The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths will be published on November 6, 2014 by Quercus.
When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is reminded of a magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl.
The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar's. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men.
Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers and dancing girls. Changing times mean that variety is not what it once was, yet Max is reluctant to leave this world to help Edgar investigate. But when the dead girl turns out to be known to him, Max changes his mind.
Another death, another magic trick: Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies in their army days. When Edgar receives a letter warning of another 'trick', the Wolf Trap, he knows that they are all in danger...
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Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano is one of the most beautifully produced books I've had the pleasure to set my eyes upon. The paperback release just published by Harper Collins is especially gorgeous. With its heavy paper, round edges and multiple illustrations accompanying the text, it’s simply a stunning piece of work. These choices of book design quickly become self-explanatory as the story opens and it becomes apparent that Zambano's literary debut is loosely based on Latin American card game of chance called Loteria and escapism it provides for its main protagonist, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo. Despite being just a little girl Luz is leading a troubled life. Her older sister Estrella in the ICU, her father is in jail and she's taken into care by child protective services. The only things that gives her any solace is writing into her diary and her deck of cards. As Luz draws each card, she's pulled back deep into her memories but each of her recollections is embellished by childlike imagination so over the course of her travels she encounter the strangest things.
Despite the fairy-like quality of some of these episodes, an adult reader will quickly recognize some truly disturbing events which Luz through her childlike innocence makes feel almost bearable. Slowly, through a series of these anecdotes Zambrano pieces together a string of events leaving to Luz's current situation. We are shown her mother's disappearance and Luz as she's forced to be a responsible adult long before her age.
Before he wrote Loteria, Zambrano toured world as a ballet dancer and it's as if his graceful movements have been transcribed to his written word. Certain passages in Loteria read like a poetry and Luz's push into adolescence and brutal reality of adulthood is a depicted with crystal sharpness. As such you could say that perhaps Loteria is a coming of age story but I would rather describe it as a family saga. One where hardly anything goes right and where all of its protagonists are damaged by the very existence they're leading. In between all this Luz is trying to find her identity and this search for identity is at the heart of Loteria. Even the book itself defines easy classification. On one hand it could be literary fiction steeped in magical realism, on other a cross between poetry and something in young adult genre?
Whatever it ultimately is, Mario Alberto Zambrano's Loteria is a profoundly poetic book which in a unique way succeeds in exploring the malleability of memory and families.
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Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
It would be interesting seeing the expression on John Hornor Jacobs' agent's face when Jacobs described the idea behind The Incorruptibles. The thing is that this book is such a mash up of just about everything that on the surface of it, it can only be one of two things: the work of a genius or a complete madman. But that's why I'm not the agent or an editor. Decent agents and editors know how to spot great piece of work and it is obvious from the opening page that in The Incorruptibles Jacobs managed to pull it off. The whole novel is much more than sum of its parts and somehow it simply works brilliantly.
So how to describe it? In short, The Incorruptibles is made with healthy lashings of western and fantasy with a dose of steampunk and a pinch of Roman history. It is a librarian's nightmare. The story takes place in an Empire, a place not unlike our own world but always being just a little bit of piste. It is a troubled country, forever on the brink of a total war and its unexplored stretches are filled with everything from bandits to aggressive elf-like natives who recall Native Americans. In between all this a boat is travelling upriver. Upon it there are a governor with his sons and daughters and a hefty band of mercenaries who are all thrown together by circumstances. Out of these Fisk and Shoe are definitely an exception to the rule. Keeping each other backs, they worried about what's suddenly occurring in front of their eyes.
Interestingly enough, for such an accomplished setting, The Incorruptibles is a deeply personal book and I suspect this is exactly the reason why it works so well. If Jacobs has decided to go full scale from the word go I think readers would be simply overwhelmed by its vast scope while in this scenario you, as a reader, are slowly eased into the story. It's an act of sheer genius because rather than dwell on the setting I've actually cared about the characters and the events that were happening to them must more than I cared about what's around them.
To conclude, on paper The Incorruptibles shouldn't really work but somehow John Hornor Jacobs has beaten the odds and produced wildly innovative and highly readable story which, I think, should be nominated for quite a few awards next year. It is unlike anything else out there at the moment and I think many will be surprised by its unflinching ambition and often, beautifully poetic language.
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Review copy provided by Gollancz.
I have a sneaking suspicion that all authors are hunter-gatherers. I certainly am.
We hunt for story ideas wherever we may find them. In the media, in conversations made or overheard, in watching people, in experiencing life. We gather them in notebook of the paper or digital variety. Sometimes just in our memory banks.
And when a new novel is looming, we go dip into the stash.
I’m a great believer in the late, great Steve Jobs’ definition of creativity: “(It) is just connecting things,” he said. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesise new things.”
For me, that’s just about how every book happens.
With Cobra, is was the connection of two things. The first was a New York Times article in June 2006, exposing the CIA and US State Department’s top secret and controversial Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme, also known as TFTP.
I was enchanted by the fact that terrorists could be tracked through algorithms which constantly analysed the monetary habits of millions of people. As a crime thriller writer, I was excited about the possibilities: Such an algorithm — or the person who created it — would be a very valuable commodity, and the potential source of endless conflict.
(Conflict, just for the record, is the mother of suspense.)
The second thing to be connected, was a little more complicated. Here’s the story:
My good and valued friend Emo Adams is the most talented artist I know. He is an actor, singer-songwriter, comedian, TV talk show host and all-round great guy, and he is really, really brilliant in just about everything he does.
Some years ago, I wrote a film script called Jakhalsdans, and we badly wanted Emo to do the role of an eccentric troubadour character in the movie. As (bad) luck would have it, Emo was fully booked (as great artists are wont to be), and could not accept the offer.
So I kept thinking, I want to write something in which he could star. And eventually came up with the idea of a very accomplished pickpocket of the steal-from-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor Robin Hood variety, who illicitly came into the possession of something extremely valuable. Being hunted by some exceedingly nasty people, he would use all his considerable wit to elude them, and save the day.
I wanted it to be a movie. But the problem with making a South African action movie, is money. It is a prohibitively expensive endeavour, and although I kept going back to the idea, I knew we probably would no be able to get the film made.
And then came Cobra.
I don’t know how it happened, but the TFTP concept, and the pickpocket just came together. And like two pieces of a puzzle, just fit rather snugly.
Once they did, the rest of the story sort of wrote itself.
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When I’m asked where the idea for The String Diaries came from, I usually talk about a single image that popped into my head: a terrified mother driving her family through the mountains at night, searching for a place to hide. On the passenger seat her husband bleeds from terrible injuries sustained earlier that evening. In the backseat sleeps their nine-year-old daughter. The mother knows that if she doesn’t stop to treat her husband’s wounds, he’ll certainly die. If she does, they all might.
While that’s the quick answer, the full story of the book’s genesis is a little more complicated. I’m not sure that any fiction I’ve written has evolved from a single point of inspiration. What usually happens is that a fresh new idea collides with a handful of older ones I’ve been hoarding. On rare occasions the result feels symbiotic. And from there, sometimes, a story begins to take shape.
The key to this, I’ve found, is capturing those ideas when they strike. The challenge is that they arrive at the most inopportune times . . . in bed, in the car, on a hillside miles from scraps of paper or stubs of pencil.
Years ago, I might have been lucky to capture one in every ten hits of inspiration before I lost it. I tried all the usual stuff – carrying a notebook in my pocket, keeping a pad and pen by the bed. Yet when a random thought surfaced, I’d invariably be wearing the wrong trousers. Or the wrong jacket. Or I didn’t turn the light on, and woke the next morning to an indecipherable message scribbled in the dark.
The notes app on my smartphone changed all that. In recent years, I’ve used it to accumulate a huge trove of story ideas. My rate of capture has improved tenfold. When I scroll through those ideas, some seem weaker, some stronger, but I never throw any of them away. What seems weak right now might be a vital catalyst in a year’s time. It’s likely that it won’t, of course, but that’s the value of amassing a large stockpile.
So, back to the idea for The String Diaries. You see, before that image of a family in peril struck me, I was about to start a different story altogether, one I’d been planning for months.
The original did share a few elements with the final book: namely, the opening scene began with a couple in a car. In that version, however, the couple were relocating to the wilderness, hoping to rebuild their relationship after the death of a child. We met them as they parked on a sunlit hillside with a view down to the cottage they’d just purchased, asking themselves if they’d find salvation in the simple life it promised.
While the earlier story’s later scenes would contain plenty of mystery and unease it’s not, you might agree, a particularly gripping opening. Wrestling with it, I started to experiment with a draft and something strange happened. The scene disappeared and a new one muscled in. In this version it wasn’t daytime, but late at night. And this time the couple were watching the house through binoculars, in case whatever was following them had beaten them there.
Hang on. Something was following them? This wasn’t the story I’d set out to write! Different tone, different characters, entirely different premise! But suddenly it was the story I had to write. My heart began to accelerate. Why was the husband bleeding? What had they just escaped? What was out there in the darkness, hunting them? Could they possibly survive? Already it felt like I was playing catch-up.
Although I didn’t have many answers, pretty soon a few of those persistent old story ideas came knocking, demanding to be let in. One or two of them kicked the door down. Luckily, they seemed to be the very ones I needed. Together we crowded around the laptop, and two years later The String Diaries was finished.
Stephen Lloyd Jones
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Rebecca Makkai's second novel is bravely ambitious family drama which caught me completely by surprise. I've loved her debut novel "The Borrower" but "The Hundred-Year House" delighted me straight from the start with its innovative structure and unique presentation. Told through a series of vignettes which take place in a single house called Laurelfield over the course of hundred years, we are introduced to Devohrs family, a true Canadian eccentrics.
The story, which is told in reverse, opens in 1999 with the book's lengthiest chapter. Zee, a Marxist literary scholar is living in Laurelfield with her husband Doug and her parents, mother Gracie and step-father Bruce. Zee doesn't particularly like living in the house partly due to her parents living there, partly due to imposing massive portrait of Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother who apparently committed suicide somewhere in the house. It is Violets portrait which provides the link to the next story, the life of artists who lived in the house from the 1920s to the 1950s. This period is of particular interest to Zee's husband Doug who is doing research into Laurelfield Arts Colony and the life of poet Edwin Parfitt for his PhD. It is Doug's interest into the past which provides a catalyst and turns the plot into a full-fledged mystery. And house doesn't want to let them go easily.
Second part occurs in 1955 and Grace is married to Zee's abusive father George. Similarly to Zee, Grace is fascinated by Laurelfield and soon the chain of events will change her life for good. Third part of the story, goes further in the past to 1929 and takes place in artist colony where we are shown glimpses of Edwin Parfitt's life. Marking a turn in style, this third part is told through short bursts and changes of perspective and successfully manages to put across the chaotic life in artists' colony living permanently under the threat of closure by Devohr.
Similarly to "The Borrower", "The Hundred-Year House" is beautifully written and its characters are glorious in all their strangeness. Makkai certainly has a skill to engage the reader and she does it with frightening ease. I was caught by its bug straight from the opening page and I've stormed through this easily readable tale with gusto. I've especially enjoyed the way Makkai plays with the circular nature of history and its consequences, both in her tale and her approach to storytelling.
All in all, "The Hundred-Year House" is a completely surprising and all around excellent multi-layered read which I wholeheartedly recommend.
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Review copy provided by William Heinemann.
African Sky is my first encounter with the writings of Australian author Tony Park but his work hasn't escaped my attention. All too often I've heard about his panache for telling a emotionally gripping tale and his third novel African Sky, originally published in 2006 but now being republished by Quercus, fulfilled the expectations. African Sky takes place in Rhodesia in 1943. Bomber pilot Paul Bryant is working at a pilot training school at Kumalo Air Base but he's not flying actively since returning from fatal bombing mission over Germany. However, as one of his trainees ends up missing he must come of retirement as one of his trainees goes missing.
On the other hand, a Volunteer Policewoman Constable Pip Lovejoy (what a great name for a character) is also haunted by her daemons. High profile Aircraftswoman from the air base, Felicity Langhamis found raped and murdered in a nearby town. As she investigates her murder, she meets Paul over the course of an interview. However, a suspect is quickly found in the local black community but Pip rightfully suspects that there's plenty more hidden in plain sight. Soon she discover the relationship between Bryant, heiress Catherine De Beers and Langhamis and the solving case suddenly becomes of paramount importance for the entire war effort. Against the backdrop of the investigation, Bryant has plenty of other problems. He must prepare his airbase for the visit of Prime Ministers Jan Smuts and Sir Godfrey Huggins and unbeknownst to him, agent Hendrick Reitz is planning to sabotage an airbase itself.
Tony Park arranges his set pieces masterfully so the story itself is chock full of twists and turns so if you like these kind of reads, there's plenty to enjoy here. At first glance, African Sky has everything from hair-raising flying action to espionage, backstabbing, sex and love but scratch the surface and you'll discover hidden depth and well developed characters. All in all, I've really enjoyed my first encounter with Tony Park's work and I'll be looking forward to his future releases.
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Review copy provided by Quercus Books.
Sequels, eh? Never as good as the original.
So, how did I approach my literary equivalent of Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow? With gay abandon, gentle reader, it’s the only way…
In the first book, The Clown Service, I had established the work of Section 37, the UK’s most unloved intelligence department. I had also introduced its staff: ancient spy August Shining and his new officer Toby Greene. The book had been London-centric, had featured a thick vein of sixtes flashback courtesy of Shining and reminded readers that not all literary spy heroes have to be faultless action men: Toby suffered from panic attacks and terrible lapses in confidence.
So book two needed to build and ring changes. There’s no fun in repeating yourself.
My first rule was to get out of London, second was to show how Toby has grown in the space between the two books, third was to set the entirety of the book in the present day, no flashbacks.
Perhaps this sounds awfully like a shopping list but I always approach books in term of tone. I want to know how the book will feel, what sort of environment it will inhabit, what will be the emotional shape of things? Once that’s in place, the melody if you like, I start to worry about the lyrics.
The other thing I wanted to do was bring some eerier elements into the mix. I wanted the threat to be creepy rather than explosive. The Clown Service was action-led, the horrors Section 37 faced were big and apocalyptic. Trying to top an apocalypse is just dull. For book two I wanted to dial it back a little. Let the geography of the book open up but make the threat a little more personal. What feels weightier in the end, the death of a fictional world or people you’ve grown to like? The latter I hope.
I had left a small problem to solve at the end of The Clown Service. I shall be vague so as not to spoil it but, while the adventure was complete I left a few threads dangling so I could hit the ground running in book two. Hopefully, that’s exactly what I did in an extended, unlabelled, opening sequence that takes place before the book starts ‘proper’. If I add this first line: ‘From the other side of St. Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession. It echoes like a musical sting from a trumpet, echoing around the buildings of St. Petersburg.’ I’m sure you’ll guess the mood I’m trying to create (I have been accused of everything but subtlety). If not I’ll also mention that Toby is wearing evening dress as he strolls into the Astoria Hotel, ready to do some damage before the opening credits roll.
From there we move to North Korea, back to London and then Warwick. Because Warwick is the most glamorous place on Earth.*
Originally I was going to use a foreign location but as the story developed, nothing fit quite like an old stately home so plans for a globe-trotting adventure were thrown out of the window (where they landed, conveniently in book three, ‘A Few Words for the Dead’, because nothing is ever lost).
I can’t deny the influence of Jacque Tourneur’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON so it’s no wonder the real location of Ragley Hall, where your noble word-botherer once earned a few quid performing Shakespeare to businessmen during corporate events (“Our revels now are ended…” “Too right, cock, so’s this wine, give the waitress a nudge would you?”) becomes Lufford Hall, where all the best children’s parties happen.
The South Korean conference that forms the novel’s backdrop was a gift. It was a perfect set up for me and, when looking into how realistic a notion it was, I discovered the UK had just concluded the diplomatic talks I had imagined. Moments like that are surprising for a fantasist. The world rarely — thankfully! — conforms to our imaginations.
I wanted a crowd for my climax so the nearby small town of Alcester is having it’s ‘Mop Fair’. A fairground that appears overnight in the streets of many Warwickshire towns for a few days a year. I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for a while, working as an actor and ghost tour guide. The morning I woke up to find a Ghost Train a pavement’s width from my bedroom window was the moment the town took its revenge. Nothing quite prepares you for the surreal experience of having to share your living space with a carnival, the walls shaking with the thrum of its motor, the windows rattling with its klaxons. My curtains smelled of candy floss and fried onions by the time the street emptied,
Writing is cookery, folding in ingredient after ingredient until the stew is cooked.
Stir, season, stir once more.
All of this bubbles away in my head, usually while I’m working on something else. The hope is that by the time I really have to get on with writing, enough of it will feel clear that I have a fighting chance of joining the dots and making it work.
I don’t do breakdowns, I never plan on paper, it’s all just a mess that clarifies (or doesn’t) as I go.
I often try and cause myself problems, writing situations that I have no idea how to resolve, just to make myself stretch a little harder. Frequently, the exception to this rule is when I get to the climax. Usually I will have imagined it as convoluted, when I get there I realise it would better if I made it simpler. It’s personal taste but I think climaxes should be felt more than thought about. A clever, contorted finale forces the reader to work whereas a climax that suddenly breathes, the fog clearing to reveal simple, emotional beats, a solution that wasn’t predictable but seems obvious once presented, that’s perfect to my mind.
I always find the actual writing stressful and vaguely unpleasant. I’m a grumpy sod for the duration, only really happy at the beginning when I’m dreaming up new adventures for my characters to endure. That’s probably because I make it hard for myself. I work better when I’m wound-up.
Write quickly, be messy, take risks, run towards the interesting, even if you don’t know how you’ll make it fit. Then come back afterwards and clean up all the dead bodies.
Then comes the strange moment where you look at your completed book and decide if it’s quite the same thing you imagined it would be before you began. It never is. You start off cooking a curry and then present yourself with a roast dinner. That’s fine, as long as it’s still edible.
Bits of the book always end up surprising me, hopefully that means they’ll surprise the reader too. The Rain-Soaked Bride doesn’t end at all how I expected it would.
I’m never quite sure how I feel about a book once completed. I have a vague idea as to whether it’s successful or not but I’m too close to be objective. The editor will let me know of course, but even then it’s only when the book is released and people start reading it that I really know.
Which means it’s all down to you lot, doesn’t it?
*Not remotely true, though it is lovely.
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