Reviews: Winged with Death
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A podcast and interview with John Baker by Sarah Walters of the Yorkshire Post, mainly concerned with the writing of Winged with Death: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/outloud/Winged-with-Death–John.5071773.jp
I finished this last night and thought it was very, very good. Books that make you think are often dense and hard to read. This was compulsive and thought-provoking at the same time. You did Stephen and Debbie SO well. Thanks for a great reading experience. I ended up breathless as if I’d just danced a tango.
Ann Cleeves, writer.
The novel opens with a near penniless Frederick Boyle landing in this heaving nest of intrigue and the prose is a dance in itself, weaving through the hideously censured world of Uruguay in the 70’s. The dance fascinated me, I learned a lot as Frederick Boyle evolves into Ramon Bolio and works his way through the process of becoming a Milonguero – a master of the dance.
Kate Bousfield (The Inner Minx), writer
. . . a literary crime novel that links the armed radicalism of the 1970s with a protagonist’s complex situation in the present, to disturbing effect. In Baker’s novel, the past is Montevideo, where urban guerillas confront a grim military dictatorship. The present is the disappearance of a teenage girl in York. The prose is colourful and precise, sometimes almost clipped, and the tensions wind to induce in the reader a state of mind analogous to that of the narrator and create a novel whose end you don’t want to reach, but must.
Ken MacLeod (The Early Days of a Better Nation), writer
Winged with death is a very interesting and thought-provoking read. I think it’s a great book – really, really good – some brilliant writing.
This book is something altogether different. Winged with Death 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.
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 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.
and later . . . My Mum just read your book too (just finished yesterday…too late for my post). She says there’s far too much sex in it (how I laughed!). You might want to put something about that on the cover for the reprint though. Or not.
Rachel Fox (More About the Song), poet and blogger
Winged with Death is an intensely readable and very rewarding piece of work from a polished writer with a worldview that I find fascinating.
Martin Edwards (Do You Write Under Your Own Name?), writer and novelist
I loved the book. It’s a damn good read that manages that most necessary but elusive (and paradoxical) combination of elements, fast action and pause for thought.
Linking the two situations (York and Montevideo) is a claustrophobic sense of the fragility of our existence within any context and the fervent energy whereby we try to establish and maintain a sense of self and identity. And underpinning both theme and narrative in both sections is the primal force of dance in the form of the tango.
John Baker’s voice is a clear and distinctive one and Winged With Death is a novel of great power and originality.
Dick Jones (The Patteran Pages), poet and musician
I just wanted to start on in again straight away to see how he did it. With some writers it’s not so much the narrative journey that matters – though you can never afford to ignore it – as, metaphorically, the trip, the walk, the bike ride, the stuff seen from train and bus windows. You feel you’re in good interesting company.
The aftermath of the kidnapping of the American and the flight from Montevideo is pure Hemingway. Which is good in my book. Like the journey across the lake in ‘Farewell to arms’ you know they make it OK – this is a memoir – but at the time of reading you’re never sure. This is writing. There are passages of great quietude in amongst the angst and drama. A fundamental decency comes through even as it is spelled out that any definition of humanity has to include what some would wish to call inhumanity. All the big questions are addressed here. And time – timing, being so much older then, contingency, how so much that’s important happens because things have fallen like dice – is at play throughout.
It’s a brave piece of writing and a bravura performance.
There’s a lot of poetry in there too and, for want of a better word, philosophy, but nobody’s a vehicle. I may read it again, later on, which is something I’ve never thought with McEwan or Faulks.
I like this book a lot.
For its moments of stillness, and the little stuff like, on page 282: “I was crying a moment ago, which, as Charles Darwin once observed, is a puzzle.” Which is actually big stuff – the thing about being human. Butterflies can still be “ballerinas of expectation” in this ultimately tragic tale.
Dave Quayle Lillabullero, blogger and librarian
I found Frederick as an older man reflecting back on Frederick as a young man beguiling and wise – the solipsism and ruthlessness of youth. I remember again the line in which he steals Candide from the older dancer and he says something about breaking an old man’s heart – not realising, but if he had, he wouldn’t have cared.
Also you capture how blurred things are for so much of the time – what one should do morally and how. But Frederick seems to come to the truth of it in Uruguay in a way in which he refuses to himself in York.
I did like all the dance, the life and death of it, especially when you let us see him dancing. And I loved your Montevideo, frightening and other though it remained. It seemed to me to be a novel absolutely about the intimacy between life and death – tangoesque – and very disquieting when you put the violence and the dance in the heart of the man telling his story.
Fiona Shaw (Tell It To The Bees), Novelist
From Baker’s capable pen, the movements of the dance are transliterated into a language which describes and even transcends the emotions it symbolizes.
Scenes which alternate between Montevideo and York simulate the elegance and the teasing nature of the tango. Baker in this, as in all his work, investigates the mysteries of life and how to live it – if not well, then fully, and with heart. And at its heart, Winged With Death is a mystery; one that will keep you guessing until the final terrible moments of the denouement.
John Baker writes books that do more than just fill a few pleasant hours: they have depth and substance. His novels are about what it means to be human, the mistakes we make, the nature of good and evil, and the often blurred line between the two.
Margaret Murphy, (Crime Time), Novelist
I loved Winged with Death. The novel’s fantastic; it is riveting and the language is beautiful and seductive. In John Baker’s thought-provoking, elegant new novel, Winged With Death, the past leads the present in an unstoppable tango.
Winged With Death resonates with time, demonstrating honestly how: “Each moment contains all that has gone before it, and each moment contains all that will follow.”
Kathleen Maher, (NewCritics), Writer
Winged With Death is extraordinary. With a narrative that weaves between Uruguay in the 70s, the present day and the narrator’s childhood, it takes real craft to hold the clarity of the timeline, maintain the disparate threads, mesh them together seamlessly and ensure the reader is always enthralled but never confused.
Let me come clean here. The scenes set in the brutal dictatorship in Uruguay literally took my breath away. The resonances with my personal experiences as recorded in the Revo Blog were so acute they caused me physical pain.
Talk about a story demanding to be written … I’m so impressed by the way he captures the essence of the place and time and also the ex-pat experience – belonging everywhere and nowhere. The descriptions and the atmosphere of fear he creates have so many resonances for me.
He’s quite simply a very good writer. I’m telling you now, it’s a mighty fine book …
Debi Alper, (Debi Alper), Author of contemporary crime thrillers
The day I received Winged With Death I was on my way out, and I literally stumbled upon the package that contained it. I took it with me because I didn’t have time to go back upstairs and opened it on the train into town. The first impression was a very positive one: the cover appealed to my addiction for comic book aesthetics: Andrew Foley’s illustration of the sharply-edged, burtonesque, tango-dancing, nearly-skeletal couple, in combination with the coated matte cardboard of the covers and the heavy white paper of its pages pleased my senses. I thought “I’ll have to find time to read this,” but as I turned its first pages I found myself immediately absorbed into a fictional universe that opened space and time between York and Montevideo, the past and the present, and when I looked up 25 pages later we were already at my destination and it was time to leave the train.
This novel is a page-turner. This is a novel that would interest a wide array of readers of different backgrounds and aesthetic or literary preferences. It is accessible, clear and direct, but it is in no way “easy” or banal.
What is it about, then? I suppose Winged With Death is about many different things that can be understood in many different ways. Is that vague enough? Well, trust me, this is a thriller, a “crime” novel, a political novel, a romantic novel, a philosophical novel, a postcolonial novel.
Winged With Death is more than just “a thriller.” Successfully avoiding the exotization of the South American Other, the novel is a seductive, intelligent treatise on the troubled, mysterious nature of identity, of the life-or-death duel-like tango of love, of the melancholy of exile and the tragedy of dictatorship, and of writing as a detectivesque, personal journey of self-discovery.
Ernesto Priego, Never Neutral, Poet, essayist and translator
Baker captures beautifully the danger and exoticism of Montevideo and young love in a strange climate.
A slow paced, reflective novel that yet builds an effective sense of tension and is rich with meditations on time, denial, revolution and fear; as well as with a seductive delight in the sensuousness and anger of the most famous dance of them all.
Stephen Lewis, (Yorkshire Evening Press),
I tend to avoid the genre wars and to avoid the mention of “literary”, but for me, this novel was more of the literary in nature, but with a mystery in one strand of the story. It is rich with the description of life in a country rife with resistance and revolution, and it evokes the immense tension of the situation. It pursues both the directly visceral and the intellectual (sometimes venturing into the realms of philosophy) in its prose.
John Baker has written a good, evocative and also provocative novel with Winged with Death.
Congratulations on a fine novel.
Rhian Davies, (It’s a Crime! (or a mystery. . .), reader and blogger
Winged with Death is a work of literary fiction without a doubt. It’s clearly a labour of love too.
The book kept my attention which considering the fact I’m not interested in the tango, politics or South America was something of an achievement. In a recent interview John Baker has said: “What the reader is waiting for from a text is the stillness, the silence within it.” This is very similar to a line in his book: “The tango, dance altogether, is a yearning for stillness, an itch for stillness.” Both of these comments are thought-provoking. This is what kept me going though this book. There were several moments where I simply had to give pause for thought. And, having finished the thing a good week ago, I find myself still thinking about it.
A thinking man’s summer read.
Jim Murdoch, (The Truth About Lies), poet, writer and blogger
This is a gripping novel, for me in more ways than one. While both stories in themselves are gripping, I found the structure and its implications, gripping: the idea that stories vie with each other for significance and as the repositories of reality or truth.
Winged with Death is fascinating, and very exciting.
Elizabaeth Baines, (Elizabeth Baines), short-story writer, novelist and playwright
Go to the nearest bookshop buy a copy (of Winged with Death) and read it.
Winged with Death is a highly readable yarn, a story of pace, light and shadow. Full of people not only recognisable but real in ways that finds breath held as you watch their lives unfold. Taken as ‘just’ a story this is good, it makes you turn the page then the next and the next without being formulaic.
On second and further reading I expect to find more and suspect I will not be disappointed, which is another reason to recommend reading it and underlining my discovered truth about this book, it’s good, very good writing that technically achieves something difficult without the reader ever being aware of that until they finally close the book and consider just where the author has taken them both in heart and mind.
As I closed my eyes to digest the final chapter, André Breton held up a note in my brain which, for me, is what Winged with Death expresses so eloquently, skilfully and with page turning impetus. Yes, the descriptions of obsession to a cause, to the dance, to something called freedom, of passion torture and pain are all in this book but it is something else I found that leads me easily to say, read it!
Any novel I read and can say I enjoy has to be robust enough for me to crawl between the lines as well as rest easy on top of them. I don’t read novels to be purely entertained I can watch the dogs playing in the garden for that. I read novels to learn about myself, where better than in the mirrors held up by creative minds with skills and bravery enough to share their words, which allow me to hear the kiss as words connect and understand with Breton “It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere”
Daisy-Winifred, (Asynchronous Process), a blogger, a gardener, a writer and an artist craftswoman creating objects for both decoration and use.
Writer John Baker’s new novel Winged with Death is a novel about time and tango and revolution, and it’s currently enjoying an ingenious extended launch, cyberspace-hopping through blogsites worldwide and collecting appreciative reviews along the way. Today is my turn to welcome this gripping book and its enterprising author.
The first thing that impressed me about this book is the fluency of the writer’s voice. The story is narrated by Frederick Boyle, aka Ramon Bolio, who establishes a dual time-zone from the outset. As an older man living in England now, he looks back to the journey of the boy he once was, jumping ship in Uruguay and finding a new name and a new life. Gripping stuff.
Really powerful & appalling & tragic.
Crysse Morrison, (A Writer’s Life), a blogger, a teacher and a writer.
Winged with Death is moving and powerful. There’s a really elegant narrative at work here. Winged with Death takes on important political issues. It is also hugely entertaining. The book’s a departure for John Baker in terms of the story he sets out to tell, but like all his books, it’s finely written and so smart about how we live and love. I liked it very much.
Lily Hamrick, (Bloglily), a blogger, a lawyer and a writer.
I did truly enjoy reading the book; I read it quickly and avidly. It is a good story, exceptionally well told.
Winged with Death is a fine novel, and if it is intended to be a genre mystery story, it fails. Because this is pure high quality literary fiction, with the best instincts of story-telling on display. It is beautifully written, clearly the hand of a writer in full command of his craft, with the ability to create an atmosphere, a sense of place, so vital and distinct that a reader ought to be surprised to glance up from the page and realize that he is not in a house in York, or a rundown hostel in Montevideo, or in a military murderer’s garden villa (and his wife’s bedroom).
For those of you who like thinking about things like this, Baker uses a first-person narrator’s voice to mingle the past and the present, with the daily working on his memoir – where the past is revealed – in counterpoint with the events of his daily life in the present. This is the style of writing I happen to prefer: modular story telling as opposed to linear or chronological. It is also how I work, so I fell quickly into the natural rhythm of the narrator’s voice.
I suppose Baker must have been to Montevideo, because he recreates its atmosphere, its scene, its life with too much depth of feeling to have made it up from guide books and maps; if he did, I salute his astonishing imagination. I was in Montevideo just a few weeks ago, so for me, the resonance of his writing about the place rang utterly true. York, I don’t know … rather, I didn’t know. Although now I feel like I was there last weekend. I also happen to be living in the other capital of tango – Buenos Aires – and Baker’s use of tango as a metaphor for how one lives within the moment was precisely the right image to underpin this story.
The first and maybe still the best compliment I can offer a writer about his or her book is that I finished it. When I was young and time was infinite, I would sometimes continue reading books that had not absolutely engrossed me from the start. Now, life is monstrously finite, and with it time, and I, like most of the New York editors I know, read maybe one page, sometimes up to ten or so, and by then I know if I want to offer that story any more of the remaining hours of my life. John Baker writes like Lays potato chips (from the old TV ads for the product), that is, nobody can read just one page.
Donigan Merritt: Random Literary Blogging, novelist.
The tango is a dance of intrigue and passion. It is more than putting together a series of steps; it is a manifestation of life, full of longing and lust and even cruelty. Reading Winged with Death is like dancing a long and intricate version of the tango-it moves forward and back, provides hope of love even while lingering in the grief of parting.
The book is beautifully written, almost like a long poem with elegant paeans to the tango. Baker masterfully connects the dance and all of its nuances to the rhythms of the narrative.
Maddy Van Hertbruggen, (4MA), fiction reviewer.
I think Winged with Death is an achingly good book. At times simply beautiful. The descriptions and ruminations on the passage of time chocked me with emotion. There’s a sense of depth there, a real sense of deep and leviathan-like mystery – but not the mystery of the crime novel; more the true dictionary definition, of vast questions, relating to who we are, and what we are, and all those other things we hurt our heads and strain our hearts with.
Mark Patrick Lynch
Have read John Baker’s wonderful Winged With Death. Highly recommended: profound, tragic and about dancing! Perfect.
232Penelope, (Jenny Wiltshire), Writer, dancer, therapist with the first Twitter review.
Although I haven’t been to Montevideo, I have as you know experienced something of the flavour of the region, and you definitely succeeded in transporting me to a very believable dark, dirty and dangerous Latin American city. I loved all the descriptions of the tango and tango people, which were wonderful representations of things I have seen first hand and read about or seen on film. I think anyone who read this book couldn’t help but be captivated by such an exotic tale and uplifted by the intellectual challenges it raises.
Will Swales, dancer.
Winged With Death contains some of his best writing to date and is without doubt one of the finest written works I have read in a very long time.
John Baker’s novel is suffused with existentialist concepts: attachment, nothingness, the instability of the human being. His style owes more perhaps to Camus’ essays on Algeria than it does to the classic English novel. His prose achieves the almost impossible task of being as plot-driven as a thriller yet steeped in philosophy; an adventure story yet a sustained reflection on how to live life more fully. It is beautifully written, a tango of thought and action, its true power not apparent at first sight. It is imbued with a deep sense of mystery: not just the mystery of where the disappeared have gone, but the mystery of what connects an individual to be one person through time.
When I read this novel I was in the enjoyable position of knowing nothing about the author or his previous work, and resolved to keep things that way until I finished. ‘One of Britain’s most talented crime writers,’ declares a blurb on the back. Delete the word ‘crime’ and it hits the mark. This novel deserves a place in every backpacker’s pocket and on every thinking man’s bookshelf.
Reviewed in Dreamcatcher by Aiden O’Reilly