Guest Post: “The Long Orbit of RADIANCE” by Catherynne M. Valente

ValenteCM-AuthorPicSometime in 2009 I was asked to write a science fiction story for Clarkesworld Magazine. At the time, I had mainly written fantasy — I was eager to dive into the other side of the speculative field. Two things had been bouncing around my head, and they bashed together at once. I had sprouted a fascination with the pulp SF planets of Zelazny, Bester, Burroughs, and Asimov’s day. The worlds we thought might be out there before satellite footage assured us it was not. Savage deserts of Mars, undersea Neptune, Venusian waterways. I wanted to make a planet like that. I didn’t want to follow the trend of hewing closely to established scientific fact. I wanted to go back to the wild, free-wheeling pulp universe, where there are no shackles on what you can imagine out there.

At the same time, I had read an interview with Mark Danielewski, who wrote House of Leaves, one of my favorite novels. He talked about his father, a cinematographer, and what a profound influence on his writing his father’s profession had been. And I thought: I was raised by a film director. It shaped every way I see the world and the ways I make my own. And I’ve never written about it even a little.
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New Year, New Books… (Dec/Jan)

HarryPotter-ReadingStirring

Featuring: Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson, John Ayliff, Elizabeth Brundage, M.R. Carey, Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey, John Connolly, A.M. Dellamonica, Tim Federle, Patrick Gale, Addison Gunn, Antonia Hayes, Jeff Mariotte, K.S. Merbeth, Maggie Mitchell, Sarah Pinborough, Jennifer Ridyard, Marsheila Rockwell, James Rollins, Lilith Saintcrow, Emily Schultz, Peter Tieryas

BBTSheldonReadingBatman

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Upcoming from Little, Brown UK

Here’s a selection of upcoming titles from Little, Brown UK that have caught my eye. (It’s a bit more of a mix than usual.)

ArmstrongK-C3-DeceptionsUKKelley Armstrong, DECEPTIONS (August 18th, Sphere)

TRUST NO ONE

Olivia Jones is desperate for the truth. The daughter of convicted serial killers, she has begun to suspect that her parents are innocent of their crimes. But who can she trust, in a world where betrayal and deception hide in every shadow? 

RISK EVERYTHING

Liv does have one secret weapon: a mysterious sixth sense that helps her to anticipate danger. The trouble is, this rare power comes with its own risks. There are dark forces that want to exploit Liv’s talents – and will stop at nothing to win her to their side. 

FACE THE TRUTH

Now Liv must decide, before it’s too late. Who does she love? Who is really on her side? And can she save herself without burning down everything that matters most?

Book three in Armstrong’s Cainsville series — following Omens and Visions. All published in the US by Dutton.

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AryanS-BattlemageStephen Aryan, BATTLEMAGE (September 24th, Orbit)

An action-packed and magic-fuelled fantasy novel from a British debut author, Stephen Aryan’s Battlemage features mages fighting an empire-spanning war for a homeland that fears and despises them

‘I can command storms, summon fire and unmake stone,’ Balfruss growled. ‘It’s dangerous to meddle with things you don’t understand.’

BALFRUSS is a battlemage, sworn to fight and die for a country that fears his kind.

VARGUS is a common soldier – while mages shoot lightning from the walls of his city, he is down on the front line getting blood on his blade.

TALANDRA is a princess and spymaster, but the war will force her to risk everything, and make the greatest sacrifice of all.

Magic and mayhem collide in this explosive epic fantasy from a major new talent.

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AycliffeJ-TheLostJonathan Aycliffe, THE LOST (October 1st, Constable)

When a man is lost, who but his ghosts will find him?

British born Michael Feraru, scion of a long line of Romanian aristocrats, leaves his country of birth and his love, to reclaim his heritage — a Draculian castle deep in the heart of Transylvania. He plans to turn his inheritance into an orphanage in the new post-Ceausescu, post-communist country. There he enlists the help of a young local lawyer, Liliana Popescu, to search for the missing Feraru millions, and battle through the complex maze of old bureaucracy in the scam-rich, newly-born state.

Feraru describes his journey into the heart of the Romanian countryside, wasted by years of neglect and caught in a time-warp, as though the twentieth century had never reached it. When he eventually arrives at his inheritance, he finds the castle of the Ferarus, in a sunless valley in the Carpathian Mountains, is home to much more than memories…

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ButcherJ-CS1-AeronautsWindlassUKJim Butcher, THE AERONAUT’S WINDLASS (September 29th, Orbit)

A new series set in a fantastic world of noble families, steam-powered technology, and magic-wielding warriors…

Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.

Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion-to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.

And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake.

Published by Orbit in both the UK and US. This is the first in a new series, The Cinder Spires.

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ByrneM-GirlInTheRoadUKPBMonica Byrne, THE GIRL ON THE ROAD (September 3rd, PB, Blackfriars)

In a world where global power has shifted east and revolution is brewing, a young woman sets out from her home in India on a desperate, profound journey of escape and discovery.

A young woman called Meena wakes up one morning covered in blood. There are mysterious snakebites across her chest. She knows she’s in danger but something has happened to her memory. All she can do is run — but why? And from whom?

As Meena plots her escape she hears of the Trail – an extraordinary, forbidden bridge that spans the Arabian sea, connecting India to Africa like a silver ribbon. Its purpose is to harness the power of the ocean — Blue Energy — but it also offers a subculture of travellers a chance for sanctuary and adventure.

Convinced the Trail is her salvation, Meena gathers supplies — GPS, a scroll reader, a sealable waterproof pod. And so begins her extraordinary journey — both physical and spiritual – from India to Ethiopia, the home of her birth. But as she runs away from the threat of violence she is also running towards a shocking revelation about her past and her family.

Still haven’t had the chance to read this, unfortunately. New paperback edition.

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ElliottK-CourtsOfFivesKate Elliott, COURT OF FIVES (August 27th, LB Young Readers)

In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

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Fink&Cranor-WelcomeToTheNightValeJoseph Fink & Jeffery Cranor, WELCOME TO THE NIGHT VALE (October 20th, Orbit)

From the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast comes an imaginative mystery of appearances and disappearances that is also a poignant look at the ways in which we all struggle to find ourselves… no matter where we live. The Telegraph calls Night Vale a ‘cultural phenomenon’ and Time Out says it’s ‘as hilarious as it is macabre’. For fans of Stephen King, Serial, Twin Peaks and of course the number one iTunes podcast itself.

Located in a nameless desert somewhere in the great American Southwest, Night Vale is a small town where ghosts, angels, aliens and government conspiracies are all commonplace parts of everyday life. It is here that the lives of two women, with two mysteries, will converge.

Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked ‘KING CITY’ by a mysterious man in a tan jacket. She can’t seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City before she herself unravels.

Diane Crayton’s son, Josh, is moody and also a shape shifter. And lately Diane’s started to see her son’s father everywhere she goes, looking the same as the day he left years earlier. Josh, looking different every time Diane sees him, shows a stronger and stronger interest in his estranged father, leading to a disaster Diane can see coming, even as she is helpless to prevent it.

Diane’s search to reconnect with her son and Jackie’s search for her former routine life collide as they find themselves coming back to two words: ‘KING CITY’. It is King City that holds the key to both of their mysteries, and their futures . . . if they can ever find it.

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GalbraithR-CS3-CareerOfEvilUKRobert Galbraith, CAREER OF EVIL (October 22nd, Sphere)

When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg.

Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible – and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.

With the police focusing on the one suspect Strike is increasingly sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands, and delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out for the two of them…

A fiendishly clever mystery with unexpected twists around every corner, Career of Evil is also a gripping story of a man and a woman at a crossroads in their personal and professional lives. You will not be able to put this book down.

I loved the first two novels in Galbraith’s series — The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm. Very much looking forward to Career of Evil. Oh, if you were somehow unaware of the fact, “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.

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HarrisonK-D1-DrafterUKKim Harrison, THE DRAFTER (September 1st, Piatkus)

LIVE. DIE. REPEAT. 

Detroit 2030: Double-crossed by the person she loved and betrayed by the covert government organization that trained her to use her body as a weapon, Peri Reed is a renegade on the run. Don’t forgive and never forget has always been Peri’s creed. But her day job makes it difficult: she is a drafter, possessed of a rare, invaluable skill for altering time, yet destined to forget both the history she changed and the history she rewrote. 

When Peri discovers her name is on a list of corrupt operatives, she realizes that her own life has been manipulated by the agency. Her memory of the previous three years erased, she joins forces with a mysterious rogue soldier in a deadly race to piece together the truth about her fateful final task. With only her intuition to guide her, she’s on a vengeful mission to decide-who must she kill and who, including herself, can she trust?

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KnightJ-D1-Swords&ScoundrelsJulia Knight, SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS (October 8th, Orbit)

The first book in the Duellist’s trilogy — a fast-paced adventure from one of the most exciting new British talents in fantasy

Gold is for fools, and dying is for amateurs… 

Vocho and Kacha are champion duellists: a brother and sister known for the finest swordplay in the city of Reyes. Or at least they used to be — until they were thrown out of the Duellist’s Guild. 

Now all that’s left to them is to become reluctant highwaymen. Well — it’s a living, and for Vocho it’s a way to win back some form of notoriety. But when they pick the wrong carriage to rob, their simple plans to win back fame and fortune go south fast. 

After facing down three armed men and barely besting a powerful magician, Vocho and Kacha make off with an immense locked chest. Vocho is convinced it must be worth a fortune, perhaps enough to buy him and his sister back the lives he lost for them when he inadvertently killed a priest. 

But the contents of the chest will bring them much more than they’ve bargained for — when they soon find themselves embroiled in a dangerous plot to return an angry king to power…

Julia Knight is also known as Francis Knight, the author of the Rojan Dizon trilogy (which is very good). Details of the second book in the Duellists trilogy, Legends and Liars (November 5th), are here. The covers for all three novels in the series can be seen in all their glory here.

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LygaFacinelliDeFranco-AfterTheRedRainUKBarry Lyga, Peter Facinelli & Robert DeFranco, AFTER THE RED RAIN (August 27th, LB Young Readers)

A post-apocalyptic novel with a cinematic twist from New York Times bestseller Barry Lyga, actor Peter Facinelli, and producer Robert DeFranco.

On the ruined planet Earth, where 50 billion people are confined to mega-cities, and resources are scarce, Deedra has been handed a bleak and mundane existence by the Magistrate she works so hard for. But one day, she comes across a beautiful boy struggling to cross the river. A boy with a secretive past and special abilities, who is somehow able to find comfort and life from their dying planet. A boy with an unusual name… Rose.

But just as the two form a bond, it is quickly torn apart by the murder of the Magistrate’s son, and Rose becomes the prime suspect. Little do they know how much their relationship will affect the fate of everyone who lives on the planet.

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ValenteCM-RadianceUKCatherine M. Valente, RADIANT (October 20th, Corsair)

Severin Unck is the headstrong young daughter of a world famous film director. She has inherited her father’s love of the big screen but not his exuberant gothic style of filmmaking. Instead, Severin makes documentaries, artful and passionate and even rather brave – for she is a realist in a fantastic alternate universe, in which Hollywood occupies the moon, Mars is rife with lawless saloons, and the solar system contains all manner of creatures, cults and colonies. 

For Severin’s latest project she leads her crew to the watery planet of Venus to investigate the disappearance of a diving colony there. But something goes wrong during the course of their investigations; and her crew limp home without her.

All that remains of Severin are fragments. Can these snippets of scenes and shots, voices and memories, pages and recordings be collected and pieced together to tell the story of her life – and shed light on the mystery of her vanishing? 

Clever, dreamy, strange and beautifully written – Radiance is a novel about how stories give form to worlds.

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Excerpt: THE REVOLUTIONS by Felix Gilman (Corsair)

GilmanD-TheRevolutionsHeader

CHAPTER ONE

It was the evening of what would later be called the Great Storm of ’93, and Arthur Archibald Shaw sat at his usual desk in the Reading Room of the British Museum, yawning and toying with his pen. Soft rain pattered on the dome. Lamps overhead shone through a haze of golden dust. Arthur yawned. There was a snorer at the desk opposite, head back and mouth open. Two women nearby whispered to each other in French. Carts creaked down the aisle, the faint tremors of their passing threatening to topple the tower of books on Arthur’s desk, which concerned explosives, and poisons, and exotic methods of murder.

He was writing a detective story. This was something of an experiment. Not knowing quite how to start, he’d begun at the end, which went:

That night the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral broke through London’s black clouds as if it were the white head of Leviathan rising from the ocean. The spire and the cross shone in a cold and quite un-Christian moonlight, and diabolical laughter echoed through the night. The detective and his quarry stood atop the dome, beneath the spire, each man ragged from the exertion of their chase.

“Stop there, Vane,” the detective called; but Professor Vane only laughed again, and began to climb the spire. And so Dr Syme pursued.

GilmanF-RevolutionsUKPBWhich was not all bad, in Arthur’s opinion. The important thing was to move quickly. It was only that month that Dr Conan Doyle had sent his famous detective off into the great beyond — chucking him unceremoniously from a waterfall in Switzerland — and the news that there would be no more stories of the Baker Street genius had thrown London’s publishing world into something of a panic. In fact, there were nearly riots, and some disturbed individuals had threatened to torch the offices of the Strand Magazine. The hero’s death left a gap in the firmament. The fellow who was first to fill it might make a fortune. It was probably already too late.

For the past two and a half years Arthur had been employed by The Monthly Mammoth to write on the subject of the Very Latest Scientific Advances. He wasn’t any kind of scientist himself, but nobody seemed to mind. He wrote about dinosaurs, and steam engines, and rubber, and the laying of transatlantic telegraph cables; or how telephones worked; or the new American elevators at the Savoy; or whether there was air on the moon; or where precisely in South America to observe the perturbations of Venus; or whether the crooked lines astronomers saw on the fourth planet might be canals, or railroads, or other signs of civilization — and so on. Not a bad job, in its way — there were certainly worse — but the Mammoth paid little, and late, and there was no prospect of advancement there. Therefore he’d invented Dr Cephias Syme: detective, astronomer, mountain-climber, world-traveller, occasional swordsman, et cetera.

Vane dangled by one hand from the golden cross, laughing, his white hair blowing in the wind. With the other hand he produced a pistol from his coat and pointed it at Syme.

“What brought you here, Syme?”

The Professor appeared to expect an answer. Since Dr Syme saw no place to take shelter, he began to explain the whole story — the process by which, according to his usual method, he had tackled each part of Vane’s wild scheme — how he had ascended that mountain of horrors — from the poisoning at the Café de L’Europe, to the cipher in the newspaper advertisements that led to the uncovering of the anarchists in Deptford, which in turn led to the something or other by some means, and so on, and thus to the discovery of the bomb beneath Her Highness’s coach, and thus inevitably here, to the Cathedral.

Arthur sketched absent-mindedly on his blotting paper: a dome, a cross, inky scudding clouds.

The notion of the struggle on the dome had come to him in a dream, just two nights ago; it had impressed itself upon him with the intensity of a lightning flash. Unfortunately, all else remained dark. How did his detective get there? How precisely had they ascended the dome (was it possible?). And above all: what happened next?

Nothing, perhaps. In his dream, Dr Syme fell, toppling from the dome into black fog, nothing but hard London streets below. Not the best way to start a detective’s adventures. Something would have to be done about that. Perhaps he could have poor Syme solve his subsequent cases from the afterlife, through the aid of a medium.

Dr Syme lunged, knocking the pistol from the Professor’s grip, but his enemy swung away, laughing, and drew from his coat a new weapon: a watch.

“We have time,” the Professor said. “Dr Syme, I confess I have arranged events so that we might have time and solitude to speak. I have always felt that you, as a man of science, might see the urgent need for reform — for certain sacrifices to be made —”

Arthur’s neighbour began to pack his day’s writings into his briefcase. This fellow — name unknown — was stand-offish, thin, spectacled. Judging from the pile of books on his desk, on which words like clairvoyance and Osiris were among the most intelligible, his interests tended to the occult. He closed his briefcase, stood, swayed, then sat back with a thump and lowered his head to his desk. Arthur sympathised. The dread hour and its inexorable approach! Soon the warders would come around, waking up the sleepers, emptying out the room, driving Arthur, and Arthur’s neighbour, and the French women, and all the scholars and idlers alike out to face the night, and the rain, and the wind that rattled the glass overhead.

Midnight! The Professor waited, as if listening for some news to erupt from the befogged city below.

“Well,” Syme said. “I dare say I know your habits after all this time. I know how you like to do things in twos. I knew there would be a second bomb. At the nave, was it, or the altar? I expect Inspector Wright’s boys found it quick enough—”

A terrible change came across the Professor’s face. All trace of civilization vanished, and savagery took its place—or, rather, not savagery, but that pure malignancy that only the refined intellect is capable of.

Howling, the Professor let go of the cross and flung himself onto Dr Syme.

Pens scratching away. Rain drumming on the glass, loudly now. A row of women industriously translating Russian into English, or English into Sanskrit, Italian into French. Arthur’s neighbour appeared to have fallen asleep.

Arm in arm, locked together in deathly struggle, the two men fell — rolling down the side of the dome — toward

Toward what, indeed!

“By God,” said Inspector Wright, hearing the terrible crash. He came running out into the street, to see, side by side, dead, upon the ground —

Arthur put down his pen, and scratched thoughtfully at his beard.

His neighbour moaned slightly, as if something were causing him pain. Concerned, Arthur poked his shoulder.

The man jumped to his feet, staring about in wild-eyed confusion; then he snatched up his briefcase and left in such a hurry that scholars all along the rows of the Reading Room looked up and tut-tutted at him.

***

Rain sluiced noisily down the glass. Lamps swayed in mid-air. Thunder reverberated under the dome as the Reading Room emptied out.

Arthur’d thought he might try to bring out his friend Heath for dinner, or possibly Waugh, but neither was likely to venture out in that weather. Bad timing and bloody awful luck.

He collected his hat, coat, and umbrella. These items were just barely up to the Reading Room’s standards of respectability, and he doubted that they were equal to the challenge of the weather outside. Certainly the manuscript of Dr Syme’s First Case was not — he’d left it folded into the pages of a treatise on poisons.

Outside a small band of scholars, idlers, and policemen sheltered beneath the colonnade. Beyond the colossal white columns, the courtyard was dark and the rain swirled almost sideways. In amongst it were stones, mud, leaves, tiles, newspapers, and flower-pots. Some unfortunate fellow’s sandwich-board toppled end-over-end across the yard, caught flight, and vanished in the thrashing air. Arthur’s hat went after it. It was like nothing he’d ever seen. A tropical monsoon, or whirlwind, or some such thing.

He was suddenly quite unaccountably afraid. It was what one might call an animal instinct, or an intuition. Later — much later — the members of the Company of the Spheres would tell him that he was sensitive, and he’d think back to the night of the Great Storm and wonder if he’d sensed, even then, what was behind it. Perhaps. On the other hand, anyone can be spooked by lightning.

He was out past the gates, into the street, and leaning forward into the wind, homewards down Great Russell Street, before he’d quite noticed that he’d left the safety of the colonnade. When he turned back to get his bearings, the rain was so thick he could hardly see a thing. The Museum was a faint haze of light under a black dome; its columns were distant white giants, lumbering off into the sea. The familiar scene was rendered utterly alien; for all he could tell, he might not have been in London any more, but whisked away to the Moon.

His umbrella tore free of his grip and took flight. He watched it follow his hat away over the rooftops, flapping like some awful black pterodactyl between craggy, suddenly lightning-lit chimneys, then off who-knows-where across London.

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The Revolutions by Felix Gilman is published tomorrow in the UK by Corsair.

Christmas Fiction Review Catch-Up: Jonathan Dee, A.S.A. Harrison & John Niven

I am falling terribly behind on my reviews. So, in order to get caught up a bit more on the backlog, I’ll be combining some reviews into thematic posts (of sorts). This one takes a look at three non-SFF novels I’ve read recently.

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DeeJ-AThousandPardonsJonathan Dee, A Thousand Pardons (Corsair)

Ben and Helen Armstead have reached breaking point and it takes one afternoon – and a single act of recklessness – for Ben to deal the final blow to their marriage, spectacularly demolishing everything they built together.

Helen and her teenage daughter Sara leave for Manhattan where Helen takes a job in PR – her first in many years – and discovers she has a gift for spinning crises into second chances. But can she apply her professional talent to her personal life?

I rather enjoyed this. It was a quick read, but not perfect. The novel starts out with the sudden, spectacular dissolution of Helen’s marriage to Ben, who is quite the narcissist experiencing quite the midlife crisis and breakdown. The first part of the novel follows Helen as she makes her way to New York, and stumbles into a PR job. She has a knack for coaxing out appropriate, believable apologies out of her clients. For a short time, she is able to enjoy this success. Then the novel brings Ben back into the narrative, and we get a more even-handed impression of the two characters – while I had enjoyed reading about Helen, and it did take a little while before reorienting myself for Ben’s side of the story, the novel benefited from them both being central. Dee’s prose is fluid, and I rattled through this novel at quite the pace. At times, though, things moved perhaps a little too fast – Helen’s advancement in the PR business jumps ahead slightly, and Dee doesn’t give much time over to Helen and Sara’s new lives in the big city. I think the author could have spent some more time exploring what each of the characters was going through.

Nevertheless, A Thousand Pardons is an enjoyable novel about a marriage in ruins and a family in crisis; about the limits and joys of self-invention; and about the peculiar seduction of self-destruction. It is also the tale of redemption and forgiveness, of sorts, and the enduring connection families can feel with each other, despite some of the most difficult of circumstances. It’s not a bad introduction to Dee’s fiction, and I enjoyed it enough to convince me to pick up The Privileges at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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HarrisonASA-TheSilentWifeUKPBA.S.A. Harrison, The Silent Wife (Headline)

Todd Gilbert and Jodie Brett are in a bad place in their relationship. They’ve been together for twenty-eight years, and with no children to worry about there has been little to disrupt their affluent Chicago lifestyle. But there has also been little to hold it together, and beneath the surface lie ever-widening cracks. HE is a committed cheater. SHE lives and breathes denial. HE exists in dual worlds. SHE likes to settle scores. HE decides to play for keeps. SHE has nothing left to lose. When it becomes clear that their precarious world could disintegrate at any moment, Jodie knows she stands to lose everything. It’s only now she will discover just how much she’s truly capable of…

Oh, how I wanted to love this book. For months, it seems, I’ve seen so much praise and a constant trickle of links for great and gushing reviews on Twitter. The book itself is covered in eye-catching blurbs from prominent authors, reviewers, and so forth. So how was it? Well… Politely? It wasn’t for me. Bluntly honest? I was bored. Throughout. I didn’t like either of the main characters. He is a douche, a lecherous cheater, who seems to only appreciate what his wife does for him and the fact that she’s attractive. She is fastidious to a fault, ordered and lacking any impulsiveness and rather bland:

“Meticulous planning has its merits. Life at its best proceeds in a stately manner, with events scheduled and engagements in place weeks if not months ahead. Scrambling for a last-minute date is something she rarely has to do, and she finds it demeaning.”

Now, I understand that both of the characters were probably meant to come across as either a complete ass (him) or quietly in denial about everything (her), but damn it doesn’t make for interesting reading. The synopsis above is not the whole synopsis. I cut the following:

“A chilling psychological thriller portraying the disintegration of a relationship down to the deadliest point when murdering your husband suddenly makes perfect sense.”

I found this as chilling as tepid tap water. That being said, in terms of prose and construction, The Silent Wife is very competent. The author’s prose are very well constructed, which is really the only reason I kept reading. That bit about the novel being a “chilling psychological thriller”? I was waiting for that to happen right up until I turned the final page. Maddeningly bland. This was the biggest let down of the year, I was left wondering if what I bought and read was the same book everyone else had been talking about…

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NivenJ-StraightWhiteMaleJohn Niven, Straight White Male (William Heinemann)

Kennedy Marr is a novelist from the old school. Irish, acerbic, and a borderline alcoholic and sex-addict, his mantra is drink hard, write hard and try to screw every woman you meet.

He’s writing film scripts in LA, fucking, drinking and insulting his way through Californian society, but also suffering from writers block and unpaid taxes. Then a solution presents itself – Marr is to be the unlikely recipient of the W.F. Bingham Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Modern Literature, an award worth half a million pounds. But it does not come without a price: he must spend a year teaching at the English university where his ex-wife and estranged daughter now reside.

As Kennedy acclimatises to the sleepy campus, inspiring revulsion and worship in equal measure, he’s forced to reconsider his precarious lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this “preening, narcissistic, priapic, sociopath”. Or is there.

This was a very pleasant surprise. There was a bit of a rocky start – the first couple of chapters painted an awful picture of the protagonist, and I worried that I’d always struggle to engage with him. However, Niven very quickly surprised. Straight White Male ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year.

Kennedy, our protagonist, starts off as one ugliest protagonists I’ve read about. He’s kind of awful: spoiled, wasteful, a drunkard, lewd, a sex addict with an unhealthy disrespect for women (sleeping with someone in the cloak room at his wedding, juggling multiple porn platforms at once)… He’s a complete narcissist. He’s not a pleasant guide for a lot of the opening chapters, which did make me wonder if I wanted to continue reading. Everyone else Kennedy interacts with is as well-written as this asshole, which made me stick with it, and eventually we learn why Kennedy is the way he is, and see his character develop. Niven can definitely write, and write very well, which kept me coming back. So, if you aren’t a fan of anti-hero protagonists, I’d recommend still sticking with the book, as it gets very good.

I really liked the way Kennedy gets to say and do all the things I bet many people living and working in or with Hollywood would love to say to all the self-important, pompous “artistes” with inflated senses of their own genius… He doesn’t shy away from opining on their flaws (or shouting  them at prima donna, uneducated actors). His internal and external commentary is often very funny. He’s also honest about why he does certain things. Kennedy is also not sparing on his frustrations with the publishing industry, either.

“Busy jumping from rewrite to polish to dialogue pass because, of course, all this was easier (and much more remunerative) than spreading his intestines across the page for two fucking years writing a novel. Because the only things he wanted to write about he couldn’t. He wasn’t blocked so much as… finished. The novel? That was a man’s business. He was done with it. Not that anyone knew that yet of course.”

What was most interesting, however, is how Niven slowly unveiled the tragic story of Kennedy’s sister, and how that has effected his behaviour. A lot of what he does, in the end, seems like avoidance and alcohol-fuelled coping and distraction. After the story shifts to the UK, things move quite a bit faster, too, which was a little disappointing. I would have liked some more… well, everything, really. Rather than reading that as an indictment of the novel, consider it my way of saying I wish it had been longer, because it was so good. Which it was.

Straight White Male is a very good novel on some of the many neuroses and coping mechanisms to which men can turn. Funny, irreverent, touching, and well-written, this is definitely recommended.

An Interview with PAULA BRACKSTON

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Paula Brackston lives in a wild, mountainous part of Wales. She is an author and Visiting Lecturer. Before becoming a writer, Paula tried her hand at various career paths, with mixed success. These included working as a groom on a racing yard, as a travel agent, a secretary, an English teacher, and a goat herd. Everyone involved (particularly the goats) is very relieved that she has now found a job she is actually able to do properly – and that is, write fiction. Her latest ‘series’ is The Shadow Chronicles, the second book of which – The Winter Witch – is published tomorrow in the UK.

Who is Paula Brackston?

A descendent of the Witches of the Blue Well, possessed of dangerous magic and ancient knowledge, cunningly disguised as an ordinary mortal, mother of two, walker of the dog, maker of meals, who also writes a bit.

The Winter Witch, the sequel to The Witch’s Daughter, will be published tomorrow by Constable & Robinson. How would you introduce the series to a potential reader, and what can fans of the first expect in the second?

BrackstonP-2-WinterWitchAh, well, you see, there are no sequels, as yet. Each book in The Shadow Chronicles is a stand alone. They have in common an exploration of witches through the ages, following the experiences of a witch as the main character. All kinds of witches, in different eras and settings, each with their own distinct magic and story.

What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

I live in the Brecon Beacons National Park, so I wake up each day to the most inspirational landscape you could imagine. That certainly formed the basis of not just the setting for The Winter Witch, but the characters such a place produces too. More generally, I am inspired by wilderness and wildness, by individuals who make their own way in the world, and by courage. Particularly courage, I think, as I am such a timid creature. I love inhabiting brave characters who overcome adversity. It makes me feel stronger, and I hope that works for my readers as well.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

As a reader I have never made a distinction between categories of fiction. I struggle with the whole idea of literary and commercial being two different things – surely a good book is a good book? That books will be written about different things, in various styles, traditions and settings, is what makes reading such an exciting experience.

Which is how I feel about writing, too. When I’m working on a story I don’t think about how it will sit in a certain genre, or how it will be seen. I am interested only in the story, and I strive to find the best way I can to tell it. The placing, categorising, and marketing of the finished thing I leave up to people who understand such things far better than I do.

How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

BrackstonP-1-WitchsDaughterI have the best job in the world! Maybe not the most important, prestigious, or well paid, but still the best. I get to spend all day dreaming things up and then writing them down, creating my own little world and peopling it with characters that move me, having them dash about doing all manner of stuff I’d never dare do. All this and shortbread – what’s not to like?

When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I’ve always written, but it took me years to believe I could actually Be A Writer. Still feels strange when I tell people how it is I make my living and what it is I do. The turning point came when I was living and working in London and missing the mountains very much. I came up with a plan to ride a horse around Wales for a month or so and write about it. I pitched the idea to some publishers and one commissioned it. I had to breathe into a paper bag for a bit when I realised this meant I had to give up my job and my home, leave the city, find a horse, do the actual trekking and then write a Proper-Book-Someone-Might-Actually-Want-To-Buy. It all turned out rather well. The trek was a blast, the book found a small but appreciative readership, I relocated permanently to Wales, and somehow I had become a writer. There seemed no going back after that.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

See above.

What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?

If I listed them all you’d mark me down as some sort of butterfly-brained lunatic, so I’ll cherry pick. I’ve just started another Shadow Chronicles book. I love this stage of the process, as it’s all hope and expectation and excitement and hasn’t yet had a chance to be nibbled at by doubt and uncertainty.

I’m also putting together ideas for books three and four in my fantasy-crime series, but that’s another interview entirely!

And I’ve just had one of my screenplays short-listed for some production funding, so there will be work to be done there, too.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’m currently half way through The Luminaries (by Eleanor Catton) and loving it, though I am having to pay very close attention to keep up. It thoroughly deserves its place as a Booker Prize contender. Last month I read and enjoyed The Potter’s Hand (gorgeous) by A.N. Wilson, May We Be Forgiven (deceptively deep) by A.M. Homes, and An Evening of Long Goodbyes (brilliantly funny) by Paul Murray.

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What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

In my twenties, I spent a year at an agricultural college learning how to drive tractors and train racehorses. Neither skill seems particularly useful at the moment, but I don’t like to think of time being wasted, so you can reliably expect both activities to pop up in my books at some point.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Ooh, what to pick? What to pick? There’s the publication of The Winter Witch in the UK right about now; The Witch’s Daughter coming out in paperback here in December; the German edition of the first in my fantasy-crime series due out just before Christmas; my next witchy book, The Midnight Witch, is out in hardback in the USA in March; I’m thoroughly enjoying writing the fourth book of The Shadow Chronicles at the moment…. I should imagine a little lie down sometime next summer would be very nice indeed.

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The Winter Witch is published by Corsair in the UK and Thomas Dunne Books in the US. To find out more about Paula Brackston and her novels, be sure to visit her website.

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Guest Post: “Libraries and Civilization” by Jo Walton (& Giveaway!)

Walton-AmongOthersUKIn 2004, I went to the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, and after the con I went with some friends to see the Mary Baker Eddy Library and its amazing Mapparium, It’s a globe made entirely of stained glass which you can walk inside – it has room for maybe a dozen people. It has amazing acoustics, which the guide encouraged us to test. People were doing various things, and I did my standard thing I do when asked to “say something”, Keats “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”. I’ve been using it for mic tests for years. Inside the globe it sounded wonderful, even more wonderful than usual, because of the acoustics and because of being surrounded by the glowing glass world. It’s a sonnet about the amazing wonderful power of reading. In it, Keats is all excited about having read Chapman’s translation of Homer. He compares reading it to finding a new planet and even to discovering the Pacific.

Walton-AmongOthersThat’s how I feel about reading too, reading opens up marvellous exciting new vistas, reading can take you to other worlds and give you experiences you couldn’t ever have imagined.

And it’s also how I feel about libraries. Libraries are where they keep all the books, where you can find books even if you don’t have any money, where you can have new worlds open up to you even if you’re a kid whose parents don’t care about books. Fund your libraries for a better tomorrow.

Among Others is a fantasy novel about the power of reading science fiction, and the power of finding other people to talk to about the books you care about. It’s about a young science fiction reader who has fantasy problems – she has to deal with magic and witches and fairies with their own agenda… but she has books and libraries, so she knows everything will be all right.

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GIVEAWAY! (Worldwide!)

Pretty simple, really – there are three copies of Among Others up for grabs. All you have to do is email your name and address to:

civilian.reader[at]hotmail[dot]co.uk

I will select the winners on Monday 25th March, 2013, and contact them via email and also in the comments thread, below.