It’s not absolutely clear what the relationship is between the two men but clearly this second writer is also hugely attracted to this beautiful young man. Again, the writing is strong and the characters engaging. I had no real idea where this was going but I was already totally wrapped up in this tale.

In the third section we start to see events through yet another pair of eyes and things begin to become clearer. This is a book about deception, narcissism and cold blooded ambition. All that has gone before starts to come into closer focus and we now know who the central figure of this narrative is. But it at this stage that the book takes a step back from the literary piece I’d been reading thus far and a giant leap into the psychological thriller I hadn’t expected. And it wasn’t a transformation I particularly enjoyed. First there was the introduction of a character I found to be exaggerated and, frankly, unbelievable. Then the lead character perpetrates an act (or rather a series of acts) that totally change not only the direction of the story but also, for me, the nature of it. Gone is the slow but engaging voyage of discovery and here, with a bang, is a full-on tale of heartlessness and deceit. 

Once I’d settled myself to this change of direction I found that, to some extent, I was able to adjust my expectations and enjoy it for what it was. And though it kept yo-yoing from the expertly constructed settings and conversation that peppered the early scenes to leaps in narrative that challenged my sense of belief, I think it just about managed to keep me sufficiently engaged to accept some of the stranger turns of event. And by the end of the tale I was back on side again, slowly turning pages to discover how this was all going to finally play out.

So for me it’s a book that is stunning in the way that the characters are developed, interesting in the way the plot twists and turns and yet somewhat bewildering in the sense that I struggled to believe that some of the events felt ’real’. It’s a good book, maybe even a great book – I think I’ll have a clearer view of how I truly feel once I’ve had a day or two (or maybe a week or two) to think about it. In the meantime, I’m stuck between a feeling that this book merits either 4 or 5 stars. I’m going to go with 5, for now, on the basis that I rattled through it in a few days and each time I put it down I really couldn’t wait to pick it up again!
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After loving The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I was looking forward to reading John Boyne’s latest novel.

A Ladder to the Sky is the story of an attractive young man, Maurice, who wants to be a writer. He uses his looks and charm to attach himself to a series of successful authors across the world. He builds his own career as a novelist by stealing stories from them, while leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

Boyne is having fun with the well-worn question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and wondering what would happen to an author who could write good prose but couldn’t invent a story of his own. I’m not sure I accept the premise – I’ve read plenty of literary novels where the prose is gorgeous but the story weak and unrealised and that doesn’t seem to stop them winning awards. But it’s a fun idea and a playful treatment.

I loved the black comedy and Maurice’s trajectory through literary circles. It’s a world that’s familiar to me from the days when I was on the fringes of traditional publishing, albeit at a lower level. I think the constant hustling, the fine line between adoration and envy, the comparisonitis are due to the fact that the conventional markers of success – salary, job title, professional qualifications – are absent so your status is always shifting. The intriguing question is why Maurice, with his good looks and easy opportunism, doesn’t inveigle himself into a more glamorous and lucrative business.

Perhaps the same things that make people want to write and be among writers – the love of the craft, the desire to belong to a world of books and ideas – apply to him too. It suggests that his passion for literature is genuine, even if the rest of him is a lie.

A few real writers make an appearance in the novel which is fun and adds to the writerly in-jokiness of the thing. There is an interlude written from the point of view of Gore Vidal which is quite entertaining if you’re a fan, and works by Maude Avery, the fictional novelist from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, are namechecked.

The irony, of course, is that Maurice is constantly inventing in life, with his trail of deceit and manipulation. But it seems Maurice can’t get to the end, and that’s true of this novel as well.

In the later part of the book we learn about key events from Maurice’s point of view. This only works if he has something to add, a radically different perspective, an intriguing justification. He doesn’t. Boyne also has an annoying tic of writing dialogue scenes as if they were verbatim, which means he often repeats at length stories the reader has already read. Why he can’t just write ‘I told him about the death of my mother’ and move on, I don’t know.

Maurice was most interesting when seen through the eyes of others, when he had the dark allure of a cool, calculating psychopath. When you start learning what he thinks himself, it’s quite banal. Perhaps that’s the intention, he is, after all, a man who can’t make up a story, but that and a slightly laboured twist meant that, for me, the end of the book didn’t live up to the rest.
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A Ladder to the Sky is a dark novel about the unbridled ambitions of Maurice Swift, a strikingly beautiful man, with two life goals: to become a successful writer and to have a child. He’s cognizant of the power of his looks, which he uses diligently and without remorse to accomplish his goals. His way to success is peppered with victims. He never once has any regrets and feels entitled. Maurice Swift is a sociopath. He’s not even particularly charming, but his looks seem to blind people and turn them into needy creatures. Two of his victims are much older men, established writers, who fell under his spell. Maurice discards them once they serve him no purpose. 
I was quite impressed with Boyne’s approach to unravelling Maurice Swift via several characters’ viewpoints.

We meet Maurice through the eyes of the sexagenarian German author, Erich Ackerman, who falls under the young man’s spells. He provides him with material for his first novel, which turns out to be a success but also the Ackermann’s downfall. Another important character is Maurice’s wife, Edith, who’s also a writer. I loved the second person narration of that section. Gore Vidal makes a cameo appearance. He’s one of the few people who is not fooled by Maurice. In keeping with a sociopath’s personality, the last word belongs to Maurice.

Through Swift, Boyne has a look at the publishing world, literary awards, and the envy and, sometimes, nastiness, that permeates that word. 

This was an interesting read, although I have to confess that I enjoyed some parts more than others. I never fell under Maurice’s spell. My enjoyment ebbed and flowed and while the writing worked on my brain, it never quite reached my heart.
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John Boyne has this exceptional ability to place words on a page with such soul and meaning, that immediately you are totally immersed in a delicately unwinding story. Nothing is forced, everything flows naturally. The characters are developed with marvellous believability whilst illustrating intriguing relationships and entertaining dialogue. The dialogue conveys so much, divulging that touch of humour, irony or jealousy, or sexual teasing.

John skillfully develops a character Maurice Swift who has an obsessive ambition to be an accomplished and famous author, with sales and literary recognition. The problem is that while he can form sentences with an acceptable level of skill, he possesses no imagination. With this lack of creativity, he hunts and forages for ideas and plots for his novel. The fascination with Maurice is that he is an extremely handsome man and he will use his physical appeal and charisma in his unscrupulous parasitic strategy to glean as much from other writers or publishers as possible. 

Erich Ackermann is an author that has had a series of unsuccessful books but finally receives recognition as a prize winner. He is the first narrator of the novel and meets Maurice as a waiter in a restaurant and later invites Maurice on his book tour. Erich’s infatuation with Maurice is his weakness, and he recognises it so.
“Sitting there that day on a bench in the Caffarella Park, this twenty-two-year-old boy made me long to reveal my secrets in the most self-destructive way imaginable. I wanted to confide in him, to tell him my story.”

The story Erich tells Maurice in private is about his young adulthood in Germany just before the second world war, where he meets Oskar Gött, and again is captivated by a young man. Their friendship grows with Erich developing deeper feelings for Oskar and they become more and more aware of secrets they each harbour, including their views of the Nazi’s, their Jewish ancestry, their love of prohibited art and of course Erich’s homosexuality. When it’s revealed that Oskar has a girlfriend he has fallen in love with, Erich is spiteful, having previously out of pure jealousy, discredited his nude painting of her as vulgar and mediocre. 

During Maurice’s travels with Erich, he meets Dash Hardy, who is to become the next obsequious victim of Maurice’s charms and the source of his next feeding ground. You can see in the pointed dialogue and interaction between Maurice and his ‘mentors’ the subtle swing from his position as protégé to becoming more dominant as they become less and less useful. “But once I had what I needed, why would I have stuck around?” Maurice will undertake this Machiavellian approach several times, cultivating relationships for his own gain, including a marriage to Edith and a son Daniel. However, as time passes, looks fade, and the carnage becomes apparent in the rearview mirror, the carnage that may be exposed. 

An amazing book with wonderful storyline, characterisation and dialogue. A book that is totally captivating and a literary masterpiece.

I would like to thank Random House UK, Transworld Publishers and NetGalley, for an ARC version of ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ in return for an honest review.
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‘Only really bad people take things that don’t belong to them.’

Without looking back at the rest of the year’s reading, currently around 160 titles, I can say with certainly that this tops the pile. I thought ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ would be impossible to top, but this may have done it.

Of interest in particular to reading and literature aficionados, but this is a brilliant slow-burn story for anyone searching for a riveting read, for an unforgettable character, for something different.

Blending real life writers (Gore Vidal - I’ve never read him but I do know the name) with those created for the book, this straddles several decades in the life of one author in particular from his youthful entry into the industry and the steps he takes along the way to fame and respect.

Erich Ackermann is instantly smitten with a fawning young man when they meet by chance at an author event. Taking him on as an assistant, showing him the inside of the industry, encouraging his writing, Erich even reveals a shameful past he’s never before spoken about. Maurice listens, learns, and uses his new knowledge to boost his own fledgling writing career, changing more than one life in the process.

Maurice is almost unbelievable. The book is split into several sections, each telling the story of the genesis of one of his published works. As Erich’s story closes, the import of what is to come is only just becoming apparent. 

I’ve never come across a character quite like Maurice. The layers of his decisions, including through his history, are jaw-dropping as he does all he can to live up to his statement: “I was born to be a writer.” Just what has to happen for this to be the narrative is unbelievable. 

There are surprises along the way, and those who’ve read Boyne before will be prepared for a rather emotional time as they follow Maurice through his life.

Quite stunning. A killer of an ending too. Boyne has given us a classic look into the world of literature as well as a modern classic character study and discussion piece.

With thanks to Netgalley for the advance reading copy.
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Maurice Swift is quite the villain!  An aspiring author, he admits that he doesn't have the imagination to create plots for his books and discovers that plagiarism can be lucrative.  This book is set inside the literary world and examines the petty jealousies and huge egos that reside within that community.
Maurice is a true sociopath, his lack of any sense or morality or remorse is quite terrifying and his behaviour towards his family and acquaintances  is horrific. He has no true friends, he acquires people only if they can be useful for him.  However, this book is also a lot of fun, I do enjoy some black humour!  The characterisation in this book is tremendous, and the writing is sublime.  John Boyne is a wonderful author and I absolutely adored this book.
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I love John Boynes writing and found A Ladder to the Sky to be very enjoyable. It is not as emotionally draining as The Hearts Invisible Furies or as shocking as A History of Loneliness but it’s a lot more fun. Maurice Swift is an aspiring writer who passes other people’s stories off as his own at any cost. He is a despicable character but I rather liked him! The whole book is brilliantly written and would make a wonderful movie.
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I only recently read my first ever John Boyne book and my mind was blown away by the sheer brilliance of his writing and I remember thinking, ‘Can he impress me anymore than he already has?’ The answer came when I got the opportunity to request an ARC on NetGalley and I was approved for it. I was still on a high as far as John Boyne was concerned and perhaps because of that, I also started building expectations.

I put off reading the book then because building up expectations and then falling prey to that trap was not something I was interested in. So, after a while I picked it up again and started reading. And kinda didn’t really stop till I finished it. It’s not a terribly long book but it packs punches that leave a mark behind even after you have finished it.

I said in my other post that Maurice the main character gave off some serious Gilderoy Lockhart vibes, and I wasn’t lying. The book starts with Erich Ackermann and his encounter with Maurice in 1980s and spans decades till the current times. When Erich Ackermann meets Maurice, Ackermann is on a book tour and has been feeling a bit odd about the whole matter. His sixth book, ‘Dread’, turned out to be a bestseller, something Erich had never imagined it would be. Maurice somehow seamlessly makes himself present in Erich’s life, so much so that after an encounter in the hotel, Erich invites him on his book tour. The way Maurice works his way into Erich’s life is frankly admirable and a little scary and a little bit disgusting?

However, Maurice is also superb in making sure that Erich is happy. He’s an engaging audience to Erich’s tales and makes quite an impression on the older man. He has good looks, enough charisma to fill a ballroom and enough cunning to get ahead in his career based on other people’s lives. While his writing isn’t bad, his ideas leave much to be desired and Maurice accepts it with grace. He admits to not being able to form ideas or even find some solid ideas but he also shares that he wants to succeed whatever the means.

And succeed he does. By taking people’s stories and making them into his own, Maurice does manage to be successful, however not everyone is on board with the Maurice ship because while he is on his way to success, he writes a book that is, while not a direct retelling of Erich’s life during the War, eerily similar to Erich’s life. In the process of climbing the success mountain, he brings devastation to Erich’s life.

I think Maurice is an excellent character, Boyne wrote him so wonderfully!! There are moments when you are left wondering if this man is real, then there are moments when his lack of morals and humanity leaves you breathless. Despite how very despicable he is or perhaps because of it, Maurice certainly leaves a mark even when you are finished reading the book. Whether Maurice gets what he deserves or not, well, that’s better to find out by reading it yourself, isn’t it?

A really brilliant book that I would love to read again. For fans of John Boyne, this is a delightful read and those who haven’t yet read John Boyne, here’s your chance to change that! If you are a fan of literary fiction, absolutely interesting characters with more black than grey then this is the book for you. If you want to venture away from YA or your general genre and have an adventure, start with this one. It’s not too long, about 370 pages? And it would blow your mind. You might think that I am hyping it far too much but the thing is, I don’t think I am hyping it enough.
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A Ladder to the Sky is an insightful character driven novel, which could make a great movie. Although I found it interesting, I didn't love it and for me it lacked that special charm that I found in John Boyne's other books . Nevertheless, it's an intelligent and thought-provoking read, which will appeal to many readers. 
Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for the ARC.
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John Boyne is most certainly on top form, not only with all the fabulous books he has previously  written but now hot on the heels of the success of The Heart's Invisible Furies, he has managed to write what will be yet another sure hit. In A Ladder to the Sky we meet Maurice Swift the aspiring author, Maurice Swift the psychopath. This is a dark tale of ambition and achievement and the lengths a person will go to in order to reach their goals. It is a tale of a character with no morals, no scruples and no conscience. It is an extremely well written story which kept me rapidly turing the pages to discover how it would all eventually unfold. I loved that this book is about authors, the writing process and set in the literary world in general.  I'm not in the habit of giving five stars easily but this deserves every single one of them and will be another well deserved hit for John Boyne.

My thanks to Random House UK/Transworld and Netgalley.
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John Boyne’s new novel is about writers writing novels, a well-trodden path for novelists. Boyne’s take on the form is to create a particularly unappealing central character, Maurice Swift, who we see develop over a period of about 30 years as he shamelessly uses and exploits everyone around him in order to have a successful career. There are three parts to the novel, each told by a different first-person narrator, with two ‘interludes’ in third-person to give a wider perspective to events in the book.

Full of literary references and allusions, the book explores the heart of the writing process: who ‘owns’ stories, what is fiction versus biography, and how far should one go in the pursuit of success? The ‘versions of truth’ that the book explores are fascinating, and as the plot develops I found myself totally caught up in the almost Shakespearean villainy of Maurice Swift – Shakespeare with just a hint of ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ perhaps?

Wonderfully written, cleverly plotted with a subtly intricate structure, I really enjoyed this book. Throw in some ‘real’ characters (Gore Vidal pops up for a cameo) and Boyne clearly had fun writing this new novel with its twists right to the final page. With its focus on the writing process it does raise interesting questions - and can it be possible to like or admire a central character who is so unlikeable?  A definite recommend read.
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Stories will make him famous but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse.

In a career of highlights, A Ladder to the Sky, might be John Boyne's best. It tells the story of Maurice Swift , a writer, and how he makes it to the top. Maurice has no scruples whatsoever and makes for a fascinating character. Highly recommended.
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It is a story that is as old as time itself, common in our human history and a major source of inspiration for writers, producing great literature, from the likes of Shakespeare to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, the unleashing of a ferocious, power hungry ambition, nakedly unfettered, ruthless as it wreaks tragedy and destruction in its wake, doing whatever is deemed necessary to achieve the sought after obsessive dream. After the brilliance of The Heart's Invisible Furies, John Boyne gives us a mesmerising psychological drama, with its coldly manipulative and ambitious Maurice Swift, an adequate if mediocre writer but lacking the elusive inspirational spark that produces great novels, he is blessed with charisma and good looks. A sociopath, a man desperate enough to steal stories to succeed in his desire to win literary prizes, having no issues when it comes to betrayal of anyone, willing to sell his soul for literary worldly acclaim. 

In a tale that begins in the 1980s through to the present, it shifts from Berlin and Europe, the US to Britain today, we follow Swift from his initial encounter with Cambridge academic and literary prize winner, novelist Erich Ackermann, whose past life story he exploits to gain his entry into the glittering world he so craves and his ensuing career and family. Will there be an accounting of his actions and behaviour? What I can say is that not everyone is taken in by his persona. With dark comic humour, Boyne once again demonstrates his ability to give us fascinating and gripping storytelling with a central character that rivals the great Tom Ripley, whilst pondering over the thorny issue of who owns stories. A brilliant read that I do not hesitate in recommending highly! Many thanks to Random House Transworld for an ARC.
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One of the things I think John Boyne gifts to the world with his books is that they are all so different in storyline, but one of the themes that holds the books together is injustice. The victims of the protagonist in this novel, the odious Maurice Swift are treated so unjustly that it is heartbreaking.

Maurice is without moral fibre, you could call him a cold fish, he has no concept that furthering his own life, feathering his next with the ill gotten gains of others is a bad thing. His attitude is one of self serving, graspyness. Maurice is a talentless writer, that is a problem, he has no ideas for stories and therefore must steal them from those he meets, beginning as a young man and carrying on until middle age. He is completely ruthless and leaves the bodies of those who get in the way behind him. Maurice desperately wants a son and when he gets one he is heartless towards him, this seems to be the thing with Maurice, he wants so badly but it is never enough when he gets what he wants.

The structure of this novel is interesting. It is told in part by Maurice’s poor wife, a woman so talented but having to deal with his petty jealousies, his social ineptitudes and the dreadful way he treats her and those people who are admiring of her. Maurice just cannot bear to be out of the limelight. He was shortlisted for The Prize, which we assume is code for the Man Booker, and that was his peak, but even this story is stolen because he is completely without original thought, other than finding crafty ways to steal stories from others. We travel the world with Maurice to Berlin, New York, the Amalfi Coast, various locations in England. Some of the scenes are written so well, I was blown away. The scenes on The Amalfi at Gore Videl’s house were just perfect.

It is hard to read characters so unlikeable yet at the same time you want them to fail, but Maurice is just so dastardly I was completely caught up waiting for his game to be up. The way he does eventually get his comeuppance, as indeed he must, is so well done I was blown away with the cleverness of it.

This is a big sprawley wonderful book, I wait anxiously for a John Boyne to come along and this was in no way disappointing.

Thanks so much to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me access.
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"‘And you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you?’ He shook his head. ‘That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky.'"

A Ladder to the Sky perhaps won't be the most literary novel I will read in 2018, but I strongly suspect it will be the most fun.   Ever wondered what would have happened had the Talented Mr Ripley set his sights on winning the Booker Prize?  Wonder no more...

"‘Well, they’d have to be really talented,’ he said. ‘But also, a complete psychopath.’ I laughed. ‘Well, yes. But, of course, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.’"

The novel starts, in the late 1980s, in a rather low key fashion, narrated by Erich Ackermann, of German origin, but now a Fellow of English literature at Kings College, Cambridge.  Erich has found belated success in his second career as an author, winning the pinnacle of any ambitious author's career, The Prize:

"My writing career, which had begun more than thirty-five years earlier, producing six short novels and an illadvised collection of poetry, had never been successful. None of my books had attracted many readers, despite generally positive reviews, nor had they garnered much international attention. 

However, to my great surprise I had won an important literary award the previous autumn for my sixth novel, Dread. In the wake of The Prize, the book sold rather well and was translated into numerous languages. The disinterest that had generally greeted my work was soon replaced by admiration and critical study while the literary pages argued over who could claim credit for my renaissance. Suddenly I found myself invited to literary festivals and being asked to undertake book tours in foreign countries."

On such an international tour he becomes infatuated by a handsome young waiter from Northern England, and it transpires aspiring writer, Maurice Swift, ("‘I want to be a success,’ he replied, and perhaps I should have heard the deep intent in his tone and been frightened by it") hiring him as a "personal assistant" to accompany him for the next 6 months.

Although to Ackermann's frustration, Maurice never quite let his duties extend past the strict job description, although he always suggests his willingness to go further while he teases out the real story of what Erich did in the second world war.  

Erich himself has aspects of (WW2 past that comes back to haunt him) Gunter Grass meets (UK based academic) WG Sebald; indeed one character later trying to recall Erich rather muddles him with the former:

"‘Who’s Erich Ackermann?’

‘Dread,’ said Gore. ‘You’ve read it.’

‘Have I?’

'Yes, you admired it.’

‘Alright.’  Howard considered this for a moment. ‘He wasn’t the fellow we met at that festival in Jaipur, was he? With the moustache and the pipe? The one who kept bursting into song at inappropriate moments?’

‘No, that was Günter Grass.’"

Maurice as a writer is a very competent craftsman but has a major block with plots: he simply struggles to dream up anything original:

"‘You’re right, of course,’ he said finally. ‘I’m not very good at thinking up plots, that’s the problem. I feel like all the stories in the universe have already been told.'

’But that’s just not true,’ I insisted. ‘There’s an infinite supply for anyone with an imagination.’

'Sometimes I think I would be better as a musician. The type who writes the words but lets someone else come up with the melody. Perhaps I’m simply tone deaf.’"

But Maurice certainly doesn't lack ambition:

"'But you are a successful novelist,’ he said , laughing . ‘At least you have been since you won The Prize.’

'I mean the very rich and famous ones,’ I said, correcting myself. ‘Those who have readers, not those who win awards.’

‘Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?'

‘In a perfect world, no. But in the real world, they generally are.’

'I’m going to be different ,’ he said, nodding confidently.

'Oh really? In what way?’

‘I’m going to have readers and win prizes.’"

And as he travels with Erich, something clicks and Maurice works on his own novel.  In a denouement to this first section that is heavily signposted to the reader, but still a shock to Erich, this turns out to be a lightly fictonalised version of Reich's own wartime past.

Maurice is keen to explain to interviewers that his novel is purely fiction but equally keen, so as to maximise publicity, to make sure it is widely known to be based on the real-life secrets of the famous author. (an approach which incidentally nicely skewers my least favourite novel of 2018, Asymmetry) 

The resulting publicity brings literary fame to Maurice and shame to Erich.

The Prize of course rises above it all:

"Bookshops across the world removed my novels from their shelves, although the organisers of The Prize itself refused, in the face of staunch criticism, to rescind my award, saying that it had been given to a book, not to an author, and that Dread remained a sublime work, regardless of the monstrous actions of its creator. 

In response to this a great number of writers boycotted The Prize that year, refusing to enter their books, and only when the fuss died down did they seek the approbation of a small glass trophy and a sizable cheque once again."

As the novel progresses over the next 30 years to the present day, different narrator's, finishing with the man himself, tell us how Maurice resorts to increasingly psychopathic measures to gain ongoing literary inspiration, caring little who suffers, or even dies, as a consequence.   As he explains, for no particular reason, to his son's rather shocked head teacher:

"I don’t much like women, if I’m honest. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not some tragic misogynist. I don’t much like men either. I’m an equal opportunities hater."

To say more would be to ruin the fun but some favourite quotes:

Maurice recalls his 'inspirational' father:

"'That DH Lawrence only wrote filth,’ replied his father. ‘Naked men wrestling with each other and posh pieces having it off with the gamekeeper. Queer stuff, if you ask me. Written for poofters with fancy ideas. I’ll not have any of it in the house.’"

Discussing the morality of what Maurice did to Ackermann:

"‘There can be no discussion of morality when it comes to art. A writer must tell the story that captures his soul. Gore’s written about Aaron Burr, after all. And Lincoln. And the Emperor Julian.’

‘Yes, but they’re all long dead. Ackermann is still alive, isn’t he?’"

Reading a book shortlisted for The Prize by an author whose books you hate (I am guilty as charged almost every year):

"'I don’t know why you keep reading that,’ I said. ‘It’s masochistic behaviour.’

‘Because I never don’t finish a novel once I’ve started it,’ you replied. ‘It’s a rule of mine.’

'Not me,’ I said, collapsing on to the sofa and staring at the pile of class scripts sitting on the coffee table but making no effort to reach out for one. ‘Life’s too short. As far as I’m concerned, a writer gets one hundred pages and if they can’t keep my attention during that time, I move on.’

'Ridiculous,’ you said. 'You can’t say you’ve read a novel unless you’ve read it cover to cover.'"

When your meet your rival who has made the shortlist of The Prize:

"Of course, I knew only too well that he’d made the shortlist. It had made me scream aloud in my flat earlier that day when the news was revealed . I had thrown four dinner plates, two cups and a vase at the wall and they had all smashed into pieces that I would have to clean up later.

‘I didn’t even know that you were still writing.’"

Book critics and the greater pleasure in writing a negative review, their ultimate ambition to be able to rip into the latest work from a famous author:

"'I read the first of those books that I agreed to review.’ ‘And?’ ‘Unfortunately, it was really good,’ he said. ‘Oh well. Can’t be helped.’ ‘I know. But I’ve started the second one and so far, it’s a bit slow. So things are looking up.’"

The lack of regard from both critics and creative writing students for female authors vs. great white males:

"When we walked in, I noticed how the students – my students – looked at you with more reverence than they’d ever shown towards me. I don’t think I’m being paranoid, Maurice, when I say that it was as if they believed that, finally, a real writer had come to speak to them, simply because you happened to have a penis."

Particularly great white elderly male authors fond of announcing the death of the novel:

"'I can’t bear ageing novelists who refuse to bother with the young. Most of them seem to think that they’re the only ones worth reading, you see, and that literature as we know it will come to an end when they publish their final book. Well, the men do certainly. Can you imagine a seventy-fiveyear-old white Englishman with twenty novels under his belt reading a debut by a twenty -eight-year-old black girl of Caribbean descent? It would never happen. They’d much rather tell the world that they’re re-reading all of Henry James in chronological order and finding him a little smug.’"

And at the same time publishers' desire to label the next bright new thing:

"Henrietta’s debut novel, I Am Dissatisfied with My Boyfriend, My Body and My Career, was due to be published by FSG later that year and was already being touted as a significant work, “Bridget Jones meets A Clockwork Orange”."

The author doesn't spare actors either:

"'Arjan has just been cast in a major new television series,’ said Rebecca. ‘He’s going to play a serial rapist who dismembers his victims afterwards and dines on their internal organs. So who knows where that will lead?’"

The author's dark humour extends to one part narrated by one of Maurice's victims now suffering from locked-in syndrome:

"‘Hello Edith,’ she said in a normal tone of voice as if we’d just run into each other on the street unexpectedly. ‘I brought some grapes. Shall I just leave them over here?’ Why on earth she brought grapes is a mystery to me. I wanted to scream I’m in a coma, you stupid fucking bitch, and I did scream it, in my head anyway."

Amidst all the fun, the novel has some important things to say about relationships and how one uses others, about the ownership of stories, how and where inspiration crosses a line into plagiarism, and the fuzzy boundary between fact and fiction.

"'What’s the most irritating question that a writer can be asked?’ 'I don’t know. Do you write by hand or on a computer?’ ‘No, it’s where do you get your ideas? And the answer it that no one knows where they come from and nobody should know. They evolve in thin air, they float down from some mysterious heaven and we reach out to grab one, to grasp it in our imaginations, and to make it our own. One writer might overhear a conversation in a café and a whole novel will build from that moment. Another might see an article in a newspaper and a plot will suggest itself immediately. Another might hear about an unpleasant incident that happened to a friend of a friend at a supermarket. So I took ideas from badly written stories that had been sent to me, unsolicited I might add, and turned them into something that was not only publishable but sold very well. What’s the problem with that?’
'You must remember, this is what a writer does. Uses his or her imagination. Tries to understand how it feels to be alive in a moment that never existed with a person who never lived, saying words that were never spoken aloud.’"

Indeed one brief early section is narrated by the one character too smart to be taken in by Maurice, "Gore" who is explicitly referenced to Gore Vidal - Boyne, presumably consciously, borrowing from Maurice's own play book by fictionalising a real-life author.

"‘Whenever a friend succeeds,’ said Theo, ‘a little something in me dies. That was Truman Capote, wasn’t it?’ 'No, that was Gore,’ I said."

And towards the novel's end, Maurice realises that he has the perfect inspiration for his final, masterwork, his own life, as long as he makes sure that legally it is presented as fiction:

"It wasn’t another person’s story at all. It was my own. Not that I intended to write a memoir. Certainly not. Fiction was my métier and fiction was my comforting home. Also, it wasn’t as if I could ever write a truthful autobiography. I would be vilified instantly and, one would assume, arrested. No, I couldn’t do anything as theatrical as that but what I could do was write a novel. All I’d ever needed was a story and, once I had that, I still believed that I was one of the best in the game."

That is until he meets his match and his own come uppance, although one he is oddly keen to embrace as a new form of literary success:

"For a brief time, I became the most famous writer in the world, which was enormously pleasing and everything I’d ever hoped for.

Some said that they admired how I’d blurred the lines between my life and my writing and that my career was the embodiment of a new type of fiction. They even wrote editorial pieces for the newspapers suggesting that I should be applauded, not shunned."

This isn't a particularly subtle novel, more one when the reader thinks "surely he isn't ... oh yes he is", but a wonderful satire of the obsession that can result from focusing on literary fame and The Prize.   Let's hope the real-life Booker judges get the joke and longlist it.

Recommended.   Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.
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Despite me being a big fan, I spent too much time reading this Boyne effort thinking it a mis-step, the nearest thing he could produce to a failure.  It certainly improved to provide a proper narrative ending, a much firmer and more satisfying resolution, and so on, but all the same – what comes before is too easy to dislike, or even find objectionable.  For one thing, while the man is perfectly allowed to write about homosexuality all he wants, I read this longing for an instance of functioning heterosexuality, and longing in vain.  It doesn't help that it only really has two main female characters, and one of them is practically the most evil character in Boyne's oeuvre (and I include Crippen in that).  There's also a strong case to say that before the cleverness (the full narrative arc, the false sense of foreshadowing you get throughout) proves itself, too much of the book's plot was done inherently more succinctly in an Ian McEwan short I read recently.  On reflection, having finished it all, I can say it was worth my while reading, but it certainly didn't seem the most engaging Boyne book, and at times the least realistic – do authors seriously worry about The Prize, as it's permanently said, or hold so much store by their tours and reading engagements?  And did this not come too quickly and rushed after this author's imperious last?  I still don't know a true failure from Boyne, but I liked this the least of his I have read.
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