REVIEW : Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

 

The press release that came with Al Robertson's debut novel "Crashing Heaven" is an impressive statement that clearly showcases how much the publisher is behind this book. It is always impressive when William Gibson, Alastair Reynold, Richard K. Morgan and even Neal Stephenson are mentioned in a single breath and the six figure sum always catches attention. Admittedly you'll be disappointed if you expect it to be an amalgam of their works in any shape or form because "Crashing Heaven" simply isn't what's promised on paper. It would be simply an impossible feat to achieve it but Al Robertson touched all of these authors in a small way. There's plenty of imaginative spirit in Robertson's writing and subtle nods to his contemporaries for "Crashing Heaven" to pull it off handsomely and that's an achievement in itself.

"Crashing Heaven" is a bleak, hard science fiction tale set in a future where the Earth is left behind and the humanity has moved to a Station, an asteroid made habitable by sentient consciousness of the Pantheon. Even in space the conflict is still raging and as it eventually folds, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist return to the station after a war against a group of rogue AIs called The Totality, only to be accused of treachery. In the middle of the conflict Jack surrendered to the enemy and everyone on Station knows it. Jack was an AI killer, primed for violence and combat. It was a traumatizing experience but despite what really happened, he's been the lucky one here. He has survived while his other friends have died. Determined to discover what actually happened, Jack is set to enter another war, one which threatens to destroy both him and Hugo. However, stakes depending upon the outcome of his struggle are much higher than he ever imagined. Even humanity's future is uncertain. For Jack the time is running out as soon Hugo is set to take over his body so there's not much hope left. Hugo Fist is a strange creation, a virtual entity designed to help Jack fight a war and is a great character in itself. Their internal dialog is such a treat. Similarly, Station as a living, vibrant space is depicted superbly. Robertson manages to capture claustrophobic and chaotic existence of one such place. Existence made bearable only by the application on augmented reality called the Weave - a popular mean of escape from reality.

Still, the synopsis itself doesn't do justice to "Crashing Heaven" because on the surface of it, it presents Al Robertson's debut novel as a set of instantly recognizable SF tropes which includes everything from messy post-apocalyptic aftermath, humanity's migration to space, rogue AIs and everyone's existence balancing on an knife's edge. "Crashing Heaven" is better than the sum of its parts. It's an all-encompassing landscape upon which the story unfolds and at times I was even slightly overcome by too much of everything. And yet, as I've mentioned before, the whole thing somehow works together. "Crashing Heaven" is a completely insane book and for what is worth I believe that publishers were right to believe so firmly in its success. Jam packed with innovative ideas and fresh approaches to storytelling, "Crashing Heaven" could just be the one book that everyone will talk about in 2015. I certainly hope so.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order "Crashing Heaven" by Al Robertson here:

REVIEW : Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda

Siem Sigerius is a man of countless talents. Over the course of this book we see him as nothing less than an extraordinary mathematician, a judo champion, a university professor, director of the University of Enschede and to top it all, the minister of education. He is also enjoying a beautiful family life with his wife and two stepdaughters. He even likes his stepdaughter Joni's boyfriend Aaron and despite him being a truly intimidating presence the two strike an unlikely friendship, even starting to practice Judo together. However, behind the illusion of charmed life, Siem has a dark secret. His son from previous marriage is in prison serving time for murder and few people know about it. Now his son is about to be released and on the eve of this event his life unstoppable starts to unravel. This final collapse also coincides with the massive explosion at a fireworks factory and similarly to its disintegration, Siem's whole existence is unraveling in fragments. First he recognizes Joni's picture on one of the pornographic websites he frequents and as his son appears he's quick to blackmail him.

In "Bonita Avenue" Peter Buwalda has created a sprawling family drama which despite its relatively long length (it is over 500 pages long) flows like a thriller. It is wonderfully written and while I'm not sure whether this is due to an excellent translation or the beauty of the original text, i found the use of metaphors and descriptions so brilliant that I started marking some of them down. In Netherlands the book received an unprecedented critical acclaim and sold over 300.000 copies. It subsequently went on to win two literary prizes while being nominated for two more and I can definitely see why it impressed both the critics and readers so much. It is true that at certain points Buwalda does lose himself a bit in the sheer amount of details and elements but quickly enough he steadies his hand and as the family finally completed its descend into madness, I was profoundly shocked by the dark finale. An impressive chronicle of one family's downfall.


Order "Bonita Avenue" by Peter Buwalda here:

Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.

REVIEW : Bete by Adam Roberts

I've been fortunate enough to be reading Adam Roberts' work ever since “Salt”, his debut novel, has been published in 2000. In my opinion “Salt” was one of those rare novels that managed to blur the boundaries between genres and offer a thought provoking analysis of the cultural differences between disparaging approaches to society, namely in that particular case fundamental religion and anarchism. With its ambiguous ending, “Salt” at times read like a political manifesto. Over the course of its 200 or so pages it revealed weaknesses in both movements while carefully introducing the readers to dogma of both. “Salt” was something new and I was instantly hooked with Roberts' writing. Over the next fifteen year Roberts became of my favourite writers of literary science fiction and I've been awaiting each of his books with impatience. The only ones I didn't really like were the parodies but that's just my taste. Luckily, Roberts is a very productive author and has been publishing, more or less, a novel a year. After this year's "Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea" which offered an original take on Verne's classic adventure, “Bête” is a more serious affair and reads like an amalgam between George Orwell's “Animal Farm”, H.G. Wells' “Island of Doctor Moreau” and talking cow out of Douglas Adams' “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.

The premise is very intriguing. The latest initiative by animal rights movement sees them injecting domestic animals with artificial intelligence chip which means that suddenly they can talk back and defend their rights. Now, just before you kill them they're reason with you, plead for their life and make you feel bad. How dare they? The fact poses an increasingly moral dilemma for people used to eating them. Animal rights movements are hoping that this will change law's outlook on animals in general and that their status will be recognized by the international court of human rights. But are animals really intelligent or are they're just product of clever science? Unsurprisingly, The Smiths' "The Meat is Murder" makes an appearance. Animals and AI are not just a cheap gimmicks but a discussion worthy thought experiment.

 

In a world increasingly at pressure due to climate change and overpopulation, Roberts multi-layered tale feels very topical. Since I'm vegetarian I completely understand the importance of improving conditions for kept animals and the cruelty involved in their exploitation. Our behaviour towards them should definitely improve or even better stop and Bête will definitely make you think about it and the consequences of continuing as we are. The clever thing that Roberts pulls off here is that he makes animals feel like aliens to humans. He posits our behaviour towards animals, after they gained intelligence, more like a racism than like a speciesism. People are simply not used to their food talking back and playing on their conscience. "Bête" is a wonderful piece of social commentary and my favourite novel of Roberts for years. It's thought provoking, it has laughs in it and will impact your outlook on life a bit. Just like all the best novels really.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order Bête by Adam Roberts here:

REVIEW : Marked by Sue Tingey

 

This is the second time that I'm reviewing "Marked" since my original review got lost due to one unfortunate act of general clumsiness. To be honest I can't say that I find it to be a problem. It is such a nice little read that I profoundly enjoyed so I'll happily go down that route once again. The most obvious place to start is the proof itself. The publicists are always up to no good when it comes to bringing attention to their latest favourite but "Marked" simply pushed the boundaries to a completely new level. Just look at that beauty:

The dragon is on my key chain, of course. "Marked" definitely got noticed but we all know that looks are nothing when it comes to books. Luckily, Sue Tingey's debut is more than smoke and mirrors. This, occasionally bonkers, and exciting descent into hell tells the story of Lucinda De Salle (known to everyone as Lucky), an ordinary, if unloved, girl who has a strange power - she can see ghosts. This instantly marks her as something of an outcast so all through her life her best friend is Kayla, a ghost girl who has been her constant companion even since she can remember. It all changes when she's been called to her former school by the new headmistress. Three pupils have carelessly played with an Ouija board in the attic and summoned something from the great beyond. Lucky is instantly suspicious. The last time she's been to this same attic she has ended up expelled but alarm bells have really started ringing when Kayla bluntly refused to come. This had the potential to end up bad. And it was. She finds a dark man expecting her - an assassin by the man of Henri de Dent (French for tooth) who is after Kayla. The Underlands want her back. So begins Lucky's quest filled with peril, danger and lots of fun.

After this rather bleak opening, "Marked" tones down a bit and is rather handsomely easy to read and that is why I found it so pleasurable. It's simply not a standard urban fantasy fare, filled with broken hearts, downcast glances and gloomy characters despite notionally having all the familiar elements. If anything "Marked" more closely resembles John Connolly's "Samuel Johnson" series that a book with a black feather on its cover. Sue Tingey's debut is such great fun and a delight to read so I certainly hope there's much more to come in the future. I know I would love to read more and luckily this is marked as a first instalment in The Soulseer Chronicles. Let's hope that editor doesn't lose this review as well:)


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
Order "Marked" by Sue Tingey here:

The story behind The Killing of Bobbi Lomax by Cal Moriarty

The Killing of Bobbi Lomax didn’t start where you might think, in an American desert, but in story-time, served up day or night by my Dad starting from when I was aged about 3. At the time, I was too young to question why all my Dad’s off-the-cuff kids'  stories seemed to involve an angry raven as black as night or some other dark, devious swooping animal. These dark tales were so exciting to my burgeoning desire for disturbing stories I just wanted more and more. Forty years later when he was diagnosed with depression I would figure out that my Dad’s scary dark stories were perhaps his creative outlet to attempt to off-set his hitherto undiagnosed depression. So, by a very young age I was hooked on the dark and edgy content and, after a brief flirtation with Enid Blyton and traditional adventure stories, I returned aged 10 or 11 to the macabre. I became an almost a permanent fixture in the newspaper shop at the end of our street which, at the time, was wall to wall magazines from all corners of the earth. There I could buy True Crime, True Detective and every other murder mag import from the States. By this time I had a sideline washing cars and had carved up our local Fulham territory with another local kid. We never strayed onto each other’s patch or it would have been squeeqees at dawn. And now, because of my growing empire, I could basically afford anything a child might want to buy and, most likely because my addiction to pictures of freshly dead bodies and gory stories greatly increased his profit margins, the newsagent never questioned my rather adult choice of reading material. 
 
My inability to look away from the horrific images and descriptions of murder forced me to question why people committed these crimes, and why I was so obsessed with such horror. Why did this person die? And why did the killer do it? How is not as interesting as why. Not to me. It’s the psychological make-up of the perpetrator that is the key to everything. And I believe that this is also the key to creative writing for every character a writer presents their readers/audience. We do our characters a disservice when we present them as mono-dimensional. Relying on ‘twists’ when writing is very limiting for reader and writer alike, burrowing deep down into your characters psyche whether they be your protagonist or antagonist is where it’s at for me as a writer. I want to know, both as reader and writer, if I follow a character for hundreds of pages I’m going to learn more about them as a person than I knew on page one. Otherwise, why bother reading on. And, if there is going to be ‘twists’ they better come from characterisation and not be the deus ex machina of plot randomly swooping down to save the day. 
I use the ‘why’ to create everything else a novel requires: characterisation, plot, structure, setting. All of it. To me everything should be developed organically from character, the why. When I wrote The Killing of Bobbi Lomax and explored the characters of Clark Houseman and Marty Sinclair it was important for me to understand and characterise why that recurring black raven of my Dad’s stories was so very very destructive. It's that search for why a character behaves as they do that keeps me writing every day.   
 
The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is out now (Faber and Faber, £12.99)

Cal Moriarty
Order The Killing of Bobbi Lomax by Cal Moriarty here:

The story behind Truth and Fear by Peter Higgins

 

Originally Truth and Fear wasn’t meant to exist. I hadn’t thought of it. It wasn’t part of the plan.

When I’m working on ideas for what to write, I think first of all in terms of genre and atmosphere and setting: the characters come later and their stories come last (last but most of all, that’s where ninety per cent of the writing gets done). I get to know the characters and their stories as I’m writing, and they change and develop, often in unexpected ways, but basically, a new book starts off as a feeling for the kind of book I want to read, and that initial idea – what kind of book is this? – stays with me throughout. It’s what I hold onto.

A few years ago now, I had the idea for what became Wolfhound Century. I love fantasy, and I love thrillers (detective stories, noirs, police procedurals, spy novels, murder mysteries, call them what you will) so, I thought, why not write a book that’s both at once? Why not a full-on fantasy, set in a world different from ours, with hard journeys, a dark lord, a war for the future, the possibility of magic, extraordinary non-human creatures, and the future at stake, but one where the story would move with the pace and danger of a thriller? One that would be set in a world somewhat like Soviet Russia in the first half of the 20th century: a totalitarian state at war, with secret police and marching crowds, revolutionary terrorists and dissident intellectuals. At a human level, it would let in something of the darkness and cruelty, and also the huge sense of possibility and change of that period in our world’s history: only, because it was also a fantasy, this world would have giants and endless forests and living, sentient rain.

And so I wrote Wolfhound Century.

My first version was a single, stand-alone book. That was the original plan. It was only when I’d finished the first draft that I realized a single book wasn’t going to be enough.

I discovered in the course of writing Wolfhound Century that combining fantasy and thriller works in all sorts of ways. Each genre strengthens and helps the other. Both kinds of book start with a question: something strange is happening, something serious is wrong with the world, and has to be put right. The characters have to work out what’s causing the wrongness and try to do something about it (at great risk and cost to themselves) and the reader experiences that with them. The reader learns about the world as the characters do, and the characters grow and change, becoming more interesting and complex and powerful, as they confront the terrible threat.

But one big difference between the thriller and the fantasy as genres is time-frame. Thrillers have tight, fast-moving plots. The action starts near the point of crisis, and races along. The clock ticks fast and loud. Every day, every hour, every minute counts. Time is always running out. Fantasies, on the other hand, can take their time. You can follow characters for years: kingdoms rise and fall, wars are lost and won, dragons grow from eggs to adults, and magic-workers struggle to learn their craft. Above all, with fantasies you build a whole world, with its own geography and population and a history that matters.

When I’d finished that first draft of Wolfhound Century, I realised the work wasn’t done. The story wasn’t over, and the fantasy was still at work; the characters wanted to grow and become stronger; the world I’d built needed to be explored more, there were other places around the next corner and beyond the horizon; the tensions and conflicts that threatened to destroy this huge world were still there.

And so I took a deep breath and changed the plan. Instead of a single, stand-alone book it needed to be a trilogy. After all, there’s something about trilogies that works for fantasy, and has done at least since Lord of the Rings: the three-book structure feels somehow right, as a way of doing justice to a whole new world. Three books let it breathe. But I wanted to hang onto the thriller approach – that pace, that excitement, that danger shouldn’t be diluted. That’s what drove me to come up with the concept of a fantasy told in three thrillers: three books, each of which would cover a short period of time (that thriller clock still ticking loud) but together they’d build up to tell a bigger story, the story of a continent and a world.

Which gave me a whole new challenge.

When I started working on Truth and Fear, I knew that it was going to be Book II out of three, and I knew that the middle books of trilogies can be difficult. The risk is that they’re all middle: not filler, exactly, but transitional stories between a beginning and an ending that take place elsewhere and at another time. I was determined that Truth and Fear wouldn’t be like that: I wanted it to work as a thriller, I wanted it to be a great book in its own right, I wanted it to be surprising, and (excited though I was with Wolfhound Century) I wanted Truth and Fear to be better.

So before I started writing Truth and Fear I read as many middle books of trilogies as I could. I thought about which ones worked, and which ones seemed to fall a bit flat, and why. I watched movie sequels, and season two of great TV series. I looked for interviews with other writers who’d tackled the problem before me, though for some reason there doesn’t seem to be much out there about this topic. (I did find two fantastic gold mines: the bonus features on the DVD of the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; and a talk at a convention by Juliet McKenna about the challenges and pitfalls of returning to a world you’ve made and writing more.

And out of all this ‘research’ (which was hugely more fun than that word implies) I made myself a set of ‘ground rules’ – principles for making a Book II that really works – which I held onto throughout the process of writing Truth and Fear. I wanted to take the first book as a starting point, but widen it out and raise the stakes. I wanted the world to get bigger – new places, new characters, new journeys – and I wanted the main characters’ relationships to deepen: in the first book they got acquainted, but now they’d learn more about each other and themselves, now they’d change and grow.

For the record, these are my personal ground rules, my ‘five principles for writing a Book II’:

  • as the characters get stronger, so does the opposition: the battles get bigger and harder;
  • open the cupboards and look inside: go back to things that were hints and peripherals in Book I, and see what they really meant;
  • overturn expectations – what you thought you knew may be just the start – but don’t play mind-games with the reader;
  • mourn the dead: people who didn’t make it past the first book live on in memory, and still influence action and emotions;
  • don’t hold on to everything: some things, even if they were important in Book I, have to fall and crash and burn.

And finally, and most importantly for me, although the overarching three-book story has to keep moving, Book II has to be a new story in its own right, with a new challenge, a new and harder struggle, and an ending that’s satisfying but also catapults you forward to the final conclusion in Book III.

Of course, there’s nothing definitive about these principles, and somebody else might come up with different ones, but these turned out to be mine: they’re what I tried to live by when I was writing Truth and Fear, and I thought they might be worth sharing.  


Peter Higgins
Order "Truth and Fear" here:

REVIEW : Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel

 

May sees the publication of the new English edition of Philippe Claudel's seminal novel "Grey Souls". Originally published in 2005 as "Les Âmes Grises", upon its publication "Grey Souls" was both a critical and commercial success and it even won the prestigious Prix Renaudot. In hindsight it was a crucial novel for Claudel as it set the stage for many works that followed in its wake, most notably "The Investigation" and "Monsieur Linh and His Child". Similarly to these "Grey Souls" deals a metaphysical aspects of an investigation and the consequences of living an ordinary life during the horrific war.

"Grey Souls" revolves around a murder of a young girl which was committed in 1917 but only solved two decades later. The story is set in a small French town situated near the Western Front, in fact the battles are fought so close that the sounds and smells of death are palpable in the streets. One winter morning, a ten year old daughter of an innkeeper is found strangled in a canal. In the chaos of war, blood boils fast and soon enough, two men, deserters, are accused and quickly executed. Witnessing this impromptu sentencing was our narrator who, after being deeply shocked by the injustice and the brutality of the event, has never been able to escape its influence. Now, 20 years in the future, our narrator is a policemen who is slowly trying to piece together the story of what truly happened to that poor girl.



"Grey Souls" has deservedly been a tremendous success and is firmly one of the Claudel's most enduring works. The contrast between the conflict in which countless died and the killing of a single young and innocent girl is a frightening thing to experience and certainly leaves a lasting impression. Claudel always knew how to stir up intense, vivid emotions in his readers (just remember "Perfums") and "Grey Souls" is no exception. It's just beautiful in that subtle, thought provoking fashion.

In short, "Grey Souls" is a welcome addition to the bibliography of one of the finest contemporary European authors at the moment and finds him at the height of his power.


Review copy provided by Maclehose Press.
Order Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel here:

The story behind All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

With the publication of All That Outer Space Allows at the end of April, the Apollo Quartet is now finally complete. And this last instalment is a little bit different to the preceding three volumes - Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. For a start, All That Outer Space Allows is a novel, not a novella. Albeit only a short novel, just shy of 45,000 words.

When I decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first of a quartet about the Apollo space programme, I knew the final book’s title would be All That Outer Space Allows and it would be about a woman who wrote science fiction and was married to an Apollo astronaut. I remember explaining as much to a friend at the 2012 Eastercon, the day after launching Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Of course, before I could actually start writing that fourth book, I needed to write and publish books two and three. And who knew what might change in the interim…

As it happens, not that much. All That Outer Space Allows remains broadly true to my initial vision of three years ago. But it’s certainly a much more complicated, and longer, book than I’d envisaged. It wasn’t enough, I’d decided, that Ginny Eckhardt, the wife of (invented) Apollo astronaut Walden J Eckhardt, wrote science fiction. No, I also had to include one of her stories in the novel - and I had to have that story both be a reflection of her life up to the point she wrote it, and then reflect back on her life afterwards. And all this while documenting her life as a housewife. In Houston. During the 1960s. With an astronaut husband.

None of the books of the Apollo Quartet have been easy to write, and the amount of research I’ve had to do has often horrified even myself. For All That Outer Space Allows, however, it was much, much harder. The Apollo space programme is well-documented, and there are thousand of books on the topic, some even written by the astronauts themselves. There is also a lot of technical documentation on missions to Mars - although perhaps not as I described it in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. And even the Mercury 13 have been the subject of several books, including a pair of autobiographies by Jerry Cobb, the lead figure in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. But there are remarkably few books about the Apollo programme from the point of view of the astronauts’ wives. In fact, I found only two: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel, published only in 2013; and The Moon is Not Enough, by Mary Irwin, wife of Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin. I’d made the research a feature of the first three books of the Apollo Quartet, but for this final novel of the series it looked like I’d have to do a lot of reading around the subject…

Now that the quartet is finished, I’m looking forward to putting away the two piles of research books on the desk beside my laptop - not to mention the one on the floor next to the desk. While All That Outer Space Allows has been the hardest book of the four to write because so much research was required, Ginny Eckhardt was the protagonist I most enjoyed putting myself into the head of. If that makes sense. Peterson from book one and Elliott from book two were both defined by their actions, and Jerry Cobb in book three was a real person whose character was based on her own words in her autobiographies… but Ginny was entirely invented. Yet she had to remain true to her time, her nationality and her gender. I hope I’ve managed to pull it off. It was certainly a challenge trying to do so. And that, I suppose, is what made her so much fun to write. And writing a 1960s science fiction story as Ginny was a lot of fun too.

I’ve just had the first book of a space opera trilogy published by Tickety Boo Press, A Prospect of War, so I’ll be thinking about widescreen commercial space opera for at least the next eighteen months - blowing shit up and turning tropes on their head, that sort of thing. On the other hand, the Apollo Quartet sits in a space in the genre that I certainly think is worth exploring further. Someone described the quartet as “art house hard science fiction”, and I think it’s a fair label. The idea of bringing literary fiction, or art house cinema, sensibilities to hard sf provides ample opportunity to do interesting things. I’ve proven to my own satisfaction - and, I hope, other people’s - it’s a space in which I can produce good work. So it would be a shame to abandon it. But I’m looking forward to a short holiday writing the sort of science fiction I can just make up as I go along...


Ian Sales
Order All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales here:
Whippleshield Books

The story behind Barricade - Q&A with Jon Wallace

Q: What can you tell us about "Barricade"?

It’s a fierce, thrilling science fiction novel about a taxi driver in post apocalypse Britain.

Narrator Kenstibec is a member of the “Ficials”, a race of invulnerable super-humans bred as specialists in engineering and other fields. They were designed to preserve man’s collapsing civilisation, but turned on their creators instead, causing a nuclear war. The conflict has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials barricade themselves in ruined cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors.

Kenstibec earns his keep as a taxi driver, ferrying supplies and fellow Ficials in dangerous, high-octane runs from city to city. Barricade follows him on one such trip - a dark, furious action adventure from his base in Edinburgh to the flooded ruins of London.

Q: Where the idea came from and what can you tell us about your writing process?

I started to write a book at Edinburgh University, but I couldn’t seem to move it forward and dropped it. After writing a lot of stories and other bits and pieces I realised what the problem was with my book: I was trying to write what I thought I should write, instead of what I would actually enjoy reading. So I took the element I liked of the Uni book (a road trip starting in Edinburgh) and placed it in a dystopian, science fiction setting.

My process has been the same since then: I generally start with a pretty good loose frame for the story, with a few definite stops mapped out. I make the first draft all about story, keep it moving by writing something every day. I find the world and characters grow during the writing - little ideas pop up about what he/she should have said back in chapter 2, or how a particular location could have been better described. I note all that good stuff down, but keep moving. Once it’s complete I set it aside for a while, then come back to it and read afresh, noting again. Then I make any major cuts or changes with my notes in mind. After that there come more drafts, which are pretty much all about refining what I have.

Q: "Barricade" is your debut novel but you've already published quite a few short stories, some in the respectable and much loved "Interzone". How different was it writing a novel? Was transition to long form difficult?

Some authors are prolific short story writers, but I find them pretty tough and have to work hard to get them somewhere I am happy with. But I think that’s good. JG Ballard has said that these days authors start with a novel and miss out on important experience as a result. I agree that writing in the short form is excellent training. I don’t know about other writers, but I had to write some stories before I could take on a book: they helped me because they taught me to have patience, to focus and try to enjoy work. As a result I didn’t find the transition to novels too difficult – the hard part is keeping up a routine of writing every day, which you kind of need to do. I don’t always manage it. Sometimes, after a hard day at work, I just want to go to the pub.

Q: I've been especially impressed by your setting. For the readers, the story takes place in an unrecognizable post-apocalypse Britain divided between factions. How do you get to create something like that? Is world-building hard for you?

Glad you like it! I always wanted to write my own dystopian story, and I always thought I’d set it in the UK. I think you only need to put the tiniest twist on everyday Britain to make it a pretty insane world. There are already so many tribal divisions – fame, wealth, accent - the factions are sort of there, ready and waiting to be explored.

I generally build up the world in layers, starting off with a few key foundations for the setting (in this case a wall of burning cloud, a scarred landscape and barricaded cities), then build on them with other locations and structures that emerge as I’m writing – you then make this world richer with each new draft. A lot of details and touches occur to me as I’m walking to work actually.

Q: At moments "Barricade" is very dark book but the story does come with some rather funny moments. In a way, it felt very British to me. Was it a conscious decision to make the story feel like that or it just happened?

It was definitely a conscious decision that the book should have a sense of humour, and yes I would say it’s a very British sense of humour. It’s a tricky line to tread because as you say there are some nasty things happening in the story. Still, I think the funny moments help alleviate the gloom, providing balance to the gloomy dystopian setting. Besides, the funny moments came spontaneously from the interaction of characters. It would have felt wrong to stamp them out just to hold onto a forbidding tone.

Q: How was it writing Kenstibec as he is in the book - a cold, calculated artificial being? How did you get into right frame of mind?

For Kenstibec I started with Chandler-esque, laconic delivery and went from there. Marlowe’s cool reactions always seemed a little inhuman to me and I thought that a good model for a life form that’s had its emotions burned out. After that it’s just a fun process of imagination: how would a being with no regard for the value of life, love or happiness assess human behaviour and history? How would it talk to people? It was fun finding out.

Q: "Barricade" has been compared to works by authors such as Richard K. Morgan. How do you feel about it?

I’m flattered! I hadn’t read any Richard Morgan before writing, but my editor gave the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy as a present and I burned through it quick. I think the comparison comes mostly from Kenstibec, who is cool, withdrawn, brutal at times - like Takeshi.

Q: Does being compared to such successful author put additional pressure on you?

I don’t think so. As a debut author it’s just a delight to be discussed in that way. Being published is a lifelong dream and it still makes me smile to think about it.

Q: Who were the authors who originally inspired you to write and what recent titles would you recommend to our readers?

George Orwell inspired me to write. I wolfed down all his work in my early teens and he left a lasting impression. Other science fiction and fantasy authors I loved as a teenager were Robert Rankin for the Brentford Triangle series and Grant Naylor for Red Dwarf – which probably both influenced the buddy relationship in Barricade.

In terms of my recent reading I would recommend By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar: very different, very accomplished. In terms of non-fiction I would highly recommend Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, about the US nuclear deterrent: fascinating and utterly terrifying in equal measure.

Q: To conclude, what's next? A sequel as the finale could possibly suggest or something completely new?

Yes Barricade is the first part in a Kenstibec trilogy. I’ve handed in book 2 and am currently working on book 3, so look out for them in 2015/16! Next up I have a very different fantasy novel that I am really excited about. I’ve also had my contribution to space opera on the blocks for some time. I’ve got planet names and everything...


Jon Wallace
Order Barricade here:

REVIEW : Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

 

I've been incredibly excited about "Seveneves" even before I knew what it is called or what it is about. During one of the "REAMDE" promotional interviews Neal Stephenson mentioned that the book he is writing at the moment will be a hard science fiction one and that was enough for me. In my mind I was already reading something akin to "Anathem", one of my all-time favourite books and the book I would probably choose as the one I would take to a desert island with me. "Anathem" has everything. It's is full of science, philosophy, innovative concepts. It is also incredibly dense - up to a point where it has its own invented language - and benefits from multiple re-reads. Compared to it, its successor "REAMDE" was an easy walk in a part - a whole enjoyable action movie which you could enjoy without using too much of your brain. So, yes, perhaps I expecting too much from "Seveneves" but still, even when fully aware of my completely unreasonable wishes it was slightly disappointing when I stated reading it. I really shouldn't have worried but before I go too far, here's what "Seveneves" is about.

It is a novel that opens with one of the most spectacular and bombastic statements in contemporary science fiction:

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason."

With the moon suddenly gone, everyone's instant reaction is bafflement closely followed by panic. As the days pass by it soon become evident that nothing particularly bad is going to happen to the Earth, that is until the scientist which resembles Neil deGrasse Tyson in everything but a name steps up to the plate and quickly reveals that due to a phenomenon dubbed as "Hard Rain" in mere two years the whole of the Earth's surface will be rendered inhabitable. What follows is a frantic race to put as much material and people as possible into orbit. It's a stunning story about the possibility of human achievement. All the industrial potential and production are streamlined into this one final effort. The future habitat is quickly built around the ISS by using multiple modules, most of which are made using made do and mend attitude. But everything's not rosy. There's plenty of human sacrifice and on the future astronauts' selection process is heavily compromised. There's a sham lottery and politicians rear their ugly heads, all the time threatening to derail the whole effort. As the Hard Rain comes right on time and Earth goes quiet, the drama moves to space. The ISS is now an amalgam of many elements and in its micro-climate many factions are already appearing - a veritable class system - but still everything slowly ticks on. This fragile social equilibrium is suddenly completely torn apart by the arrival of one person I hoped we left behind on Earth. In an all too predictable fashion and in a move completely untypical for Stephenson this person does appear out of nowhere and goes on to skew the whole story in a direction about which I didn't care too much about. But there's still plenty of incredibly gripping stuff. There's daring do in guise of another character resembling Elon Musk and the mad dash around the orbit while being strapped to a comet.

This first part of "Seveneves" takes up over 600 pages and for most of its parts reads like an action version of Stephen Baxter "Flood/Arc" duology which explores similar matters in a slightly more sombre and brutal way. Despite being great on this own there's one thing that's missing in this whole build up - there's no trace of that bonkers humour that Stephenson often uses and there's lots of bad sex.

But luckily, just at the moment Stephenson takes the story into the far future and delivers the last third of the book in a fashion that completely blew my mind. Poetic, scientific and beautifully written, these last 200 pages are some of the finest stuff he has ever written. During these pages his imagination is off the scale and while the big reveal is once again slightly predictable, the finale completely blew my mind. In hindsight it feels like those 650 pages were an overwritten introduction for the last 200 where's the vast extent of his Seveneves concept is finally revealed. As evolution, helped by a healthy dose of genetic engineering, makes it course across the generations each of the seven eves has effectively kickstarted a race on her own – each with their own intricacies and traits that make them special. It's incredibly complex and well worth re-reading many time. If only it was longer.

To conclude, "Seveneves" is a book that will probably polarise the readers. The premise is unquestionably great but the duality of the book might be off putting to some. It is miles away from my favourite works such as "Anathem" or "Baroque Cycle" and vastly different to "Reamde" but there's one thing that you simply can't mistake. It is that uniqueness that separates Stephenson from everyone else. Conceptually it is simply unlike anything I've read before and it is only after I've re-read it that I've truly realised how consistent it really is. Quite simply, one of the books of the year.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
Order Seveneves by Neal Stephenson here:

REVIEW : The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies

 

Regret and the quest for a redemption are at the heart of Andrea Gillies' poignant new novel "The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay". When she was growing up Nina was torn apart between two brother. She was in love with Luca but somehow ended up marrying Paolo because Luca was already married. Things just happened like than and now, as her life is on the cusp of a major change and she and Paolo are finally getting separated after 25 years of marriage, she's ruminating about the one who got away. Being in an introspective mood she decides on a whim to travel to a Greek island where she spent her honeymoon all those years ago. A moment of clarity comes when she ends up in hospital after an accident. She's been hit by a bus. Story of her past pours out of her to Christos, a doctor and a good listener, and as she follows the events of her past she realised how many small details worked together to influence her decisions and led her to her mistakes. Eventually she ultimately comes to understand the relationship between her and the brothers and what is the main reason she married Paolo in the first place even though they were always better as friends than as lovers. It is clear now what went wrong with her marriage.

It's an interesting take on the familiar theme and if there's one thing that Andrea Gillies completely succeeds at, it is making Nina feel like an ordinary human being. With an omnipresent view, we as readers see clearly why her life derailed as it did but at the time of her stay in hospital Nina is none the wiser. Even long after the moment of her enlightenment comes she struggles to understand. The realisation comes slowly and as always hindsight is such a wonderful thing even though it changes nothing. She's initially baffled by the realisation that everything could've been so much simpler but then what does it all mean now? Is it too late to put things right?

"The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay" is a very different book from her superb debut "The White Lie" but one thing is instantly familiar to those who've read it - Gillies' talent for writing fascinating and deep characters who, even at moment when nothing much is happening (for most of its time "The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay" is unfolding in hospital bed) capture the reader's imagination. Her clarity when dealing with difficult themes such loss and regret means that her writing always leaves a strong and long-lasting impression even in those moments when the story itself is not grasping your full attention. "The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay" is a beautifully written thought provoking book that deserves to be enjoyed slowly - much like the holiday on of those small islands in Greece. An excellent second novel.


Review copy provided by Other Press.
Order The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies here:

REVIEW : Extinction Game by Gary Gibson

For years Gary Gibson has been one of my favorite science fiction writers and I've always felt that he's been unfairly dismissed by the SF community and award ceremonies but then again when was the last time Peter F, Hamilton, Neal Asher or Alastair Reynolds won anything? I've always found his stories to be magnificent in scope and his imagination intriguing so each new book was a reason for a small personal celebration. However, with "Extinction Game" Gibson decided to shake things up a bit. You can't really say anything against Gibson's wish to do so as he's been steadily banging out space operas for some 10 odd years now.

From the opening page "Extinction Game" feels a bit local when compared to his other stuff. Most of the plot takes place on a post-apocalyptic desolate Earth but it here's where the main twist and that glorious imagination come to their full force. Earth we are introduced at the beginning is just one of the many parallel, alternate and most importantly, devastated Earths. From each of these comes a single person, a last human alive rescued in the final moment by the Authority, a shadowy organization. Together they for a crack team of pathfinders tasked with recovering weapons and data from other Earths struck by apocalyptic events. Jerry Beche, a main protagonist and the only survivor of deadly viral attack on his Earth, is struggling to cope with this new situation and mistrusts both his new secretive masters and his team. But when things suddenly escalate beyond control, he'll have to make a choice and decide whom to eventually trust.

There's no discussion about the fact that "Extinction Game" is very different to other Gibson's output but constant readers will still find plenty to enjoy here. The way the story is present is reassuringly familiar and I was hooked up from early on because of its interesting premise. Alternate worlds always leave plenty of place for the authors to go completely bonkers. There physics and climate to play with but in this case Gibson stays mostly on the line. I suspect there was simply too much to tell to go full board. Between all the action, setting up a stage, and plenty of twist there wasn't must space to play with. Therefore, I certainly hope that there's a sequel in the works as the whole setting is simply too good to be wasted on a single book. And not to forget, there's plenty of unanswered questions. But even if it turns out that "Extinction Game" is just one off, the main fact about it is that it is simply a damn good read. It's perhaps not Gibson's best book but I've simply stormed through it with that same sense of wonder and excitement that accompanied reading any of his other work. What more can you wish for?


Review copy provided by Tor UK.
Order Extinction Game by Gary Gibson here:

REVIEW : Day Shift by Charlaine Harris

 

To be honest, as I've already mentioned before, I was initially slightly worried about how Charlaine Harris will move on from Sookie Stackhouse because the needless controversy that followed the ending would be enough for everyone to simply give up but it was foolish really. A writer must write and she just skipped over troubles and proceeded on to the next stage of her career with aplomb.  When it arrived "Midnight Crossroad" was such a pleasant surprise. It was great. The thing that charmed me most was that it was amalgam of her various books but done in a way that was entirely fresh. I love when authors manage to pull off stuff like that - to simply reinvent their back catalogue and bring it all back together. "Midnight Crossroad" was always imagined as a series and now its next instalment is finally here. To dispel any illusions, it is a treat.

Trouble is never far away from psychic Manfred Bernardo. On a working weekend in Dallas he encounters Olivia Charity, a mysterious resident of Midnight, Texas. Even for such a small town where gossip is rife and secrets are impossible to keep, Olivia is something of a question mark. She's beautiful and apparently dangerous. She lives with a vampire Lemuel but that's as far as it goes. On that fateful day in Dallas Manfred see Olivia with a couple only to later learn that they're dead. Things get even worse when one of Manfred's regular clients dies during a reading. Manfred runs back to Midnight hounded by the press and being suspected of having something to do with death in question. Residents quickly turn to Olivia for help. Is that really clever?



Similarly to "Midnight Crossroad", the best thing about "Day Shift" is in its playfulness. Harris plays with mystery at the heart of the story with such tremendous ease and even sets up couple of additional threads that I suspect will play part in future instalments. Also there's a tiny but sweet treat for all the careful readers of Sookie Stackhouse because some familiar faces make quick cameo appearances. Still, if you haven't read the opening novel you should know that apart from that "Midnight, Texas" has wildly different feel to it but please give it a try anyway. It's fresh, innovative and damn good fun to read!


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order Day Shift by Charlaine Harris here:

The story behind the Green Rider Series by Kristen Britain

One of the stories behind the genesis of the Green Rider Series relates to the frustration I felt at the overwhelming rejections my short fiction received, and how they served as an impetus for me to write novels. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that if you wanted to sell a novel, first you must break into the short story market and accrue publishing credits. Only then would an agent or editor deign to look at your work.

So, I labored at short stories even though "short" was not my natural length. I knew this because my love of writing came out of a love for reading novels. I spent endless hours wallowing in imaginary worlds, being transported. As a consequence, I just about wore out my sister's set of The Lord of the Rings by reading it so much. I just wanted to continue experiencing the atmosphere of Middle-earth wrought by Tolkien's evocative prose and story-telling. Also, as a teen, I had completed novel-length fantasy stories. They were full of horses and heroics, and largely derivative, but the accomplishment of putting together a beginning, middle, and end, in one thousand hand-written pages, was real.

What I had discovered the hard way was that short story writing and novel writing are two very different disciplines. I also learned from my short story rejections, in addition to their reinforcing my preference for the long form, that there were not very many markets, large or small, for the type of fantasy I wished to write: traditional fantasy. I remember little about those short stories I worked so hard on, but I suppose the rejections were the result of my lack of skill, or the stories did not appeal to the taste of individual editors, or simply my discomfort with the length had shone through.

In 1992, I finally gave up on the shorts and decided I would return to my natural length, the novel. I had a long, quiet Maine winter ahead of me, and working on the manuscript that eventually became Green Rider was a new adventure. I drew on one of the stories of my teen years for inspiration, but went off on a different direction. One character who had not been central suddenly became the main character. This character was a king's messenger, and that old saying about not killing the messenger intrigued me. Being a king's messenger, I thought, must be dangerous work, and therefore good story fodder. To top it off, the character insisted he wanted to be a she, and my protagonist, Karigan G'ladheon, was born. Karigan, stubborn, brave, and a bit naive, has, true to form, led me through five books-worth of adventures so far, the most recent being Mirror Sight. (Currently we are tormenting each other through book 6, as yet untitled.)

The first draft was finished within a year, and four more years of revision and learning how to acquire a publisher and agent ensued, along with collecting a handful of rejections. After much reworking of the manuscript, I finally landed an agent in 1996 who quickly sold the book to my inestimable, Hugo Award-winning editor, Betsy Wollheim of DAW Books. Two years later, in 1998, Green Rider appeared in its first hardcover edition.

I have since had some short stories published in anthologies. It appears that in my case, I needed to have a novel published before I could sell short stories! I don't regret the long path to publication. It forced me to learn and grow as a writer. All those rejections? They were like a message to me to pursue the novel. Maybe, just maybe, there are times when conventional wisdom needs to be defied in order to achieve one's dreams. Thank goodness I did, and that I kept working at what I loved, or the Green Rider Series might have never existed.


Kristen Britain
Order Mirror Sight here:

Lisbeth Salander and the Day of the Girl

 

Well known fact about "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is that its original Swedish title is "Män som hatar kvinnor" which translates to English as "Men who hate women". This infinitely more disturbing and unsettling title goes a long way to show what Stieg Larsson had in mind when he wrote his landmark trilogy. In fact, Larsson felt so strongly about this original title that he, as his partner Eva Gabrilsson later revealed, refused to let the publisher change it into something more commercial. The subject of violence towards women weighted heavily on his mind all throughout the entirety of his life ever since he supposedly witnessed three of his friends sexually assaulting a girl and he has done nothing to prevent it. The veracity of story has never been verified but whatever the truth, Larsson pushed all his disgust and hate towards such people into Lisbeth Salander, the girl at the heart of the "Millennium" series.

Lisbeth is an almost impossibly vivid and complex creation. She's a rape survivor herself, has been abused as a child and yet she's not labeling herself as a victim. She fights back instead. She's incredibly intelligent and capable. Both beautiful and ruthless. She has style and prowess for violence. She's capable of love and not ashamed about her sexuality but behind the facade she's also insecure about her appearance. She's highly introverted and most often than not a completely antisocial person that challenges the norm and is hard to accept by general population. And I haven't even mentioned her computer skills. All of this goes a long was to form that elusive creation. A character that is complex enough to feel real. Because aren't we all a bit like that? There's always something horrible in our past, we always worry about how we look, and we distrust the government at least a little bit. Our lives are similarly messy but we're not nearly gutsy enough to do something about it. Lisbeth does it all for us. That's why Lisbeth is so fascinating to us as readers even though I'm pretty sure that most of the people would be a bit scared of her if they met her in real life.

Lisbeth is a perfect modern literary heroine - strong, feisty, independent and damn clever. She's the main reason behind the success of the "Millennium" series so it is no wonder that fourth novel in the series carries the subtitle "A Lisbeth Salander novel". So let's all forget for a moment how truly silly the notion of celebrating fictional character's birthday is, and raise our bottles for Lisbeth and this Day of the Girl.


Order The Girl in the Spider's Web here:

The story behind The Prosecco Fortune by Stella Whitelaw

    

The Prosecco Fortune is actually two stories which became one. So there is a story behind the story. It was the last day of Swanwick Writers Summer School and there was nothing to do. I had done my packing.   I could soon escape and go home. Just time to go along to a late workshop about heroes.

            I never have any problem with finding my heroes and heroines. My files are full of photos of gorgeously interesting people, mostly cut from glossy week-end

magazines. At this workshop, we had to invent the hero of our dreams. He came to life at that workshop. Marco was Italian, incredibly handsome, funny, kind, caring, strong, hard working and he owned vineyards north of Venice making champagne.

            Mistake: I learned soon after that champagne is only made in a cool region of France, some sixty-miles north-east of Paris. Italian grapes make Prosecco.

            The setting: I love Venice. It was a joy to research and relive my visits to the sinking city. I planned the whole book on the journey home. A sparky and clever heroine emerged and an up-to-date plot based in internet-hacking. The book wrote itself (well, almost), 50,000 words entitled Champagne Kisses, and it was submitted to Harlequin Mills and Boon after the usual meticulous revision process.

            Mistake: They didn’t like the internet-hacking. They loved the hero, the heroine, the setting, the love story. “Sorry, too much plot, Stella,” they said.

            Writers have to get used to rejection.   No point in crying or reaching for the bottle. My advice is always to bounce back. I didn’t want to waste a good story and a fantastic hero. What could I do with an unwanted passionate romance?

            So I turned Champagne Kisses into The Prosecco Fortune, a crime thriller with two murders, an attempted murder and a rather nasty abduction in the Lagoon. It took ingenuity to slot crime into a love story without losing the initial essence of two people falling in love. To make it different from holiday-type romances, I set the story in winter when Venice can be very cold and very wet.

            Crime is hard to write because you have to remember so much, make notes of who did what when and what were other people doing at the same time. Sometimes the clues are staring you in the face. Sometimes a fairly ordinary incident suddenly becomes important to the plot. In Prosecco Fortune, I never knew that the nameless air hostess at the beginning would hold the clue to the whole crime.

            I keep a record of my daily wordage in a small date book. Prosecco took me seven months to write. I try to aim for 1,000 words a day but if I’m in full flow and I write more, then that’s a good day’s work. The first draft is draining. I am exhausted, my head spinning with words when I go to bed. The first revision is the part that I love the most. The nitty-gritty of cutting, honing, improving dialogue, being ruthless. Then I let it cool for a bit while I write some short stories that have been demanding my attention.   The second revision is mainly spotting all the errors I’ve missed the first time round. There may even be a third revision.

            The Prosecco Fortune has been a constant delight, one of my favourites and worth all the sweat and tears.   I shall buy a bottle of Prosecco and toast to its success on April 30, publication day.  Maybe I’ll buy two bottles.


Stella Whitelaw
Order The Prosecco Fortune by Stella Whitelaw here:

REVIEW : Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

 

Justina Robson is one of those one-of-a-kind authors that defy easy classification. Her "Quantum Gravity" certainly looked like run of the mill action science fiction if you judged it solely by the covers but once started digging deep you would probably be surprised by what you would find - complexity, philosophy and all around strangeness. Robson's first standalone novel in years, "The Glorious Angels" doesn't hide away behind its cover art. The synopsis states it clearly and instantly promises "a thrilling mix of science, magic and sexual politics". "The Glorious Angels" delivers all this and plenty more. It is Justina Robson coming at its readers with all guns blazing.

For a book that mostly about ideas, "The Glorious Angels" sports a suitably impressive setting. The story is set on a matriarchy world ruled by mind-linked empresses. There's magic that shapes the world and is literary connected their their fickle moods. The power is spread across 8 cities and as the story open we're in Glimshard, second city of the Golden Empire and Westernmost Outpost of Civilisation. As Tralane, an engineer, is working when she overhears that Karoo has been seen. A strange creature that threatens to bring the war. That is just the beginning for her as the story unfolds through the eyes of many different very effectively used points of view we learn that Glimshard is not immune to political manipulations, backstabbings and social disorder. Amongst all this an archaeological site slowly enters the picture and brings about the chance of finding a long forgotten technology that has the power to usurp everything.

 

I'm intentionally obtuse about the plot as I don't want to spoil the story but if there's one advice I can give to all new readers it is that you should read "The Glorious Angels" slowly. There's an insane amount of characters, information and philosophy that just begs to be explored in details. As such, "The Glorious Angels" is one of those books that deserves a re-read and I hope to do one soon. I won't pretend that I understood everything the first time around and I've read few paragraphs more than once but that's the beauty of Robson's writing. She never looks down on the reader. Best of all, "The Glorious Angels" is a book about women - one which plays with tropes but sets them on a level playing field, which is exactly what we're all fighting for. I waited for something this intelligent for a long time and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Having previously mentioned that this was a standalone, the ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel or two so it'll be interesting seeing whether something will happen in the future. All in all - a tremendously deep read! One I would recommended to all veteran readers of the genre fiction.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order Glorious Angels by Justina Robson here:

REVIEW : The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser

 

Charles Kaiser's impressive new book "The Cost of Courage" brings back to life the true story of Christiane, Jacqueline and Andre, three youngest children of middle-class Catholic French family Boulloche as the fiercely fought against Gestapo and the German occupation of France. It's a fascinating and impeccably researched tale that though many documents and letters ultimately reveals how many little events worked together to send Boulloche siblings on their trajectory. Christiane, Jacqueline and Andre's tired-less and brave work proved paramount for the success of French resistance.

In 1943 Andre became Charles de Gaulle's military delegate and served as a coordinator of all Resistance activities over nine northern regions of France. After being betrayed by one of his associates, Andre was captured by the Gestapo and spent the rest of the war in no less than tree concentration camps. Even there he made a change for the better. Unwilling to succumb to despair he became something of a leader of prisoners and improved the living conditions and morale in any way he could. He survived and spent the rest of his life fighting through politics for the reconciliation of Germany and France. However, no everything finished well for the Boulloche family. Three weeks before the liberation Gestapo came to his parents' apartment looking for Catherine. Unable to find her they've taken his father, mother and his brother Robert despite all of them being completely innocent. After horrific torture all of them perished.

For many years details of the story of Boulloche siblings have been unknown. This was partly due to Christiane, Jacqueline and Andre not willing to go back to those unbearable traumatic events of the past. "The Cost of Courage" changes all that. In a landmark move, family has decided to talk about the history with Kaiser. Equally important for the authenticity of the book, after a successful petition Kaiser has managed to secure the release of many, until now, classified documents. For all these reasons "The Cost of Courage" is an indispensable account of the history of French Resistance and the way a single, heroic, person can really change the course of history.


Review copy provided by Other Press.
Order The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser here:

The story behind The Doll Maker by Richard Montanari

At six a.m., as every other day, Mr Marseille and I opened our eyes, dark lashes counterweighted to the light.

And so begins Book One of the ‘The Doll Maker,’ titled Anabelle.

Usually, when I start a new novel, I begin with a what if, followed always with a why. What if this were possible, and why is the villain doing all these terrible things?

This time it was a little different. The idea for ‘The Doll Maker’ came to me unbidden many years ago — long before I had any notion of writing fiction — in the lyrics of a song by one of my favorite bands of all time, Golden Earring.

The song is “The Wall of Dolls.” The first four lines are:

This is the wall of dolls
Secret world of smalls
Look at them all my friend
You’ll be one of them in the end.

I’ve never been able to shake the mental image of a ‘secret world of smalls.’

When it came time to write the book, the eighth novel to feature Philadelphia homicide detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano, I knew that this song would be the guiding light.

Much of my work has centered around people who inhabit worlds unknown to most of us. In ‘The Stolen Ones,’ Luther haunts the catacombs beneath the city of Philadelphia. In ‘Play Dead,’ Joseph Swann moves through a house made of mirrors and mazes, a decaying mansion with stairways leading nowhere.

As the story of ‘The Doll Maker’ began to take form, I soon realized that the two central characters of the piece would be different from any other characters I’ve ever created.

Anabelle and Mr Marseille are young, exceedingly polite, always impeccably dressed, and seem to be from another era, a more formal time of gentility and grace. Theirs is indeed a secret world of smalls. Their friends are made of delicate porcelain, with crystal eyes and fine mohair wigs. Every day Anabelle and Mr Marseille have a formal tea, with centerpieces and place cards. On special occasions they hold a thé dansant, a tea dance. Sometimes, they invite a guest.

The guests never leave alive.

At the opening of the story, Detectives Byrne and Balzano investigate the murder of a teenage girl. She is found at a train station, posed on a newly painted bench. Nearby is an invitation to a tea dance, to be held exactly one week later.

As promised, one week later, they discover more victims, and another invitation.

In doing research for the book I found that doll collectors can be somewhat eccentric, certainly different from collectors of other things; say, coins or stamps or exotic automobiles. Many times, the hobby of doll collecting begins with a particular doll that comes along at a time in life when the world of make-believe is quite real, and the emotional attachment is just as tangible.

I learned that all dolls have a name.

My journey took me to doll shops, estate sales, antique stores, flea markets, house sales. At these venues dolls were almost always reverently displayed on a shelf or a table, rarely just thrown into a box. Many times, when I inquired about a doll, I received a detailed history, including the doll’s childhood.

I also discovered the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Created in the early 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee — one of the founders of the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, and the first woman ever to be appointed captain in the New Hampshire State Police — the Nutshell Studies were a series of miniature dioramas of crime scenes, all recreated to the finest detail. Friends of Mrs. Lee, which included Perry Mason-creator Erle Stanley Gardner, said the studies, which are now in possession of the Maryland Chief Medical Examiner’s office, were the culmination of the woman’s passion for dolls, dollhouses, and forensic medicine.

When I heard about this, I knew I had to enter this world.

During the course of their investigation, Detectives Byrne and Balzano encounter an elegant older woman named Miss Emmaline, the proprietor of a West Philadelphia doll shop called ‘The Secret World.’

She tells them:

“When my sisters and I were small, my grandmother only took out her doll on special occasions. Her name was Sarah Jane. The doll, not my grandmother. We had to be bathed and scrubbed every time we touched Sarah Jane, had to have very clean hands when we held her. When we got older, and took to tom-boying, we had to wear our Easter gloves. Imagine.”

I imagine that Anabelle and Mr Marseille are, right at this moment, dressing in their finery, setting a table, and clearing the room for a thé dansant.

You are invited.


Richard Montanari
Order The Doll Maker by Richard Montanari here:

The story behind Blue Avenue by Michael Wiley

Law enforcement surveys call Jacksonville the Murder Capital of Florida. Kids in the neighborhoods where the killing is most common call the city Bang ’em Town. I call it a dark part of the Sunshine State. For the past seventeen years, I’ve also called it home.

            Blue Avenue cuts from Kings Road to West 13th through one of the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods. It’s a neighborhood of primly painted houses next to houses with boarded windows. Yards of ragged trees and ragged lawns stand next to abandoned lots full of weeds and wildflowers. In the middle of the afternoon a man might sit in a concrete culvert with a rifle, waiting for God knows what, or he might push a baby stroller down the middle of the street. In the summer the neighborhood smells of raw sewage. In early spring it smells of orange blossoms and jasmine. It’s a rough place. Like most of the rough places in this part of the country, it also can be beautiful.

            I set my earlier books in Chicago, where I grew up, but when I decided to write a new series of crime thrillers here, I gravitated to Blue Avenue. It’s the kind of place where a body might rot in the sun for a day or two before anyone reports it. And, like the blues, the street name evokes pain and also joy. It’s the color of a bruise. In the evening and early morning, it tinges noir. And those are the colors of my books.

            The characters in Blue Avenue include a middle-aged, middle-class white vigilante; the black woman who long ago was his first girlfriend; his wife, who loves and hates him; his son, who loves and hates him more; an ageless man with tear-trail scars on his cheeks and a penchant for extreme justice; and a homicide detective with problems of his own. They all belong to Blue Avenue.

            Having grown up in a part of the country with short summers and a short recorded history, I’ve found Jacksonville fascinating – a hot place full of tensions, full of stories in which the past twists and turns around the present. Here, nature eats uncared-for houses in a matter of a few years. Hurricanes sometimes destroy the coast to the north and south but haven’t hit the city in over a half century, as if they’ve been afraid of that the city might punch back. The Timucua Indians, the Spanish, the French Huguenots, the English, and Americans have lived and fought here. Hundreds of creeks, streams, and rivers feed and flood the land. Drive into an unfamiliar neighborhood and you’ll find yourself in a tangle of streets that seem to have no outlet. Jacksonville is the perfect place to get lost in a maze of time and geography. It’s the perfect place for a crime story.

Or two or three or more. The next two books in my new series, Second Skin and Tar Box, come out in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016. The characters live and die in other parts of the city – along old trucking routes, in mansions with big swimming pools, and on coastal barrier islands. But they still get the blues.


Michael Wiley
Order Blue Avenue by Michael Wiley here:

REVIEW : Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

 

It's a story that's instantly recognizable from media headlines but one that starts innocently enough. "Sleeping on Jupiter" opens as three women spend fourteen hours in Coach A2. Gouri, Latika and Vidya are excited as this is their first outing together and as they're sorting out their berth arrangements Gouri encounters the fourth person in their compartment. A girl busily exploring her travel guide. It soon transpires that Nomita Frederiksen is from Oslo and travels the world trying to research material for her documentary on religious tourism. Nomita leaves the sleeper train at one of the stations only to be violently and sexually attacked minutes after for apparently no reason. In the meantime her train starts to pull off out of the station and Gouri, Latika and Vidya are worried for the girl and want to do something. For a moment they think pulling emergency stop is the option but afraid that they'll pay a hefty fine in the end they don't do anything. Nomita is left behind.

The story that follows unfolds across the subsequent eighteen days and initially Gouri, Latika and Vidya's dream holiday is marred but what occurred. They're worried for Nomita so when they meet again some five days later, they're both thrilled and relieved. On the other hand Nomita is embarking on a pilgrimage of the soul - on a quest to finally face her horrific past, one that almost impossibly hard to read. Nomita's traumatic childhood is revealed through flashbacks and is painted in contrast to oppressive climate of violence that permeated all aspects of society.

Needless to say, "Sleeping on Jupiter" is often a harrowing read but one which is crucial to understand correctly. Anuratha Roy is incredibly courageous for writing a book like "Sleeping on Jupiter" and one that will be an important part of that huge swelling wave that'll eventually stop the horrific violence perpetuated daily against women in India.


Review copy provided by Maclehose Press.
Order Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy here:

The story behind What She Left by T. R. Richmond

When I was a student, I could never understand people who’d work into the early hours.
I was always brain dead by about 7pm. If I had an assignment to finish, I’d take the opposite approach: I’d get an early night then get up at the crack of dawn.
That pattern was the one that guided my approach to writing What She Left. The hours of 5.30am to 8.30am are my most productive. My head is clear and uncluttered. I can get up and hit the keyboard running – obviously with the benefit of a coffee (a large black Americano if you’re buying, thanks).

Like a lot of authors, I’ve got a day-job, so this routine was also driven by necessity. But that brief window of time at the start of the day was precious. It was non-negotiable, sacrosanct. There were probably only a handful of days in the two years I was working on the book when I didn’t write anything. I had to keep the momentum going.
While routine is vital to me, it was ironically a break in my usual routine that actually got me started. I was away with work – staying for a week on my own in a hotel in Bristol. I wasn’t even intending to write any fiction that week. But I woke up one morning, sat at the desk and drafted the first chapter. By the time I returned home at the end of the week, five writing sessions later, I had 5000 words.
Those 5000 words went through many, many edits and probably only a quarter of them made in into the final version in any shape or form – but as the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything written, you haven’t got anything to edit. They were the bedrock of the novel.

I’d had the germ of the idea for the book shortly before, when I saw a tweet from someone about the song they’d like played at their funeral. That got me wondering what else might I be able to learn about that person online, which eventually led me to the concept of constructing a whole story from a dead woman’s paper and digital “footprint”.
There are lots of good reasons why people begin writing books but never finish them. I quickly became obsessed with What She Left, however, and if I didn’t work on it every day I felt guilty.
Besides, once you’re in the meaty heart of a novel, you get to know your characters so well that you can really see and hear them. I felt duty bound to see their stories through to the end.
So I found a routine that suited me and stuck to it. It was hard work, but I’m not complaining. I loved doing it and a lot of jobs are a damn sight harder than writing. Ask someone who digs roads or stands on a factory line.
I subsequently worked on it for more than six months very closely with my agent. Then, when it was 50% written, we showed it to an editor at Penguin. We did the deal, had a glass of bubbly – then I got up early the next morning and carried on writing. I had a book to finish, after all…


T. R. Richmond
Order What She Left by T. R. Richmond here:

The story behind Poseidon's Children by Alastair Reynolds

The Saturn V rocket had been broken into its constituent stages and laid out horizontally, end to end, along the vast length of one of the public buildings at the Kennedy Space Centre. Simply to visualise this incredible machine lifting itself off the ground was astonishing enough. It required a real leap of the imagination to think of it carrying three human beings all the way to the Moon and back. And yet this piece of technology was already forty years old, conceived and fabricated in an era when computers filled basements, and had about as much processing power as a cheap cellphone …

It was 2008. My wife and I had arranged our trip to Florida around the chance to see one of the last few space shuttle launches. By the time we were committed to the trip – flights, accommodation and rental car all booked – the shuttle launch had been indefinitely postponed. All the same, we couldn’t turn down the chance to visit KSC. With a year to go before the anniversary of Apollo 11, thoughts were already turning back to those heady years of the late sixties, when anything seemed possible.

Like many of my generation, I’d spent much of my life both excited and frustrated by our subsequent progress in space exploration. On one level, there was much to celebrate. We had gained an unprecedented knowledge of almost all the planets in the solar system, as well as many of their moons. But at the same, progress in human spaceflight had been faltering and directionless. The shuttle hadn’t turned out to be the reliable and inexpensive space taxi many had hoped for. The space station, decades in the planning, seemed hobbled by compromise. No one was actually sure what it was for, or what to do with it next. In the four decades since Apollo, people had gone no further than low Earth orbit. It was hard not to wonder about the missed opportunities, the roads not taken. Why were we no closer to returning to Mars, or even the Moon, than we’d been in the eighties?

And being this close to the start of it all, seeing the pads, the crawler, the assembly building – it didn’t leave me feeling dispirited. Quite the opposite. There seemed to be a buzz in the air, a sense of better things to come – a real chance for NASA to regain direction and purpose. New ships and capsules were on the drawing board – new plans to return to the Moon and beyond.

Suitably galvanised, I spent the rest of the trip with my head swimming with ideas for a grand new series of novels. I could see the shape of a trilogy, each book expanding on the last, taking us from the familiar locales of the solar system out to the depths of interstellar space. Well-trodden territory for a science fiction writer, perhaps, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make it feel new and fresh.

The structure of the thing would be simple, based on an exponential progression. The first book would span about a hundred years of future history. The next, one thousand. The third, ten thousand. Eleven thousand years, plus change. I started referring to in shorthand as the “11K” sequence.

Bad mistake. Never talk about things until you’re absolutely sure where you’re going.

I started work on the first book. I had the plot early on – a family saga involving the legacy of a dead space explorer, also the matriarch of a powerful industrial clan. What I didn’t have was anything that made it feel distinct or fresh. By chance, though, I’d been listening to a lot of world music. A particular track by the Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema began to paint images in my mind. I could see a woman, of African heritage, standing on the bridge or control deck of some vast spaceship, some unguessable number of years in the future, far from whatever place she might have called home. I knew that this woman was faced with a terrible decision, one that would involve the sparing or the destruction of countless lives, but that whatever action she chose would also have momentous costs for others.

I didn’t know the name of this woman, or have any sense of how she fitted into the arc of the trilogy. But I knew I had to find my way to her, and tell her story.

By anchoring the trilogy on an African family, in a future in which the African nations have risen to immense economic and technological prominence, I felt I had something fresh to bring to the table. I’d read enough SF novels in which the default assumption was that the future belonged to the West. Why not try something different? People seemed to have no trouble believing in an American-dominated future, or even a Russian or Chinese one, so why not Africa? In the end, for plot reasons (I needed the action to happen in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro) I opted to locate my Akinya family in the area of what was once Tanzania and Kenya, although by the time of the novel these nations have been subsumed into the East African Federation, an economic union that has already been proposed and discussed. I populated my novel with mostly non-Western characters and tried to hint at the linguistic complexities of my rich, populous, multicultural mid-twenty second century society. At the same time, my protagonists were for the most part standard SF archetypes – scientists, explorers, politicians, businesspeople and so on – they just happened not to have Anglo-Saxon names. My world was peaceful, prosperous and yet recognisably derived from our own. Although not conceived as a utopia, it was certainly a contrast to the prevailing mode of pessimism about the future often found in SF – not least in some of my own novels.

Once I’d finished Blue Remembered Earth, I began work on the second books in the sequence, On the Steel Breeze. According to my 11K scheme, it had to span about one thousand years of future history. Quickly, though, it became obvious to me that I couldn’t make it work. I wanted the whole sequence to be a family saga, but the implied shift from the first to the second book made it really hard to maintain any sense of continuity. I wanted to skip a generation, maybe two, but not five or six! With some misgivings, I dialled back from the 11K idea. The second book would advance the story by a few centuries, that was all. And indeed the third book – Poseidon’s Wake, which is now about to be published – eventually takes us to about a thousand years from now. In that sense, I bottled out. But I think the sequence is stronger for having a clearer thread of family relationships running through it, and there are characters who overlap between each of the books.

The odd thing is, despite all this, I don’t think I’ve quite scratched that 11K itch. Perhaps one day I’ll have another shot at it – or something similar. Or perhaps there will be a fourth novel in the Akinya saga, if I can think of a sufficiently compelling story. It’s a trilogy as it stands, but the individual books have been structured to be read as independent novels, and while the third book does resolve the major themes and mysteries set in motion by the preceding volumes, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t scope for a continuation.

But not now. Not for a while. It’s been fun, and challenging, and occasionally terrifying, but for the time being I’m done with it. I am grateful for the editors who had the conviction to back me when I first started talking about the sequence, those who worked with me through the enterprise, and for the readers who followed me through the trilogy, even though I was definitely giving them a different flavour of SF to what they might have expected given my earlier books.

As for the spark that started it all, back at the Kennedy Space Centre – there have been ups and downs since 2008, to be sure. But at more than any time in decades, there does seem to be a renewed sense of optimism about what we can achieve in space. And I consider myself very fortunate to be alive to see it happening.


Alastair Reynolds
Order Poseidon's Children by Alastair Reynolds here:

REVIEW : Poseidon's Wake by Alastair Reynolds

 

When news of Alastair Reynolds' latest contract broke into headlines I was filled with such immense feeling of satisfaction but not for the reasons you might initially imagine. Sure, the contract was for cool 1 million and it was for ten books but I was not only happy for the fact that I'll have new books to read for the foreseeable future. In this instance more important than the books themselves was the fact that Alastair's work was truly appreciated by both his publisher and the public. When it comes to my heroes it often happens that one or the other is missing so the author ends up being in that dreaded "underrated" category. But no such worries for Alastair. By all accounts the entire "Poseidon's Children" trilogy has been a huge success. It is filled with innovative storytelling, life-affirming plots and now with "Poseidon's Wake" it finally comes to a close.

Similarly to its predecessors "Poseidon's Wake" is a standalone novel thematically connected to previous installments "Blue Remembered Earth and" "On the Steel Breeze". However, a note to those encountering "Poseidon's Children" for the first time: "Poseidon's Wake" relies heavily on many events that happened before and while it is certainly possible to understand everything, you'll enjoy the story at much greater depth if you read everything in order in which it was published. In "Poseidon's Wake" we once again meet members of Akinya family as their generations rush by us. Similarly as before, through their eyes we, as readers, are in a unique position to explore the world that surrounds them. It's a great literary device and the pace of change in society is obvious. It's such a treat to have such a clear and omnipresent view. This time the story unfolds through two strands that follow Kanu Akinya and Goma Akinya at they go through their paces. One of them occurs on Mars where an interesting evolution involving a rogue AI civilisation is taking place and while other unfolds on Crucible, a planet situated near Sixty-One Virginis and colonized by humans where one can meet Geoffrey's intelligent elephants known as Tantors as well as see ‘’The Mandala”, a strange alien artefact in the sky surrounded by the mysterious and notoriously erratic Watchmakers. When a message arrives from Gliese 163, a distant unexplored system, there's a mention of Eunice Akinya. In a leap of faith two Crucible starships that can achieve half a speed of light are dispatched to discover the truth.

In a typically Reynolds' fashion this is a story full of intriguing scientific concepts, technological marvels and complex biological systems. "Poseidon's Wake" is a purest example of Reynolds I've learned to enjoy and love over all those years. Though the lives of his characters he's actually exploring the human condition - what makes as tick - and, as always, he does it in such a superb and thought provoking fashion. In my opinion, "Poseidon's Children" is his finest moment yet and "Poseidon's Wake" is a glorious conclusion of the trilogy. A wonderful book and best that British SF has to offer at the moment.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order Poseidon's Wake by Alastair Reynolds here:

The story behind The Blondes by Emily Schultz

When a work goes well, I think that maybe it was given to me. I don’t think about consciously constructing it. When it goes badly, it is mine and all the mistakes are mine too. With The Blondes, it did feel found — in many ways. I was on an airplane with my husband, heading for JFK Airport in New York. Flipping through a Vanity Fair magazine someone had stashed in the seat pocket, I came across the Gucci ad that would inspire the next 400 pages I would write. Vampiric, menacing, and beautiful, a group of all-blonde women in safari wear made their way through a jungle. Although I opted for a New York City setting instead of a tropical forest, this was the image that would lead me to write about a disease that affects only women—in particular only blondes—turning them rabid.

Of course, there were many conversations that led up to that moment and that wound their way into the book. Hair is personal. A friend once told me that his whole life would be different if only he’d had good hair, and I remember a girl I grew up with saying that no one liked her because she was a redhead. I was always self-conscious of my hair: wearing it short suited me but put me at odds with the other little girls, and wearing it long made it thick and unmanageable but allowed me to disappear into the crowd. Many times as a young person, I feared myself becoming Mr. It on the Addams Family. For my thirtieth birthday I went blonde for the first time—how people treated me differently definitely crept into The Blondes a few years later.

My husband promised me a writing retreat in the desert and we lived for several weeks in a cabin not far from Joshua Tree. There I wrote most of the first draft. There was a real sense of isolation, and the army base just over the mountain may have played into some of the middle of the novel, where the character Hazel Hayes is sent off to a quarantine guarded by soldiers. As the plague in The Blondes escalates, and Hazel flees from one place to another, technology keeps fading away and her communications are limited. That seemed to me to be one of the scariest things I could do to her in this ever-connected age. But it may have come out of the cabin experience too—we had no internet, an inconsistent cell phone, and the nearest internet café was a 20 mile drive.

Hazel is pregnant (by her married thesis advisor) and alone throughout much of the book. She’s uncertain of what to do. I was at an age where I was deciding if parenthood would fit into my life. Although our circumstances were vastly different, I faced many of the same questions as Hazel: what does it mean to be a mother, can I provide for someone, will this define me as a person or limit me in my career, will it harm my body, will it make me someone else? I wanted to show the body horror and the trepidation of pregnancy, not just the glow that we always hear about. I had never been pregnant when I wrote Hazel in her dilemma, and all the details of her pregnancy, which gestates alongside the epidemic. But by the time I wrote the second and third drafts I was just weeks away from the birth of my son. The book is dedicated to him. In some ways, he was found through this process too, because I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted until I came to the end of the novel.


Emily Schultz
Order The Blondes by Emily Schultz here:

The story behind Ghost Image by Ellen Crosby

My husband believes I’m the luckiest author he knows or else I’m psychic. Every time I write a new book, the subject I’m researching either shows up in the news or I run into an expert who knows exactly what I need to know, whether it’s lie detectors, herbalism, or chemical weapons. Even better, that person is always willing to help me commit murder. But with Ghost Image, my latest mystery, there was a new twist: almost all of my research involved eating.

            The idea for the story began with an NPR book review of The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf, which is the fascinating account of the Founding Fathers’ passion—actually, their obsession—with agriculture and gardening and how it shaped the early history of the United States. A few weeks later I read an article in Smithsonian magazine about the Millennium Seed Bank, a vast underground vault in the English countryside where nearly 25% of the world’s seeds lie in (very) cold storage.

            The notion of preserving seeds for future generations got me wondering about seeds from the past, and how long something so fragile and perishable could survive. I asked a landscaper friend with an interest in history and a few days later he turned up at my house with a sheaf of papers and the answer to my question. Over coffee he told me he’d contacted someone at the Millennium Seed Bank and learned that under the right conditions, seeds could be preserved for centuries, even millennia.

            In Ghost Image, Sophie Medina, an American photojournalist who recently moved to Washington, D.C. after working for a news agency in London, is now a successful freelance photographer. As a favor to her friend Brother Kevin Boyle, a Franciscan friar and controversial environmentalist, Sophie reluctantly agrees to photograph a society wedding between an Austrian archduke and a senator’s daughter. At their engagement party Sophie soon realizes there is trouble between the couple and the next day Kevin confides to Sophie that research for a new book led him to uncover a botanical secret potentially worth millions. A few hours later Kevin is found dead in the gardens of a magnificent monastery tucked away in a working-class neighborhood of Washington. The only clue to his secret is a valuable 17th century encyclopedia of plants written by an English botanist.

            Sophie comes across this book after visiting Kevin’s former study carrel at the Library of Congress, where my husband’s cousin also happens to work. I called in a family favor and a few days later he arranged for a private tour of the gorgeous Art Deco Science and Business Reading Room in the John Adams Building, where Kevin would have done his research. When the tour was over we adjourned to an outdoor café on Capitol Hill for lunch.

            Though Kevin’s book is a real encyclopedia that I stumbled over on the Internet, I knew little about determining the value or provenance of a rare book. Fortunately an artist friend had just met someone at a charity auction who did know all about this subject, which is how I came to have lunch in Georgetown with her and Dr. Martin Gammon, Vice President of Bonhams, the British auction house, as well as the rare book expert for Antiques Roadshow.

            Research, more research. I’m a journalist so it’s important to me to get things right. I knew I needed to know more about preserving old seeds, so it was back to the Internet where I landed on the Monticello website and their Center for Historic Plants a few days before an already scheduled trip to Charlottesville to attend the Virginia Book Festival. I e-mailed a friend at Monticello who had helped with an earlier book and was soon introduced to Peggy Cornett, a historic plants expert and Monticello’s Curator of Plants. My husband just shook his head when I told him about yet another magical instance of good luck and perfect timing. A few days later on a cold late March morning Peggy gave me a private tour of Jefferson’s 1000-foot garden, which led to one of my favorite scenes in Ghost Image. Though we didn’t manage to have a meal, I still count it as food research: Jefferson only grew vegetables in his amazing garden.

            Although I had most of the plot for my book figured out, I still needed a way to tie the past—seeds owned by the Founding Fathers—and the present together. Since Sophie lived in Washington, D.C., I started researching the history of the creation of that city, which was fraught with political backstabbing and acrimony, particularly between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. At the heart of their disagreement was the plan for the city drawn up by Pierre L’Enfant, Washington’s protégé. At my local library I came across Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., an engrossing and well-written biography of Pierre L’Enfant by Scott Berg. When I read Berg’s own biography in the front of the book, I discovered he was a neighbor: he taught English at George Mason University about fifteen minutes from where I live. A critique group friend who was also an English professor at Mason made the introduction and soon afterwards I met Scott for breakfast. Our far-reaching conversation and our meal ended just before lunchtime.

            By now I knew that part of the story had to take place in London, Sophie’s old home and also mine for five wonderful years. Former neighbors in north London offered their guest room and a few weeks before I left for England I got in touch with my friend at Monticello to discuss Ghost Image. “Ellen,” she said, “you ought to read a book by a friend of mine, Andrea Wulf. She lives in London.”

            Though Andrea was busy taping a gardening show for the BBC, we met while I was in town and, yes, you guessed it, she suggested we get together for a meal. Over breakfast at a trendy restaurant in Notting Hill she answered my questions and helped pull together a few loose plot strands. Before I left, she signed my now well-worn copy of her book: To Ellen, I love to bring facts into mysteries. To the Founding Gardeners. Andrea Wulf.

            Two days later I flew home and my research had now come full circle. The only thing left to do: write the book.


Ellen Crosby
Order Ghost Image by Ellen Crosby here:

The story behind Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

Starborn wasn’t birthed from a singular idea, but rather the whole of my love for the fantasy genre. As well as being a child of the Harry Potter generation, I began my journey with Tolkien and found The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion the most wonderful things I’d ever encountered in my young life. Tolkien appears to have a peculiar effect on most teenagers who read him and I immediately had to get my hands on as much fantasy as possible, as swiftly as possible. So I moved onto Alan Garner, Robin Jarvis, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Dragonlance…and everything I read coaxed me deeper into the woods. However, it wasn’t until I stumbled across what I call the epics (Robin Hobb, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, James Clemens, David Eddings to name a few) that I realised I wanted to do what they did: create these huge, sweeping storylines to ensnare readers and whisk them off on an adventure.

So at 15, filled with zeal, I wrote my own novel, which had everything from elves to dwarves to dark lords in it…and was thus pretty awful. But I enjoyed writing it so much that I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. The seeds of Starborn, which has had several titles over the course of its development, were planted two years later whilst I was reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Now I know this series has its faults, but wow – to a 17 year old, it was nothing short of magnificent. Reincarnated hero! Satan-like evil entity! Megalomaniac sorceresses! At that moment, I knew nothing short of epic fantasy would do for me.

Although Starborn probably bears a closer resemblance to Trudi Canavan and David Eddings in style, one of the first reviews noted it was the tiniest bit Jordan-esque, and I’m totally going to run with that. Where it differs is of course in its projected length – I’m writing a trilogy rather than a 14-book epic and little of it is planned out. Regarding the writing of Starborn itself, I knew how the story would end, but had no notion of how to get there. Using George R. R. Martin’s metaphor, I’m a gardener, planting the unrecognisable seeds of an idea and watching them grow. I believe you have to get to know your characters in the same way as people – there’s no way you can understand everything about them at first glance. That’s why series are such fun: they give a writer time to listen to their characters, to walk the path beside them.

The first draft took me 13 months without working to deadline, and I spent a further year redrafting and editing and trying to knock it into shape. During that time I was reading lots of other fantasy and when I told a friend that I planned to switch the gender of my protagonist from male to female, he recommended Philip Reeve’s excellent Mortal Engines series. One of the main characters is Hester, whose life is bold, brave and tragic, and I learned a good deal from Reeve’s deft characterisation. Hester’s a hero, but far from stereotypical; her life is very dark indeed and she has an attitude to violence that flies in the face of conventional heroism. The ambiguous hero is one of my central themes and Reeve’s ability to create a sympathetic character who does unsympathetic things helped me to understand how such a character could come to be, how they’d interact with others and how they’d move forward in their life.

Character wasn’t the only research I did. When these questions pop up in the context of fantasy, a lot of people assume there isn’t much research involved unless you’re writing historical fantasy. And I’m the first to admit that research didn’t play a huge part in the writing process – I wasn’t trying to recreate the Roman Empire, or utilise as a template any ancient structures of government, but I still found myself faced with a host of smaller questions which necessitated a bit of digging. Horses, for example, tend to feature hugely in fantasy books, but I know next to nothing about them and my horses are, I admit, still pretty sketchy. Topography of landscape was another thing and how far you could travel in a day over different terrains. I also have airships, which I needed to make realistic enough without going down steampunk avenue, but the most fascinating (and gross) research involved burns and their effect on the human body. For Book Two, I’ve had to look up stuff on necrosis, blood poisoning and the process of decomposition…which makes it sound like I’m writing a crime novel. In conclusion, research is fun.

I won’t deny that my day job as a bookseller has also been a major influence and I’ve written quite a bit about my experience as both writer and bookseller and how one informs the other. I completed most of Starborn during my time at Waterstones, sitting at my desk amongst the books, and it’s certainly affected the way I view the creation of a book as a physical, tradable object as well as an artwork. Once a story reaches the end of the publishing process, ownership shifts; Starborn now belongs to the readers, for whom it was written and I very much hope it will be enjoyed. For someone who has worked closely with books for the last five years, the journey has been all the more poignant. As author and bookseller both, I find myself at the beginning and end of the creative process, and though I’ve imagined the result many times, it’s still amazing to see my imperfect words sandwiched between the covers of a book. It’s a wonderful feeling and one I hope will never go away.


Lucy Hounsom
Order Starborn by Lucy Hounsom here:

The story behind Superposition by David Walton

Imagine yourself in the jury box.  On the witness stand is a Russian-born woman with connections to the mob.  Her lover has been murdered, crushing their plans to fake his death and run away to Switzerland together.  She is so hostile that she practically snarls at the lawyers on both sides.  Fiction?  Nope.  This is the real life trial I sat on as juror several years ago, that served as part of the inspiration for my latest novel, SUPERPOSITION.

None of the details of that case are in the book.  Instead, it was the experience of watching a story unfold a little at a time, as each witness told what they knew.  It was a fascinating way to tell a story, out of time order, the whole finally coming together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

At the same time, I was reading non-fiction books about quantum physics.  If the reality of that trial seems crazy, the physics of subatomic particles is even crazier.  At the subatomic level, nothing behaves the way we expect.  Particles exist in more than one place, or more than one state, at the same time.  Electrons move from point A to point B without ever existing in some of the places in between.  Measurement of one particle instantaneously influences another, regardless of the distance between them.

From these two unlikely parents, the idea for my novel SUPERPOSITION was born.  In the novel, as you might have guessed, the crazy properties of the quantum level start showing up in the larger world—-thanks to a new technology and the interference of an alien quantum intelligence.  Everyday objects jump through walls.  Bullets diffract instead of photons.  People exist in more than one place at the same time.

I love stories that tie my mind in knots, and this novel does that, combining the weird world of quantum physics with the out-of-time structure from the trial.  It's mind-bending, but it’s no cerebral drama.  It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high-stakes danger and a race to the finish.  It starts when a former colleague shows up at Jacob Kelley’s door full of unbelievable tales and fires a gun at Jacob’s wife.  When the colleague shows up dead, Jacob is accused of murder.  Soon he and his teenage daughter are on the run, pursued by the police and by a quantum intelligence unconstrained by the normal limits of space and matter.  Father and daughter have to pick up the pieces, following multiple paths of possibility to get to the truth and put their lives back together again.

It’s a whirlwind from beginning to end, and it was great fun to write.  I hope you’ll give it a try!


David Walton
Order Superposition by David Walton here:

REVIEW : The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

 

After being in work for many many years, Clive Barker's long expected new novel "The Scarlet Gospels" is finally here and the results are not what you would expect. If I remember correctly, I've read somewhere that Barker mentioned it as far back as 1993 and over the years many claims were made about its content. On one hand it was supposed to be a Barker book to end all Barker books, pushing over 232,000 words, rich in mythology and combining elements and characters from all across his canon in one massive door-stopper. Later reports mentioned that it has been scaled by significantly. Personally, I've kept my expectations in check. First version sounded a bit too ambitious and the horror as a genre has changed a lot in recent times. For me the worst possible scenario was that Barker will try to bring his characters up to contemporary standards in a way I don't like. In hindsight, I shouldn't have worried. "The Scarlet Gospels" is a surprisingly old-fashioned horror novel. It plays for maximum amount scars without using any fancy frills. Straight from the opening pages it brought be back to childhood when I was positively devouring this sort of stuff.

"The Scarlet Gospels" features two of is best loved characters and pushed them against each other. On one hand there's detective Harry D'Amour who's probably familiar to you from "Everville" and the short story "The Last Illusion" while on the other its none other than the iconic Cenobite Hell Priest Pinhead. Story recounts how the two originally met and their first encounter explains a lot about Harry's psyche. Pinhead had huge plans for him but someone Harry managed to resist him. Back in present Pinhead is up to his usual tricks and Harry's friend, blind medium Norma Paine is end up in hell after during one their investigations a Lament configuration box opens a gateway to hell. Harry is desperate and soon his ragtag band which compromises some familiar faces decides to go through the deepest recesses of hell to save her but Pinhead stands in their way. The sequences set in hell are some of the finest that Barker has put to paper.

 

"The Scarlet Gospels" is first Clive Barker's novel for adults in 8 years and it will instantly appeal to his constant readers. While it can be read as a standalone it's best enjoyed if you're passionate about his work so far. In that case, "The Scarlet Gospels" is a veritable treasure trove of details that explain and enrich many elements of the madcap world he's created. More importantly, "The Scarlet Gospels" is a proper, blood curdling classic horror novel that's been missing for years and that's all you can ask of it really. I've enjoyed it tremendously so here's hoping we won't have to wait another 8 years for the next one. Welcome back Pinhead, we missed you!


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan
Order The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker here:

REVIEW : A Cold Killing by Anna Smith

 

One of our favourite crime reporters Rosie Gilmour is back in her fifth novel "A Cold Killing" and this haven't been this bad in ages. Story opens up in London's King's Cross in 1999 as Ruby Reilly sits in a caffe thinking murderous thoughts and overhears the conversation of two old guys. She hears more than she's supposed to and from that point on her life changes. Later, University lecturer Tom Mahoney was brutally shot without any obvious reason. The whole situation looks suspiciously like an organised hit and Rosie goes head deep into an initially baffling investigation. There's a witness who has gone missing and this just might be a key Rosie needs to break in. Ruby has all the reasons to keep away. As Rosie uncovers more and more clues about Mahoney's past, the sinister truth starts to rear its ugly head, one which is far more frightening than she ever dared to imagine. Ministry of Defence and MI6 are involved, but in a worst possible way, and now even her life in danger unless she manages to uncover the truth.

The reason Anna Smith's Rosie Gilmour's series is so appealing to me is that she never writes clear cut stories with easily approachable characters and bland morality. Often when Rosie is concerned even as the ending comes I'm never quite sure what has actually happened - whether the good guys won and not. And then there's that element of feeling safe which is completely lacking. Anna is simply keeping it dangerous all the time,even when Rosie is concerned. With the amount of trouble she gets in I always feel like she's about to die in the most horrific manner possible. She occupies such an ugly world filled with some of the most despicable characters you'll ever meet so I wouldn't put anything past them.



Most frightening thing of all is that lots of the experiences that Rosie goes through are based on actual life experience of Anna Smith. She herself is an award-winning crime reporter who has assignment during some of the toughest conflicts of recent times including Kosovo and Rwanda. She was even held hostage once. All this gives her stories that authentic feel that sets her apart from her contemporaries. "A Cold Killing" is an excellent new addition to a great series. Very recommended.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books.
Order A Cold Killing by Anna Smith here:

Subscribe to this RSS feed