Ladder to the Sky (Boyne)

A Ladder to the Sky 
John Boyne, 2018
Crown/Archetype Books
384 pp.

Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and hungry for fame.

The one thing he doesn’t have is talent—but he’s not about to let a detail like that stand in his way. After all, a would-be writer can find stories anywhere. They don’t need to be his own.
Working as a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988, Maurice engineers the perfect opportunity: a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann.

He quickly ingratiates himself with the powerful—but desperately lonely—older man, teasing out of Erich a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war. Perfect material for Maurice’s first novel.

Once Maurice has had a taste of literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in pursuit of that high.

Moving from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vidal, to Manhattan and London, Maurice hones his talent for deceit and manipulation, preying on the talented and vulnerable in his cold-blooded climb to the top. But the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall.
Sweeping across the late twentieth century, A Ladder to the Sky is a fascinating portrait of a relentlessly immoral man, a tour de force of storytelling, and the next great novel from an acclaimed literary virtuoso. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—April 30, 1971
Where—Dublin, Ireland
Education—Trinity College
Awards—Curtis Brown Award; Irish Book Awards: People's
  Choice of the Year
Currently—Dublin, Ireland

John Boyne is an Irish novelist, the author of 10 adult novels and five for younger readers. He is best known for his 2006 YA novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which sold 9 million copies and catapulted him to international fame. The book became a 2008 feature film. His novels are published in over 50 languages.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, where he still lives, Boyne studied English literature at Trinity College and later creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. While at UEA, he won the Curtis Brown Prize and years later, in 2015, received a UEA Honary Doctorate of Letters.

In 1993 the Sunday Tribune published Boyne's first short story; the story was subsequently shortlisted for a Hennessy Award. In addition to his novels, Boyne regularly reviews for The Irish Times. He has also served as judge for a number of literary awards: Hennessy Literary Awards, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Green Carnation Prize, and Scotiabank Giller Prize, for which he served as the 2015 jury chair.

Boyne's own list of awards list is impressive: Hennessy Literary Hall of Fame Award for the body of his work; three Irish Book Awards (Children's Book of the Year, People's Choice Book of the Year, and Short Story of the Year); Que Leer Award Novel of the Year (Spain); and Gustave Heineman Peace Prize (Germany). (Adapted from Wikipedia and the author's website. Retrieved 8/14/2017.)

Book Reviews
I’m embarrassed by how much I enjoyed John Boyne’s wicked new novel, A Ladder to the Sky. It’s an addictive Rubik’s Cube of vice that keeps turning up new patterns of depravity. By the time every facet clicks into place, the story feels utterly surprising yet completely inevitable.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Take Meg Wolitzer's novel (now also a film) called The Wife, about a brazen case of literary ghostwriting, and cross it with Patricia Highsmith's classic Ripley stories, about a suave psychopath, and you've got something of the crooked charisma of John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder to the Sky.… Maliciously witty, erudite and ingeniously constructed A Ladder to the Sky explores the cold outer limits of ambition.

A darkly funny novel that races like a beating heart.

Maurice Swift may not be much of a novelist, but he inhabits a literary tradition going to back to Patricia Highsmith. Boyne’s protagonist is Tom Ripley as literary climber.… Boyne’s novel is about high literature but has lower, juicier ambitions, at which it wildly succeeds.

A taut and gripping novel… as craftily written as Swift himself.

A Ladder to the Sky is clever, chilling and beautifully paced; a study of inner corrosion that Patricia Highsmith herself could not have done better.… wickedly astute.
Times (UK)

Maurice Swift is a literary Tom Ripley.… [A] first-class page turner.
Guardian (UK)

A deliciously dark tale of ambition, seduction and literary theft . . . compelling and terrifying . . . powerful and intensely unsettling …in Maurice Swift, Boyne has given us an unforgettable protagonist, dangerous and irresistible in equal measure. The result is an ingeniously conceived novel that confirms Boyne as one of the most assured writers of his generation.
Observer (UK)

Deliciously venomous.… A Ladder to the Sky is an entertaining, if deeply cynical portrait of the literary world.

(Starred review) [E]evocative…. Boyne’s fast-paced, white-knuckle plot, accompanied by delightfully sardonic commentary on the ego, insecurities, and pitfalls of those involved in the literary world, makes for a truly engrossing experience.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Boyne expertly explores notions of originality and authorship through multiple first-person accounts of the despicable Swift. As a result, his latest novel is absorbing, horrifying, and recommended.
Library Journal

Well-crafted.…The novel unfolds in an extremely layered manner, but what Swift’s story slowly reveals says much about publishing, pride, deceit, and plagiarism—and worse, much worse.

(Starred review) An all-consuming ambition to be a successful writer drives a young man down unusual paths to literary acclaim in this compelling character study…. Boyne's singular villain and well-sustained tension merit a good audience.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for A LADDER TO THE SKY ... then take off on your own:

1. What do you think of Maurice—how would you describe him? What is his underlying motivation, the force (or is it a need) that drives him? Have you ever met anyone with Maurice's qualities?

2. John Boyne cleverly hides the intentions behind Maurice's questioning of Erich about his years under the Nazis. At what point did you begin to suspect Maurice's duplicity?

3. Once he realizes what Maurice has done to him, Erich says, "I had, quite literally, been the author of my own misfortune." Do you think he's right? Is Erich, ultimately, the one responsible?

4. Follow-up to Question 3: Maurice maintains that he is not exploiting anyone; he believes that everyone gets what they want. What do you think: is Maurice's assessment clear-eyed, cynical, the mark of a realist … or a sociopath?

5. Gore Vidal is impervious to Maurice's charms; in fact, he sees through Maurice, realizing he's playing a game. What does Vidal see in Maurice that others do not?

6. Vidal, considers his visiting author friend "a hack with a modicum of talent." What do you make of his observation that the writer took care "never to offend the middle-aged ladies and closeted homosexuals who made up the bulk of his readership. His books were efficiently written but so painfully innocuous that even President Reagan had taken one on holiday"? Ouch! In fact, so many ouches in those two sentences. Care to critique them?

7. Boyne takes satirical aim at the literary world. What and/or whom specifically does he satirize—what is he attempting to reveal to his readers?

8. How would you describe Edith Camberley? What about the couple's marriage? In what way does Edith's own success affect Maurice? Edith has seen her husband close-up, yet she seems blind to his cruelty. What is it about her that makes her so malleable under his control?

9. Follow-up to Question 8: The author is masterful in building up a sense of menace within the marriage. How did you react to Maurice's plotting? Would "terrified" be a good word?

10. As you read A Ladder to the Sky, did you find yourself liking Maurice—almost against your will? If so, why?

11. Were you ready for the novel's twist? Were you surprised or did you see it coming (maybe a little of both)?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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