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REVIEW : You by Zoran Drvenkar

Friday, 19 September 2014

No one does gut-wrenchingly bleak like Zoran Drvenkar. “Sorry” was one of those novels that you just had to read even though you were perfectly aware that it'll disturb you and that you'll have nightmares for nights on end. His second novel “You” has just been published in the US by Knopf and judging by the synopsis and the opening few pages it looks like we're in for another dark tale. With chilling detachment its beginning recounts a tale about a man known as “The Traveler” who during a snowstorm in the 90s goes on to kill 26 drivers on a German A4 highway between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach im Stau. The scheme is simple. Due to storm lots of drivers are forces to spend the night on the road and in the morning some are simply found dead because the killer simply walks against the traffic and does its thing. Reading the sorry affair sent shivers down my spine. The whole this is written so vividly that at one point I went to Google and tried to find the actual event.

At this point story turns to Ragnar Desche, a career criminal whose attempt to recover three million euros worth of drugs goes awry. He finds his brother Oscar dead. His car and drugs are missing. It transpires soon that the person who has the drugs is in fact his niece Taja. Together with four of her friends she wants to sell them and use to money to find her mother in Norway but Ragnar doesn't like idea. The road behind Ragnar is filled with violence and dead bodies and Taja, Stink, Nessi, Schnappi, and Ruth have no choice but to keep going forward.

The sense of detachment and drama is masterfully nuanced by telling the entire story in second person voice. This disorienting experience when combined with an complex plot would in the hands of lesser author lead to a bewilderment but Drvenkar strikes the balance early on so by the time I've reached the conclusion I was once again hopelessly hooked up with his darkness. And the ending is completely worth it. It is dark, unsettling and completely unexpected.

Over the course of these two translated novels Drvenkar has already established himself as one of the most exciting contemporary European writers and I'll waiting with impatience for his other works to come out. A disturbing and fascinating book.


Review copy provided by Knopf.
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Why write an epic fantasy with carnivorous plants, blood mages, satellite magic, and parallel universes battling it out to the death?

Well… why not?

We’re all writing the books we want to read, and The Mirror Empire was the epic fantasy novel I always wanted but could never find. It’s a book that delivers an epic story, cultures that don’t all sound like they were pulled from a Wikipedia article, a cool magic system that gives folks powers that wax and wane, and complex characters of all types – it’s not all “the elf, the monk, the dwarf.” Nor is it “the battle-hardened dude, the battle-hardened lady, the battle-hardened kid.”

I’ve always longed for stories that took me to places truly different, and that’s what I sought to deliver with The Mirror Empire. This is a world you’ve never seen before: consent-based cultures, vegetarian cannibals, societies with three genders, creepy satellites that deliver epic powers. All in one book.

I get asked a lot about the real story behind the book, and it is, simply, this: What if you had to give up everything you believed in, become everything you hated, and destroy someone with your own face in order to survive? Would you do it? Would you care? Who would you be, after?

These are the sorts of questions I explore throughout the series. My academic background is in the history of resistance movements, and I’ve spent a good deal of time researching war and genocide. I’m interested in what makes people turn on each other, and what makes them come together in the face of adversity.

They are complex human questions explored on a vast landscape. When you take people out of the world we see and put them someplace completely different, how much are they like us? How much are they… not?

I’ve been working in the world of The Mirror Empire for a very long time. It’s aged as I have; become more complex, more demanding, more morally ambiguous. When I decided to return to it after writing my God’s War trilogy, I realized it needed to level up to where I was at in my craft. That meant burning down the original draft(s) a couple of times and starting over.

And the story is better for it.

Sometimes the stories we want to tell need to grow and evolve with us. I was incredibly pleased to have The Mirror Empire’s story catch up with me.


About Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of the new epic fantasy The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God's War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year's Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.


Kameron Hurley
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Q: What can you tell us about "The Relic Guild"?

A: I like to think it’s a story about people doing the right thing even though they’ve been given every reason not to. It’s about magic, monsters and mayhem. It’s a fantasy adventure. It has moments of horror, and touches upon the themes of isolation and loss. Mostly, “The Relic Guild” is written as entertainment.

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

A: The book really is an amalgamation of the ideas and inspirations that I’ve collected over the years. There are elements of pretty much every genre and medium that has entertained me, from superheroes and fantasy books to RPGs and horror films. I think “The Relic Guild” marks the moment when I stopped holding back and let my imagination run wild. As for my process, I write a lot in longhand because I find it helps me order my thoughts and ideas, and then I bring anything useful back to the computer in my office. I like to start work as early as I can in the morning, and then write for as long as I’m able.

Q: "The Relic Guild" is your debut novel but you've already published quite a few short stories. How different was it writing a novel? Was transition to long form difficult?

A: This might sound flippant, but it’s the truth. I never really consider the length of a story before I start writing it, and I’m notoriously bad at predicting word count. I just write until I feel the tale is told. “The Relic Guild” was simply the first idea I had that was long enough for a series of books.

Q: So have you planned the entire series from the start and how much it changed from the initial idea?

A: Yes, this story was always going to be three books long. Like so many other writers, and certainly with just about everything I’ve ever written, I know the beginning, I know the end, but it’s the middle of the story that can change and develop in a way that feels surprising, unexpected to the author. Things usually unfold as I roughly planned them to, but I just find cooler ways to do it.

Q: I've been especially impressed by your setting. For the readers, the story takes place in a strange and fascinating places called Labyrinth which is effectively sealed from the rest of the universe. How do you get to create something like that? Is world-building hard for you?

A: Thank you! The Labyrinth is really just a riff on the forgotten village hidden in the dark depths of a haunted forest. Only this time the village is the size of a city, and instead of a forest it’s surrounded by a gigantic maze that never ends. I find world-building no easier or harder than any other part of writing. For me it’s all about balance, connecting the different pieces into a single story. I like to use world-building as a backdrop, and try to let the reader discover the world as the characters do.

Q: "The Relic Guild" is a very bleak book without many light moments. Still, you seem to be a very fun and chirpy person who likes to fool around a lot? Where did all the darkness come from?

A: Hah! You’re not the first person to raise this point. There is some humour in the book, but you’re right to say that it’s surrounded by a particular kind of bleakness. If I want to scare readers, I’ll think about what scares me. If I want to dazzle imaginations with landscapes or magic, I’ll consider what it might take to leave me astounded. I am happy for the most part; I’ve got a lot to be grateful for. But I also go through all that other stuff that most humans do. With the Labyrinth, I wanted to create a dangerous place, where no one would choose to live, and somewhere that’s far removed from the comfort of my own life.

Q: How was it writing Clara as she is in the book - a young woman in the middle of a very confusing and potentially deadly situation? How did you get into right frame of mind?

A: I would say, out of all the characters, Clara is the one who carries the most traits of my personality. She is founded upon the confusion, the angst and insecurity that I felt when I was eighteen. The more she learns about the world, the less it makes sense, the more dangerous and chaotic it seems. I enjoyed taking Clara away from an undesirable life, and injecting her into a strange and fearful place. As it was, and is, for me, nothing will ever be easy for her.

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

A: Well…There’re David Gemmell, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter – this is a list that changes and grows every day. Recent titles I’d recommend? I’ll go for my fellow Gollancz debuts. I read them all to discover who I was being published alongside this year, and I have to say it’s an impressive collection of stories. Check out Jon Wallace, Den Patrick, Anna Caltabiano and John Hornor Jacobs!

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

A: Definitely the sequels. Book two of “The Relic Guild” is now on my editor’s desk, and I’ve just started book three. That’s my writing card filled for the next year or so. 


Edward Cox
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I'm not a huge fan of graphic novel adaptations of existing material. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with the idea but the fact remains that most of them are done as another means to get some extra earrings on behalf of some aggressive marketing campaign. So the end result is often not up to scratch. Luckily graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's classic novel The Graveyard Book is a complete opposite of everything I've said above and a perfect example how things should done.

First of all, unless I'm mistaken it has even more pages than the original novel. It is published in two volumes (first of which I'll be reviewing here) both of which are nearly 200 pages long and follow closely the original novel. However, since this is not just a novel by numbers with some extra illustrations added up, P. Craig Russell obviously had to resort to some meticulously planned editing. Some of the most memorable sentences are therefore missing for the text but glorious artwork easily makes up for the loss. Illustrations are done by many greats working the field todays including long time Gaiman collaborator Jill Thompson as well as Tony Harris and P. Craig Russell himself among others. This carefully thought out concept means that each character in the story comes alive in his own unique manner. How brilliant this adaptation is witness by the fact that halfway through I could even imagine reading the book. It's was like the adaptation became the original, integral version of the story.

I realise that up to this point I haven't really talked much about the story itself but if you're familiar with “The Graveyard Book” you know what to expect and if you didn't I would still advise you read the original book first. Just be prepared for the fact that Volume 1 follows the story up to it's halfway mark and includes chapters one to interlude while Volume 2 will follow on to the end. Luckily both volume are already available.

To conclude, graphic novel adaptation of “The Graveyard Book” with its text and artwork is a landmark graphic novel adaptation. It clearly sets the new high mark against which other similar adaptations should be measured. Not only it is successful at following the original text and getting its message across, its wonderful artwork means that it effectively surpasses the original book as the preferred version of the story. Isn't that a first?


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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Antonia Skarmeta's “A Distant Father” is mere 112 pages long but when it comes to emotions and sheer soulfulness it feels like a much larger book. Similarly to “Il Postino”, his latest novella which was just published by Other Press is bursting with tender characters and a sense of foreboding beauty. “A Distant Father” is narrated by 21 year old school teacher Jacques who lives in Contulmo, a small village in southern Chile and spends his days translating French poems and literary fiction. Contulmo is a tight knit community so when one day Jacques strikes a friendship with Cristian, local miller, no one is surprised. For Jacques friendship with Cristian means a little more since he was close to his estranged father Pierre who two years ago suddenly, without and explanations, left him and his mom. One day, during one of his trips to Angol, Jacques stumbles upon his dad and finds out that these days he's running a cinema and has a baby. It is a surprising turn of events which will change the lives of many.

The true strength of Antonia Skarmeta's writing is that he knows how to write about small communities, about people living in them and the endless sense of sameness that pervades every inch of their existence. It is a world where gossip and dreams are currency and while despair is clearly palpable, there's always a few larger-than-life characters and plenty of humor. And there's the dreams. In a way, “A Distant Father” felt to me like an novel set In some Italian rural backwater. It has lots of temperament and lots of love, all packaged in one tender and beautifully woven package. “A Distant Father” is a lovely and witty burst of ingenious writing.


Review copy provided by Other Press.
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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 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.

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 discussing 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 certainly hope there's a sequel in the making 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 of his other work. What more can you wish for?


Review copy provided by Tor UK.
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Sophie Hannah was never going to have it easy. It's must have been a frightening and daunting task. Agatha Christie is the most selling author of all time (if you discard Shakespeare and Bible) and it is often reported that during her career she purportedly sold over 2 billion copies. Now, quite a few great and small authors have tried to follow in the footsteps of the greats only to fail miserably. Just remember William Boyd's Solo or Sebastian Faulks attempt at new Jeeves and Wooster book and Bond. So it was a pleasant surprise when I realized that straight from the opening page The Monogram Murders felt completely carefree. It's like Sophie Hannah effortlessly fell into her new role and the words just flew out so despite this being some new, modern Poirot, I must admit that I've enjoyed The Monogram Murders a lot.

Story opens in a madly exciting fashion. Hercule Poirot is having a quiet supper at Pleasant Coffee House (he's having his first "holiday" in years) when he's approached by distressed young woman who proclaims that she'll be murdered soon. However, she doesn't want Hercule to protect her but instead asks him to leave the killer alone as she deserves her sorry fate. Later in the evening, three guests at a Bloxham Hotel have been found dead with a cuff-link carefully placed into their mouth. Scotland Yard detective solving the case, Edward Catchpool is out his depth. He's Hastings to Christie's Poirot. At this point cogs in Hercule's brain whir into motion and as he sees the connection between two cases, he realizes that there's a fiendishly clever puzzle to be solved. But the clock is ticking and the murderer is getting ready to stake his claim on the fourth victim.

 

The Monogram Murders has been authorized by Christie's family and it is fairly obviously to see why they've chosen to do so at this point in time. Hannah has created a story that will appeal to both new and old readers of Christie. However, let's be honest, this is not Christie and it would be silly to expect otherwise. Hannah's Poirot speaks with a new voice, one which to my ears sometimes sounds a bit too modern but while it is obviously impossible to recreate Christie's uniqueness and her panache for puzzles, Hannah has succeeds against all odds. The Monogram Murders often feels like a letter from a long-lost friend and I certainly hope that this won't be the last time we meet as this dash around the block was simply brilliant. It's a very readable and enjoyable homage to some of the finest Golden Age crime novels. 


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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Out of the entire Save the Story series, The Story of Don Juan by Alessandro Baricco probably surprised me the most. Completely erroneously I've thought I knew all about Don Juan and his legendary adventures filled with debauchery and countless women he seduced and left behind. However, it turns out I knew next to nothing. Similarly to various fairly tales which in their initial form were much darker affairs, it transpires that Don Juan was originally told as a much darker and symbolic tale and it is these grim beginnings that form the basis for Baricco's retelling. The story itself starts predictably enough as Don Juan enters into a bedroom of a young woman and tricks her into believing he's her fiancé. When she realises the mistake, he flees only to encounter her father, the Commendatore, who he eventually kills in a duel. To make things even worse, Don Juan soon learns that an angry mob is on his tail. A band of brothers of a woman he married only to escape the very next day and they won't stop until he's dead and buried. And as if that wasn't enough, and not to put a fine point on it, ghost of the Commendatore is also back and is seeking revenge. Confident in his endless cockiness, Don Juan survives the first day by invitign all three to a party hoping that the situation will somehow resolve in his favor but it was not to be.

 

Alessandro Baricco's retelling made me want to check out other versions of Don Juan so you might say that this installment in Save the Story series definitely fulfilled its intention. I'm really happy it did because Alessandro Baricco is a hero of mine. He's the editor of the Save the Story series and the founder of the creative writing school Scuola Holden which originally published it in Italy. To make things even better, The Story of Don Juan is illustrated by haunting and beautiful drawings made by Alessandro Maria Nacar which server only to improve and to enhance this glorious reading experience. 


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.
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The Ultra Thin Man started out as just a title. It wasn’t even consciously linked to Dashiell Hammett’s noir novel The Thin Man until years later. I had no idea what the book would be about. The novel actually began way back in the early 1990s. As a way to stay in touch, my brother and I did some collaborative writing that hashed out some of the character and setting bits and the start of a plot, but we had no idea then where it would lead.

After years without an outline and just a dozen chapters, it was time to approach it more seriously. It had been ten-plus years since that title popped up. We both had lives and commitments, and always, without fail, I’d go back to the book and find myself fascinated—and more than a little curious—about where it was headed. Finally, after a five year stint with no new words, I asked my brother if I could write it on my own. He said yes.

The novel continued to languish. I had started my own small press magazine, Talebones, in 1995, and a micro book press, Fairwood Press, in 2000. I was teaching full time. I returned year after year to the The Ultra Thin Man, but found myself unhappy with that opening (about 20,000 words or so). I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote those early chapters.

In the middle of 2009, I closed down Talebones. Starting that September, I wrote every day. I’d finally decided to forget the opening and just move ahead. I wrote practically nonstop, refusing to go back to any earlier chapters except to leave notes for myself to attend to later. I was still teaching full time. Still running my micro press. I completed a rough draft four months later, the day after New Year’s. This was a space opera, to be sure, but also a mystery. I made sure to pay homage to noir fiction and film, realizing that without any conscious thought, I’d already done as much. I even discovered a few happy accidents upon re-reading Hammett’s The Thin Man.

I am not an outliner. I find that knowing where I’m going spoils the story for me. I’m more of a follower. Ultimately, I had two private detectives on the run, trying to solve a mystery of interstellar importance. I told them to solve it for me and I’d follow along and write it all down.

I did some things in the novel that riffed on identity. The characterization of Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos definitely challenged me, due to their lack of knowledge about their own past lives. I chose to play on the paranoia behind not knowing who you are, or—more specific to the novel’s plot—who anyone else is. In my universe, humans and aliens coexist, but what else is out there? The universe is huge. I’m reminded of the movie Contact, and Matthew Mcconaughey telling his daughter that if there isn’t any extraterrestrial life out there, then it’s an awful waste of space. There’s always something out there bigger—or at least different—than you are. That aspect, along with the characters’ own doubts, propelled the story forward.

Without an agent, I sold The Ultra Thin Man to the first editor who saw it, at Tor Books, but even that was after an 18 month long wait. Included during that time was a short rewrite request. I found an agent soon after, and the novel was on its way through the process of becoming a real entity.

A sequel is in the works, and I’ve been approaching it much the same way I wrote the first, without an outline. But I’m not waiting a dozen-plus years. I’m excited to find out how it all turns out.


Patrick Swenson
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         At dusk or in the early morning: Those are the most fitting times to walk in a cemetery. The bookends of the day, you might say. The parentheses that bracket the superficial hurly-burly of the daylight hours, separating them from the quiet depth of night. Amid that forest of rock, beneath a blithely indifferent sky, a certain clarity descends.

     Summer of the Dead, the third novel in my series about a crusading prosecutor in a fraying town, came to life in my mind during walks in a cemetery—which is less bleak, and less creepy, than it may sound. The book had its birth in a place of death. But that really shouldn’t have surprised me.

     I first began frequenting cemeteries when I was seven or eight years old. We lived quite close to a beautiful one called Woodmere, an expanse of rolling hills and spreading trees and a rich thicket of headstones. This may sound unforgivably sacrilegious, but my best friend Melanie and I would bounce baseballs off those headstones; the pink granite provided an immensely satisfying ricochet. Only later would we edge closer to the flat-faced tablets and read the inscriptions aloud to each other. We would note the birth and death dates, and then do the math: How old had this person been when she or he was planted here like a tulip bulb? If the deceased was close to our age, we would shiver and gasp a little, and invariably we would touch our own arm or stomp a foot against the ground, reminding ourselves that we were alive—alive! Blood still raced through our veins, synapses still fired in our brains. We could blink and nod and laugh and play baseball and read comic books—all the things that this poor kid, the one who lay beneath this upright rock with the fancy lettering on it, could not do anymore. Solemn wonder tolled in us: Why were we alive, and this other person wasn’t?

     I don’t use headstones for baseball practice anymore. But I do stroll through cemeteries every chance I get. I’ve found names for my characters there, and more: I’ve found a sort of mission statement for fiction-writing in general. Because sometimes, to be honest, the whole thing can seem rather silly and pointless, this process of making up stories about people who never existed. But during my wanderings through cemeteries, I manage to rev myself back up again: Stories, in the end, are all we really do possess. Our physical selves are perishable. Even our dreams have a sell-by date. Only our stories last.

     Summer of the Dead is about, among other things, the people in a small town who are terrorized by a series of vicious murders. Many of the residents are caring for others: a young woman looks after her father, crippled in mind and body; a middle-aged woman tries to help her older sister, recently released from prison and struggling to find her way in an unfamiliar world of freedom and choice; a mother fights to protect her critically ill son. They must find the balance between helping enough—and helping too much, inadvertently hurting the loved one. All the while, they must keep an eye out for a killer whose blood-lust knows no bounds.

     Walking through cemeteries at sunrise and at twilight provided me with the inspiration not only for the plot of Summer of the Dead but also for its atmosphere: a moody, restless, quivering, questioning one: What do we owe other people? How much should we sacrifice for those we care about?

     For me, a cemetery is what the landscape of Wessex Heights was for Thomas Hardy in his poem of that name, a place “where men have never cared to haunt, nor women walked with me,/ And ghosts then keep their distance, and I know some liberty.” Like the narrator of Hardy’s poem, I go there alone, and I emerge at the end of the journey with a clearer head, a more settled heart—and sometimes, even an idea for a novel.


Julia Keller
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