Weblog #4: On being interesting

It’s been slow going with my current read, Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. The novel is a philosophical mystery that focuses on minute detail, such as the microscopic evidence collected from a missing man’s keyboard or simulating the gesture of slowly raising a coffee cup to the lips and taking a sip. The corporate world of the narrative also has a Kafkaesque absurdity to it, and the main character, the Inspector, can’t be sure if he’s talking to the people he thinks he’s talking to, or actors hired to stand in for them. It doesn’t seem to matter though; the actors come up with excessively detailed imaginings of what the actual person might have thought or done and their testimonies appear to be just as relevant – and insane – as what passes for fact.

I was intrigued, until the Inspector got mired in the tiniest of details, while every one of his encounters seemed meaninglessly mad. He couldn’t move the investigation forward, and the plot went loopy without getting anywhere. I’m a bit of a pedantic reader so I don’t do well with absurdist narratives where you can’t take things literally the way you normally would and the whole point is that you don’t know what’s going on (or at least not on the first read). It wasn’t until I accepted that and just kept reading that I managed to make decent progress.

Then, suddenly, the pace picked up and the book piqued my interest again. Why? Because the Inspector calls Isabella, the forensic analyst he’s been working with.

She revitalises the narrative partly because comfortingly level-headed in comparison to the Inspector’s increasingly wobbly mental state. Her reappearance grounded me when I felt like I was losing my grip on the book. What really struck me though was the force of her passion for her work, and the way she gives us other ways of looking at the world:

We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars! […] I hate it. That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. […] We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. […] The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. […] If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.

This passage, on page 112, is actually what convinced me to buy the book. I’d read an article suggesting that, instead of judging a book by its cover or its first page, you should read page 112. The idea is that lesser books have a lapse in the middle, so if page 112 is good, then the book is more likely to be good from beginning to end. And that’s where I found Isabella, with an idea that took me all the way to the till and, now, to Part Two of the book.

The Inspector is no less dedicated than her, but his is more of a plodding determination while she is bold, refreshing, animated. You can see her getting fired up but it’s hard to imagine him laughing or losing his temper.

In Lauren Beukes’s short piece ‘On Beauty: A Letter to My Five-Year-Old Daughter’ (2014) she writes, ‘You are interesting because you are interested, you are amazing because you are so wide open to everything life has to give you’.

Interesting because you are interested. That’s what I like about Isabella and that’s how she gives the narrative the energy it needs to get out of the doldrums.

Interesting because you are interested. This came to mind again when I was thinking about Melanie, the main character in The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I think she’s an easy to character to love because she’s fascinated by life. At the beginning of the novel she doesn’t even know what it’s like to be outside, but she hangs on to every word she hears from the adults around her (not realising that she’s a prisoner being held for experimental purposes) and uses that to construct a physical, moral and sociopolitical landscape. For her, even the tiniest pieces of information we take for granted – such as the date or someone’s first name – can change the architecture of the world, as Carey phrases it.

Her interest isn’t restricted to learning; it gives her a great capacity for compassion and love, but also the strength to protect what she loves or take whatever action her moral compass points to. And, like Isabella, her enthusiasm means she offers us great ideas and dynamic ways of looking at things. Someone with less interest, someone less interesting, is just going to see things the way most other people already do. They’re more likely to bore us, I suppose, because they can’t give us anything other than the stories we hear all the time.

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Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

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S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

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I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Daily Reads: 2 December 2014

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Hey everyone 🙂

So I’ve got the very lovely Devilskein and Dearlove by Alex Smith on my desk, and I’ll have a review for you later this week. It’s a dark retelling of The Secret Garden, set on Cape Town’s famous Long Street, and if you like YA fantasy at all, you should be reading this. But more on that later. Here’s some cool stuff to check out in the meantime.

Author Cat Hellisen is doing a NotYourNano writing project for December, which she describes as “More like the December Let’s Start A Novel And Talk About Process And Take It Easy But Still Make Progress. Or something equally snappy.” Basically NaNoWriMo doesn’t quite work for her because of the high word count, so this month she’s planning to write 100 words a day, and you can join in 🙂 She’ll be blogging about it daily, offering ideas and guidance to those who want it. There are two posts up so far:
Planting your tomatoes (in which I actually learnt something about tomatoes)
Square brackets of absolution (an excellent writing strategy I can actually recommend because I already do something similar whenever I can’t think of good words but I don’t want to let that bring me to a grinding halt).

– Grace from Books Without Any Pictures reviews She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror edited by Tim LiederI bought this book on Kindle a few years ago because I’m the sort of person who is magnetically drawn to weird titles. And it seemed apt, considering the many, many WTF?! moments in the bible. I haven’t finished reading the anthology because, like Grace, the stories are a bit hit and miss for me, but it’s worth checking out her review to see what’s on offer.

Finally, I just loved this tweet from Kameron Hurley last week:

Writing Joburg – A guest post by Abi Godsell

Abi Godsell is a South African author whose debut novel – Idea War: Volume 1 – will be released this month by Wordsmack, a digital publishing house specialising in African speculative fiction. Idea War is a YA dystopian novel set in Joburg, and I invited Abi over to share her thoughts on living and writing about the city. Welcome Abi!

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Abi, medium

I count myself as very lucky to be living in a city that I love. It’s not something that everyone has. What’s more, Johannesburg isn’t just the place that I live either. It’s the heart of both my work as a writer and as a student of Urban and Regional Planning, so I’m triply lucky.

It’s why I write the way I do, locating stories in very specific places. At least, this love of city, and wanting to share that love is one of the reasons.

I have the, probably rather silly, hope about how people will read it. I hope that someone sometime, reading a piece of mine, say, a fight scene on a street in Idea War, would take a look at the map showing where it happens and recognize a landmark in the text and suddenly say “Hey! But that’s my street! I drive that street to the veggie shop every Saturday.”

And maybe the next time they drive it, they’ll look at it a little more closely and see it as just a little cooler.

Don’t ask me to tell you what the streets are actually like though, in this city I live in and love and write, because the picture wouldn’t be a very accurate one. At least, not accurate for anyone other than me. That’s the thing about Jozi, it isn’t one city, it’s thousands.

“A story about Johannesburg? Are you insane?” an acquaintance told of friend of mine when she mentioned that we were thinking about such a project. “What do three sheltered white girls know about Johannesburg? I’ve seen things in this city that you couldn’t possibly imagine!”

And he had. Well, not things that we couldn’t imagine, but things that we hadn’t seen, faces of the city that we’d never met. Angry, broken, painful faces, well out of our life-experience. We didn’t live in his Joburg, and he didn’t live in ours. That’s what it’s like working here, there are as many different Johannesburgs as there are Johannesburgers, and you’re always mindful of that. Even if there aren’t people to remind you of how small your city experience is, you’re always mindful. If you walk or work or write here, you move through spaces, listen to languages, see scenes, read signs that you don’t understand, because they are not part of your Joburg. No matter how well-travelled you are, or how well-connected or how long you’ve been around, your city won’t contain even a hundredth of all there is. No single person’s Joburg can.

It’s that that makes this such an incredible place to set stories.

You see, my friends and I weren’t insane, thinking that we could write a Joburg story, being who we are. (At least, I believe we were not insane, and will go on believing that, else I’d have to find a new line of work.) We just knew that we didn’t have the whole story, because there isn’t just one. I think, density wise, stories-per-square-kilometre, Johannesburg must be one of the richest places in the whole world.

Writing here feels a bit like cheating. It’s not as though I have to make up a great deal. The city I live in is built as much on stories as on gold-dust. The Neon Lions in Newtown, the metal pigeons in the shadow of the Family Court, the last curlicued iron lamppost at the edge of Parkhurst, the rusting-metal rainbow on the gates of George Harrison Park, brown hyenas in Bryanston, vultures on apartment roofs in Hyde Park. It’s all there, and that’s even before you start talking to people about the stories of their cities.

It’s more of a substrate than a setting for the stories I write. Rather drab, generic plots and vaguely dissatisfying characters grow up and fill out for me, when I sit with a map and say “but what if this happened there?”

That’s the second reason why locating stories in very specific places is so important to me. The setting is so much more than a stage. It’s a force that enlivens and enriches, forms and shapes. My writing simply couldn’t be half of what it is, if it wasn’t nourished, and taught by my city.

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IWmediumThe Idea War

Callie Baxter is 16, and damned if she’s going to just sit tight and accept the invaders who have occupied her city. She’s worked hard to keep her fledgling group of passionate and righteous rebels alive, but as they uncover the new government’s most heinous plot yet, she realises she has only just begun to understand the pain of loss, and the true cost of growing up.

Idea War: Volume 1 is the first installment in a thrilling new urban series which outlines the story behind the fight for the soul of a future Johannesburg.

The city represents a shining example of recovery to the outside world, but can a small group of determined teenagers overcome the decay that has taken root at its core?

You can follow Abi @Cyanseagull or check out her blog Worlds and Words to find out more about the book and Johannesburg as a setting.

 

Review of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsTitle: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Published: 21 March 2013
Publisher:
 Viking
Genre: literary fiction, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This one is a gem – a book about writers and writing, fiction, lies, and truth.

Apparently one of the ‘absolute’ rules of fiction is that you don’t write about writers, but like Kristopher Jansma, I have never heard this and I don’t buy it. In an interview with Interview Magazine he dismissed the idea that such stories are only interesting to other writers – we can all understand the practice of storytelling:

Even if readers aren’t writers, they tell each other stories; they process great books the same way that we all do. Some of us sit down at a typewriter or computer and write out what we’re feeling, other people call up a friend. We all go through the storytelling process to make sense of it all.

I am glad Jansma ignored the rules – I love metafictional tales, not to mention the intimate portrayal of a writer and compulsive liar. The unnamed narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards claims to have “lost every book I’ve ever written” beginning with a short story written during the after-school hours and vacations he spent waiting for his mother at the airport. In high school, he discovers that he is a talented liar when he’s asked to act the part of a high-society teenager and escort a debutante to her ball. He goes on to study ‘lying’ at college, in a fiction and poetry class. Here he meets Julian McGann, a writer as talented and troubled as he is. Julian is the stereotypically tortured, eccentric artist. He seems to come from another age, and works only on a typewriter. He drinks too much, sleeps with too many young men who he discards in the morning, and writes in ferocious bouts of inspiration when he barely eats or sleeps.

Julian and the narrator begin a years-long friendship characterised by competition and jealousy, but strengthened by their shared love of writing. Julian introduces the narrator to his friend Evelyn, a gorgeous, charismatic actress. He is instantly infatuated with her, and she becomes his lover, the love he will never have, and the subject of a novel he spends years trying to finish.

The trio travel around the world, and although the novel is set in the present day, the characters’ tastes and habits often create the sense that they’re living in the Jazz Age. Our narrator goes from his tiny home town of Raleigh to New York, the Grand Canyon, Dubai, Ghana, Iceland and Luxemborg. He lies constantly, making himself up as he goes along, and struggling with relationships based on fictions. It’s one of those magical debuts – fresh and enchanting.

It feels like a book that’s going to get a lot of well-deserved attention this year, partly because of the delightfully dishonest narrator. You never know when he is lying, and he lies to everyone – strangers, lovers, friends, you, himself. Although you never learn his real name, he invents or borrows names. Eventually, he’s more accustomed to lying than telling the truth. Everything he writes or says is true in some way, but because of the way he twists fact into fiction, you learn to be sceptical. There were occasions when I was completely surprised to learn the extent of his lies. The novel is kind of trick, but you feel captivated rather than conned.

Of course, there is also a lot about creating fiction. His aim, taken from Emily Dickinson is “Tell the Truth but tell it slant”. He tries to figure out what exactly this means for him throughout the novel. It’s a question of how much of your own experience to put into your fiction. He always writes about himself to some extent but alters details, trying to give meaning or structure to his life, or write his world as he would like it to be. We also see his development as a writer. As a child, the narrator began by writing about the people he saw in the airport while waiting for his mother. He wrote so he could tell her what she’d missed while she was working, but of course he was also developing a skill for writing characters. At college, he is intimidated by Julian’s ability to write incredible stories about people from all over the globe, until he finds out that Julian too takes his stories from real life; he’s just very wealthy and has had a much more varied life so far. It’s interesting to see which details they pluck from their lives and how they re-imagine them for fiction. The narrator’s stories are usually borne out of his personal obsessions – the women who captivate him, his competitive friendship with Julian, and of course his struggles with writing.

Each chapter tells a full tale that fits into the whole, and stories are embedded within stories through things like summaries of Julian’s work and extracts from the narrator’s projects. I enjoyed most of them a great deal. Like the narrator wishing he had Julian’s talent, I wanted to be able to tell stories with such quirky details and great lines. I would have easily given the novel five stars if only there weren’t a few parts that proved a bit dull in comparison to others.

I didn’t really enjoy the extracts from the narrator’s writing, especially the snippets from a romance inspired by his affair with Evelyn. It makes sense that his voice in these stories would differ from the novel itself; unfortunately it’s rather bland. Then he parts from Julian and Evelyn after a falling out, and the novel slows down. Julian is such an eccentric and disastrously passionate character that I missed him even though I had no problem with where Jansma was taking the story. I was however, quite annoyed when the narrator travelled to Ghana, but kept using the blanket term ‘Africa’; a common, infuriating habit.

Those aren’t book-ruining problems though. This is one of the most inventive and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year, and I often think of what a good decision it was to request a review copy. It’s the kind of book that bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, in that it’s smart and well-written, but also entertaining and easy to read. I hope it does well.

Up For Review: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

I love novels about writing…

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

NetGalley Blurb:

An inventive and witty debut about a young man’s quest to become a writer and the misadventures in life and love that take him around the globe

From as early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable—yet hopelessly earnest—narrator of this ambitious debut novel has wanted to become a writer.

From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s irresistible narrator will be inspired and haunted by the success of his greatest friend and rival in writing, the eccentric and brilliantly talented Julian McGann, and endlessly enamored with Julian’s enchanting friend, Evelyn, the green-eyed girl who got away. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, desperate to tell the truth in his writing and to figure out who he really is, Jansma’s narrator finds himself caught in a never-ending web of lies.

As much a story about a young man and his friends trying to make their way in the world as a profoundly affecting exploration of the nature of truth and storytelling, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards will appeal to readers of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists and Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad with its elegantly constructed exploration of the stories we tell to find out who we really are.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards will be published on 21 March 2013 by Viking.

Links:
Goodreads
On the publisher’s website
YouTube
Read an excerpt
Buy a copy: Book Depository | Amazon | Exclusive Books

About the Author
Kristopher grew up in Lincroft, New Jersey.  He received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. Each month he writes a column for Electric Literature’s blog, “The Outlet” about Literary Artifacts, and loving books in a digital age.
Currently, he lives in New York City, where he is an Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Manhattanville College and SUNY Purchase.​ – Author’s website
Website
Social: Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Instagram
Debut Author Snapshot interview on Goodreads
Goodreads profile

Review of The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Title: The Bay of Foxes
Author: Sheila Kohler
Published: 26 June 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books USA
Genre: drama, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Dawit is an Ethiopian refugee living in Paris in 1978 after having escaped torture and imprisonment under the violent, oppressive rule of the Derg. He has no money, no job, and no visa, so he lives in fear of being caught by the police and deported. Then one day in a café he sees M., “that rarest of writers, a literary best-selling one.” Dawit – a well-educated aristocrat – has always admired her work. She’s in her sixties now, and her face is ravaged by both age and alcoholism, yet he still finds her beautiful. He goes over to speak to her, and they strike up a conversation.

M. is clearly enraptured by the stunning, young Dawit and invites him to stay with her in her luxurious, spacious apartment overlooking the Luxemborg gardens. Dawit eagerly grabs hold of this opportunity. He’s been living in a cramped apartment in the ghetto with many other Ethiopians, and appreciates the luxury of having his own room at M.’s place.  More importantly, he’s no longer has to worry about starving.

However, this is a strange arrangement, and as you can imagine their relationship is disturbing from the start. For a while, Dawit does nothing and barely even sees M., since she spends most of her time locked in her room, writing. He wonders what her motives could be, but there are no prizes for guessing what she wants from him. M. uses Dawit for inspiration, ideas, and shows him off to her friends like a living African artefact. Obsessed with Dawit’s youth and beauty, M. clearly expects their relationship to become sexual, but unfortunately – for both of them – Dawit is gay. It’s unfortunate for Dawit, because he is almost powerless here. M. provides him with everything – a home, food, designer clothes (Hermès, Armani). With his excellent French, he eventually starts to do secretarial and editorial work for her, so she pays him a monthly stipend. She even secures a tourist visa for him so that they can travel to her villa at The Bay of Foxes in Sardinia.

M. holds the power of wealth over Dawit, and unless he’s willing to live in fear and poverty again, he has to put up with patronising racism and can’t raise many complaints when the old woman comes into his room at night, switching on the light to watch him sleep naked, or crawling into bed with him. His life with M. actually reminds Dawit of his imprisonment in Ethiopia. The guards would also leave the light on, making it impossible for him to sleep, and like M. they could enter his cell whenever they wanted and do what they wanted with his body.

Dawit is at M.’s mercy, but in this case his imprisonment is cushioned by wealth, comfort and safety, so it’s not hard to understand why he stays. He also picks up some useful skills and information. As M.’s secretary, he takes care of all her correspondence and to do so he learns to impersonate her – she teaches him her signature, so that he can answer her letters and sign documents; he learns to imitate her rough, masculine voice so that he can take phone calls for her. They’re both very tall and skinny, and because she sometimes buys men’s or unisex clothing, he initially wears her pants suits and shoes. She calls him her “very young and dark double” and is amused by this comparison.

From here, it wasn’t difficult for me to see where the story was going. Although I can’t think of any specific examples, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across some version of this tale before. It also parallels Kohler’s earlier novel Cracks in several ways. Predictable as it is though, it’s not too bad. I like novels that intimately explore strange, manipulative relationships, and the psychology of obsession. The Bay of Foxes is also detailed and well written in a way that I find engaging even though there are no surprises. When Dawit speaks of M.’s work, he says he “does admire her spare, concentrated prose, her brief evocative novels” and I wondered if Kohler was using a description of her own work here; I’d say that’s an excellent way to describe my feelings about the two novels of hers that I’ve read so far.

The Bay of Foxes didn’t explore Ethiopian culture as much as I’d hoped (if you strip away a few names and details, Dawit could be from any number of countries), but I suppose this novel isn’t really about Dawit as an Ethiopian, but rather about the relationship between a disempowered young African man and an old, rich, white European woman. I don’t like the use of ‘African’ as a blanket term since the continent is so vast and diverse, but in this novel it doesn’t matter that Dawit is Ethiopian – to the French, the Italians and perhaps even to himself, he’s an African, a black man.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending though. It’s not unsatisfying (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers feel otherwise), but it’s a tad… convenient? Dawit is trapped in a difficult situation, but the most likely conclusion would, in some ways, be unjust and displeasing to the reader. Instead, Kohler smoothes everything over in a way that’s more palatable but doesn’t feel quite right. I can’t say much more of course, but I’d be interested to know what others think. All in all, a good, quick literary read, if a little predictable.

Buy a copy of The Bay of Foxes at The Book Depository