The story behind The Jump by Doug Johnstone

The Forth Road Bridge and its neighbouring rail bridge have always loomed large in my life. I grew up in Arbroath on the northeast coast of Scotland, and I now live in Edinburgh. I still have family in Dundee, so I travel up and down the coast quite a bit, always over the bridges, and it’s always a mesmerizing experience.

I don’t know if you’ve ever walked across a suspension bridge, but it’s terrifying. What you don’t really realise until you’re on it, is that it shakes like buggery. That’s what suspension means, it’s suspended from central supports, and each car or van or truck that rumbles over makes the concrete under your feet thrum. The other thing that always occurs to me when walking over it is just how much bottle it would take to jump off. I know that sounds warped, but it’s true. Imagine having the nerve to look down at that grey-brown swell of the Firth of Forth and managing to let go of the railing and just fall.

These are some of the ideas that kick around in my mind whenever I set eyes on the bridges. One day I was driving across it and imagined what I would do if I saw someone about to jump off. The pedestrian area is separated from the road, so even if I stopped my car, I wouldn’t be able to get across to the person. But what if I was walking and spotted someone about to jump. What then? And what if you talked them down, what then?

That’s when the crime writer’s brain really kicks into gear. The constant ‘what ifs’, the relentless desire to make things worse for your central characters, to throw everything you can at them and see how they cope.

So that’s exactly what I do in The Jump with my protagonist Ellie. She’s still grieving for her dead son who committed suicide off the bridge six months before the book opens. But in the opening few chapters she experiences just what I imagined – while walking across the bridge she sees another teenage boy about to jump.

From there, it’s a slippery slope. The Jump is not really a whodunit, but that’s fine by me. Whodunnits are only one of a million ways to keep the reader’s attention. Many of my favourite books are ones where you know who has committed the crimes right at the start, but you read on because you’re compelled to find out how things are going to pan out for the poor saps going being put through the mill by fate.

Hopefully that’s how readers will feel with Ellie and The Jump. Ellie is probably the most sympathetic central character I’ve written in all of my novels, but I deliberately make her do some pretty terrible things, and I hope that the reader is willing and able to go to those dark places with her. Fingers crossed.

The Jump by Doug Johnstone is out on 6th August (Faber & Faber, £12.99)


Doug Johnstone
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Story Behind the Book : Volume 5 - Essays on Writing & Editing Fiction

"Story Behind the Book: Volume 5" collects over 40 essays about writing and editing fiction by some of the finest contemporary authors. 

These essays reveal vibrant and tumultuous relationship between the author and its work, and candidly explore the process of putting the story together.

Includes the following essays:

  • Story behind "The Language of Dying" by Sarah Pinborough    
  • Story behind "The Age of Ice" by J.M. Sidorova    
  • Story behind "Invent10n" by Rod Rees    
  • Story behind "A Guide for the Perplexed" by Dara Horn    
  • Story behind "Unfashioned Creatures" by Lesley McDowell    
  • Story behind "The Heat of the Sun" by David Rain    
  • Story behind "Autodrome" by Kim Lakin Smith    
  • Story behind "Cemetery Girl" by Charlaine Harris    
  • Story behind "The Cold Nowhere" by Brian Freeman    
  • Story behind "Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes" by Claude Lalumiere    
  • Story behind "The Bookman's Tale" by Charlie Lovett    
  • Story behind "The Emperor of All Things" by Paul Witcover    
  • Story behind "The Office of Mercy" by Ariel Djanikian    
  • Story behind "Bedlam" by Christopher Brookmyre    
  • Story behind "Wolves" by Simon Ings    
  • Story behind "Arcanum" by Simon Morden    
  • Story behind "The Return" by Michael Gruber    
  • Story behind "The Everness series" by Ian McDonald    
  • Story behind "The Silence" by J. Sydney Jones    
  • Story behind "Delia's Shadow" by Jaime Lee Moyer    
  • Story behind "Ghosts" by Paul Kane    
  • Story behind "Monsters in the Heart" by Stephen Volk    
  • Story behind "Autumn" by David Moody    
  • Story behind "Nightlife" by Matthew Quinn Martin    
  • Story behind "The Winter Witch" by Paula Brackston    
  • Story behind "The Magus of Hay" by Phil Rickman    
  • Story behind "The Secrets of Life and Death" by Rebecca Alexander    
  • Story behind "Queen of Nowhere" by Jaine Fenn    
  • Story behind "Last to Rise" by Francis Knight    
  • Story behind "The Incrementalists" by Steven Brust and Skyler White    
  • Story behind "Scarlet Tides" by David Hair    
  • Story behind "Apollo Quartet 3 - Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above" by Ian Sales    
  • Story behind "Hive Monkey" by Gareth L. Powell    
  • Story behind "The Never War - The Suicide Exhibition" by Justin Richards    
  • Story behind "A Dance in Blood Velvet" by Freda Warrington    
  • Story behind "Dying Is My Business" by Nicholas Kaufmann    
  • Story behind "The Rainbow Man" by P.B. Kane
  • Story behind "Moon's Artifice" by Tom Lloyd
  • Story behind "Orcs: Bad Blood" by Stan Nicholls
  • Story behind "Monsters of the Earth" by David Drake
  • Story behind "To the Fifth Power" by Shirin Dubbin
  • Story behind "Only Superhuman" by Christopher L Bennett
  • Story behind "The Choir Boats" by Daniel Rabuzzi

All proceeds will be donated to Epilepsy Action
Edited by: Kristijan Meic, Ivana Steiner.

222 pages
5.06" x 7.81" (12.852 x 19.837 cm)
Black & White on White paper


Order your copy of Story Behind the Book: Volume 5 here:

The story behind Waterborne Exile by Susan Murray

As I embarked on Waterborne Exile I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before – I had a contract, a publisher waiting to receive the manuscript and a date by which to deliver it. I’d written a manuscript of publishable standard before, so I knew in theory I should be able to do it again. But I’d never, ever written a sequel before. What if The Waterborne Blade had been a complete fluke? My self-doubt ran rings round me for several days before I got a grip and worked out where I might start. I decided to limit myself to including only elements that had been referred to in the first book. I wanted to explore some of the established characters further, in particular to find out how much the nameless priestess was a product of her circumstances and how she might shape her own fate when beginning from a position of disadvantage. I’d left another character with a cliffhanger ending, so I had to resolve that in a plausible way, while some of the other characters would need to deal with the consequences of events in the first book. Recognisable shapes began to emerge from the brainfog and I was able to start putting words onto the page.

Just to add spice the the process, we had put our house on the market and I had to break off drafting every few days to prepare the house for viewers and show them round. This meant taking down the messy noticeboard – where I’d pinned a printout of the mindmap, a few pictures, the sketch map and synopses – and tucking it away out of sight so no one else could read my notes. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if anyone had turned up the corner of the post-it note with ‘REDSHIRT!’ scribbled across it and seen a character described as ‘One of the good guys’ underneath it. It probably wouldn’t have mattered at all, but still I did this every few days – I dismantled my work area and tidied the desk and then put all the creative, messy stuff back afterwards, because I might need to refer to it. Progress felt painfully slow with this book – I had been used to drafting 2,000 words or more in a session in the carefree days before publishing contracts and agents and expectations – but now I was lucky if I generated a thousand words a day. It was winter, so I took to working in the lightest part of the house to see if that would help boost output as I tackled some dark themes, but progress continued to be hard-won.

I had to set Waterborne Exile aside at Christmas as editorial notes arrived for The Waterborne Blade and I resumed work at the end of January more or less at the same time as our intended house purchase was complicated out of existence by what we refer to in our household as the Chicken Shed of Doom. After a month away from the manuscript I needed to reread it before getting back to work and it was an immense relief to discover it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined. Fast forward a couple of months, and the relief was greater still when my editor accepted the finished piece. Now I’m embarking on what I hope will be the third and final book in the series. After all, I’ve completed a publishable book before, and a publishable sequel, so it must be time to find out just how hard it is to wind up an epic fantasy trilogy with that elusive third book…


Susan Murray
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The story behind Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill-Fortune by Kate Griffin

As a child I thought it was wildly romantic that my mother’s family lived in Limehouse at the back end of the 19th century. They were proper Victorians, I thought, just like the ones off the telly!

I’d like to be able to say that a precocious appreciation of a Moroccan-bound, boxed set of the collected works of Dickens was the inspiration for my books set in the London of the 1880s, but I have to admit that it was probably the box balanced on a G-Plan cabinet in the corner of our orange and brown living room.

I blame the weather: it seemed to rain a lot during the late 1970s. During the summer holidays, as I basked in the flickering glow of the cathode ray tube while the garden turned to a swamp and moss grew on the Space Hopper, my idea of how my antecedents must have lived was formed, largely, by watching TV for hours on end.

In days of yore – that’s back in the day - the BBC stopped broadcasting after lunch, but over on ITV a selection of black and white period films filled the gap between Mavis Nicholson and Magpie. I watched them all, over and over again, a televisual diet of mild jingoism, casual racism, alarming sexism and eye-popping violence. All before teatime.

From my extensive viewing, it seemed to me that Victorian London was a city of swirling fogs, galloping horses, gas-lit alleys and cloaked criminal masterminds. It was a beautifully dressed, lavishly mounted and compulsively watchable stage where sweet-faced, angel-voiced ingénues met grisly fates at the hands of unspeakable, but nicely dressed, villains.

In short, it was a wonderfully theatrical, completely artificial world where right always triumphed and the shadow of the hangman’s noose dangled satisfyingly over the closing credits to show that the wicked got their just deserts.

I had a particular fondness for anything produced by Gainsborough Studios and starring James Mason – Fanny by Gaslight was particular favourite. In addition, Basil Rathbone’s monochrome Hollywood incarnation of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, was a regular post-lunch pleasure. When my father relented to pressure and rented a new TV, the multi-coloured, if not multi-cultural, London of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, brought thrillingly to the screen by Christopher Lee, cemented a newly vibrant and decadent image of Limehouse and the East End into my mind that was difficult to shift.

My mum came from a large, close-knit family and nearly every Sunday there was a raucous gathering of the clan. When I looked at my grandmother - a small and sturdily pragmatic woman only ever glimpsed out of her floral housecoat at weddings, christenings and funerals – I found myself thinking about her childhood. Born in 1898 and raised in St Anne Street, smack in the heart of Limehouse, I wondered if her early life had ever resembled the world I’d seen on screen – the glorious, gaudy confection of cobbled streets, rumbling hackney carriages, music halls, opium dens and fan tan gambling parlours?

The answer is a guarded yes, and, of course, no.

I often wish I’d asked nan (that’s we all called her) more about her own childhood – her real childhood, I mean, not the one I imagined. I never got the chance during all those Sunday lunches. There was something about the jut of her chin as she doggedly boiled those cabbages into a sludge of submission that suggested memory lane was the very last place she wanted to visit.

I’ve noticed that many people who have reached a mid point in life become interested in the history of their families. It’s especially true, I think, of those who are childless, perhaps because they know they are a sort of end point in a line. I don’t have children and I certainly recognise that impulse in myself.

When my mum died a decade ago, another link with the past was broken. I bitterly regretted that hadn’t asked her more about her own childhood and the stories passed down to her. It was a catalyst and I started to talk to much older cousins who are the current guardians of the family ‘archive’. In fact, I sought them out determined not to allow my personal history to slip even further from my grasp. Luckily they were happy to share their knowledge and research.

Any romantic illusions I ever harboured about my Limehouse roots were firmly dispelled when I was given a photograph of the residents of St Anne Street taken in about 1909. My youthful grandmother is there along with assorted siblings and my great grandmother. The smiling faces and bold postures presented to the camera cannot hide the fact that these people were poor.

Over to the right of the image the faded face of my great-grandmother is sad-eyed and exhausted. It’s not surprising she looks defeated. Even though she was probably in her mid-40s when the photograph was taken, her life had been almost unbearably hard. Widowed with several children to support she had to find a way to feed them and keep them together under a single roof.

In the closing days of Queen Victoria’s reign, my tiny great grandmother (women aren’t tall in my family, I’m only 4ft 10ins and she was even smaller!) queued at the docks for casual shift work every morning alongside men who were twice her size and half her age. No wonder she looks like a shadowy wraith in that photograph; she was literally wearing away.

More prompting revealed atmospheric family tales that echoed my fantasy: visits to the music halls to see favourites Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Albert Chevalier and Little Titch; the Chinese men with the pigtails who lived three houses down; my grandmother and her two sisters lying awake in a shared bed frightened by the eerie sound of the wind whistling through the ropes of the tall-masted ships moored on the Thames.

Nothing, however, could hide the fact that the Limehouse of my childhood imagination bore about as much resemblance to the streets where my family actually lived as a dish of lobster Thermidor to a mug of jellied eels.

I began the first book in the Kitty Peck series in 2013 as my entry to the Faber and Faber / Stylist Magazine crime fiction competition. Although I’d worked as a journalist for years and latterly in PR, I’d never written fiction before and I wanted to test myself. The only rule was that entries should feature ‘a strong female protagonist’.

I was certain I knew what the judges, who included Ruth Rendell, would be looking for – a woman in a tough contemporary setting, someone juggling an impossible life with a demanding job, probably in the police force. Something a little bit edgy, dark with a hint of Scandi maybe?

I sat down, opened my lap tap and stared at the screen.

Two hours later I had written a scene set in Limehouse towards the end of the 19th century. To be honest I was astounded, but I recognised the richly inventive cockney speech patterns of my mum’s family, the aching poverty, the squalor of the cobbled streets and the stench of human waste tumbling through those foggy passages. I also the recognised the heightened reality, melodrama, glamour and romance of those films that riveted me to the sofa through those rainy afternoons in the 1970s.

Kitty Peck’s world is my homage to my family and the almost Proustian power of the B-movie.


Kate Griffin
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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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REVIEW : The Silver Kings by Stephen Deas

 

Not too long ago dragons were decidedly uncool. They occupied the same place as unicorns and helpless princesses, and were mostly mentioned in the same breath as the cheesiest fantasy from the 80s. You know the one I mean, books with bursting bodices that we're all a bit embarrassed off when we mention that we read fantasy. But then came Stephen Deas and made the unthinkable happen. He somehow made dragons cool again. Partly this was due to his, simply brilliant, storytelling skills and partly due to the approach he took - his dragons are never simplistic affairs. They don't live in caves and for some particular reason live their lives only to aggregate gold. They're creatures to be frightened off.

The latest instalment of his wonderful series is here and I am really sorry to report that "The Silver Kings" is probably the final novel of it we'll ever get to read. Stephen Deas makes is clear from the start by bluntly stating in the foreword that this is the ending and that before embarking on the story in question you should at least read everything from "Black Mausoleum" onwards. It clear to see why. "The Silver Kings" pulls together threads from all across the series and brings them together in a suitably explosive fashion. There's dragons and there's more dragons and then, you guessed it... And they're all terrifying and fearsome creatures as only Deas' dragons can get. It is impossible to speak about the plot without spoiling the rest of the series but for what it is worth, I will just mention that "The Silver Kings" features some of the finest mayhem every put to paper.

As I've turned the final page there was Stephen Deas again, once more saying how this really is the end for this particular series. He's slightly apologetic but there's no reason for it as "The Silver Kings" is the logical and perfectly suitable ending. But as the last two pages of the book unfold straight after it, I couldn't help but wonder whether there a slight chance for one more run around the block. No one does dragons like Deas and I'm afraid that without him they'll slowly once again revert to the realm of unicorns - even Naomi Novik's Temeraire is too twee for my liking. It is probably not likely to happen considering recent rise of Game of Thrones and Dragon Age but still, with Deas out of the picture there's a dragon shape gaping hole left in a genre which will be hard to fill. So all I can say at this point is: Thank you, Stephen, it's been a blast and do come back, eh?


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

The Seeker is the first in a series set in the 1650s London of Oliver Cromwell and featuring Damian Seeker, an army officer in the intelligence services of the Protectorate. Seeker operates in a London buzzing with coffee houses, illicit newspapers, radical lawyers and royalist agents. When one of Cromwell’s favoured officers is murdered in Whitehall Palace, Seeker finds himself delving in to the world of the City, and the secrets of a diverse selection of characters – a wealthy merchant, an impoverished lawyer, a Dutch scholar, a Scottish minister, an itinerant peddler and the dead man’s Royalist widow amongst others – who encounter each other in a coffee house run by an old parliamentary soldier and his niece. The story takes Seeker from the vibrant heart of the city, via the university town of Oxford to the court of the Lord Protector himself, and in the course of the story, it is revealed that Seeker has a few secrets of his own.

The Seeker, like my Alexander Seaton series of books, was inspired primarily by place. The Seaton books, set mainly on the north-east coast of Scotland and in Ireland in the 1620s and 30s were inspired by places I knew well, had long been intrigued by, and whose history, architectural remains and landscapes I had come to love.

However, from an early, stage in our relationship my editor had been pressing me to consider sending Alexander Seaton to London. I had manfully resisted – I had no connection to London or history with the city. I knew little enough about the life of the 21st century metropolis, never mind that of the 17th. Eventually, in a fairly disgruntled manner, I agreed to consider it, but although there were plenty of reasons for someone like Alexander Seaton – a failed minister turned University teacher who does a lot of sleuthing – to go to London in the 1640s, I found he was even more opposed to the idea than I had been: he simply wouldn’t go.

I thought my publisher and I had reached a parting of the ways, but at about the same time, I noticed that BB4 was airing a documentary of seventeenth century London. It was presented by the very engaging Dan Cruickshank, and I was soon hooked. And then he came to the emergence of the London coffee house in the 1650s and I felt the old familiar buzz of excitement that told me there was a story here. I went away and started reading up on 1650s London, Oliver Cromwell’s London, and the new phenomenon of the coffee house in particular. The coffee house was an amazingly egalitarian institution where individuals from all walks of life, strangers or friends, would meet to drink coffee, smoke, and talk, and they talked of anything – trade, politics, gossip, sedition. Concurrent to this was the rise of the newssheet or news book – the fore-runners of our newspapers, and it was in the coffee house that people read and exchanged the news. The London of Oliver Cromwell was obsessed with news, absolutely buzzing with rumour, gossip and intrigue, and I thought a coffee house would make the perfect setting for an ensemble cast of characters to come together. Murder would, of course, ensue.

            I didn’t bother getting in touch with my editor about this – I assumed I’d been tacitly dropped – but I carried on working away at my idea. Then, a week or so before Christmas 2012 she called me and said, ‘How’s the book coming on?’ I only just managed to stop myself saying, ‘What book?’ Instead, I told her my idea, about the coffee house, the cast of characters, the murderer. She liked it very much. Then she said, ‘Of course, you’ll need to think carefully about the detective character.’ Again, I managed to stop myself saying ‘What detective character?’ I had planned that the identity of the killer would just emerge in the course of the story, and had had no thought of a detective character at all. So, at the end of the phone call, I pulled on my wellies and hauled the dog to the woods, racking my brains about what on earth I was going to do about it. It was a typically Highland gloomy, drizzly December day. After about fifteen minutes, we came to a point in the woods where the path splits in two directions, on one side disappearing between a tangle of whin bushes, and in my mind’s eye, through the gloom, I saw a figure emerge from the bushes and present himself to me. He was very tall and strongly built, and was wearing a helmet, boots and a long black cloak – something like a mixture of Darth Vader and Brix, Sarah Lund’s boss from The Killing – and I knew his name was Damian Seeker. Now, I was perfectly aware that I was not seeing this in reality, but the picture came to me very clearly in my mind, and I knew I had my detective character.

            The Seeker is quite different from the Alexander Seaton books in several ways other than simply location. The Seaton books are all written in the first person, from Alexander’s viewpoint, whereas the Seeker books are 3rd person, and show several viewpoints. Alexander is prone to self-examination, angst if you like, and is very driven by religious belief or doubt. Damian Seeker doesn’t do ‘angst’, and he certainly doesn’t do religion. Seeker takes his orders from John Thurloe, Secretary of State and Spymaster General of the Intelligence services of the Cromwellian Protectorate. He is a northerner, a Yorkshireman, utterly loyal to Cromwell, unimpressed by any sort of pretension, and brutal when he has to be. He has, of course, a sensitive side, but one that few get to see. After reading an early draft of the book, my editor and agent both agreed on one thing, they loved him, and wanted a lot more of Damian Seeker in the book. I obliged, but I still haven’t had the heart to tell either of them that he wasn’t part of the initial plan at all.


S.G. MacLean
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REVIEW : Path of Gods by Snorri Kristjansson

 

One of the most anticipated books of the year is here and it is a blast! Final part of Snorri Kristjansson's strange fantasy trilogy set around Norse history and mythology was always going to be good. When you build your story on rollercoaster rides such as "Blood Will Follow" and "Swords of Good Men" even a rethread of familiar ground would be an enjoyable experience but in "Path of Gods" Kristjansson has really upped the ante.

Story of the "Path of Gods" finds Audun and Ulfar driven by common goal. Our immortal couple are the only one who can stop the march of White Christ alliance that threatens the destruction on the North. They're led by King Olav Tryggvasson, a self-appointed leader and their arch-nemesis, who is having plenty of trouble on his own. Keeping peace during the times of war is never going to be easy and there're chancers everywhere just waiting to depose him. King Olav is truly horrific creature, succumbing to doing the most heinous acts imaginable to spread his religion. Unbeknownst to other, an old, forgotten evil is starting to stir. Some very familiar names from the Norse Pantheon make a welcome appearance.

Kristjansson's "Path of Gods" feels like fireworks going on everywhere at the same time. The entire series has been a gargantuan feat of imagination and "Path of Gods" provides a worthy final stop filled with heart-warming revels and blood curdling showdowns. It is completely bonkers, slightly strange, and such great fun. If you haven't done it by now, do yourself a favour and get the entire trilogy - it's truly unique.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : Stallo by Stefan Spjut

 

Considering the tremendous success of John Ajvide Lindqvist's "Let Me In", it is something of a wonder that we're not seeing more Scandinavian supernatural thrillers on our bulging bookshelves filled with translated titles. Thinking about it, there's only been a handful of such tiles published in recent history, coming from either from those reliable stalwarts of foreign fiction Pushkin Press and MacLehose, and they've all been invariably great. Seems like those cold Scandinavian nights offer plenty to inspire authors willing to step away from the standard Scandinavian crime literature, especially those willing to explore darker and stranger recesses of human condition as imbued by myth and tradition. Stefan Spjut's atmospheric "Stallo" is a welcome addition to this sadly understated sub-genre and it is instantly an appealing read.

Nothing sets the tone for what follows better than this opening:

"The worm glued to the tarmac is as long as a snake. No, longer. It reaches all the way to the grass verge beside the main door. The boy's eyes follow the slimy ribbon and notice that it stretches across the ditch and curls into the belly of a grey animal. Its eyes are black glass and one paw has stiffened in a wave."

The story continues to revolve around the strange and unexplained phenomena. Ever since a boy disappeared in the woods back in 1978, him mother has claimed that he was abducted by a giant. Of course, no one believed her even when it transpired that a year ago, a wildlife photographer captured another similarly bizarre phenomena on film.

Back in present day, Susso Myren is updating her web page. She's one of those conspiracy theorists who believe in all sorts of dodgy stories including the Yeti and the Big Foot. His father, the wildlife photographer who 25 years before took that bizarre photo, has instilled in her a deep love for photography so when an old woman recount a tale of a strange creature that observers her house for hours on end, Susso sees an opportunity for a story of a lifetime. Armed with a camera, her ex-boyfriend Torbjörn and her mother Gudrun she embarks on an adventure far stranger and perilous than could have possible imagined.

The quote from Karl Ove Knausgård, which graces the cover page, is a good indication about what sort of a book "Stallo" is. Despite its magical and supernatural elements, it is a glacially slow tale that unfolds in layers and is best enjoyed when read slowly. This is my first encounter with Stefan Spjut's writing so I don't know whether this is due to the excellence of translation or just plain old good storytelling, but I found "Stallo" to be beautifully written with plenty of depth that keeps you guessing even when you think you've understood it all. As is often the case with Scandinavian literature, "Stallo" positively destroys the boundaries between genres and is a book that isn't limited by mere limitations of any particular genre. It's serious enough to be enjoyed by those looking for something more mainstream while strange enough to attract those looking for intelligent fantasy fare. "Stallo" is a menacing, atmospheric book that will occupy your thoughts for days. More of the same, please.


Review copy provided by Faber Books.
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REVIEW : Second Life by S.J. Watson

 

"Before I Go To Sleep" was such an unique book. It came completely out of the blue and made S.J. Watson's name as an off-beat author who can instantly grip the hearts of his readers. A successful Hollywood movie starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth followed and sealed the deal. "Before I Go To Sleep" deservedly became an international bestseller and won quite a few rewards. S.J. Watson is now back in the limelight with his new psychological thriller called "Second Life". Brilliant cover art clearly shows what to expect. In a similar way that "Before I Go To Sleep" did, "Second Life" is a about duality but told in a slightly different way which might not appeal to everyone.

"Second Life" follows the story of Julia, a woman who live an ordinary and slightly boring life with her husband and son. Everything changes when her sister Kate is brutally murdered. This is a new that shatters her life to bits. Kate and her have always been very close despite the fact that Kate has been living in Paris for a little while now. To make matters even complicated, Kate's son is being raised by Julia for reasons to complicated to explain now. Julia is disappointed by police's investigation and little by little decided to take matters into her own hand. After the discussion with Julia's flatmate Anna, she starts by exploring her sister's effect only to discover the other side of her life - a world of online dating and sex. As Julia digs more and more, her own life starts spiralling out of control and yet, she can't give - for her own and her sister's sake she must know what really happened.



"Second Life" is a much darker and atmospheric tale than "Before I Go To Sleep". It is an accurate portrayal of obsession and the need to put the final stop to a life that ended so tragically. As such, its slow and elegiac opening will be off-putting to those expecting a reprisal of its predecessor. Things pick up significantly in the second part while the surprising twist at the end will leave many readers gasping. However, I don't think "Second Life" will be even close to repeating the success of "Before I Go To Sleep" but that's not necessary a bad thing. Rather than repeating same trick again, S.J. Watson has decided to develop and to try something new. The result is a book that's much harder to instantly appreciate but once you do immerse yourself you'll come to realise how truly interesting and fascinating it really is.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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REVIEW : S.N.U.F.F. by Victor Pelevin

 

A few months ago I wasn't even aware of the existence of the Russian Booker Prize but Victor Pelevin's superb novel "S.N.U.F.F." is already a fourth book that either won it or was shortlisted. Russian Booker Prize is a cunning concept that surpasses the idea of a literary prize. In a regime where the publishing output is carefully controlled to suite the government, Russian author have decided to speak through their fiction. These carefully veiled attacks again the social and political situation in Russia are hard to prove as often they're disguised as Utopian allegories which could go either way. "S.N.U.F.F." is similarly ironical in its dystopian depiction of current political climate.

Pelevin sets his story in a backward Urkaine (not to be confused with Ukraine – sic) inhabitated by 300 million orks. Flying above this landscape is "Big Byz" (or if you prefer "Byzantium"). A technological marvel in itself, it is a city that has around 30 million inhabitants. "Big Byz" controls the lives of those situated below through a onslaught of carefully orchestrated media reports and artificially produced conflicts and events. Blissfully unaware of it all, orks' lives are lead down the path predetermined by those controlling the media. At the heart of it all is "S.N.U.F.F." or "Special Newsreel / Universal Feature Film" through which Orks' emotions are effectively controlled.

"S.N.U.F.F." almost mirrors the current life in Russia. This is particularly evident if you read "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia" by Peter Pomerantsev, a surreal non-fiction account of Pomerantsev's experience while working in Russian's media industry. Pomerantsev also clearly depicts what happens to those who oppose the regime so it is no wonder that Pelevin relies on allusion upon allusion to get his message across. Ultimately, the joke is on the Russian government because it seems that science fiction has once again become a vehicle for overcoming oppression and censorship. As such "S.N.U.F.F." is wondrously imaginative piece of literature that by far surpasses its humble premise. Obviously, there's probably more layers to it than I'll ever realise but interestingly enough, it works perfectly well even as nothing more than a good story.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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The story behind A Prospect of War by Ian Sales

A Prospect of War is the first book in the Age of Discord space opera trilogy. The second book, due in October this year, is titled A Conflict of Orders, and the third is A Want of Reason and will be published in March 2016. The trilogy is about a civil war in a large interstellar empire, the people who become embroiled in it, and the historical event which, more than one thousand years earlier, caused it. The trilogy sort of came about like this...

Back in the late 1990s, I was in a British Science Fiction Association orbiter, a postal writing group, with, among others, Justina Robson. At some point, I thought it might be fun to write a space opera featuring a group of unlikeable characters - which is, I guess, what fantasy authors later went on to do when they created “grimdark”. The background to my space opera was, I admit, a bit identikit, although I threw in knightly orders and an aristocracy, likely inspired by the universe of the role-playing game Traveller. In the event, I only got three or four chapters into my space opera before I decided it wasn’t working.

I was living in Abu Dhabi at the time and, some time around the turn of the millennium, a new book store opened in the city. On its shelves, I found copies of the first eight books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, so I bought them and read them. I’d heard a lot about the books, but I only read them because I was interested in discovering what it was which had made them so successful. I never found out. I thought they were badly-written, derivative and clumsily-plotted - although one or two of them weren’t too bad. However, reading the Wheel of Time did give me an idea: that space opera I had trunked, I could try writing it as if it were an epic fantasy…

But my space opera was definitely going to be science fiction, so I threw Frank Herbert’s Dune into the mix - I’ve been a fan of the novel since I was a teenager, although more for its world-building than its prose. In fact, for my space opera I wanted exactly that sort of deep history Herbert put into Dune. I also wanted my story to be timeless, inasmuch as it wouldn’t really date since, like Dune, its setting would be completely unlike the real world.

I spent a long time working on the universe for my space opera, and even put together an encyclopedia, which I briefly considered offering as a companion volume. Since I was “borrowing” from epic fantasy, I thought it might be fun to throw in a few of the genre’s more popular tropes too. So my ingenu hero would be a “peasant hero”, there’d be a “hidden king”, a “dark lord” and a “dark lieutenant”, the plot would roughly follow the “hero’s journey” template, and so on…

However, as soon as I started writing A Prospect of War, every trope I stuck in sort of got turned on its head or twisted out of all recognition. Happily, this only improved the story, so I went with it. For the trilogy’s story-arc, I looked to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series for inspiration - each new volume in my trilogy would reveal a deeper level to the conspiracy driving the plot...

But as I started writing about this conspiracy, I realised my personal politics aligned more with the villains than it did with the heroes. I mean, the plot was basically your standard consolary fantasy - nasty dark lord attempts to overthrow good king, but is foiled by a peasant hero with magical power - albeit in space opera drag. Except, a feudal space empire is a pretty nasty place for the bulk of its citizens, and the amount of privilege possessed by a royal family and high nobility I find deeply offensive. However, there’s no reason why I couldn’t mix it all up, have white hats and black hats on both sides - because after all it’s about motivation, about the reason why people do the things they do. In A Prospect of War I even have the leader of the faction fighting to defend the throne described as a terrorist by another character.

I like to think A Prospect of War and its sequels are more political that most space operas, that they interrogate their setting and don’t simply use it as an enabler for a story of interstellar derring-do. Not, of course, that they lack derring-do. I made sure to put plenty of that in. Space operas are pretty much defined by derring-do. In fact, I even dialled it up to eleven - I gave everyone swords. No guns, just swords. And there are battles too. Between armies, or with space battleships. And sword fights... Masked assassins... Mysterious allies... Equally mysterious enemies... A ball in a duke’s palace... An orbital city… A spaceship crash... An abandoned warship…

I didn’t throw everything into my space opera… but not for lack of trying.


Ian Sales
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REVIEW : Uprooted by Naomi Novik

 

There's no other way to put it. Naomi Novik, together with Stephen Deas, made dragons cool again. Temeraire was such a great series so far and with each new instalment Novik grew as an author, offering more and more in terms of sheer depth of characters and pure excitement of action. But while we all wait for the next and probably final Temeraire novel, Novik decided to try her hand at something new. "Uprooted", her new fantasy novel, instantly feels different and refreshing. While Temeraire was a globetrotting historical romp, "Uprooted" is more of a fairylike creature. It also has a Dragon but not one of a kind you would normally expect to get from her.

"Uprooted" is story that follows Agnieszka, a quiet 17 year old girl who spends her life in a peaceful picturesque village surrounded by forest. However, behind the idyllic appearance, the villagers are continuously on edge of the precipice. They're indebted to a Dragon, a 150 years old wizard who keeps the evil forces of the Wood at bay in exchange for choosing a village girl as a servant every ten years. It a disastrous price to pay but the villagers have no choice. And it's not like the girls are killed or worse. In ten years, girls usually return with a sack of silver and education, but no one is really sure what is actually happening as the girl leave the village for good as soon as they return. As the time of the next choosing is quickly approaching everyone believe that Dragon will pick Kasia, beautiful and feisty girl who is Agnieszka's best friend but when the moment comes unthinkable happens. Agnieszka is chosen. Unbeknown to many, Agnieszka has a gift - she has magic. The story truly comes into force when Kasia is abducted by something in the Wood and Agnieszka ventures deep. The last third of the book is one of those moments in reading when the story captives you so much that you forget the world around you.



"Uprooted" is a lovely, pacy magical fantasy steeped in fairy tale traditions, that is simply delightful to read. It clearly shows that Novik is much more than a one trick pony and that there's more to her craft than writing about Temeraire. Funnily enough, after finishing "Uprooted", I couldn't help myself but to start wishing that she would embark on these other works strands often because as I said at the beginning, reading "Uprooted" was such a different and refreshing experience.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan.
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REVIEW : The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

 

Terry Pratchett was one of two authors whose loss I've felt tremendously deeply. I'm not ashamed to say that I've even shed a tear. I've never met Terry but I grew up reading his books and it is still hard to accept that his brilliant mind is suddenly gone. Therefore these last few books that are coming out are all the more precious. And yet, ever since it started coming out, "The Long Earth" series has been a subject of some rather harsh criticism. Mostly it was down to people claimed that they're being somewhat slow, slightly boring and just not funny enough. I suspect most of these reviews have been written by Pratchett fans who have never read anything by Stephen Baxter before. Baxter is another of by favourite authors but I have to admit that his writing style stands in stark contrast to Pratchett's. His works are usually completely dry, steeped deep in hard science and relentlessly realistic. There's not a laugh in sight. The entire "The Long Earth" format is pure Baxter. He's specialised in writing this sort of chronologies, which just go over the subsequent years, never fully exploring anything and leaving countless threads open. And while "The Long Earth" spans less than a hundred year, some of his other books like "Evolution" span eons. What Prachett brought to "Long Earth" were the characters. Lobsang, Joshua and Sally are all vintage Pratchett and I don't even have to mention Beagles and Kobolds. I might be wrong but I don't think that Baxter wouldn't be able to produce a character like that even if his life depended on it.

Having said that, some of you will be disappointed to hear that, being such a recent creation, the fourth installment of "The Long Earth", titled "The Long Utopia" is almost pure Baxter. We're at a stage of story when Joshua and Sally have grown old and lost a bit of their passion. They're world weary and just want to be let alone. Lobsang is dead although not in a way you would imagine. He decides to re-inventing himself by becoming a middle aged man and, together with Agnes, adopting a son Ben. The Next are also mostly gone, and while the space elevator is slowly being built, there's no mention of the Gap, Long Mars, or the Beagles. But this calm moment is not to last as the George's refuge turns of out be a host to another one of those strange anomalies strewn across the Long Earth. Anomaly allows one to step North and due to Von Neumann Beetles the fate of an entire Long Earth hangs in the balance. I won't spoil the rest of the plot but this time around the story takes the center point and both the Next and humans must work together to prevent the worst. And there's awfully lot of science, dyson spheres and whatnots. We learn a lot about the history of Joshua's family.



I found "The Long Utopia" to be incredibly exciting and perhaps the best volume in the series so far. Sadly, lots of those mad, bonkers elements are missing but Baxter has done tremendously well in filling up the gaps with science and engaging story. The funny thing is that even four books in, "The Long Earth" feels like it is only just starting and "The Long Utopia" only goes to expand that feeling. There's so many new and completely unexplored threads here that at time I felt that the series going go on for many many more books. I know that now the future of "The Long Earth" hangs in balance but I certainly hope Baxter will continue alone. "The Long Utopia" was a pleasure to read and such a welcome opportunity to once again experience the brilliance of the inimitable Terry Pratchett.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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REVIEW : The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

 

Milan Kundera is a changed man. This is obvious from the way "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting", or "Immortality" are different from "Slowness" and "Ignorance". Over the years he has grown weary and rather pessimistic. Humour is sadly often missing from his writing but "The Festival of Insignificance", his latest slim volume that can be easily finished over the course of a single sitting, goes a long way to rectify it. In it he attacks the most serious problems with a cheeky refusal to be serious and the results are often laugh out loud.

On the surface story is rather simple and charts the relationship between four elderly friends through a series of disjointed stories that explore the very essence of human condition and the unlikeliest body part, the navel. These episodes are not straightforward but are instead a heady mix of philosophy and history that requires a re-read to be fully appreciated. In Kundera's mind aesthetic is much more important that a self-contained plot and in a way "The Festival of Insignificance" acts like a summary of all his work so far. There are recognizable elements from all across his career and this short novel is both an epilogue and an overview. In short, it is simply Kundera that I love - almost unbearably intelligent author who is by far too clever to let it show.

"The Festival of Insignificance" is a subdued read that will be truly enjoyed only by his constant readers. I suspect the rest will simply be a bit confused but that's the part of the joke.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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REVIEW : Fall of Man in Wilmslow by David Lagercrantz

 

There was a public outcry when David Lagercrantz was announced as an author of "The Girl in the Spider's Web", fourth part in the monumental "Millennium" series by Stieg Larsson. This was mostly due to the fact that he's best known as the co-author of "I am Zlatan", autobiography of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of today's biggest and most outspoken football stars. Surely, this Lagencrantz doesn't deserve to follow in the Larsson's footsteps? Well, if you scratch under the surface some other facts come to light. Lagencrantz was a notable crime reporter as well and over the 80s and 90s he covered some of the major crimes in Sweden, most notably the Amsele murders, a brutal massacre that happened in 1988 when a whole family was killed over a stolen bicycle. Also, Lagencrantz is a great author. He wrote a rather splendid biography of Goran Kropp, a Swedish equivalent to Ranulph Fiennes and "Fall of Man in Wilmslow" a fictionalized account of Alan Turing's final days.

"Fall of Man in Wilmslow" opens up with events known from history. On June 8, 1954, Alan Turing in found dead at his home in Wilmslow. The story goes that he killed himself with a poisoned apple as a direct result of government's persecution on homosexuals. Detective Constable Leonard Corell is assigned to a case but he instantly feels there's something more about the situation than it's initially apparent. He notices the chemicals and the similarities between the crime scene and the Snow White. Coroner quickly declares the case the suicide but that's not the ending for Correll. He becomes obsessed with Turing's tragic fate and as he digs deeper through his papers, it is increasingly obvious that everything surrounding him is veiled in secrecy. There's even some rumours about him being a target of Soviet spies' blackmail due to his sexuality. Correll's chase leads him to Cambridge where it finally all clicks together. But as the Turing's role in the war becomes clearer so Correll's life comes into more and more peril. He's become a liability. It is a cat and mouse chase whose ending you'll have to discover for yourself.

"Fall of Man in Wilmslow" is an atmospheric Cold War spy thriller which plays wonderfully with paranoia that was so fertile in that era and those horrific social circumstances that spelled the end of one of the finest minds in human history. It's a fascinating and well researched piece of speculative history that makes much more sense than, say, the version of Turing provided by "The Imitation Game". More importantly, it is a successful first step of MacLehose Press' rehabilitation of David Lagercrantz as a serious writer.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
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REVIEW : The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

 

When visiting Hamburg there's every chance that you'll encounter someone who came to a city after reading one of Jan Fabel's books. Currently it's still not huge as it could be but in Hamburg Fabel is quite a great thing. Two of the books have been adapted into quite successful movies and Craig Russell was the first and only non-German person to have been awarded the highly prestigious Polizeistern (Police Star) by the Polizei Hamburg. There's every chance that in the future Fabel will do for Hamburg what Montalbano or Wallander have done for Sicily and Sweden. I've always enjoyed Fabel books and while they're far cry from Sicilian sun-drenched adventures of Montalbano, Jan Fabel's cases are extremely intense affairs. The latest instalment, "The Ghosts of Altona" is no different though it opens with some rather unique elements.

The story opens up with quotes from William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker and is followed by explanation of near-death experience. In the first few chapters there's a Zombie and a Frankenstein. It's a rather a bizarre was to open up a crime novel but everything becomes clear soon enough. As you would expect, Jan Fabel, Head of the Polizei Hamburg's Murder Commission is no stranger to death. As the second decade of his career is coming to a close, he's finds that he's increasingly in an introspective mood. As he's recounting his past, a body of Monika Krone, a woman who went missing some fifteen years ago, has been found. Monika has been a part of the Hamburg's Gothic clique - a crowd of people obsessed with all things macabre. Fabel reopens a case as he sees it rather personally but soon enough things turn rather messy one of the most notorious criminals, a dangerous serial rapist escapes from a high-security prison. As the bodies start piling up, Fabel quickly realises that he has found his match.



"The Ghosts of Altona" is probably the finest Fabel novel so far. Craig Russell has managed to create something rather unique, a story that relies on a rather peculiar subculture, one that owes its existence to horror and which naturally harks on death. I was instantly hooked and I've had an awfully hard time letting go of the book once I've started it. As always, in Russell's writing Hamburg comes to life. If you've ever visited it, you'll remember that it is an incredibly vibrant place but one which, like all the big cities, comes with a dark note to it, especially after the clock strikes midnight. Russell has been tapping this rich seam for a while now and if "The Ghosts of Altona" is anything to go by, he's only just starting. An incredibly addicting book.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books.
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REVIEW : Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

 

Looking at the sheer volume of crime books published each month you would be excused if you thought that nothing new could possible be said in a genre that's been going for so long. And yet, while the nature of the crimes that occur and the mechanism of a subsequent investigation into it almost always follows the same set of rules, it is the characters that always surprise me the most. No genre has the capability to pinpoint the human condition so precisely as crime does and one of the best contemporary authors with a panache for writing gripping and engaging characters is Stuart Neville. His latest book "Those we Left Behind" is a first novel in a series featuring DCI Selena Flanagan who might be familiar to you. It is a bona fide psychological thriller that instantly feels like it might become this summer's runaway hit.

"Those we Left Behind" revolves around Ciaran Devine, a 19 year old man who leaves the prison after serving a seven year sentence for murdering his foster father. When it happened it was a case that shook the nation. Ciaran confessed to murder and Serena Flanagan, then a Detective Sergeant, was the person who took the confession after gaining Ciaran's trust. During his imprisonment he always fondly remembered the kindness she showed him and now that Ciaran's having troubles to re-integrate into society, DCI Flanagan is approached by his probation officer Paula Cunningham. DCI Flanagan instantly notices that there's much more to the case than it was initially obvious.

 

Despite not being obviously so from the start, "Those we Left Behind" is a fiendishly complex tale to pull off. There's more than a few strands happened both concurrently and seven years ago. The troubled relationship between Ciaran and his older brother Thomas towards whom he constantly gravitates throughout the book is done especially well but it is DCI Selena Flanagan who makes the story so appealing and tragic. She incredibly human. As the story open she just returns to work after suffering thought the most human ordeal of them all - a breast cancer, a surgery, and its impact on the family life.

"Those we Left Behind" is one of the finest books I've read this year. It is an intricately plotted tale that works so well because it manages to perfectly capture all the necessary nuances of one such horrific situation while being clever enough to let most of its violent elements to happen out of the reader's sight.


Review copy provided by Harvill Secker.
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REVIEW : Radiant State by Peter Higgins

 

"The Wolfhound Century" is one of those series that defy easy description. Peter Higgins' literary fantasy tour the force is a historical tale steeped in Slavic mythology and it was quite unlike anything else out there. Oft quoted comparison to China Mieville was particularly apt while that to Vandermeer less so. Any yet, if the first two instalments were hard to classify, "Radiant State" completely tears up the rulebook. It's mad in a way to topple the scales with the final part of the trilogy and yet that exactly what Higgins has done here - he goes out with a bang.

"Radiant State" is a crux of all that happened until now and we see the Josef Kantor's plan as it reaches its fruition. The Vlast Universal Vessel "Proof of Concept" stands proud ready to take his latest reincarnation as President General Ozip Rizhin to the stars. The price of progress, as in countless many versions of Soviet Russia, is the suffering of its people. Vissariom Lom and Maroussia Shaumian don't share his enthusiasm. They're still reeling in the aftermath of the previous volume "Truth and Fear" but there's not time for rest. Standing on the knife's edge they're in their biggest pickle yet. They'll do everything to stop Kantor. And while this short synopsis might make you believe that the story itself is a rather straightforward affair, it is its delivery that sets it apart from other books that occupy similar territory, albeit with a slightly less supernatural elements, i.e. Jasper Kent's Danilov Quartet or Sam Eastland's Inspector Pekkala. Higgins peppers chapter with nuggets of wisdom, all carefully taken from rich soviet literary history. Particularly fitting is the opening quote from Mikhail Gerasimov, Russian poet from early 20th century who said "On the canals of Marks we will build a palace of world freedom". This quote perfectly sets the stage for what's to come. Some are downright frightening and ominous like Josef Stalin's "If you're afraid of wolves, stay out of the forest." All this makes "Radiant State" a rather immersive reading experience.

While I won't go further into details of the story, I'll just mention that I feel that the final, fourth part of the story provides worthy conclusion for the entire ride. It was a glorious tale, and "The Wolfhound Century" as a series has succeeded where many others have failed - it has managed to carve a new niche for itself. I predict it'll be a series against which many others with be judged.  It's innovative, often unique in its setting and so beautifully written. I expect I'll be returning to it many times in the future and if you're even a little bit intrigued by its subject or you like the poetry of Mieville or just plain gold old history, I urge you to give it a try. It might just blow your mind.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : Interzone 257

I come to Interzone 257 with a slight delay as last few months have been marked by some massive doorstoppers such as the latest from Neal Stephenson and Dan Simmons. After these behemoths, there's only one reasonable course of action and that is to fully immerse myself into short form and you already know by now, no one does it better than Interzone. 257 comes with big guns, nothing less than a new story by Alastair Reynolds called "A Murmuration" but I've instantly decided to leave it for the last. Interzone's greatest strength has always been those new, to me unknown authors, who they always so deftly manage to find.

Second in line is Fadzlishah Johanabas's "Songbird", a powerful and poetic tale about a woman Ariana who is being held captive in a hospital bed and made to produce drugs for her captors. Her only means of escape are vivid dreams that slowly awake her to her forgotten powers and a songstress gene. Fadz, a Fadzlishah likes to call himself so I'll take him on the offer, is a great writer and packs a great punch in this relatively short story. If there's one author I'll take away from this issue, it's him.

Next up is Rich Larson's "Brainwhales are Stoners, Too", a story that about Brainwhales, a whales amalgamated by the use of technology. It's an interesting premise but the story just didn't click it me. Perhaps it is due to the choice of terms used to describe the technological setting: in just a few pages you encounter ThinkTank, Brainwhale, 3D-printed frames and a characters called Vandermeer. I'm sure I'm thinking too much into it so I'll definitely be re-reading this one shortly.

Fourth story is Tendai Huchu's "The Worshipful Company of Milliners", a story that together with "Songbird" was my absolutely favourite in this issue. This being my first encounter with Tendai Huchu, I wasn't sure what to expect but is a metaphysical tale about ideas told through a series of diary entries going in reverse and fragments of tale. It's strange and rather innovative. Well recommended. Tendai Huchu has released his debut novel "The Hairdressers of Harare" in 2010 and I'll be definitely checking it out.

Final story in the issue is Aliya Whiteley's "Blossoms Falling Down" and is up to Aliya's usual standards - engrossing tales that begs for more. Built around a series of haikus and a Haiku Room, it's an interesting tales that's difficult to describe but one which was a total pleasure to read.

Finally to go back to the beginning and to Alastair Reynolds' "A Murmuration". It's seems unfair to put Reynolds in comparison with other authors as I absolutely adore his writings and over the year he has honed his fiction down to perfection. Reynolds is taken best in doses of over 500 pages and "A Murmuration" is only around 10 pages long but it's as playful as its much longer and older contemporaries. It's just great, full of hard science phenomena, chaos that is the publication of scientific papers and off-kilter development.

Not to forget, there's also a new "Time Pieces" column by our beloved Nina Allan and an editorial by Ian Sales so all in all a completely extraordinary issue of Interzone, even by the own rather high standards.


Review copy provided by TTA Press.
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REVIEW : Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

 

The press release that came with Al Robertson's debut novel "Crashing Heaven" is an impressive statement that clearly showcases how much the publisher is behind this book. It is always impressive when William Gibson, Alastair Reynold, Richard K. Morgan and even Neal Stephenson are mentioned in a single breath and the six figure sum always catches attention. Admittedly you'll be disappointed if you expect it to be an amalgam of their works in any shape or form because "Crashing Heaven" simply isn't what's promised on paper. It would be simply an impossible feat to achieve it but Al Robertson touched all of these authors in a small way. There's plenty of imaginative spirit in Robertson's writing and subtle nods to his contemporaries for "Crashing Heaven" to pull it off handsomely and that's an achievement in itself.

"Crashing Heaven" is a bleak, hard science fiction tale set in a future where the Earth is left behind and the humanity has moved to a Station, an asteroid made habitable by sentient consciousness of the Pantheon. Even in space the conflict is still raging and as it eventually folds, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist return to the station after a war against a group of rogue AIs called The Totality, only to be accused of treachery. In the middle of the conflict Jack surrendered to the enemy and everyone on Station knows it. Jack was an AI killer, primed for violence and combat. It was a traumatizing experience but despite what really happened, he's been the lucky one here. He has survived while his other friends have died. Determined to discover what actually happened, Jack is set to enter another war, one which threatens to destroy both him and Hugo. However, stakes depending upon the outcome of his struggle are much higher than he ever imagined. Even humanity's future is uncertain. For Jack the time is running out as soon Hugo is set to take over his body so there's not much hope left. Hugo Fist is a strange creation, a virtual entity designed to help Jack fight a war and is a great character in itself. Their internal dialog is such a treat. Similarly, Station as a living, vibrant space is depicted superbly. Robertson manages to capture claustrophobic and chaotic existence of one such place. Existence made bearable only by the application on augmented reality called the Weave - a popular mean of escape from reality.

Still, the synopsis itself doesn't do justice to "Crashing Heaven" because on the surface of it, it presents Al Robertson's debut novel as a set of instantly recognizable SF tropes which includes everything from messy post-apocalyptic aftermath, humanity's migration to space, rogue AIs and everyone's existence balancing on an knife's edge. "Crashing Heaven" is better than the sum of its parts. It's an all-encompassing landscape upon which the story unfolds and at times I was even slightly overcome by too much of everything. And yet, as I've mentioned before, the whole thing somehow works together. "Crashing Heaven" is a completely insane book and for what is worth I believe that publishers were right to believe so firmly in its success. Jam packed with innovative ideas and fresh approaches to storytelling, "Crashing Heaven" could just be the one book that everyone will talk about in 2015. I certainly hope so.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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