Quick Review: DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch (Crown/Macmillan)

CrouchB-DarkMatterUSA gripping multiverse thriller

“Are you happy with your life?”

Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.

Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.

Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. Hiswife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined — one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

There was so much buzz surrounding this book in the lead-up to its publication. So much, in fact, that I started to get nervous. Having now finished the novel, though, it’s very easy to see why so many people have been recommending it: it’s superb. Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines novels, has penned a fantastic sci-fi mystery. Continue reading

New Books (January)

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Featuring: André Alexis, Jennifer Armstrong, Rob Boffard, Ezekiel Boone, Algis Budrys, Matthew de Abaitua, Patrick Flanery, Ian Graham, Elizabeth Greenwood, Sarah Hilary, Joe Hill, Gregg Hurwitz, Davide Mana, Samuel Marolla, Vonda N. McIntyre, A.D. Miller, Tim Murphy, Daniel José Older, Chris Pavone, Aidan Donnelley Rowley, Adrian Selby, Nick Stone, Patrick S. Tomlinson, Fran Wilde

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New Books (October-November)

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Featuring: Fiona Barton, Robert Jackson Bennett, Lee Bermejo, Mike Brooks, Nick Cole, Steve Coogan, Nate Crowley, David Dalglish, Matthew Dunn, Kate Elliott, Christopher Fowler, Alexander Freed, Teresa Frohock, Christopher Golden, Charlaine Harris, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Mark Hodder, Drew Karpyshyn, Julia Knight, Victor Lavalle, Peter Liney, Peter McLean, Claire North, Megan O’Keefe, Steven Rowley, Jane Smiley, Paul Starkey, Tom Toner, Ian Tregillis

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Upcoming: CITY OF BLADES by Robert Jackson Bennett

I loved the first novel in Robert Jackson Bennett‘s new series, City of Stairs. Not long ago, Bennett’s US publisher Crown unveiled their cover for the sequel, City of Blades:

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Today, though, I spotted the UK cover for City of Blades over on Quercus’s website (below). Sadly, fans of the series will have a bit of a wait — the novel is not due to be published until January 2016.

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Here’s the synopsis (from Goodreads):

The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

Also on CR: Interview with Robert Jackson Bennett; Guest post on City of Stairs & the Super Tropey Fantasy Checklist”; Reviews of City of Stairs and The Company Man

Excerpt: CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books)

BennettRJ-CityOfStairsUKRobert Jackson Bennett‘s City of Stairs was one of my favourite novels from last year. Just released in paperback in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books, the publisher has provided and extract for me to share here. But first, the synopsis:

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself — first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it — stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem — and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

Read on for Chapter 1…
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Review: CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books/Crown Publishing)

BennettRJ-CityOfStairsUKAnother superb novel from RJB

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions — until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself — first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it — stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem — and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

City of Stairs is a superb novel, offering imaginative new takes on classic fantasy ideas and themes, populated by diverse and well-realised characters, and presented in excellent prose. This was one of my most-anticipated novels of 2014, and it exceeded by expectations. Continue reading

Review: THE ACCIDENT by Chris Pavone (Crown Publishing/Faber)

PavoneC-TheAccidentUSAn engaging suspense, featuring a secret manuscript, a conspiracy, and unwitting pawns caught in the middle.

As dawn approaches in New York, literary agent Isabel Reed is turning the final pages of a mysterious, anonymous manuscript, racing through the explosive revelations about powerful people, as well as long-hidden secrets about her own past. In Copenhagen, veteran CIA operative Hayden Gray, determined that this sweeping story be buried, is suddenly staring down the barrel of an unexpected gun. And in Zurich, the author himself is hiding in a shadowy expat life, trying to atone for a lifetime’s worth of lies and betrayals with publication of The Accident, while always looking over his shoulder.

Over the course of one long, desperate, increasingly perilous day, these lives collide as the book begins its dangerous march toward publication, toward saving or ruining careers and companies, placing everything at risk—and everyone in mortal peril.  The rich cast of characters—in publishing and film, politics and espionage—are all forced to confront the consequences of their ambitions, the schisms between their ideal selves and the people they actually became.

The action rockets around Europe and across America, with an intricate web of duplicities stretching back a quarter-century to a dark winding road in upstate New York, where the shocking truth about the accident itself is buried.

Pavone’s The Expats was an international bestseller – one I seem to have missed almost entirely. When The Accident popped up on NetGalley, though, its synopsis sent it right to the top of my Must Read titles. The story is located at the confluence of a number of my key interests: politics, media, international relations/espionage, and publishing. While the novel is not perfect, it is nevertheless a gripping, fast-paced thriller that entertained and gripped me from the start. Continue reading

“Black Moon” by Kenneth Calhoun (Hogarth)

CalhounK-BlackMoonUKAn interesting premise, well-executed, but still slightly flawed

“A black moon had risen, a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood-and invisible explanation for the madness welling inside.”

The world has stopped sleeping. Restless nights have grown into days of panic, delirium and, eventually, desperation. But few and far between, sleepers can still be found – a gift they quickly learn to hide. For those still with the ability to dream are about to enter a waking nightmare.

Matt Biggs is one of the few sleepers. His wife Carolyn however, no stranger to insomnia, is on the very brink of exhaustion. After six restless days and nights, Biggs wakes to find her gone. He stumbles out of the house in search of her to find a world awash with pandemonium, a rapidly collapsing reality. Sleep, it seems, is now the rarest and most precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it.

I hadn’t heard of this novel before it arrived through the post. As someone who has a soft-spot for post-apocalyptic novels (and the various sub-genres that covers), and also someone who has always suffered from varying degrees of insomnia, Black Moon’s premise jumped out at me. Given its slim length, too, I decided to read it right away. What I found was a novel that is, strangely, both excellent and also wanting.

To be sure, one of the things that drew me into the narrative was the insomnia aspect. In this story, rather than ravenous zombies prowling the streets and eating the living, we have a population suffering from true insomnia – no sleep whatsoever, rather than the more common syndrome that restricts sleep and prevents restfulness. As a result, the majority of the global human population is going through the debilitating symptoms of hallucinations, dissociative disorder, emotional turmoil, and eventual death. On top of this, and here’s where the peril for non-sufferers comes in, those suffering also experience homicidal rage when they are either confronted with someone they believe to be a “sleeper” or if they actually witness someone sleeping. The descriptions of what those in the early stages of suffering experience was very close to home, and I immediately sympathised with them all. [Interestingly, and rather meta, I ended up reading Black Moon well into the wee hours of the day, unable to sleep myself…] Here’s one example (I share Carolyn’s frustrations):

“Unlike Carolyn, he had never had trouble sleeping. Early in their relationship, his ability to drop off anytime, anywhere, had been a point of occasional contention. It offended her not only in that she felt that he was using sleep as a means of avoidance, but also because she held sleep so precariously. The slightest noise or change in the light could wake her. Her mind, roaring in the chassis of her skull, pounced on painful memories and worries about the future of the challenges of her studio work, batting them around for hours as she tossed and turned. Meanwhile, he snored at her side. They had decided that sleep was his super-power…”

CalhounK-BlackMoonUSDespite a great premise, however, the novel felt rather underdeveloped and, perhaps, far too short. Calhoun can certainly write, and his prose and pacing drew me on through the novel at quite a clip. However, we are never really given the chance to get to properly know the characters, which left me rather uninvested in some of their fates. Certain characters were far stronger than others (Biggs, Felicia, for example) and I think their storylines offered greater storytelling potential than a couple of the others (Chase, for example, who was a little irritating by the end). I think this would have benefited from being longer, which would have allowed us to feel the tensions of the world a bit more, get to know the characters better, and become invested in their struggles. The work-around developed by the sleep institute was arrived at rather suddenly and out of the blue, too, which robbed yet more of the tension.

True, the novel is structured and composed in a way that reinforces the hallucinatory symptoms of prolonged true-insomnia, which made it rather disjointed at certain points (on purpose) while at the same time evoking an appropriate atmosphere. This was a solid attempt to do something different, which is always welcome, but the vagaries of what I was reading often just obfuscated certain elements of the story, which meant my investment waned as things became worse.

Ultimately, there were certainly things I liked in Black Moon – the insomnia-induced zombification and mania, for example, and also the work-around that they develop (which, while suddenly introduced to the story, was also pretty cool), and the aforementioned stronger characters. Sadly, however, I didn’t love the book. It will be interesting to see what the author comes up with next, though, and I await his next novel with anticipation.

An Interview with TAYLOR STEVENS

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Taylor Stevens is the author of the new thriller THE INFORMATIONIST. It has an interesting premise and a pretty unique-seeming protagonist. Naturally, I wanted to learn more after the book arrived in the mail, and so Stevens’s UK publicist (Arrow) kindly set up this interview…

Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Taylor Stevens?

I’ve been asked many, many questions but this is the first I’ve been presented with this one, so let’s see: Officially, Taylor Stevens is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author, whose books have received critical acclaim, are published in over twenty languages, and whose first title, The Informationist, has been optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company. Unofficially, Taylor Stevens is a harried, fulltime working mom, who juggles after-school activities and all the crazy that goes into running a household, with making up stories to pay the bills.

Your latest novel, The Informationist, was published by Arrow in December. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?

The Informationist is the beginning of tragic, intense, victorious, globe-trotting, rollercoaster-ride of a kick-butt series, though I had no idea that would be the case when I wrote it. As readers, we tend to categorize books because this allows us to explain in quick brushstrokes how they fit into the reading experience. For that reason, these stories are labeled thrillers, although there is more to them than that. They are in the vein of Jason Bourne, or James Bond, or Jack Reacher—albeit with a woman in the lead who could go toe-to-toe with any one of the men.

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

Well, the impetus and inspiration winds so far back that we would take pages to get to the root of it, but in its most concise version: I had lived in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny island off the coast of Central Africa, for a little over two years. When I made the decision to start writing, it was because I wanted to bring this country to life for readers who might never have the chance to visit. Without a doubt, the first two books are drawn heavily from things I lived and experienced, but we’re heading into the fifth book now and, as I often joke to my readers, “I only have so much life trauma to pull from and I’d really like to keep it that way.” World news and current events work quite well as alternative source material.

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The Informationist UK Cover

How were you introduced to thrillers/crime fiction?

Somewhat by accident, I think. When I first began writing fiction, I had no concept of genre. I had been born and raised in a very strict, isolated, and controlled religious environment in which my education stopped completely when I was 12 years old. We weren’t allowed to watch TV, or listen to music from the outside, and were also forbidden from reading fiction. When finally I was free of that and able to make my own choices, not only did I have no reference as to what authors to read, I was too poor to go to bookstores to buy books. Everything I read came to me second hand, and as it was, most of the novels were suspense and thrillers. So I came to fiction with the understanding that stories were meant to be “exciting,” and that was what I emulated when I began to tell stories of my own — which actually worked out quite nicely given that writing suspense is what I’m good at.

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

I cannot even imagine what life would have been like had this whole “writing thing” not worked out. I’m overwhelmed by the goodness that has come through the publication experience, ever grateful for each day that passes wherein I’m able to pay the bills while still being available for my children. That said, I do not really consider myself a “creative” or even a “writer” so much as a storyteller who happens to use the written word as the medium for communication. My personality is more inclined toward spread-sheets and paperwork, so imagining the stories to life is what’s most difficult about the process. Once the stories are built, the bean-counter in me gets to have fun with the editing and tightening, which is handy I suppose, because revision is where the craft lies. As far as writing and researching practices, these have changed often throughout the years, but the one thing that has been consistent is “butt in chair.” That’s the only way to get a book written.

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The Informationist US Cover

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?

You see, this is a very difficult question to answer. Growing up, I had no concept that “being an author” was even an option. Thoughts of becoming a doctor or lawyer, bartender or chef were as foreign as those of becoming a handyman within one of the communes — which, in our culture, was strictly a male job. As a girl, the best I could hope for was to become a personal assistant to one of those higher up the cult food-chain, and in my early twenties I did wind up in that unpaid position for a few years. As children we were essentially child labor, and as we had no mental stimulation and we were so bored, I would make up stories for entertainment. When I was fourteen, I started writing them down, but this turned out very badly. When my notebooks were discovered, I was isolated from my peers and the “demons” “exorcised” and my writing was confiscated and burned. I was told never to write fiction again, or else. I was in my thirties, at home with two babies, when I realized that I wanted to give storytelling another try. But I didn’t start writing with the idea of “becoming an author.” I wrote just so I could say I had finished a book, and to give a finger to the people who had controlled me in the past. There was no way I could have possibly predicted or even imagined what would follow from the determination to see that one decision through.

Taylor Stevens (credit must be used Alyssa Skyes)

Taylor Stevens (Credit: Alyssa Sykes)

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

To be honest, I have no idea. I’m still sorely under-read and rather painfully oblivious to current trends. I know that there is so much available for readers to explore and that my books are just a drop in a vast ocean of goodness. I’m completely honored to be part of that ocean, though, and treasure every one of my fans and readers — they’re the ones who’ve kept me in business and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

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

The next in the series, THE INNOCENT, takes readers inside the cult of my childhood. It is as close to real life as I could get in a genre-specific, word-count based, fictional format. For that reason, it is more psychological and has less blood and violence than the first — but the realism is uncomfortably accurate. The high octane continues with THE DOLL, and in the United States we are now getting ready to publish the fourth in the series, THE CATCH. I’m excited because with each new title I hear from more readers, and I do love to interact with my readers. For those who are interested, I email regularly via my website.

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

SmithHW-PowerOfPerceptionI’m a firm believer in the need for continual self-growth. I feel that the more I am able to shed bad habits and wrong ways of thinking, the happier and more balanced my life will be — and there is always room for improvement. I have just finished Power of Perception by Hyrum W. Smith. It’s a tiny book, basically the direct transcript of a speech that he gives, but the principles, simple as they are, are life-changing. Based on how much I appreciated the speech, I purchased two of his older books, 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management and What Matters Most: The Power of Living Your Values, and plan to start them shortly.

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

Considering the characters that I write and the life background I’ve risen from, readers are often surprised—perhaps disappointed—to discover that I’m very sweet, happy, empathetic, content, and polite in real life. I also cry when I see or experience something beautiful, or when something makes me happy (which is often).  And I hate suspense and blood and gore, which I find hilarious, seeing as that’s exactly what I write. I suppose it’s different with my own work because I get to control the story and I know how it ends. I love spoilers. Sometimes that’s the only thing that will get me to watch a particularly suspenseful movie. With suspenseful books, I have to read the last chapter first.

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

Over the past few years, during quiet spells, or while waiting to receive material back from my publisher, I’ve worked on side project geared more toward a younger audience. Oblivious as I am, I couldn’t say what genre the book is, only that it’s not a thriller. I finally finished the writing just last month and the response from test readers has been quite enthusiastic. The manuscript is in the hands of my agent now, and I’m nervous because it’s unlike anything I’ve done before. If I could have a wish granted over these next twelve months, it would be to see something wonderful happen with that story. I’m also quite excited to begin on the fifth book in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series.

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Be sure to visit the author’s website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, for more information and news. The Informationist by Taylor Stevens is available now (Arrow Books in the UK, Crown in the US).

Upcoming: ARMADA by Ernest Cline (Crown)

ClineE-ArmadaAnyone who’s been following Civilian Reader for a while, should have spotted my glowing, gushing review of Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One. Ever since I read that novel (devoured, it really), I have been on the look-out for information on his next fiction project. The other week, I stumbled across the information for Armada over on excellent The Book Smugglers website. So I’m going to shamelessly pinch the info from them, and share it here. Here’s the synopsis…

Lightman is daydreaming through another dull math class when the high-tech dropship lands in his school’s courtyard-and when the men in the dark suits and sunglasses leap out of the ship and start calling his name, he’s sure he’s still dreaming.

But the dream is all too real; the people of Earth need him. As Zack soon discovers, the videogame he’s been playing obsessively for years isn’t just a game; it’s part of a massive, top-secret government training program, designed to teach gamers the skills they’ll need to defend Earth from a possible alien invasion. And now…that invasion is coming.

As he and his companions prepare to enter their ships and do battle, Zack learns that the father he thought was dead is actually a key player in this secret war. And together with his father, he’ll uncover the truth about the alien threat, race to prevent a genocide, and discover a mysterious third player in the interplanetary chess game he’s been thrown into.

Armada is due to be published by Crown Publishing in the US (July 2014) – no news yet on the UK or other international publishers. Be sure to follow Cline on Twitter, too, for more up-to-the-minute news. I was also able to find the following image on Forces of Geek, which was categorised as “Poster”, but it was cool enough that I thought I’d share it here as well…

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