With a Zero at its Heart: update

zero coverWith a Zero at its Heart was published at the end of May, almost four months ago now. They’ve been busy months, but it really is about time I produced a round-up of what’s been said about the book since then. This is an exercise that normally requires a little judicious editing by omission. You know, the ‘could have done better/different/nothing’ reviews that dog the heels of even the best-received books. But ZERO seems to have pleased everyone, either because of or despite its formal aspects. The most common response to the book (variously described as a novel, novella, short story collection, autobiography, etc.) has been to nod at the number-crunching aspect of it (120-word paragraphs, 10 paragraphs per theme, 24 themes, plus – although not many people have mentioned this – a one-paragraph coda to round the whole thing off), and then to say that, despite all this ingenuity, this Oulipian bravado, it’s actually very readable. For which, much thanks. Anyway, here are some links for anyone who’d like to see what kind of reception the book has had in more detail.

The Guardian: “… elegantly written and carries considerable emotional clout…”

Savidge Reads: “Highly recommended reading, one of the most original books I have read in a very long time.”

Mischief and Miscellany: “It’s quiet, and fragmented, but the feelings are whole and strong. It’s tender, melancholy and playful all at once.”

Writer’s Little Helper: “The search for the ‘book of the year’ is over.”

Tony’s Book World: “…a rigorous honest approach to conveying a life…”

Freeburner: “…the story is always fresh, with every little piece filled with a degree of surprise and wonder.”

A Spoonful of Happy Endings: “…a unique, incredibly intimate and gripping read.”

Polari Magazine: ” Cumulatively the effect is searingly honest and, as a result, rings emotionally, intellectually and morally true.”

BookCunt: “…just fucking lovely. Give it a whirl.”

A life in books: “The beauty of this book lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words.”

Follow the Thread: “With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture.”

Words around Books: “Lambert is a masterful writer and storyteller and With a Zero at its Heart is a testament to his thorough understanding and appreciation of both the human condition and the beauty of words.”

Girl, 20: “…sublime and poetic…reminded me of Milan Kundera…”

Out and About in London: “The cumulative effect of these fragments is quite stunning…”

Viv Groskop in Red’s 10 Best Summer Reads: “…an unusual and wonderful book…”




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Two weeks in Budapest

IMG_3789We’re staying in a very attractive top-floor flat just off Andrassy ut, between Heroes Square and the House of Terror. Andrassy ut is what’s known as a good address, with its cluster of designer outlets at one end, the Opera House (see left) and Oktogon tér in the middle, and a series of minor embassies at the other end, before the avenue opens out to the monumental square and, beyond it, City Park. It’s tree-lined, and, for long sections, bar and restaurant-lined, and entirely pleasant to walk along, even when a gang of young men, almost certainly English, horribly drunk and perched on something called a Beer Bike, decide to moon in relative unison. Most of the pedestrians are tourists little older than the mooners, or local people with perfectly trained dogs, not always on leads. Neither group bats an eyelid. The traffic is light, presumably because it’s August. Around Oktogon, there are hop-on hop-off bus tour touts, a disproportionate percentage of them black, and a scattering of beggars, one of whom spends all day, every day, sitting behind a paper cup, head buried in a well-thumbed hardback, oblivious. When I drop some coins into the cup he thanks me in what sounds like an English accent, but I don’t stop to find out more.

budapest metroBeneath the avenue runs what must be the cutest underground railway system still in action; three mustard yellow minuscule carriages, each with seats for maybe fifteen passengers, dating from the last few years of the nineteenth century, that produce a guttural farting noise and flash red lights at each station to warn people they’re about to stop. The trains pass through each white-tiled station with impressive regularity every few minutes; from a polished wood kiosk, from the same era, tickets are available. Sold in carnets of ten, they’re flimsy scraps of grey-pink paper like something made by a John Bull printing outfit from my childhood. The line was built for the millenary celebrations of 1896 and renovated a century later, when Hungary once again had something to celebrate, its return to the west and the bitter joys of capitalism. Moving just one block to either side of the avenue, the economic crisis of the country, as in the rest of Europe, becomes more visible. Wonderful secessionist facades are shedding swathes of butter-coloured plasterwork, intricate balconies are pitted by rust. Some buildings have no roof, and not all of these are being restored, although many are. At the same time, there’s a vibrancy and sense of care here that, after Rome’s air of arrogant menefreghista slovenliness and civic disregard, is its own sort of affluence. I like the city very much.

IMG_3644One of the ways Budapest deals with abandoned or derelict areas, generally courtyards, seems to be by converting them into bars, hostels, community centres in the loosest sense of the word. They’re known (I think) as kertek, and the ones we stumble across are mostly in the Jewish quarter of Budapest VII. We walk past the first without realising what it is, then double back, intrigued by a glimpse of oddly assorted furniture and unexpected greenery (head-high weeds for the most part, except that weeds are, by definition, unwanted, and these seem to be welcomed or, at the very least, tolerated). Each kert (if that’s the singular form of the noun; Hungarian remains the most absolute of mysteries) has its character, and its bar, or bars. Some of them are surrounded by external first floor balconies linking rooms used as bedrooms, with towels and drying clothes and flags draped over the railings, and the chromatic infinitely derivative web of graffiti holding the whole scene together. We sit around a wonky zinc-topped table on unmatched 1950s Formica chairs, drinking espresso, while people half my age (OK, one third my age) drift round the place in shorts or what might actually be underwear, drinking vodka-based cocktails, their hair still in their eyes or bunched up on one side from improvised pillows. To our left, a Trabant has been sawn in half and converted into a pair of sofas. (Recycled Trabants are a fairly common sight in Budapest bars, as though people who weren’t even born then feel the need to mutilate and domesticate their Soviet past, transforming it into post-industrial kitsch.) Other tables have been made from doors, or frames, or scaffolding (and we notice an interesting use of timber for large-scale scaffolding in the city). There’s creativity and invention in abundance, along with a sense of temporariness, although the coffee is good, the bar organised and there’s clearly a business sense at work, beneath the neo-hippie trappings. The only other man in the place who is clearly over 25 strikes up a conversation, but all we want to do is watch. On another occasion – because we’re drawn to these places as dying moths are to the flame of youth – we see a young woman at the head of a long table, announcing, in English, that she’s German and asking where everyone else is from, and people answering – Australia, the Czech Republic, France – and it’s like watching one of those speeded-up films of a germinating seed, of lives bursting out. They don’t know how lucky they are, or perhaps they do. If they don’t, we know it for them, which is no use at all.

stop_art_tattoo_budapest_04The city seems to have more than its fair share of tattoo parlours, tattoo bars. Tattoos. Legs, arms, necks, the occasional forehead. Whole sleeves, and collars, of writhing collar. And under the tattoos, of the men at least, the muscles. Young and not so young men in Budapest are pumped, shaven-headed, depilated, big. So not just tattoo parlours: gyms, a lot of gyms, in cellars and up stairs, functional, unfussy, doing what they say on the tin. English names are rife, with the disquieting use of power and strength tempered by the more modish wellness. In the rest of Europe, youths may be into beards and a general hipster geekiness, and they’re certainly not absent here. But the number of biceps that rival in circumference the head of the average baby is, well, phenomenal. They’re smooth and pale, elaborately inked and eye-catching, which probably carries its own risk, although if they’re not there to be looked at what purpose do they serve? White singlets cut away to show the deltoids are also much in evidence and here too tattoos play their part in the general effect. I don’t know what this means. It’s glib to see this attention to macho display as a sort of incipient fascism, but maybe even more glib to dismiss it as vanity, or fashion. Sometimes the tattoos contain Hungarian words; I think I’m relieved that I can’t read them, although they might be the most innocent phrases in the world. And, before I move on, it’s curious to see how many Muscle Maries (if you’ll pardon the expression) have the kind of dog you’d more probably associate with Paris Hilton.  Or maybe not.

IMG_3815Talking of language and muscles, most waiters in the centre of Budapest are young, well-built, alert as meerkats and seem to have done the same course in the lingua franca of utilitarian service English.  They tend to say, ‘Thank you so much,’ when the emphasis isn’t really called for, and ‘Of course,’ in a slightly affronted but disarmingly charming way (I’m thinking of Béla at Centrál Kávéház). They all say ‘Cheers’ and ‘You’re welcome,’ and, when the bill hasn’t taken it into account, a variation on ‘May I point out that the tip is not included?’ Without exception, they’re courteous, obliging, efficient and easy on the eye. In fact, eating out here is a pleasure on many levels. Our last European city was Prague, which was wonderful, but not a culinary milestone. Budapest, on the other hand, turns out to offer not just cooking, but cuisine. Someone apparently said that the world had three great cuisines: French, Chinese and Hungarian. Well, no. But it is very good, although not perhaps a place for vegans. I’ve sampled most edible parts of the goose and duck, indulged my taste for soups (including goulash and delicious creams of garlic and wild mushroom), enjoyed lángos and lecsó (I’m showing off now). But I’ve also found excellent espresso, doner kebab, a memorable onion bhaji and a hot and sour noodle soup that left me gasping (in the right way). I won’t begin to say how good the wine is, nor how cheap the beer, in case I give the wrong impression. This isn’t a guide to restaurants, by the way, but two places we have gone back to more than twice are the deservedly much-recommended Menza in Liszt Ferenc tér and the less well-known Don Leone in Krúdy Gyula utca, in the delightful Palace District. And breakfast at Café Vian hasn’t disappointed either.

Unlike the seven-hilled Lisbon, which we visited last summer, Budapest (or the Pest part of it) is a city that lends itself to walking, which is just as well (see above). It’s not a difficult city to negotiate , and has just enough bends and curves to allow for creative confusion every now and again. We wouldn’t have found Palace District (in Józsefváros) if we hadn’t struck off from Kalvin tér looking for somewhere else, or stumbled on the grid of streets behind the splendid Opera House if we hadn’t followed our noses rather than our maps. We’re not talking rucksack and trekking boots here, just the slow unscrambling of an urban noise into single notes, and then idiosyncratic local riffs. And when you get tired of walking there are the thermal baths. The city is famous for them, which makes a visit something of an obligation, so we put it off for the first week and finally decide to sample one, if only not to lose face with our friends. Our first time we go to those nearest the flat (I’ll just check the spelling here): Széchenyi Baths, in City Park. A buttery masterpiece of municipal baroque, with a ticket office selling costumes, towels, bathing caps, flip flops, bathrobes; but we’ve come prepared. There are price lists in Hungarian, with startlingly high prices, and a small low window with a girl sitting behind it. I tell her we want a cabin, and none of what I think of as the trimmings, and she gives us both a bright-blue plastic watch, like one of those ultrathin swatches, which will get us into the place. And what a place it is. Outdoor pools at various temperatures, including the one that often appears in photographs, of old men playing chess surrounded by snow and steam – the temperature in that pool is 38°C. Inside a building that reminds me of the Savoy’s hunting lodge at Stupinigi, outside Turin. At Stupinigi, one frescoed room follows the next. Here, there’s a sequence of showers, saunas, steam rooms, plunge tubs, each with its aficionados. I try a sauna at 70°C, and then a steam room. It’s all remarkably homely, despite the grandeur, perhaps because people in swimwear really are, for the most part, homely. It’s not a competitive environment, surprisingly perhaps, given the muscle wars on the streets. I play in a whirlpool arrangement in one of the smaller pools until I’m giddy. Our second time, we go to the Gellert baths, behind the hotel that’s supposed to have inspired Wes Anderson, and we’re disappointed. They’re smaller, they don’t have a steam room (or, if they do, I can’t find it) and, dare I say it, there are too many Italians of a certain type (loud, arrogant, xenophobic). We pretend (or Giuseppe does) to be English and have a stilted conversation about how much nicer the other place is before going home. In the meantime, I’ve taught Giuseppe how to make a sausage from his swimming trunks and towel, a skill he lacked. Our plans to try the baths on Margaret Island are thwarted by a change for the worse in the weather, so I never get to go on the water slides. To make up for this, we visit an excellent exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec graphic works at the Museum of Fine Arts. I buy a fridge magnet of Jane Avril.

Sansom_DominionExtraordinary, though, how little one can really know about a city, a country. Six months ago, for me, Budapest, and the whole of Hungary, was, what? Goulash. The Hapsburgs. Mazurka? (No, Polish.) Tokai. The 1956 uprising. Liszt. Oh right, Bull’s Blood. And that was it. Then TripFiction heard I was coming to Budapest this summer and very kindly sent me The Invisible Bridge, a novel by Julie Orringer, and I learnt a great deal more about what I should have known already, that Hungarian Jews were persecuted with the same merciless efficiency Jews had been treated to in much of the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, a gradual attrition of rights followed by massive deportation, 600,000 in the case of Budapest in a matter of months. I followed Orringer’s thoughtful and gripping novel with the first volume of the Writing on the Wall trilogy by Miklos Banffy, They Were Counted, describing the privileged world of the Hungarian aristocracy as it teetered on the brink of a partly self-willed destruction at the outset of the last century. Instructive to move backwards in time, as I did, through fiction, and maybe not the worst way, or so I’d like to think, to approach a new country. I brought two books with me, A Book of Memories by the Hungarian writer, Peter Nádas, and Dominion, by C.J. Sansom. I read the first 50 or so pages of Nádas and, well, some books are right for holidays and some books are right for reading at home, and this turned out to be the latter. Which is more a reflection on myself than on the book, although it may continue to thwart me at home as well, despite the fervent thumbs up of Susan Sontag. Dominion, on the other hand, turned out to be just the right sort of read. For those who don’t know it, it’s a what-if? novel. What if the appeasers had won in 1940 and signed a treaty with Germany? It’s a picture of the England I was born into, the grey 1950s  – post-war for me, under the German yoke for the characters in the novel – and it couldn’t have been a more apposite read, given Hungary’s history since 1940. A history of appeasement, and resistance.

IMG_3807On our last afternoon I go to the House of Terror. It’s three blocks from our flat and we’ve walked past it at least once every day since we arrived. Folding round the corner of the building, the wall is studded at eye-height with the kind of photographs you see in Italian cemeteries, each with a name and the date of birth and death. It doesn’t take long to see that most of the people portrayed died between 1957 and 1959. They’re mostly, but not all, men, and mostly, but not all, young men. A two-yard-wide ribbon of matt black metal delineates the façade, rising from pavement to roof, following the roof as a sort of forbidding cornice – the letters of T E R R O R punched into it twice, with a communist star and a fascist arrow cross where the two sides meet – coming down to ground again where the next building starts. It’s oppressive, hard to miss; the shadow it creates is not only metaphorical. Inside, the courtyard of the building is occupied by a Russian tank. Already large, it looks enormous in the limited space. The courtyard is overlooked by internal balconies on the upper floors, which gives the place the air, fittingly enough, of a prison. The building was used by the AVH, Hungary’s secret police, as an interrogation centre. Above ground, the space is devoted to an exhibition of life under the Fascist and Soviet regimes, although the bulk of the exhibits concerns the period between 1944 and 1956. There are telephones from that period dotted along the walls. I pick one up and hear a voice in Hungarian, and can only imagine what it might be saying. In another room monitors show films of the trial and execution of, among others, Imre Nagy. But most of the films, with English subtitles, are of ordinary people, as we like to call them, talking about their lives. They’re my parents’ generation, and it’s pure chance that my mother and father aren’t there alongside them to talk about being displaced, or tortured. An accident of birth. Stalin’s death came just in time to save many of these men and women’s lives, according to their testimonies. One man, a Captain Mainwaring sort, shows the camera his hand, reduced to a two-fingered claw by torture. A lift takes you down to the cells in the basement, although there’s a room on the first floor, known as the ‘gym’, that’s kitted out for torture, with a row of tools hanging neatly on the wall, and a drain at the centre of the floor. The lift moves slowly and, possibly by design, begins its descent only when it’s almost too full. On one wall of the otherwise unlit, slowly descending box, is the film of a man explaining how public executions were carried out, the mechanics of it, in a calm, academic voice. You leave the lift and walk past one cell to the next, noting the variety, the creativity involved in inflicting discomfort, and then pain, and then, as a last resort, the noose on a scaffold that’s no more than a single vertical with a loop of rope at its summit. The walls of the final room are covered with photographs of the torturers, the collaborators, the implicated. In the words of the museum, the ‘perpetrators’. Unlike those of their victims on the outside wall of the building, many of these have a birth date but no indication of when they died. Which means they’re still alive, and presumably free. An American woman standing beside me calls it a wall of shame, in a disapproving way, and I suppose she’s right. The damage, after all, is done. But it must have given comfort too, to those whose fathers and mothers, and sisters and brothers, and husbands and wives, and children and lovers, were tortured to death in the adjacent rooms.

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Winter in Berlin, by Ian R Mitchell

winterI recently reviewed Winter in Berlin by Ian R Mitchell for TripFiction, one of my favourite sites (as it should be for anyone who loves both to travel and to read, and thinks the two can be fruitfully combined). I liked the book very much. You can read why here.

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Update, and news of a giveaway

zero proofsI’m sorry to have been away from here so long – I’ve been horribly busy with writing and non-writing stuff these past few months -, but I’m back with news that I hope will make up for my absence. The first is that the proofs of With a Zero at its Heart are finally back from the printers – copies are flying my way as I write – and I couldn’t be happier. The cover, specially designed by Vaughan Oliver, is graced with an endorsement by the very special Caroline Smailes and the whole package is a thing of beauty. I’ll be testing its effect on an audience next week, on Wednesday 19 March, at the British Institute in Florence, where I’ll be doing a reading with one of my favourite writers, Matthew Licht. We’ll be reading our own, and each other’s work, and there will be wine, I’ve been told. The Institute is located in Harold Acton’s palazzo on Lungarno Guicciardini 9, so there’s another good reason for dropping by if you’re in Florence. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until 22 May, when the book comes out as a lavishly produced physical object or an e-book. The choice is yours. I hope to be doing a few more readings in various places in early summer, in the UK and Italy (and anywhere else that will have me), so watch this space.

TheViewFromTheTower-72dpiIn the meantime, after its Rome launch in February at the Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere, The View from the Tower has been gathering some great reviews, including one from Mystery Scene, which concludes: “The View From the Tower echoes 1984, and, like that classic, is a superb, deeply thought-out book written by an author who recognizes the darkness of the human heart” For Scott Pack, the novel is “a slow reveal, beautifully weighted and judged”, while Trip Fiction comments: “When you read Charles’s work, you just KNOW you are in Italy!” If you can’t make it to Italy, but would like to read the book and pretend, Goodreads is currently running a giveaway until 10 April. Click here to take part. You might be one of the lucky ones.

Finally, I’ve written a few reviews, and a couple of short stories destined for anthologies, but I can’t talk about these yet. I’ve also read – and been thrilled by – the first two chapters of the Italian translation of The View from the Tower (titled Occasioni di Morte), translated by Isabella Zani and due to be published by Voland later this year. It will be strange, and exciting, to see how Italian readers react to an Englishman’s version of the world they live in. I’m now waiting to edit the sequel to The View from the Tower and Any Human Face, entitled The Folding World, set in present-day Rome and due out in October. And I’ve been working on the final draft of my latest novel, set in Paris, Greece and Whitstable. But more more news of that later.

wssp 2014And finally, I had a great time judging the 2014 Willesden Short Story Prize. Stiff competition, but an immensely gratifying task. I’ll be announcing the winners on 16 April at BAR Gallery, Unit 4-5, 1-12 Queens Parade, Walm Lane London at 7 pm.

So I haven’t just been sitting around and, as they say in Italy, combing my dolls’ hair…

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Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

kentI recently reviewed this book for Trip Fiction. The review begins: “Fiction can provide us with the chance to travel in time as well as in space, on a double trip as it were, and Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, the story of a serving woman condemned to death following a double murder, is a good example of this. It’s set in 19th century Iceland, on an isolated farm in rural Kornsa…”

I was less impressed than most people seem to have been. You can see what I thought about the book here.

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Books, by Charlie Hill, and Curtains, by Victor Olliver

Charlie Hill’s Books – at least in part – is set among the shabby shelves of the kind of independent bookshop all too rarely found these days in provincial England: in this case, Birmingham. Its hero, Richard Anger – Hill’s explicit use of names is unashamedly Bunyanesque – is a bookseller, borderline alcoholic, experimental writer – come on, you know the type – whose path, on holiday in Corfu, crosses with that of an academic, Lauren Furrows (as in plough, or possibly rut…) when they both see someone die of a mysterious illness, an illness that will bring the two of them together to form as unlikely an investigative term as you’re likely to have come across since Hawthorn and Child. There seems to be a link between this death, and other deaths, and the work of a popular novelist, Gary Sayles – think, ungenerously, Tony Parsons, although the character morphs into a sort of David Icke figure as the novel progresses. But that’s enough summary, because one of the many pleasure the book offers is provided by the plot as it twists and turns, bringing into its orbit a couple of post-post-modernist artists, Pippa and Zeke, without whom, these days, no show would be complete. The novel is a delight as it sets up its target – the mediocrity of commercialised popular culture – and then throws every ball in the shy to knock it down. It’s sharp, caustic, intelligent, often hilarious and, yes, ultimately serious, as decent satire should be, as well as providing a handy check-list for movements in modern art and literature, and a hard look at the way these are commodified. What’s interesting is that both Anger and Sayles – in their different, indeed diametrically opposed, ways – are convinced that art and language can change lives. By the end of the novel, although there’s certainly no sympathy for the bombastic, vainglorious purveyor of banality, Sayles, the only people who seem to deny the centrality of art as a bearer of value are the artists, Pippa and Zeke. Which should put them in pole position for the next Turner Prize.  

Much of Victor Olliver’s Curtains takes place in Raven’s Towers, the corporate headquarters of a lifestyle-cum-fashion Conde Nast-type glossy in the heart of the capital, although, here too, a significant part of the action ventures out into the dim provincial greyness surrounding London, in this case, a seaside town called Brightworth, famous for its pier and not much else, although fame, as the novel teasingly points out, is as up for manipulation as anything else. Following an explosion on said pier, Vicki Cochrane, editor of a high-end life style magazine, finds herself trapped between life and death in an astral waiting room, with the chance to virtually relive her last few hours and see what sense might be made of them. Olliver has enormous fun with the eavesdropping possibilities this offers, as Vicki enters and exits (in spirit form, naturally) not only herself, but some of the other appalling creatures that populate the world of fashion journalism. Think Ugly Betty with every opportunity for sentimentality surgically extracted and you’ll have some idea of the ambiance, and bitchiness quotient. At the heart of this wickedly perverse morality tale stalks Vicki the evil queen, a literary Wilhelmina (UB fans will know what I mean), but without the kittenish side. The setting, late 80s, adds to the fun and general campiness, as Vicki slots cassettes into her astral VCR, but the satire, relentless wit and narrative poise, are bang on today’s money. And like Charlie Hill’s novel, what sets out to make a point, as any good satire should, turns out to have not just claws but also, in the unlikeliest of breasts, a heart.

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The View from the Tower

TheViewFromTheTower-72dpiThe View from the Tower is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK and US, and should soon be arriving, I hope, at a bookseller’s near you. (If it isn’t, make a fuss!) It’s always odd, and exciting, to see a book up for sale, with cover and blurb in place, after the usual months of post-contractual waiting (and the years of writing, rewriting, tinkering …). In its very different way, I imagine it must be like seeing the first scan of a child-to-be, and having to decide whether or not one wants to know what sex it is. Although, clearly, that’s not the case with a novel, not even metaphorically; by the time the scan arrives, for better or worse, the decisions have all been made.

Anyway, enough of this. The first review of the novel has just been posted, and it’s a good one. Among other things, it calls the book ‘a literary and psychologically charged murder mystery that slowly cuts deep to the bone’, which seems to me get the feel of it, as I intended it, down to a tee. If anyone else would like to review the book, get in touch with NetGalley.  And for those of you who don’t already know, The View from the Tower, is a prequel to my last novel, Any Human Face (also available, etc., etc…), so if you’d like to catch up with some old acquaintances, this is your chance.

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