Believe No One opens with an Oklahoma farmer dragging a storm-felled cottonwood out of one of his ponds. What Oklahomans call a ‘pond’, most Brits was call a sizeable lake, and this theme of familiarity and difference – two nations divided by a common language – sets the scene for the rest of the novel. Nick Fennimore and Kate Simms are a long way from home. But that’s one of the attractions of basing novels around a forensic consultant – he can go wherever the work takes him.
We travelled to America’s Midwest to research the novel in 2012. I say ‘we’ because the A.D. Garrett novels are written by me – novelist, Margaret Murphy – with insights and advice from forensic scientist, Prof. Dave Barclay. Right from the off, I knew that the trip was a winner: our downtown hotel was minutes from Tulsa PD and the impressive BOK stadium, yet just five minutes’ walk in the other direction on Route 66 was a row of two-room shacks. Contrast is good in fiction.
We had an outline – Fennimore and Simms drawn into investigating a possible series of abduction-murders along Interstate 44 – and a modus operandum that would set your teeth on edge. I-44 runs from Whichita Falls, Texas, across Oklahoma, clear to St Louis, Missouri and the Illinois state line - about as far as Land’s End to John o’ Groats. We hoped that the distance, and crossing state lines, would enable our fictional killer to remain at large for a long while – was that feasible? Not feasible, probable, we were told. Oklahoma’s real life I-40 killer confessed to a dozen murders when he was finally caught in 2009, and on the second day of our trip, police released new information on Missouri’s I-70 killer – a full twenty years after the killings. He remains at large today. Truckers are top of the list of suspects: easy to abduct a victim in one state, murder her in the next and dump her body in a third, all while going about your legitimate business. One detective said, ‘I’d put every one of them on CODIS, I had my way.’ I used that in the novel.
Three things resonated though every aspect of the research trip and informed the narrative of Believe No One: methamphetamine, poverty, and the vastness of the landscape, all of which feature in the novel. Huge as it is, Oklahoma has a population of just 3.8 million. On the drive out to the rural town of Tahlequah in Cherokee County, OK our host, Mike Nance (Detective retd.), told us of student Stephen Adams, missing since 2004. We passed fields and more fields – a flat featureless plain dotted with farm ponds where red and black Angus cattle wallowed in the heat. I discovered later that Oklahoma created more ponds, post dust bowl, than any other state. Add to that thousands of uncharted wells and you realise that it’s easier to hide a body than to find one in Oklahoma.
We counted six law enforcement agencies that might have a stake in our investigation – way too many for a work of fiction. A chat with Bill Baker, head of St Louis Major Case Squad, solved that one: organising an interstate investigation is costly, and a poor county could struggle to host a meeting, so resistance from the local sheriff was almost a given. Add in an upcoming re-election, and our county sheriff would not be keen to admit he had a serial killer on the loose.
So, ten days in, we were doing well: our backwoods setting worked, I’d gained insights into rural policing and knew how I could make county-level policing and politics work for the story. It couldn’t last... and it didn’t: St Louis Chief Medical Examiner, Dr Mary Case, demolished our fictional killer’s MO somewhere between the introductions and the handshakes. Our proposed method just wouldn’t fly – not if we wanted to keep cause of death unclear for a while. We needed to rethink. Which that was fine by me – this sort of correction is really helpful – if it’s given before I sit down to write the book! So, the MO changed and the victims were dispatched in a more subtle (and for me, more terrifying) way, which came out of a deeper and more disturbed psychological motivation.
But a mystery/thriller should never be only about the murder or the investigation; it has to be about people: the victims; those they leave behind, and those who seek justice for them. Again and again, it was the people we met in law enforcement that shaped the novel, far more than procedures or protocols. The tradition of the storytelling is strong in America’s Mid-west, and they do spin a good yarn – many of which were rambunctious and hilarious – but these tales were tempered by stories of dedication, quiet humility, and a deep compassion for victims and their families. Listening to those stories, hearing the cadence, finding the rhythm and music of the language, the characters I’d sketched in outline became fully fleshed people. And my notes, written in frantic bursts as we toured police departments and morgues, painstakingly transcribed in the hotel room each night, took on the patterns of speech and usage of our hosts, until at last my own English voice sounded alien to me – weaker, less vital, more... tentative.
In Believe No One, mothers and children are abducted, and the children remain missing, so meeting consultants from ‘Team Adam’, a non-profit organisation dedicated to finding missing children, was one of our priorities. The two we met were both retired homicide detectives. They were proud of the organisation’s success in reuniting every child who had been separated from their families by Hurricane Katrina, but one added with sadness that some of those children clung to their foster parents and did not want to go home. That story haunted me, and is reflected in the questionable decision a deputy sheriff makes about a child’s future as the novel draws to a close.
The Sunday before we left Oklahoma, I dragged Murf, my husband, out to take pictures of Route 66. As we crossed the street to snap another photograph, an elderly African American woman broke off sweeping the sagging porch of her modest two-room home to wish us the blessings of the day. You don’t get that on Google.
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Every once in a while you get to hear a buzz coming from the industry circles surrounding a certain book. This is not your typical situation where a publicist is making waves about their current title but something that happens on a much grander scale. Simply everyone from the reviewers to top brass, all the way through the publication chain, seems to be passionately talking about it and this usually means that you have something truly special on your hands. For the last couple of months I've heard such deafening noise surrounding the upcoming publication of "The Kind Worth Killing", Peter Swanson's second novel. Publishers across both sides of the pond have been excitedly exclaiming their love for it, film rights have been instantly snapped up and people like Sophie Hannah, Joe Hill and Sophie Hannah have said some rather nice things about. And you know what? It's all deserved. "The Kind Worth Killing" is really THAT good. It might be first truly unputdownable book of 2015.
On its surface "The Kind Worth Killing" explores similar relationship entanglements as depicted in Swanson's debut "The Girl With a Clock for a Heart". Once again it all starts with a femme-fatale, one Lilly Kintner, who during a night flight from London to Boston meets Ted Severson. Ted is instantly stunned by the beautiful and mysterious Lilly and as they share more than a few martinis, Ted pours his heart out. He's completely unsatisfied with his current marriage and suspects his wife Miranda is cheating on him. Deep inside, Ted is ready to finally admit that it's all been a huge mistake and that he and Miranda were mismatched from the start. Later, in one such drunken moment Ted casually says that he could kill Miranda for ruining his life. Then that sentence drops - a sentence that ups the game and sweeps the carpet under your feet. It's a moment that ultimately makes "The Kind Worth Killing". Miranda simply says that she can help.
From that point on Lilly's true side is revealed and as she and Ted are thinking of the best way to dispose of Miranda, their psychologically complex web goes darker and darker. Similarly to "The Girl With a Clock for a Heart", "The Kind Worth Killing" is also full of flashbacks which make the characters feel real through glimpses into their past. This time around Swanson has perfected this approach and there's not a word too many. What follows from then on is a whole plethora of gasping surprises and gutting reveals that'll will keep you on the edge of the seat all to the end.
It would be shame to reveal more as that would spoil the plot but I predict that "The Kind Worth Killing" will be one of the huge successes of the 2015. I certainly hope so as it's such an addictive and seductive read. It is a testament to the fact that no matter how many books you've read, there is always a chance that another one will come along that will grip you around your heart and inspire that same sense of excitement that make you feel in love with reading in the first place. Simply brilliant stuff.
Review copy provided by Faber Books / Harper Collins.
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It’s the closest thing to real magic that I know – the way a novel grows from nothing to a coherent story. One moment you have no idea where a chapter is going – the next it is all down on the page. But the starting point in the process is always tricky.
Some crime writers like to begin with a real-life case that they can base their fictional one on. Some start with a character, some with a place. I tend to begin with an Idea. In the case of A Cruel Necessity the idea was, what if the narrator increasingly felt that he was the only person who did not know who the murderer was? What if pretty much every witness was lying to him? That seemed to have possibilities. That was my starting point.
That the book should be set in 1657 – towards the end of Cromwell’s Protectorate - came somewhat later. What appealed to me about the period though was the underlying level of deception and double dealing. When you think about it, most people in England were royalists in 1640. By 1650 almost everyone had necessarily acquiesced to rule by Parliament. But by 1660 everyone with any sense was a royalist again. That involved a great deal of individual and corporate changing of sides. It was timing your defections that was important. Change at the right time and the rewards in terms of money, influence and position were considerable. Cling for too long to an outdated allegiance and the penalty was the confiscation of property, imprisonment or a traitor’s death (not pleasant). The Duke of Buckingham timed his defection to Parliament badly – having loyally supported the King in exile for many years, in 1657 he decided abandon the Stuarts and to return to England, marrying the daughter of a prominent Parliamentary general. A short time afterwards, Cromwell died and Charles II returned, which was slightly awkward to say the least. General Monck however timed his defection from Parliament to the King perfectly, bringing his troops with him at the critical moment and gaining a dukedom for himself. Samuel Pepys, as a public servant, remained a true republican for as long as it was expedient, then (like his master, Lord Sandwich) become an enthusiastic royalist.
With loyalties shifting so often and with the stakes so high, people might then have good reason to conceal their true allegiance, good reason not to tell my narrator quite all they knew about the murdered stranger or the man on horseback who passed through the village on the night concerned.
Photo; (c) Sam Peach
As for the narrator, he needed to be naïve enough to fall for the lies initially but clever enough to cut his way through the maze eventually. Somebody who knew the area well but was, at the same time, a bit of an outsider. I made him a young lawyer who had lived in the village most of his life but who had, for the past three years, been studying in Cambridge – so he knew everyone well, but was not necessarily aware of some of the recent shifts in loyalties that had occurred. His neighbours equally are not sure how much Cambridge has changed him, and whether his own loyalties are the same. Nor, to be honest, are we.
And of course I had to give him a side-kick – his childhood friend, Aminta Clifford, who has stayed in the village and perhaps knows a few things he doesn’t. Though she isn’t necessarily telling him everything she knows either.
The next question of course was where exactly is this village? I was brought up in Essex but have set my previous books in Sussex, London, Cumbria, Egypt, France – really anywhere except Essex. Time perhaps to return to my roots. I decided that the action would open in the green and gently rolling countryside of the north west of the county. I also decided that it would be an invented rather than a real place. This too is always a tricky decision, but the advantage of the invented location is that you can always give it a river or move the church closer to the manor house as the evolving plot dictates. In this case the geography of the village and how you got from A to B without being seen was quite important. So I invented Clavershall West, a quiet little settlement with a crossroads and four dusty tracks leading to Saffron Walden, Cambridge, Royton and (more distantly) London. Just four ways then for my horseman to arrive in the village and four ways for him to leave. Except nobody does see him leave.
Of course, even an imaginary seventeenth century village can’t be conjured up out of thin air. The British Library become my second home as I researched the architecture, the customs, the food, the clothing, the legal system and everything else that might have impacted on a remote Essex village at that time. I also visited as many seventeenth century buildings as I could – the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex provided many helpful insights. I was struck for example by how smoky most of the smaller cottages would have been, winter and summer, because cooking fires were always needed. I also noticed how much storage space was required when you needed to lay in supplies for the winter and couldn’t just pop down to the supermarket for some onions or some ham.
You have try to think your way back into your period in so many ways. We forget, in the twenty-first century (especially if we live in towns), how dark it would have been once the sun set, with just candle light and firelight in the houses – and how important it was, if you wanted to get about, whether there was a moon or not to light your way.
Characters too emerged from the research – for example, John Thurloe, Cromwell’s clever but humourless spymaster. Originally he was to have a fictitious clerk assisting him, but then I discovered his real assistant – the oily and devious Samuel Morland. He had to go in the book. And I couldn’t resist giving Samuel Pepys a walk-on part.
Next there was the voice of the narrator. It would be quite possible to write a book in authentic seventeenth century English but all of the characters would seem stiff and antiquated – which wasn’t how they would have appeared to each other and wasn’t really how I wanted the reader to see them. So, like most writers of historical fiction, I opted for decent twenty-first century prose, but with words that are clearly of modern origin excised and a few words that convey some period flavour dropped into the text here and there. Even this is however far from straightforward. I wanted at one point to refer to ‘looters’, only to find that the word post-dates the seventeenth century. At least by 1657 ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ had largely been replaced by ‘you’ so that complication could be sidestepped (except for the village blacksmith, who happens to be a Quaker and therefore still uses the old forms).
And finally the title. My working title for a long time was Interregnum but in the end I came up with a quotation – something that Cromwell had said on viewing the body of Charles I after his execution. ‘A cruel necessity’, Cromwell had observed. The phrase seemed to apply to a number of things that happened in the book. So A Cruel Necessity it is.
L. C. Tyler
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For the last couple of years, Sam Sykes has been consistently writing some truly great fantasy so ever since "Aeons' Gate" series was done and dusted I was eagerly anticipating his next move. It comes in a shape of "The City Stained Red", first novel in a new series entitled "Scions Gate" and is in Europe published by Gollancz with a stunning cover art. Sykes' new series leans heavily on its predecessor but judging by the first installment I would guess that it can be read as a standalone though I would still encourage that you check out the rest of his work first.
At the heart of "The City Stained Red" is a city called Cier'Djaal, a chaotic melting pot of culture, violence and chancers. Imagine Calcutta in monsoon season and multiply it by ten, add religious war and more spiders than you can possible think of and you'll get something approaching Cier'Djaal, also known as the City of Silk. On its streets tension is palpable because just recently an Aeon known as Khoth-Kapira decided to stage his comeback. As synopsis puts it, "Khoth-Kapira was the closest thing to a living god the world had ever known". Intelligent and powerful, he was the both the blessing and a curse by bringing both technological and economical development as well as slavery and merciless exploitation. Story is told through a familiar cast of characters including Lenk, Kataria and Asper and others, who each through their own adventures reveals a part of the story. Conceptually it works great because "The City Stained Red" is a story about Cier'Djaal and its slow descent into chaos. Of course, Lenk and his ragtag band are only there for their own purposes, trying to find one of their clients who has somehow "forgotten" to pay them for their services and it's just their luck to end up right in the middle of all this trouble. Lenk is tired of everything and is hoping to retire at the end of this tiny complication. It's just that he has chosen the worst possible moment.
This year have seen some really amazing city tales including Edward Cox's debut "The Relic Guild" (Gollancz) or Tom Fletcher's "The Gleam" (Jo Fletcher) and "The City Stained Red" stands up there with the best. Sykes has retained all the elements that made "Aeons' Gate" series so great. There's plenty of slapstick humour despite the darkness and that familiar sense of wondrous adventure that lurks just around the corner is still here. Still, "The City Stained Red" somehow fells like a better and more streamlined version of its predecessors. There's a new found depth and confidence in Sykes' words and it's obvious he has developed as a writer. Understandably, as ending comes not everything is clearly explained but that's to be expected with first novel in the series. Sykes tells just enough to make you eager for more. Well, consider the job done - I'm ready for the sequel.
Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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Sins of the Father belongs to the West Country, as do we. Home is a big old house on the estuary of the River Exe and twice a week we join a bunch of mates from the Exmouth Rowing Club and scull wherever the wind and tide permit. There are five of us in the boat: four rowers and a cox. We’ve been together for the best part of six years and together we must have covered thousands of kilometres.
On this particular morning, the gods of the river were looking after us. It was April and a big fat bubble of high pressure had settled over East Devon. The sun was warm for April and conditions were perfect for the five mile haul up to a village called Topsham.
We rode the bosum of the rising tide and forty minutes later we settled on a tiny beach with one of the finest views in the country. We’d brought coffee and a huge slab of chocolate cake. The mud flats were teeming with bird life. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Life couldn’t have been more perfect.
Except I needed the loo. Behind a thick stone wall was a house I’d known for most of my adult life. It stands at the end of The Strand, the diamond in Topsham’s glittering crown, a beguiling half mile of Dutch-style houses, a reminder of the days when the village grew rich on the trade with the Netherlands.
Back in the day, when I was a student visiting mates at Exeter University, I’d stay in their rented house beside the river. A post-pub walk down The Strand took me to the very end. Here stood a rambling old house, slightly foreboding – even Gothic - in both appearance and mood, with exactly the same view we were now enjoying with our coffee and chocolate cake. Then, I always fancied a look inside. Now, decades later, I had the perfect excuse.
And so I knocked on the door, introduced myself, explained that we were a bunch of rowers up from Exmouth facing the long trip back down river. Any chance of using the loo?
The owners couldn’t have been nicer. There was a toilet downstairs, another up on the first floor. Naturally – ever curious – I opted for the latter. A polished timber staircase. Shadowed spaces. Interesting art on the walls. Trophy souvenirs from trips to the Far East. The ticking of a thousand clocks. Tantalising glimpses of the sunshine outside, a world away from the heavy presence of this unforgettable house. Minutes later, I went back downstairs and said a heartfelt thank you. Not for the loo but for the dozens of tiny clues that became the centrepiece for a book called Sins of the Father.
Rowing is the most cheerful, and most liberating, of obsessions and offers the key to all kinds of puzzles. My shipmates aren’t the kind of people to get excited by plots for crime novels but even they noticed the grin on my face as we sped back down river. One of them, an ex-Royal Marine, enquired about the house by the river. Had I seriously banged on their door to borrow the khazi? I nodded. And did they say yes? I nodded again. And afterwards, did you have a chat? I shook my head.
No need, I said. It was the house that spoke to me.
Sins of the Father, the third of the D/S Jimmy Suttle novels, is published by Orion in hardback at £18.99.
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All of us who play the literary game owe an awful lot to Johan Gutenberg and his apprentices. Simplistically speaking, Gutenberg's invention and the fiery passion of his followers means that today we're in the position to take books and the printed word for granted but things were not always this good. Before printing press became a wide spread phenomenon, books were a relatively rare commodity, almost exclusively reserved for the richest and the nobles. Vast majority of them were religious texts meticulously copied from volume to volume and passed down the generations. All of the texts were hand written by scribes who were trained for years before they were allowed to leave the apprenticeship and become masters of their own. And all under tight grip of the Catholic Church, of course.
Ironically, when Gutenberg initially entered the fray he was motivated purely by religion which was ultimately the cause of his downfall. In his mind, printing press was the perfect way of spreading God's gospel to the masses but Catholic Church didn't really see it that way. They felt that spreading the knowledge will make the poor harder to handle. Gutenberg simply had to be stopped. It is this tumultuous period in history that Alix Christie's historical tome "Gutenberg's Apprentice" tackles in so far unprecedented details. However, it is not Gutenberg who's the main focus of her book but Peter Schoeffer, his apprentice who played the crucial part both the Bible and the events that followed. Peter's life started rather differently. Before being seconded to Gutenberg's shop by his foster father Johann Fust who was financing his endeavors, Peter was a professional scribe with a successful career. Seeing in Gutenberg a threat to his profession, initially Peter war reluctant and unwilling to accept his ideas but as his understanding of the process grew so did his admiration for both the man and his unique and revolutionary idea. As forces of the Catholic Church came closer and closer to ruining the entire operation, Peter had to ultimately decide where his loyalties lie and what followed is probably known to everyone.
It is a fascinating story, one of those rare moments in history when everything changed and understandably, Christie had a huge task ahead of her by choosing to tackle it. By focusing on Peter Schoeffer instead of on Johan, she succeeded in offering a new perspective on the creation of his Bible and the subsequent events which despite tragic aspects gave rise to Renaissance and the spreading of knowledge across the society. I really enjoyed seemingly endless stream of details which as far as I can tell are historically correct. Last month I've had the pleasure to visit Treasures room of the British Library and was lucky enough to see their copy of Gutenberg's Bible. I was instantly struck and humbled by the its sheer importance. After I've read "Gutenberg's Apprentice" I've learned to appreciate it even more than before and that is the biggest recommendation I can give to Christie's book. It is an impeccably researched tale about a book that started it all.
Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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A.B. Yehoshua mentions in the epilogue of "The Story of Crime and Punishment" that his publisher was very skeptical about suitability of his choice for "Save the Story" entry. I've felt the same and if you've ever read "Crime and Punishment" you'll instantly know why. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's classic novel is almost impossible to reduce to a short story for the very reason of it being so long. Dostoyevsky takes his time to set up his tale of mental anguish and morality and that's why it works so well. But since then I've realised that A.B. Yehoshua was completely right. The point of "Save the Story" series is not to perfectly transcribe the story but to whet the appetite for more. From that point of view "The Story of Crime and Punishment" completely and fully accomplishes its goal.
In short "Crime and Punishment" chronicles the rise and fall of Rodion Raskolnikov, an ex-student living in St. Petersburg who falls on hard times. He's surviving by pawning his remaining few, treasured possessions but that'll not last for long. Desperate Raskolnikov hatches a plan. He decided to kill his pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna, a lady who is universally loathed, and use his money to do good. Raskolnikov is quite a character. He fiercely intelligent and realises the horrific nature of his planned deed but justifies his actions to himself but comparing himself to likes of Napoleon who've done incomparable crimes while trying to achieve higher purpose. However, his crime goes horribly wrong and he is forced to kill an innocent woman, a Alyona's gentle half- sister Lizaveta. I would spoil the story for those of you who still haven't read this classic but what follows is truly extraordinary - Raskolnikov's tale of morality and love filled with suicides, twists and turns while being pursued by ingenious detective Porfiry.
For such a complex story, A.B. Yehoshua's version of "Crime and Punishment" is a perfectly captivating retelling. Admittedly, it simplifies the overall plot to the point where it omits some important parts and character traits. Raskolnikov's mental divide is also not nearly as complex as in the original but still, it, more importantly, manages to show you why you should simply give Dostoyevsky's masterpiece a go. After all, in its analysis of human psyche it is almost an 19th century version of Gillian Anderson's and Jamie Dornan's "The Fall" - to give it a modern TV reference point.
Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.
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I never understood boxing. I find the whole concept of having a fast moving object repeatedly hitting your head impossibly hard to fathom so I must admit that I usually avoid literature, movies or even sport events that have fighting as their focus. Therefore I have to admit that I wasn't exactly attracted to reading Antonin Varenne's newly translated novel "Loser's Corner". Still, I've absolutely loved last year's "Bed of Nails", translation was done by fantastic Frank Wynne and, as you're probably aware by now, I also have a soft spot for grittier side of French noir so there was really no excuse to at least give it a go.
Originally published in 2011 as "Le Mur, le Kabyle et le Marin", "Loser's Corner" took French literary scene by storm when it came out winning quite a few prizes along the way including prestigious "Meilleur polar francophone Montigny-les-Cormeilles 2011". It's easy too understand why. Varrene's claustrophobic and sparse style is perfectly suited for a story that explores the deepest recesses of human nature. At the heart of it is Georges Crozat better known as ‘The Wall’ (Le Mur), a successful boxer and a corrupted police officer with more than a few vices complicating his existence. His boxing career is at the end and over the over course of it he achieved thirty-eight victories and earning himself a nickname but no money. Police officer's wage will simply not do when it comes to funding his lifestyle and soon enough Crozat turns to working as a strong-arm for some rather nefarious characters. From then on his actions are brutal and completely senseless. Slowly Crozat becomes detaches from all the violence that follows in his wake making "Loser's Corner" a rather uneasy read. Parallel to 2008, "Loser's Corner" also relates back to 1957's Algerian War and experiences of Pascale Verini, who due to his ideals was dispatched to fight on Algerian front. Verini's side of the story is not much easier on the reader and is filled with incarceration and brutal torture. In final stages of the novel, these two seemingly unrelated threads eventually come together but "Loser's Corner" is not really about it. Actual plot feels like it was put there only as an afterthought go give a novel a bit of structure but in fact it could be about anyone desperate enough to forget about its humanity.
As you've gathered by now, "Loser's Corner" is not a novel that you'll actually enjoy reading but as a study of humanity in all its forms and guises it does a wonderful job. It is definitely not a genre novel and I'd definitely feel hard pressed to find a suitable niche for it. Is "life" a genre? Varenne's characters feel real and I suspect most of the readers will leave the house in trepidation knowing that somewhere nearby someone is doing "Le Mur"'s kind of work. As such "Loser's Corner" is grim and claustrophobic literary read that'll haunt your thoughts for days on end - that is if you can handle all its deep sadness and brutal violence.
Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
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