Monday 15 February 2016

13 Minutes

13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough
I have a day job where I run the advertising on a very large magazine, that has a small book review section. This book came in, among dozens of others but the editorial team passed on it. So I took it, because I like Sarah's stuff and I was a bit sad that we didn't get it in the magazine. My disclaimer would be something along the lines of "Some people I work with received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. But they didn't fancy it, so you got me instead." Still, it's not as bad as the time a small press publisher tried sending one of my books in!

Early one winter's morning, a popular, attractive, intelligent sixth form student is pulled from the river. Natasha is resuscitated after spending 13 minutes being dead. Her best friends are acting suspiciously, and she received a mysterious text message in the middle of the night.

With no memory of the preceding eighteen hours or so, Natasha and her childhood best friend Rebecca rekindle their relationship as they start investigating the incident. While also worrying about boyfriends, playing chess, and working on the school's drama production of The Crucible. How could perfect Natasha have ended up in the freezing water? And what are her friends failing to tell her?

Sarah Pinborough captures perfectly the shifting alliances, insecurities and rivalries of teenage life, while never descending into stereotypes - the "needy" girlfriend turns out to have pretty good reasons for being clingy where her older boyfriend is concerned, for example. Creating five fully-developed and believable teenage female characters is no mean feat, and when most of their parents also pop up in significant supporting roles, not to mention the police, teachers and other adult cast, you're left with a packed guest cast.

While partly a study in how vile teenage girls can be to each other, 13 Minutes is mostly a thriller, however, and it is constructed tightly. Not a single comment in Natasha's diary is superfluous, not a single plot detail is extraneous (even if it turns out to be a red herring later). The fact that the girls are involved in a production of The Crucible resonates with the plot sometimes, and serves to misdirect the reader at other times.

With any thriller aimed at the YA market, a jaded adult can probably spot the odd plot development before it hits. Sarah's masterstroke is to signal some of her jabs just enough to make them satisfying for readers of any age, whether you predicted them or not, before hitting you with the next twist. "Didn't see that coming, did you, smartarse?" you can almost see her saying.

The girls drink, smoke, take drugs, shag, and are eye-wateringly catty to each other. This is very far from being an idealised depiction of young adulthood, and the plausible use of social media and messaging throughout (a notable Achilles heel for many a writer) adds up to a thoroughly modern novel.

13 Minutes is a gripping, funny and closely observed book that has been crafted to perfection. Everything is both not as it seems, and exactly as described. The book rewards careful reading, re-reading, and deserves to be a smash hit for a very hard-working writer at the height of her powers.

Friday 12 February 2016

Casanova: The Story Of My Escape. Get It While It's Cheap!

The Story Of My Escape is my most popular and enduring book to date. Casanova (yes, that Casanova) is partying in Venice, when the Inquisition lock him up in The Leads, a notorious prison in the lead-lined roof of the Doge's Palace on St Mark's Square. After 15 months of vermin, illness, boredom, fear, and insanity brought on by reading a bad book, the libertine attempts the most audacious and flamboyant escape in history.

If everything you think you know about Casanova comes from a certain TV serial starring David Tennant then, yes, the book covers the bit when Casanova was locked in prison for five minutes before hearing some bad news about his girlfriend and punching his way out through the wall. The full story is... somewhat more convincing (but still not necessarily entirely true).

It's a brilliant book, a truly marvellous book, and I was staggered to discover it had never been made widely available in English before. At the suggestion of Kate Orman, I translated it from French myself (though Italian, Casanova tended to write in French in order to reach a bigger audience. I surmise from this that he would only have approved of my attempt to render his tale in English).

In the two years that the book has been available, it's sold several hundred copies all around the world, in e-book and paperback. If my interest was purely commercial, I'd be a fairly satisfied self-published author with a modest success in my catalogue.

But I have delusions of scholarship, and I feel this is an important book. The moment I began receiving emails from people thanking me for finally publishing a text for which they'd been searching for years, and from people who letting me know how much they'd enjoyed reading it after completing the Secret Tour of the Doge's Palace and seeing Casanova's actual cells (a trip I've still not made myself!), I knew this book needed to get out of the self-publishing ghetto and in front of as many readers as possible.

People need to read this book, to discover what a witty, ruthless, brilliant man Casanova could be, to be entertained by his philosophical reflections, which can switch from thoughts on bravery and honour to urine within a couple of paragraphs, and back again. In the course of this book, Casanova is as broken as anyone can be by both mental and physical illness, but still bounces back to leave a snotty note for his jailers before breaking out of his cell. The French edition was a huge bestseller across Europe in the late 18th Century. It's been a long time reaching the English market, but now it's here I want people to read it.

To that end, the e-book is currently on sale at just £0.99 / $0.99 on Amazon, until Tuesday 16 February, and is being heavily promoted around the interwebs. Enjoy The Story Of My Escape.