REVIEW : When the Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi

 

These days I am seeing immigrants everywhere. Those poor souls that were forced to leave their homes for fleeting chance at a better chance of better life in Europe. It soul shattering seeing so many hopeless young people and knowing that their dreams probably won't come true. Nadia Hashimi's powerful and evocative "When the Moon Is Low" explores this theme in the only possible way. With compassion and understanding. It is one of those rare book that has the tendency to go straight for the heart of the reader, never to release its firm grip until the final full stop. Not dissimilar to her debut, "The Pearl That Broke Its Shell", "When the Moon Is Low" is often hard to read and yet, behind all of the agony and sadness, it is a celebration of the strength of the human spirit told through the prism of some of the most harrowing experiences imaginable.

"When the Moon Is Low" charts Taliban rise to power through the eyes of an ordinary people. Before their country is thrown in the chaos of war, Mahmoud, a civil engineer working for the Ministry of Water and Electricity and his beloved wife Fereiba, a schoolteacher, lived a comfortable and slightly boring middle-class life in Kabul. It all changes when one day suddenly authorities come for Mahmoud. Ultimately, he is murdered by the fundamentalist regime, and Fereiba is forced to flee the city, together with her three children. In an act of desperation, she is forced to undertake a perilous journey from Iran to Europe, all in hope of reaching her sister's family which lives in England. Her voyage there is marked by profound desperation to stay together and to survive. In all of the despicable evil, there are occasional glimpses of kindness which give everyone hope and strength to continue, even as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Once she arrives in Greece using false documents, bribed and sheer determination, Fereiba's troubles are only just beginning as her son Saleem is separated from her and she's forced to make an impossible decision. She has to continue going forward and leave him behind, if she wants to have a slightest chance of saving her other children and herself.

Hashimi masterfully builds her story by using two contrasting realities - one before the Taliban and one after they came and ruined everything. "When the Moon Is Low" is a heart-wrenchingly sad tale that will leave you breathless and will often reduce you to tears. More importantly, it will definitely change the way you look at all the immigrants arriving on European shores on daily basis. Perhaps you will even manage to gain a deeper understanding of their desperation and their need for better life, and give them a chance. "When the Moon Is Low" is an important and a topical book, especially in these times where media is so quick to judge everything and immigrant-phobia is hitting an all-time high. I can't recommend it enough.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : Steeple by Jon Wallace

 

"Barricade" by Jon Wallace was one of those reasons why it is always worth to give new authors a chance, even at a time when your favourite author has just published a veritable door-stopper that you are just gasping to read. To put it bluntly, Jon Wallace's debut was a proper statement of intent. An opening that promised a lengthy career filled with equally exciting rides. Needless to say, I was rather excited about “Steeple”, a next installment in the series which promised more adventures with Kenstibec set in the dystopian madcap version of Britain that Wallace built around him.

For those who have missed "Barricade" (shame on you!), the main protagonist of the series is a slightly psychotic individual named Kenstibec. He's a member of the Ficials - a genetically engineered human who after failing to fulfill his true purpose works as a taxi driver driving around his enemies. Understandably, he's often a cynical and bitter character blessed with a wicked sense of humour. In "Steeple" Kenstibec is dealing with consequences of his actions and is dead set to save his own life after the tech that kept him alive is finally starting to fail. To do that, he must climb a towering hulk looming over London which, if the legend holds true, contains a mysterious treasure. A thousand storey tower is called Steeple, and Ken undertakes this desperate quest together with it associates Fate and Bridget. It's a mission filled with peril and quite unlike anything else he has encountered so far. His journey is filled with claustrophobic crawlspaces and dangerous impossible creatures such as another murderous Ficial and an occasional cannibal. Similarly to "Barricade", "Steeple" revolves around a journey. However, this time around, the story itself is rather more self-contained which is ultimately a good thing because it provides plenty of opportunity for character development and introspection without any need to sacrifice the action packet sequences.



"Steeple" is just like its predecessor an absolutely furious affair. It finished way too fast and too early for my liking but that is really not a serious complaint because "Steeple" is in almost everything superior to "Barricade". For starters, Wallace's Britain is finally showing its true colour. It is a strange place that only a twisted mind could think off. There is a hidden, new found depth in the overall setting and evident hints of a bigger picture that will probably reveal itself in the future. Even Ken's dark sense of humour comes with a fresh nuance to it so he's becoming more likable even as he's becoming more sinister.

To conclude, as was the case with "Barricade", the biggest problem with "Steeple" is the wait that you have to endure once you're done with it. Next one, please?


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

Like most debut authors, when I came to write my first crime novel I drew on an experience from my past. It’s often a small incident, something that remains perpetually unexplained, that provides the impetus to finally start the book you’d always wanted to write.

Walking to school one day in 1982, I was asked by a woman driving past to post a letter for her. She then tried to force me into her car. I was a fairly hefty schoolgirl and streetwise. There was no way I was getting into a strangers vehicle. But the incident stayed with me for years. I never told anyone because I was ashamed and embarrassed But I always wondered, probably morbidly, what would have happened if I had got into the car. "In Bitter Chill" opens with two schoolgirls encountering the same incident but taking up the offer of a lift. I thought it more likely that two girls would get into a stranger’s car and I also made the children younger than I had been, eight years old rather than twelve. I think at that age you still have a trust of adults that disappears when you reach adolescence.

In my novel, later that day one of the girls, Rachel, is found alive but is unable to remember anything of her kidnapping. The other girl, Sophie, remains missing which has a devastating impact on the local community. I grew up in a small town where there was one high school, a small shopping precinct and one doctor’s surgery. You couldn’t walk down the road without encountering someone you knew. A child’s kidnapping could devastate a small town such as this and I wanted to portray how a community could draw in on itself after such a catastrophe.

My protagonist, Rachel, is the child who was found alive in the 1970s and has grown up and become a genealogist. I find family history fascinating and am particularly interested in the matrilineal line and stories which pass down from mother to daughter. It’s a part of genealogy that can be overlooked because the names of women, if they marry, change each generation. The emphasis on the female line also allowed me to explore another preoccupation of mine. I’m convinced that women can be very good keepers of secrets. "In Bitter Chill" suggests that Rachel has inadvertently chosen a profession that holds the key to why she and Sophie were kidnapped.

But I also chose genealogy as a profession for Rachel because I love the idea of a private detective unpicking the clues of a mystery. But they’re hopelessly unrealistic: most of us have never encountered a PI in real life. However, there are a number of professions that have, at their heart, the skills of an investigator. I think that a genealogist is one such career and Rachel has all the talents that can help unravel what happened to her in the past.

"In Bitter Chill" is set in the Derbyshire landscape. I wanted to reflect the severity of the winters where I live but I didn’t want the setting to be a bolt-on to the narrative. Rather, I like to think the story couldn’t be set anywhere else. The idea of a frozen landscape also reflects the bleakness of how a mother might feel if her child remains forever missing. Landscape and story are inextricably linked. But Derbyshire doesn’t remain cold all year round. In my next book, we move onto spring and the challenges that this season brings. A warmer climate but, perhaps, more fragile.


Sarah Ward
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REVIEW : Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

 

The only possible way to approach "Go Set a Watchman", an impossible book that completely unexpectedly saw the light of day a week ago, is to learn something of its strange history. Despite depicting events that happen decades after Harper Lee's landmark, and until now, the only published novel "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Go Set a Watchman" was actually written before the former. It originally remained unpublished mainly due to the efforts of Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, who recognized what was really at the heart of the novel and asked Lee to rewrite the book before the publication. Lee went away and came back with "To Kill a Mockingbird", a very different book to its predecessor. From that point, "Go Set a Watchman" was instantly forgotten, its manuscript was lost and the rest is part of the literary history. That is, until now. The circumstances surrounding the discovery of a long-lost manuscript for "Go Set a Watchman" are still shrouded in mystery and provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. They occasionally read like an implausible story concocted by Dan Brown and yet, I am holding a copy in my hand and the fact simply beggars belief. Apparently, the manuscript was accidentally found in a Lee's safe by her lawyer Tonja Carter. To make things even stranger, Carter stumbled upon the very same papers years ago but ignored them, thinking they were just another early draft of Mockingbird. Recent reports mention the existence of another, partially finished manuscript of unknown origin so we might still be in for a surprise or two.

Things become even more surreal when you actually start reading "Go Set a Watchman" and try to compare it to "To Kill a Mockingbird". The transformation from one to another is simply unfeasible. While former is told in third person and depicts Atticus Finch as old and racist, as you probably know, the later changes the entire focus of the story and gives him an unforgettable voice - a voice capable of changing the entire society for better. It is especially bizarre reading how all across the board the story flows together with its successor. It almost like its publication was planned. More surprisingly, it is staggering how strongly it resonates with the current racially charged events in the USA. The disillusionment of its characters stands in stark contrast to the hope of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

I have read on more than occasion that the publication of "Go Set a Watchman" takes away a bit of the shine from the wonder and the phenomena that "To Kill a Mockingbird" had as a single published work by Harper Lee but that is clearly rubbish. Lee never pretended to be a one-book woman. There exists at least another few of her manuscripts that were never published because she simply wasn't satisfied with any of them, and basically didn't want the furore that came with fame and publicity. This pressure was the main reason she became a recluse and she has been escaping its grasp for ages. There's "The Long Goodbye" and a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer to mention two. As such, "Go Set a Watchman" an important historical literary document. It is definitely not a book that has the ability to surpass "To Kill a Mockingbird" and at worst it is a curiosity that gives an unique glimpse into the creative process of one of the most important and secretive literary authors of our times. At best, it is simply wonderful. As the publisher rightly says, it exists to bring fuller and richer understanding of its author and her beloved characters.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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The story behind Friends in High Places by Caro Peacock

Emperor Napoleon’s nephew invades France on a Thames steamer.
Cross dressing woman opera singer runs spy network.
Liberty Lane investigates murder.

Of these, only the third is completely untrue. Liberty Lane is my early Victorian investigator, and fictional. But Prince Louis Napoleon really did attempt a coup in France in 1840, hiring a steamer in London and landing at Boulogne with fifty armed supporters and a tame eagle (or possibly a vulture) on board. The attempt failed and he was imprisoned, though he did go on to become president, then emperor, of France eight years later, but that’s another story. As for the operatic spy, she was real too, a friend and quite probably lover of the prince. Her name was Madam Gordon, and she was born Eleonore Brault, daughter of an officer in Emperor Napoleon’s army. She was tall, beautiful, a good swordswoman, ruthless in the prince’s interests and according to one biographical source was his secret agent in both London and Paris. I’ve added some episodes to her life for the purposes of this book, but none beyond her talents and interests.

Writing historical crime novels is, for me, a balancing act between real events and fiction. My main character, Liberty Lane, is a young lady from a politically radical background who finds herself alone, with a living to earn, and discovers a talent for investigation. I tend to alternate the books between cases where she is involved in real historial events – like the aftermath of Prince Louis’ failed coup – and more domestic ones. For both,when I start thinking about a book I’m usually aware of the year and the month when the action will take place – sometimes not much more than that - and often start by looking at newspapers of the period. Partly that may be professional habit because I was a journalist before I wrote books. Of course many nineteenth century newspapers are now available on line, but I like to find libraries where they keep the papers themselves. Turning the pages of a newspaper that somebody would have read at breakfast in the time you’re writing about gives a real sense of immediacy. I had a dim memory of Prince Louis’ invasion attempt from history lessons a long time ago, but looking at it again, it seemed such a wonderful mixture of courage, bungling and sheer farce that I knew I wanted Liberty to be involved somehow. The problem was that she couldn’t be part of the attempt itself because at the time Louis was taking to his steamer, she was working on a case in Gloucestershire (in The Path of the Wicked). But the repercussions went on for some time, so I invented two refugees who’d escaped arrest after the attempt at Boulogne and got back to London. One takes refuge with an aristocratic friend of Liberty’s, who is naturally annoyed to find him hanging by the neck from her loft. That aristocratic friend, Lady Blessington, is another real character with a past so colourful it would have been hard to invent. And Benjamin Disraeli, at this time still only an ambitious MP, makes an appearance as he does in most of my Liberty Lane books.

One of the things that became clear as I was writing is that London in the 1840s had resemblances to the London of today. It was a lively time in Europe, with revolutions threatening all over the place, and London had become a refuge for exiles, plotters and malcontents of all kinds. This naturally led to a dense network of spies, with the various interests keeping watch on each other and a still fairly new Metropolitan Police force doing its best to keep up. As Madam Gordon says: ‘It would be a positive insult not to be spied on by two or three of them at least.’

My rule is, when writing about real historical characters, not to have them behave worse in my fiction than they did in real life. In Friends in High Places that still gives me quite a lot of latitude.

Website: www.caropeacock.co.uk
Twitter: @CaroPeacock


Caro Peacock
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The story behind Code Grey by Clea Simon

In “Code Grey,” the ninth Dulcie Schwartz mystery, my heroine, Dulcie, is back once again in the library. It’s spring break, but she’s so close to finishing her doctoral dissertation that she can taste it. With her boyfriend and all her buddies out of town for the week, Dulcie figures she can focus on work: the research and writing that will, she hopes, get her the PhD in Gothic literature she’s been woring toward for more than five years.

It’s not like she’s going to be lonely. In addition to her cat Esmé (aka the Principessa Esmeralda), she can also count on the support and companionship of Mr Grey – the ghost of her late, great cat who returns from time to time to advice and comfort her. Only, on her way to the library, Dulcie runs into a disheveled former scholar. And when he ends up in the hospital and accused of stealing a rare book, Dulcie – and Mr Grey – are honorbound to speak out.

The Dulcie Schwartz series, with its ongoing involvement in both cats and academia with a touch of paranormal, might seem like an unlikely matchup. But the series, which started with “Shades of Grey,” was prompted by a real-life incident, one which I’ve never been able to explain.

Like Dulcie, I think of myself as supremely rational. No, I’m not a graduate student (as she is), but like her, I’m an inveterate bookworm. Also, like her, I’ve settled in my university town and love the research resources that I can delve into to enrich my personal and fictional literary lives. And like Dulcie, I spent most of my single years in the company of one very special cat, Cyrus.

My Cyrus – the model for the series’ Mr Grey – was a grey long-hair, with a face more Siamese than Persian, and an uncanny ability to suss out my moods. He would be playful when I needed amusing, quietly comforting when I needed nothing more than someone purring at my side. And when I was trying to work out a problem – in my fledgling love life or career – he would fix me with his cool green eyes as if he were both trying very hard to understand me and also to communicate. He would have had very wise things to say, I’m quite sure, if he could have just bridged that species communications gap.

He lived to the ripe old age of 16, and after he was gone, I missed him terribly. But life went on – and I tried to incorporate that sense of calm wisdom. Not that I was very good at it, and one day, as I was rushing off to a job interview, for which I was already late, I was sure I saw him. He was a very particular-looking cat, so distinguished, and there he was, sitting on the stoop of a house not far from me. It was him. It had to be him – but I was late, and the adult choice was to keep going, although I was curious what he had to say to me. After the interview, I went back and searched for him – or for any cat who might faintly resemble him. I never found him, and I became convinced that Cyrus had appeared to tell me something, if only I had the wit to know what. I do not remember if I got that job.

What I did get was a driving desire to write a story in which a young woman sees her late, beloved pet one more time. And that he does speak to her, warning her that something terrible has happened….

That’s been the driving theme behind the Dulcie Schwartz series: books and cats and a good mystery. Not too bloody – we wouldn’t want to scare the cats – but with some good puzzles to keep us reading. Ideally, with a warm cat right near by.

Clea Simon writes the Pru Marlowe pet noir and Dulcie Schwartz feline mysteries. She can be found at www.cleasimon.com and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.


Clea Simon
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Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks : July

 

When Grendel is drawn up from the caves under the mere, where he lives with his bloated, inarticulate hag of a mother, into the fresh night air, it is to lay waste Hrothgar's meadhall and heap destruction on the humans he finds there. What else can he do? For he is not like the men who busy themselves with God and love and beauty. He sees the infuriating human rage for order and recognises the meaninglessness of his own existence.

Grendel is John Gardner's masterpiece; it vividly reinvents the world of Beowulf. In Grendel himself, a creature of grotesque comedy, pain and disillusioned intelligence, Gardner has created the most unforgettable monster in fantasy.

A minstrel lives by his words, his tunes, and sometimes by his lies. But when the bold and gifted young Thomas the Rhymer awakens the desire of the powerful Queen of Elfland, he finds that words are not enough to keep him from his fate.

As the Queen sweeps him far from the people he has known and loved into her realm of magic, opulence - and captivity - he learns at last what it is to be truly human. When he returns to his home with the Queen's parting gift, his great task will be to seek out the girl he loved and wronged, and offer her at last the tongue that cannot lie.

Award-winning author Ellen Kushner's inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, here is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift.


Review copies provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

 

Sarah Ward is one of us. She is part of that insane crowd of people who are not satisfied by mere reading and instead almost pathologically just have to scream and shout about their love of literature. All of the time. Her author's note unapologetically labels her as an online book reviewer and I can't help but feel a little bit proud to be holding her book in my hand, despite never having met or having any connections to her. She managed to cross the Rubicon and to become a published author, and a crime author at that. Crime fiction is notoriously competitive field but early signs that Ward was onto something with her stories came in early 2014 when Faber snapped two of her books. Good news continued with her being announced as one of the 2015's Amazon Rising Star and judging by "In Bitter Chill", it is easy to see why Sarah's writing is so appreciated. "In Bitter Chill" doesn't feel like a debut novel. It's instantly gripping and feels confident not only because Sarah knows which buttons to push when she wants to capture reader's attention.

The story opens up as Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer are called to the Wilton Hotel. A body of a woman has been discovered by a chambermaid but as the forensic officers examine the scene they discover that, what initially seemed like an ordinary suicide, hides a more sinister note. Placed on the chest of drawers is a book, full of newspaper cuttings and photographs, all pointing to a cold case from 1978. On 20th January, 1978, two girls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Rachel eventually returned but Sophie was never found. The woman who killed herself some thirty years later was in fact Sophie's mother.



"In Bitter Chill"is an interesting creature. Partly crime thriller, and partly psychological, emotional rollercoaster that borders on family drama, it is a cracking reading experience. I wouldn't go so far as to classify it as a book fitting a "Lifestyle/Health" category as Faber labelled it in jest or by mistake in their online shop but there's certain reinvigorating quality in its complexity. I have stormed through it in mere two days and was surprised by its well developed, three dimensional characters that are both strong and fragile, and by its story that flicks back and forth in time without ever revealing too much information. With its carefully paced tension, Sarah Ward's debut is without a question one of the best crime thriller debuts of the year. Well recommended.


Review copy provided by Faber Books
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REVIEW : Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

 

By now Matthew Quick has profiled himself as an author of quickly life-like tales about the protagonists whose lives I wouldn't want to share, but about whom I really enjoy reading about. It is clear straight from the synopsis that his latest novel "Love May Fail" is no exception. It promises an encounter with a ragtag characters such as sassy nun, an ex-heroin addict, a metalhead little boy, and her hoarder mother, all set around a Portia Kane's quest for finding hope and love in midst of a raging mid-life crises.

At the beginning of "Love May Fail", Portia Kane finds herself in a position where hope and love are the furthest things from her mind. She has just caught her pornographer husband in flagrante with a girl half his age and as she ruminates whether to kill them both, she suffers a complete emotional breakdown instead. In a bid to reclaim her life she decides to do something worthwhile with her life. She remembers Mr. Nate Vernon, an English teacher who the single person in her life who was always kind to her and who is going through a life patch as well, and so she returns home. After a classroom incident, Mr. Vernon is currently living a lonely existence in retirement, with his dog (brilliantly named Albert Camus) as his only conversation partner and copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, it is alcohol that plays a surprisingly central part in "Love May Fail" and it almost feels like our protagonists drink themselves well. It is definitely an interesting idea. Eventually, Portia effectively bullies Mr. Vernon from the edge of suicide.

"Love May Fail" will definitely appeal to Matthew Quick's constant readers. There's plenty of characters in it who are well thought out and complex enough to grasp your attention. There's even a decent amount of silliness that almost always follows Quick's books. This time it's Vernon's mother Sister Maeve Smith, a dead nun who writes letters to her son from beyond the grave. The elephant in the room is that "Love May Fail" doesn't really compare well to "The Silver Linings Playbook" but I don't think that was ever the intention. At the heart of it, "Love May Fail" is a very enjoyable tale and a fantastic way to pass the time. It is definitely good enough to hold its own ground against the rest of Quick's bibliography and due to its rather unique quirkiness I wouldn't be surprised if it was eventually made into a successful movie.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : Leica Format by Dasa Drndic

 

For the last ten years I have lived in Croatia and if there is one rather strange thing that I will always remember about my time here, it is the fact that Croatians don't especially like those who have managed to find success in whatever it is they're good at. There is even a proverb that literary wishes for the neighbour's cow to drop dead. It is damningly bizarre thing to understand. Therefore it is no wonder that news about Dasa Drndic's rise were few and far between, even when "Trieste" was at the height of its success. Lucky for all of us, Drndic has surpassed the humble Croatian literary scene and found a global fame and respect so June sees her latest translation to English in print, this time of "Leica Format", her meditative psychedelic masterpiece that's rather hard to explain in few sentences.

"Leica Format" is best described as a series of meditative passages loosely woven into a tale that touches upon malleability of history and memory. Taking its name from a legendary camera format most famous for making documentary photography, you can hardly find a better title for what is presented here. "Leica Format" is like looking at a series of photographs but those from ages ago that we forgot. There story itself is re-built around the scene and as neurons that raiding our memory banks, you never really know which of the details will finally reveal the whole picture. Fragmented text strewn all through the book goes a step further to reinforce the feeling of loss and melancholy.

In my opinion, "Leica Format" is a lot harder to approach than "Trieste" but don't let that put you off. If you dedicate it enough time, you will realise its depth, allegories and hidden message, if that's the right word. I imagine it was an incredibly hard book to translate but having read the original, I can only say that Celia Hawkesworth has done a superb work. "Leica Format" is one of those books you won't forget in a hurry. It's experimental and original, and I'm really pleased that another great novel from one of the finest Croatian contemporary authors has seen the light of day as an English translation.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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