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REVIEW : Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

If you're fanatical follower of all things Gaiman it is almost inevitable that your first encounter with “Trigger Warning” will be one of disappointment. It is a wonderfully designed package packed tight with content but the problem lies with the fact that almost all of the stories and whatnots contained within have been previously published, some many times over. However, for the rest, myself included, this is something of a dream come true. Short fiction has always been one of Gaiman's most enduring qualities and I'll admit straight away that I found it very troublesome to track down most of this stuff. And what glorious stuff it is! It's surprisingly versatile and finds Gaiman willing to explore his boundaries. Think of it as a deluxe version of your favourite album. Apart from hits, it also comes with all those experimental b-sides and some dodgy home demos.

“Trigger Warning” opens with an introduction that explains where the phrase trigger warning comes from and the power it can wield over the readers. I've never thought about it in that way before and those some of its uses admittedly come over with a whiff of manipulation, it is in a way perfectly suited to a collection like this especially when you consider “disturbance” from its subtitle. It is certainly a mixed bag that will, at least partially, please every one of his readers. “Adventure Story” thematically most closely resembles “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” while Nothing O'Clock” is a Doctor Who story. And then there's “The Case of Death and Honey”, a Sherlock Holmes tale told in that dreamy Gaiman way. Most familiar of the included pieces will be “A Calendar of Tales”, a pastiche about months of the year which was freely available for some time and “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains...”, a superb short story published many time over, most recently as a glorious picture book which due to its visuals far surpasses this, original, version. Also included is “The Sleeper and the Spindle”, his take on fairy tales, also known for its recent illustrated edition. However, the most appealing piece is 40-odd pages long new story called “Black Dog” which is available for the first time in this collection. “Black Dog” is set in the world of “American Gods” and feature Shadow. It is a wonderful new addition to the canon, at least until that elusive sequel rears its head. Also worth mentioning are short introductions that accompany the pieces and offer an insightful look behind the inspiration and the writing process.

So should you buy “Trigger Warning”? By all means do . It's a mixed bag, for sure, but excellent pieces far surpass those few obvious misses. It is a collection that is best read slowly, a piece a day. Only then you'll have time to properly appreciate imagination of one of the finest minds of our generation. Personally, I'm still waiting for Gaiman's next adult novel but until then, this is the most you can get - Gaiman at his playful best.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : Farlander by Col Buchanan

 

One of the best things about being a reviewer for a literary magazine is that you'll continuously be in a position to discover new and exciting authors. The thing is that there's an impossible amount of books out there so it's often hard to commit yourself to works of someone new, especially if it is a series and there's plenty of familiar authors to read. There's simply limited amount of time in life so what you quickly learn to do is to trust editor's recommendations when it comes to new stuff. Over the years Col Buchanan's works were highlighted to me from more than a few people whose taste in book I respect immensely so when a chance came to review the entire trilogy I was absolutely thrilled. “The Black Dream”, third novel in the series is coming out on 12th March but let's start at the very beginning - with “Farlander”.

Buchanan's debut introduces us to Ash, world weary and ailing assassin whose career is nearing its end. But just not yet. From the streets of Bar-Khos he takes on an apprentice called Nico. Bar-Khos is a city under siege by the Holy Empire of Mann and even ten years later the conflict is nowhere near resolution. Ash and Nico embark to reach Sato, monastery hidden in the Cheem mountains which serves as a seat for a shadowy order of assassins who provide insurance for their clients – Roshun. When a woman protected by Roshun is murdered by Holy Empire of Mann 's leader Holy Matriarch's son, Roshun's wheels are fast in motion and soon Ash and Nico are after the revenge. Contact must be fulfilled. This interesting premise powers the plot and while it is blatantly obvious that sequels were intended to follow “Farlander”, Buchanan has done a fine job of keeping his plot tight and gripping.

Published in 2011, “Farlander” announced the arrival of Buchanan with a blast. It wasn't so much that Buchanan's worldbuilding was particularly inventive but it was everything else that made his debut so interesting. Let me explain. Superficially, “Farlander” is a familiar tale told countless times before, both in literature and films - that eternal conflict between good and evil set in a pseudo-historical setting upon which the fantasy as a genre is built upon. The main character is a stereotype and there's steampunk elements such as air-ships that were very trendy at the time. However, what sets Buchanan apart from the crowd is his instant readability and writing skill. In his hands, what once seemed ordinary soon becomes a class on its own. I stormed through “Farlander” and had a whale of a time. Great debut from a promising writer. On to “Stands a Shadow” now!


Review copy provided by Tor UK
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REVIEW : She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha

I find that Raj Kamal Jha's prose is very hard to describe and I've already started writing this review couple of times without any success worth mentioning. The problem lies with the fact that Jha's novels often feel like poetry and I never know how to adequately describe the feelings that they tend to stir up. "She Will Build Him a City" is built as a cycle of connected stories with Delhi as their center. Jha's Delhi is a dangerous and frightening place that can eat you alive, one which at times becomes almost like an evil caricature of itself. Similarly to Jha who works in the city, each of his characters is full of stories and lifes its live despite all the chaos and menace in the air. But not everything is doom and gloom. There's hope if you want to find it - all those immigrants coming to build their lives out of nothing. Some of them will even succeed in reaching their dreams. Similarly to Delhi, "She Will Build Him a City" is a palimpsest with layer upon layer of stories to discover.

Stories themselves revolve around characters known only as Woman, Man and Child who are caught in everyday situations built around social tensions in this vibrant and ever changing community. Wealthy Man looks from the safety of his car as police is using water cannons on the protesters and dreams of murder while the Woman spends time telling tales of the past to her daughter. Child, on the other hand, comes from different side of the spectrum and is an orphan abandoned by its mother on the doorsteps of the orphanage. As the story unfolds, the three characters become connected by fourth and the final strand of the tale comes into view. Ultimately, its really not that important as by then you'll be perfectly aware of the city and its constant evolution. No matter what happens with our protagonists the city will go on with its endless onslaught of death, violence and occasional laughter.

Raj Kamal Jha's "She Will Build Him a City" is also notable for breaking the traditions of a classic Indian novel. Ruminations about the past are almost nonexistent and Jha is more willing to embrace the future however chaotic is might seem. More importantly, it also beckons full attention from its reader. Superficial glance will hardly do it justice because just as every metropolis only reveals its true colours when you stray off the tourist trail, "She Will Build Him a City" works best when you fully embrace and understand its symbolism and concepts. "She Will Build Him a City" is raw novel about Modern India and, equally as its subject, is irresistibly alluring.


Review copy provided by Bloomsbury UK
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REVIEW : Tricked! by Paul Frampton

 

Whether you scientifically inclined or not, there's a significant chance you've heard of Paul Frampton, albeit for two very different reasons. Those coming from science background will probably know him best for his occasionally groundbreaking work in theoretical physics which I won't pretend to completely understand. Others will remember him from an story that filled the media headlines in 2012. It's was the stuff of nightmares. A tale that felt like it fell out of some Hollywood blockbuster. You simply couldn't make it up. 

In 2011, Frampton was working as a Professor of Physics, respected by his peers but ultimately emotionally unfulfilled. After going through a divorce seven years ago he was lonely and as most of people do these days, he turned to internet dating to find love. Initially he was realistic with his expectations but soon after opening his profile Frampton he was contacted by a beautiful, 30 years younger woman named Katherine Roopnarine. After he noticed an imprint Denise Milani on one of the pictures she sent, Katherine responded to Frampton saying she's in fact Milani, a hugely successful bikini model. No, she absolutely doesn't mind that he is an older gentleman because she's tired of shallow younger men and is actually looking to settle down. While you would expect that at this point someone as intelligent as Frampton would run to the hills, curiously he accept her story and accept her invitation to visit her at in Bolivia. From this point everything goes downhill for Frampton. Without revealing too many details, he ends up being accused of being a drug mule and ends up in prison. As you probably guessed by now, Milani never was Milani.

Frampton never admitted to smuggling drugs and always insisted that he's simply been conned due to his naivety. Certain text has transpired against him and sealed his fate at the trial so in the end he was convicted. Personally, I've always thought that it was plausible Frampton was innocent. I've worked with enough scientists in my life and I've noticed a similar pattern reoccurring. While they're ofter undoubtedly brilliant intellects, they're often emotionally lacking so I can imagine them falling into the same trap as Frampton as unlikely as it sounds. "Tricked! The Story of an Internet Scam" in a way serves as a cautionary tale. It recounts his side of the story in a brutally direct manner and is admittedly a gripping read until you remember that all this actually happened to someone. It's sobering when you realise how quickly someone's career and life can be effectively shattered by a single bad decision. However, I can't say that this short text should be a final say in the matter as some crucial parts (such as said texts) are simply glossed over. But for what its worth, Frampton's account is well worth reading, both for its surreal story and the lesson it provides.


Review copy provided by Publishing Push
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REVIEW : Aquarium by David Vann

Bard of the troubled David Vann has taken his readers to some very bleak places. Vann is not afraid to explore even the darkest of themes but study of his characters often offers hope in the unlikeliest of place. "Aquarium", his latest novel, doesn't stray away too far away from this familiar territory and through what superficially feels like a coming of age story explores the impact of family secrets on a relationship between parents and their children. "Aquarium" is also a development of sorts for Vann. While being full of palpable tension and emotions, it is also his first novel written from female perspective and one where the ending doesn't come with an impact of a Greek tragedy.

Caitlin, twelve-year-old, is at the heart of the story. She lives with her mother Sheri in a grimy apartment in an industrial Seattle and likes to spend her time in a nearby aquarium. She's absolutely fascinated by fish, loves the sense of calm they bring and the pocket universe they inhabit. With their shapes and sizes, fish provide a welcome escape for Caitlin who doesn't have too much joy in her life. On one of her escapades she meets an older man and while initially they're connected mainly by their mutual admiration of aquarium it soon transpires that there's something more to their relationship. Older man is connected to a heartbreaking secret that could destroy the fragile existence she has with her mother. Her he long gone Grandfather. Caitlin is at a turning point in the life. She's at that precious age when she becoming aware of the world and about her emotions and body, and revelation like this can spin her out her orbit. Slowly the truth comes out and details of her mother's troubled relationship with her father and the abuse that cause the rift are revealed in excruciating details.

 

If you've never read David Vann's work before, "Aquarium" is a perfect introduction. It's a fantastic overview of his writing skill and is a slightly less heart wrenching experience than his previous novels tend to be. In a way, it is an amalgam of his work so far. This dark voyage into the family breakdown is also his most hopeful book yet. It's clear by now that Vann is without question one of the most important American writers of our age and as far as I'm concerned, his latest novel finds him at his graceful best. Well recommend.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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The story behind The Generation by Holly Cave

What makes you, you?

These four words featured heavily in my former life, when I developed exhibitions for London’s Science Museum. And that compelling question—a mantra that formed the backbone of my work on researching the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery about genetics, neuroscience and identity—formed the seed of The Generation.

I’d already started writing another novel, five chapters of which languish to this day on my home screen. But it was going nowhere. I needed a single idea; one strong enough to support a story and all the complexities of the characters within it.

The inspiration came at the right time. I was in my mid-twenties and somewhat discontent as I grappled with my own identity and place in the world. I found myself resisting definition, and the more I discovered about the science of identity, the more I longed for knowledge of a more soulful nature.

As I researched and explored what science has to say about what makes us unique individuals, I came across some astonishing stories and some remarkable people. It reaffirmed what I already knew: that human diversity is to be celebrated. We each have a universe within ourselves—completely unique—and shaped by our genes, the people around us, the substances that flow around us as we develop in the womb, and much, much more.

Freedom to be the person we are—and trying to become the person we want to be—is a wonderful thing. I imagined a future without that precious freedom, and in doing so, the chilling world of The Generation was born.

I first started writing it in 2009, but in all honestly, I wasn’t ready to be a committed writer. With the pressures of a demanding, full-time job I found it hard to find the time to write. When I did sit down at my desk, the words flowed out of me, but there was no planning involved; I had no idea how it would end.

The exhibition was completed and I moved on—quite literally—by travelling around the world for a year. Despite moving from bunk beds to sleeper trains to hammocks every few days, a fully formed manuscript finally emerged. A fond memory of that time is watching my husband-to-be read through that first draft at a roadside picnic table in New Zealand.

Returning from my travels, anything seemed possible. I started freelance writing and haven’t looked back. I love writing about both science fact and science fiction. The two seem to give each other oxygen.

The next book won’t take me so long. Already several thousand words in, The Architecture of Heaven has corralled my imagination for the foreseeable future.

I’ve promised myself that I’ll read fifty books this year and write one. Check back in August and give me a nudge, will you?


Holly Cave
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REVIEW : If I Fall If I Die by Michael Christie

 

Michael Christie's debut novel "If I Fall, If I Die" is one of those rare books that has the tendency to fill your heart. This coming of age tale revolves around Will, a boy held captive by his mother Diane Cardiel who despite loving him deeply never lets him go outside. She's suffering from a debilitating case of agoraphobia which she's transferring to her boy. So Will can't remember ever going outside of his house despite living all across the world in some of the most vibrant cities. He just spends his days in those few rooms that his house contains, drawing and daydreaming. But as his 11th birthday comes to pass, he suddenly starts wishing for more. Like an explorer preparing to climb Everest for the first time, Will decides to embark on a greatest adventure of his life and to venture outside. Instinctively he realises that his mother is wrong and damn the consequences. Armed with a protective helmet and fear that makes him weak in the knees, he eventually makes a step and then another only to discover a wonderful new world. He even meets new friends, like Marcus and Jonah who teach him how to skateboard, and every little thing is full of wonder. Inevitably, Will discovers the shortcomings of life Outside as well but unsurprisingly he even takes these in his stride as after being held captive for so long even the bad days are not so bad. Even here Christie is brutally honest and delivers a crash course in prejudice and racism, few of the things Will was completely unaware of while being in his gilded cage. Counter argument is provided in chapters told about Diane and her horrific past which is largely the cause of her suffering. Despite being rather happy about Will's new found freedom I have to admint I was also increasingly worried about how well will Diane cope with losing Will to the Outside.

The idea behind "If I Fall, If I Die" is not particularly innovative and has been extensively explored in literature (admittedly it shares a lot more with Scarlett Thomas' "Going Out" than with Emma Donahue’s "Room") but what sets "If I Fall, If I Die" apart from the crowd is that Christie successfully manages to make his case for our increasingly ordinary world. He invites us to go outside and to rediscover our surroundings. To notice once again all those things and details we take for granted -for example, a tree - isn't it amazing with all it's branches and bark? And that's exactly how you'll feel for some time after finishing "If I Fall, If I Die". Despite the sadness, everything will become important and beautiful and because of that Christie's debut is one rather special book. It works its magic without succumbing to cheap sentimentality and for most of its parts, succeeds.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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REVIEW : Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

This slim volume is the only known novel by Ernst Haffner, German social worker and journalist, which only a year after its publication in 1932, was banned by Nazis for its apparently anti-Aryan propaganda. It's hard to see why when considered by today's standards but those were different time. Germany between two world wars was country to the edge of the abyss. In an atmosphere filled with prejudice and hate, only the boldest were willing to raise their heads above the crowds. Ernst Haffner was one of them and it was extremely courageous of him to publish "Blood Brothers” (originally titled Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin” (“Youth on the Road to Berlin”) when he did. The reason why is not because of what he has written but rather what he hasn't. What's strangely absent from "Blood Brothers" is any glorification of Aryan way of life. Instead Haffner has decided to show the life in socially deprived German as it is and no one is more human than his protagonists. It time of trouble they run from crime to crime and this lifestyle as harsh as it is unites them. And this is what probably caught the eye of authorities. In all their despicable acts his character as only human, no better or worse than the rest. There's no place for politics if you're scraping barely enough to survive.

"Blood Brothers" as a story works primarily as a historical document. As Hitler is gaining power with each new day that passes, on the streets opportunistic gangs are slowly preparing for land grab. Perpetually living on the Berlin's streets and underground hostels, these street gangs are organized by their own code of honour and are ran by military discipline that spits our those who can't handle the brutality and grittiness. It's easy to throw parallels with similar works of literature exploring seeds underbelly of American cities and you wouldn't be mistaken. "Blood Brothers" is a good as any of them and Haffner's sparse prose is unflinching in its honestly. Sadly, Haffner's story didn't have a happy ending. All traces of him disappeared after the second world war but mystery of what actually happened to Haffner has not been solved to this day.However, in 2013 his only novel was found again and subsequently published in Germany to great acclaim. Its easy to understand its appeal. "Blood Brothers" stands as true testament to his writing talent and to his unfulfilled potential as well a thrilling insight into a time best left behind. A great rediscovery.


Review copy provided by Other Press
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