It’s all about the voice.
I had just finished writing a book in which the protagonist was a woman with repressed emotions, and the language I used was clipped and structured to match her struggles to find expression. So I was glad to leave her battles behind, and to start again with a cup of coffee, a clean sheet of paper, and a view from the local café’s window. I began writing with no place to go, and Nathan was what emerged.
Nathan is a protagonist who loves language. He thinks it evolves, turns like seasons, and is not under his control so much as a gift of life itself. He’s also a man. And he’s not a man. Whether Nathan has a male voice is the main reason that I kept writing The Beauty.
The Beauty is set in a near future in which all women have died of an unnamed disease, and Nathan lives in the remains of a commune that shunned society years earlier, before this tragedy. The men who are left in this enclave band together under the guidance of a leader called William, and they are trying to be kind to each other and retain their sanity until they all die too. It’s the end of the human race.
Nathan is a young man, trying to remember what made his mother special, and to remember what made all women special. He gathers information about them from the remaining men and then spins them into stories that he tells over the campfire at night. The stories change as he tells them, and this disturbs him. Is the nature of what it was to be a woman changing too?
Then something very terrible and very beautiful happens. Nathan tries to make sense of this strange event in terms of gender and sexual longing, but others see it in terms of power and oppression. The ability of language to contain so many meanings within one story is incredible, and I hope The Beauty shows this, and also that many things that we consider to be opposites are, in fact, interlinked. Why does Nathan have a male voice if there are no women any more? What makes us male, or female? Do our stories reflect our gender?
For the first few thousand words I worried that I couldn’t write persuasively in a male voice, but then the story kicked in and I realised that Nathan isn’t exactly a man. He has no idea of what a woman is, apart from some stylised fragments of their stories that he has recast over and over again. The challenge was not to write a man, but to write someone who doesn’t have the same ideas about what makes a woman, a man, or even an event, beautiful.
The Beauty is a short book. I finished it within a few months, and thought about extending it because I loved Nathan’s voice so much, but I had said everything I wanted to say. This story, much like the ones that Nathan tells around the campfire late at night, is now out of my control.
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“Perfidia”, opening book of the second L.A. Quartet by James Ellroy, arguably the most important crime writer in the world, is simply massive. But if you thought that spreading the story to over 700 pages means that Ellroy lost his edge, you would be wrong. His voice is as unflinching and sharp as ever, even more so. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that “Perfidia” might be his finest novel yet which is a bold statement considering that this is the man who wrote “L.A. Confidential”, “The Black Dahlia”, or the Underworld USA trilogy. But there’s indescribable something about “Perfidia” that makes it different to his previous output. While Ellroy has once again chosen to explore the seedy criminal underbelly of L.A., Perfidia’s historical scope and ambition are simply unprecedented. Similarly to another great American author, Stephen King, in “Perfidia” Ellroy actually tried to connect his entire body of work while at the same time giving his best efforts to write the next great American novel. And you know what? Against all odds, he succeeded.
“Perfidia” is set over a period of only 24 days and takes place during the tumultuous period between December 6, 1941 and the New Year. The Second World War is in full swing and in Pacific and Asia Japan is making huge strides with its military campaign. As the Pearl Harbour is about to happen, in L.A. the largest Japanese community in the USA is suddenly on the ropes. A series of murder or ritual suicides of a Japanese Watanabe family means that among the racial tensions, blackout and war erupting all around them, two police officers, police chemist Hideo Ashida and Los Angeles Police Department captain William H. Parker, are working day and night to solve the case. A note left on the scene alerts to coming apocalypse suggesting knowledge of what is about to come. Along the way they’ll meet many memorable and familiar characters which constant readers will remember from pages of previous Ellroy’s novel. So for example, Dudley Smith and Kay Lake both make a welcome appearance and help with the case.
Ellroy’s stroke of genius is that he has managed to create an atmosphere that constantly changes and continuously surprises the reader as the story unfolds. In fact, it is even hard to pinpoint what kind of book “Perfidia” really is. At moments it is a historical novel, while at others you’ll feel like you’re reading anything from romance to a full-fledged crime thriller. This means “Perfidia” can be enjoyed by both newcomers and experienced Ellroy aficionados alike but for much more fulfilling reading experience I would suggest reading at least first L.A. Quartet first.
In short, “Perfidia” is vintage Ellroy and more. Its story is full of tectonic movements, fascinating and dangerous characters with ambiguous morality, and events bigger than life itself. It’s brilliant in its complexity and vastness. Now, would you please follow me through this descent into darkness that “Perfidia” is? You certainly won’t regret it.
Review copy provided by William Heinemann.
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Déjà Vu is a boomerang that has returned to give the back of my head a glancing blow three or four times, and shows no sign of landing yet.
The book is an expansion of a story I wrote at secondary school. I was madly in love in science fiction, and had started using questions to help me write. The question behind the original Déjà Vu story was ‘If you were blind but could be granted a few days of sight, in exchange for the rest of your life, would you do it?’ I wrote the story, gave it a pretentious title like ‘We All Breathe the Same Air’, then circulated it to my friends. They pretended to like it.
A few years later, I was trying to write a film screenplay. I had the brilliantly--i.e, not very--original idea to create a murder detective character whose flaw, or perhaps advantage, was that he had killed too. It was the ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ story. That film script went belly up after a few pages.
The male detective became Saskia Brandt. I transported her into the near future so she could plausibly have a neural implant, added in the narrative of a blind man given the gift of sight for a few days, and started writing.
It was hard. I hadn’t written a book before. But I let the characters take we where they wanted. That led to Berlin; to Scotland; and to a secret bunker deep below Lake Mead in Nevada.
Suddenly, the novel had an arc: an eminent professor is on the run in Scotland, suspected of murder; a detective from the continental Federal Bureau of Investigation is despatched to intercept him, but she has problems of her own--her mind is an implant, and all she knows is that she has murdered before.
Where did my ideas come from? The blindness story was straight out of science fiction’s golden age. I always thought of that as a cerebral part of the book. It’s about virtual reality like the first Matrix movie, involves unethical experimentation like Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and uses the viewpoint character of a psychology professor, a man who is exceptionally rational in his approach, not unlike those in Hoyle’s The Black Cloud.
The story of Saskia was a more traditional piece of fiction. Besson’s Nikita was a big influence, as was Babylon 5’s ‘Passing Through Gethsemane’. When I wrote about her, I wanted the murder investigation to parallel an investigation of her own past--not metaphorically, as seems to happen all the time in detective fiction, but literally. Her past has been surgically removed and it’s up to her to find it. In contrast to the cerebral thread, Saskia’s journey is an emotional one. For this reason, perhaps, she took over the book; my original plan was to use the professor as the main character. Saskia turned out to be much more interesting.
If you look closely, you’ll see there are overtly cinematic influences to the novel. The language is visual, it has three acts, and uses the Hollywood ‘main plot’ and ‘sub plot’ structure. There are also traces of storytelling tropes. Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ mentioned that in the film ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, the characters of Han Solo/Leia and Luke Skywalker go through ‘failing’ experiences in a tunnel (for Luke, it’s a tunnel on Dagobah; for Han and Leia, it’s a tunnel in an asteroid). The metaphor of the tunnel crops up in other stories going all the way back to myth, so I dropped it into mine: it’s where Saskia abseils into the smoking ruin of the West Lothian Centre.
Having written the book, the road to publication was long. Remember the glancing blows of the boomerang? The first smack was finding out that my publisher (Ed: not Unsung Stories!) had released an uncorrected proof as the final version, so I had the mortifying experience of reviewers tutting at my typographical errors and other blunders, long-since corrected. The mortification continued. My publisher was so small that there was no hope of the book appearing in the high street. I trudged from bookshop to bookshop getting either pity or irritation from managers, few of whom had much say in their stock. One of my more industrious friends bullied a local bookseller into ordering a copy; that same bookseller phoned me a week later, such was their anxiety that the customer hadn’t picked up their copy yet.
Despite all this, Déjà Vu was reviewed positively in publications like SFX and The Guardian, so I continued with the second and third books in the series. Eventually, when the rights had reverted to me, I put out Déjà Vu as a Kindle ebook, and all hell broke loose. I was helped a lot by established writers. Ken MacLeod, for instance, wrote some very kind words on his blog. The book sold thousands of copies and for a few months I was earning more from my writing than my day job. I was picked up by an agent in the US and she began to field the enquiries from movie producers and send out proposals to the main science fiction imprints, one of whom was sure to pick up this online word-of-mouth success.
That didn’t work out, but it didn’t bother me overmuch. Déjà Vu, I thought, had had a good run. It had been read widely, I had a stream of correspondence from readers, and with the earnings I could afford freelance editors and cover designers for the subsequent books in the series. All was good. But there was still something niggling; I’d never held a paperback of the quintessential Déjà Vu, a paperback without the typos, and with some tweaks to magnify the good bits and correct the bad bits. Having written the sequels, I really wanted to return to Déjà Vu and raise its game.
So...just as I thought the boomerang was about to eat dirt, it smacked me around the back of the head again, but in a good way. The quintessential edition is the one being published by up-and-coming publisher George Sandison at Unsung Stories. Today’s Déjà Vu is the work of a writer in his early twenties reworked by a writer in his late thirties; the cool stuff remains, but, hopefully, in even cooler form, and laying the proper groundwork for the next books in the series.
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My introduction to the triune came early. Each morning as my classmates and I made the sign of the cross, my first-grade nun stressed that the Trinity--one God in three separate and distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost--was essential to our faith and, ergo, to our salvation. Since my six-year-old brain couldn’t make much sense of it, I was happy to be told the three-person God was a mystery beyond human understanding and had almost driven mad the theologians who’d tried to solve it.
Still, it stuck. Three in one, one in three. The holy trifecta. In the large stained glass window on the south wall of our Bronx parish church, St. Patrick held up a shamrock. One stem, three petals: They glowed a single emerald green as the sun lofted behind them. For that moment at least, the riddle of the Trinity ceased to bewilder.
Over the years, as I wandered amid the thickets of secularity, I learned that, as well as a marker of religious dogma, three brought to whatever it was associated with a special aura, whether exciting (Triple Crown), silly (Three Stooges), erotic (ménage à trois), scary (Third Reich), exceptional (triple play), or sad (strike three). Just by being three, ordinary things gained a special cachet.
When I set out to become a writer of books, I imagined one would suffice. A historian manqué, just shy of a Ph.D., I first stumbled into speech writing. I decided to try it for a year, save enough to go back to school, finish the dissertation, and turn it into a book. “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men,” as Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “gang aft agley.” I ended up scribbling for two New York governors and five chairmen of Time Inc./Time Warner across a span of three decades.
On the plus side, my job involved indoor work and required no manual labor. It paid the mortgage and tuitions, and included a defined benefit plan; on the minus, it was frequently stressful, sometimes grinding and always anonymous. Occasionally a speechwriter or two has slipped from behind the curtain and gained fame crafting words for mouths other than his/her own. But as I saw it, once you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding, and whatever praise or blame ensues is the sovereign’s alone.
As time went on, I felt a growing need to put my name on words I could publicly claim as mine. I got to my office two hours early in order to attempt a novel. Having grown used to churning out large chunks of copy in short amounts of time, I calculated I’d have a finished manuscript in a year or two. Robert Burns proved right again. Ten years later, I left the delivery room cradling my long-gestating mind child, Banished Children of Eve, a six-hundred-page saga of Civil War New York.
The first agent I submitted it to was dismissive. I hadn’t written one novel, she wrote, but “sausaged three in one.” I was stung. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized its truth. My novel was the story of Irish famine immigrants, the frightening, fecund mongrel world of mid-19th-century New York, and the impact of the Civil War. These were the three petals. Minstrel-songster Stephen Foster was stem and sausage skin. His music is the book’s leitmotiv. There are worse things to be accused of, I decided, than being a Trinitarian. I stuck with three in one, and that’s how it was published.
I drew a great deal of satisfaction from at last having my name on writing all my own, so much so that I decided one wasn’t enough. I had other stories I wanted to write. Faced by commercial constraints as well as those of my own mortality, I knew the next had to be shorter. Unfortunately, hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of the short form, which required the precision of the pointillist. I preferred the Jackson Pollack school, buckets of paint splashed across expansive canvases.
With the second novel, I decided to reverse the first: In place of three packed in one, one would be divided in three. The stem I started with was Fintan Dunne, Irish-American ex-cop and private eye, a veteran of World Wars I and II, whose formal education ended in the Catholic Protectory, an orphanage cum reformatory in the Bronx. In hardboiled style, Fin is a man who, if he ever had any illusions about human nature, had them kicked out of him so long ago he can’t remember what they were.
Fin is what the writer William Kennedy calls a “cynical humanist.” Distrustful of all authority, skeptical of most causes, uninterested in heroics, he is reluctant to get involved. Whatever the case, he knows from the outset that there are no perfect endings, no spotless souls, and that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Still, despite his understanding of the futility of good intentions and the hopeless fallibility of everyone--including himself--Fin can’t help but try to see that some modicum of justice is done.
I followed Fin as he fought with eugenicists and fifth columnists (Hour of the Cat), wrestled with the still-unsolved case of New York’s most-famous missing jurist (The Man Who Never Returned), and burrowed into the Cold War’s intricate machinations and betrayals (Dry Bones). I’ve seen the city and the world through his eyes as he experienced two world wars, the Great Depression and the gloom-and-boom of the Eisenhower era, the rollercoaster years W.H. Auden accurately labeled “The Age of Anxiety.”I’m grateful for our three-legged journey. Fintan has been great company every step of the way. Now that we finished our last caper and said our goodbyes, I’m hopeful that I’ve told his story the way he wanted it told, and that the three tales together--separate and distinct yet parts of the same whole--capture him in a jaded emerald glow.
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“The Art of Killing Well” is a perfect example of a recent trend in Italian giallo literature - the tendency do combine all of the things that Italians love the most in one handy package: tasty food, fiery relationships and, above all, a good scandal. You might think that this sub-genre owes it's success to the ascent of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series but you would be mistaken. The Mediterranean literature always had a panache for combining the two and even the great Camilleri is indebted to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Pepe Carvahlo who ate his way through most of his cases.
However, the main protagonist of Malvaldi's “The Art of Killing Well” is not an inspector. In fact, he's not even a member of the police force but just a lowly culinary writer in search of the finest delicacies that Tuscan hills can offer. Pellegrino Artusi is based on the actual historical figure. Artusi is an author of the legendary cookbook “The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well” which for decades formed the centerpiece of every respectable kitchen in Italy. Malvaldi's Artusi is quite a spirited character. Despite experiencing some truly horrific events during his life, he still holds a firm belief that life is as good as it gets as long as you're guaranteed three hot meals a day. Even a possibility of skipping a meal fills him with dread and that is exactly what happens when a body is found in a castle cellar. Cellar is found locked from the inside but still it is obvious that the man inside was murdered. Local inspector is stumped by the circumstances and it is up to Artusi's finely tuned nose and his love of Sherlock Holmes to provide an insight. Slowly he ingeniously leads the inspector in the right direction while at the same time finally gaining a chance to explore the delicacies of Baron's castle kitchen at peace.
In the after-word Malveldi mentions that he planned to place “The Art of Killing Well” in English countryside and you can clearly see why. Him closed-room murder feels like it fell out of an Agatha Christie novel. Still, when you combine Christie's finely tuned touch for mystery with Italian humour and culture, the results are very very delicious. “The Art of Killing Well” is as close as you can get to a perfect summer read. Its mystery will excite you, its fine food will make you salivate but fear not – the last 20 pages are filled with recipes for some of tastiest Tuscan delicacies which you can try at home. I especially recommend Tuna pie – it's out of this world.
Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
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I wasn't really prepared for "The Last Tiger" because my only experiences of reading Tony Black's work so far were his excellent crime novels. I was expecting something on par even though judging by the synopsis and the absence of dark tones on the cover art I should've known better. Apparently somewhere along the way, Tony Black has discovered a literary streak in him and what a change it has been! Having since read "His Father's Son", I can only express delight at this new found nuance in his talent because the depth of his writing these days is simply staggering while the pacing of the story, brought straight from his crime novels, is still here.
"The Last Tiger" is the sad tale of the untimely demise of the Tasmanian tiger. It is 1910 and twelve year-only Myko and his family are in Tasmania. Having fled from their native Lithuania threatened by Czarist occupation when the Russians took his father's farm, they were bound for America but having found themselves in this beautiful but rough land filled with wild animals and unkind people, they're once again filled with trepidation. As Myko's father finds work as a tiger trapper (unbelievably, the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head for dead adult thylacines and ten shillings for pups), Myko finds himself in the situation where the fate of last few tigers rests upon his shoulders. The society is dead set against the tigers and considers them pests while Myko on the other hand, sees something different in them. Everything is carefully placed for the conflict between the father and son.
Poetically written, "The Last Tiger" is likely to make you very sad and melancholic but sometimes those books are the best kind there is. Black speaks about important things and through the tale of the final throes of this wild but wonderful species, he actually talks about the humanity itself and the need to accept the very things we don't really understand. Similarly to Myko's family, the last tigers are slowly losing their ground and are only trying to survive in only way they can.
"The Last Tiger" is an vivid emotional journey which will, in the best possible way, provoke you with its exploration of loss, family, life and death.
Review copy provided by Cargo.
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England is gripped by its harshest winter ever at the start of The Winter Foundlings. Psychologist Alice Quentin has traded her comfortable hospital consultancy for a placement at Northwood, a high security psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. When young girls start being abducted from the streets of London, she is forced to form a relationship with Northwood’s most infamous resident, Louis Kinsella. The current crimes echo his murders so closely, there must be a link, which only he can explain.
The Winter Foundlings is the third novel in the Alice Quentin series and I wanted it to be her most terrifying, personally and professionally. Alice is tough and resilient, but dogged by memories of her violent alcoholic father, so I chose to make Louis Kinsella bear an uncanny resemblance to him. Every time Alice interviews the serial killer, she’s forced to revisit the frightening memories of her past. I wanted to make sure that Louis Kinsella spoke, acted and behaved like a convincing psychopath, so I immersed myself in case studies and true crime accounts of psychopathy, as well as interviewing two senior psychiatrists. Writing the book took me into such dark territory that my husband started to insist that I quit writing at 6p.m. to give me time to get Kinsella out of my head before bedtime, in case the character gave me nightmares!
Alice’s home life is as scary as her days at Northwood. The cottage she’s renting is deep in the countryside, almost cut off by snow. As danger mounts, she finds herself on unfamiliar terrain with no one to turn to. It helped hugely that a freezing cold winter arrived with perfect timing just as I began the book. I kept rushing to the window and staring out at Stourbridge Common, behind my house in Cambridge, longing for more snow.
The research for The Winter Foundlings was fascinating. The high security hospital where Alice works is loosely modelled on Broadmoor, with its mix of imposing Victorian wards and ultra-modern blocks, all packed inside a warren of high security walls. I visited several centres for the criminally insane and interviewed staff there, which helped me to understand their regimes. The other location which is central to the story is The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London’s first orphanage. Both Louis Kinsella and his copycat are obsessed by this haunting place. I visited the museum many times while writing my novel, to gain a sense of its physical layout and exhibits. It struck me as tragic that many penniless women hoped that their fortunes would turn and one day they would be able to collect their children and take them home. They left tokens, such as coins or matchboxes, so their infants could be identified if they ever returned.
As The Winter Foundlings progresses, Alice has to grapple with her own past, but more importantly she has to understand why the serial killer terrorising London’s streets is fixated by an orphanage which thrived during Charles Dickens’s lifetime. Only by finding the link between past and present can she hope to locate the city’s most predatory killer.
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The strangest thing for me about creating a story is the sense that it already exists and that I am merely discovering it. I’ve asked many writers about their own creative processes and they often report similar experiences. They describe it as being like pulling away a dust sheet to see what is underneath. Or tugging at a loose thread and discovering that it is merely the end of something far longer.
It is an occasional experience. The other state is that of mechanically delivering the elements of a plot worked out in advance. I do that too. But those scenes – the pre-planned ones - I worry about. They often feel flat and uninteresting at the time of writing. I tell myself that they are placeholders and will be removed once inspiration strikes.
In short, I prefer discovery to planning.
There was no plan when I started writing what would become The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. I did not know it would turn into a novel. I did not even know that the protagonist – who appeared to be a Victorian gentleman – was a woman. She revealed that detail of her identity to me by throwing off her disguise. When a character announces herself so forcefully, I have found it a good policy to keep writing.
There is another image that comes to mind when thinking about the creative process - a geologist drilling down into the earth somewhere far out in the desert. For a long time all that comes from the hole are fragments of rock and dust. Then, without warning, the drill hits an aquifer and water starts to gush out, flowing under its own artesian pressure. There is nothing that can be done to stop it.
That was my experience on writing my first published novel, Backlash. It happened again with The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. At times, the story came out so rapidly that it was all I could do to write it down. The sense of the story being dictated to me was enhanced by the fact that both novels were written in the first person. Thus, once I had learned to capture the voice, the protagonist could talk directly to me.
I’m not saying that the characters have an external reality or that the story has some kind of mystical pre-existence. But the sense of those things is palpable. And the experience is so intoxicating that it undoubtedly has an effect on the writing process.
The rationalist view of how the book was written goes like this: “You live in the city of Leicester. You know its architecture. You’ve seen the cobblestones exposed where the road surface has been worn away. You also love science fiction, alternate history, Sherlock Holmes and the golden age of stage magic. Your back-brain has been chewing over these things for years and now they come out in the form of a novel. Yes, you had to justify the elements of your alternate history. That involved a process of logical deduction. But the themes and characters came courtesy of the unconscious mind.”
In this way of thinking, the environment is like a spoonful of tea leaves and the back brain is a pot of boiling water – leave one exposed to the other and something wonderful will happen.
Another phenomenon reported by many novelists is the discovery that an observation they threw into an early chapter, apparently at random, turns out to be vital to the plot. This happened many times in the Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. I can mention a sheet of watermarked writing paper and a pair of smoked glass goggles as examples, but I can’t say how they came to be significant without revealing spoilers.
“How did I know to put it in there?” a writer whispers, as if confessing belief in the supernatural. “I hadn’t planned the ending yet!”
Again, this can be explained in terms of psychology. Pattern recognition is a skill hard wired into our brains. Presented with the random stuff of story, we perceive the order and symmetry of a plot. It feels designed. But had we thrown in different details at the start, our minds would have perceived just as much order. It is just that the plot would have turned out different.
But when it comes to stories seeming to have an existence external to the person who is writing them, there is one phenomenon reported more often than any other. Characters don’t always do what the writer wants.
To thrive as social creatures, we need to be able to imagine our way into the thoughts and feelings of others. This understanding is sometimes referred to as a “theory of mind”. Quite how extraordinary it is only becomes apparent when we meet people in whom it is impaired. Often they find it difficult to navigate social situations that would be trivial to others.
Novelists can try to design the plot of their stories so that they know in advance what ‘should’ happen in every scene. But the part of the brain devoted to the theory of mind has no interest in plot. All it cares about is that a character behaves in a manner that is absolutely true to its own psychology.
“I knew what I wanted my protagonist to do,” says the writer. “But when I tried to write it, she decided to do something completely different!”
Far from being irritating, these moments validate the writing process. I pressed on with the Bullet Catcher’s Daughter precisely because the protagonist had a life of her own. There was plenty of dry writing to be done. And there was much head scratching along the way. But there were also those times when she spoke up and told me what to write.
By explaining these strange experiences in terms of psychology, it may seem that I am trying to drive the magic away. I see it entirely the other way around. These experiences are magically charged and profoundly mysterious precisely because they are projections of the unconscious mind. The magic lies within us.
In the final analysis, those moments when the story reveals itself are worth the hours of struggle. They are writing at its most ecstatic. When they happen we get a sense of what Howard Carter must have felt as he chiselled a tiny breach in a stone doorway and glimpsed treasures of gold and ebony in the burial chamber beyond.
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