The image of an animal's skull on the cover promised mystery and death. Add that to a recommendation by Val McDermid and I was quite happy to read Bauer's debut crime novel.
-- The idea: writing to a serial killer --
Bullied at school, ignored by teachers and overlooked at home, Steven Lamb is not enjoying his childhood. His mum, Lettie, is miserable and his Nan spends all day staring out of the living room window, waiting for his uncle to return home after twenty years spent missing. Uncle Billy is presumed dead, courtesy of local serial killer Arnold Avery. Steven feels sure that producing the bones of his long-dead uncle will somehow make life better; unfortunately, Avery has never even admitted to killing Billy, let alone revealed the location of the body. When digging on the moor reveals nothing but dead cows, Steven tries a new tactic: writing to his uncle's killer.
-- The result: letters from a child murderer --
Steven's innocent earnestness is contrasted with Avery's sly and manipulative nature in a story which becomes gradually darker. As Steven's life unfolds in realistic but saddening scenes he becomes an intensely sympathetic character. Simultaneously, Avery becomes a more threatening figure, especially when he realises just who he's writing to...
-- My thoughts: a gripping story --
Bauer creates an appealing character in Steven who does not seem to deserve the alternately brutal and passive responses he receives from other characters. I was interested in his plight from the beginning when Bauer reveals him digging doggedly on Exmoor in the pouring rain. After this atmospheric beginning, his life is gradually revealed in a way that accepts his situation without judging. The school bullies are barely individuated and, although Steven seeks to avoid them, they are really just another problem he has to deal with. The inevitable labelling of Billy's Nan as 'poor Mrs Peters' is established early on and feels both horrible and 'right' given the small town setting. The bullies are not evil; the town's whispers are not horrible; both situations just exist and Steven copes as best he can. I felt that he was a very realistic character as a result of this. His grotesque but innocent ambition to heal his family by presenting them with the bones of his uncle's corpse felt convincing and the whole 'set up' of the story felt very natural.
Similarly, Avery is quickly established as a deeply unappealing character. His conviction that a would-be victim was responsible for 'ruining everything' leads to an act of brutality that he is unmoved by. He does, however, learn to keep his thoughts inside. Bauer builds up evidence of Avery's cunning so that his later actions seem plausible, even inevitable. I found his character both awful and convincing. What makes the story so frustrating is the desire to warn Steven just what he is dealing with.
Although the story focuses primarily on Steven and Avery's characters, the third person narration means that Steven's mum and his Nan also become sympathetic figures. Lettie burns with injustice. Gloria simply waits and snipes. The focus on generational suffering is deliberate and acute. 'Blacklands' was inspired when Bauer saw the mother of a long-murdered child on TV and considered the impact of this sort of crime on families years after from the event. She was careful not to include specific references to the case that first led her to this topic as she did not wish to cause more distress to the family, or to write about a particular case. Fortunately, I have no personal experience in this area, but the disintegration of a family after such a deeply traumatic experience felt convincing.
The plot held together credibly throughout and the ending was dramatic and gave a sense of closure. I like endings where there is a definite sense of closure, so this appealed to me. I felt quite satisfied when I closed the book.
One of McDermid's comments was that this was a very 'atmospheric' book and I certainly agree. From the opening pages Exmoor is vividly evoked, as is the sheer violence of the weather Steven frequently faces there. I particularly liked this aspect of the book as I felt that I was able to visualise the places in the story.
-- Killer coincidence? --
Two aspects of the story have come in for criticism. One relates to an incident to do with the prison and seems unjustified as Bauer is able to recount a real-life incident with notable similarities. I find the other criticism far harder to dislodge. Towards the end of the story, Bauer sets up a completely unnecessary and (in my view) unjustified coincidence involving a minor character in the story. When I first read the relevant passage, I actually didn't really notice the coincidence: in fact, I was simply a little confused by the abrupt switch in perspective and detailed build-up. I don't think I actually noticed the coincidence until Bauer mentioned it during an author visit at my local library. It seems daft, then, that such a minor detail would in any way detract from my overall experience of the book...but it has. I feel that plausibility was sacrificed for a neat link and a cheap laugh in what was otherwise a serious crime novel. Bauer's defence is that coincidences happen all the time in real life, which is true, and yet...it irks me.
-- An adult novel? --
Something else that was mentioned during the book group session was the intended audience of the novel. When I was reading the book I felt quite strongly that it was a book for teens or YA readers. However, it has been marketed as an adult crime fiction novel. I do not feel that it is a criticism to say that this was a sentiment echoed by a few other members of the audience at the library session. (Many books for YA readers are superb - check out the Carnegie Award for examples.) Interestingly, Bauer herself agreed that she had felt it could be seen as a YA book, but said that her publishers had felt that it was too dark for younger readers. The themes are dark, certainly, but they are handled with a certain naivety and a distinct lack of gore or (as one reviewer put it "torture porn") and I would be happy to recommend this to YA readers.
-- Conclusions --
This is a chilling read which is atmospheric and gripping. It has sympathetic characters and an interesting central concept. Perhaps the second half of the book is a little predictable, but not in an 'oh, here we go...' way at all, more like an 'OMG I bet that - ' way. I enjoyed reading it and feel that it is suited to a wide audience as it is psychological horror rather than a gore-fest. One irksome coincidence aside, it was a good read. Normally I'd follow up a conclusion this good by stating that I intend to read the author's latest books - of which there are two, but, sadly, I hear that they aren't as good. Bauer has spent much of her career in screenwriting, not especially successfully, so it could be the case that she only has one decent book in her. Then again, she was delightful in person, so maybe I would be inspired to try another book on those grounds!
Considering I wasn't too sure what to expect from this book, it didn't take me long to get carried away in it and finish it before the week was over. It's seeming simplicity makes Black Lands a unique and engaging read, and whilst the ending left me a tad disappointed, it is one I would definitely recommend.
Prior to finding this in the trusty library, I'd never heard of Black Lands or its author, Belinda Bauer before. The blurb sounded quite different to other books I was looking at in the crime/thriller genre and the sticker on the front also caught my eye. I'm a sucker for small recommendations like that when I haven't heard of a book before, so the Specsavers TV Bookclub Best Read sponsored by C4 sticker helped give it a tad more credibility for me. There's also more praise on the cover : 'Original, unsettling and atmospheric, this is a debut that hits the ground running' (Val McDermid).
The front of the book reads : 'The boy wanted the truth... The killer wanted to play'. It sounded like a gritty murder mystery type novel, but this is rather different to the norm. We're introduced to a relatively close-knit range of characters throughout this book and are initially made aware that on the Exmoor moors there have been some unspeakable crimes against children committed at the hands of Arnold Avery. We're told how he lures a child to his car and how he proceeds to take away their young life.
Steven Lamb is the primary vehicle for the novel; a 12yr old boy who's gran has been forever changed by the disappearance of her young son years ago. Together with her daughter, Steven's mum, the three of them share a house along with his younger brother Davy. This disappearance was known to be a murder, but where Avery had buried the body had remained unknown; unknown except to the killer himself behind the bars of a prison cell.
Wanting life to resume as before this poor child's death, Steven dedicated years of his young life to the discovery of his child uncle's body. Using a trusty spade belonging to his other uncle, Jude, he sets himself the challenge of digging up half of the moors to try to find the remains of his grandmother's son, believing that things will be better once they know where he is and that he wont ever return home all these years later.
Knowing that this was a fool's game, after all, the police couldn't find the body so the hopes of a little boy with a single spade digging up miles and miles of land to find it are a billion to one, Steven tries a new tactic. He writes to Avery in prison (we can learn from the book cover) and the two of them play a cryptic game to and fro as Steven tries to discern the whereabouts of the little boys body.
The 346 pages over 42 chapters cover both Steven's search and the mind and actions of serial killer Arnold Avery. We learn much about the motivations of both and get to see the situation from both points of view even though the book isn't written in the first person. Relationships are also built and highlighted, such as that between Steven and his mother, uncle, and best friend Lewis. All of this detail and background flows smoothly as we gradually learn more throughout the book and it really helps to bring the atmosphere to life and increase our ability to empathise and envisage the situation.
I thought that the general concept of a little boy playing good cop for such a heartwarming reason, to repair his family, was original and very touching. It seems light a fool's game at first, but it becomes clear just how intelligent and dedicated this 12 year old Steven is and I found myself rooting for him until the end.
The book is set in quite an impoverished household and area which increases the general sense of dark undertones, struggles and evil that lurks around the moors because of the actions of such an evil being like Avery. Despite a dark atmosphere, which was crucial to making this a gripping read, it was very easy to read; chapters were just the right length, the general writing style flowed very well, characters were well developed and all in all, Bauer just make it a pleasure to get stuck into and not want to let go of.
This is definitely one I would recommend for a few different reasons: an excellent new author, it's beautifully written, there's both tragedy and heartwarming aspects to it, reading it is an easy pleasure to do and it's a bit different to the norm. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel and think others probably will be too :)
RRP £7.99, selling on Amazon for £4.79.
It was the cover that first grabbed me. I know they say you should never judge a book by it's cover, but I've done so on several occasions - I've been right on most of them and I was right on this one. The back cover made me even more intrigued, with it's short handwritten letter and the words "He was only twelve, he reasoned; he couldn't be expected to get stuff like writing to serial killers right the first time.".
The inside front cover sealed the deal for me, with it's description of 12 year old Steven digging holes on Exmoor in the search for the body of his uncle that he never knew, who had disappeared aged 11 and was assumed to have fallen victim to serial child killer Arnold Avery. Steven's nan isn't convinced her son is dead and she still waits for him to come home. Steven is trying to heal the cracks in the family that appeared long before he was born and decides to secretly write a letter to Arnold Avery in prison, this starts a dangerous cat & mouse game between the child and the killer.
Blacklands is Belinda Bauer's first novel and what a good job she's done with it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found it more and more gripping the closer I got to the end of the book (as the crease-marks on the back cover shows!).
I found it easy to sympathise and identify with the characters, all bar Arnold Avery anyway. Stephen is just a boy who wants to make his family happy again and his solution to it all is finding Uncle Billy's body. Stephen's nan never seems to be happy and spends a lot of time waiting by the window. She's waiting for Billy, but Billy isn't coming. Imagine how miserable it must be to spend your life waiting for somebody to come back, deep down knowing the truth? There's also Lewis, the annoying friend (yes, even best friends can be annoying!).
Avery is a creep. He makes your skin crawl, he really does.
Belinda Bauer has done such a good job of writing this book that it really feels like the story could have happened (the bodies buried on the moors certainly has). Belinda Bauer takes you into the minds of the characters, which can be quite disturbing at times, but it has to be. The subject of a child killer is not an easy one, but I felt that Belinda Bauer did it well.
I liked how the short letters that Stephen and Avery wrote each other were printed in handwriting (not a handwriting font, but actual scanned letters). I felt it added to the book and the imaginary feeling that it was actually happening.
I also thought that Belinda Bauer's style of writing was easy to read. Some crime-type books can be quite hard going, but despite Blacklands difficult subject, I found that I read the book with ease. The book is definitely a page turner too.
I really did enjoy reading this book and I'm so glad it jumped off the shelf at me in Marylebone Station in London back in February. If only I'd got around to reading it sooner! Still, I've read it now and it's certainly a book I'd recommend.
On a light-hearted note... My favourite quote from the book was "Uncle Jude? Did you know hedges are made by hedgehogs?"!
(Please note: This review is also posted on my website).
This debut novel by journalist and screenwriter Belinda Bauer is set on Exmoor, telling the story of a twelve year old boy called Steven who upon finding out about the murder of his Uncle Billy, becomes determined to find out where abouts Billy is buried as they never found his body.
Since the death of his uncle Billy 18 years ago, his family has not been quite the same, and the murder has had a profound and devastating effect on Stevens family. His grandmother has never gotten over the loss of her "favourite" child; his mother brings home a constant parade of "uncles" for Stephen in replacement of his dad but rarely takes notice of Steven himself. Steven becomes convinced that in finding the body of his uncle, he will return his family to normal. The only way to do that? To contact Arnold Avery; the man who was found guilty of his Uncles murder along with other children's deaths. A cat and mouse game pursues between a determined boy and a sick, bored and power-hungry killer. Who will come out on top?
12 year old detective...
Whilst reading this book, I couldn't help compare it with "Let the Right one in", the book I had just finished, as both books have a young boy as the main protagonist, and both boys are fairly downtrodden in their family life as well as being heavily bullied at school. (I've since read my third book in a row with a young boy as the protagonist which is just a little bit weird for me!) However, the similarities end there. I disliked Oskar from "Let the Right one in" whereas I felt that Bauer successfully created a likeable character in Steven, one that inspired sympathy and one that any reader can get behind during his quest for the truth. As well as being a strong character in terms of dealing with his situation of home and with the school bullies, Steven is intelligent - but not street smart - if he was street smart, there would likely be no believability to the story as he is only a twelve year old boy and also there would not be any story! Which leads me nicely on...
The main interest to the story is obviously what happened to Billy, as well as a bunch of other children who also disappeared around that time. As well as hearing the story from Stevens perspective, we also here from the killer, Arnold Avery as his narrative is weaved throughout Stevens chapters. Once again, Bauer has created a creepily interesting character in Avery; one who is both despicable but utterly fascinating.
Part of Avery's draw is his apparent lack of remorse; a true serial killer (as well as a paedophile) who believes completely in his own genius.
After making a silly mistake and getting himself caught, he has never admitted to the murder of Stevens Uncle Billy knowing that doing so would add to his sentence. After spending 18 years in prison already and being the model prisoner, Avery is just biding his time with just his memories to keep him entertained - that is, until Steven gets in touch and he discovers that Steven is just a boy and one that can be easily manipulated. The writing on Avery is stark, frank and shocking enough to have the required impact on me and contrasted perfectly with Stevens honest, naive desperation to get his family back to normal.
As much as reading about Avery sickened me, his thoughts and back-story was also the reason that kept me reading on.
Having said that, there is a point where a great story went to one that was a bit unbelievable. Although necessary to move the story on and to put Steven in danger (which was obvious from the word go) I felt that it wasn't entirely believable to have Avery out of prison. Young Steven is easily manipulated by an older intelligent psychopath, but it seems Avery is also able to play puppet master to those in this prison and this is where it got a bit sticky for me. Added to this, there is also a scene involving someone connected to Avery's past where Avery is shot at - I really didn't see the relevance to this section of the story at all, as it added nothing to the overall story. It seems from reviews that I have read that I am not the only one who felt this part of the story fell short of the books greatness overall, although It still wasn't enough for it to ruin it for me.
Although at times Avery's character and some of his story can be ever so slightly unbelievable, Steven remains true throughout the story. Although I've never been a twelve year old boy, I felt that this character was an accurate portrayal of a boy in this position, he is heartbreakingly naive in believing all would be well if he finds Billy's body but also there is that part of him that is doing it for himself, who wants the attention and love that he has been craving for years that he hasn't got from either his grandmother or his mother, and that is what makes him so endearing and believable.
Overall, this was an excellent debut. Although the story was superb by itself, it was the characterisation that really made this book stand out from the rest that is out there.
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer is the creepiest book i have ever read. It tells the story of 12 year old Steven Lamb and his quest to find the body of his Uncle Billy who was murdered when he was around Steven's age. Steven's Nan was left distraught, in a state of denial, by the murder of her son and everyday waits by the window for him to come home from school. Steven tires of randomly digging on the moor in search of his Uncles remains so he makes the ill fated decision to write a letter to the man who killed his Uncle and several other young children. This sparks a viscious game between and young boy and Arnnold Avery, a sadistically clever serial killer intent on luring Steven into a trap. As the story progresses, the plot gets thicker as Avery plots his escape from Prison with the sole aim of murdering Steven Lamb. I would definitely recommend this book, it is dark, creepy and gripping.
I bought this book from a charity shop, I had never heard of the book before. I bought the book for a few reasons, the price, it looked like a good read, and one of my favourite authors said " Original, unsettling and atmospheric, this is a debut that hits the ground running"
The book is about 12 years old Steven who's uncle was murdered before Steven was born, Steven's aim in life is to find his uncle's body and try to make his Nan happy again. So after digging on the moors with no luck, he decides to write to the serial killer who is in prison, the serial killer confirms that he killed Steven's Uncle, but won't tell him where the body is buried, so they begin a cat and mouse game of sending letters back and forth to each other. I won't tell you what happens as that would spoil the book for anyone who wants to read it.I felt when i was reading the book i could feel the familys pain and suffering from having a child murdered, the author told the story very well, but i do think the end could have been better, i felt the author was a bit unsure how to end it, as the book was originally ment to be about a relationship between Steven and his Grandmother.
I would read more books by this author, I'm not sure she would be at the top of my must have list, but is worth reading, it wasn't one of those " I must stay up all night and read" but I did want to keep reading it to see what happen. I did enjoy the book and if you like thrillers/crime books then it is worth a read.