I was really eager to read "Astra" as I've loved "Seoul Survivors". Despite it's shortcomings, Naomi Foyle's debut showed that she has a knack for writing engaging stories. "Astra" shares the same qualities and marks a definite improvement but admittedly comes with its own, luckily, rather small, frustrations. Touted as a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale, "Astra" revolves Astra Ordott. She is an ordinary Is-Land child and is looking forward to doing her bit for the society. At the very beginning Astra is only 7 years old and is living in idealized, sheltered environment where she is indoctrinated by her surroundings. So she wants nothing more than to have her Security Serum shot, enter National Service and defend her homeland from Non-Lander spies. Her society is are the in possession of advanced technology but are doing their best to live closer to nature. This is the Earth of the future - one where humanity is living in the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe which left the surface barren and devastated.
However, as the years go by her black and white view changes, first through the workings of her Shelter-Mother Hokma and then with the arrival of orphaned wild child Lil. Astra is shocked by what she learns about the world. The actual truth about Is-Land and Non-Land is much more complicated and Astra must face the consequences. Saying anything else would spoil the enjoyment but let me just say that Naomi doesn't fail to provide many unexpected twists and turns. As before she doesn't shy from tackling important, and more often than not, disturbing issues.
Since "Astra" is only the first part of the trilogy it doesn't offer a complete picture. Naomi has left plenty of avenues to explore but luckily that doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment because the presented story is pretty much self enclosed. The main issue I had with the book is that I found the extensive use of prefixes really distracting (Or-Kids, Is-Land, Non-Land...). I understand that through their use Naomi wanted to emphasise the duality of the world she imagined but I found the whole thing rather confusing. Having said that, in general I've really enjoyed "Astra" and while I'm still waiting for her masterpiece to come, Naomi Foyle became one of those stable authors I'm always looking forward to reading.
"Astra" is a complex and daring literary story which provides great basis for the rest of the series.
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Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
It’s a question I’m often asked these days: Jack, what does a singing detective, a flying saucer and an actress gassing herself to death got to do with coconuts?
A few years back I’d published The Adventures of Baron Schalken,a swashbuckling gothic romp set in a speculative Napoleonic world and was incredibly passionate about it. Unfortunately nobody else was. I knew it was going to be a struggle – new genre, unknown author, battling against a stereotyped Thailand – but nothing prepared me for the massive disappointment. Put my soul into it. I figured that if you’re going to invest all that time, hard graft and love it should be into something you’re passionate about otherwise what on earth was the point? I mean, really. But instead of writing a Siamese adventure maybe I should have written that crime novel after all.
About six months after Adventures sank I read an article about Elmore Leonard the best-selling author. Not getting anywhere with his cherished Westerns, he’d gone to his local library to see what people were actually into. Yep, shelves stacked with crime books. So he switched to crime, sold millions of books and Hollywood turned them into hugely successful films. I also knew there was an established market for crime novels set in Thailand, invariably about bargirls and expats. And then there were the ubiquitous ‘I’m a Westerner in Thailand Having a Uniquely Surreal Experience’ sort. Whatever the merits of these books, if I was going to write a crime story then it still had to different.
So I flew back out to Hungary, beat a path to my favourite café in Pest, parked myself in the corner, ordered breakfast and got to work. Now what new kind of crime story to write? The spec obviously included Thailand, Zen Buddhist elements and, err, crime. Yes, well. And that was it. I had fragments but just couldn’t think of anything else! Couldn’t move it forward at all and ended up getting incredibly frustrated and depressed (no surprises there then); the weeks passed and not even a credible main character. And then one of those strange things happened.
Back at Heathrow airport I bumped into a friend of mine I hadn’t seen for ages, back from Japan and determined to return some things he’d borrowed. It wasn’t a big deal but I appreciated the thought. A week later a box full of DVDs arrived in the post, including the BBC award-winning drama TheSinging Detective. It centered on a tormented writer who is confined to a hospital bed and forced to confront his past, with the action swinging between present and imagined past. Yes, suddenly I had a frame narrative and a lot more besides. The nurse gave me the idea for Miss Fromm and I loved the idea of vintage music – Merv Griffin’s I’ve Got a Lovely bunch of Coconuts should have been in it– ironically counterpointing the action. And then there were the clothes, pulp books and postmodern sensibilities. And it was very British, very darkly comic. I had the makings of a story.
It’s amazing how the process works really. It’s like you can’t find what you’re looking for but then a spark, an idea or a chance encounter just releases the floodgates. Ideas zooming around in my head at all hours of the day and night. The challenge is to harness it all into something coherent – a pen and paper by the bed is a must! I can’t sleep properly and always end up exhausted at the end of the process. Detective was the catalyst but I still needed an actual plot. So I re-supplied my comprehensive drinks cabinet, armed myself with fresh notepads and pens, and spent the next three weeks going through my collection of noir films – and nearly drove my wife mad in the process. I eventually settled on a plot that incorporated conspiracy, murder and blackmail with all sorts of unexpected twists. The story would have a British rather than American edge; more Brighton Rock than Double Indemnity, and the comedy music hall rather than Vaudeville.
As luck would have it, around this time my former psychiatrist gave me a copy of Mathew Sweet’s wonderful Shepperton Babylon, all about the lost world of British cinema. This was a gold mine of scandal, secrets and forgotten films and stars of the silent era, such as the cockney actress who committed suicide after her career nosedived into obscurity. I loved the idea of a long-forgotten British silent film shot in Bangkok and decided to incorporate this and other morsels into the story.
For the setting I decided on wartime Siam in the forties. In the summer I returned to Bangkok where I explored old streets, stared up at telegraph poles, peered through broken windows, persuaded a few aging souls to part with their secrets and generally got stared at. I also read old newspaper clippings, bought Martin Booth’s Gweilo about his childhood in fifties Hong Kong and re-read A Woman of Bangkok. I drew all this together to create an exciting urban setting, based on real places and events.
Now enter stage left – Orson Milo Palmer, the main character in the story: a part-time Buddhist, contradictory, funny, violent and perpetually disappointed. He’s based partly on the Singing Detective and that great icon of American noir, Robert Mitchum. I also put in one scene where Palmer is paid for sex, in order to subvert the usual male-female power roles in Thai fiction. I realised pretty early on that I was missing a killer female. But I replaced this staple noir ingredient with Miss Fromm in the frame narrative and Angel in the main action. No Pattaya bargirls or femme fatales, these two were much more interesting, complex almost surreal females of existential ambiguity.
I worked through a series of drafts but the novel still wasn’t quite ‘Jack fielding’ enough so I thrust the speculative elements into a higher gear. Now wartime Siam and the world in general wasn’t quite what it appeared at all. I deliberately avoided explaining too much but there were all sorts of clues, such as the bubble cars on the roads, the comic book stories with flying saucers over Big Ben, predominance of Italian companies and the geisha fashions of the dance hall girls. A speculative setting would be more interesting; I could explore values and morality in a subtly changed world. I could ask how it impacted on the social and everyday lives of people and not just the big geo-political picture. The central plotline about the mysterious Operation Agarthi was based on actual ‘what-ifs’ I’d researched. A real-life victim of murder makes an appearance in the story but is reincarnated, so to speak. In 1946 Margery Gardner died at the hands of sadist Neville Heath in a London hotel but we meet her in Zen City, still very much alive, having just arrived on a ship to seek her fortune out East. I also thought it would be interesting to make some connections with Shadows and Pagodas. So Abbot Od makes a number of appearances as Palmer’s confessor and spiritual adviser, there’s a ruined pagoda in a jungle where Palmer witnesses a scene from Shadows (inspired by David Bowie’s film The Man Who fell to Earth) and a Baron Parfizal-like character runs the city’s only blues and jazz club. The city has become a Zen-like stage where characters could enter and play their part
The title of the book and narrative style underwent all sorts of changes. The book started life as Call Bangkok 1313 then Palmer’s Gone East before I finally settled on Zen City, Iso. I chose Zen City rather than Bangkok to distance the novel from conventional Thai crime fiction, signal that the city is more than just a forties reconstruction and to highlight the Buddhist teachings underpinning the story. Iso comes from the Isetta Iso, that sleek little Italian bubble car Palmer covets. Another important evolution was the narrative itself. Initially, it was written in an incredibly sparse way without quotations marks in the style of Cormac McCarthy. However, I later changed this into a more accessible, conventional style although I retained the use of a first-person narrative to really draw in the reader.
And that is the story behind Zen City, Iso. Like my first full-length novel it’s been another amazing journey with plenty of surprises along the way and I’m really passionate about it. Honestly, I don’t know whether the novel will sell or not but I do know there’s nothing quite like it out there. As Orson Palmer said, “No one is more surprised than me.”
Zen City, Iso is published by Bangkok Books and available as an eBook.
There is a blog dedicated to the strange worlds of Palmer and Zen City:
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The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood be published on April 10, 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books.
Mire House is dreary, dark, cold and infested with midges. But when Emma Dean inherits it from a distant relation, she immediately feels a sense of belonging. It isn't long before Charlie Mitchell, grandson of the original owner, appears claiming that he wants to seek out his family. But Emma suspects he's more interested in the house than his long-lost relations. And when she starts seeing ghostly figures, Emma begins to wonder: is Charlie trying to scare her away, or are there darker secrets lurking in the corners of Mire House?
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There are times when the elements of a story come together to create what feels like the perfect storm. In this case it was a combination of character and place. I had visited the oasis town of Siwa a number of years ago and was enchanted by it. I’m not sure when I started thinking about a story for the next Makana Mystery, but even though I didn’t know what it would be about I knew it would be set in Siwa.
There is something special about the place, partly because of it’s location out in the desert. The isolation. The sense of a small, closed community appealed to me. A community will always try to protect itself, particularly from outsiders and so I liked the idea of Makana having to deal with a town that had secrets.
The first two Makana novels take place in Cairo which is almost the diametric opposite; noisy, loud, full of sound and fury. Siwa is quiet and still. The stars in Cairo are blotted out by the electric lights but in Siwa the sky is clear. This adds a certain mystique to the town. Then, of course there is the desert. Makana crossed the same desert when he came north from his native Sudan to find refuge in Egypt. I liked the idea of pushing him back to the borderline, where there was a real risk that he might end up being sent over the frontier.
The novel begins with the death of a young woman in a horrific fire above a shop in downtown Cairo. Makana suspects that a member of her family may have been trying to protect the family honour. The trail leads him back to the place where she came from – Siwa. Honour killings are a serious issue in many parts of the world. Women are brutally treated, sometimes killed, often by close relatives, men who, instead of protecting them feel they have a duty to defend the family name. It’s a tragic business and one that people often don’t want to address.
You never start writing a novel with all the elements in place. At least, I never do. Certain elements you know, and others you discover along the way. That’s part of the challenge, but also part of the fun. If there weren’t surprises along the way for the author its unlikely the reader will find any.
The Ghost Runner, like the other Makana books, is set at a precise moment in history, which means that certain exterior elements come into play, relating to what was going on at the time. Writing a Makana book is always something of an adventure. No matter how much planning you put into it there always comes a moment when you have to step off the edge and see if you can fly. Perhaps it’s not quite as dramatic as that, but it often feels that way!
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"Someone Else's Skin" by Sarah Hilary comes carrying a bold statement proclaiming it to be "the crime debut of the year". Now, crime is today probably the most read literary genre and the amount of titles published each month is truly staggering so the questions begs to be asked: what made the publisher go and say something like that? Is "Someone Else's Skin" really that good?
Story opens up with one of the most intense prologues I've had pleasure to read. Hilary captures it all - drama, sensibility and action. After just a few fast pages the stage is set for the rest of the book and I was hopelessly hooked. In women's shelter Detective Inspector for the Metropolitan Police Marnie Rome and Detective Sergeant Noah Jake find Hope Proctor's husband Leo lying stabbed on the floor. Hope is a resident and by rights, her husband shouldn't be anywhere near the home. As the investigation into the stabbing continues things quickly become more frenetic and increasingly violent with consequences for many. While, luckily, Hilary shies away from most gruesome depictions of said violence, these are all extremely shocking events not leaving much to reader's imagination.
Following in fine tradition of other fiction detectives, Marnie Rome ticks all the necessary boxes and comes with her own set of troubles from the past. Five years ago she arrived home to find her parents murdered by her foster brother Stephen and the experience still haunts her to this day. In scenes reminiscent of the second series of Bridge she's dealing with this situation by visiting Stephen to understand why he did it. Now, as events in this horrific case of domestic abuse finally start to unfold, Marnie has to face her own demons as well as solve the case before it's too late.
While nothing in "Someone Else's Skin" is particularly unique it is ultimately much much better than the sum of its parts. What sets it apart from the other run of the mill crime fiction is the writing. Hillary knows how to create tangible tension and she's perfect when it comes to capturing the emotion and intricacies of each and every character, be they the main protagonist or just someone from the background. I was so hooked with the story that I've just kept on hammered through the book until I've reached the devastating end. So while "Someone Else's Skin" might not really be "the crime debut of the year" it is a damn fine read and i can't wait for the next meeting with the ferocious DI Marnie Rome.
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Review copy provided by Headline.
You would think that after reading thousands of books I wouldn't be so easy to stun but after finishing "The Enchanted", debut novel by Rene Denfeld, I was left without words. This can be a problem when you have a review to deliver and the editor is sending you friendly reminders concerning looming deadlines. Luckily, dinner and glass of wine later and I'm capable again to tell you about this piece of fragile beauty called "The Enchanted".
Digging deep from her experience as a death penalty case investigator, Rene Denfeld sets her story in a dilapidated prison. We are introduced to York, a death row inmate who is counting the moments until he must face his execution and "The Lady", an investigator hired by York’s attorneys, who is doing her best to save him. However, all is not straightforward and as she starts discovering pieces of York's past she realizes the gut wrenching truth. Soon their stories become hopelessly intertwined with horrific consequences for both.
With a matter as troubled as this, it takes a fine writing hand to make it all seem so readable - to make characters so humane - and Denfeld accomplishes this feat with ease by detaching us from a whole story using another one. You see, "The Enchanted" basically contains a book within a book and our unnamed narrator and York's prison colleague is battling his confinement by weaving imaginary story about his surroundings. In his mind he's free to roam so, for example, he imagines magical golden horses running beneath the prison, little men with hammers, and creates a story starring everyone around him. It's a poignant and heartwarming exercise showing the way a social mind can break once it's held within four walls with little hope of reprieve.
In Denfeld's book the feeling of magical realism is overpowering and despite the inescapable and, by all means, troubling and sad facts surrounding death row reading "The Enchantment" becomes a bearable and wonderful experience. Somehow, Denfeld creates empathy for even the wretchedest of the characters and you can't help but feel sorry for what's inevitably coming from some of them. And that is the true strength of "The Enchantment" - the ability to find beauty and humanity in the unlikeliest of places.
"The Enchantment" might just be this year's "The Golem and the Djinni" - a courageous and wondrous literary tour-de-force that you won't forget anytime soon.
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Review copy provided by Harper Collins.
I'm not one of those writers who can produce a detailed plan of a novel and then fill it out, chapter by chapter. I usually know the beginning and the end of a novel before I begin, and a few places along the way that contain crucial turns of plot, but it's mostly a process of discovery. I know where I'm going but I don't know how I'm going to get there until I set out; as I learn more about my characters, they refuse many of the clever bits of plotting I've dreamed up, turn out to have their own ideas about what to do. After sprinting through a first draft, with its many diversions from the path I intended, there are several revisionary drafts where darlings are slaughtered, the narrative is deepened and reconciled with the story, continuity glitches are fixed, and the prose is tightened and polished. Each new stage is a collaboration with the last. I'm at the final stage in that process with Something Coming Through; this time last year, I was revisiting the three novels of the Confluence trilogy, working in collaboration with my younger self from 17, 18 years past.
When I was finishing the first novel, Child of the River, and was working on the first drafts of the second and third, I'd recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Fairyland, had just quit my job, and had moved to London. The second and third weren't triggered by the first. I'd already planned to resign from my job as a lecturer at St Andrews University before I won the award, and because I'd only moved to Scotland to work there and had no ties, I'd also decided to move on. So through the summer of 1996 I worked on the books in a spare bedroom of a house I didn't own, and spent most of my spare time looking for a permanent home. Like Yama, the hero of the trilogy, I had given up everything I knew for an uncertain future and had moved from a small town to a capital city; as I sweated in the summer heat, he travelled further and further downriver through tropical landscapes towards the waist of his world.
The three novels, published in 1996, 1997 and 1998, were caught up in corporate takeovers in the UK and the US; when Gollancz agreed to republish them in a fat omnibus, the original files used to set the books were long gone. So I resurrected my old WordPerfect 5.0 files and read through them, and then went over them again to remove a few niggling inconsistencies in the narrative and to give the prose a further polish. My younger self didn't need my help move a story through its twists and turns. He'd learnt from Robert Louis Stevenson how landscape can shape and reveal the actions of the characters, and to keep action scenes short and sharp. He'd crammed plenty of eyekicks and estrangement into the narrative. And Yama's story, his discovery of the costs and obligations of escaping from his mundane fate and becoming a hero, and the sacrifices he must make to find a way of saving his world, was fixed by the course of the river he follows.
So in its omnibus incarnation, the story and almost all of the narrative of the trilogy remains the same. Revision was mostly a question of tightening the focus of sentences and paragraphs, and sharpening certain passages. My younger self loved adjectives far more than I do, and tended to force-weld sentences together (like this one). Some of the dialogue was a little forced, too; sometimes it strained for profundity. I've tried to cut that away without losing any of the meaning. In short, if Yama's story reads a little more easily in places, I hope I've stayed as true as possible to the intentions of that younger self as he wrote himself into his new life.
First published on Paul McAuley's blog Unlikely Worlds
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Spira Mirabilis by Aidan Harte be published on April 3, 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books.
In the 1347th year of Our Lady the engineers of Concord defeated the fractious city-state of Rasenna using the magical science of Wave Technology. The City of Towers fought back, and for a while Concord's plans for domination were halted. But First Apprentice Torbidda regrouped, and reformed Concord to his own design. Now he is in absolute control, and plotting the final battle that will pacify Etruria... permanently. Contessa Sofia Scaligeri could rally her people once again, but she is far away in the Crusader Kingdom of Akka, trapped with her son by the tyrant Queen Catrina. Darkness is falling. The final battle must be fought and the tide must be turned, lest evil reign forever.
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