Rebecca Makkai's second novel is bravely ambitious family drama which caught me completely by surprise. I've loved her debut novel "The Borrower" but "The Hundred-Year House" delighted me straight from the start with its innovative structure and unique presentation. Told through a series of vignettes which take place in a single house called Laurelfield over the course of hundred years, we are introduced to Devohrs family, a true Canadian eccentrics.
The story, which is told in reverse, opens in 1999 with the book's lengthiest chapter. Zee, a Marxist literary scholar is living in Laurelfield with her husband Doug and her parents, mother Gracie and step-father Bruce. Zee doesn't particularly like living in the house partly due to her parents living there, partly due to imposing massive portrait of Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother who apparently committed suicide somewhere in the house. It is Violets portrait which provides the link to the next story, the life of artists who lived in the house from the 1920s to the 1950s. This period is of particular interest to Zee's husband Doug who is doing research into Laurelfield Arts Colony and the life of poet Edwin Parfitt for his PhD. It is Doug's interest into the past which provides a catalyst and turns the plot into a full-fledged mystery. And house doesn't want to let them go easily.
Second part occurs in 1955 and Grace is married to Zee's abusive father George. Similarly to Zee, Grace is fascinated by Laurelfield and soon the chain of events will change her life for good. Third part of the story, goes further in the past to 1929 and takes place in artist colony where we are shown glimpses of Edwin Parfitt's life. Marking a turn in style, this third part is told through short bursts and changes of perspective and successfully manages to put across the chaotic life in artists' colony living permanently under the threat of closure by Devohr.
Similarly to "The Borrower", "The Hundred-Year House" is beautifully written and its characters are glorious in all their strangeness. Makkai certainly has a skill to engage the reader and she does it with frightening ease. I was caught by its bug straight from the opening page and I've stormed through this easily readable tale with gusto. I've especially enjoyed the way Makkai plays with the circular nature of history and its consequences, both in her tale and her approach to storytelling.
All in all, "The Hundred-Year House" is a completely surprising and all around excellent multi-layered read which I wholeheartedly recommend.
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Review copy provided by William Heinemann.
African Sky is my first encounter with the writings of Australian author Tony Park but his work hasn't escaped my attention. All too often I've heard about his panache for telling a emotionally gripping tale and his third novel African Sky, originally published in 2006 but now being republished by Quercus, fulfilled the expectations. African Sky takes place in Rhodesia in 1943. Bomber pilot Paul Bryant is working at a pilot training school at Kumalo Air Base but he's not flying actively since returning from fatal bombing mission over Germany. However, as one of his trainees ends up missing he must come of retirement as one of his trainees goes missing.
On the other hand, a Volunteer Policewoman Constable Pip Lovejoy (what a great name for a character) is also haunted by her daemons. High profile Aircraftswoman from the air base, Felicity Langhamis found raped and murdered in a nearby town. As she investigates her murder, she meets Paul over the course of an interview. However, a suspect is quickly found in the local black community but Pip rightfully suspects that there's plenty more hidden in plain sight. Soon she discover the relationship between Bryant, heiress Catherine De Beers and Langhamis and the solving case suddenly becomes of paramount importance for the entire war effort. Against the backdrop of the investigation, Bryant has plenty of other problems. He must prepare his airbase for the visit of Prime Ministers Jan Smuts and Sir Godfrey Huggins and unbeknownst to him, agent Hendrick Reitz is planning to sabotage an airbase itself.
Tony Park arranges his set pieces masterfully so the story itself is chock full of twists and turns so if you like these kind of reads, there's plenty to enjoy here. At first glance, African Sky has everything from hair-raising flying action to espionage, backstabbing, sex and love but scratch the surface and you'll discover hidden depth and well developed characters. All in all, I've really enjoyed my first encounter with Tony Park's work and I'll be looking forward to his future releases.
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Review copy provided by Quercus Books.
When I start writing a book, I usually have the ending in mind. The Unquiet House was different: it eluded me in that way, making writing it more a process of discovery. It was a book that came into focus gradually, like developing a photograph. I think sometimes I work best like that, when I’m just a little uncertain, and the characters are free to surprise me; I think it allows for the subconscious to do its work. It can be especially useful when writing something frightening; if I don’t see it coming, hopefully the reader won’t either.
I can’t remember what came first with the novel, but like a lot of my stories, it was a matter of two elements colliding, snagging, and beginning to form something new. I knew I wanted to write a ghost story, where the reader would journey back through the past, with historical events shedding light on what was happening in the present and vice versa. The other element was something more concrete: seeing an old grey house with a ‘For sale’ board outside, and falling a little bit in love.
I didn’t buy that house – it was never on the cards, so I didn’t even go inside – but the quiet lonely grandeur of it stuck in my mind, and so in my imagination I did go in, wandering its corridors and looking out of those dusty windows. It became Mire House, and its setting, next to a rather pretty old church, found its way into the book too.
I often find places inspiring. Standing somewhere new, breathing in a different atmosphere, seeing what makes it unique, quite often leads to a story. My first novel, A Cold Season, wouldn’t have taken the form it did if I hadn’t been commuting across the Pennines during a particularly harsh winter. Path of Needles was shaped by the magical quality of the local woodland on a Spring day. The Unquiet House, perhaps unsurprisingly, was formed by various properties.
The name ‘Mire House’ was borrowed from a tumble-down place I saw in a rather bleak valley. Other places began to form the plot in unforeseen ways. A visit to an ancient graveyard in a little village named Tong revealed a bench carved with the words, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, and it seemed so odd, it stuck in my mind. Who might have chosen a verse like that to carve into a bench? What would other people think of it? Who might I find sitting there, and what thoughts would be running through their mind? It was too rich a vein not to use.
Then, while on a house-hunt proper, I looked around an otherwise empty building to find a narrow cupboard with an old black suit hanging inside it. So the questions began again: Who might have owned such a suit? When would they have worn it, and why was it kept when everything else had been thrown away?
It’s an odd thing when elements you think of as background start to shape a story, but it’s one of the most satisfying when it starts to come together and you think ‘Ah, so that’s why it’s there.’ It’s a difficult thing sometimes, to let go a little; it can be more comfortable to write when the plot is all worked out in advance, and I can stick to the map, knowing exactly where I’m going. Leaving the path is scarier, but it’s good to let the imagination wander a little. The things you find along the way can be all the more rewarding.
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Lady Gaga, meet Bill Gates.
When readers ask where I get the ideas for my books, they’re sometimes surprised by the answers. Sure, I’m inspired by true crimes or by dramatic set-pieces — like Jonathan Stride coming home to find a frightened teenage girl hiding in his bedroom closet in THE COLD NOWHERE.
But inspiration comes in odd places, too. When I was developing the plot for SPILLED BLOOD — which won the award for Best Hardcover Novel in the 2013 Thriller Awards — I knew that I wanted the book to start with three girls coming together at midnight in a remote ghost town for an emotional, volatile confrontation. However, I didn’t know exactly what would be happening in that town until I heard a song by Lady Gaga on the radio. She sings about Russian roulette in the song “Poker Face” — and when I heard that line, I immediately knew that SPILLED BLOOD would start with a twisted game of Russian roulette.
In SEASON OF FEAR, the first kernel of inspiration for the plot actually started with Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Everyone knows Mr. Gates is one of the richest men on the planet.He’s also intent on putting his financial resources to good use.Together with his wife, he created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work on charitable initiatives around the world. The Gates fortune is sizable enough on its own to create a huge nonprofit organization, but several years ago, another wealthy billionaire, Warren Buffett, announced plans to donate much of his estate to the Gates Foundation.
The result so far: a charitable organization with an endowment exceeding 40 billion dollars, more than the assets of some countries.
That’s all good. Isn’t it?!
Well, you have to think like a thriller writer. I have nothing but respect for the work of the Gates Foundation, but when I hear stories like this, my mind tends to dwell on unhealthy possibilities. Imagine an organization with almost limitless resources and essentially no accountability to the public — an organization capable of wielding huge amounts of money for its own ends.
Yes, those ends may be good — but at what point is there a temptation to believe that the ends justify the means? How far would such an organization be willing to go to get what it wants? And who could really stop it from crossing the line?
That’s the theme that led to SEASON OF FEAR.
In the new book, Florida detective Cab Bolton (who first appeared in THE BONE HOUSE) is hired by a wealthy political organization called the Common Way Foundation to investigate a brutal assassination that killed its third-party political candidate ten years earlier. The foundation is afraid that the same extremists who killed their leader in that assault are back — and that they are plotting a new wave of violence.
Cab knows the head of the foundation. Years earlier, they had a secret affair. That’s why he agrees to dig into the old murder to see if she’s in jeopardy. But he’s also dogged by the feeling that he is being manipulated at every step of the investigation. The Common Way Foundation says it wants to bring common-sense solutions to a broken political system, but its opponents see ruthless opportunists who will do anything to get power.
In that shadowy world, Cab doesn’t have anyone he can trust. The more he uncovers secrets about the assassination ten years earlier, the more he realizes that the motive was very different from what the police originally believed — which makes the present even more dangerous.
So SEASON OF FEAR started with the idea that power can be a scary thing, even in the hands of people with the best of intentions.
After all, you may trust Bill Gates...but years from now, he’ll be gone, and the foundation will be richer than ever. Who will be running it then?
Sounds like a thriller.
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Stay With Me by Sarah Pinborough will be published on December 26, 2014 by Gollancz.
A heart-breaking, heart-stopping tale of love, life and death which will take your breath away. This is an exceptional, contemporary, heart-breaking novel.
The Death House is a home where, in a world where people are safe against illness, children and teenagers who are susceptible to terminal conditions are sent to die.
Their fates are certain. Their lives are in their hands. The question is: what will they choose to do with them?
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Thanks to a series of recent publications by Faber Books, European readers finally have a chance to check out one of the most exciting American authors of detective thrillers with a legal twist, Alafair Burke. Her much loved Ellie Hatcher series, which is now up to its fifth installment, started in 2007 with “Dead Connection” has been especially great because despite her panache for writing a good, engaging story, Burke also managed to create very humane characters which are extremely easy to get attached to. Her legal background also means that her stories feel believable. It is this latest fifth installment, "All Day and a Night" which marks Faber's first foray into the world of Ellie Hatcher. Most importantly, despite being fifth entry in the series, All Day and a Night can be read as a standalone novel. It is also a particularly strong entry in the series so far and as such serves as a perfect jumping point for new readers.
"All Day and a Night" finds NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher on a investigation into Anthony Amaro, a convicted serial killer serving live sentence for murder of five women. When DA’s office is notified that the publicity hungry trial lawyer is looking into Amaro's trial, together with her partner her partner, JJ Rogan, she's brought to a case late into proceedings by Assistant District Attorney Max Donovan with a purpose to provide a fresh look into the investigation that led to Amaro's conviction. On the other hand, young defense lawyer Carrie Blank has a separate interest into Amaro's case. Carrie's sister Donna was murdered (allegedly by Amaro) and as the evidence comes to light suggesting Amaro has been wrongfully accused, Carrie decides to prove his innocence. She wants to force the government to catch her sister's real killer. It's a long-winded complicated case going back years and the amount of contradicting evidence is staggering but but as the trail of evidence leads the investigation to Carrie's hometown thing suddenly become more complicated. Carrie is brutally attacked. It is obvious that somehow she came too close to the truth and now it's up to Ellie to pick up the pieces.
If you've never read any of Alafair Burke's exciting thrillers, you notice straight away the cinematic quality of her work. It is all too easy to imagine any of her novels unfolding on the big screen and "All Day and a Night" is no different. The story moves with gut-wrenching precision and its many twists and turns have a tendency to leave breathless. As always, her characters are well developed well and I've particularly enjoyed the interplay between Ellie and Rogan. Another riveting read by Burke.
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Review copy provided by Faber Books.
Sequels, eh? Never as good as the original.
So, how did I approach my literary equivalent of Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow? With gay abandon, gentle reader, it’s the only way…
In the first book, The Clown Service, I had established the work of Section 37, the UK’s most unloved intelligence department. I had also introduced its staff: ancient spy August Shining and his new officer Toby Greene. The book had been London-centric, had featured a thick vein of sixtes flashback courtesy of Shining and reminded readers that not all literary spy heroes have to be faultless action men: Toby suffered from panic attacks and terrible lapses in confidence.
So book two needed to build and ring changes. There’s no fun in repeating yourself.
My first rule was to get out of London, second was to show how Toby has grown in the space between the two books, third was to set the entirety of the book in the present day, no flashbacks.
Perhaps this sounds awfully like a shopping list but I always approach books in term of tone. I want to know how the book will feel, what sort of environment it will inhabit, what will be the emotional shape of things? Once that’s in place, the melody if you like, I start to worry about the lyrics.
The other thing I wanted to do was bring some eerier elements into the mix. I wanted the threat to be creepy rather than explosive. The Clown Service was action-led, the horrors Section 37 faced were big and apocalyptic. Trying to top an apocalypse is just dull. For book two I wanted to dial it back a little. Let the geography of the book open up but make the threat a little more personal. What feels weightier in the end, the death of a fictional world or people you’ve grown to like? The latter I hope.
I had left a small problem to solve at the end of The Clown Service. I shall be vague so as not to spoil it but, while the adventure was complete I left a few threads dangling so I could hit the ground running in book two. Hopefully, that’s exactly what I did in an extended, unlabelled, opening sequence that takes place before the book starts ‘proper’. If I add this first line: ‘From the other side of St. Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession. It echoes like a musical sting from a trumpet, echoing around the buildings of St. Petersburg.’ I’m sure you’ll guess the mood I’m trying to create (I have been accused of everything but subtlety). If not I’ll also mention that Toby is wearing evening dress as he strolls into the Astoria Hotel, ready to do some damage before the opening credits roll.
From there we move to North Korea, back to London and then Warwick. Because Warwick is the most glamorous place on Earth.*
Originally I was going to use a foreign location but as the story developed, nothing fit quite like an old stately home so plans for a globe-trotting adventure were thrown out of the window (where they landed, conveniently in book three, ‘A Few Words for the Dead’, because nothing is ever lost).
I can’t deny the influence of Jacque Tourneur’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON so it’s no wonder the real location of Ragley Hall, where your noble word-botherer once earned a few quid performing Shakespeare to businessmen during corporate events (“Our revels now are ended…” “Too right, cock, so’s this wine, give the waitress a nudge would you?”) becomes Lufford Hall, where all the best children’s parties happen.
The South Korean conference that forms the novel’s backdrop was a gift. It was a perfect set up for me and, when looking into how realistic a notion it was, I discovered the UK had just concluded the diplomatic talks I had imagined. Moments like that are surprising for a fantasist. The world rarely — thankfully! — conforms to our imaginations.
I wanted a crowd for my climax so the nearby small town of Alcester is having it’s ‘Mop Fair’. A fairground that appears overnight in the streets of many Warwickshire towns for a few days a year. I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for a while, working as an actor and ghost tour guide. The morning I woke up to find a Ghost Train a pavement’s width from my bedroom window was the moment the town took its revenge. Nothing quite prepares you for the surreal experience of having to share your living space with a carnival, the walls shaking with the thrum of its motor, the windows rattling with its klaxons. My curtains smelled of candy floss and fried onions by the time the street emptied,
Writing is cookery, folding in ingredient after ingredient until the stew is cooked.
Stir, season, stir once more.
All of this bubbles away in my head, usually while I’m working on something else. The hope is that by the time I really have to get on with writing, enough of it will feel clear that I have a fighting chance of joining the dots and making it work.
I don’t do breakdowns, I never plan on paper, it’s all just a mess that clarifies (or doesn’t) as I go.
I often try and cause myself problems, writing situations that I have no idea how to resolve, just to make myself stretch a little harder. Frequently, the exception to this rule is when I get to the climax. Usually I will have imagined it as convoluted, when I get there I realise it would better if I made it simpler. It’s personal taste but I think climaxes should be felt more than thought about. A clever, contorted finale forces the reader to work whereas a climax that suddenly breathes, the fog clearing to reveal simple, emotional beats, a solution that wasn’t predictable but seems obvious once presented, that’s perfect to my mind.
I always find the actual writing stressful and vaguely unpleasant. I’m a grumpy sod for the duration, only really happy at the beginning when I’m dreaming up new adventures for my characters to endure. That’s probably because I make it hard for myself. I work better when I’m wound-up.
Write quickly, be messy, take risks, run towards the interesting, even if you don’t know how you’ll make it fit. Then come back afterwards and clean up all the dead bodies.
Then comes the strange moment where you look at your completed book and decide if it’s quite the same thing you imagined it would be before you began. It never is. You start off cooking a curry and then present yourself with a roast dinner. That’s fine, as long as it’s still edible.
Bits of the book always end up surprising me, hopefully that means they’ll surprise the reader too. The Rain-Soaked Bride doesn’t end at all how I expected it would.
I’m never quite sure how I feel about a book once completed. I have a vague idea as to whether it’s successful or not but I’m too close to be objective. The editor will let me know of course, but even then it’s only when the book is released and people start reading it that I really know.
Which means it’s all down to you lot, doesn’t it?
*Not remotely true, though it is lovely.
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The Peripheral by William Gibson will be published on October 28, 2014 by Putnam Adult.
Where Flynne and her brother, Burton, live, jobs outside the drug business are rare. Fortunately, Burton has his veteran’s benefits, for neural damage he suffered from implants during his time in the USMC’s elite Haptic Recon force. Then one night Burton has to go out, but there’s a job he’s supposed to do—a job Flynne didn’t know he had. Beta-testing part of a new game, he tells her. The job seems to be simple: work a perimeter around the image of a tower building. Little buglike things turn up. He’s supposed to get in their way, edge them back. That’s all there is to it. He’s offering Flynne a good price to take over for him. What she sees, though, isn’t what Burton told her to expect. It might be a game, but it might also be murder.
Some time around the year 2020,in a trailer park in the Deep South, a young woman witnesses a murder. She is in a video game, and watches with horror as a drone strike kills a child.
At precisely the same moment, one hundred years in the future, a boy is remotely killed on the streets of London's great skyscrapers. The perpetrator remains anonymous.
Interweaving two strange futures, from a ramshackle community of US army veterans, to the teeming masses of a mega city, The Peripheral tells the story of a brave new world of drones, outsourcing and kleptocracy, and of a crime that can only be solved across time.
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Following "The Death of Bees" was never going to be easy but by page 13 of her second novel "Closed Doors", Lisa O'Donnell effectively stunned all her doubters to silence. This particular scene, both sad and shocking, stirs up emotions in a way that only a master storyteller could achieve. It's a bold opening and a huge gamble, especially when you remember the kind of opening her debut had, but in this case paid off handsomely. I've felt shivers going down my spine. I was frozen with terror and, in turn, was completely gripped.
Our narrator is 11 year-old Michael Murrey who upon hearing commotion downstairs goes to find out what happened. Once there he find his mother covered in blood, screaming at the top of her voice. Father explains to Michael that his mother was jumped at by a flasher in the park and that while running away fell and hurt herself. However, we, as adult readers, know straight away what really happened. She was raped. Telling such shocking tale through Michael's innocence while at the same time managing to gett the point across to her adult readers is done stunningly and the only other book that comes close in creating such oppressive atmosphere is Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Following on from this horrific event, story unfolds further in sequences. In equal measures we continue to learn about Michal's life. He's preoccupied with everything a boy his age would be. There's suddenly girls in his life and being better than his mates at the talent show held the neighborhood still weighs heavily on his mind. For most of the time he's completely unaware of the the drama that's unfolding in front of his eyes in his household but he has his suspicions that something is terribly wrong. His parents are doing their best to keep him shielded and they're doing relatively fine job but then again, they've went one step further and also decided to keep the whole thing secret from everyone else. Michael's mother Rosemary even refuses to go to the police and instead chooses to reinvent herself, pushing herself into work, redefining her looks, the whole lot. But it was not set to last. Michael soon discovers the truth and is having really hard time handling the situation. This is an already tender age for him and his emotions are suddenly all over the place. In the meantime, another woman is raped and left to death and now Rosemary must finally decide whether she'll break her silence and speak.
"Closed doors" is a just about perfect title for Lisa O'Donnell's second novel because ultimately it is a tale about the power of secrets and the way they can hurt or even kill. Beautifully plotted and realised, it is also a devastatingly humane read about adult world as seen through the eyes of a child and the loss of innocence that inevitably soon follows.
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Review copy provided by Harper Collins.
The best thing about working in the book business are advance copies. Not because they're anything special as such (they sometimes are) but because they give you a chance to read a book by your favourite authors well in advance of all the reviews and media coverage. It is like you're in your own bubble, experiencing the book with an unspoiled pleasure. The feeling never gets old and it is simply unbeatable. So imagine my delight when I had the chance to read Lauren Beukes' new one. As I've often mentioned on these pages, I've been lucky enough to stumble upon her Moxyland by accident and have never looked back. Since Moxyland days, Lauren's career has reached new heights with each subsequent book culminating with her tour-de-force The Shining Girls which made her a veritable intentional literary sensation. So will Broken Monsters continue the trend?
Well, if my memory serves me right, Broken Monsters was mentioned in interviews even before The Shining Girls was announced so it was probably a long time in the making. While some ideas take time to mature some can get overcooked. Luckily, Broken Monsters is a case of former. It offers a immaculately planed, razor sharp experience which reads like a sister book to The Shining Girls. Similarly genre-bending, Broken Monsters is set in Detroit and follows Detective Gabriella Versado as she encounters the strangest case of her career. In a city that's breathing violence on daily basis, nothing much shocks but the series of part-human, part-animal corpses are pushing the envelope. On the other hand, Gabriella daughters has ideas on her own. She's on a crime-fighting project that goes horrible wrong. The cast ensemble is completed by freelance journalist Jonno who's permanently on a lookout for his big break and TK who is slowly learning to accept being homeless.
Brilliantly setting the story in Detroit, decaying behemoth of American industry, Broken Monsters doesn't stray too far away from the actual truth. The streets of Detroit, if many documentaries and blogs are anything to go by, are unimaginably like a dystopian idea of post-apocalyptic city and despite everything people still continue living. Everyone is barely scraping just enough to live by but there's still vibrancy and incredible art all around. And then there's plenty of violence and psychopaths, but there's also acts of immense kindness. Beukes captures this atmosphere perfectly and through the voices of its many residents, the city and the story itself slowly unravel in way that simply shocked me.
By the time you reach a completely unexpected ending, Lauren Beukes' "Broken Monsters" will frighten you. It will push you over the edge, chew you up and spit you out with unflinching brutality but you won't regret reading it for a single second. It is a superb thriller which breaks completely new ground for Beukes whose imagination seems to have no bounds.
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Review copy provided by Harper Collins.