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As it is often the case with Zweig’s biographies they're not just historical documents about a certain person but rather a reflection of his own time as seen through that historical figure.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
Order Montaigne by Stefan Zweig here:

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
Order Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw here:

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
Order Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson here:

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
Order City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett here:

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
Order Fever City by Tim Baker here:

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
Order Graft by Matt Hill here:

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
Order The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada here:

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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REVIEW : Lost Girl by Adam Nevill

 

Adam Nevill is currently my favourite horror author and, to my mind, one of the finest authors UK has produced in recent years. Over time he has slowly developed his unique style to a point where his books have become a highlight of my reading calendar. "Lost Girl", his latest novel, is somewhat different to his other work. It marks something of a departure for Nevill by taking place in the future on Earth ravaged by impacts of climate change. It is a scenario that feels instantly familiar for everyone who even occasionally follows the recent press releases from scientists warning about the global warming. Climate change and overpopulation has left the Earth an inhospitable place with billions on the move. The general turmoil has led to a rise in poverty, violent crime, gangs, and human trafficking. Basically, it's all our worst nightmares coming true – and all at the same time. 

The story itself takes place in 2053. Due to a single act of carelessness, a nameless father loses his four-year-old daughter when she's taken from his garden. It's an earth-shattering event and yet, due to general state of things at the moment, no one, except the father, seems to care. The father has no choice but to embark on a quest on his own to try to find her. Understandably, he's definitely willing to do whatever it takes to get her back. Father is completely numbed to the world that's slowly unravelling around him but the world is changing him. His search takes him across the wasteland filled with despicable gangs but Father does encounter some rare nuggets of human kindness. In a way, his determination is initially inspiring but as the novel progresses, increasingly shocking. That the sad message of the "Lost Girl". An ordinary, decent, human always ends up being shaped by the environment. Admittedly, it's an unbearable and unimaginable scenario - one that's much scarier and disturbing than any serial killer or a paranormal phenomenon can ever be.  

Despite the global issues, "Lost Girl" has the story of a single human at its heart. It's an age old tale that repeats itself many time through history and literature in general, Nevill has brought out new, previously unexplored, nuances in it and somehow it works. Nevill has yet to disappoint me with any of his books and "Lost Girl" might be, in a way, his most straightforward novel yet. This time all the horrors are all too real and nothing supernatural is actually needed to get the chill in your bones. Nevill is an exceptional author and "Lost Girl" will serve very well as your entry point if you have yet to discover his work. I certainly recommend that you do because it is one of his finest books yet.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

 

Karen Lord's "The Best of All Possible Worlds" was something of a discovery for me. Rarely I stumble upon an author who has the same grace and gentleness as Ursula K. Le Guin and yet also has enough originality to carve a niche for herself. "The Best of All Possible Worlds" was hardly perfect and yet there was something about that still makes me remember it very fondly. Therefore it is perfectly understandable that I was incredibly excited about "The Galaxy Game", novel that is once again taking a leaf out of Le Guin's book - it is a sequel and yet not a straightforward one so let's just call it part of the cycle.

"The Galaxy Game" branches off from its predecessor and focuses on Grace Delarua’s nephew, Rafi Delarue who has for years been watching his family suffer due to his father's recklessness with psionic powers. All this makes Rafi the center of government's attention who are making an active effort to discover how his brain ticks. Rafi, understandably, is troubled by this and goes on a run to planet Punartam, a place where the likes of him are more than welcome and where his favourite sport, wallrunning (something resembling an evolved version of parkour), is wide spread. But far from being a paradise, Punartam is soon turning out to be a center of the galaxy-wide unrest and suddenly Rafi is playing a game on a wholly different level – one which could have a far reaching consequences.

Even from this short synopsis it is clearly obvious that a lot has changed that since "The Best of All Possible Worlds". "The Galaxy Game" is not focused so much on major themes such as gender inequality, slavery and social injustice but marks something of a shift towards a character novel. But that's not to say that Lord has completely mellowed - she's still on the forefront of exploring deepest recesses of her world full of prejudice but it's just that this time around it feels like her priorities are elsewhere. More importantly, despite all that her originality is still there. Lord is seriously good at this worldbuilding malarkey and it is a pleasure to discover new horizons with her.

So how is "The Galaxy Game" in the end? For start, it was well worth waiting for. It's a great adventure and as long as you don't expect a re-run of "The Best of All Possible Worlds" you'll love it. One can't help the felling that Lord is still finding her voice but if "The Galaxy Game" is anything to be judged by, she's nearly there.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : An Android Awakes by Mike French and Karl Brown

 

If you're of a certain age and you like reading comics, there's every chance that your first glance of "An Android Awakes" will remind you of 2000AD. This beautifully designed paperback would be a perfect addition to a shelf filled with their graphic novels, both in the terms of the art and the story. "An Android Awakes" is no ordinary book. It is actually an innovative hybrid that blurs the lines between a novel, or even a short story collection, and a graphic novel. It's actually a quite clever concept which works remarkably well within the constraint of this volume.

Written by Mike French, and illustrated by Karl Brown, "An Android Awakes" tells the story of an Android Writer PD121928 who spends his life submitting novel proposal after proposal to an Android Publishing Program. Each time our android sends out his submission, he promptly receives a rejection letter quoting some outlandish and increasingly surreal reason for refusal. Once it's for having a single word over the limit, next time it's simply that the panel couldn't be arsed to consider it properly, or my favourite of the lot, the decision to publish a tweet-like version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" instead. However, for PD121928 publishing a novel is not just a vanity thing. It's nothing less than a matter of life and death as after he gets refused for 42 times, he'll simply get dismantled. The background to PD121928's world is told through his stories and submissions. As, one after the other, they’re unravelled, we're introduced to a truly fascinating piece of world building that takes its cue from many works of both inside and outside the science fiction canon. However, even moments from PD121928's life provide an illuminating reading in itself. There's an episode halfway through the book where he just goes and dismantles his android wife after he got annoyed with her one night for sleeping at the “wrong” side of the bed, and there's a bizarre concept surrounding the frozen cats in the basement which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. In a moment of irony, PD121928 is even allocated a budget for escort services. Once he even calls in to request for a human girl. This particular episode makes for a very disturbing read. As 42th rejection letter looms, PD121928's behaviour gets increasing erratic but what doesn't change is the high quality of both storytelling and illustrations.

"An Android Awakes" is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It is an excellent science fiction story that's unafraid to make numerous nods to the past but equally brave enough to go in a completely new direction when necessary. Well recommended. 


Review copy provided by Elsewhen Press
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REVIEW : Interzone 260

 

3 months ago I was moving house so I wasn't doing much reading. This resulted in a massive queue which is obviously not good, but does come with some benefits. One of these is a chance to read two issues of Interzone back to back. Now, my love for this British SF&F magazine is well documented so I consider cracking open of a new issue such pleasure. The last few issues have been particularly good even when considered against Interzone's high standards and judging by the cover alone 260 was promising to continue the trend. The heavyweights in this issue are John Shirley and Jeff Noon, while Priya Sharma, C.A. Hawksmoor and Christien Gholson close the line-in. This is, of course, backed by regular features such as Nina Allan's Time Pieces (this time writing about Tom McCarthy's Satin Island) and Ian Sales' editorial on the "No Award" fight-back and the whole Hugo Awards situation. But on to the stories!

John Shirley's "Weedkiller" opens the issue and instantly we are thrown in the bleak future where the scarcity of issues means that those who are not productive are considered weed. Weedkiller in this situation is Charlie Venter who is on the trail of two such, at least as the system declares them, unproductive individuals. Charlie is struggling to fulfill his role but his hand is forced because he needs to ensure safety for his wife and daughter. "Weedkiller" is a very disturbing and thought-provoking tale which might easily get a novel treatments if Shirley so desired.

"Weedkiller" is followed by Priya Sharma story "Blonde" which is an intriguing take on the Rapunzel. Also set in a bleak and cold future, for me "Blonde" became much better story once it finished and the Rapunzel Syndrome was brought in the picture. It was a nice touch to close off this intriguing piece.

Next up is Jeff Noon with "No Rez" and the easiest way to explain it is just say that it is basically Jeff Noon being Jeff Noon. It's completely over the top technological psychedelia which touches upon evolution of AR and ever closer union between humans and technology. Simply amazing stuff.

C.A. Hawksmoor's "Murder on the Laplacian Express" is an obvious not to certain someone and open up as Laplacian Express' drives is murdered and Shai Laren and Anself are grappling to take control of it before it crashes. At that point the story moves back and we're treated to unexpectedly developed tale of political turmoil and intrigue. Definitely interesting stuff.

Final story in 260 is Christien Gholson's "The Spin of Stars" which is at odds to the darkness of the rest of the stories. It is a welcome relief and a wonderful distraction piece about a man hitchhiking in desert during a cold night in the late 60s. I greatly enjoyed it.

Interzone 260 is perhaps not as good as last few issues were but even an ordinary issue of Interzone is better than just about anything out there so don't be misled when I say something like that. This issue would be worth tracking down if it only had Jeff Noon's "No Rez" in it but when you add up everything else to the picture, it's a jam packed bundle of joy. Now to 261!


Review copy provided by TTA Press
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REVIEW : The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

 

I should probably admit straight at the start that Adam Roberts' latest novel "The Thing Itself" confused me completely. It is one of those rare books that I have read twice in quick succession simply for the reason that first time around I've just skipped some of its more experimental chapters in an effort to grasp what's it about. It was a bit much for me as I just don't think I'm learned enough about philosophy to truly understand it. As I turned the finally page I wasn't even sure what it was that I have just read and I can already see that I should prepare myself for another thorough re-read. "The Thing Itself" is a really good novel but one I don't think I'll every completely figure out. It is basically a new genre in itself. In a similar way that Greg Egan writes the hardest Hard Science Fiction there is, Roberts has created something akin to Hard Philosophy Fiction, a metaphysical novel that explores the nature of the reality and existence through Kant, AIs and Fermi's Paradox. And it's dense. Very, very dense.

Purely on the story level, "The Thing Itself" is about a life-long connection between two men, Charles and Ray, who back in the 80s as part of ongoing SETI research embarked on a polar expedition together. They're total opposites and their stay at a remote base is strenuous at best. Ray is an introverted computer geek who's obsessed with Kant. On the other hand, Charles is a scientist who is very down to earth. He writes letters, even playing a chess game with a friend through them, reading newspaper that occasionally arrive. One night, Ray tries to kill Charles and leaves him to die in cold. After suffering though frightening hallucinations and frostbites, Charles loses fingers and toes, and effectively ends up scarred for life. Ray ends up in mental institution. From that point on Charles' life is one big downward spiral. First losing his job at the university, due to drinking problems he also loses his post as a teacher, and ends up working a bin men. All through his life he's been shadowed in his dream by a strange kid, Ray's still writing to him. It all comes back again when a stunningly beautiful woman appeared on his doorstep. She's asking him to join the shadowy Institute which does research into AI, remote viewing and the nature of reality in general. They want both Charles and Ray in their ranks. In-between this, relatively straightforward story, is a series of experimental chapters, each delivered in a different style - one that's particularly hard to read because there's no punctuation marks in it. Another one's written as numbered list.

So, in the end, is "The Thing Itself" a good novel? It's an experimental novel so it all depends on your preferences. Personally, I found it deeply fascinating but hard to understand. The closest reference point for me was Philip K. Dick's VALIS trilogy which fits in the same general literary area but "The Thing Itself" is definitely much more fun.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : After You Die by Eva Dolan

 

There's a scene two thirds into "After You Die" that shows Mel Ferreira at 3AM drunkenly removing a shrapnel from her leg using nothing but a razor. In shocking turn of events, shrapnel turns out to be a piece of tooth. It is a devastatingly sad affair and this is perhaps the best way to describe the entire third instalment of Eva Dolan's superb DI Zigic and DS Ferreira series. For the most of its course "After You Die" feels very personal and somehow subdued. It is Eva's best novel yet and it could very well be her breakthrough one.

"After You Die" opens as a gas leak next door leads to an explosion and destroys Dawn Prentice’s house. Upon inspection, two bodies are found. Dawn Prentice and her disabled daughter Holly. Dawn was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead while Holly had a much more disturbing and cruel ending. She was left alone in her room to slowly perish couple of days later by massive stroke caused by blood poisoning. Case lands on Hate Crimes Unit’s desk because Dawn Prentice last year reported a series of harassments pointed towards her and Holly. Back then, the investigation slowly petered out with a conclusion that the most obvious culprit were probably their estate neighbours being jealous of Dawn and Holy's council handouts. However, initial stages of the murder investigation reveal a much more complicated situation. Ever since the divorce Dawn has been seeing a seemingly endless stream of men, and regularly having sex with them in the garden shed. Holy was also attracting unwelcome attention due to her passionate campaigning for assisted dying. She's been subject to some truly horrific attacks online and there's also Nathan and Caitlin. Two fragile foster kids with their own disturbing past. There’s plenty of other suspects as well. Dawn’s estranged husband and a mysterious man in the red car seen repeatedly harassing her. It's a particularly complex case which occasionally seems to go nowhere but that is not all. Both DI Zigic and DS Ferreira are at a difficult stages in their lives. Dushan Zigic's son has starting biting other children in school and he's been expecting another child, while DS Ferreira is struggling to cope with her past, and their relationship is slightly strained as well.

As I have mentioned before "After You Die" is a tremendously sad book. It brim full of difficult lives and desperate hopelessness, and those few moments of happiness are easily overlooked. And yet, despite all the gloom, it is a book that’s simply impossible to put down and, in a way, it is very beautiful. "After You Die" shows what Dolan is really capable of. It is still 2015 and I already know I have read one of the best books of the 2016.


Review copy provided by Harvill Secker
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The story behind The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller by M Pepper Langlinais

I sat down in January 2012 and wrote the first part of this novel, “St. Peter in Chains,” in three weeks. It just poured out. No one ever wants to hear a writer say that; they want to hear that it was sweat and tears, but I can at least promise that writing the rest of the novel was like giving birth to an exceptionally large baby over the course of another two years.

Where did Peter come from? I honestly don’t know, a fever dream maybe. He seems to have sprung fully formed from my head like Athena. I have this clear mental picture of him in a gray suit, so that I think I’d know the suit if I saw it hanging on a rack somewhere: “That’s Peter’s suit!” His original name was Stephen, but then I hit upon the title “St. Peter in Chains” and thought it would be weird if he wasn’t named Peter. I meant for him to have a Moneypenny-like flirt with his secretary Miranda, but he wasn’t having it. He made it clear pretty quickly he was gay. Miranda asks at one point, “Would you ever go back to girls?” and Peter just walks away.

The first part I wrote was actually the bit where Peter comes home to an empty flat, and it’s still one of my favorite moments in the book. It’s the portrait of a man who has been abandoned and whose heart is breaking. There was originally a scene, too, in which Charles is roughly pulled out of bed by Intelligence agents. Due to the limited POV of the rest of the book, though, that scene never made it into the final draft.

I adapted “St. Peter in Chains” into a short screenplay that won Table Read My Screenplay and received a professional table read at the Sundance Film Festival. This success encouraged me to extend the novella. I then had a couple agents interested, but both said I needed to beef up the espionage plot. So I rewrote and created the Jules Maier character. He’s sort of a peripheral James Bond type, going after girls and always looking good even when he’s been living in the woods for weeks on end. He fades out in this book, but if I write more books in this series, I’ll focus one on Peter’s assistant Simeon and I’ll probably have more Jules as well.

In the end, I sent out about 100 queries and received around 35 requests for the manuscript. But even after the rewrites everyone ultimately passed on it. Many thought the writing was good but just didn’t see a market for it. Some thought Peter was too aloof for readers to identify with. He’s definitely reserved. But he’s a gay man in 1960’s London, and he’s a spy, so I like to think he has valid reasons for reticence.

Tirgearr Publishing was one of the last places I sent the manuscript. There were maybe five or so final queries that went out, and I said, “This is it, I’ve exhausted my options.” I thought maybe I would self-publish if no one took it. I even had a cover designed. But then Tirgearr came back and made an offer, and I’ve been very happy with them. And they’re using the cover I had designed, so it won’t go to waste.

As for the ending, it is intended to be optimistic but also open and somewhat ambiguous. Will Peter go back to Charles? Would Charles even have him back? Even I might not know until I write another one.

At the end of the day, I hope The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller will appeal to John Le Carré and Graham Greene readers. It is a quieter narrative in a world of hubbub and noise, a novel meant to be read while wrapped in a blanket with a cup of tea. Maybe I wrote it because that’s what I find lacking in this fast-paced world: subtler stories and more deeply etched characters. 


M Pepper Langlinais
Best known for her Sherlock Holmes stories, M Pepper Langlinais is also a produced playwright and screenwriter. She holds a degree in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas at Austin, where she interned on film sets and participated in the Shakespeare at Winedale program. She also earned a Master of Arts in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College. M now lives in Livermore, California. Learn more about her and her work at PepperWords.com
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REVIEW : The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

 

There is something refreshing about the familiarity of Masked City. While many authors these days are trying way too hard to push the boundaries or to rewrite the rule book, second novel in The Invisible Library is simply that – a sequel featuring familiar and much loved characters set in a well-developed setting. And to be fair, that’s the best thing about it. It’s delightful to read and easy to enjoy.

If you’ll remember, The Invisible Library described a world as complicated as they come. As a particularly imaginative episode of Doctor Who, the reality that Genevieve Cogman describes is built out of many parallel worlds set across two wildly opposing polarities. On one side there’s order while chaos rules the other side. Dragons are on the side of order while fickle Fae are firm opposition. In-between all this there’s a Library - a mysterious institution that sends its librarian spies on a mission to, for example, recover a particularly dangerous book. Masked City finds our heroine librarian-spy Irene on an auction to buy Bram Stoker’s book. The action itself goes well but straight afterwards she and her assistant Kai are attacked. They deal with the attackers quickly but that’s was not to be the end of their troubles. Soon afterwards, Kai is kidnapped and it quickly transpires that he’s been taken deep into the Fae’s chaotic realm. The situation is wildly complicated. Kai is a dragon and his family is threating to destroy the world he was taken from if he’s not found. On the other hand, Fae are in the middle of a conflict and Kai is to be auction off if he’s not promptly saved. Irene has no choice but to embark on a mission that will take her deep into the chaos, in an alternative Venice that feels like it feel out of someone’s twisted dreams.

As I’ve mentioned in the introduction, the easiest way to describe “Masked City” is to say that it is a straight on sequel from “The Invisible Library”. If you enjoyed it, you’re bound to have a blast reading “Masked City” as well. Similarly to its predecessor, it is a damn good fun to read and Cogman’s world is still holding strong. When you add feisty Irene to the mix, there’s not much that can go wrong. And it doesn’t. More of the same, please!


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : The Sword of Attila by David Gibbins

 

If there is one thing that "The Sword of Attila" will do, the moment you finish the prologue, it will dispel the notion that past is a nice place to live in. Set on the Great Hungarian Plain in AD 396, the opening scene depicts the birth of Attila, one of the most important historical figures. The event itself is as brutal as they come. Born in blood as was the fashion of the Huns at the time, Attila is scarred on the face by his father and king of the Huns, Mundiuk, and one of the Roman prisoners is brutally killed to make the occasion even more memorable. This memorable and visceral scene is hard act to follow and once again reminds that no matter how brutal a fictitious tale can be, the real life will do its best to surpass it.

The story continues 40 years later in North Africa, on the outskirts of Carthage. The Roman Empire at this is time is far removed from its most prosperous days. The days of impressive and progressive emperors are long gone and during this period they're nothing more than a distant authority figures detached from their people. In times like these it is the military figures who will decide whether the Rome stand or falls. As Vandal army conquers Carthage, everyone's focus suddenly turns to an even greater threat: Attila the Hun, a bloodthirsty and unforgiving barbarian. In a last ditch attempt of undermine him, a small task force led by Flavius, Macrobius and the British monk and spy Arturius who they first met just after Carthage fell, goes straight into the heart of Attila's court with the sole purpose of stealing an object of unparalleled symbolical value for Attila, the Sword of Attila. What follows on is simply the stuff of legends that concludes with an important historical battle between the Roman Empire and their allies on one side and Huns and theirs on the others. I actually didn't clocked who Arturius was supposed to be until quite late in the story even though there was clues aplenty. And wait until you see with what other legend Gibbins decides to tie the actual sword with. Hah! Well done!

In short, "The Sword of Attila" is the second novel in David Gibbins' historical trilogy which is based upon the immensely successful video game series "Total War". The novels in question are presented as a sequence and since the first one, "Destroy Carthage" takes place some 600 years in the past from the events depicted in "The Sword of Atilla" they can be read as a standalone novels, even though I would urge you not to skip "Destroy Carthage" as it's simply brilliant. The most interesting thing about "The Sword of Attila" is how farfetched the story seems. Take for example the sword of Attila itself. The way it changed the course of the battle seems to be like something taken out of epic fantasy novel or a video game. And yet, when you get to additional materials and Gibbins explains his sources, I was literally stunned. True history is really stranger than fiction.

In "The Sword of Attila" Gibbins has done it again. He has built an epic story around the actual historical events and made the history approachable to everyone. "The Sword of Attila" works both as a historical novel and adventure story and please do not let the connections with a video game to fool you - this is seriously good stuff.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle

I've been meaning to check out Lisa Tuttle's work for what seems ages but for some peculiar reason never did. I think it was all those American covers which just didn't appeal to me so I've unconsciously committed the biggest faux-pas in the book world. Luckily, this latest edition from Jo Fletcher doesn't suffer from the same issue. It looks absolutely gorgeous (incidentally, how good last few publications from Jo Fletcher look? Stunning stuff!) so I had no excuse but give it at go. The easiest way to explain Lisa's style of writing is to relate to the people who blurbed her. Both Neil Gaiman and Dean Koontz occupy the same dream space as her tales so suitably The Mysteries deals with an ordinary story enriched by elements of mythology and familiar folk tales.

Ian Kennedy is a private investigator with a panache for solving cases involving missing people. His fascination (if you want to call it like that) started when he was only nine years old and his father disappeared. However after string of successes his latest case is looking like it could be a step too far. Laura Lensky has employs him to find her twenty-year-old daughter Peri who has been missing for over two years. The more Ian learns about case background the more is he fascinated by what he finds. Peri's disappearance increasingly looks like a deliberate act. By going through her journal he soon discovers parallels with an obscure Celtic myth and the myth of sidhe, Celtic fairy folk to whose realm people sometime disappear. His case will lead him across world to Scotland and to different realms. Ian is a driven man. He certainly takes his cases very seriously and he's growing obsessed with the solution as his life has been marked with unsolved disappearances (his father and girlfriend to name a few) potential of failure increasingly fills him with dread.

"The Mysteries" was such a great little read and I can only conclude that Tuttle delivered exactly what I hoped she'll deliver - a poetic dark fantasy worthy of kings and queens. She reminded me a lot of Freda Warrington and her latest Tor trilogy but Lisa is vastly superior when it comes to authenticity of her myths. I've also loved the way she slowly involves folk elements into her story, catching unwary reader completely off guard. For most of its parts “The Mysteries” could be a real life tale but then supernatural elements just creep in. This is, for example, evident in the case of Peri's boyfriend Hugh Bell-Rivers who believes Peri ran off with a man called Mider - a name shared by the sidhe king. Having said that the ending itself is very ambiguous which might will definitely grate heavily against some readers but then again you might say that it's just another of its many mysteries. Despite being written almost ten years ago, “The Mysteries” is one of those books that share a lot with fairy tales from whom it takes its inspiration. It is a tale that feels timeless and calls for a quick re-read.  


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
Order The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle here:

REVIEW : The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough is a very talented lady. I've been tremendously enjoying her tales for years now and for that I'm really grateful to her. However, being talented is only half of the story. Sarah is also an extremely versatile storyteller and with one of her narratives you never know what you're going to get. Despite sharing some common elements such as ever present dash of supernatural, her books often encompass a broad range of genres and settings, be it Victorian detective fiction set in London or modern retellings of fairy tales. Still, there’s one book in her repertoire that I always held close to my heart. So if I had to choose one book to represent her work in the pantheon of authors that would be "The Language of Dying", her melancholic and personal account of process of losing a loved one. That might change now that "The Death House" came along. 

"The Death House" is an isolated institution where children and teenagers are taken to spend their final days after they're diagnosed by debilitating disease. It's like a hospice which no one ever visits. Now that they’re Defectives, children spend their days in per functionary matter: learning, playing games and generally doing nothing worthwhile. Every so often someone gets sick, is taken away by Matron and nurses and that breaks the daily routine. They're even taking bets on who goes next and there's a healthy competition between dorms. Nurses never communicate with kids and are cold to the point that they're even giving kids sleeping pills disguised as vitamins just to have a quiet night.

At the point of his life when he was diagnosed, our narrator Toby was an ordinary teenager who was just on the brink of discovering both first love and lust but a simple blood test changes everything and he's taken away from his family and his precious life. When one of his roommates is taken, Toby, in an act of riot and an attempt to take a bit of control from the nurses, decides not to take his vitamin pills and discovers the sorry truth. From now on, nights are his or were until a new girl, Clara, comes along. After few night, well, hating her, Toby falls hard for Clara. Together, through a series of night excursion, they slowly start to discover the grounds around the institution. There’s sea nearby, a harbour and a cave. Could they possibly hatch a plan and escape, even if it means for only a few days?

Interestingly enough, there's an interesting side effect to the way "The Death House" proof is made. As it's often the case with proofs there's no page numbers and this creates such particular atmosphere for a book which is mostly about isolation and sameness of everyday existence. You only notionally know where you are and if you loose your bookmark...well...good luck! Would it be great if this turned out to be intentional and released hardcover would be without page numbers as well?

"The Death House" springs from the same well as "The Language of Dying" but, crucially, it is not as painful to read. Its characters, despite their hopelessness, scream for life and won't take death lying down. Basically, "if you're going through hell, keep going". Ultimately, it is heartbreakingly devastating tale but you should still enjoy the short time you'll spend with Toby and Clara as much as you should enjoy your life.

"The Death House" is a dazzlingly emotional account of growing up, death and bits in between as well as an early contender for the book of the year. And, as unlikely as it sounds after such an illustrious career, it is also perhaps Sarah’s best book yet.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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The Death House The Death House

REVIEW : Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

You just know when you're reading a Sanderson book. They're always incredibly readable, filled with creative storylines and while they're not very deep, the always provide such great entertainment because of their twisty nature. His latest series entitled The Reckoners which deals with superheroes is not an exception. First book in the series, “Steelheart”, was a gripping, action packed roller-coaster ride about bringing on the change in the society while "Mitosis", a recent short story set in the same universe, dealt with the aftermath. "Firefight", next installment in the series continues with the same themes but this time on global scale. Remember, this is a society that's still reeling from the possibilities brought about by the killing of a High Epic - a seemingly impossible task. To put it bluntly, in "Steelheart", a 19 year old David Charleston has found a way to slay his Goliath and while Newcago metropolis is starting to function again, he has a new goal on his horizon - changing the entire world, getting thing at a time.So there's other cities with other High Epics to bring down and this time it's the turn of Firefight.

If you've enjoyed "Steelheart", "Firefight" is for you. It's an altogether bolder and more courageous tale that manages to expand the original premise. At its heart it has that classic fight against an all- powerful evil force that grace so many of Sanderson's book but as you would imagine nothing is purely black and white. For the first time we're introduced to epics that are not just plain evil. And yet, despite that "Firefight" feels much darker. David as a character is increasingly becoming a man driven with something resembling hate. However, is unconditional hate the answer? It's a fine line and in a way I'm worried that he is on the cusp of becoming what he always hated. It's an interesting moral dilemma and has a potential to redefine the meaning of The Reckoners in future installments. But in the end "Firefight" works so well exactly because of that particular reason - it takes David well out of his comfort zone. Babylon Restored or Babylar as it is locally known makes him pull out all the stops and when you combine it with generous helping of revelations that Sanderson peppers all across the book through the characters of Firefight and Regalia, the world of The Reckoners is suddenly presented in all its glory. It's an incredibly vibrant setting that showcases the entire breadth of Sanderson's talent. Expect to finish this one in single sitting.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle

Long ago when I was young I read a fairy tale based on the ancient Irish story known as “The Wooing of Etain”. To put it simply (which I hate to do, because it is a deliciously detailed and complex romance) it is a love story involving reincarnation and interactions between humans and the legendary immortals known either as the Tuatha De Danand or the Sid or Sith (pronounced shee).

Later, I read the whole complicated story in a black-backed Penguin Classic called Early Irish Myths and Sagas, my copy of which is now falling apart. In the original, Etain is one of the immortals, married to Mider, but taken from him by sorcery; after more than a thousand years she is reborn into the human world, grows up to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland, and marries a chieftan named Echu. She has no memory of her previous life, and when Mider comes to her one day looking like a handsome young stranger, she is quite naturally not interested in abandoning her rich and powerful husband to run away with him as he proposes. The two men soon enter into competition with each other until finally Mider tricks Echu into granting his right to Etain. Although the fairy tale ended with Etain and Mider flying away, magically transformed into swans (birds known to mate for life), the myth continues with Echu’s pursuit of Mider – by digging into the mounds that are a feature of the Irish landscape and which were known as the dwelling places of the Sith – until Mider gives Echu another chance. He sends out fifty identical women and tells Echu to find his wife. He makes his choice and takes her home. Later, Mider appears again, and reveals that when he took her, Etain was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, and it is that daughter that Echu has unwittingly chosen. The real Etain is still in the Otherworld with him.

You may agree with me that this is an unsatisfactory ending. Why didn’t one of the women say something? What was the whole experience like from Etain’s point of view? We never have a clue as to what she really wants. And what about that identical, silent daughter?

Myths, no matter how useful Freud, Jung and others have found them for describing psychological states, do not contain much psychological content. They are not about characters, but story – people do things because these actions are required of them. And in this one, the woman might as well be a cow or a piece of land the two men are fighting over. But the origins of this tale may extend back to the Neolithic; the theme of alternating lovers is connected to the changing of seasons, and although it was told for entertainment, it also had a deeper meaning to its earliest hearers, one we can only guess at.

Novels, unlike myths, are all about character – not just what people do, but what they think they are doing, and how they feel about it. I had already used the idea of a lost lover reincarnated in a novel of psychological suspense (Gabriel) but that wasn’t enough; I was still haunted by “The Wooing of Etain.”

The power of myth remains even when you don’t understand it – maybe expecially when you don’t – and it remains for every reader to reinterpret, to use it. When I finally began to write the book that eventually became The Mysteries I wanted to write a contemporary fantasy that would import some of the magic of ancient Celtic myths and legends. I wanted to tell the story of a modern Etain, through her own eyes. But the story resisted me. What happens when you meet a powerful, immortal being who tells you you’ve had a life you don’t remember? What could I say about anyone’s experience of the Otherworld? Being there would not be like life in another country; I certainly did not want to reduce it to that. If it was not mind-blowingly different to dwell in the kingdom of the immortals, my character, Peri, might just as well have run away with a foreign exchange student. Writing about the Otherworld, I thought, would be like describing a drug-trip, or a dream, utterly absorbing to the person experiencing it, but not quite so interesting to a reader, or comprehensible as story.

So I ended up writing about it from the outside, from the point of view of someone who started as a minor character in an earlier draft, a detective hired to find a missing girl. And once I had his voice, the novel became as much about Ian Kennedy, and his obsession with searching for people who disappear. This allowed me to go back to other stories that had haunted me since I first encountered them as a child, in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” and the books of Charles Fort. I revisited some of the great unsolved mysteries of the past, such as the story of the man who walked around the horses, and the three lighthouse keepers on the Flannan Isles. I’d also long been intrigued by the similarities between modern “close encounters” with aliens and UFOs, and the much older stories about people abducted by fairies – so all of these things became part of my detective’s history, and of The Mysteries.

My novel takes the form of a detective story, but even when he solves his cases, questions remain. I’m very fond of a quote from “For Want of a Golden City” by Sacheverell Sitwell, used by one of my favourite writers, Robert Aickman as an epigraph in one of his collections – I was tempted to use it myself:

“In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.”


Lisa Tuttle
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REVIEW : The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel

 

Penguin Books seems to surprisingly good at find crime fiction that feel fresh as soon as you open it and Oscar De Muriel's The Strings of Murder is another example of that trend. Similarly to "The Sea Detective" which I've reviewed earlier in the week, De Muriel's story is built upon the elements that you wouldn't normally associate with the murder investigation and yet, that very fact turns out to be its most appealing characteristic, the very trait that sets it apart from the rest.

"The Strings of Murder" takes place in Edinburgh in 1888 and open with a brutal murder of a virtuoso violinist. The murder occurred in the safety of his home under mysterious circumstances. The maid swears that just before the murder she heard three musicians playing and yet the murder happened inside the locked practice room. Scotland Yard's Inspector Ian Frey is assigned to the case after failing to make any headway in Jack the Ripper case that is unfolding at the same time. Frey actively dislikes Scotland. There's no other way to put it but he simply has no choice. It's either that or being dismissed from the police force. He is taking the investigation under the guise of a pretend police department which specialises in the occult. Frey doesn't actually believe in the supernatural but his boss, Detective Adolpho 'Nine Nails' McGray actually does which really grates on Frey. And it's not their only difference between the two. Half of the time they're just bluntly insulting each other. And that's before you even mention the London - Edinburgh rivalry. It's an interesting and rewarding setup that works tremendously well once the duo finds their dynamic. As the body count increases, Frey once again comes under that tremendous pressure that followed him all the way through the Ripper case but if anything, this series of murders seems to be even harder to understand. There's no obvious connection between the victims except of the fact that they were all violinists.

Oscar De Muriel's fiendishly clever "The Strings of Murder" is a wonderful debut. It has all the hallmarks of a great Gothic detective novel and with a cast such as Frey & McGray it could just be the series that might last for a very long time. It will be interesting seeing where he takes his characters next as "The Strings of Murder" will definitely be a tough act to follow. We won't have long to wait as the sequel to it, "A Fever of the Blood", is just around the corner.


Review copy provided by Penguin Press
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REVIEW : Lost Souls by Seth Patrick

 

Few years back, Seth Patrick's Reviver was all the rage. We talked a lot about it, both in the office and in a pub over a pint. Everyone thought it was one of the most intriguing books of the year and we just couldn't wait for the follow up which was supposed to come out shortly after, if the book listings were to be listened to. But then Seth Patrick just disappeared. There was the adaptation of The Returned to get out of the way and time just flew by so I was pleasantly surprised when all of the sudden Lost Souls finally came out. Truth be told, by now I've completely lost all hope of ever reading it.

Lost Souls pretty much continues straight on from the events depicted in the Reviver. The work of a forensic revivalist is, at best of times, never easy and as we again encounter Jonah Miller, we find him standing at one of the most important crossroads of his life. The campaign against revival organised by The Afterlifers who want the whole thing shut down is at its height and deservedly so. Everyone, including Miller, is increasingly disillusioned with the process. It is obvious things have to change. But for Jonah, everything kicks off again when a mutilated body of Mary Connart is found. Police are unable to make a move and Jonah is called in to help. If you remember, a reviving process brings back the deceased from the brink and give her a few extra moments to say goodbye or, more importantly, say what actually happened. What he finds out this time is far darker and disturbing than anything he encountered before and related so certain events from the first book.

Lost Souls has all the appeal and strangeness that made Reviver so appealing in the first place but I have to acknowledge that it is simply not so unique anymore as it was when it originally appeared. In the meantime, shows like (ironic as it is) The Returned have moved in the similar general area and occupied the same place. Still, Patrick give them all a run for their money. In my opinion, second books in just about any trilogy should never be considered on its own but as a part of the whole. In this aspect Lost Souls works wonderfully well and manages to enrich the strange world of forensic revivalists that Patrick has created. If you still haven't done so and you find Lost Souls interesting, I definitely suggest you start with Reviver and move on from there. Patrick knows how to weave a tale and it is still one of the best ones in town. I just hope we won't have to wait as long for the final part of the trilogy to come.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
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REVIEW : Three Light Years by Andrea Canobbio

 

"Three Light-Years" ("Tre anni luce") by Andrea Conobbio was originally published in Italy in 2013, and after its publication in 2014 in US, it is finally making its way to UK where the same translation will be published by MacLehose Press.

"Three Light-Years" is a melancholic novel that's mostly about relationships and the places we finds ourselves in once things turn sour. Cecilia and Claudio are both at a stage where going back is just not possible anymore but going forward is just as hard. Cecilia is a young woman living with two children while Claudio is still living with in a same building as his parents and ex-wife. It's complicated. And yet, during the many lunches they share together at the workplace they gradually open themselves to the kindness of strangers even in their unimaginably hard situations, they find companionship and understanding in each other, one they never thought possible. Slowly and cautiously their friendship turns to something resembling attraction. They're unsure how to continue or whether their relationship even makes sense after everything that happened before but there it is.

However, everything changes when Claudio meets Cecilia's sister and realises something about his life. For most of it he's been saying yes not because he wants to but because saying no is so hard. In the meantime Cecilia is slowly falling in love with him and the stage is set.

Andrea Canobbio writes about all those things in life that should be easy but are simply not. On paper, relationships and children look like something everyone could handle with ease but once you get to the bottom of it, it's the little things that end up being hard to pin down. Those are the reasons why "Three Light-Years" will resonate with just about everyone. Anne Milano Appel—Canobbio wonderfully captures the fragile beauty of the original text and while we feel for Cecilia and Claudio, and eagerly want for them to find their way, we just want to believe that we would better, cleverer, in their shoes, knowing we wouldn't. "Three Light-Years" is a lovely and moving, but very melancholic, story about relationships and its pitfalls.


Review copy provided by Maclehose Press
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