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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REVIEW : Down Station by Simon Morden

 

I am rather chuffed by the fact that "Down Station" is published by Gollancz. I love Orbit Books but I've always thought that Simon Morden's kind of madcap science fiction would fit better within Gollancz's line-up. And if I'm to be completely honest, I am especially pleased by the fact that the transition happened with "Down Station", by far his finest novel so far.

If you ever went down into the bowels of earth using one of the escalators you were probably impressed by the size of the thing. London underground always seemed to me to be a different world. You can easily imagine everything changing up there on the surface while you are traveling below and this is exactly the premise of sweeping "Down Station". A multicultural group of commuters and tube workers lead by Mary and Dalip are caught in the middle of a horrific event and try to escape thought he service tunnel only to come out to a weird realm filled with weird creatures and stranded people all across the history. The only thing connecting them all is the fact they have all came here a time when a London was burning. No one has since returned to London but one person seems to be different and is able to come and go at will. Perhaps there's still hope of returning home from Down? Brilliantly, the world they travel through is defined by London's landmarks. London is everywhere and everything in this strange place. And yet, it's the stuff of fantasy. There's monsters aplenty, looking for a quick bite and a lost traveler. Completely surprisingly, Morden has managed to even include a fully fleshed out magic system in the proceeding. If it sounds chaotic, it certainly is but Morden know how to do both science fiction and fantasy, and "Down Station" is, if anything, a perfect amalgam of the two.

"Down Station" takes its cue from previous Morden's works. There's are quite a few leaps of imagination and action sequences that are reminiscent of his Philip K. Dick award winning Samuil Petrovitch / Metrozone series that spanned four novels and his take on London's mythology and legends has probably been shaped and moulded by the experiences of writing "Arcanum". To put it simply, "Down Station" is a fiercely innovative take on the London's underground that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as all other classics of this increasingly crowded sub-genre such as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or China Mieville's Un Lun Dun. There’s more good news. Judging by the ending, there’s plenty more to come. “Down Station” feels like a beginning of a series but so far, so great!


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

 

"Montaigne", one of the last books Zweig was working on before committing suicide with together his wife, is very sad to read. It's unfinished and it's definitely not perfect but when read across the decades, it clearly shows the signs of what was coming shortly in the future. Zweig, who suddenly discovers Montaigne, is clearly not the person he once was. He's world weary and disappointed with politics, all the hatred that surrounds him and with life in general. It is not a world he can relate to, recognize or even find himself in. It all starts when in exile he discovers a crate of books featuring the collected works of Montaigne who he never particularly liked. But still, being without his old books, he hesitantly gives him another chance only to discover so far overlooked depths. While he explores the life and works of Michel de Montaigne, through his words Zweig often feels like he's closing in on himself, reverting to the very thing he loves the most – books and letters. Like the Montaigne's tower of books embodied in his person, he's increasingly hiding from the world using nothing but words, effectively using them as shield against humanity. Sadly, we now know that he has ultimately lost his battle but “Montaigne” as an account of his final thoughts stands proud as a fragile, final monument to this literary genius - a man who lived, loved and created books.

As it is often the case with Zweig’s biographies they're not just historical documents about a certain person but rather a reflection of his own time as seen through that historical figure. Since "Montaigne" was written during the Second World War, Zweig is increasingly thinking about intellectual freedom and what it takes for people to become as cruel as they are. Especially poignant are the moments when Zweig is considering his youth and how, at the time, he thought that Montaigne's book are simply no longer relevant to his time. He honestly believed that the age of violence and incredible cruelty has been left behind in the past and will never come to light again. He thought the people are living in an enlightened age only to be proved years later that he was crushingly wrong all the time. Ironically, Zweig final plea for tolerance and peace was left unheard but even today, as we're experience turmoil again, it still holds true as it ever was. As such, "Montaigne" is both a fond farewell to a great man of letters and disarming reminder of a world we live in.


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press
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REVIEW : Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw

 

Marion Pauw is another one of those fantastic authors that you probably haven't heard of but that are absolutely huge in the countries and non-English speaking world. Marion is originally from Netherlands and currently lives in Amsterdam where she, so far, published more than a dozen of book out of which "Girl in the Dark" is her first book published in the USA and, if I'm not mistaken, her first book translated to English (original title Daglicht). As such, "Girl in the Dark" is a force to be reckoned with, a formidable brooding psychological thriller that stays with you for a long time.

As "Girl in the Dark" opens, Iris is living an ordinary, if slightly, stressed out life. She has a difficult son, Aaron, who due to his behaviour issues is often a handful and a job that demands a lot of her. She's finding it increasingly hard to handle both, especially Aaron who's erratic and his increasingly aggressive behaviour is starting to scare her. Her mother, Agatha, is not helping either. Always quick to judge her, she often makes Iris feel like a bad mother. It all changes when one day Iris makes a stunning discovery after helping out with the fish tank. She learns that she apparently has an older brother called Ray.

As she digs deeper, she discovers that Ray is currently in an institution for the criminally insane for committing a murder of his neighbour and her little girl. But after meeting him, Iris leaves with doubts. Is he really "The Monster Next Door" as the media dubs him? Ray is certainly odd but he's also autistic and is having difficulty communicating. Since a lot about Ray remind her of her own son Aaron, Iris decides to find out the truth.

"Girl in the Dark" is told clinically through both Iris and Ray and despite its coldness, it is actually a story about a family willing to stick together, no matter what. Pauw tackles difficult issues with ease and mostly manages to pull it off thanks to superbly written characters who know how to be both strong and vulnerable. Iris is an inspiration, someone despite everything that's going on in her life, is still managing to keep it all together. It is also impossible not to mention an ending - it comes out of the blue and is completely surprising. "Girl in the Dark" is a fine English debut for Marion Pauw and well worth checking out if you need a psychological thriller to spend a night with.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : The Woman In Blue by Elly Griffiths

 

I've suddenly realised, to my shame, that if someone asks me who my favourite crime author is, more often than not I'll forget to mention Elly Griffiths. It is something that I find really hard to understand considering how much I enjoy her books and how, even after all this years, I still get excited about anything new she publishes. Hands down, she IS definitely one of my favourites. I've thought long and hard about this and the best explanation I can offer is that she is simply too reliable so somehow I always overlook her. You know, like Rankin and Dexter are? It's all my fault, of course. These days Ruth Galloway and Nelson are for me more akin to friends than to mere characters from a book. They're always there with their next case, just as good, if not better, then they were when they started. "The Woman in Blue", 8th book in the series has just come out and it's another corker.

"The Woman in Blue" opens with Cathbad house-sitting in Walsingham. He doesn't like the place in question. There's not a straight line in sight, and opressive atmosphere that is encouraged by the traditional ghost tales surrounding the house is not helping either. Cathbad, who, as you know, is a very spiritual person, feels like there is something seriously wrong here. To top it all, his friend has also left a particularly cunning cat in his care. He's really struggling to keep her in so when she escapes the house again and goes to the nearby graveyard, Cathbad is surprised to see a young, beautiful woman, dressed in a blue cloak standing there, offering a smile. She quickly disappears and Cathbad, as usual, is playing with an idea that he has actually seen a ghost. The truth is far more frightening. Tomorrow morning a body is found. It's Cathbad's girl and the cloak is actually a gown. The young woman is soon identified as Chloe, a famous model with a history of addiction who was recovering in a nearby clinic. It's a sad story but one that will continue to shock as it unfolds.

Ruth, on the other hand, is going on with her life, struggling to balance work and Kate, a still somehow being hopelessly in Nelson. For her sins, she end up in Walsingham when she's asked for help by Hilary, an old university friend turned priest, how has been receiving some particularly nasty letter that touch upon the archaeology and history of the place. Nelson thinks the two might be connected : Chloe's murder and the letters.

"The Woman in Blue" is another fantastic entry in the series that keeps on delighting. As always, I would suggest reading from the start because only then you'll fully appreciate how intricately complex the whole story is. There's a lot of tiny touches that point towards previous instalments that you would otherwise miss but if that seems like a too hefty undertaking, "The Woman in Blue" can be read as a standalone novel. As the rest of the Ruth Galloway's novels, "Woman in Blue" is warm, comforting and deadly. Don't miss.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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The story behind The Ex by Alafair Burke

Everyone has “The Ex,” emphasis on the. 

            Not just an ex, the one we might still see at work or around the neighborhood, or forget about entirely until he or she pops up on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall.  The ex is the one you still find yourself thinking about at the most unexpected moments.

            I thought I saw mine in the audience at one of my book events a few years ago.  A man in the very back row, smiling at me. Was the smile a friendly one or contemptuous?  I couldn’t tell. He left when the questions began, and I’m still not sure whether it was even him.

            Probably not, but as I delivered my spiel about the latest book, I was imagining what I would say to him if he assumed a spot in the signing line.  Nice to see you?  Are you still a doctor?  Sorry?  I came up with nothing.

            Because, here’s the thing: When I think about my ex, it is with regret and a sense of shame.  Regret for things I did and didn’t do, said and didn’t say.  Shame because I was the bad guy in that relationship, no question.

            I know from a mutual friend that the ex, like me, went on to marry someone better suited for him. (Case in point: He has, I have heard, four, maybe five, children with her. My husband and I have two dogs.) But that hasn’t cleansed the guilt. Ten years into my own happy marriage, part of me feels like I owe an explanation to someone I haven’t seen since I flat-ironed my hair and thought rollerblading was cool.

            For some, the ex is the great love who got away. Or the one who made it hard to trust again. In my case, he was the one I disappointed. 

            Or at least that’s how I remembered it, nearly twenty years later. 

            For Olivia Randall, the ex is her former fiancé, Jack Harris.  A tragic decision she made twenty years earlier didn’t just break their engagement; it led to disastrous consequences she tries–unsuccessfully–not to think about. But Jack re-enters her life in a big, surprising way when his teenaged daughter calls her for help. Jack has been arrested for a triple homicide.  Olivia is one of the best criminal defense attorneys in New York City and knows that sweet, naïve Jack could not have committed the terrible acts he’s accused of.

            For Olivia, helping Jack is a way to turn back the clock and try to absolve herself of two decades of guilt.  But then the evidence against her client mounts.  One of the victims Jack is accused of killing was a man he blamed for his own wife’s death.  There’s also the inconvenient fact of gunshot residue on Jack’s clothing, not to mention Jack’s unlikely alibi. 

            She wonders whether her memories of Jack and their relationship have been distorted by her own remorse.  Maybe Jack was neither sweet nor naïve.  How well did she ever really know him?

            As I wrote about Olivia and Jack, I thought about my own ex.  Was I truly the bad guy? Was he really so devastated? Am I remembering what we were actually like or only what I’ve been telling myself over the years? I don’t know and probably never will. Some relationships belong in the past. 

            For Olivia and Jack, the events that reconnect their paths are life changing.


Alafair Burke
Order The Ex by Alafair Burke here:

REVIEW : Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

 

Gentle "Be Frank With Me" is a book that would feel at home at Hollywood screen. Its scenes play out like some of the finest heart-warming moments you'll recall thanks to its vivid prose. Newcomer Julia Claiborne Johnson tells the tale of the reclusive literary cult author M. M. “Mimi” Banning, who after staying away from the world for decades, decides to come out of her Banning mansion and embrace the limelight once more. The easiest way to describe M. M. “Mimi” Banning is to remember real life authors such as Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger who wrote one hugely influential book before disappearing for years. As this is her first major project in years and she has to accept that things have changed in the publishing. Even an author such as her is subject to editor's doubts. This is partly due to the fact that Mimi never really planned to publicly write another word but after falling a victim to a scam she's forced to. To make her stick to the deadlines, her publisher assigns her an assistant. 

The publisher sends Alice Whitley, who instead of helping out with the writing, ends up being nanny to Mimi's nine-year-old son Frank, a delightful if eccentric boy obsessed with past. Frank is something else, armed with razor sharp with and much too grown up for his age. Alice is instantly charmed and eventually ends up embroiled in a mini-quest to find out Frank's long lost father. Completing the cast of characters is Xander, a musician and a strange character in general. In a way, he's the only male presence in Frank's life.

Julia Claiborne Johnson's "Be Frank With Me" is a book that easy to love and easy to enjoy. It's absolutely gorgeously written, with every sentence seemingly in its right place. Told with passion and with a feeling, I expect "Be Frank With Me" to be a much loved, and if luck would have it, hugely successful book. It certainly deserves to be one, because despite its heart-warming nature, it's never too sugary. At worst it’s just slightly offbeat, at best it's simply gorgeous. I've simply loved it.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

 

City of Stairs was one of my favourite reads last year. It was fresh and surprising, because despite being at odds to everything that Robert Bennett Jackson Bennett wrote before, it worked both as an adventure story and a social commentary. City of Blades, its long awaited follow-up is finally here and I’m happy to report that once more everything has changed, and mostly for better. All the qualities that made City of Stairs such a appealing proposition are still here, and then some.

The story opens few years following the events in City of Stairs and the city of Voortyashtan is in ruins. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called from her retirement by Council President Shara to investigate the disappearance of Choudhry, a special agent working undercover in the city. Despite the heavy military presence, Voortyashtan is a volatile place filled with pockets of violence and there’s every chance that the excavations necessary to build a new seaport have disturbed something that shouldn’t have been disturbed – a new type of metal that could change everything. Mulaghesh is perfectly aware that she’s been thrown into the deep end but her sense of loyalty ultimately prevails and she’s determined to resolve her mission in a professional manner. Inside she’s in turmoil. She’s perfectly aware that she has deserved her retirement and rest but still, sense of loyalty is still there.

City of Blades is much bleaker and socially aware than its predecessor. In a way it feels like the recent news coverage seeped into the narrative and brought the new-found tension to the story. As you would expect from him, Bennett’s strongest point are the characters who feel real and lived in. There is an emotional depth that you don’t meet often in a book. Ultimately, City of Blades is a complex and hard hitting sequel that surpasses its predecessor in almost all aspects. It is an altogether different sort of book. It’s loud, bold and uncompromisingly ambitious and I wholeheartedly recommend it even if you haven’t read City of Stairs. 


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books
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The story behind Fever City by Tim Baker

Normally it’s something you only ever see in movies – or read about in books! – that big eureka moment. But it actually happened to me.

One night in the middle of January 2011, around four o’clock, I woke up from a long, vivid dream, leapt out of bed, opened up the computer and started writing down exactly what I had dreamt.

I didn’t even have to think about what I was typing out at speed. It was as though the text were being narrated to me.

Several hours later when I finally stopped, I realised I had the opening to what would become my debut novel, FEVER CITY.

But this wasn’t just any old opening, these were the opening chapters to a novel that I had been trying to write, on and off, for over fifteen years.

And they proved to be the solution to the major difficulties that had been holding back the development of the work.

The novel had begun as a mystery set in Manhattan in 1950, involving the murder of a disgraced NYPD detective. A secondary plot involved the kidnapping of the only child of America’s richest and most hated man.

But as I moved forward with the manuscript, an unexpected thing happened. The secondary plot began to emerge as the principal one. The kidnapping story kept growing in intensity and pretty soon I had abandoned the other story for it alone.

As surprised – and excited – as I was about this development, I knew there was still one element that was missing, a parallel story that needed to evolve out of the kidnapping, and suggest an even greater mystery.

I explored various scenarios, but none of them seemed strong enough nor connected with the kidnapping in an organic way. After two years, I put the kidnapping novel down, knowing that one day I would return to it.

Meanwhile, there were many other writing projects to keep me busy. I started travelling for various film projects, and one of the trips took me to Los Angeles. As someone who had never owned a car in his life, I expected to hate the city but instead fell in love with it.

Yes, it was sprawling and unanchored, but it was surrounded by incredible natural beauty and was culturally diverse. And there were a multitude of neighbourhoods, each with its own community, ambiance and mood. Above all, there was the torrid, slap in the face heat. It was as if the whole city were running a temperature.

It only took me a couple of days to understand that I needed to change the setting of my kidnapping story from Manhattan to LA.

I went back to the work-in-progress, and was impressed with the results. Changing the terrain also changed the tempo, and deepened the mood to a high-gloss noir.

It also imposed a change in time, lifting the story up to the next decade. The Sixties were a pivotal time not just for the city of Los Angeles, but for the whole country. For the world.

As pleased as I was with the novel’s progress, I was still searching for an event that linked into the kidnapping. It had to perform a tricky balancing act, being big enough to stand on its own, yet not overwhelm the kidnapping story.

Several times I thought about the assassination of JFK in Dallas. That would certainly fulfil the two criteria, but how could it fit in? Try as I might, I couldn’t find a convincing link. The novel was still blocked.

Then came my dream, and with it the solution.

They say dreams are the manifestation of the unconscious mind. Perhaps they’re right. I don’t know where the inspiration came from for my dream. All I know is that I’m thankful it arrived.

Thanks to that dream, my novel was completed and published. Now, when someone tells me only in your dreams, it has a whole different meaning…  

Fever City: A Thriller (Faber & Faber) by Tim Baker out 21 January, £12.99

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimBakerWrites


Tim Baker
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REVIEW : The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

 

While, without question being an all-around great reads, previous Wayne and Wax novels weren't really up to par with the original Mistborn trilogy. It's easy to see why. They are served as self-contained adventure yarns which expand the universe and mythology but not necessary change it. Their stories are on a local scale while Mistborn trilogy produced a god. It doesn't compare. I suppose, they were never intended to be as epic (you have Sanderson's other doorstoppers for that). They were such great fun nonetheless. But that is the main reason why The Bands of Mourning feels so refreshingly great. It reminded me of why I feel in love with Mistborn in the first place. It's still a Wax and Wayne novel but one which finally pushes the boundaries of the characters and fleshes out world even further. There's epicness and there's still the usual Wax and Wayne's occasionally cringe worthy antics.

The Bands of Mourning continues the events of Shadows of Self and finds Wax and Steris on the cusp of their marriage. This is one of the most important social events in the calendar and yet, we find Wax and Wayne in their retrospective mood. It's like they're rebelling against the time itself, not realising that what is coming ahead might be for the best. Steris seems to be the only person who has everything in grasp but even she is hard pressed to avert the catastrophe when Wayne pays for someone to use a water tower to flood their wedding. Things get even more complicated when kandra MeLaan arrives and leaves them no choice but to join her on an adventure to find the mythical Bands of Mourning. It's a subtle case of emotional blackmail that involves Wax's sister and uncle known to your previous books a Mr. Suit. By taking the story out of Elendel, Sanderson completely tears out the rulebook and shifts the focus from Wax and Wayne to an unlikely protagonist. It is quiet, fiercely intelligent Steris who is a true star of The Bands of Mourning. She saves the day on more than one occasion and her planning is absolutely essential for the success of their mission. I love the way Wax is suddenly awakening to her and realising how fantastic she truly is. On the other hand, Wayne's methods are getting increasingly tired and old fashioned. This time, it is all about the new kids.

The Bands of Mourning is definitely a changing point in the series, and a welcome one at that. Even Sanderson admits it in the introduction and, as far as I'm concerned, this is exactly the novel that was needed to fire up the old passions in readers. It's bold exciting and above everything, fresh. The Bands of Mourning is also providing a fleeting glimpse of many exciting things looming on the horizon and, for one, I can't wait to sink my reading teeth into the future installments. There's great stuff ahead!


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind Graft by Matt Hill

Set in a lawless Manchester in 2025, Graft’s first chapter includes an audacious car theft that throws Sol, one of its viewpoint characters, into the middle of a trans-dimensional trafficking conspiracy. It’s a scene that sets the novel’s pace as well as its tone – this is a story about people forced into crime to make ends meet.

However, Graft’s fictional car theft isn’t completely made-up. It’s actually a retelling of what happened to my first car – and a nice example of how life can inspire fiction in ways you can’t quite predict.

The car in question was a mark 1 Renault Clio which sat rotting outside my dad’s house for years before I passed my driving test and we spent a fortune getting it roadworthy. It had a heavy steering wheel, a heavy clutch, and some characterful rattles and squeaks. I drove it to work, often drove it over the Pennines and back, and one time even managed to get it down to London for a trial by lane-changing. I loved it a lot, and I like to think it loved me back.

And then one Friday evening I left my office in Manchester to discover it had gone.

My Clio’s theft was a gut-shot. While it wasn’t much of a car – it was worthless, value-wise – it had been a project, and in a sentimental way, it was part of the family. I wanted to drive it into the sunset, send it off to a breaker’s yard in the sky. I didn’t want some thieving bastard doing that for me.

But there was a bit of hope. A CCTV camera overlooked where I’d parked the Clio, and there was a manned security booth nearby. So after I’d visited the police station, I thundered back to the crime scene and went into the security guard, who eventually agreed to look at the camera footage. And there it was: in just a few minutes, my Clio was loaded on to an unmarked recovery truck by two men in hi-vis jackets.

Watching the footage was surreal. From talking to the police, I knew I hadn’t parked it illegally, and that the council hadn’t taken the thieves were confident, even nonchalant, and clearly skillful. I simply couldn’t make sense of it – and while I’ve long since remade the memory as its own piece of fiction (it’s a good pub-story), it’s still hard to get my head around it happening at all.

There wasn’t a happy ending, either. My stepdad, who used to run a scrapyard, told me the Clio would already be cut down or cubed – sold for an easy hundred quid with no questions asked. The police investigated, but nothing came of it. I hoped we’d read about the collapse of a Manchester-wide car-thieving gang soon, but there were no such reports (apart from another poor sod whose banger met a similar fate). That was that.

Until you zip forward a couple of years, anyway. In late 2012 I’d made some abortive attempts on a second novel. I had my setting sorted – a return to the broken Manchester of my first novel, The Folded Man – and had a few characters whose lives I thought it might be satisfying to revisit.

But something was missing.

‘Write what you know’ has never really worked for me. It tends to be boring, what I know – and I wouldn’t get to learn anything new in the process. That’s why ‘it’s all material’ has always made more sense. Whether it’s suffering or joy, success or failure, your experiences exert a hidden influence on the ways you tell your stories – so you might as well listen to them.

With this in mind, I sat down and tabbed through my private obsessions, my interests. Formative stuff – films, telly, games, fiction from my childhood. And each time I did, I circled back to one thing that glowed intensely: driving. Looking at things like this, it was obvious that cars had been a constant presence in my life – threaded through my identity in one way or another. My dad sold them, my big brother restored them, and my little brother seemed to enjoy racing and occasionally crashing them. And me – well I’d not that long ago had my pride and joy stolen.

So I projected outwards. I wrote a scene about the men who’d stolen my Clio, and tried to envisage why they’d stolen it (parts for their inventory), why they were so calm (habit), and what they did to conceal their tracks (violence with metal cutters and files). It was a strange exercise in empathy, and while I resented the thieves for what they’d done, I enjoyed imagining why they might have done it, and how they slotted into my future Manchester. Soon enough, these two men had names – Sol and Pete – and they were dragging me along with them. And as I drafted and redrafted, the stakes changed, and the novel’s real story started to emerge.

What was the worst thing these chancers could find in a stolen car’s boot? A body, I decided. And what could be worse, or stranger than that? Maybe a person that isn’t dead at all. And then the real kicker: what if that person also had three arms?

This is pretty much how Y, the novel’s central character, came to be. Every fragment of an idea I’d had in the previous months suddenly coalesced around her, the idea of her, and sent the whole thing careening away on a different track. Who is Y? Why is she in the boot in the first place? And why the hell does she have three arms?

Finally, it felt like my second novel was going somewhere.


Matt Hill
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REVIEW : The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

 

In his native Japan Soji Shimada is considered to be one of the most respected literature writers. He wrote over 100 mystery novels in his career and in 2009 was honoured with prestigious Japan Mystery Literature Award. However, it all started in 1981 with "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders", a grisly tale that blurred the borders between genres while hiding behind the guise of detective fiction. Like many other classics published in superb Pushkin Vertigo line-up, it is a novel that is hard to pinpoint, but one that fascinates and easily holds the attention of a reader. 

"The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" takes place in mid 1930s Tokio. The story open when an older artist and a womanizer Heikichi Umezawa known for his eccentric ways is found dead in a locked room as he was working on the final painting in his Zodiac cycle. The only thing keeping him company is a notebook filled with occult texts which reveals extensive plan to murder each of the seven women he was living(2 daughters, 3 stepdaughters and his 2 nieces) with at the time. At that point the story turns even more sinister. The women are found murderer in gruesome fashion resembling the diaries. Over 40 years later, Tokyo Zodiac Murders are still a matter of public fascination. There's many theories but not an actual solution. Can an unlikely duo featuring an astrologer and illustrator crack the case?  

"The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" is one of the books that resonate strongly with its readers and that eventually reached cult status in Japan. This is partly due to Shimada's unique approach. At the beginning of the novel he invites the reader to try its hand at solving the case themselves, promising that all the elements necessary for doing so are in the text and that characters don't have any unfair advantage. It's clever and very engrossing. At the time "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" was shortlisted for the Edogawa Rampo Prize and its appeal still endures to this day. Without question, it is one of the most fascinating things I've recently read.


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press / Pushkin Vertigo
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Gollancz January Paperbacks

Synopsis:


The aliens are here. And they want to help. The extraordinary new project from one of the country's most acclaimed and consistently brilliant SF novelists of the last 30 years.

The Jackaroo have given humanity fifteen worlds and the means to reach them. They're a chance to start over, but they're also littered with ruins and artifacts left by the Jackaroo's previous clients.

Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could forever alter humanity - or even destroy it.

Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that their visions point towards a new kind of danger.

And on one of the Jackaroo's gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.

Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe's orphans, and Vic Gayle's murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo's benevolence


Synopsis:


The power struggle begins . . .

The people of Weyland always believed the slavers raids, which destroyed families and homes like a natural disaster, were a misfortune that couldn't be averted or stopped.

But it's not true.

King Marcus struck a deal: his people in exchange for technology and a powerful alliance with the Vandian civilisation.

And now everyone knows.

Jacob and Carter Carnehan escaped the slavers - along with the true king of Weyland - and have returned home with both the truth, and a Vandian princess as their hostage. Their purpose was to avoid war . . . instead, the truth prompts a civil war at home - while an invasion force focused on reclaiming the captive princess starts to gather on their borders.

Jacob and Carter will be separated once again - and this time they're fighting for something bigger than their lives.


Synopsis:


Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind's potential is determined by its location in space - from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these 'zones of thought', but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artefact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.


Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines - an alien race with a harsh medieval culture - and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue party, not entirely composed of humans, must free the children - and retrieve a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.


Synopsis:


To the residents of Abalone, Arizona, a sleepy southwestern town whose chief concern is surviving the Great Depression, the arrival of a circus in town is a chance to forget their woes for a while. But this is the circus of Dr. Lao and instead of relief, the townsfolk are confronted with an array creature seemingly straight out of mythology: a chimera, a Medusa, a sphinx, a sea serpent and, of course, the elusive, ever-changing Dr. Lao. As the circus unfolds, it spins events towards a climactic final act that will change the lives of Abalone's residents for ever.


Win one of this month's titles by sending a receipt/confirmation for one of the Gollancz's books you bought during the last three months to info @ upcoming4 . me.

REVIEW : In the Cafe of Lost Youth and The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano

 

The latest batch of beautifully designed MacLehose Press' translations of Patrick Modiano's novels is set to come out in January and this time we're treated to "In the Cafe of Lost Youth" and "The Black Notebook", some of the finest pieces ever written by this great man. Usually I would review each of the novels separately but this time I'll make an exception as these two books are, in my mind at least, one completely inseparable entity. Both "In the Cafe of Lost Youth" and "The Black Notebook" have a tale of mysterious young women who touched upon the lives of many and then mysteriously disappeared, usually in tragic circumstances. Both stories are told through the eyes of people who were their friends, lovers or, in one case, a private investigator tasked with tracking them down. As always, Modiano's prose is simply beautiful to read. The ease with which he manages to capture the wistfulness and the fallacy of youth is simply stunning and a pleasure to read but there are subtle difference between the two.

On one hand, "In the Cafe of Lost Youth" is perhaps Modiano's most approachable novel. Completely untypically it even has a conclusion of sorts with a final sentence that both shocks and explains. I can't recall another case when he finished a novel with such a final stop. In short, it is a story about a young woman known to everyone as Louki. It is not her real name but rather a name given to her when she first arrived to the Cafe of Lost Youth, a bohemian haunt frequented by young Parisians. Her story unfolds through the words of her friends and lovers, and, as I've mentioned before, of a private investigator who is employed by her husband to track her done after she leaves him. As the novel progresses, it gets increasingly obvious that Louki is quite sad but full of life. I'll leave to you find out what side of her will eventually prevail. "The Black Notebook", on the other hand, is a more elusive beast and it more akin to the rest of Modiano's novels. This time the mysterious woman is called Dannie but once again her real name could be any of the pseudonyms that she takes over the course of the story. Her tragic story is told through the notes that an unnamed writer wrote in his black notebooks. There is no real conclusion, only the hints of murder and something even darker that's unfolding just beyond the horizon.

The second set of MacLehose Press' translations of Patrick Modiano's novels is probably the best starting point for a new reader. Structurally complex "The Black Notebook" sits well with the more straightforward "In the Cafe of Lost Youth", and together they manage to provide a welcome insight into a larger body of work. Well recommended.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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REVIEW : Spinning Thorns by Anna Sheehan

 

Few years back when I was reviewing a trilogy of saucy fairy tale retellings by Sarah Pinborough I have commented on the fact that there are more and more of the similar "approaches" to fairy tales appearing in all sorts of media. Personally, I think this is great, especially when you consider the fact that over the course of history fairy tales themselves have been retold many times, changed by people to all the better reflect the sensibilities and the fashion of a particular time. However, I've thought this current trend will eventually fizzle out but I was wrong - it has never been stronger. There's new Beowulf starting on the telly tonight and Anna Sheehan's Spinning Thorns is the latest addition to the canon.

"Spinning Thorns" is Anna Sheehan's take on the Sleeping Beauty. Her story takes place some 20 years since the familiar events and as the time goes by it is increasingly obvious that the mantra "happily ever after" doesn't have a chance in hell to come through. The thorns are still surrounding the castle, there's civil unrest and magic racist wherever you look. The violence is in the air and this is the kind of setting that introduces us to princess Willow and her sister Lavender, Queen Amaranth and King Lesli. To make things even more complicated there's a new curse threatening the kingdom and it's up to Will to find the solution. In short, Sheehan gives us an inside view from within the tale. A look from the perspective of those who lived through it and for whom this was something more than a tall tale. It definitely an interesting approach that mostly works surprisingly well.

I have to admit that I've never read anything from Anna Sheehan before as her work is usually labelled as Young Adult and I'm not exactly the target market for that particular genre but I found "Spinning Thorns" to be a very readable and enjoyable tale that manages to imbue new passion into an all too familiar tale. This is helped by Sheehan's decision to tell her tale through multiple points of view. These are quite different from each other and correspond rather well with the characters of the person who owns it. I thought this was a rather clever thing to do. The good impression is also helped by the book's powerful and sophisticated ending. I've read "Spinning Thorns" while being stuck on the train during the recent floods in the UK and I had a blast so do give it a go if you're in a market for a good fairy tale retelling. "Spinning Thorns" is just the ticket.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

 

After I have finished reading Adam Roberts' philosophical rollercoaster of a novel "The Thing Itself" I was ready for some light reading. It definitely stretched my brain to its limits but strangely, I've really enjoyed it. At any rate, it was a good mental workout. What does this have to do with “Occupy Me”? Well, I know it's not conventional to start a review of a book by mentioned another book and sort of, quick-reviewing it as well, but Tricia Sullivan's long anticipated new novel is a similar beast but is also, at least in my humble opinion, a much better book that “The Thing Itself”.

But yes, I definitely wasn't ready for reading it so soon after "The Thing itself". So, first time around, I've just walked away and read some easy going crime thriller instead before returning to it completely re-invigorated. It was a good decision as "Occupy Me" is a novel that rewards patience. It offers an incredibly multilayered experience, with hidden depths wherever you look and qualities that are not necessary instantly obvious. And to make "Occupy Me" even harder to approach there's plenty of initially confusing multiple point of views, parallel dimensions and even an occasional time jump that comes and goes in waves.

"Occupy Me" is a story of an angel called Pearl and the organisation she works for before getting fired early on for blowing a roof out of high flying jet liner and nearly killing everyone on board. Resistance is a shadowy organisation that is dedicated to streamlining world through influencing the minds of the people and soothing their emotions. Pearl is particularly good at this, and even when she falls from the sky, she knows how to hide in plain sight. In parallel runs a story involving a killer wearing another man's body and a mysterious suitcase filled with an unknown quantity that enables access to HD, aka higher dimensions. HD is a clever invention. It is set of another realities / dimension to which Pearl can fold to when necessary, and where she, for example, hides her wings as she’s going about her business. As story progresses, "Occupy Me" evolves into a supercharged version of "Inception", and explores the nature of reality in a way that's truly mind-blowing to discover. It’s an angel novel to end all angel novels.

As you've gathered by now, "Occupy Me" is almost impossible to explain. It is one of those rare books that defies easy classification and that has the makings of a cult classic. It's completely bonkers, incredibly brave and well worth exploring at ease. "Occupy Me" is bound to be one of the literary treats of 2016 so make sure you don't miss it.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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