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Karen Maitland's Company of Liars was one of the most refreshing books in the historical fiction over the last couple of years. The reason for it wasn't historical accuracy or the way it was written but the introduction of subtle supernatural elements. The fact that a history novel even has them is enough to raise few eyebrows but it quickly turned out that Maitland is far too clever to use them badly. Supernatural elements are not exactly supernatural but are used like a direct manifestation of various beliefs and superstitions of the age. It's an incredibly effective plot device which became something of a signature feature of Maitland's writing. Company of Liars was just the beginning. For example, her second book, The Owl Killers, is still one of my favorite historical books ever. The Vanishing Witch, just published by published by Headline, takes place during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and has the elements we know and love. It's immaculately researched, there's plenty of intrigue and then there's witches.

Story begins when Robert of Bassingham, a cloth merchant who lives with his wife and two sons in Lincoln, is approached by Caitlin about financial advice. In an increasingly volatile market, ruined by continuous wars with France and Scotland, and endless taxes, Robert is one of a few managing to stay afloat so Caitlin inquiry is perfectly reasonable. Caitlin is a widow of rare beauty and charm and soon Robert is absolutely smitten by her. She's everything his wife is not. He's quickly falling in los so when Robert's wife Edith falls ill, he accepts Caitlin's suggestion that she should nurse her. As Caitlin and Robert are getting increasingly close, the rumors run aplenty and first cracks are appearing in Robert's family. On other hand boatman Gunter is haunted by a strange apparition. His life is made increasingly hard by Robert's demands and the tax-man who always seems to be asking for more. So is it a ghost after him or something completely ordinary? As it is often the case in Maitland's novel, the truth is twofold and this is not the only mystery at the heart of this tale. Locals looking at situation with Bassingham family are only too quick to decide that there's witchcraft at work here and soon the tale of Robert and Caitlin turns a particularly nasty turn.

 

While obviously impeccably researched, "The Vanishing Witch" never strays to deep into historical matter and similarly to other Maitland's work, it is more concerned with the story and with creating an authentic atmosphere that about notable personae of the era. It is regular people who are the focus and for the most of the book I've felt like standing on the cliff's edge. But in an age where education was non-existent, there is simply no running away from the superstition's of the age. It's all rather grim and after finishing books like this I can't really understand why would someone want to live in middle ages. "The Vanishing Witch" offers a wonderfully immersive historical experience with a dash of supernatural mystery. It is one of the finest novels Maitland has written so far which is truly something when you consider how good the others were.


Review copy provided by Headline.
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I absolutely adore Caitlin Moran. It was so wonderful witnessing her success in journalism despite (or because of) her hard edged beginnings. Her columns are always such pleasure to read and not just because in most of the cases I agree with what she says. Even when I don't I appreciate her intelligent reasoning and sharp witt. After two collections of essay, "How to Build a Girl" is her first proper foray into literary fiction (there is also a novel she wrote when she was 15 years old – The Chronicles of Narmo) and revolves around a typically Moranesque idea. In it Moran explores a particularly vulnerable period in everyone's lives. Growing up and personal development during those pesky teenage years when we're all constantly re-defining and reinventing ourselves, sometimes because we want to and sometimes because we're trying to fulfill what's expected of us.

At the heart of the story is Johanna Morrigan who after embarrassing herself on local TV. It was supposed to be triumph of her life as she's just won a poetry contest but it's a disaster. Desperate, she takes up on Dolly Wilde alter ego to deal with it. Dolly is everything Johanna isn't or didn't dared to be, a loud, charming goth who doesn't think twice about going with boys and exploring sex in all its forms and guises. She's writing record reviews and sends them around. Dolly imagines herself to be a proper Bohemian and she's dabbling in writing. She's thinking really deep thought. As she passes her 16th birthday Dolly is almost a scene veteran. She's drinking, constantly having sex and writing for music press. It is at this point that Johanna emerges and looks at the life. How much of Dolly's life is really her and how much is this strange idea of a girl? What does it take to build a girl?

It's a fantastic and original take on the whole growing up trope and everyone will relate to the eternal question of identity that Johanna goes through. I certainly did as at this age of my life I've listened to all sorts of crap metal music because that was what was expected. I've tried to psyche myself into being a metal-head but one day I've went through similar experience as Johanna and said fuck it, this is crap, Automatic for the People by R.E.M. and Split by Lush are better by miles. Haven't listened to shredding guitars ever since. Best thing I've ever done, to be honest. Many will probably wonder how closely does "How to Build a Girl" follow Moran's own life and judging by few interviews I've read not a lot but there are certainly some elements. "How to Build a Girl" is one of the books I wish I had when I was growing up. It's wonderfully lucid and clear account of those mad years when all of us just didn't make sense. I would like to think that after reading it I wouldn't have made the same mistakes I did but the truth is I probably would and that's the beauty of it.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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To celebrate the release of wonderful City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, Jo Fletcher Books are offering a very special prize.

They are giving away five copies of the book, plus one lucky winner will receive a £100 Red Letter Day experience.

To win, all you have to do is to reveal what tangible miraculous object would you create if you were a god of Bulikov? You can submit your entries on their blog,Facebook page or Twitter and your entry should be submitted using #CityOfStairs.

Submit your entry by October 30th for your chance to win.

Full terms and conditions can be found here.


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In an era following the Snowden revelations it is universally accepted that concept of online privacy is as good as gone but it turns out that under the surface something was quietly bubbling up. It was nothing less that a holy grail of Internet - an ultimate and unbreakable way to achieve long sought online anonymity. The concept of Dark Net entered the public consciousness during the recent Silk Road drug bust but before all the crime, Tor and its Onion network had existed for years and have achieved some remarkable feats in their lifetime. They gave voice to oppressed during many world's revolutions when online access was stifled by a certain dictator or a nasty regime. However, it was not long before the criminals of all sorts took notice. This was a way to play right under the government noses and never to be seen. Final piece of the puzzle came together with the rise of BitCoin, a digital currency ungoverned by any single financial institution of government. Now you could be anonymous and launder money. Silk Road, an online drug market, was the end result but that's just scratching the surface of what's out there.

Jaime Bartlett, in his superb “The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld” goes deep under, into the hidden world where the most depraved characters lurk safe in the knowledge that they'll almost never be caught. Jaime's journey feels like a jump down the rabbit's hole and certainly some of the things he finds feel like they came straight out of twisted world of Alice in Wonderland. In true Rule 34 fashion, anything you can imagine actually exists. I won't even mention some of the stuff Jaime finds because I don't want this text to be found through search engines by using those terms but prepare to be very scared. Apart from these segments which feel like a prime example of human zoo, the most interesting bits revolve about trolling and cyberbullying. It makes a fascinating study of character reading about the motivations and reasoning behind some of the attacks. But then there's also terrorists and all sorts of perverts. Suitably enough, Bartlett dedicates a considerable part of the book to explaining the concepts about which most of us heard about but are only vaguely familiar with, such as the cryptographical basis behind BitCoin and what is exactly this 4chan malarkey?

It's an eye opening book which will make you feel dirty because all you'll learn that this is going on through the very same wires you're using to read this text. It will also make you feel ashamed and a bit paranoid of the people using internet in the same room as you. More importantly, it'll make you more knowledgeable and more prepared for what is out there. The most frightening bit is when you remember that Bartlett's book offers just a tiny glimpse and only into things that he managed to uncover. What else is down there, five fathoms deep? It's simply inconceivable but judging by what we know now some really nasty stuff. As such "The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld" is an important book. In the best possible, no-frills way it tries and succeeds in explaining all the most essential concepts of this strange new subversive internet we're all part of. Greatly recommended.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann.
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My first encounter with the wonderful Glasgow forensic scientist Dr Rhona McLeod was when I've learned that ITV snapped up rights to develop a tv series based on Rhona Macleod's series of novel. I've never heard of Macleod before but I've learned to trust ITV agents as they seem to be impeccable taste in crime fiction. Just remember Vera and Ann Cleeves. I wasn't disappointed. The entire Rhona Macleod series is such great fun. They're extremely readable bunch with excellent characters to boot. Together with Elly Griffiths' series of novels featuring Head of Forensic Archaeology Ruth Galloway, Macleod's series has been one I've been always looking forward to.

Paths of the Dead opens up mysteriously as at a meeting at a local spiritualist church Amy MacKenzie is contacted by her son Alan, a second year student studying engineering. The very same son she has spoken to a while ago. It's a frightening situation. She's very scared and Alan is not answering his mobile. Her reasoning is telling her this can't possible happening but still she's having doubts. She founds out Alan went out with his dog and hasn't returned. Amy goes out to look for his, finds a dog and calls the police. It's one of the most powerful openings chapters I've read in a while and I dare you to put the book down at this point. It's simply impossible.

Soon enough a body is found. Police is baffled. Body is ritualistically placed inside a Neolithic stone cycle near Glasgow, its hands have been severed and stone placed in victim's mouth. Stone has a number five on it. Bizarre to say the least. DI Michael McNab somewhat wishfully hopes it's a gang killing but Rhoda is not convinced. As second body is found in similar circumstances, it becomes evident that something much more sinister is happening. This time it's a woman and the stone in marked with number four. A serial killer well versed in Druidic rituals is on the prowl and stopping it won't be easy. And the time ticking...

If I'm counting correctly "Paths of the Dead" is ninth novel in the series and Anderson seems to have slipped into role of a storyteller perfectly. Confidently written, it grips from the opening page and after so many books in her company, encountering Rhoda feels like meeting an old friend. I can't wait for the TV series to come out. It could be a massive hit if done well which can only mean one thing, more books for us!


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan.
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The Gift Of Darkness is my first novel; it’s a tale of murder, obsession, friendship and revenge.

It is unusual to remember exactly when and where you were when you had a specific idea because our mind is constantly churning out all sorts of considerations from the very important to the utterly useless. And yet that evening when I first thought about The Gift Of Darkness I was far away from home – working as an assistant editor on a film on location in Scotland – and everything around me was fresh and vivid in a way that made each day unforgettable.

I had been thinking about writing a novel – my first piece of any significant length – and given my reading choices it was naturally going to gravitate towards crime fiction. So it was that in an extremely flowery hotel room in Inverness I thought about a murder so hideous that it would shock a whole city and both a detective and a criminal would be investigating it, forging a relationship that was potentially lethal for both.

At the time I was reading a lot of Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley and Patricia Cornwell and the grey area between justice and law was a very appealing playground. I needed a police officer – a detective – who would have a few years on the force but would be new to homicide cases because I wanted to steer clear of cynicism and the world-weary attitude that others had written about so much and so very well in the past. The main characters all came up fully formed in fact except for one, who started merely as a legal consequence of the situation and turned out to be maybe the most important character in the story.

Before The Gift Of Darkness I had written some short stories and a couple of screenplays for college shorts but that was the extent of my writing so I thought, well, I’m going to need an outline as detailed as possible otherwise I’ll get quite lost inside this. In the end I did have an outline and it was useful but only up to a point because I was constantly finding out things that I didn’t know existed until I got to that particular chapter and I had to be careful not to tie myself down to the outline or feel that I could not proceed on a path until I had fully mapped it out.

 

Being in Scotland for five weeks and driving up and down the highlands on a daily basis had a huge impact because by the time I was back in London I had decided that the story needed that wilderness, that it was the very core of the characters, and the action would be split between London and Scotland. It took me three chapters to come to terms with the fact that, sadly, I had no affinity whatsoever for writing about London: here was the place where I had been living for years, the area – Soho – that I knew intimately and yet it just did not work and there was no getting away from that.

I was quite upset because if not in London where could I set my tale? The answer – yet again – came from Scotland: the reason why it had been love at first sight when I had climbed down the steps of the plane in the tiny Inverness airport was that the landscape closely resembled Washington State and Seattle, which a visited a few years before. Seattle is a city on the West Coast of the United States, just over a couple of hours from the Canada border. It’s surrounded by water and close enough to the Rockies that on a clear day you can almost touch them. It’s a woods and mountain state with fearsome and beautiful national parks – people get lost and never found in those deep dark woods. Once the spark of the idea was there I couldn’t turn away and everything – strangely – fell into place: there was a lot of research involved but there was no question that my story had found its home – down to the fact that my main character lives in my relatives’ house and the view from her deck is the view of Vashon Island and Puget Sound that I love.

The writing process was a huge learning curve and yet there was one particular factor I did not expect: I absolutely relished writing the darkest, scariest moments in a way that completely surprised me. Here I was, a big fan of Stephen King for sure, but I would have never thought that those particularly creepy paths would be so attractive to me as I untwisted the story.

By the time The Gift Of Darkness was finished it was hardly what I had envisaged at the beginning and yet at its molecular level it had pretty much everything I had thought about in the flowery hotel room in Inverness many years before. 


V. M. Giambanco
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Having lived through a recent war (one in Balkans in the early 1990s) I found it hard to accept that any war can be, for the lack of better word, “celebrated”. It’s a strange concept built around the remembrance and while I can accept the need to teach new generation, are we really going about it in the right way? Both sides of the conflict are still here and surely it is not right to keep on reliving these horrific memories. But slowly, bit by bit, I’ve realised that we probably are better for it. On the surface of it this was a time of heroic achievements. A period when ideals erased classes and everyone pushed together to defeat a common enemy. Similarly to the way in which an e-mail will never be able to achieve the emotion of a letter in an envelope, First World War was simply a different war to different, modern wars. As more time passed and I’ve seen more coverage I was emotionally moved by the stories and people who gave everything.

“1914: Goodbye to All That: Writers on the Conflict between Life and Art” tackles the war through a slightly different lens.  This collection of literary essays, edited by one of the most respected British poets Lavinia Greenlaw, asks ten contemporary authors about the way war influenced their art and writing. The results are wildly different but all provide refreshing perspective and such excellent food for thought.

My favourite essay in the collection was written by Erwin Mortier who In “The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing” through Belgium and his family explores parallels between First and Second World War. On the other hand, in “Coolies” Xiaolu Guo tells one of the most horrific First World War tales I’ve ever heard. She writes about 100000 Chinese soldiers sent to the front to work for the British Army. They’re given numbers because in Europe no-one could tell them apart and have been often worked to death. Closer to home, in “Tea at the Museum” Aleš Šteger tackles role of poets during and after the way. Ironically he notices that after it has passed war is open relegated to a spectacle for the masses. Episodes from Ireland, Africa and Berlin are also covered in subsequent essays.

As a whole, this is a remarkably strong collection of disparate takes on the war and the questions it poses for those that survive it and artists in particular. Lacking in heroics and soldiers, these stories also cover some less known episodes using heartfelt and poetic language. The most important thing is that most of the essay don’t provide a final answer but that’s the nature of the war. It’s always there and because of it you’ll probably end up feeling rather sad after finishing “1914: Goodbye to All That: Writers on the Conflict between Life and Art”. You’ll grieve for all the lives that were pointlessly lost and for the sheer stupidity of it all but I suspect tiny part of you will be cheered up by heroics of those that brought back the peace in the end.


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.
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A year has passed and predictably here’s David Hair with another monster. And I had such a nice plan before I’ve received it! In short the idea was to do a re-read of The Scarlet Tides and Mage’s Blood before embarking upon Unholy War. I consider first two instalments of The Moontide Quartet to be some of the best contemporary fantasy around so it was an obvious decision. What I didn’t count on is how huge Unholy War is. This is seriously big, nearly 800 pages long heavyweight doorstopper.  Hair is on the way to approach Sanderson category, if you know what I mean. If I’ve actually went on and read all three books in the sequence I would’ve finished around New Year so I gave up on the idea and sunk my teeth into penultimate book in The Moontide Quartet. Since the publication day is still some time in the future I’ll try to keep this review short on plot description but do beware for spoilers.

Similarly to The Scarlet Tides, Unholy War directly continues the story started in previous books and shouldn’t be read if you haven’t the first two instalments. This is also evident in the fact that Unholy War doesn’t even have an obligatory “What happened before” chapter which even I, someone who read and really enjoyed first two books, would welcome. As things stand situation around Scytale of Corineus, immensely powerful artefact which in the wrong hands could change the course of history, is getting increasingly complicated. Scytale is currently in the hands of failed mage Alaron Mercel and pregnant market-girl Ramita Ankesharan. World around them seems to be falling apart at the seams. After the battle of Shaliyah course of the war has changed and now East is on the rise, ready for counterattack. Still, some are not interested in idealistic view of the world and are trying to push their own agenda forward. For example, Queen Cera Nesti of Javon sees a chance to reclaim a throne. Others see an opportunity to reclaim the Scytale.

In our review of “The Scarlet Tides” we praised its focus on characters and the plot and I would like to reinforce that opinion here. David Hair seems to thrive on the fact that the worldbuilding is left behind and that he can focus more on the actual plot. The sense of chaos, endless politicking between factions and urge by characters to make sense out of events beyond their control is palpable as the pace becomes more and more frantic. My only complaint at this point is that Unholy War finishes at a point where it does. Yes, it is a logical choice but with the final sentence announcing exciting things to come and taking place nine months before the end of the Moontide, it’ll be a long wait until Ascendant’s Rite arrives. Until then, perhaps go back to an original plan and do a re-read?


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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