Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2013

There are a lot of ‘best books of 2013’ posts circulating at the moment, so I thought I’d share with you the books I have enjoyed this year, not those necessarily published this year… although I am not selecting those that come out early next year (even though I have read them…) Confused? Ok, in no particular order – I really liked these:

Merry Christmas!

Dodger by James Benmore #review

Although I had heard of this book via a mailing from The Fiction Desk, it wasn’t until it was recommended to me by my crime-loving chef mate, Tony Tobin that my ears pricked up… Tony and I have similar tastes in books and he told me that this one was a corker… he also gave it to me as a gift when I visited him his restaurant after finishing the first draft of my own first novel, so it has a bit of sentimental value too (thanks Tony!)

Blurb: After six years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, that irrepressible thief, the Artful Dodger, arrives back in London intent on returning to his old life and old ways – only to find himself in a changed city with his father-figure Fagin hanged, his family of brother thieves dispersed and police on every corner. Tasked to find a hidden jewel, Dodger leaves no stone unturned, no pocket unpicked as he tracks down former friends, flames and enemies, and uncovers a dark secret in his old life. From the rooftops to the sewers of Dickensian London, Dodger must confront a painful past and a dangerous present if he’s to have any chance of living to see a future…

I admit it was with slight trepidation that I started to read. I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, and I’m not even sure I have read Oliver Twist (unless it was at school, a long time ago), but of course I know it from the many film and TV adaptations – and of course I was interested in what had become of the Dickensian gang.

But it didn’t take long for the doubts to disappear and for the book to become completely unputdownable. Benmore has done a lot of research for this book (see here for inspirations) and it really paid off. 19th century London is evocatively portrayed – the sights, smells and the people coming alive on the page and drawing you in. The characterisation is just fantastic. To take on someone else’s creation(s) is not an easy task – there is the responsibility of staying true to the the creator, but also the desire to lead them into new situations and see how they react.

Dodger is back from the penal colony with a slightly suspicious sounding pardon from the Governor of Australia, with an aboriginal man called Warrigal in tow, who he tells everyone is his valet called Peter Cole (who causes more than a few raised eyebrows in 1850s London). The pair have money, and a mission, and yet they are barely off the boat when Dodger is up to his old tricks, trying to charm a young lady out of her expensive engagement ring, and drawing unwanted attention from a policeman from the new breed of ‘Peelers’ who are trying to clean up London’s underworld.

Their mission – to find a mysterious jewel – brings him back into the arms of his old cronies, yet nothing is as it was before – where Dodger was ‘top sawyer’ – the king of the pickpockets. Jem is in charge now, and he’s moved on to burglary… with murderous consequences.

The plot twists and turns brilliantly, with many well thought out surprises along the way; and the ending is quite unexpected, yet startlingly obvious in a way that makes you want to read it again immediately to pick up all the clues.

Dodger himself is drawn brilliantly. The language is full of humour and colour, and at times I could hear him talking in my head, sounding a bit like Russell Brand… which was no bad thing 🙂 The cheeky charm is something that transcends time, and Dodger’s world is one that you can’t help but be absorbed into.

I can’t wait to find out what he gets up to next.

The Return of the Artful Dodger

James Benmore
James Benmore

As I revealed recently on my post about my reading habits, I often find myself reading several books at once… currently, one of these is Dodger by James Benmore – where we find Benmore’s incarnation of Dickens’ Artful Dodger back in London after his time in the Australian penal colony, on a special pardon with a secret mission to carry out…

I’m really enjoying the book so far and I’ll be posting a review soon, but in the meantime, I am very pleased to have a lovely guest post from the author on who influences his writing. Take it away, James…

Who influences your writing?

About a month ago I was invited to a book club evening where my own novel Dodger was being discussed. Obviously I was thrilled to have been asked because I’ve not been a published author for very long so its still a rare pleasure to meet anyone who has read it through until the end let alone a whole roomful of them. That said, I was still a bit perturbed about the whole thing because we writers are a sensitive, solitary bunch who are unused to sitting still while people tell us what they think of our stuff even if they are all being very nice about it. So I went along to meet the group excited about the occasion but also preparing myself for a bloody good squirm.

Anyway, the whole evening turned out to be very painless, pleasurable and Prosecco-sodden so I don’t know what I was worrying about really. I should admit, in the interests of transparency, that some of the members of this particular group are friends of mine so I sort of knew that they weren’t going to start booing and throwing rotten eggs at me – at least not about the book. Instead, they just told me what they enjoyed – (sweet of them)neglected to tell me what they didn’t like – (even more sweet!)and asked me for a short reading (with the emphasis placed upon short.)

At one point though there was a question and answer session for which I was completely unprepared. As I say, I’ve not been at this author game for very long and haven’t done many interviews so I don’t have a stock of ready-made answers for the simple perennials that your more seasoned scribes might have accumulated over the years. And so, with two empty bottles of the Prosecco already in the bin, I answered each question in a rambling, unfocused manner until whoever had asked it politely nodded and changed the subject.

One of the many questions that I recall failing to answer in a satisfactory manner was the old favourite – “who influenced you?” That should have been an easy under-arm throw for me – considering that Dodger continues the story of a famous Dickensian character – but still my swing was off. I remember having largesse enough to credit Charles Dickens which I’m sure was a great comfort to his omni-present ghost but, beyond that, I can’t remember if I had any interesting answers to hand. And so, now that I’ve given it a bit more sober thought, I have decided that I would use this post to list just a few of the many novels that had an influence on Dodger and its upcoming sequel Dodger of the Dials.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

It’s hard to think of a more iconic and brilliant array of seedy underworld characters than the criminal contingent of Oliver Twist. Even before I had read the book I had seen countless adaptations and so the whole rotten gang loomed as large to me as if they were from some disreputable branch of my own family. Burglar Bill and Fagin the fence dominate this story of an innocent boy lost in the city like two dark parent figures and the whole tale hinges on whether or not they will seize control of the eponymous orphan’s soul. And yet for me the real star of the book is Jack Dawkins, the street-wise Artful Dodger, who instigates the London drama by plucking Oliver from the cold steps of the pavement and delivering him up to his criminal master. Everything about Dodger captures the imagination. His flash name and appearance, his amusing manner of speech, his sheer craftiness and skill at the tail-coat pocket. Oliver Twist isn’t actually my favourite Dickens novel – that would be the superb Great Expectations – but young Artful is far and away my favourite Dickens character.

But one of the things I found to be a little disappointing when finally I read the novel was that the Dodger isn’t as central to the books plot as the adaptations had led me to believe. He barely registers in the final act having been transported to Australia for stealing a silver snuff-box long before the climax. So Dodger couldn’t have known about Nancy’s betrayal, Bill’s bloody vengeance or Fagin’s hanging. One of the most famous characters from Oliver Twist, it occurred to me, doesn’t even know how Oliver Twist ends.

This thought was the seed that inspired Dodger. Long before I had any sort of plot developed, or had even decided if I wanted to write a historical novel, I found myself imagining the scene when he returns to London some years later and learns about the horrible fate that befell his criminal family after his departure. I imagined that if he were to narrate the story then Oliver would be presented not as his usual angelic self but as rather a more destructive and insidious presence – a boy who betrays his own class so that he could move upwards in society.  In Dodger’s eyes Oliver is the real villain of the piece and I relished the chance to explore this warped perspective.

But although Oliver Twist was the primary influence on both books – and scarcely a page of either was written without me referring to the Dickens classic – it was not the only novel that shaped the way that the book was written.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The plot of Dodger – which actually came to me quite late into the planning stages – revolves around a missing Indian jewel called the Jakkapoor stone that has been hidden somewhere deep inside London that Dodger needs to locate. This fictional jewel was originally looted many years earlier in the aftermath of the real-life siege of Seringapatam by an officer in the British East India Company from an ancient temple and is said to be cursed.

Fans of the nineteenth century sensation novel will recognise this plot set-up from the prologue of one of English literatures earliest detective novels The Moonstone written in 1868 by Wilkie Collins. Collins was a friend of Dickens and also my second favourite novelist of that period. His work is surprisingly modern, fast-paced, funny and suspenseful and these were exactly the qualities that I hoped that Dodger would have. So The Moonstone was a perfect book to pilfer from although the plots of both unfold in very different ways and reveal contrasting secrets at their centres.

Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth

This 1839 historical crime saga was based upon the exploits of the real life C18th criminal Jack Sheppard and was serialised in Bentleys Miscellany, the same monthly magazine in which Oliver Twist appeared. The two stories ran at the same time as each other so would have been linked in the public mind and there is evidence to suggest that Sheppard might have even been more popular than Twist in many circles. Because they both featured crooks, murderers and scenes of condemned men awaiting their executions, they were labelled with the term Newgate Novels.

Dickens, however, hated the genre association because works such as Jack Sheppard and the similarly themed Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton were clumsily written and did not enjoy a respectable reputation. They were seen as controversial and scandalous because they glamourised criminality and Dickens felt – rightly – that Oliver Twist was much more than that. But Jack Sheppard still is a rollicking and irreverent read despite being the low-brow twin of Twist and it always occurred to me that a Jack Dawkins book would have a lot in common with it. The plot of Dodger of the Dials owes as much to this book as Dodger owes to The Moonstone.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This might seem a peculiar novel to credit with influencing Dodger because its a science-fiction classic rather a Victorian tale. But I remember reaching for it on the day that I began to write the first page four years ago because I wanted to soak up the unrepentant voice of teenage rebellion that we hear from the narrator Alex. The first chapter of Dodger shows Jack and his young gang prowling the streets of Covent Garden looking for pickings and getting into trouble while employing the slang of his day so although the events of both books are worlds away from each other there is a sort of echo. I called one of the boys Georgie after one of the Droog’s and the thickest member of the Dawkins gang – the moronic Horrie Belltower – was very much inspired by the aptly-named Dim. 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I read this wonderful novel a few years before I wrote Dodger and although I don’t think it has any direct influence over the story I know that Waters was a big inspiration when I was first considering making a go of it as a novelist. Until Fingersmith I don’t think I had any intention of writing a historical novel and imagined myself writing something more contemporary. But I was so taken with how brilliantly she had created her own vision of Victorian England that when I eventually struck upon the idea of writing Dodger I was perhaps a bit keener to take the plunge into the nineteenth century than I would have been otherwise. I also loved her equally impressive previous novel Affinity. 

The Observations by Jane Harris

Another novel that I read soon before I began Dodger was this terrific historical piece set in 1863 Scotland which is told by a 15 year old Irish maid called Bessy. I had read a review of this book which had praised the use of an archaic and lower-class dialect and, because I knew I wanted Jack Dawkins to speak in his particular cockney voice, I wanted to see how successful Harris had been with her own unlikely narrator. Looking back on that early stage in my novels development there was a chance that if I had read The Observations and hated the way it was written then I would have considered abandoning my plan to write the book in the first-person and therefore perhaps the whole book itself. But Bessy turned out to be such a lively and compelling narrator that she only strengthened my resolve to let Jack Dawkins tell his own story himself.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill

Finally I have to give credit to a writer I have loved ever since I noticed his name recurring on all the best stories in the weekly sci-fi comic 2000 AD when I was a child. There are few living writers I admire more than Alan Moore and this graphic novel – in which a number of characters from different Victorian novels all interact as some sort of literary Justice League – gave me the confidence to not just to try writing the further adventures of a famous fictional creation but also to have him brush shoulders with characters from other Charles Dickens novels. Jack Dawkins steals from the pockets of a number of Dickensian cameos throughout Dodger, including Mr Pickwick, Betsey Trotwood and a few others, and I’m not sure I would have been so bold to throw those characters into the mix without the League’s precedent. Moore’s irreverent attitude towards the characters he was playing with in his series assured me that what I was doing with the Artful Dodger was not actually illegal and that the book police wouldn’t come and arrest me for crimes against literary posterity if I was eventually lucky enough to get published.

So those are just a small collection of the countless novels that helped me inspire me to write my own effort. Because Dodger is so directly about a character from Oliver Twist it can be easy for me to forget that there were many other novels that helped to forge it and this exercise of writing a list of just six more has been very helpful in reminding me how indebted I am to all the many great writers I have enjoyed over the years. And if I’m ever lucky enough to be invited to a book group again in the future I hope to have slightly more interesting answers ready to the question of  “who influenced you?”

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James Benmore has written two novels based upon the continuing exploits of the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. The first, Dodger, is available to buy in hardback and ebook now, while the second, Dodger of the Dials,  will be released in April 2014. They are both published by Heron books, an imprint of Quercus.

His short story `Jaggers & Crown’ was published by The Fiction Desk in 2011 and he is also currently writer in residence at Gad’s Hill School, the former home of Charles Dickens.

You can find James on twitter.