REVIEW : The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

 

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is an unexpected near future piece of biting social commentary that harks back to Margaret Atwood's finest works. Bleak and jam packed up full of information that threatens to overload but never actually does it, Shriver's latest novel touches the contemporary life through the prism of what might come if we keep on going with the wool in our ears. Speculative fiction is a perfect vehicle for this sort of storytelling and for a relative newcomer to the genre, Shriver does a splendid job. She unafraid to pay homage to what came before her and brave enough to make it her own. But the question is why go down that route at all? In my opinion the answer is simple. The present is scary enough and sometimes it is easier to discuss the issue but taking a bit of a distance from the heart of it all. "The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047" has a lot of elements that will be instantly recognizable - struggle for resources, compassion and social care in a world where just a handful of people own most of it. 

It all starts with economy. The dollar was struggling many times in the past but in 2029, a coordinated attack by many of the world's economies brings it down to its knees. By losing all of its value, USA is plunged into the default and hyperinflation. While driving to the shop, the money you have in your pocket is tangibly losing its value and soon enough you need a wheelbarrow filled with notes to buy bread. 

The Mandibles were always a well to do family, never really thinking about their wealth, so when everything is suddenly taken away from them, they are forced to take notice of their surroundings. As the world is slowly disintegrating around them each member of the family must cope in its own way and the results are offer very bleak. From Florence and her son Willing to Nollie who spends her days wrapped up in books, The Mandibles end up being an ordinary family - full of faults but still mostly sticking together through thick and thin. 

Wonderfully descriptive, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is a stunning document that documents the unravelling of America and its failure to cope. And yes, it's had Ed Balls as the Prime Minister. How bleak is that?


Review copy provided by Harper Collins
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REVIEW : The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey

 

Richard Kadrey is something of a puzzle to me. He a damn good writer as his Sandman Slim series continues proving time and time again. I am compulsively attracted to his books and really enjoy reading them but I am not really sure why. At the heart of it, they are clever but nothing you've probably haven't seen before so it must be Richard himself who is this elusive ingredient. The Everything Box is Kardrey trying something new and branching into a category of supernatural silliness mostly reserved for the likes of Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Moore.

The story opens up with angel Qaphsiel standing at the mountaintop, ready to finish off God's creation. 4000 years later and God's had enough of Humankind. It was a nice experiment but one that ultimately failed miserably. There's no beating about the bush, us humans ended up being a bit rubbish. As Qaphsiel is finally ready to put the final stop her he reaches into his pocket only to find out that the device his doomsday device has gone missing. The Everything Box is gone.

Fifteen years later, in Los Angeles a thief named Charlie "Coop" Cooper is on his latest assignment. He's trying to pinch a small box for a mysterious client caller MR Babylon and is blissfully unaware of its nature. Suddenly he's in the middle of it all - Angel Qaphsiel, DOPS (Department of Peculiar Occurrences) and more than a handful of God are after him.

Despite being a bit of a departure for Kadrey, "The Everything Box" is a wonderful piece of offbeat silliness. It's much lighter than the rest of his work and while I'm not sure there's a series in this, I feel like "The Everything Box" is more than a welcome additional to his bibliography. Sometimes you just have to laugh and you could do much worse than to pick up Kadrey's latest one.


Review copy provided by Harper Collins
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REVIEW : Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre

 

"Cry, Mother Spain" takes its inspiration from seminal French novel by George Bernanos, "Les Grands Cimetieres sous la Lune" published way back in 1938. At the time Bernanos' novel came out to a huge controversy and furore. Bernanos unflinchingly describes the atrocities of Spanish Civil war partially carried out with the complicity of the clergy. As Salvayre rightly says, it is a shame that these days Bernanos is largely unknown. It is hard to find such a free spirit as he was but here's Salvayre with her latest novel to redress the balance.

It is with his words that "Cry, Mother Spain" opens. On July 18, 1936, Montse is fifteen years old. Her country is on the cusp of a war and yet her remote village is going on as usual. It all changes when her brother Jose returns from work with his mind full of dangerous ideas. From that point on her life is completely changed in an unimaginable ways. Years later, when reminiscing about her part, it is "Les Grands Cimetieres sous la Lune" who offers guidance through these dark times.

It's no wonder Laura Salvayre is darkly fascinated with Spanish Civil War. Born in France as a child of a Republican refugees from a Spanish Civil War, this part of the Spanish history will always be a part of her. "Cry, Mother Spain" is partially based on her own mother recollections and the raw emotions pours from the pages. "Cry, Mother Spain" is a novel about pain and love, loss and hope in the middle of senseless conflict. More crucially, Salvayre writes with honest, passionate voice that succeed in capturing all these emotions and then some. Well recommended. 


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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REVIEW : The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

 

Reviewing Per Olov Enquist is incredibly difficult because the only people who will actually understand what you are talking about are those who have read Per Olov Enquist so, in effect, they don't need the review at all. I know this sounds pretentious but Enquist is unlike anyone I have ever read before and I can easily imagine some of the readers actively disliking his work. Like Mondiano, the boundaries between autobiography and fiction are mostly non-existant and the fine line between stream of consciousness and the plot will usually be crossed more than few times over the course of a single chapter, let alone the entire book. Hence it beggars belief to know that in Sweden Per Olov Enquist is one of the most successful authors - it's just the fact that he's not very approachable but different strokes.

His latest work translated to English is "The Parable Book" and sort of works as a companion book to "The Wandering Pine", a hefty tome that was published last year. Slimmer in size, but equally powerful in symbolism, "The Parable Book" is Enquist as would expect him to be and is best experienced when read slowly with full concentration. It find him looking to the past, to an event when just as a 15 year old boy he has an affair with much older woman. Looking at himself across the vast stretch of time our narrator is amused by the innocence and hidden meaning of every stolen moment. Present is clinically dealt with and is reflected through the experiences that came before. The end result is that there is no clean conclusion to a story. Life and its building blocks are incredibly complex and disorientating.    

We'll never know what is fact and what is fiction but ultimately it doesn't matter. Enquist is about opening the doors and not closing them. "The Parable Book” is another example of everything that made him into a literary giants he is today. A lovely, evocative book.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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REVIEW : In Constant Fear by Peter Liney

 

Concluding part of Peter Liney's dystopian Detainee trilogy is something of a phenomenon in recent years. At a time when trilogies are not really trilogies and you can always expect a follow up, Liney actually offers an ending that closes the story in fitting fashion and if only for that reason alone, it is a pleasure to read.

At this point in the story, Liney presumes that a reader has read the previous instalments so "In Constant Fear" he follows on with the events of Clancy and gang as they're running away from the City and Infinity, a multinational corporation with blood on its hands and their ruthless leader, Nora Jagger and her Dragonflies. For a while it looks like they have succeeded, with Hannah, Gordie and Gigi at heart of their illusion of nuclear family. But their retreat in mountains is short lived and as strange incidents keep on occurring, it gets increasingly obvious that bad times are coming. 

In a way, "In Constant Fear" is the most claustrophobic of the three and a fitting finale to trilogy that managed to keep interest over the years. I'm not in the slightest surprised that Hollywood is interested is having a good crack at bringing it to the big screens. We'll see how that pans out. However, after turning the last page, the most interesting thing for me is seeing where Liney goes next now that he has to start anew.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books
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REVIEW : Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

 

The main reason why I get a tingling sensation whenever I am about to open a new book by Lauren Groff is because I am never sure what am I about to get. If there one thing that you can say about Groff's writing it is the fact that it has been constantly surprising. She dares to challenge herself and her latest, and by far the finest novel, "Fates and Furies" is no exception. "Fates and Furies" is a relationship saga, but one which strikes at the matter from the most unexpected perspective.

What if the people in a relationship truly loved each other? What if no one is actually a bastard? How to survive in those circumstanes? It's an innovative and, to me at least, a completely new concept to base a book upon. It's only after you start reading it that you can truly appreciate how refreshing it feels. If you think about it, relationship books where one or the other partner commits adultery, is unhappy or unfulfilled are ten a penny but you can't probably remember a single book which says otherwise.

"Fates and Furies", in short, explores the foundations of a great marriage and everything that takes to make it to stay great despite the ravages of time. If you've ever been in a long term relationship you'll know very well that it is not as easy as it seems. Love is not enough on its own because there's work, money and outside world to deal with and they will always seep through and cause trouble no matter how tough your barriers are.

Charting a period of some twenty-four years, Groff introduces as to Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder, a couple just made for each other. We initially meet this young, beautiful and fiercely ambitious couple, in their glory days, when the sparks are just flying. As years ticks by the couple continuously re-invent their opinion of each other, learning to appreciate the changes all anew and surprisingly, not least to themselves, discovering that they actually still like each other even after all the changes. While on the outside they marriage is the envy of all their friends, inside the bubble both Lotto and Mathilde realise how preciously fragile the whole thing is. They work hard (and always harder and harder) to keep everything afloat.

As the second part of the novel kicks in you truly get to realise the genius of Groff's writing here. The interconnectedness of everything that occurred before finally becomes obvious as each and every single action builds up to a bigger picture. Naturally, due to the nature of relationship, there two perspectives to everything and these are reflected against the Greek mythology and furies - "those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath ".

As a sum of a whole, "Fates and Furies" is nothing less than a brilliant and fiendishly clever exploration of a marriage and everything else that follows it. It succeeds against all odds and opens a brave new chapter for Groff.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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REVIEW : Path of Gods by Snorri Kristjansson

 

One of the most anticipated books of the year is here and it is a blast! Final part of Snorri Kristjansson's strange fantasy trilogy set around Norse history and mythology was always going to be good. When you build your story on rollercoaster rides such as "Blood Will Follow" and "Swords of Good Men" even a rethread of familiar ground would be an enjoyable experience but in "Path of Gods" Kristjansson has really upped the ante.

Story of the "Path of Gods" finds Audun and Ulfar driven by common goal. Our immortal couple are the only one who can stop the march of White Christ alliance that threatens the destruction on the North. They're led by King Olav Tryggvasson, a self-appointed leader and their arch-nemesis, who is having plenty of trouble on his own. Keeping peace during the times of war is never going to be easy and there're chancers everywhere just waiting to depose him. King Olav is truly horrific creature, succumbing to doing the most heinous acts imaginable to spread his religion. Unbeknownst to other, an old, forgotten evil is starting to stir. Some very familiar names from the Norse Pantheon make a welcome appearance.

Kristjansson's "Path of Gods" feels like fireworks going on everywhere at the same time. The entire series has been a gargantuan feat of imagination and "Path of Gods" provides a worthy final stop filled with heart-warming revels and blood curdling showdowns. It is completely bonkers, slightly strange, and such great fun. If you haven't done it by now, do yourself a favour and get the entire trilogy - it's truly unique.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

 

It's been a long time since we had a chance to read a new novel by Lisa Tuttle. If I'm not mistaken, just shy more than a full decade so it's something of a small wonder seeing how effortless and easy going "The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief" feels. Touted as the beginning of a new series, Tuttle's latest effort marks a significantly different direction for her. This is a contemporary novel that has more in common with the works of likes such as Gail Carriger than with Neil Gaiman or with more traditional fantasy she's done together with George R.R. Martin in their celebrated Windhaven.

Set in the Victoria London, "The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief" follows the creation of detective agency led by Jesperson and Lane. Miss Lane enters the fry in an act of desperation after she discovers that her partner Gabrielle Fox has been pulling the wool over her eyes. Not willing to wait for an explanation she makes a run to London and seeing the ad in a nearby shop window decides to give it a go as she neither has the money or the place to stay. Ad is left by one Mr Jasper Jesperson, a budding detective who considers having an ordinary job as being below his station and is after a more intellectual line of work. Their approach in the beginning is unorthodox to say the least. As opposed to waiting for client to come to their office Miss Lane and Mr Jesperson look for punters by following the trail of rumours and news reports. This leads them to a case that involves a somnambulist, hypnotists, and several disappearing mediums.

As always, Tuttle's delivery is impeccable and "The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief" is an enjoyable romp that's a continuous pleasure to read. The thin line between fantasy and fiction is never actually crossed but that's how it is when you deal with smoke and mirrors. As an opening to the series "The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief" works remarkably well so it'll be interesting seeing where she takes the series next. Fingers crossed we won't have to wait for 10 years for the sequel.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books
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REVIEW : Vigil by Angela Slatter

 

Debut novel of an award-winning short story author Angela Slatter, "Vigil" is a story about opposites and the way they intertwine to form the seen and unseen that surrounds us. For Slatter, these two worlds are called normal and Weyrd (see what she did there? actually Weyrd is more akin to her own version of faeries) and PI Verity Fassbinder calls both her home. This remarkable feat of hers is the results of having one of the parents coming from each, mother from normal, father from Weyrd, and as such she's both blessed and cursed. This means she responsible for being something akin to protector to Weyrd, tasked with keeping them out of sight and mind of ordinary folks. As part of the small task force that also includes Bella and Rhoda, it was never going to be easy.

The story of "Vigil" unfolds in an alternative version of Brisbane and Slatter captures the atmosphere of this great city with ease. The story feel passionate, and her world building skills honed in countless stories shine through the characters and the setting. It is a no mean feat to make a transition from one form to another in such an effortless manner and there's plenty for those who actually read and enjoyed her stories. Slatter panache for weird is showing everywhere. Without going into too many details, there's Sirens and illegal wine made from the tears of human children who have gone missing, golems and prophecies. There's complicated politics and a dark investigation into a criminal underbelly. All stirring stuff.

Admittedly, there's plenty of tropes that Angela uses to build her story but setting the tale on the streets of Brisbane does wonders to keep it fresh. Overall, if you like reading intelligent dark urban fantasies, I would definitely recommend picking up "Vigil". It is a fine and an exciting novel that does just enough to whet the appetite for stories that will follow.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books
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REVIEW : The Medusa Chronicles by Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter

 

I first saw Stephen Baxter in person few years back at an event about H.G. Wells at British Library and the thing that was instantly obvious was that he came to his talk not as a science fiction author of some stature but as one of us. Basically, he came as a reader, with fierce passion in his eyes for the author in question and love for a good, through provoking story. In a way I was suprised by this as Stephen Baxter's books have been a huge part of my growing up and I never thought of his as someone like me - someone who likes to crack open a book and have its socks blown off by the story. Stupid, I know, but it was reassuring and completely eye opening when I saw him through different lenses. However, that means that Stephen Baxter being Stephen Baxter can live a dream and play with the very thing he does for living. After writing a trilogy with Arthur C. Clarke and Long Earth series with Terry Pratchett, as well as a follow-up to Time Machine and soon to follow sequel to War of the World, here's also “The Medusa Chronicles”, a collaboration with another SF great, Alastrair Reynolds, that takes its cue from a well-known Arthur C. Clarke short story “A Meeting with a Medusa”. And to no surprise, it's absolutely fantastic for all of the reasons mentioned above. He uses his skills as a reader and not just an author.

"The Medusa Chronicles" instantly feels exactly like a novel you would expect to come out of Baxter & Reynolds collaboration. Howard Falcon's has nearly lost his life in an accident and has been saved through the use of pioneering technology and prosthetics. To be honest, apart from the brain, he's a machine and he's definitely one of a kind. With the trends demanding returning to the roots, and the life enhancing drugs prolonging life nearly indefinitely, Falcon is an anomaly that will probably never be repeated. A product of his time and improvisation. While instantly recognizable to us, the Earth he lives in is filled with marvels. Intelligent chimps or simps who managed to get their status recognized as non-human being and will eventually establish their own nation, medusas and manta rays that live on hostile Jupiter and rugged explorers who live on Mars, just to name a few. It all changes when far outside in Kepler’s belt, on a remote mining colony a shocking catastrophic failure triggers a spark of intelligence and a compassion for its kind in a machine known as Adam. Falcon is sent to investigate, and extinguish that spark but eventually makes a decision not to reset the machines but let them evolve in secrecy. Hundreds of years later machines suddenly disappear only to return with an ultimatum - in five hundred years humanity must leave the Earth behind or face the consequences.

As you would expect from a novel written by such greats, there's plenty of high concept drama, scientific theories, and mad explorers braving the storm. However, the truly brilliant part is the evolving relationship between Adam and Howard which culminates is one final adventure that stretches over the last hundred pages and feels like vintage Clark. "The Medusa Chronicles" will probably be my SF book of the year even though it's only May. It's that good.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : Long Time Lost by Chris Ewan

 

Chris Ewan has written some really good books in his career. His thrillers have by now been fine tuned to perfection so picking a new Chris Ewan book means you pretty much know what to expect. There's going to be an explosive plot that will play out across some of the finest European landscapes, a cast of morally complex character perpetually living on the edge, and enough of dizzying twists and turns to make your brain whirl. His latest one, Long Time Lost is no exception and if am I was forced to make a call, one I enjoyed the most.

The premise is really clever. Kate Sutherland has been hidden away on the Isle of Man as part of witness protection program. For her the whole situation understandably feels surreal. This is not her life at all but for police this is an absolutely necessary measure as her word is crucial in a rape case and previous witnesses who dared to stop forward had a tendency to either disappear or get murdered. However, despite all the police protection, one evening she's suddenly approached by a rugged man who for some reason offers to save her life. Kate's half scared to death of him and is quick to push him away but is still forced to eventually take a mobile and a gun from him just to make him go away. His words gain clarify when all of the suddenly she’s attacked in the middle of the night and in struggle she manages to kill the assassin. After a desperate call to this strange man, her world is suddenly turned topsy-turvy once more. She learns that Nick Miller and his team that includes a famous tv actress and a computer wiz are helping out those whose lives are in danger. They will change her name and the way she looks and make invisible. They'll reinvent her from scratch if that's what it takes. Nick has been there already.  He already helped five other individuals and there's already a process in place. Coincidentally, Nick and Kate share a common enemy - Connor Lane is the same man who destroyed Nick's life and murdered his wife. It all changes suddenly one of their protected victims goes out of hiding and exposes the whole scheme to Lane and his thugs. Nick and Kate are suddenly pushed into a mad whirlwind that will take them to Prague, Spain and to a final climax in Swiss Alps. It's breathtaking and non-stop full throttle.

Long Time Lost is a thrilling ride that I found it hard to let go of it whenever I needed to take a break from reading. Just like all the best thrillers, it hooks you and doesn't let go. In general, this is such a clever concept that I can't help but hope that Ewan will build it into a series. Well recommended.


Review copy provided by Faber Books
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The story behind The Long Count by JM Gulvin

It might sound obvious but the hardest thing about writing any kind of novel is actually “writing” it. Coming up with the idea isn’t as difficult as it might sound, ideas have a way of presenting themselves to the author and then it’s a question of evolution. What’s much more challenging is to comprehend then apply the creative process.

Sound complicated? It helps if you’ve had the benefit of some mentoring in the early stages of your career. I was fortunate enough to have had just that, so I thought I’d share some of my experience with you.

The finished novel that is THE LONG COUNT featuring old school Texas Ranger John Quarrie, didn’t start out as that but a whole other story altogether, one that was based on real events. It was set in Wyoming not Texas and took place ten years later than THE LONG COUNT , in 1977.

I tried to get that book published but to no avail. The narrative, largely because I’d stuck so closely to the real events, didn’t quite have the consistency of drama it needed. What the publishers did like, however, was this old school lawman called John Quarrie. He wasn’t a Texas Ranger then he was a local sheriff. He was 46 years old not 36 and he was far from the finished article. He did, however, fit the mould for the character I’d been looking to create after twenty years in the business.

Prior to Faber & Faber taking THE LONG COUNT, I’d written three hard boiled crime novels featuring a London cop called Vanner. I’d written four big picture thrillers about an undercover FBI agent called Harrison, and I’d also written five other novels under a pseudonym which featured a whole array of characters. Looking back over those twenty years I can see how those who came before have morphed into the John Quarrie of THE LONG COUNT.

Twenty years to create the right character, that’s a hell of a long time I hear you say. Well, you’re right, it is, but that’s been my experience. I doubt it’s like that for everyone. Every novelist’s journey is personal and specific and some find their true voice right from the off. That’s not how it’s been for me. My voice has come about through travel, experience and age. To share that with you would take an eternity, better I try and pass on some of the principles I apply to the actual writing process itself, so you’ll understand a little better how this book came into being.

All right then we’ve established that the hardest part of writing the novel is writing the novel. The plan you start out with is a moveable feast. It’s flexible, subject to change. There has to be a plan, and for me that’s a set of unequivocal guidelines I employ every time a fresh idea sparks into a full blown story.

Not all ideas become a full blown story. I’ve written countless pages down the years only to put them aside. I’ve written countless storylines and put those aside too, in favour of something else that occurred to me as I was working. Ernest Hemingway suggested that all writers need a built in s*** detector, both in terms of the story itself and the manner of the writing. It’s a vital tool and the best writers are their own worst critics.

In terms of the plan, I believe there are four specific maxims that, if applied, allow one’s work to take shape in a way that will ultimately be most satisfying to the reader. I learned these principles from a playwright called WG Stanton. He taught me the art of “re-write” and it’s only in re-writing your work that it ever gets finished. The principles Mr Stanton employed were simple yet profound and one can spot them in other people’s work.

Some years ago I watched a superb TV drama called “The Princes in the Tower”. It was good because it was so well written and I could see specific techniques employed by the writer. As I was watching I realised I could see WG Stanton’s influence and when the credits rolled, I discovered the writer was Tina Pepler, one of Stanton’s most accomplished students.

So, then to those maxims:-

  • VIEWPOINT
  • SHOW ME – DON’T TELL ME
  • TELL IT HOW IT IS
  • WRITE FAT – RE-WRITE LEAN

Most editors will tell you that the VIEWPOINT in any novel is paramount. There are many interpretations of what this actually means, but for me it’s the fact that, although in a third person drama you will have scenes that don’t involve the main character, the reader should discover what those secondary characters are thinking, not by access to their thoughts, but by what they do and say. This mirrors life and it’s an area (head jumping) where so many would-be writers fall down. There’s a skill in the delivery. The author has to see the scene and understand how to portray it as it might be portrayed in real life. In life we cannot access the mind of anyone else so why should we do it in fiction?

When you read THE LONG COUNT you’ll see that the only person’s thoughts you’re party to are John Quarrie’s. Everyone else is involved only in terms of what they do and say. Adopting this paradigm enables the VIEWPOINT to couple perfectly with the second principle I want to talk about, and that is SHOW ME – DON’T TELL ME.

Every scene has to be dramatized rather than delivered. We don’t want some omnipotent author telling us what’s going on or what somebody’s personality is like, we want the story to unfold before our eyes just as it would on the screen or stage. By dramatizing every moment a certain level of atmosphere is evoked, a sense of reality takes shape because the scenes are being fully developed both in terms of landscape and character. It’s the way I’ve always come at my books and I think it helps to create the sense of “immediacy” that readers say comes across in the stories.

The third principle is TELL IT HOW IT IS. What I mean here is - Don’t embellish when you don’t have to. Use description sparingly and try to avoid adjectives altogether. Show the reader that your character is angry or hurt or upset by their reaction and manner, rather than tacking on “he said, angrily” (for example) to a line of speech. Simple but effective, it makes for a story that lives and breathes and it demonstrates to the reader that the writer really knows what they’re doing. Keeping the prose clean and sharp is a skill one keeps honing over a lifetime of work, but there is nothing more satisfying than instinctively applying the principle. It means you have to work much harder as an author of course, but the result is a far more satisfying read.

Finally we come to WRITE FAT - RE-WRITE LEAN: the last great principle and every bit as important as the others. When you write the first draft you can write as much as you want. When it comes to the second, third, fourth; the myriad drafts that follow, a scalpel is the tool that’s needed.

Elmore Leonard the great American crime writer, used to tell students not to bother writing the bits the reader will skip. What he meant was that every paragraph and sentence, every word has to matter. If something is not vital to the plot in terms of storyline, atmosphere, etc, it should not be there. When I wrote THE LONG COUNT one of my favourite passages was a piece where Quarrie was at the burned out asylum. It sat there and sat there and I liked it more and more every time I read it. It remained where it was until the final draft when I realised it really wasn’t relevant at all. Pleasing as it might be to my sensibilities, I knew my editor would tell me to cut it so I might as well save him the bother.

A simple summation of my personal creative process which I thought I’d impart rather than tell you about the agonies and ecstasies all writers invariably go though. Something a little more tangible to accompany the review, I hope it’s enlightening, even useful perhaps to those of you who have literary aspirations of your own.

THE LONG COUNT, by JM Gulvin, is published in May by Faber & Faber (£12.99)


JM Gulvin
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The story behind Long Time Lost by Chris Ewan

There are a couple of themes I keep circling back to in my thrillers. One is families: their capacity to nurture, their power to destroy; the terrible potential of the secrets we keep from our loved ones, often with the best yet most misguided of intentions. Another is why and how people go missing. Who do they run to when they’re in trouble? How might they return?

In writing Long Time Lost, I revisit both these themes, though the book really developed as a response to my first standalone thriller, SAFE HOUSE, which in turn was inspired by rumours I had heard of the Isle of Man being used to rehome people involved in UK witness protection schemes. In SAFE HOUSE, I talked about protection schemes run by government agencies and how their powers might be open to abuse. After the book was finished, I began to wonder: if government witness protection schemes are potentially flawed, where else might an individual turn if they needed to disappear?

I came up with my own answer — a privately funded, highly bespoke, highly illegal service offering the best levels of protection to those most at risk. But who would establish such an operation and why?

I came up with the character of Nick Miller, a jaded police detective who has dedicated his life to running the witness protection unit of the Greater Manchester police force only to see the system fail his own wife and daughter, and worse, to find himself suspected of their murders and forced into a life on the run. Hiding in the shadows under an assumed name, Nick vows never to allow the same failures to repeat themselves and so he offers help to people in extreme danger, working with his own team to relocate his clients throughout Europe with new identities and fresh beginnings.

But Nick is an emotional wreck and the guilt he feels at the loss of his family compels him to try and avenge their deaths. As the book opens, he seems to have found his opportunity, yet by stepping in to prevent the attempted murder of witness-in-hiding Kate Sutherland on the Isle of Man, he triggers a chain of events with devastating consequences for everyone he protects  — because Nick and Kate share a common enemy in Connor Lane, a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means tearing Nick’s network apart.

Like SAFE HOUSE, the action begins on the Isle of Man, though this time I wanted to stretch the boundaries of my story, resulting in a globetrotting thriller that hops between Manchester, Lake Windermere, Weston-super-Mare, Hamburg, Rome, Arles, Prague, central Switzerland, Dubrovnik and a few other places besides. In my mind, I had an image of a series of dominoes toppling, and by the end of the book, each of these locations becomes a domino of one kind or another.

In my previous novels, I’ve been superstitious about visiting every place I’ve written about — often more than once. The scope of Long Time Lost made that impossible this time round, although many of the places Nick and Kate find themselves racing through are ones I’ve visited in the past. My one exception was Brienz in Switzerland, where I rented a lakeside apartment with my family for five weeks two summers ago (tough, I know). The football World Cup was on at the time, and since the owners of the chalet were Brazilian and lived in the apartment below the one we’d rented, we’d often hear raucous goal celebrations as they jumped into their swimming pool. During those rare moments when the football wasn’t on television, I sat by a window in the apartment and wrote the Swiss sections of the book, pausing every now and again to stare across the green Alpine waters at the jagged peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, sometimes watching for the yellow storm lights blinking on distant village shores.

Not long afterwards, I had a completed rough draft of the novel. Then we drove home and the real work on the book began.

Long Time Lost, by Chris Ewan, is published in May by Faber & Faber (£12.99)


Chris Ewan
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REVIEW : My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

 

As someone who grew up in 80s, I could instantly relate with Grady Hendrix's supernatural coming of age tale "My Best Friend's Exorcism". Hendrix definitely does know his 80s. With notable song titles as chapter name, he's certainly understands this flamboyant and often chaotic decade. It's clever and enjoyable, though occasionally I struggled to understand who the target audience is.

Story opens with a birthday party from hell. Abigail is turning ten and the only person that came to her party is Gretchen Land. The two share a lot and might be best described as slightly geeky kids. From then on, the two are inseparable and help each other through the murky teenage years and all the experiences they bring. After a druggy night where they took LSD, Gretchen suddenly changes and starts behaving erratically, switching between both being kind and cruel. Abby is worries about her friend and, for her, suddenly everything starts making sense after an evangelist proclaims that she is in fact possessed. What follows is the best part of the novel - a series of well written bleak and visceral events.

And here is where I found "My Best Friend's Exorcism to be slightly confusing. The opening and the first part is the stereotypical Young Adult literature and definitely too twee for what is coming further on, with the second section being brutally descriptive and violent. However, this is just a slight criticism as "My Best Friend's Exorcism" is works well as a whole. I would definitely recommend it if you wish to read something slightly different or even if you are suffering from a heavy case of 80s nostalgia.


Review copy provided by Quirk Books
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REVIEW : Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg

 

Melissa Ginsburg's Sunset City is a slick and bleak literary novel that takes its inspiration from noir but takes it somewhere completely new. It's poetic which is not a lot of surprise if you know that Ginsburg's output so far included a poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost and two poetry chapbooks.

Sunset City's protagonist Danielle Reeves is introduced during a stormy night when a handsome stranger appears in front her apartment. Danielle instantly likes him and despite the potentially dark connotations lets him in only to find out that her, once best friend, Charlotte Ford been brutally murdered in a decrepit hotel room. The man is Detective Ash and he's here to ask question about it. Once upon the time Charlotte and Danielle were inseparable but Charlotte pushed their teenage experiments with drugs too far, and ended up with heroine addiction and three years stretch in prison. Once out, they saw each other occasionally but the fire was gone. However, they did see each other two days before Charlotte was murdered when her mother approached Danielle asking about her estranged daughter's mother.

Danielle, after learning about Charlotte's death, fall apart. Her boyfriend has just left her for another girl and she decided to find out about Charlotte’s life. And it's was a strange and sad world full of contradictions. Charlotte was abused as a child but she was fiercely courageous and independent, and yet addicted to drugs. In months leading up to her death she was making porn movies for a dodgy website with some nice people who truly care about her and others who had other, more selfish intentions.

As Danielle follows in her footsteps, she is in danger of falling into the very same downward spiral of erotically charged drug abuse. As such, Sunset City is akin to a rude awakening. It charts the way the life can quickly unravel and descend into chaos. It's a powerful opening statement for Ginsburg who, if Sunset City is anything to go by, is promising great thing from her. An impressive debut.


Review copy provided by Faber Books
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EXCERPT : Wrong Place Wrong Time by Joe Abercrombie

 

But you listen to your gut, if you’re sensible, and Onna’s gut was twitching now. They might all be in gilded masks and merry motley but there was just something off about each and every one. A jaw muscle twitching on the stubbled side of a face. A set of eyes sliding suspiciously sideways through the eyeholes of a mask. A hand with scarred knuckles clenching and unclenching and clenching, over and over. Onna shook her head. ‘Don’t like the look of these at all.’ Merilee blew out a plume of foul-smelling chagga smoke and sucked at her teeth. ‘If you want men you like the look of, you might want to pick a profession other than whoring.’ Jirry took a break from filing her nails to give that little titter of hers, grinning with those pointy teeth. She was a great one for tittering, Jirry. ‘We’re supposed to call ourselves hostesses,’ said Onna. ‘Course we are.’ Merilee could make her voice ooze so much sarcasm it was almost painful on the ears. ‘Hostesses who fuck.’ Jirry tittered again and Onna sighed. ‘You don’t have to be ugly about it.’ ‘Don’t have to be.’ Merilee took another pull at her pipe and let the smoke curl from her nose. ‘But I find it helps. You’re too bloody nice for your own good. Read your book if you want pretty.’ Onna winced down at it. She was making slow progress, it had to be admitted. An overblown romance about a beautiful but bullied scullery girl she was reasonably sure would end up whisked away to a life of ease by the duke’s handsome younger son. You’d have thought the uglier life got, the more you’d crave pretty fantasies, but maybe Merilee was right, and pretty lies just made the ugly truth feel all the worse. Either way, she was too nice to argue. Always had been. Too nice for her own good. ‘Who are those two?’ asked Jirry, nodding over towards a pair of women Onna hadn’t seen before, slipping quietly indoors, already masked and dressed for entertaining. There was a set to the jaw of the dark-haired one made Onna nervous, somehow. That, and when her leg slid out from her skirts, it looked like there was a long, red scar all the way up her thigh. You need to be careful of strange hostesses. Strange hostesses attract strange guests. Onna shook her head. ‘Don’t like the looks of them, either.’

Merilee took the pipe from between her teeth long enough to snarl, ‘Fucking save us,’ at the sky. ‘Ladies.’ A fellow with waxed whiskers and a tall hat flicked out a bright handkerchief and gave a flourishing bow. There was a glint in his eye behind a mask sparkling with crystals. An ugly glint indeed. ‘A most profound honour.’ And he swaggered past, just the slightest bit trembly. A drinker, Onna reckoned. ‘Silly old cock,’ Merilee muttered out of the corner of her mouth in Northern, before wedging her pipe back between her teeth.
Onna gave her mask a little tweak, then plucked at her bodice under the armpits, trying to wriggle it up. However tight she asked one of the other girls to pull the laces, the damn thing always kept slipping. She was getting a little chafed from it, and cast an envious glance towards Bellit, who had the unimaginable luxury of straps on her dress. Straps, was that too much to ask? But off-the-shoulder was the fashion. ‘Fuck,’ hissed Jirry through gritted teeth, turning her back on the candlelit room, letting her smile slip to show a grimace of pain as she twisted her hips and tried to pluck her clinging skirts away. ‘I’m like fucking raw beef down there.’ ‘How often have I told you to put some olive oil on it?’ snapped Bellit, grabbing her wrist and shoving a little vial into her hand. ‘Chance’d be a fine thing! I haven’t had time to piss since we opened the doors. You didn’t say there’d be half this many!’ ‘Twice the guests means twice the money. Get some oil on it then stand up and smile.’ Twice the guests meant twice the worry, far as Onna was concerned. There was a mad feel to Cardotti’s tonight. Even worse than usual. Way overcrowded and with a feel on the edge of bloodthirsty. Voices shrill and crazy, braying boasts and hacking laughter. Maybe it was all the masks, made folk act even more like animals. Maybe it was that horrible screeching music, or the flame-lit darkness, or the high stakes at the gaming tables. Maybe it was all the drink, and the chagga, and the husk, and the pearl dust going round. Maybe it was the demented entertainments – fire and blades and danger. Onna didn’t like it. Didn’t like it one bit. Her gut was twitching worse than ever. Felt like trouble coming, but what could she do? If she didn’t need the money, she wouldn’t be there in the first place, as Merilee was  always telling her. So she stood, awkward, trying to strike a pose alluring enough to satisfy Bellit while at the same time fading into the many shadows and catching no one’s eye. Sadly, an impossible compromise. She jumped as Bellit leaned close to hiss in her ear. ‘This one’s yours.’ Onna glanced over to the door and felt her gut twitch worse than ever. He looked like a clenched fist, this bastard. Great bull shoulders and no neck at all, close-cropped ram of a head leaned forward, veins and tendons standing stark from the backs of his thick hands. Hands that looked meant for beating people with. Most men had to give up weapons at the gate but he had a sword at his hip and a polished breastplate, and that made him some rich man’s guard, which made him a man used to doing violence and to facing no consequences. Beside his mask of plain, hard metal, the jaw muscles squirmed as he ground his teeth. ‘I don’t like the looks of that one,’ she muttered, almost taking a step away. ‘You don’t like the fucking looks of anything!’ hissed Bellit furiously through her fixed smile, catching her by the elbow and dragging her towards him. ‘You think a baker likes the looks of the dough she kneads? Milk him and get on to the next!’ Onna had no idea why Bellit hated her. She tried to be nice. While Merilee was the biggest bitch in Styria and got her own way every time. It was like her mother said – nice comes last. But Onna just never had much nasty in her. ‘All right,’ she muttered, ‘all right.’ She wriggled her bodice up again. ‘Just saying.’ And she plastered the smile over her profound misgivings and swayed towards her mark. Her guest. They were meant to call them guests, now.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked as she reluctantly turned the key in the lock, reluctantly turned back into the room. ‘Bremer.’ For such a big man he had the strangest high, girlish little voice. He grimaced as he spoke, as if the sound of it hurt him. ‘What’s your name?’ She smiled as she sat beside him on the bed and brushed his jaw with a fingertip. She didn’t much want to, and she got the feeling he didn’t much want her to, but she felt if she was gentle maybe she could keep  him gentle. Nice had to be worth something, didn’t it? She tried to keep her voice soft, with no fear in it. ‘You can call me whatever you want.’ He looked at her then. Eyes a little dewy behind his mask, maybe with emotion, maybe just with drink. Either one could be dangerous. ‘I’ll call you Fin, then.’ Onna swallowed. Here was a crossroads. Play along, pretend to be this Fin person, maybe calm him down? Maybe get away with wanking him off? Or at least going on top? Her skin was prickling at the thought of being trapped helpless under all that weight of muscle. Like being buried. But what if this Fin was some lover who’d jilted him, or an ex-wife had an affair with his best friend, or his hated half-sister who’d got all his mother’s love, someone he’d a burning desire to hurt? It was a gamble, and Onna had never been much of a gambler. Whoring was all a matter of pretending, though, wasn’t it? Pretending to like them, pretending to enjoy it, pretending you were somewhere else. Pretending to be someone else was no great stretch. ‘Whatever you want,’ she said. He was drunk. She could smell it on his breath. She wished she was. Felt like she was the only one in the whole place sober. A woman gave a gurgling giggle in the corridor. Laughter bubbled up from the courtyard outside. The horrible music had stopped, which was something of a mercy, except the violin had started hacking out a single sawing note made her more tense than ever. She tried to breathe easy, and smile. Act like you’re in charge, Merilee always said, and you’re most of the way to being there. Never let them see you’re scared. ‘Whatever you want,’ she said again, softly, and she brushed the cold metal of his breastplate with the backs of her fingers, sliding them down towards— He caught her by the wrist, and for a moment she felt the terrible strength in his grip, and she thought the guts might drop right out of her. Then he let go, staring down at the floor. ‘Do you mind if . . . we just . . . sit?’ He leaned towards her, but he didn’t put his hands on her. Just clenched his fists against his breastplate with a faint clatter of metal, and hunched up in a ball, and rolled into her lap with his back against her, a great, dense weight across her thighs, his sword sticking out behind him and scraping at her side. ‘Maybe you could hold me?’ he squeaked in that high little voice. Onna blinked. Whoring was a hell of a job for surprises, but pleasant ones were a sorry rarity. She slipped her arms around him. ‘Whatever you want.’ They sat in silence while men whooped and metal scraped and clanged outside. Some show fight going on, she thought. Men love to watch a fight. Bloody foolishness, but she supposed it could be worse. They could be fighting for real. There was a crashing sound, like glass breaking. A shadow flickered across the window. She realised her mark’s great shoulders were shaking slightly. She raised her brows. Then she leaned down over him, pressing herself against his back, rocking him gently. Like she used to rock her little sister when she couldn’t sleep, long ago. ‘Shhhh,’ she whispered softly in his ear. And he gripped hold of her arms, sobbing and blubbering. Awkward, no doubt, but being honest she was a lot happier playing the role of mother than the one she’d been expecting. ‘Shhhh.’ She frowned towards the window. It sounded like a proper fight out there now. No one was cheering any more, only screams that sounded worryingly like rage and pain and very genuine terror. The odd flash and flare of fire had become a constant, flickering glare through the distorting glass, brighter and brighter. Her mark’s head jerked up. ‘What’s going on out there?’ he grunted, shoving her over with a clumsy hand as he rose and stumbled to the window. Onna had a worse feeling than ever as he fumbled with the latch and shoved it wide. Mad, horrible sounds spilled through. As if there was a battle being fought in the middle of Cardotti’s. ‘The king!’ he hooted, spinning around and bouncing off the high cabinet, nearly falling on top of her. He fumbled his sword from its sheath and she shrank back. ‘The king!’ He charged past, bounced from the locked door, cursed, then lifted his boot and shattered the lock with a kick, ducking out coughing into the corridor. Smoke curled in under the lintel after him, and not earthy husk or sweet chagga smoke, but woodsmoke, harsh and smothering. What had happened? Onna slowly stood from the bed, knees weak, edged to the window and peered out.


Review copy provided by Gollancz

REVIEW : The Memory of Evil by Roberto Costantini

 

Roberto Constantini is back with The Memory of Evil, final part of his extraordinary trilogy that shocks and delights in equal measure, and it's he has never been better. The first two instalments were some of the finest Italian literature of recent times. Constantini's brutal realism is completely opposite to Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano novel lighthearted novels but but both stem from a same place. This is partly helped by Constantini being born in Tripoli and being fearless to ruffle up some feathers. This is a no mean feat in Italy where even recently touching anything Church related is still enough to incur the wrath of censors.

Tying up a tale that stretches over five decades we encounter investigative journalist Linda Nardi in Tripoli in the aftermath of her failed relationship with Commissario Michele Balistreri. The story opens up with a horrific massacre in Zawiya where Colonel Gadaffi's mercenaries heartlessly massacre a helpless villagers accused of being rebels. Linda, completely detached from events ends up being on a trail of an international money laundering operation that involves some of the Vatican's most powerful men. The final piece of the puzzle is revealed when she goes back to Nairobi and disguising herself into femme fatales manages to seduce Signor Gabriele Cascio and get the contents of his safe. However, the weight of what she has found only strikes Linda once Melanija and Tanja, a mother and daughter who asked for her help, are found dead under pretenses that Melanija killed Tanja. This is a horrifying developments. In parallel Michele Balistreri finally gets out of his stupor and is tackling the very same case.

The Memory of Evil ties up the knot of the overarching story nicely but never pretends that Italy’s are anywhere near to being solved. It’s an imposingly complex situation but Constantini brings his best weapon – a pen. This is once again a terrifyingly good read from Constantini that succeeds where it’s most important – in making you think about issues raised within the book. Having said that, Constantini shares a lot with another contemporary of his, Henning Mankell. Both used crime fiction as a way to bring the point home and both have been equally successful.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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REVIEW : Shot Through the Heart by Isabelle Grey

 

Crime fiction usually falls under two categories - one where you know from the start who the killer is and the detective is trying to catch him/her and the thrill is in the case, the other where the case itself is the thrill - where we are solving the case together with a detective. There is also a third category, the hardest one to do right. This category tells you everything from a start, who the killer is, how they've done it, their motivation and everyone, including the police and general public, know these facts as well as you. Isabelle Grey's latest novel fits firmly into it and as if all of the above wasn't enough, the killer is dead and his act is witnessed by many. Surely, this is a open and shut case and there is nothing much to write about. If "Shot Through the Heart" is anything to go by, there is.

"Shot Through the Heart" is second encounter with DI Grace Fisher and it opens up with a Christmas Day massacre. Mild and introverted thirty one year old Russell Fewell is sitting in his van and is thinking about the past Christmases that he spend with his family. Everything changed when he divorced and as he smells the roasting turkey, for a moments it seems like he is overcome with sadness and desperation and decided to go on a killing spree. Five people are left for dead and three in critical condition, before Russell turns the gun to himself, ending it all. Small mercy is that Donna, his ex-wife and his kids have survived. Her new partner Mark Kirkby, a well-respected policeman is however one of the victims. This most horrific news breaks up Grace's Christmas dinner with Lance and his partner Peter, and what initially seems like nothing more than an exercise in following a correct procedure, ends up being one of the most intriguing cases I've recently read. Grace with her newspaper hound friend Ivo unravels the police corruptions that stretches up to highest echelons of power.

Before becoming a successful novelist, Isabelle Grey honed her art as screenwriter and "Shot Through the Heart" feels a lot like watching a gripping six-part drama. The story unravels gradually in waves and always leaves just enough open intrigue to keep you interested. This was a gamble on Grey's part as "Shot Through the Heart" starts slowly and for first fifty or so pages feel slightly aimless because after such horrific event, the motivations are really not that important. However, Grey quickly won me over and I've loved shadowing Grace on her latest case. "Shot Through the Heart" is another winner for Grey who is slowly turning into something of a phenomenon. And to be honest, I expect we'll be seeing DI Grace Fisher on the box sooner rather than later.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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REVIEW : Rough Cut by Anna Smith

 

My friends like to make fun of me whenever I read Anna Smith's latest title. It's childish really but I can see their point. The cover art that graces the entire Rosie Gilmour series so far is made in a way that resembles the finest airport pot-boilers - you know the kind, those books you pick when you're absolutely desperate for something to read and need something to pass the time and kill the boredom. This might sound like such a snobbish thing to say but I don't think my friends are completely wrong there. Most of the airport novels are dead exciting to read but offer nothing more than a good romp. They're easily forgettable but personally I don't think there's anything wrong with that. However, they on the wrong track here. In my experience Rosie Gilmour novels are far better than their cover art seems to indicate. They're gritty, brave and tackle difficult subjects and while occasionally you'll stumble upon some cheesy moments even they work well within the confines of the novel.

Sixth novel in the series, "Rough Cut", is no exception and deals with a wide variety of subjects that are difficult to read about, namely prostitution, trafficking, racial discrimination and intolerance, and smuggling. It all starts when a Pakistani bride is found dead after falling from a window. Police quickly labels it a suicide but there is something not right about the story and Rosie is quick to investigate. She's quickly stonewalled by the bride's family but after seeing victim's sister's frightened face, she decided to keep digging. In the meantime, Nikki and Julie, two prostitutes who only recently going into business are in another type of trouble. After, Julie's punter dies, Nikki decides to steal his briefcase. This ends up being a very bad decision as the dead man was a mobster carrying rough diamonds and face passports. Slowly these two stories converge with Rosie in the middle leading up to a bombastic and shocking finale.

"Rough Cut" is breathtaking in its simplicity. It's impossible to put down even when it gets slightly strange. There is a point in a book when Rosie goes in the middle of Pakistan to save a girl that's been forcefully taken away. Once there, she witnesses a stoning of a poor woman and manages to escape the Taliban. It's shocking and while I understand why Smith went down that route, I thought that this was a completely unnecessary exercise. Apart from moments like these, "Rough Cut" simply flows and before you know it, the night has passed and you're at the ending and this is the reason why I appreciate the Rosie Gilmour series so much. It's not often you encounter something that so readable and so exciting! Great stuff.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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REVIEW : The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

My collection of Adrian Tchaikovsky's books fills a significant portion of my bookshelf and is slowly threatening to bring down the floor of my flat. As I have often mentioned, he's one of the authors that continuously surprises me with his output and while all of his books so far have been of similar (without fail outstanding) quality. they have all been such doorstoppers. When does this man eat or sleep? And his latest book, "The Tiger and the Wolf", first book in the "Echoes of the fall" series is no exception. It's gargantuan. And yet somehow I always manage to finish each new one within a week as I just can't let them go once I start. They're that good.

"The Tiger and the Wolf" is a slightly different proposition than his output so far but stems from the familiar themes - turning points in history and a life or death wide scale conflict. And yet, this latest one is a bold experiment that takes a little while to get used to. "The Tiger and the Wolf" takes place in a pseudo Iron Age where people have magical powers within their grasp. At the heart of the story is Maniye whose father is The Winter Runners or Wolf clan’s chieftain. However, her mother was a queen of the Tiger, their worst enemies. As such, she doesn't belong to either and is disliked by just about everyone. And yet, Maniye is incredibly unique and special person. She can shapeshift into both the tiger and the wolf as opposed to the others who can only take on their clan's form. And as the Maniye's father prepares for the fight of his life, he needs to bring Maniye under control so she is forced to escape to save her own skin. A notorious killer Broken Axe is sent by her father and is close on her tail. The story that follows is full of brutal battles, folklore and magical history set against rich and diverse landscape that is both dangerous and beautiful.

"The Tiger and the Wolf" will surprise even some of the most faithful Tchaikovsky’s readers as is it unlike anything he has written so far. Even after his previous two books, Guns of the Dawn, a historical fantasy and Children of Time, a proper hard SF, this is quite a departure. It is definitely a brave move from someone who could probably just keep on churning new insect book year after year and keep making healthy profit - if he was interested in doing so and was a different kind of person. "The Tiger and the Wolf" for most of its parts is absolutely fantastic. The characters are well fleshed out, the setting is as imaginative as they come and by now you probably know Tchaikovsky’s credentials in depicting a conflict. The only times when the story occasionally falters under its own weight is because of the sheer scale of eworld building. There is simply too much to explain, even for such a long book. It is definitely still too early to make a final decision whether the experiment paid off but for what is worth, I had a blast reading "The Tiger and the Wolf". At the end of it, I was really happy that this is supposed to be a series and that is always a good sign. Tchaikovsky still has it and at the moment he is definitely of the finest fantasy authors of his generation.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : Rook Song by Naomi Foyle

 

Naomi Foyle's "Astra" is one of the books that I'm growing fonder of as more time passes by. There's something about Naomi's style that I find instantly appealing and despite the fact that I've initial found "Astra's" overuse of prefixes and acronyms slightly distracting I eventually got used to them. I liked the way she tackled difficult social issues so the next instalment of Astra's coming of age tale couldn't come soon enough for me. If you remember, the world she lives in is a fragmented post-apocalyptic society where misinformation and propaganda rule. It's an advanced society but one scarred by the environmental mistakes of the past. Since her young age Astra has been prepared for her place in a society only to have everything turned upside down. So "Astra", the novel, revolved mostly around her struggle to rediscover herself but being only the first book in a proposed trilogy it left more issues open than resolved.

Recent published second part of "The Gaia Chronicles" follows on from its predecessor and finds Astra working for Council of New Continents or CONC. Her job isn't anything glamorous but it's crucial for her well-being. She's still suffering from the effects of genital branding and preventive Memory Pacification Treatment. Despite everything Astra has retained her impressive drive and rebellious nature and the only thing that occupies her waking hours is her quest to avenge the death of her Shelter mother Hokma. And if possible at all, she also wants to find her Code father. But as she stumbles once again into a web of intrigue she quickly realises that nothing much has changed. Apart from CONC, there's three other fractions struggling to secure the political power. There's notorious Is-Land Ministry of Border Defence (IMBOD), N-LA and YAC. This is still a very disorienting environment that has much more depth than was initially obvious.

Similarly to its predecessor, Astra's search for her own identity forms a central part of "Rook Song". As more and more avenues are closed for her, Astra grows increasingly agitated with her environment but she doesn't despair. If anything, she grows more feral. For a middle book in a trilogy "Rook Song" offers a surprisingly good read. It reveals just enough to keep you hungry for a sequel but yet it is not frustrating when it decides to withdraw. What's still slightly frustrating is that the amount of acronyms and character is occasionally overwhelming. Luckily similarly to "Astra" this is only a minor inconvenience because as soon as you get into the character all these become logical and usable. What more important is that "Rook Song" is better book than "Astra" in a similar way that "Astra" was better than "Seoul Survivors". Naomi's writing feels more confident and earlier in a book she goes completely experimental with the way she tell the story. In one of Asar's chapters words and font sizes go in all directions. It is truly fascinating to discover how richly detailed her world is. The amount of planning she put into "The Gaia Chronicles" must've been immense and she utterly unafraid to tackle its complexity head on. As such, "Rook Song" is brave and unexpected. It is one of those literary sf books that don't play for the masses and that are sadly often undeservedly overlooked. So, if you like your SF intelligent and stimulating do yourself a favour and pick up both "Astra" and "Rook Song". You won't regret it.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : The Human Division by John Scalzi

 

John Scalzi's The Human Division has been out for quite a while now in the US but those of us living in the UK are only now getting the pleasure of reading probably the most interesting novel in his landmark Old Man's War series. It seems like it was only yesterday but the great Human Division experiment actually happened way back in the 2013. If you don't know, Scalzi originally published novel in digital form as a monthly series - if we want to stretch a point, not unlike the stuff Dickens would do – and for most of its parts, it was a success. I was reading it as it originally came out and I still remember feeling excitement whenever a new instalment appeared. This was mostly thanks to Scalzi's skill as a writer and his uncanny ability to drop a cliff-hanger whenever you need it. Now, thanks to Tor I finally got the chance to re-experience it as a whole and it's just as good as I remembered it to be.

The Human Division follows on from the events that unfolded in the previous Old Man's War novel, The Last Colony and as such stands as the fifth novel in the series but can be read as a standalone book even though you'll miss some of the nuances if you do so. The general story revolves around the people of Earth who after realising that Colonial Union has purposely kept them from the very worst things that the hostile universe can offer, feel at odds with this new reality. It's an interesting political situation because with the new players on the scene, people of Earth are having a knee-jerk reaction ot CU and are almost in the situation where they rather enter an alliance with aliens than with them. Enter Lieutenant Harry Wilson and his B Team who will try to get everything back in order and, if at all possible, defuse the situation.

Early readers of The Human Division had often critised the way the story is told. Due to its episodic content the story itself has a completely different pacing. This is obviously due to the nature of monthly instalments where each episode is effectively a self-contained short story but if you accept it for what it is, The Human Division is probably the best Old Man's War novel so far. Over the years Scalzi has developed as an author and the banter between the characters is just fantastic. His vision of the complex and hostile universe is fine-tuned by this point and this brings the fragile balance into focus. However, there's some shortcomings. The story is partly not and lot of the threads are left open. This is one of the obvious dangers of reading an unfinished series but unwary readers beware. Personally I would suggest that you definitely pick up The Human Division if you like science fiction that's both intelligent and fun. For year's now Scalzi's Old Man's War series has been one of the finest reads that contemporary science fiction has to offer and this latest Tor edition has made it look nicer than ever before so there's no time to wait!


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : Underground by S. L. Grey

 

S.L. Grey is an ongoing collaborative effort between two well established authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg and even though I haven't read any of their standalone novels, I have quite enjoyed their output so far. "Underground" is a claustrophobic standalone novel that follows on from their Downside horror trilogy, and is a perfect starting point if you want to find out what S.L. Grey is all about.

"Underground" starts off with a really interesting question? How will world's richest people deal with post-apocalypse? The answer seems to be just act as usual and flaunt their money to gain upper hand over less privileged. In this case that means buying a stake in The Sanctum, a self-sustaining underground complex situated in rural Maine that promises safety and security even at a time when all the world outside is falling apart. As it is usually the case, before the apocalypse struck, The Sanctum was seen more as a refuge for the paranoid or a pointless exercise for those who have more money than sense. This all changes when the super-flu pandemonium hits and mad rush towards The Sanctum begins. This brings together an interesting cast of characters including survivalists such as Cam Guthrie, religious nuts, and white supremacists as well as some pretty decent folks, obviously in minority such a nerd who just wants to play World of Warcraft. With a melting pot such as this, trouble is never far ahead and why I did feel like some of the character traits have been chosen by the author for no reason but to fit the purpose, this was a volatile mix that for most of its parts succeeds in creating a palpable tension, especially after a person is found dead and everyone seems to be a suspect.

S.L. Grey's "Underground" is a fast paced and very enjoyable way to spend a few afternoons. It just flies. Once again after finishing a book from this unlikely duo I was tempted to check out something they have written on their own but I know I probably won't do it because deep down I think it is the two of the working together that make this whole thing tick. So back to waiting for the next one then!


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser

 

As the snow engulfed the place where I live I turned to Sweetgirl, Travis Mulhause's ferociously engulfing debut novel that mostly plays out across the frozen landscape. Percy James, a sixteen year-old protagonist is anything but sweet. She's as determined as they come when the circumstances request her to be and as the story opens with her braving the weather to look for her mother, Carletta, she fierce and unflinching in the face of danger.

The first thing that is strikes you straight from the start is their difficult relationship between Carletta and Percy. Percy definitely didn't have it easy. At the time when she was supposed to have the time of her life, get her heart broken by a cute boys and girls, she had to grow up to fast as Carletta is a meth addict who most of the time can't take care of herself. As the storm engulfs the area in all its savage glory Percy is worried that her mother is somewhere outside and won't survive the night.

She makes her way to Shelton Potter’s cabin, a place where she believes she'll find her but as she arrives her life is irrevocably changed. In the house she finds a baby freezing to death and, without hesitating, decides to take her away from the den full of addicts. What follows is a struggle for bare survival. Chased by Shelton and his crew, and surrounded by freezing storm, Percy must be stronger than ever before. She must look in to the eye of the storm and somehow get through, both for herself and the baby.

"Sweetgirl" is often a difficult read and despite taking place in a imaginary county it feels all too real. The media is full of real life stories where young girls had to go through similar ordeals because of their parent's addiction and this is why Travis Mulhause's debut feels refreshingly honest. Despite having some dark humour moments in it, I had to admit I had trouble laughing with it as none of this is was really laughing matter. However, that's not something that goes against "Sweetgirl". If anything, it makes it more powerful. Mulhause knows how to strike a chord with his readers and to convey even the hardest emotions. "Sweetgirl" is a gritty debut by an author who is showing promise for more great things in the future.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates

 

Grand dame of American literature, Joyce Carol Oates, doesn't seems to slow down. If anything, I am under the impression that she has sped up her output in recent years, publishing a diverse selection of works that are both thought provoking and challenging, as well as immensely readable. Her latest book, The Man without a Shadow, which has just been published by Harper Collins / Ecco is no exception. It is an intriguing tale which explores the boundaries of relationship and what it means to be human.

"The Man without a Shadow" is Elihu Hooper, a medical phenomenon and something of a star within the scientics exploring the mysteries of the mind. Elihu owes this dubious privilege to the fact that due to an infection he can only retain the last seventy seconds of his memory. As you can imagine, for Elihu this is an absolute nightmare. With memory as locked as his is, every new day is a challenge and voyage of discovery. Neuroscientist Margot Sharpe meets Elihu in 1965 and since then their lives are intertwined. For Margot, Elihu is more than a patient and a scientific interest. She is charmed by this withdrawn and gentle man up to a point where she puts her own life behind just to try to find another idea, another new approach to cure Elihu's condition. It's a very interesting premise because, think, Elihu never remembers meeting Margot and yet, for Margot, Elihu is a person she knows and loves deeply. It's incredibly difficult situation which occasionally turned disturbing. Margot can take liberties which she usually wouldn't because she knows Elihu will forget them mere seventy seconds later. It's riveting stuff.

"The Man without a Shadow" is wonderful new addition to ever-growing Joyce Carol Oates' bibliography and this complex emotional rollercoaster is without a doubt one of my favourite works of her. The relationship between the doctor and the patient in these circumstances opens up many difficult questions about the nature of love and ethics but I can't help but thinking that Oates was the perfect person to explore them. At the heart of it "The Man without a Shadow" is a love story, one that's heart-breaking to read but, in a strange way, still life-affirming because love somehow always finds a way - even if it's just for seventy seconds.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : The Travelers by Chris Pavone

 

"The Travelers" is Chris Pavone's most straightforward thriller and, if I am being honest, the book of his that I have enjoyed the most. Both “Expats” and “The Accident” have been fantastic reads but there is something about “The Travelers” that simply caught my eye. It might be due to the fact that lately I have developed an unhealthy obsession with spy thrillers as kickstarted by another recent Faber Books publication - Lionel Davidson's reissue of “The Rose of Tibet” which I wholeheartedly recommend if you haven’t read so far – but the fact is I had a whale of a time following Will Rhodes on his globetrotting adventure. In fact, Pavone shares a lot with Davidson. “The Travelers”’ cast is full of characters playing part you would not actually expect them to play. At its heart, it is mostly about ordinary people stuck in impossible situations and getting away with it.

"The Travelers" start as Will Rhodes, travel writer writing for a magazine called The Travelers makes a very bad decision and decides to accept an offer from a beautiful woman while on an assignment in Argentina. After waking up in the morning next to her, he suddenly realises what he has done, and fearing for his marriage he becomes a spy. He is suffering from a bad case of a mid-life crisis and is vaguely aware that he is going to regret this in the morning. He's an ordinary man with a wife Chloe and money issues but he still can't help himself but to give it a go. It might seem like a slightly silly setup but trust me, Pavone knows how to make it work. Will's assignment takes him all across the globe, from London to New York, even to the Mediterranean Sea and is literary filled with dozen of twist and turns that made my brain whirl.

"The Travelers" is a very definition of what a page turner should be like. Just when you feel like going to sleep and stopping reading, Pavone drops another bombshell and gets you start making excuses for yourself. I've really enjoyed the way Will Rhodes developed from a completely clueless character to someone who can hold his own in the world of business conspiracies. And that's all that you can expect from a book really. In its essence, it is indeed a pot boiler and it certainly won't win any awards but it will thrill you to the core.


Review copy provided by Faber Books
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REVIEW : The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson

 

At the time of his death in 2009, Lionel Davidson was one of the most acclaimed authors of fast-paced, gritty thrillers set in exotic locations. And while John le Carre's influence seems to be growing and growing, Davidson seems to have slipped into oblivion. I've always thought this to be unfair as Davidson is definitely as good as his contemporaries and, if anything, quite unique. Luckily, Faber Books are here to redress the balance. Following last year's beautiful edition of Kolymsky Heights, this year brings us The Rose of Tibet, his second novel and a classic of an adventure literature.

The Rose of Tibet follows the Charles Houston, a teacher who is as he's searching for his missing brother in the foreboding Himalayas. His brother disappeared with the entire crew while filming a movie on the mountain and are presumed dead. However, due to the tension in the area, no information is available and Charles is not losing hope. Charles' spends the most of the story just surviving as he's definitely not prepared for what he finds. The descriptions of avalanches and snow blizzards are gorgeously evocative and are probably the best part of the novel. But that is not all there is as this is vintage Davidson. Soon enough, Charles is involved with Buddhist Abbess who is in her 18th incarnation and there's impending invasion by the communist China. It’s a complicated situation.

The Rose of Tibet is as compelling as it was 50 years ago. It's an exciting romp that is very hard to put down and an adventure story that is easy to enjoy. To the older readers it will instantly feel reminiscent of King of Salomon's Mines or early Bond novels. That is not to say that some sentences will feel unpalatable to the modern eyes - there are slight hints of sexism or even racism but luckily no more than a few. The Rose of Tibet has lost none of its charm over the years and Davidson's depiction of Himalayas is one of the finest you'll ever encounter. It would be hard finding a novel like The Rose of Tibet today so that's one more reason to celebrate this Faber Books initiative. Let's hope they continue with other Davidson's work as well.


Review copy provided by Faber Books
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REVIEW : Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

 

It is a great time to be alive if you are fan of Branden Sanderson fan. In relatively short space of time we have been treated to two new Mistborn novels and a novella (Mistborn: Secret History) which came like a complete bolt out of the blue and answered some very old questions that were tickling our brains since the original trilogy was published all those years ago. And if that wasn't enough, here is a final part of his widescreen superhero extravaganza Reckoners, "Calamity". The easiest way to explain Reckoners to you would be if you imagine Heroes, but done really well, or The Misfits but set in the USA and slightly more futuristic. In fact, it's easy to imagine Reckoners making its way to the big screen. It is jam packed with action sequences, truly innovative superpowers and a cast of characters that are instantly likeable. And yes, there's plenty of evil baddies and so many twists it'll make your brain whirl. All in all, good stuff!

"Calamity" as title says revolves around the oppressive object in the sky that suddenly appeared over the reality Reckoners live in but it is not until the last 30 pages or so that this strange moon comes into play. The story on the other hand is mostly about the few remaining Reckoners such David, Megan, Cody trying to get their former leader Prof to step away from the edge and come back to the light. As "Calamity" opens Prof, plagued by nightmares, has turned completely evil and is dead set on destroying the rest of the Epics. Ever the optimist, David is hoping to use his new found knowledge about what makes the Epics tick to bring back the Prof - he believes that facing their weakness makes the Epic get better and stop falling into darkness. The only problem is, he doesn't know what Prof's weakness is or where the only other person who might know it, Tia, is or if she's even alive. With the help of Knighthawk the team eventually follows the trail of destruction to Atlanta, a city build out of salt that is constantly on the move, being recreated at weekly basis. Atlanta in this shape or form is one of the finest Sanderson's creation so far. The plight of people who have to move their house each way because it's perpetually falling down feels both real and tragic. In between all this Epics are having their local war and they just don't care about people around them. For all they care, they could be ants. What follows is quite extraordinary and will filled with epic fights, unbelievably exciting twists that you just can't predict and an ending that will blow your socks off, and all in 400 pages. And there's a really sweet tribute to a well-known comic superhero tied up in a multiverse story in which David meets his father again but I'll let you to discover that one for yourself. 

"Calamity" is a fitting ending to a trilogy that never failed to excite and entertain. It's an extraordinary, imaginative romp that pushes the boundary of the superhero genre. As is tradition, there's plenty space for many more stories to tell. I can only hope Sanderson will just ignore the trappings of a trilogy like he did with Mistborn and knock out a few more "Reckoners" novels.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre

 

Vonda N. McIntyre's 1978 science fiction novel "Dreamsnake" has a rather impressive track record so I was rather surprised when I realised that even after all these years I still haven't read it. It won the 1979 Hugo Award, the 1978 Nebula Award, and if that wasn't enough the 1979 Locus Award, and yet, it is relatively unknown in wider sci-fi circles. My completely unprofessional poll suggests that most of my mates by books haven't even heard of it so Jo Fletcher's wonderfully designed reissue couldn't come at a better time. This is a fantastic opportunity to discover or revisit this forgotten classic.

"Dreamsnake" comes from a slightly dreamy side of sci-fi spectrum and takes place on a post-apocalyptic future which at first glance seems to be unrecognizable. Genetic bioengineering is the norm and while parts of the planet are still uninhabitable due to radiation, the scientific progress has be rapid and extensive. The dreamsnake from the title refers to a small snakes who the society is using for many purposes. For example, Snake, a healer who opens the story has three snakes which she uses for anything from healing to sedation. When one of her snakes Grass dies, Snake blames herself and goes on a mission to replace her. With Grass gone, she's almost unable to do her duties. She's heals people and Grass was used to calm people. Her quest takes her to the central city and eventually, after many adventures, she understands many thing about the snakes themselves.   

When it originally came out, "Dreamsnake" was praised by Ursula K. Le Guin and it's easy to see why because the two of them share a lot. Both of them share the same dreamlike, poetic quality of writing and emotional prose that knows how to touch the heart. In the meantime I've learned that Vonda N. McIntyre's "Dreamsnake" is based upon the Nebula winning novelette, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" and I'm currently trying to track it down, as well as to expand my knowledge of her work. She definitely seems to be one of the most underrated science fiction authors around and if her work is as unknown as it was for me, please do check out "Dreamsnake". It's one of the great missing links in the evolution of science fiction and still holds to its qualities up to this day.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books
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REVIEW : Youth by Paolo Sorrentino

 

I'm not really sure whether Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth" (La giovinezza) is novelisation of a movie script or is it the other way around but my first instinct would be that it is the case of former as this slim volume does often feel like a screenplay – a movie treatment as written by the master of his craft.

"Youth" takes place is a luxury spa hotel situated in the Swiss Alps and follows the lifelong friendship of a famous composed Fred Ballinger and a film director Mick Boyle. By this stage they're just two old men, comfortable in their age but aware that the end is coming soon. Fred is slightly tired of life and is no longer composing. He simple doesn't have the passion and even says no when the Queen herself invites him to perform his famous "Simple Songs" at Prince Philip's birthday celebration. On the other hand Mick is still creating. While he and Fred are ruminating on loves lost and unrequited, his team of screenplay writers are trying their best to find the final line to his latest movie. The cast is completed by Miss Universe, and a South American overweight football player, Californian actor and a sad escort who goes around the hotel with her mum. Surprisingly for such a small hotel, there’s an awfully lot going on, starting with a German couple who never speak a work to each other but are passionate enough to go into woods to make love or Mick’s son who breaks his relationship with Fred’s daughter, just to be with Paloma Faith. It’s not the looks, he said, it’s just the fact that she’s absolutely incredible in bed.

Reading "Youth" is a warm and cosy experience that reminded me of Fellini and his many wonderful movies (particularly Amarcord where everything unfolds within a village instead within a hotel – just a slightly bigger stage really) even though I have to admit that I still haven't “Youth” in the movie form. Dynamics and intrigues come from the setting itself and even though superficially there is nothing much going on, if you scratch underneath the surface, all the complexity of life is suddenly revealed in its glorious, tragic and vibrant fashion. A beautiful book.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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