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Review: Ashes to Ashes, Barbara Nadel

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Ashes to AshesIt is 29 December 1940, and London is in the grips of the worst bombing conflagration of the Battle of Britain. Hitler has ordered the razing of London and the main target of the attack is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Knowing that the pride and fighting will of his entire nation are at stake, Winston Churchill personally orders all hands to defend the church, come what may. It is a terrible night as incendiary bombs rain down and spark fires wherever they fall, followed by high explosive bombs to fan the flames.

Francis Hancock, a half-Indian shell-shocked Great War veteran, takes cover from this barrage in St. Paul’s. Claustrophobic and on the verge of panic, he listens to the sirens howl up above, the bombs thud into the City, buildings splinter and collapse, while his fellow Londoners in the crypt whisper about a foul-mouthed girl who has gone missing in the church. It’s not long before he volunteers to find her, more to get out of that cramped crypt than anything else. Except, when a night watchman tells him of a terrible secret surrounding the girl’s disappearance, and is himself thrown from the highest point in the building by an unseen murderer shortly thereafter, Francis Hancock’s life is suddenly in greater danger than if he tried to venture out into the immolated streets. St Paul's Cathedral

Last week I reviewed River of the Dead, and if I had some reservations about that book, I have few about this novel. Ashes to Ashes is a triumph of atmosphere and setting. Not only does Barbara Nadel bring World War II and the battle to save London alive in the most vivid way possible, the brooding mystery at its heart is rendered all the more unsettling because we see it from the viewpoint of a physically and mentally broken man. Francis Hancock is as peculiar as he’s likeable, an unlikely hero who easily endears himself to the reader. What fascinated me most, though, was how Barbara Nadel took such an iconic building and turned it into a place of cramped murderous possibilities. The tight scenes, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the very real paranoia of a frightened man who can’t tell friend from foe, evoke the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful films.

If the reminders to the reader of why a particular act was committed are as annoying as the occasional devilish monologues by the bad guys – à la Arthur Conan Doyle and his Inspector Sherlock Holmes – the moral dilemma that Barbara Nadel poses at the end of the book isn’t. It’s a question I’ve frequently asked myself in this post 9/11 world of ours, that is: to what extent must evil be left to flourish in order to preserve the greater good? It’s a question I’ve thought about many a time; as for the answer – it’s a horrifying thing to have to admit, but evil is as much a part of being human as is the good, and this duality makes me cringe when I wonder what I might do when driven to the extreme.

What did you think of the novel? Drop me a line and let’s compare notes. It’s always great to have a second opnion.

Interview with Barbara Nadel
Keep an eye out for the next blog, which will be an interview with Barbara Nadel about her two leading men, Cetin Ikmen and Francis Hancock.

Chelsea Cain 3: Women and violent crime fiction

Posted in crime fiction, interview, thriller, Uncategorized, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Switching off the light and forcing readers to imagine exactly what that is, scratching under their beds, is the height of our art as crime writers. And if an author can do it so seamlessly that readers are convinced they actually read the scenes they imagined in your book, you can open a bottle of Moet. Michael Connelly achieved this in The Poet. The PoetTo this day, he tells me, he has people commending him on the terrifying paedophile he wrote about, but in actual fact, the character never directly touches a child, nor is he the main bad guy. And yet, that’s how people remember it. Take the movie Event Horizon, when Lawrence Fishburne’s salvage team finally discover the captain’s log of a ship that’s mysteriously reappeared after disappearing seven years ago. The clip is only about ten seconds long, and nothing in it is clear, but every hair on your neck stands up straight.

Chelsea CainSimilarly, Chelsea Cain’s much talked-about torture scene isn’t actually all there, if you look hard. Instead, we get it in snippets and rags as Archie Sheridan remembers those dreadful moments. And yet it’s the one story that readers remember. So the question is, how far is Chelsea Cain responsible for it, and how much of it comes from the darkest recesses of your own mind?

Richard Kunzmann: At Harrogate you were asked to justify women writers writing violence. And in many interviews you’re asked exactly how sick and twisted you are in real life. It’s almost as if you’re a dirty secret in crime fiction that everyone loves talking about, but no one wants to own up to. Why do you think that is?

Chelsea Cain: Honestly, I don’t think my books are that violent. Isn’t that funny? Because I get that EVERYONE ELSE does. But, with the exception of bad guys, we don’t see any murders. The bad guys are shot quickly in the head. The other murders all take place “off stage” to people we don’t know. We hear about them. We see the aftermath. But we don’t see good people get killed. As for the torture – they’re in flashback, people. You know that Archie is going to be okay. (Fucked-up, pill-addled and nuts, but alive.) The books are graphic, which to me is a different thing than violent. Corpses are described. We see scars and blood and gore and sex. But writing is about description, about unpacking an experience, and I think that getting your spleen carved out by a serial killer deserves as much attention as the layout of a character’s living room. Also, I think if you’re going write about murder, it’s important to make it seem horrible. I have dead teenage girls in Heartsick. We don’t see them murdered, but we see their bodies. And that’s not pretty. To make it anything less than horrific feels irresponsible to me. And to understand what the books are about – the sick romance between Archie and Gretchen – you have to understand that she tortured him and it wasn’t very fun. These characters are really damaged. And to get at that, we have to see a little of what made them that way.

CSIRichard Kunzmann: In a world were CSI and ultra realism has become a benchmark for many readers and TV viewers, how do you reconcile the fact that psychologically and forensically speaking, a character like Gretchen Lowell is even unlikelier than Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.Hannibal Lecter

Chelsea Cain: First of all, I’m not so sure that CSI is ultra realistic. They make stuff up all the time. They just add in a lot of lingo that makes it SEEM realistic. Gretchen Lowell isn’t realistic at all. Not a bit. In any universe. She’s not even a realistic psychopath. In real life she’d probably be a very successful corporate lawyer and living in Connecticut. I don’t care about that at all. I care about making her a compelling, enchanting, scary and charismatic character in a series that is clearly fiction.

Richard Kunzmann: So your writing is about being convincing, not really about being realistic? How do you as a writer and reader deal with these two forces when you write a novel?

Chelsea Cain: The trick is to find enough that’s true so that the reader will go along with the stuff you make up. I will do a lot of research and then pull out a few tiny things and ignore the rest in service to the story. The story is what is important to me. And if I need to overlook some fact in order to get the characters into the situation I want them in, then I’m completely comfortable with that. And my goal then becomes to figure out how to ignore that fact without distracting readers.

Richard Kunzmann: Are you worried about taking liberties with poetic licence and leaping over gaps in logic?

Chelsea Cain: I worry about readers looking up from the book and saying, “Wait just a fucking minute.” Because then you lose them. Gaps in logic are fine if you can get the reader on board. It’s another universe. Readers know that. They’re willing to forgive a lot, as long as they don’t feel you’re taking advantage of them.

Richard Kunzmann: The violence is maybe not as explicit as in films like Hostel or Saw, but only just. Are you a big fan of horror?

Jack Nicholson in the ShiningI’m not a fan of torture porn at all. I love cheesy horror movies, and really good horror movies, like The Shining and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I’m not a fan of the Saw movies. I know there are probably people reading this thinking that I’m a total hypocrite. Some would put my books firmly in the torture porn category. But here’s my defence. I don’t think that label can even apply to books. The thing about movies is that you can’t get inside anyone’s point of view. You, the viewer, are always, by definition, on the outside looking in. You are a voyeur. That’s what makes it porn. All the torture scenes in Heartsick are from Archie’s point of view. We experience it through him. We are on his side. And I think that transforms the experience into something a tiny bit less seedy and exploitive.

Richard Kunzmann: You’ve admitted in a previous interview that films have played a big roll in your life. Which films stick out as having influenced your work?

Law and orderChelsea Cain: My books are more directly influenced by TV shows. Wire in the blood, Law and order: Criminal Intent, Touching Evil. But my head is full of movies and books and TV shows (I am a pop culture sieve), and my characters are all combinations of hundreds of portrayals I’ve seen elsewhere and liked and recycled. The books are often described as cinematic, and I think I tend to construct and portray narrative in a film style rather than literary style. The transitions and props I use are much more movie-ish than book-ish. If a chapter ends with one line, I like to open the next chapter with something that references it, even if we’re now across town, in someone else’s point of view. And everyone is always smoking or drinking coffee or waving pens around – so that they have some props to illustrate how they’re feeling, which is very much an actor’s trick.

Richard Kunzmann: When I first came across Susan Ward, I immediately thought of Kate Winslett’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’s also a character that’s a lot more real to me, someone that I might have hung out with most of my life. How did she enter this series, because she’s so different from all the other characters?

Chelsea Cain:It’s the colorful hair. And you have hung out with her. In that hotel bar in Harrogate. (Blush.) Susan was my way into the story. I’ve never been a cop. Or a serial killer. But I have been a quirky features journalist. I know how that works. She was the last character I invented because I needed some authority. Susan acts as the eyes and ears of the readers, because she’s new to all this, she’s sort of figuring it out with us. In my defence, I am not nearly as fucked up as she is. Nor do I share her, um, complicated past. But we do have a similar worldview. We worry about many of the same things. And we have all of the same clothes.

Oh that night at the bar in Harrogate. I have fond memories of us flooring everyone else with a few rounds of tequila. I just couldn’t believe how fresh-faced Chelsea looked the next day when everyone else looked like they’d been through a war. She was ready for the day’s first round of debates, looking fresher than water, but with a glass of burgundy at hand, of course. Only journalists have that fortitude. But it seems Susan Ward and Chelsea Cain have more than a career in common; as a young Chelsea Cain had a secret crush on the task force detectives hunting the Green River Killer, so Susan Ward has fallen hard for the detective she shadows all over town. Archie Sheridan, it seems, is the kind of screwed man women just can’t leave alone. Read Russell Crowe rather than George Clooney. Russel Crowe

As the conversation draws to a close, I think of Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King who have both complained about the creepy fans that pester them at signings. So I wondered what kind of people might be following Chelsea Cain around, now that she’s widely known as a sick and twisted writer. Her answer seems to hit the nail write on the head.

Chelsea Cain: I am amazed at how many young women will come up and tell me how “inspiring” they find Gretchen Lowell. Which I think sort of speaks to the lack of powerful female archetypes in pop culture. Gretchen is a black-hearted serial killer with a sado-masochistic streak a mile long, but she’s in control. And young women respond to that. Which is a tiny bit sad for all of us.

Next up:

Evil at heartChelsea gives us a few fast facts about Evil at Heart, due out in four months.

Chelsea Cain interview: Of crochet hooks and intestines

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, serial killers, thriller, Uncategorized, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2009 by richardkunzmann

HeartsickSweetheart
In many ways, Chelsea Cain’s series evokes the same emotions as Jane Campion’s In the Cut – layers of terror and aggression complemented by a sensuality that is so out of place it makes things all the creepier. The main characters are Archie Sheridan, the cop that’s been hunting the Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell. When they finally encounter each other it’s not so much the gore factor that sticks in the mind. It’s Chelsea Cain’s success at making us complicit in the sexual obsession that binds these two people together.

We can talk about the things Chelsea Cain did which many other authors have done: studying journalism, flopping from one job to the next, not quite sure what she wanted to do; dying her hair various shades of LOUD; a stint as a PR director and falling hopelessly in love, in Chelsea Cain’s case, with the guy at the video store. Regular girl-next-door stuff, I guess, except, if you go further back in her history, you’ll discover that the macabre streak that runs through her work was already well alive in her youth. You see, Chelsea Cain used to be the neighbourhood gravedigger as a young child. Apparently she created a pet cemetery in her garden for her own pets when they died, then the dead birds she found on her way back home from school, and after that, when the other kids in the neighbourhood found out about it, for their dead animals too.

Me having trained up as a psychologist, and Freud believing that our personalities are set in stone by the age of three, I start our interview by asking Chelsea Cain what the one thing was that scared her as a kid.

Chelsea Cain: When I was five my dad took me to a children’s museum in Chicago and they had this life-size display of Gulliver tied up by the Lilliputians. It scared the shit out of me. For years I was convinced that there was a civilization of tiny people under my bed who would tie me up if I let my hand fall to the floor. But honestly, I was not scared of much as a kid. I had a lot of independence and self-confidence. Probably too much.

Richard Kunzmann: So what convinced you to finally move away from teen fiction and write a thriller? Did your characters come to mind first, or did you decide to shoot for the genre straight away?

Chelsea Cain: Actually, I started with a relationship. I wanted to explore the connection between a serial killer and the cop who’d spent his career hunting her. So it started with that obsession, and then the idea that the serial killer would be a woman. Not just a woman, but a knock-out – the kind of woman that scares the hell out of our culture already, without having killed anyone. The male-female dynamic would instantly complicate the relationship by introducing sexual tension. It seemed like a really compelling set of themes to unravel.

Richard Kunzmann: I see that the Green River Killer investigation was quite close to home when you were growing up. How did those killings impact on your choice to become a crime writer?

Green River Killer Gary RidgwayThe Green River Killer was at large from the time I was 10 to the time I was 30. It was huge news in the Pacific Northwest. He raped and killed young women about an hour away from the town I grew up in, and his name became a sort of code for Really Bad Things That Can Happen to You. So, if you were going to go to a concert in Seattle, your mom might say, “Watch out for the Green River Killer.” Or if you were going to take the dog out for a late night walk, someone might say, “Be sure the Green River Killer doesn’t get you.” What they meant was BE CAREFUL. He became synonymous with things that go bump in the night. You couldn’t escape him—there were countless front page stories. And I was aware, very young, that there was a task force of cops trying to catch him, and that really caught my attention, too. I liked the idea of this team of people working to keep me safe. So the character of Archie Sheridan definitely came from my feelings about that Task Force. He’s sort of my child’s eye hero.

Rather than your series being a serial killer tale in the traditional crime fiction sense, it’s the crackling sexual tension between Archie and Gretchen that’s carried from Heartsick to Sweetheart?

I wanted to explore it from the start. I was surprised when people started using the “serial killer book” label. The books are thrillers, sure. But I don’t think of them as being serial killer books. I mean, obviously Gretchen Lowell is a serial killer and she is in all the books. But the books are not about catching her. They’re about what happens after she is caught. The fallout of this relationship. They are, in their own way, more twisted romances that thrillers.

Your books seem to be doing for the genre what Tarantino did for violent films back in the 90s – putting undeniably funny situations together with horrific circumstances. They expose the absolute parody we’ve made of violence and serial killers, embrace it, and take it into a new direction. Is that a fair comment?

Chelsea Cain: I decided early on to embrace clichés and then I really made an effort to subvert them. My characters are right out of central casting. Cop. Reporter. Serial Killer. The ex-wife. The gruff partner. It’s all been done like a billion times. So I tried to challenge our expectations of these stock characters by making them do and say things that are unexpected. But I do think that the books have a dark Tarantino-esqsue humour. At least that was my goal. And the weird thing is that when I give a reading, I find that I can get a lot of laughs. Maybe it’s because when I’m giving it, I cannot say the line (about a corpse) “her eye sockets were concave bowls of greasy, soaplike fat” without smiling. And pulling someone’s small intestine out with a crochet hook? Come on, people. How is that not funny? I think you have to give the reader permission to laugh.

To me it seems that everyone has been so fixated on the torture scene that they’ve missed both the wider picture, and what actually made the books so horrific, namely Archie Sheridan’s own complicity in his victimisation. As much as we are taken aback by what’s happened to him, it’s made more grotesque that he’s still got a hard-on for Gretchen.

How screwed up can one man get?

Feel free to comment on this series of interviews, especially if you’ve read one of the books. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and we might get Chelsea to comment further.

Next up Chelsea and I talk about:
• Women crime writers and extreme violence
• Why women can’t get enough of Gretchen Lowell

On securing that first book deal

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Richard Kunzmann on publishing a first book

I can’t believe this is a talk I gave two years ago. Thanks to the Books SA Team, I got to make a fool of myself in front of readers at Exclusive Books in Cape Town. The shop put a lot of effort into the launch, including bullet proof vests and fake bags of cocaine carelessly tossed around the books.

Never liked public speaking much and seeing yourself on YouTube makes it even worse. But it comes with the territory, I guess!

Short Stories 3: Lovecraft and looking death in the eye

Posted in book, fantasy, review, richard kunzmann, short stories, speculative fiction, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Lovecraft Bloodcurdling Tales “I’m writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.” Dagon, H.P. Lovecraft

LovecraftAside from the fact that H.P. Lovecraft has a name that perfectly suits the horror genre, and a peculiar look about him which suggests he’d jumped straight out of the story A Shadow over Innsmouth, the man’s short fiction is, if not profound or incredibly skilled, then certainly imaginative and unusual.

Continuing with my list of favourite short story writers, Lovecraft is one of the few authors I go back to over and again. He has been hugely influential in horror and science fiction, even though many of his stories read like Sherlock Holmes tales. What makes his work so enduring is the nature of the horror to which his protagonists are ultimately exposed. Invariably, his characters epitomise the enlightened man – rational, intellectual, calmly inquisitive – who comes into contact with some mystery which unleashes an awesome truth that reveals to our hero the fragility of his own existence and ultimately leads to insanity or death.

Lovecraft Dreams of TerrorLovecraft’s single obsession is a universe that is fundamentally unknowable and destructive, no matter how far our sciences and religions purportedly develop us as a species. It’s a paranoid and pessimistic vision, much in tune with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s philosophies, but it’s one we must admit is as accessible as it is frightening. The fear and horror Lovecraft writes about goes well beyond the pain of death or torture, so heavily portrayed these days in crime fiction and dreary splatterporn films like Saw,Hostel and Frontier(s). His work challenges us to think more deeply about the moment of death when we have to face up to the fact that there is no afterlife, that we’ve been lying to ourselves all our lives, and when we die we cease to exist and return to entropy.

If Freud is right, and we as a species derive as much creative force from death as we do from life, Lovecraft must surely be a high priest of the death drive, or Thanatos – the ancient Greek personification of death, but also a word just as easily plucked from the Cthulhu mythos for which this strange author is most famous.

Lovecraft Tales of the Cthulhu MythosSo many people to whom I’ve lent his books quickly return them with a look of wretched disgust on their faces. It’s a universal law that you either love or hate Lovecraft. His dialogue can be sickly, his style often clunky and littered with such overused and abused terms as “cyclopean”, “antediluvian” and “eldritch”, to name but a few. His misogynist views and racism are also well documented (and glorified by other misogynists like Michele Houellebeque), while the plot lines remained fairly standard throughout his writing career.

But all of these criticisms miss the point.

Lovecraft Road to MadnessI personally feel his outdated prose lends itself to the stories he writes, and like J.G. Ballard and Mitch Cullin (Tidelands), or photographers Diane Arbus and Roger Ballen, Lovecraft is an artist who as turned away from what is traditionally accepted as aesthetic pure, and beaten his own strange path to create something hauntingly enduring.

Mythbusters:

Contrary to popular belief the Necronomicon did NOT first appear in Evil Dead films, starring Bruce Campbell, and it isn’t a real ‘lost’ tomb. It was invented by H.P. Lovecraft who credited the fictional “Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” with its writing. It’s a theme he kept coming back to, just like the Miskatonic University in Providence.

My essential reads (roughly in order of favourites):

At the Mountains of Madness
The Dunwich horror
The Rats in the Walls
The Music of Erich Zann
The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Colour out of Space

A number of authors have paid tribute to Lovecraft, of which my favourite story must be Stephen King’s Jerusalem’s Lot, August Derleth’s Dweller in the Darkness, and Robert Bloch’s various stories appearing in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Reputed famous fans:

Guillermo Del Toro
Neil Gaiman
Clive Barker
Joe R. Landsdale
H. R. Geiger
Alan Moore

Gaiman also who wrote a pretty good Lovecraftian story called Shogoth’s Old Peculiar – probably a cheap shot at an unusual but tasty beer called Theakston’s Old Peculiar, which is now associated with the Harrogate Crime Festival.

Read here what others have said about his books on Goodreads and Amazon.

Music to read by:
Judas Priest’s Blood Red Skies
Diary of Dreams
Check out this blog talking about Lovecraft’s influence on metal.

Watch this rather comical movie trailer for a period short film of Call of Cthulhu

Adapting book characters to films: talking to Christopher Priest and Michael Marshall Smith

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Prestige 2006 It was over lunch at Si Italy in Hastings that I asked Christopher Priest about the film adaptation of his book, the Prestige. He’d spend a significant amount of time researching the lives of stage magicians and learning how their tricks were done, and so I thought a lot must have been at stake for him when the film was made, creatively speaking.

“It was so strange watching the film, I later wrote a book on the experience,” Chris reflects. “Some of the scenes were great, others a bit disappointing; like, why would Scarlet Johansson’s character give Angier (Hugh Jackman) Borden’s (played by Christian Bale) diary, if she’s fallen in love with Borden and knows what’s going to be done with the diary? And the ending, it was nothing like the book and rather weak.”

Scarlett Johansson aScarlett Johansson

Chris seemed to have mixed feelings about the film, but I could also detect a certain amount of pride that it was made. His reaction was nothing like Anne Rice’s famous denouncement of Interview with a Vampire (She originally wanted Rutger Hauer, not Tom Cruise).

Tom Cruise Rutger Hauer

But what about the choice of actors, I asked. Did you like them? “Hugh Jackman was far too beautiful,” Chris laughed. “His character in the book was a sly, sharp-faced man.”

I don’t envy authors who spend years on a novel, painstakingly crafting a character so that the body reflects the mind and vice versa, only to have Hollywood carve it all up for a ninety page script that stars actors who are all muscles or cleavage. It’s great for the audiences, but a shambles for character development and an author’s perseverance. The best characters in fiction are hardly ever beautiful silver screen creatures. Instead, their bodies are often as deeply flawed as the rest of them.

On the other hand, sometimes you read a book and an actor immediately springs to mind as the character. This probably has to do with the fact that we are increasingly geared towards visual impressions as a species, and can quickly retrieve an actor to fill the imaginary space in our minds – a lazy heuristic trick, no doubt.

MMSI once asked Michael Marshal Smith which actor he would cast as Zandt, the brooding and dangerous ex-policeman from the bestselling Strawmen thriller series. He thought James Woods would make a great double. I was stunned. Up to that point I’d clearly imagined an older Scott Glenn in the role – playing pretty much the same bastard as he did in Vertical Limit. It left me with a sense of vertigo, that the author should have imagined an actor different to mine. But it was a stark reminder why reading and imagining is such an intensely personal yet fragile experience.

James Woods Compare actors who might have starred as Zandt in the Strawmen series.
Scott Glen

Occasionally, a director casts actors who perfectly capture the characters of a book. Peter Jackson did an incredible job casting the entire Lord of the Rings list. In fact, he did such a fine job, my mind now refuses to conjure up anything but Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood and Christopher Lee. It’s a little sad that the intimate two-way relationship between the reader and author can be wiped out by a good film. Lord of the rings

In Peter Jackson’s case, I can’t hold it against him because his work, I feel, has ultimately added to my reading experience. But in the case of that horrible reinvention of Hellblazer, starring Keanu Reeves as John Constantin, I firmly believe the director and his pack of producers should all be shot at dawn for their blasphemy. I refuse to watch the film, precisely because I know it would ruin the ephemeral ghosts of my imaginings, rather than give them form.

John ConstantinSpot the difference in anti-heroes. Keanu Reeves

Creeping online … slowly

Posted in crime fiction, Uncategorized with tags on February 12, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Hi all, over the coming days, hopefully not weeks, I’ll be posting more regularly, with an eye to talking more about African crime fiction and crime fiction in general. Lots of reviews and interviews planned!

Stick around.