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REVIEW : The Man in a Hurry by Paul Morand

 

Paul Morand's classic novel "The Man in a Hurry" (originally released in 1941 in French as "L'homme pressé") has the honour of being the first Pushkin Collection titles published in hardcover so I hope you'll excuse me if I start by talking about its design first. The entire Pushkin Collection series is a celebration of all that's good in book design. Their publications are always such things of beauty. These endlessly charming, dainty pieces of literature come together due to them being such lovely paperbacks enriched by French flaps and embossed covers so it is definitely an act of courage on their behalf to change the winning formula. I won't deny that I was really sceptical whether the hardcover will work so well as the paperback and amazingly it does. Partly it is due to jacket that still retains that tactile feel that graced the paperbacks, partly due to the novel itself which heralds the arrival of modern age and sports a fast car. It just works. Now, without any hurry, on to Morand and "The Man in a Hurry"!

Paul Morand is one of the masters of Modernist French prose and is admired by many, including Ezra Pound and Marcel Proust. During his illustrious career he published over 50 works of non-fiction and fiction, few of which have been published by Pushkin Press, also in translation by Euan Cameron. Last of these is "The Allure of Channel", his final work which explored the life and character of Coco Chanel and published the year Morand died. However, "The Man in a Hurry" finds Morand in a different phase of his life though the elements of his latter writings are already evident. "The Man in a Hurry" introduces us to Pierre Niox, a man who simply can't stop. His erratic lifestyle and madcap pace are driving everyone insane, including his manservant, friends and even his cat who all, one by one, eventually abandon him. In a moment of clarity Pierre realises that he's rushing through life, never experiencing any of it for himself and decides to do something about it, if at all possible. His redemption comes in shape of Hedwige. Pierre instantly falls in love and has to learn to slow down or risk losing the most important thing of them all.

I found "The Man in a Hurry" especially interesting because in a way it is exactly opposite of the life today. For Morand, Pierre's mad dashing around was the infuriating sign of the future. It was the time of the progress and people around were getting noticeably faster day by day. For Pierre it is natural but the world can't keep up with him. And yet today it is life itself that is too fast for most of us and the problem is that you often can't slow it down. It's an interesting inversion that struck chord with me, especially when told through ironic and often hilarious Morand's prose. Funnily enough, in one final twist Morand declared that Pierre is based on himself. I hope he eventually learned to slow down.


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.
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REVIEW : Reading the World Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan

 

I must admit that when I initially opened Ann Morgan's "Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer" I was slightly disappointed. I've been closely following her literary adventures and I've expected a distilled version of the same but what I've got was something of a literary manifesto - a story about the motivation behind her worthwhile endeavour and the importance of foreign literature. To dispel any illusions you might get at this point, my disappointed lasted for mere half an hour because I quickly realised how clever this little tome is. Its purpose is not to provide reviews but to inspire the reader and as far as I'm concerned, "Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer" does a remarkably fine job of it.

If you haven't heard about Ann Morgan and her reading odyssey here's a quick overview. One day in 2012 Morgan decided to embark on a metaphysical trip around the world by reading a book from each of 196 independent countries in the world. Morgan's quest for touching all corners of global literature was a daunting proposition from the start. 196 books in a year is a lot at best of times but combined with her premise I personally thought that this'll be an ambition that is simply impossible to accomplish because for one, Ann doesn't speak all these languages and there's bound to be at least one country where not a single book/story was translated to English and then there's countries suffering under oppressive regimes where censorship destroys all traces of written world. And yet, against all odds, she has somehow done it. It's a remarkable feat, all the more impressive when you read her account about all the wonderful people who helped her along the way. Slowly, Ann's dash through the books because something that surpasses a mere novelty and became a metaphor for the world we live in - a world where boundaries are slowly, and rightly so, dissipating. It is also a sobering reminder of how little we really know. Just a casual glance at her reading list was enough for me to realise that I've hardly heard, let alone read, most of these authors. It's heart-warming and encouraging to be aware that even in some of those most deprived and desperate corners of our world, there's people putting their emotions and stories to paper.

So if you, like me, upon opening Ann Morgan's "Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer" initially feel despair, fear not! Her wonderful website is still there and is occasionally updated with new content while her book serves as a perfect companion to it. It is a fascinating insight into the idea and the events that made the whole adventure possible. An inspiring stuff for all the bookworms!


Review copy provided by Harvill Secker.
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REVIEW : Borders by Roy Jacobsen

 

Originally published in 1999, “Borders” is my first encounter with the writings of Roy Jacobsen. I've certainly heard of his works, most of which have been awarded many literary accolades and have universally critically praised. I've also been "warned" about the density of his narrative so therefore I instantly knew that the synopsis, no matter how accurate or descriptive it might seem at first glance will be lacking in conveying the essence of what his latest English translation is all about.

Superficially, you might expect "Borders" to be a novel about World War II and it certainly is that. But then you'll notice the impossible situation that Markus Hebel finds himself in. Markus' son is caught in Stalingrad, a city on the verge of collapse while Hitler stubbornly refuses to withdraw. And there's that mention of "Operation Winter Storm", a real German offensive that occurred during the Battle of Stalingrad and which unsuccessfully attempted to help the German 6th Army during their encirclement by the Soviets of the German 6th Army. Markus is a Belgian radio operator working for Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein, a strategist behind the operation. And while "Borders" is about all of these things, it is also not about either of them. Like a masterful movie director, Jacobsen often zooms in and completely forgets the big picture. At its heart of hearts "Borders" is all about ordinary people, suffering and dying in conflicts that they often can't completely understand and for the causes they certainly would condone if they had any choice. This is instantly obvious when Marcus finds himself is a position when blindly following the orders means he'll have to sacrifice his son. Faced with that prospect he would betray everyone without batting an eyelid. World War II and the Battle of Stalingrad are just events of choice. All these ideas and emotions would equally be applicable to any other conflict in history of mankind.

So those borders mentioned in the title of Jacobsen's book mean much more than a purely geographical concept. For him, equally if not more important are the borders that lie within us - those fine lines that separate us from the beasts. "Borders" is definitely a novel about World War II but a novel that transcends the event. It shows that even after all those horrific crimes against the humanity have been committed, love strives. Very interesting and different novel.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
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REVIEW : Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson

 

In a bad design choice, American edition of Rjurik Davidson's debut novel "Unwrapped Sky" prominently features a minotaur on its cover. There's nothing wrong with minotaurs as such and they certainly play a part in the story but the issue I have with the cover in question in that it sends a completely wrong impression about "Unwrapped Sky". In my opinion, Davidson's debut is completely removed from what you would usually expect from your bog standard high fantasy and instead occupies that undefinable place in literary fantasy that's more interested in the voyage than the quest. It is the kind of book that is, for the lack of better classification, often described as new weird or magical realism. You know the kind I'm talking about. China Mieville and Bulgakov instantly come to my mind as reference points. Even though Davidson is still not up to their level of craft, his poetic prose clearly shows that he has plenty of potential.

"Unwrapped Sky" revolves around Caeli-Amur, an ancient city on the brink of irreversible change. The governing power is continuously shifting between houses who between them control the livelihood of its citizens. They're House Technis who attract industrial workers, Hourse Arbor with farmers and House Marin with fishermen. The streets of Caeli-Amur are filled of intrigues and as we're introduced to Kata, n philosopher-assassin, she's in the middle of her latest scheme, getting rid of two minotaurs. Similar can be said about bureaucrat Boris Autec who is working for House Technis and whose ruthless rise through the ranks severely affects his private life and for Maximilan, a thaumaturgist scholar and a revolutionary who spends his life researching secrets of Great Library of Caeli Enas. As the Festival of the Sun is approaching minotaur are arriving to the city as well as an endless stream of refugees and mutants. All these are heralds of an inevitable change. Now it is only a matter of figuring out where the pendulum will drop.

What made "Unwrapped Sky" instantly appealing to me is its strangeness. It is not often that you feel like you are reading something completely new and unique and this was definitely one of those increasingly rare cases. It's just bizarre but never in a way that pushed me away. Over the course of the story Davidson manages to control the amount of weird and knows when and how to stop. I was surprised by how much I've enjoyed this grim and poetic tale and I'm already looking forward to the sequel despite that being the biggest issue I had with it. At the end it is rather open ended. And yes, UK edition got their cover right with their atmospheric depiction of deep waters. It is much more indicative of the book - there's much more under the surface of "Unwrapped Sky" than it is evident at first glance.


Review copy provided by Pan / Tor UK.
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The story behind Dark Star by Oliver Langmead

I think that everyone at some point wishes they could write a detective story. We've all read a crime thriller or three, and enjoyed them because they're the literary equivalent of solving a puzzle. It's satisfying to have a problem and read as the main character goes through the book's twists and turns to find the solution. The writing of one is fun for putting together the puzzle in the first place, knowing the solution and enjoying the ride as your investigator follows the clues you set out, eventually coming to the correct conclusion. It's the fun of putting together your own Sherlock Holmes, or Rebus or Philip Marlowe.

Dark Star, then, is my detective story. And it's not like many others. But let me explain why.

It started with the seed of an idea: a world, or a city, set in permanent darkness using light as a scarce resource. From that, the idea of turning it into a detective story was almost elementary. Of course, that kind of oppressive permanent darkness would suit the noir mood. In that way, I could write a book that was both figuratively and literally dark. I looked into light deprivation studies and seasonal affective disorder, and how things like that might affect a population. I considered how to go about organising a light-based economy, which heavily favoured the wealthy and left the rest in darkness. And from all of this, the city of Vox was born: with its 1920s style fashions and technology, its perpetually black streets, oppressed and wasted population, drug problems, law enforcement problems and, of course, constant showers of rain.

But, as it turned out, that was the easy bit.

It took me around a year to put together a mystery I considered worthy of such a dark backdrop. It all came down to one moment, which is right at the start of the book: the murder itself. I tend to be a pretty cinematic writer and this was a moment that captured my attention. It was a hook: a mysterious murder so visual and strange that I had to write it, because I needed to see it solved. Read the opening to the first cycle and you can see it for yourself. The bright, dead girl in the alleyway. The silhouettes of the investigators, standing in the rain. The overwhelming dark behind them all. I hope that it's as every bit as engrossing as I found it.

The thing that makes Dark Star so unusual, though, isn't the science fiction, or the bleak noir atmosphere. The thing that makes the book almost unique is the third genre I ended up using. Because Dark Star isn't written in prose. It's a science fiction noir written in verse. Specifically, narrative verse, in the same style as those ancient poems you will have heard of: The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. Yup, you read that right. Call me mad if you like. But Dark Star is a poem the length of a book.

My detective is called Virgil Yorke. Just like the book that he stars in, his name is a combination of different influences that come together and, somehow, work to make Dark Star what it is. His last name is “Yorke” because his city, the dark city of Vox, resembles New York, and for Thom Yorke as well whose solo music I was listening to a lot at the time of writing. His first name, “Virgil,” is the name of an ancient poet, who wrote one of the first great epic poems, called the Aeneid, about the mythical founding of Rome. But more than that, the poet Virgil was written in to The Divine Comedy centuries later, as a ghost who guides Dante through the circles of hell.

In the end, by the time I started writing Dark Star, it was a mad melting-pot of influences, written together during what I consider to be a dark time of my life. But what makes the book special, I think, isn't all the darkness, but the glimpses of light in between. The bright, dead girl. Virgil's addiction to a drug that makes his veins glow. The lighthouse in the dark. Even the ending which, I can assure you, is bright as well.


Oliver Langmead
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The story behind How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Growing up in Canada, I was raised on stories of the Dionne Quintuplets, five miracle babies born in the Depression to a farm family. They were the first quints to survive birth, and they were taken as a sign by a desperate nation, by a weary world, that better times were coming. That miracles happen. They were embraced by a populace starving for good news.

The little Dionne girls were taken from their hard-scrabble parents and given a fairytale home to live in, with matching princess dresses and toys and ponies. Everything a child could want.

Except love and privacy.

When it came time to write HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN, I thought of those girls and wondered what happens to children raised in the public eye. Heaven knows with reality television it is common enough today, but rare back in the 1930s. And so the book begins with the last surviving quint, by now an elderly woman, disappearing on her way to the Québec village of Three Pines, and Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec being asked to find her.

The story, while about the quints, is really about that gap, often a chasm, between appearance and reality. It’s about the calm outer image we all project and the inner turmoil. That gap between what we say and what we’re really thinking. Between how we look and how we feel.

The story is about what lives in that crevice. What gets stuffed down there and lives in darkness over the years.

When I’m asked by aspiring writers for advice there are several things I tell them. I could go on and on of course, astonished by my own genius, but have seen glazed looks too often not to have winnowed it down to a few points. Write for yourself, write with joy and gratitude, write with courage. Have structure to your writing day and be disciplined. Anyone can have a good idea but only disciplined people actually write the books. Only disciplined people write “The End”. And read poetry.

It’s about now that the eyes either glaze or roll. But I’m very serious. Poetry is about rendering, synthesizing, emotions down to a few words. Poetry is blistering, powerful, eloquent, insightful. It can be Yeats or AA Milne. Great poetry is evocative and a great book should be too. The best books are about emotions. Think of your favorite books. You might remember the plot, but you almost certainly remember how it made you feel.

A great crime novel is rarely about the crime. That’s the starting point. It’s about emotions. The feelings that provoked the crime, and the detonation of everyone affected by it.

Each of my books is inspired by a poem, often just a couplet, a few lines. I write them on a post-it note and stick it to my laptop so that when I get hopelessly lost, often in the “muddle in the middle”, I can look at it and find my way home again.

HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN was inspired by lyrics, initially a poem, by Leonard Cohen. The exact verse I had on my laptop goes:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There’s a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

There’s no better guide for writing a book, I’ve found, than those lines. To have the courage to accept it won’t be perfect. But it will be brilliant.


Louise Penny
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REVIEW : The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

 

Fantasy powerhouse, Brandon Sanderson, is back once again, this time with "The Rithmatist", one of his most interesting novels yet. To put it bluntly, due to use of illustrations by Ben McSweeney as an integral part of the plot, "The Rithmatist" is quite unlike anything Sanderson has produced so far but have no fear, it bears all the things that usually characterize his writing - approachability, madcap but logical magic system, fast paced adventure and that familiar sense of excitement that he so easily provokes in readers.

"The Rithmatist" is set in a school for magically gifted children, Armedius Academy, and as we're introduced to Joel he's not in a great position. He's frustrated because he's obsessed with the magic of Rithmatics but simply doesn't have a necessary gift. Unfazed by the fact and powered by childlike enthusiasm he forces Professor Fitch to introduce his to the concept. While he still can't use its elements (looking like fascinating chalk figures), at least Joel understands their workings. Suddenly, a series of kidnappings casts a dark cloud over the school. Someone is kidnapping and killing all the top Rithmatist student and Joel, thanks to his unique position, can investigate the situation without feeling like a target himself. Together with a Rithmatist apprentice Melody, he's soon racing against the time to stop the killer as more and more students disappear. Joel sees the this challenge as something more than murder investigation. For him it is also a way to prove himself to Rithmatist crowd but as times passes by he grows up and realises that there are far more important things than being accepted. This realisation changes something else in him but you'll have to read the book to find out more.

"The Rithmatist" is a novel aimed at readers of all ages so, admittedly, some of the character depth is sacrificed for the simplicity but on the other hands you can enjoy reading it together with your children. Perhaps they'll catch the bug and in a few years they'll start reading Mistborn. Another great thing about it that Sanderson cleverly avoid the whole teenage romance issue. It's almost impossibly refreshing once you realise that its missing from the plot. In the end, however old you are, as soon as you get your hear around his latest magic system this turns into a bloody great adventure story. Best thing about it that, in true Sanderson fashion, this is just a beginning of a series - there's a sequel planned for 2017, tentatively called "The Aztlanian". When does that man sleep?


Review copy provided by Pan / Tor UK.
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REVIEW : Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel

 

In years before "Station Eleven" stole our hearts away, Emily St. John Mandel published three novels, all of which, as I'm helpfully informed by my editor, are simply as brilliant as the former though very different to it. I was really eager to read them but the moment I've heard that Picador was planning to republish them with beautifully looking covers I have decided against acquiring second hand copies on eBay. Now they're finally here (they're really looking gorgeous!) and first on the list is Mandel's debut novel "Last Night in Montreal" which was originally published in 2009.

Mandel's debut follows Lilia, girl who's permanently on the move ever since her father kidnapped her when she was just child of seven. This experience leaves her forever restless and as they travel from motel to model while being pursued by an obsessed detective Christopher Graydon we're treated to a glimpses with form a building blocks of older Lilia whose life is the other strand of the story. Years later Lilia is still leaving everyone behind, be it family, friends, or unsuspecting lovers. That is until she meets Eli Jacobs who simply doesn't want to accept her choice. When one day she literary vanishes from their apartment after apparently going to the store, he does something different. He follows her all the way from New York to Montreal after receiving a mysterious postcard from a girl called Michaela (who, as it eventually turns out is more connected to Lilia than I've initially suspected) and along the way starts to piece together all the bits and bobs that make Lilia tick.

Instantly upon opening "Last Night in Montreal" I was struck by the fact how recognizable its atmosphere felt. If you discard the post-apocalyptic aspect of "Station Eleven", it almost feels like it could be a companion novel to "Last Night in Montreal" because in both of them Mandel explores similar themes - basically aimless wandering, concept of malleability of memory, obsession and trying to find your identity in an often chaotic world. Another strength of her with also features prominently in her latest bestseller are the descriptions which once again vividly enrich the scenes no matter how bland they initially seem. Where "Last Night in Montreal" falls behind "Station Eleven" is the story itself. There's a clever twist at the end but that's really not what "Last Night in Montreal" is all about. If you accept that you'll really, really enjoy its soulfulness. An excellent debut that stood the test of time.


Review copy provided by Picador.
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REVIEW : Recapitulations by Vincent Crapanzano

 

No one is better positioned to explore the recesses of one's mind than Vincent Crapanzano, a world renowned anthropologist and professor of comparative literature at City University of New York. In this hefty introspective volume titled "Recapitulations", Crapanzano accepts that memory changes over time and goes away from the beaten tracks of similar memoirs and decided to approach himself as someone else - a best friend or perhaps a close acquaintance? - and write his life story as a novel.

This is not a completely unique approach and many other authors have done an extraordinary job while doing the same thing (Per Olov Enquist's "The Wandering Pine" instantly comes to mind). Still, Crapanzano's account is well worth reading not least because it provides such an ordinary picture about one of great thinkers of our age. In "Racapitulations" Crapanzano's life follows the same route as most of our lives. He falls in and out of love. His grows up playing on grouds of psychological hospital where his father works and but when he dies his childhood abruptly stops. He studies at school in Switzerland and spends 60s in Harvard before embarking on his researching career that took him all around the world. These provide fascinating insight not only into his mind but into the minds of world's peoples which through his anthropological work are reflect on his life. Often episodes from the past are illuminated by his research and provide a fresh perspective on previously incomprehensible events. One can't escape the feeling that through his own texts Crapanzano has made himself the subject of his own research. It's an interesting idea which for most of the parts works well but when it doesn't, Crapanzano's first to admit his own shortcomings. He perfectly understands that, as more time passes by, holes will appear in the memory and that we will often fill them with our own ideas and inventions.

As the ending arrived I've realised that I wasn't completely charmed by "Recapitulations" but rather that I was increasingly fascinated by Crapanzano's train of thoughts and his philosophical approach to life. He has the capacity to make even the most mundane things seem extraordinary and that's probably the best thing about his memoir. It delights despite being rather ordinary.


Review copy provided by Other Press.
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REVIEW : Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

 

"Traitor's Blade" was one of the most enjoyable fantasy debuts of the last year. It was a familiar swashbuckling tale of heroics and kingdom on the edge of total collapse. The thing about Greatcoats as a concept that made it work so well is that it played with a familiar concept, one that is universally appealing ever since Dumas wrote The Musketeers. An idea where a group of extremely capable but strongly opinionated individuals work together against for the common goal. It was refreshingly fun, full of playful banter and madcap action and while the story itself wasn't too original and was even a bit predictable that's was exactly what I was looking for at the time. As you can see I completely enjoyed de Castell's antics first time around so when the invite arrived asking me to join "Greatcoats" once again I was more than happy to accept.

"Knight's Shadow" leads on straight from the events depicted in "Traitor's Blade" so don't pick this hefty volume without reading the first instalment. Tristia is a kingdom still suffering from numerous problem, not least because King Paelis is dead and Greatcoats are all on the run after being branded traitor. However, unbeknownst to many, just before he died King Paelies gave each of the Greatcoats his own mission and as we meet Falcio Val Mond, Kest and Brasti they've just completed their bit - they've found Charoites, a girl who's place is at the throne. They'll do everything to protect her and their mission is far from easy. Daishini, tremendous band of assassins, are close on their tails as well as all the Dukes and their Knights who want to use this political chaos for their own ends. "Knight's Shadow" opens bombastically with lots of action and fighting and there's a new found sense of urgency to their quest. Greatcoats are more focused in this sequel and their stakes in the story are finally clear. Without spoiling too much there's even a eye-popping twist or two.

"Traitor's Blade" and "Knight's Shadow" both stem from a time when fantasy was just plain fun and promised quests and excitement, when you opened a book expecting to be entertained. "Knight's Shadow" fulfil that idea by being even better at it than its predecessor. The characters are better developed and the plot itself is more ambitious but that doesn't drag the impetus down. Admittedly, at times I was worried because at times it almost felt that de Castell is preparing himself to go down the grimdark route which would be a shame as ironically he would instantly lose his originality. It's easy to love de Castell's work. Two books in and "Greatcoats" still remains approachable and readable fantasy at its finest.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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