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.
"In the Beginning Was the Sea", debut novel by Colombian novelist Tomas Gonzales was originally published in 1983 under the title "Primero estaba el mar". The story goes that Gonzales wrote his novel while working as a barman in Bogota nightclub and that its owner published it. Straight from the start it was a huge success because it transpired that, similarly to another great Colombian writer, Gonzales was able to evoke the most powerful emotions just by using words. Therefore it was with great anticipation that I awaited this latest Pushkin Press translation and “In the Beginning Was the Sea” didn't disappoint even though it wasn't exactly what I expected it to be. In Frank Wynne's wonderful translation Gonzales' horrific version of life on a remote island came to life impeccably.
Based on a true story, "In the Beginning Was the Sea" follows the lives of J. and Elena, young intellectuals who decide to leave behind their ordinary lives filled with parties to try something new. Moving to a remote island, J. and Elena have an idea to lead self-sufficient and naturalistic existence. They're so smitten by this Utopian idea that they enter the whole project completely unprepared. Only a few days in, the doubts set in and each day reveals new troubles. Soon the idea of paradise reveals itself for what it really is. Just a vapor dream.
It is at this point that Gonzales' writing skill comes to the front as their very lives are slowly unraveled up to a point when their ingrained experiences are all but gone. In a brilliantly executed turn of events, J. and Elena themselves are becoming one with nature and quickly forgetting all the values learned while being part of the civilization. They're effectively reverting and behaving like savages.
I absolutely loved beautifully sparse descriptions which somehow always show more than they really tell but "In the Beginning Was the Sea" is as good as it is because Gonzales manages perfectly capture the idea of isolation that surrounds our couple. The island serves both as an instrument and as means of pushing the point across and as I turned more and more pages the sense of dread and looming catastrophe was palpable. With a masterful eye for detail, Gonzales teases the reader with what coming only to move away again and again. And the pages go on... This symphony of dread will repeat many times over the course of the book and while I wasn't overtly sympathetic with any of the characters, I needed to go with the flow despite suspecting how it will all end.
"In the Beginning Was the Sea" is a fascinatingly dark character study. It is an unflinching, and pitch perfect trip into the dark heart of Colombia and hippy culture in general. It is above all a powerful debut and it'll be interesting finding out where Tomas Gonzales next.
Not to forget: I never get tired of saying how stunning Pushkin Press publications are and "In the Beginning Was the Sea" is not different. With their famous French flaps and beautiful illustration by Robert Frank Hunter, it is a thing of beauty.
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Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.
The easiest way to complicate your book promotional campaign is to include a sentence printed in huge font proclaiming that the book in question is as good as a recent genre dear. But you can always do one better. You can compare the book to two of them and that's exactly what happened to "The Queen of the Tearling" which was straight from start touted as female Game of Thrones and as good as The Hunger Games. Lo and behold, the endless stream of negative reviews suddenly appeared saying that it's simply not true. Whether "The Queen of the Tearling" really is on par with these two behemoths is completely irrelevant. What matters is that all those reviews should simply be ignored because they don't judge the book on its own merrit but rather compare it to an unattainable idealistic view of said two books. When you distance yourself, "The Queen of the Tearling" is pretty fine book and I can perfectly understand why there's already a movie in the making with none other by Emma Watson attached to play the lead.
However, at its very beginning I was a bit worried that its detractors were absolutely right. The story opens rather generically. Kelsea Glynn is the sole heir to the throne of Tearling but is living in secrecy after her mother, Queen Elyssa, a stereotypical evil queen as you'd have them, was murdered. For the next 18 years The Tearling is ruled by her uncle who is hardly any better. He's nothing but a pawn of the Red Queen, a tyrant ruling the neighboring realm of Mortmesme. When on her 19th birthday Kelsea comes out of hiding with a handful of supporters, she's basically swimming against the current. On one hand she has her mother's legacy to upturn, while on the other people simply don't know who she is. But then again, everyone reckons that anything is better than her incompetent uncle so her campaign quickly gains traction which sets her straight on the collision course against the Red Queen.
Despite the heavy responsibility that lies upon her shoulders, Kelsey is anything but your regular hero. Her sheltered existence means she's completely unprepared for what's to come and her naivety often means that she's unwillingly used by others. Her land is in total and utter chaos and this certainly shows in the way the events unfold. The fact that she's suffering from severe case of lack of self confidence doesn't help either. She's 19 years old and what's refreshing in a ways she's written is that she's acting her age. She's not wise or clever. She's just your regular 19 year old, over-dramatic and full of sentences that don't really mean anything. Of course, she's full of contradictions as we all were at that age. And here's where we come full circle. The Queen of the Tearling is not a meticulously planned as Game of Thrones and certainly lacks its depth of politics, alliances and violence. It also doesn't do "one person against the world" aspect as well as The Hunger Games. So the questions begs itself? What's it for? Well, if you move yourself from the expectations and accept a few of its flaws, it is a surprisingly fine read. The story moves glacially slowly but in this case that is not a criticism as it is very immersive. I've also loved its quasi-European medieval setting which just hits at the post-apocalyptic background without ever explaining anything. The characters are really engaging and I've found Kelsey's insecurities much more realistic than some other literary insecurities, if that makes sense at all.
To conclude, if you move yourself away from Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games comparisons and take your time to scratch underneath the surface, you'll discover that there's plenty to enjoy in Erika Johansen's debut. "The Queen of the Tearling" simply delights with its literary allusions and carefully thought out setting and while I must admit that using certain fantasy clichés is bound to annoy some readers, I found that I was completely immersed in the story. Of course, no question that some aspects of it could be better that then, what book is absolutely perfect? Personally, I think Johansen has plenty of potential and it'll be interesting seeing where's she'll go next. Until then, don't believe the hype and give "The Queen of the Tearling" a go - you might just be pleasantly surprised.
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Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
My journey to the North Pole began in ancient Greece. It took a while to get there.
I’d just finished my last novel, The Orpheus Descent. It dealt with the philosopher Plato, and the sun-drenched world of southern Italy and Greece. Now I was interested in another Greek, a man called Pytheas. Not as well-known as Plato, but they share a distinction: both contributed mythical places to the landscape of the western imagination. Plato described Atlantis; Pytheas went one better and actually visited Ultima Thule, the frozen landscape at the northern end of the world, where the semi-frozen ocean was neither land nor sea nor air, and the sun never set in summer. The most likely date for his journey is around 325BC– well inside recorded history – but where he went is anyone’s guess. Norwegians, Icelanders, Shetlanders, Greenlanders and Faroese have all claimed Thule for themselves. The book Pytheas wrote about his expedition, On the Oceans, survives only in quotations from other authors.
A real-life adventurer who left no records except a few elusive fragments. A lost world, imprecisely identified. An ancient mystery. All the ingredients for the sort of book I like to read and write. I could see it clearly: a companion piece to The Orpheus Descent, time-slipping between modern Arctic explorers and their ancient counterpart, Pytheas.
But there was a very practical problem. A time-slip novel relies on some connection between past and present, some place or artefact that survives to bridge the world. And out on the Arctic ice, nothing survives. The far north is a frozen ocean, forever moving; freezing and melting, splitting and crushing, spitting itself out into the temperate seas to be annihilated. So how does an artefact get there, let alone hang around for two and a half thousand years?
There are obvious ways around it. Think of your favourite Arctic thriller, if you have one, and chances are good it revolves around something from space. Meteorites, crashed satellites, crashed spaceships – perhaps a portal to another dimension. All fine. But I didn’t want to litter the Arctic with another crashed satellite, and I’m not good with aliens or interdimensional beings.
History isn’t history unless there are people to write it, structures and monuments to bear witness. Most of the Arctic is effectively a history free zone. Fast-forwarding through a couple of months of frustration, I finally accepted that there was no way I’d write a historical adventure about a place with no history.
(In fact, it’s quite possible: Dan Simmons’ The Terror is about as perfect a historical novel as you could wish for. But that wasn’t where I wanted to go.)
But by now, I’d read so much about the Arctic I was hooked. I’ve always been what the American essayist Anne Fadiman calls an ‘Arctic hedonist’ – a lover of snow and ice. Now I had the opportunity to go all in. As a novelist, I loved the white space the Arctic provided, a blank storytelling canvas I could fill in with whatever I wanted, nothing more. As a thriller writer, I liked the claustrophobia of the locked room mystery, an isolated environment where the killer has to be on the inside. And as someone who’s never lost his childlike wonder at all things wintry, I wanted to write about the snow.
So I decided to ditch the history. That was a revolutionary move for me. Zodiac Station is my twelfth book, and the first with absolutely no historical element. Instead, I worked with what I’d found. From my reading, it quickly became clear that the Arctic is the planet in microcosm: a fragile environment that’s liable to collapse if temperatures continue to rise; an unclaimed land where America and Russia and Europe play geopolitical power games; a place with untapped oil, gas and minerals that multinationals would love to grab; a potential sea-route crucial to bringing cheap goods from the far east to western consumers. With so much at stake, I knew there’d be plenty worth killing for.
I read all the polar exploration books and memoirs I could find. I familiarised myself with Arctic science, which replaced history as the factual scaffolding I could construct my story around. I spoke with men and women who work in the Arctic, and heard some hair-raising stories.
Best of all, I went there myself. As far north as I could, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, which is about as close to the north pole as you can get without having to put on skis. I drove snowmobiles, lost a small piece of my nose to frostbite, crawled through glacier caves and abandoned mines, got lost in a whiteout, and learned what kind of gun to use if a polar bear charges you. It was one of the best weeks of my life, a landscape of mountains, snow and ice that haunted my dreams for weeks afterwards.
I still want to write about Pytheas. I will, one day, when I figure out how to do it.
But for now, I’m very glad I found my way to Zodiac Station.
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The origin points of stories has always fascinated me. When I teach writing I often ask my students to recall that spark that led to their thesis project. I loved reading, years ago, M. Night Shyamalan’s inspiration for The Sixth Sense—not, as we might suspect, “what if a boy could see dead people,” or “what if someone was dead and didn’t know it,” but simply a sudden drop of temperature when he went to get a bottle of wine from the basement, and what if that heralded a ghost? My novel Temporary Agency grew from a single sentence, originally intended for something else entirely. “When I was fourteen, a cousin of mine angered a Malignant One.” I wrote that, and re-read it, and suddenly an entire story unfolded in my mind.
More recently, I have been writing a series of novellas about a shaman for hire in New York, named Jack Shade. The idea came when I was listening to an audio of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The title refers to a 999 line poem by a certain John Shade, whose daughter had been fascinated by the paranormal, but then killed herself. Somehow, I combined this with an old TV Western, Have Gun, Will Travel, and a world came to life.
The Child Eater weaves together two previously published short stories, “Simon Wisdom” and “Master Matyas,” both of which appeared in a collection I wrote of adult fairy tales, The Tarot Of Perfection, published by Magic Realist Press. The two stories were linked, and thus could be said to be part of a larger whole even before I expanded those links into a single novel. But still, each had its own moment of creation.
“Master Matyas” is the simpler, and perhaps more striking of the two. I collect, and write with, fountain pens, both modern and vintage. All my books are written by hand, in large journals, and then transcribed/edited onto computer. The writing is done exclusively with fountain pens. Most people who collect vintage (antique) pens prefer them without an inscription, but I enjoy seeing the name of the original owner. One day I saw a listing for a 1920’s gold pen from the Wahl company, my favorite brand. The seller said it bore a name, but not what that was. I bought it, and when it arrived saw, in art deco block letters, “M. Matyas.”
I looked at this and immediately thought of the character and the title, “Master Matyas.” He would be a great wizard, but what was his story? Somehow I imagined him as reaching the highest levels of magic and then falling even further than he rose.
To look further I turned to a Tarot deck. This is an old practice of mine. The great novelist Italo Calvino described the Tarot as “a machine for constructing stories.” If we forget or ignore the supposed “meanings” of the cards—Tarot cards originated in the early 15th century, but there was no list of meanings, divinatory or otherwise, until the very late 18th—we can use the pictures to spark story ideas. I might have done an actual reading for my mysterious Master, but I preferred the more direct method.
I chose The Golden Tarots of the Renaissance, a modern deck built around a handful of cards that are all we have from the earliest known pack. Because the fragment precedes all other Tarots the artist filling in the rest of the deck was not constrained to follow any official tradition, and thus could create a series of striking images. I pulled several cards but the one that caught my eye—and this is the point, to let yourself be caught—was the Ten of Coins, a picture of a half-naked man holding a large key and floating in the night sky above a cow and a constellation of coins. I thought of someone, a boy, living a miserable life, poor and abused, and then suddenly one night seeing something so strange that it would forever change his life. A flying man.
Simon’s story did not spring from something so concrete as a name on a pen. Instead, its roots lay in Jewish folklore and magic. I have been fascinated by Jewish myth for many years. Unlike certain traditions, the Celtic, for example, Jewish magic has been largely unexplored in modern fantasy.
The particular story that inspired Simon concerns an odd detail in the Book of Genesis. When Jacob marries Rachel, and they leave her father’s household, Rachel makes off with some objects called teraphim. This so disturbs Laban, the father, that he chases after them and accuses Jacob of stealing his precious—something. The thing is, no one actually knows what that word means, just that they were small enough for Rachel to conceal them in her palanquin (and scare Daddy away from searching her by telling him it was her “time of the month”). After this scene, the teraphim are never mentioned again.
The most common guess for the term, the one found in most modern translations, is “household gods.” In other words, idols. But Rachel is the revered “mother of Israel.” How could she have been an idol worshipper?
Over the centuries a daring idea developed. Suppose they were not idols, but something more practical? Oracles. Talking heads. The image of a head that can predict the future, as if it might consist of pure mind, without the limitations of a body, appears in many traditions. But how to make such a thing? Here is where it gets truly strange.
People came to believe that an evil magician might lure away a boy just before his bar mitzvah—when he would contain great spiritual energy—behead him, and then use magical spells so that the head would remain alive, but with oracular power. Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking “Seriously? They consider this better than idol worship?” But this is the quality of story, that it somehow takes off from its point of origin, and twists and turns and becomes something wholly of itself. And this is what happened with “Simon Wisdom.” I conceived of a modern child, disturbed in some way, and thus a target for an evil wizard posing as a doctor.
Along the way, the wizard—my character, now—no longer sought simple knowledge, but something more basic. Eternal life. One way to understand child abuse is to see it as the attempt to steal the life energy of someone young and vital. And yet, the theme of oracles remained, for when I imagined what crisis my child might be facing that would lead his father to be so desperate he would surrender his son to a mysterious “doctor,” what came to mind was unwanted psychic powers. A boy who can read minds and desperately doesn’t want to.
In the novel, this quality becomes enhanced. Simon does not simply know what people are thinking. He can hear, and sometimes see, something far more terrible, the agonized cries of all the children who have gone before him, the victims of the Child Eater.
In the novel, as compared to the original short story, this theme became a greater part of Matyas’s tale. Like Simon, whom he will never know of, let alone meet, Matyas dreams of a gray man with a stone knife. But Matyas’s psychology is more complicated, for unlike Simon, whose father is ignorant but loving, Matyas comes from a history of violence. This has led him to a sense of the world as his enemy, and the belief that he owes nothing to anyone. When on his quest to discover the secret of flying he uncovers what is perhaps a much greater secret—the hidden name of the Child Eater—what will he do?
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Mitch Benn's debut novel was improbably great. Starting from the extremely unlikely way it was written and published and by considering Benn's other work (which I love but that didn't mean he's comic talent would translate well to fiction), I didn't expect much so I was completely caught by surprise. Terra was a charming story which came with hints of Dahl, Pratchett and Adams but was ultimately more than just a homage - it was much better than the sum of its parts. It's no wonder that this time around I was eagerly anticipating Terra's World. If I understand correctly Terra's World was written straight after Terra and Benn was putting finishing touches to it just as Terra hit the shelves so understandably everything you've loved or hated about Terra is still here. Terra's World is a full fledged sequel and this was an extremely good news for me because as you probably realise by now, I've loved Terra to bits.
The story follows in the aftermath of Terra's return to Earth where she revealed to humanity that there are aliens all around them. Her life is filled with peril and there's attempts on her life aplenty. One of these failed attempts unfolds in an unexpected way leaving Terra with a spaceship and means to return to Fnrr. Ironically on Earth the reveal that aliens exist meant that that sci-fi as genre must change and evolve. Not much use it being an preferred escapism instrument when the whole trope has actually turned true. No one feels more disappointed than Billy Dolphin, a sci-fi fan extraordinaire, whose life is suddenly turned upside down. (Un)luckily for him, he soon becomes embroiled in topsy-turvy world of Terra. For him, Terra's world is hard to handle. Suddenly Billy must accept spaceships, AI's and everything he used to read about. It's funny in a way because he suddenly has a chance to be what he always dreamed about - a spacetrotting hero with a fate of an alien world on his shoulders but it's simply too much. Results are all but predictable. In all honesty, Billy is anything but a hero and he's falling to pieces with this new responsibility. In his own clumsy way he's a lovable and charming character who when faced with trouble with certainly do his best - it's just that his best is often not up to scratch. He's a great introduction to a cast of Terra's characters and I've enjoyed his sequences as much as Terra's which says something.
With warm and accessible writing, Mitch Benn has once again surpassed all expectations. Terra's World feels like a love letter to science fiction literature and his razor sharp wit delights. And it's damn funny. A truly excellent sequel.
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Review copy provided by Gollancz.
During my first five years in London, my own life swung between living around and in absurd poverty, whilst also working for the grotesquely wealthy every day. I lived above an old East London pub and worked in the private apartment blocks of Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Marylebone as a porter and night-watchman; low paid, uniformed, security work at the very bottom of the career ladder in grand apartment buildings populated by some of the richest people in the world.
I put myself into that situation to get the headspace and the time to write, and to read. I was putting away five books a week, reading a broadsheet every day, and subscribing to three literary journals. In one month on night shifts, I read Saul Bellow’s complete works. In another building I read dozens of books about the history of Britain. One week it might be philosophy, another week the Roman Empire. I probably took the equivalent of four masters degrees in my reading during those years.
My time was my own, and every writer worries about time. In one building I was probably ‘busy’ with porter duties for twenty minutes each day – giving keys to maids, and calling the odd airport car service. The other eleven hours and twenty minutes of every shift were my own. I wrote four erotic novels while actually at work as a porter, and finished and endlessly rewrote Banquet for the Damned on the job. The residents in one building even called me “the writer in residence”. So I saw this work as a practical way of achieving basic financial security and the freedom to be a writer, not as a hunt for material to write about. But the environments I was experiencing were so fascinating, and the experience often so demoralising or comical, that they became the only thing I could write about at one stage. And this often happens with downshifts – your experience down there becomes overwhelming. The original title of the novel was, Down Here with the Rest of Us.
The people I worked with, and the residents I worked for, were real characters too – in that tiny bit of London high society you can still see the London of Wodehouse, Waugh, Maugham, Greene, and Sitwell, even Dickens. Uncannily, when researching Oswald Moseley and the British Union of Fascists for Apartment 16, I discovered that Moseley and Diana Moseley had actually lived in the one building I had worked as a night watchman. I also remember one resident being stolen by a tramp – she was an invalided heiress and worth over 100 million pounds; another high profile guy got locked out of his penthouse with a towel wrapped around his waist, with a Russian call girl at his side, a girl who would dress as a secretary and announce herself to me on arrival as “a business associate”; I once fell down a flight of stairs with a very expensive painting and nearly put my knee through it; I ate food from a royal kitchen, every night in one building - five courses brought downstairs by a monarch’s private chef (it took me eighteen months of running around Hyde Park to shift my belly afterwards). I carried shopping for international crooks hiding in London, and took the garbage out for Sheiks.
I had a great many adventures, and sadly watched part of a fascinating generation of real old school ladies and gentlemen die. You’d be amazed how many people live to a hundred in those places, while keeping every mental faculty. I even began a memoir at one point, a Porter’s Confidential, but the six agents I approached rejected it – one saying it was “too sinister and too dark”. What do you want from me?
So it was hyper real; a literary fantasy; larger than life; an old school writer’s adventure. In the end, how could I not write about it? I also wanted to deconstruct the English novel’s love affair with high society; it’s one of the reasons I tend to favour the American novel; I’d grown tired of the social aspirations, the social climbing, the obsession with wealth, status, and profile in middle class English fiction; so I made British society utterly bleak and grotesque at every level through a kind of Francis Bacon anthropomorphism.
But I actually never once minded going to work as a porter once I switched to day shifts, and I worked days for my last three years in the job in Mayfair; and I have never experienced that before or since in careers in television or publishing. I hate conventional work; I dread it. I’m not lazy, quite the opposite, but it’s the pathological competitiveness of the sociopathic that wears me down in the creative media. As a porter, there was no need or place for ambition; it was a soothing sabbatical.
Those years were the second stage of my right of passage as a writer too, and I guess Apartment 16 has that feel about it; it was the modernist novel about a creative outsider that I just had to get out of my system. When I sat down and began writing about those years, the novel just burned its way out. I consider myself very lucky to have had it published at this level.
The book also came out of a paranoid, enraged, morbid, but often euphoric mind-set that I naively cultivated in myself during the first two of those five years in London when I worked as a night watchman. Revisiting that time many years later, and the collection of fragments I had written at night, the actual writing of the novel was cathartic and very satisfying. It was much easier than enduring the two years of sleep deprivation that inspired the book. And because the story came out of a difficult period of my life, in which my perception of the world tilted, the novel always felt ‘real’ and especially vivid to me, as if I really had something to write about as opposed to just striking something out of my imagination to entertain readers. Though I do remember watching a lot of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm when writing the book, so maybe that was my way of coping …
To give some background about that period of sleep deprivation, from 2000 to the end of 2001 I was never awake during the day, rarely socialized, and was near floored by exhaustion; put yourself through that, let your mind turn on itself, and you never know what you will start to imagine. I completely unraveled myself at one point; hovered above a dark and terrifying place at times. But it enabled me to write about another level of horror, fusing the supernatural with madness. I did start to hallucinate from sleep loss. Some of the scenes in Apartment 16, when Seth tries to escape from London and his visit to a supermarket are drawn from those experiences. Apartment 16 would not have had the same impact, or carried the same force, had I not gone through that difficult period. I wrote fragments of Apartment 16 back then, but weaved them into a coherent narrative much later. But it gave me the whole idea of a character glimpsing a radically transformed world, that no one else could see, while the character also wonders whether his vision is a truth, or the evidence of a tormented mind staring back at itself? I was excited by the idea of only being capable of seeing life as a continually shifting and changing set of Francis Bacon paintings.
My coping mechanism was switching to day shifts in 2002, and reintegrating myself back into a more normal existence. It took about two years to fully recover from that time though. To give some context, the book was such a loose and amorphous collection of dreams, images, fragments, notes, I produced seventeen drafts over nearly four years up to 2009 in order to make the book internally consistent and fluent. But this book is for real. It was forged in despair and hewn from compulsion.
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A lot has been said about the fact Anna Caltabiano has written The Seventh Miss Hatfield at tender age of 17 (it is her second novel already) but personally I don't think it's necessary to go on about the fact and underestimate young adults. If you look at the history of literature some of the finest classics have been produced by astonishingly young authors. Perhaps the main deference back then was that internet, mobiles and social networks were absent so young people had too much time on their hands but who really knows?
In any case, achievement or now, straight from the start it is definitely obvious that The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a product of modern age. The press release explicitly mentions the huge twitter following that Anna Caltabiano currently has and the novel itself is bursting at the seams with currently trendy cliches - there's time travelling, 15 year old heroine bored with life and mysterious stranger with a hit of trouble love on the horizon. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when some 50 pages in, Anna seemingly stopped with the onslaught of these predictable tropes and instead decided to change direction, opting out it only to create something which at times resembles a proper period drama.
And things started so obviously strange. Rebecca, a 15 year old American delivers a misplaced package to her next door neighbour and stays for a drink only to leave the place with an immortality. So in a turn of events she effectively becoming the next Miss Hatfield. As the events unfurl, Rebecca travels back in time to New York to steal a significant painting only to get stuck in an wealthy Beauford household. In fact it is this exact painting that holds the key to the story and without succumbing to too many spoilers, a fine story it is.
The pages flew by fast and while i can't say this was even nearly the best book I've ever read, I've really enjoyed it. Admittedly, there are some flaws that have to be mentioned: the language is at time forcedly descriptive and the story itself could do with a fewer cliches but all in all, I think Anna has done well. The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a short and sweet read which can only get better in subsequent installments. I think I would have liked it even more if there was a little less hype surrounding it so if you're living on an island without internet, mobiles and social networks, you're definitely in for a treat.
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Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Despite notionally revolving around the occupation of judge, which in Italy has a very different and wider meaning that in the UK, three short novellas presented in this extraordinary collection by MacLehose Press are actually thematically linked by deeply passionate desire for justice. As you are probably aware Italy is a pretty special country. Its serpentine bureaucracy, regional sense of pride and rich history of its city states have indirectly led to creation of a society where the officials are more often than not corrupted and free market is not exactly free but is actually shaped by family cartels organized like proper businesses. It's just a state of affairs and something you'll quickly learn to accept if you ever spend a longer time living in just about any Italian town or city. Just occasionally someone will appear who will actually try to shake things up, only to eventually reach a sorry end. You all probably know the sad tale of antimafia judge Giovanni Falcone, who after dedicating his life trying to overthrow Sicilian Mafia was then assassinated by the Corleonesi Mafia. All three stories in "Judges" deal with similarly idealistic, larger than life characters stuck in an Don Quixote-ian struggle against mafia and corrupted officials. It just happens that they're judges as well.
Opening story Judge Surra, nominated for this years CWA Short Story Dagger, is written by Andrea Camilleri, best known for his Montalbano series. As you probably know by now Camilleri is vocational opponent of corruption and mafia and his novels are filled with social commentary which despite its lightheartedness often strikes straight into the heart of the matter. Judge Surra is no different. The story takes place in nineteenth cetury Montelusa, where newcomer Judge Surra arrives from Turin. Surra is a brilliant character, permanently on the edge of being either a genius or a village idiot. He's permanently ruminating about food and soon upon arriving to Montelusa discovers that there exist certain procedural errors and missing case files in four recent trials related to local bully. The story that follows is delightfully funny but also comes with a very serious message. Simply brilliant.
Second story in the collection Carlo Lucarelli's La Bambina is a much darket affair. Set in Bologna in the 80's it chronicles how Judge Valentina Lorenzi accidentally discovers a far reaching money laundering conspiracy in which some very high officials are involved. Soon an attempt is made on Valentina's life leaving her in hospital hanging by a thread. The story continues in a very troubling and all too believable fashion. The innocents are killed and soon Valentina will have to make some very hard choices. Will she cross the fine line between the law and order in her quest for justice? I've found the ending all too surprising and was completely astonished when I realised that the entire story is only some 60 pages long. There's easily a novel worth of story, twists and emotions here. By the way, you might know Lucarelli for his brilliant series of Inspector De Luca novels. If not, I urge you to check them out.
Third story in the series is written by Romanzo criminale's Giancarlo De Cataldo so I was naturally expecting a lot from it. The Triple Dream of the Prosecutor is simply extraordinary and upon finishing it my only regret was that the title prepared me for what was to come. In a story resembling a nightmarish version of Groundhog Day, prosecutor Ottavio Mandati is dreaming through the night before the trial of his life. In the morning he'll finally have the chance to put away Pierfiliberto Berazzi-Perdico, a corrupt mayor of Novere who has his entire life slipped Mandati's grip. In a way Mandati is obsessed with Berazzi-Perdico even since his school days when Berazzi-Perdico has beaten him in classroom headboy elections by using bribery and intimidation. The Triple Dream of the Prosecutor is a fascinating and, often, frightening story which, after relatively lighthearted Judge Surra and serious La Bambina, feels like a further descend into darkness.
Similarly to latter Montalbano novels, all the main characters in these stories are increasingly dispirited by the state of things but just can't accept them. They're willing to fight for justice until the sorry end and I must admit I found their idealism simply infecting. I've loved spending my time with these three judges and I certainly recommend that you give this collection a go. Judges is a short but extraordinary collection, one that showcases some of the finest writers in modern Italian crime literature while at the same thing exploring the very things that made them write in the first place.
Order Judges here:
Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
As long as I can remember me and Teffi had a troubled relationship. It all started in my rebellious teenage years when I was literary devouring all things postmodern, including Russian masters and whatnots. One day Teffi just appeared out of nowhere. It must have been one of those huge anthologies of Russian literature but I can't really remember. All I know is that straight away I fell in love with her charm and satire. Behind clever laughs there was a sense of profound sadness and in just a few pages she managed to be critical of social circumstances without being judgmental. I wanted to read more but pretty soon I've discovered that Teffi was a huge question mark. Apparently once upon a time she was one of the most popular short story authors in Europe but since then she fell into obscurity. Any translations of her work were impossible to find. Over the years I stumbled upon a story here and there (Penguin readers come to mind) but, to be completely honest. I've completely given up on her. I don't know neither Russian or French and there was next to no chance that someone will commission a new translation.
Well, by now I should have known better. "Subtly Worded" (what a superb title!), just published by Pushkin Press as part of their superb Pushkin Classics line which among others brought back to life works of Gazdanov and Zweig, is simply out of this world. Touching her entire career, it is a treasure trove for anyone willing to discover the beauty and immense charm of Teffi and her stories. The collection itself is chronologically organised and as you do, starts with her more satirical stories which more or less chronicle the life of pre-revolutionary Russia and its society. At the time Teffi, real name Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Lokhvitskaya, was admired by many, including Tsar Nicholas II. She was often described as the most popular writer in Russia before the October Revolution and it is easy to see why. Her direct approach would be subtly critical but very funny and would have a way of getting under the skin of all echelons of society. Her two meetings with Rasputin make a particularly extraordinary and sobering reading.
However, it was not to last. The society changed and soon Teffi was forced to emigrate from Bolshevik Russia to Paris. Stories from this age represent the crucial turning point in her literary development and signify the turn to a more experimental and serious part of her career. Despite being part of the Russian enclave in Paris, Teffi always felt isolated - being a stranger in a foreign country - and up until her death she never fully integrated. This will leave a permanent mark on her writing and soon, apart from still being as funny and incredibly sharp as always, her stories have gained a surreal quality. When Teffi died in 1952, she left behind herself an immense amount of work but, sadly, as the time moved on, she was gradually forgotten. It a sad state of affairs so you can only imagine how happy I was when I found out that "Subtly Worded" was coming out. And that's not all, her importance is slowly being recognized once again in Russia.
"Subtly Worded" is a dream come true. As is always the case with Pushkin Press, the book itself is beautifully produced piece of work, and once again they have had the courage to take a chance with an unjustly neglected author. Not it's all down to you, dear readers. I can only hope that you'll have courage to discover wonderfully strange, fiercely intelligent and side-splittingly funny literary storm that is Teffi.
Order Subtly Worded by Teffi here:
Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.