Friday 31 December 2021

Book Review: Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress Sweet Caress by William Boyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Should I have been surprised that I liked this novel? Not really, in that I have read other William Boyd books and enjoyed them, particularly Restless, but on the whole I am not irreversibly and constantly drawn back to them or him and I really don't know why that should be. And so it was that I sat down to read this one, chosen by my in person book group, expecting a good read nothing more, nothing less. In some ways that is exactly what I got, but it surprised me in just how addicted I was to his character. I really liked this woman, Amory Clay, who for all her thoughts about her so called 'mistakes' she had made in her life seemed to me to have had a good and fulfilling life . She went with the flow, experienced what life flung at her and moved on. A woman in control or a woman being buffeted by life's seas? Or perhaps it doesn't matter. She had experiences, good and bad, but it is a life I would not have minded living even though she was born half a century before me. She is a character that will stay with me and that cannot be at all bad for any author to have achieved.

I listened to the audio version, superbly read by Juliet Stevenson.

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Review: Dolphin junction

Dolphin junction Dolphin junction by Mick Herron
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

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Book Review: In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo, trans by John Cullen

In the Company of Men In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't really know what to make of this book. In some ways it wasn't that great, sometimes a bit boring, but at other times what the author tried to do worked well.

Véronique Tadjo is a writer from Côte d'Ivoire of poetry, novels and children's books. One of her children's books is listed in the 100 Best African Writing of the 20th century

Here she has written the story of the 2014 - 2016 Ebola epidemic that scoured West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It has been translated from French to English by John Cullen, who also translated Yasmina Khadra's Swallows of Kabul which I read some years ago. I listen to this on the Audible veriosn narrated by Je Nie Fleming and I have to say I did not enjoy this narration, I found her American intonation very off putting.

As for the book itself, it is a strange compilation of essentially first person narratives from various people who experienced the Ebola outbreak including a carrier of the disease, nurse, a person who buries the dead, a survivor, a nurse, the evacuated infected volunteer, the scientist, the adopter of child survivors, the poet who lost his financée. There are also first person narrative chapters by the Baobab tree, the Virus itself and the Bat. For those of us who followed this event on the TV News as it happened from the safety of our homes we will recognise all the stories.

For me the work was a bit too sprawling, and it wasn't until the final chapters that it rose up and she really found her voice, particularly the chapter by the Virus and by the much maligned Bat. She caught the right mood there, decrying Man, our interaction with Nature, raising questions about global aid, how to face similar impending crises, how to rebuild.

I think it was an ambitious structure to attempt and clearly based on research and interviews. It is not a non fiction book and doesn't read like one although other reviewers have mentioned it read as such to them. It is a very creative piece which doesn't on the whole come off as well as it might have, which is a shame considering the parts that do within its short 160 pages .

Sunday 19 December 2021

Book Review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

Young Skins Young Skins by Colin Barrett
My rating: 4

This debut collection by young Canadian born, Irish writer Colin Barrett is set in the fictional small rural Irish town of Glanbeigh, in County Mayo. It is a left behind sort of place, with left behind and left over people, mainly young, not well educated, whose empty boring going nowhere lives are filled and fuelled by quick fix, no solution drink, drugs and sex. The introduction in my Kindle version says "each story is defined by a youth lived in a crucible of menace and desire" and I think this is spot on.

I can't say I liked any of the characters, but through the grim and grime, flash passages of landscape or character description, often interconnected, that could be from the greats of Irish writing such as John McGahern and Colm Tóibín.
For example, in the story "Diamonds" he writes "The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confectins of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes brain"
and later in the same story
" It was easy to pick out the chronic soak-heads from the tourists, the amateur drinkers. It had something to do with the way they conformed themselves to the planes of the bar, the way they agressively propped an elbow and periodically lifted a haunch from their stooll to get the blood flowing back into that leg" - great choice of the verb 'conformed' .

This collection which won The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (see Award page.html) , The Guardian First Book Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature (see ) contains 7 stories,6 shorter and 1 longer one, all about the human condition. I think my favourites might be the final two 'Diamonds' where a recovering addict returns home to try to go straight but find only oblivion looming ever closer, and 'Kindly forget my existence' where two estranged friends are drinking in a pub before the funeral of a young women they both loved.

I'll definitely be reading more by the author.

Thursday 16 December 2021

Short Story Review: Parsnips in Love by Porochista Khapour

Parsnips in Love Parsnips in Love by Porochista Khakpour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A tender portrayal of love through the ages in all its forms. You'll never look at 'Wonky veg' without recally this short story in the fable style. How Art's expression of the beauty of form, of shape , of the work of the sculpturer Nature brings out the emotions, the love in all of us.

Monday 13 December 2021

Book Review: Prague Spring by Simon Mawer

Prague Spring Prague Spring by Simon Mawer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having just read and studied my way through the confusing, infuriating and interesting Kazuo Ishiguro book The Unconsoled, I needed a quicker, more straightforward read, something with a plot and a compelling storyline. My face-to-face book group chice for this month provided the answer - Simon Mawer's Prague Spring.

Set in 1968, the year of change when for a brief moment Czechoslovakia need had its legendery Spring. Mawer weaves two threads neatly together, one of British students James and Ellie hitching across Europe, their route chosen with the toos of a coin and the other of diplomat Sam based in Prague and his Czechoslovakian girl friend Lenka. Throughout every relationship is hanging by a thread, the big question is which way will it go, like James and Ellie's coin toss - their 'are they friends/are they lovers' relationship, will Sam forget absent girlfriend Steffie now back in UK and fall for Lenka, will the Russians invade or not, will Czechoslovakia get its dream of Communism with a human face?

Always difficult to cast a plot when answers to some of the major questions are known by readers in advance, but Mawer does this quite well , he does his research and doesn't overpower the reader with the historical background or the occasional foregrounding of characters future histories. His prose sweeps you along, perhaps with the optimism of those tasting freedom for the first time, but lags a bit in the middle third before gathering itself back into a pacey finale. An entertaining , easy read.

Thursday 9 December 2021

Book Review: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Unconsoled The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an infuriating read, the reader is never in empathy with any of the characters. There is so much going on and yet nothing happens. There is very little in the way of storyline, plot, everything is totally fluid - space, time all slip in and out, back and forth, left and right, up and down, through triggers acting as jumping off points for memory shifts, spatial shifts, mood shifts - like a multidimensional maze.

I had once before started to read this book and got 2/3 of the way thorugh before it was packed up with all my goods and transferred to a shipping container to come back to the UK. I got back to reading it only as part of a retrospective on Kazuo Ishuiguro's works. We had some great discussions in the course group about this book, but I think out of the 6 of us only 1 liked it although even that person said she feult anxious all the way through, and the tutor who was on his 3rd read of it.

We discussed its dreamlike qualities, the absurb nature of many of the images within the book, Ishiguro's own commment that is was a metaphor - for what? , we discussed deferred and displaced anxiety, success and failure, domestic v profession lives and personas. We discussed whether the book is dreamlike, whether the various characters are aspects of the main protagonist Ryder's character transposed onto others, or him at various points in his life eg Stephan as the young Ryder, Brodsky as an elder one, whether the book is a metaphor for death/ approaching death, whether Ryder is in panic mode, confused, or mad, whether the town is a psychiatric hospital, the tram car and the electrician a Men's Shed for rehab. We discussed whether this was a backlash by Ishiguro over frustrations at readers (or critics?) lack of understanding of his earlier works seeing the first two A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World as 'Japanese' and The Remains of the Day as an English custom drama mainly because of the interpretation of the book by the movie.

In the end I feel this is a book for the brain, the intellect, not for the heart or the soul. It benefits greatly from a slow, and very close read, but it leaves the reader unsatisfied, unconsoled. (less)

Saturday 4 December 2021

Short Story Review: 2043...A Merman I Should Turn to Be by Nisi Shawl

2043...A Merman I Should Turn to Be 2043...A Merman I Should Turn to Be by Nisi Shawl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 3 of the Amazon Black Stars series of short speculative fiction stories. Not my favourite of the 4 that I have read so far. I liked the way it created an underwater city to which escaping landers were fleeing, paying for time limited, transit corridor opening licenses through hostile surrounding territory - a bit like a cross between the "40 acres and a mule"  reparations promise to freed slaves and the Underground Railroad. On the other hand I felt it rushed in some parts, the premis requiring a longer piece to do it justice.

Short Story Review: These Alien Skies by C.T. Rwizi

These Alien Skies These Alien Skies by C.T. Rwizi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So many layers packed into a short story! These Alien Skies is Book 4 in the Amazon Series Black Stars.Msizi and Tariro are copiloting a starship through the first ever wormhole when it explodes leaving them with no way home. The injured Msizi is aided back to health by the inhabitants of an alien planet, migrants themselves and alien original residents. The story has themes of love and loss, survival, history, colonisation and diaspora, alien tech and communication issues. I liked the way the writer used the colonisation of Africa by Europeans in the protagonist and migrants own histories, his appropriate use of real African languages, Swahili and Dholuo in the story, although with today's onscreen translation it was a bit strange to have their words written in English. Neat ending bring all three groups together.

Thursday 2 December 2021

Short Story Review: Clap Back by Nalo Hopkinson

Clap Back Clap Back by Nalo Hopkinson
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

This is the second book I have read in the Black Stars series. Nalo Hopkinson is a new author to me, she has lots of short stories published in the likes of Uncanny and Strange Horizons ezines .
I was impressed by this speculative fiction story about nanites on wearables particularly the first half. Will be reading more of her work

Monday 22 November 2021

Short Story Review: Bullet in the Brain By Tobias Wolff

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is the pivots in this short story which are superbly crafted to great effect, ratcheting the reader like a cooker dial.
(available for listening on Audible Plus and for reading in the collection The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction ed Larry Dark)

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Short Story ChapBook Review: Friendship For Grown-Ups by Nao-Cola Yamazaki, translated by Polly Barton

Friendship For Grown-Ups Friendship For Grown-Ups by Nao-Cola Yamazaki
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first read from this series of chapbooks beautifull produced by a collaboration between University of East Anglia (famous for its writing MA) , Writers' Centre Norwich, and Norwich University of the Arts - see

Nao-Cola Yamazaki was not a familiar writer to me, her 3 stories in this chapbook are all translated by Polly Barton, see , who is the translator of a few Japanese women writers that are on my to be read list.

The 3 three linked stories total 45 pages and are bound in an 'arty' cover somewhat reminiscent of the 70s and are introduced with a Foreward written by surreal short story writer Aimee Bender.

The first story, entitled "A Genealogy", is a downright 'weird' meditation on evolution and the genealogical lineage to the character of Kandagawa.

In the second story, entitled "The Untouchable apartment" we again meet Kandagawa whose somewhat dream like state is interrupted by a phone call from her previous boyfriend, Mano. They end up going to see their old apartment which now no longer exists, just like their relationship. They spend the day together but Kandagawa realises she is no longer the girl she was when they were together four years ago - not quite Jesse and Celine or Before Sunrise / Before Midnight.

"Lose your Private Life" , the third story is about a young women Terumi Yano, writing under a pseudonym of Waterumi Yano, as she struggles to come with what this means for her identity as she becomes more well known as a writer, how new people she meets will only know Waterumi and never again know the Teruni that her university friends Mano and Kandagawa know.

These weren't stories that 'blew me away' but at points did intrigue me. I thought about whether there was an autobiographical element to the final one or whether this was a clever slight of words illusion on the part of the author for example when she had Waterumi's book be entitled "Friendship for Grown-ups"

Thursday 11 November 2021

Book and Movie Review: Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff, Movie directed by Lee Tamahori

This book and the movie are a must read and must watch. 

But be prepared to be disturbed. The story is raw, violent, brutal, abusive. Set in society's underclass within the dysfunctional family of Jake and Beth Heke and their children, within the community of Maori people in New Zealand in the fictional town of Two Lakes, this novel won its writer Alan Duff PEN Best First Book, and movie Director Lee Tamhori numerous awards including both the Australian Film Institute and audience awards, the Montreal FIlm Festival Jury Prize, People's Choice Award and its lead actress Rena Owen Best Actress. It won the NZ Film and TV Award and was voted the best New Zealand movie of all time.

I first came across the movie years ago and recently rewatched it after we read the book as the last in our New Zealand Literature reads in my in person book group. There is a most obvious difference in the ending and  in the aggressor in one specific event.  I think it can be argued either way as to which is best. Either way the movie is a marvelous working of the book which of course has more detail and more nuance of the characters, But the performances in the movie are excellent and the reality of the cinematography is excellant, at some points close to the bone. .

You may not have heard of or read anything else by Alan Duff and you may not recognise any of the names for the movie but you will have watched other movies by the director (lee Tamahori - - Die Another Day, The Edge, Along Came a Spider, Mulholland Falls) and others which starred both the male lead (Temuera Morrison - - has recently played Bob Fett in the Star Wars franchised Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian) and female lead ( Rena Owen - in various TV series Vegas, Siren, The Gloaming). In my opinion Rena Owen's performance in this movie ranks up there with the best I've ever seen.

Neither is for the faint hearted but readers and viewers who do get all the way through will never forget either, and should try both.

Thursday 4 November 2021

Short Story Review: The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

The Demon Lover The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent. It seems so modern in its style even thought the setting is clearly just post war. I loved the build up, everything is very unlike a horror or a ghost story, then author drips in some odd aspects, the letter but no caretaker, no stamp, and then some more sinister apsects with the flashback to Mrs Drover as a young woman sayng goodbye to a soldier going off to war. He is most definitely cold and there is an abusive, controlling feel to his words, which makes the reader feel quite uneasy.

Then Bowen brings the reader back to the Drover house as Mrs Drover searches for the things she has come back to their London home for . The author drops in some well chosen words and phrases which set the tone for Mrs Drover's increasing panic - 'the letter writer sent her only a threat' and 'just at this crisis the letter writer had, knowingly, struck', a moment of respite comes when 'Six has struck', then more tension as Mrs Drover makes up the parcels in a 'fumbling-decisive way' - that contradicory juxtaposition of fumbling and decisive is so good - as she recalls 'He was never kind to me', 'I was not myself' and then the 'draft that travelled up to her face' reminiscent of the creepiness of cobwebs on your skin......'down there a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house.'

Then it all comes together - 'the clock struck seven' ' the taxi had turned before she....recollected that she had not "said where"', the breaking to a stop, being flung against the glass and 'remained for an eternity eye to eye' with all the unsaid clarity that their goodbye under the tree had lacked - and then the scream.

Such powerful, well crafted writing. A masterclass in short story telling in my opinion. Very impressed. Great choice.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Review: Strange Flowers

Strange Flowers Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From 1970s Ireland Moll Glandey suddenly runs away. Her parents Kit and Paddy don't know why, neighbours gossip, dead or pregnant are the only options, her parents try hunting for her in backstreet clinics in the city to no avail. She is gone 5 years before just as suddenly she returns.

Donal Ryan releases her story slowly, draws his readers in with a great sense of time and place, rural Irish life defined by community, land, class, and above all religion. The family are tenants on the land of the Jackmans and we have the inclination that Moll's disappearance has something to do with them and we suspect what it will have been especially after a shouting match between Mrs Ellen Jackman and Moll soon after her return. Beautifully paced, the story of Moll's sojourn in England is revealed only after Alexander Ellwood follows after her from England in search. The novel flows over into the next generation and young Joshua's escape also to England and his eventual return home to his grandmother's cottage and his mother. Ryan tinges his story with the bigotry of the times but with memorable characters and the unconditional love of one, and the warm comforts, smells and safety of home hearth. Yet this is not an oversentimental portrait of love, it is not nostalgic for a lost rural idyll, as it is gritty in places, callous in others, deadly on others.

*****SPOLIER ALERT**** whilst many will criticise the novel for its flaws in making Alexander a black man, as well as an Englishman, in an overlong reading in London to Honey of Joshua's creative reworking of the blind man Lazarus' story, I can forgive the author these because he writes so well. This was a most enjoyable read.

The first time I have read one of his novels, although I have read some of his short stories - My Boy Jack ( ) , The Fall of Man ( ). The BBC used to have more of his stories up but these seem to be the only two now on their Short Works site. There is also The Wise Man ( ) and All we shall know ( ) but you may need to be a subscriber for that one.

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Review: Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keiko Furukura is a not so young, unmarried, somewhere on the spectrum, virginal, convenience store woman that is she works in a small neighbourhood store Hiiromchi Station Smile Mart. Being in Japan her routine is full of morning practice when staff recite en mass greetings, “Irasshaimasé!" and other soundbites, being Keiko she reckons that watching and mimicking the store manager's video of the model store worker taught her "how to accomplish a normal facial expresiion and manner of speech", so for 35 years she has donned the same unniform and transformed into "the homogenous being known as a convenience store worker" and become a "normal cog in society". Except that she is not, she remains in the same job, remains unmarried, remains withut ever having a relationship until a new member of staff arrives, Shiraha. But this is not a girl meets boy, falls in love, and live happy ever after story. It is a story about being oneself, not what others expect you to be.

Sayaka Murata's story won the 2016 biannual Akutagawa Award ( ) which is awarded to "the best serious literary story published in a newspaper or magazine by a new or rising author". It, and other Murata books, have been translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori ( ) and the Audible version is wonderfully read by Nancy Wu ( ).

4* For someone who does not usually like higher pitched voices, Wu's Keiko kept me glued to the audio. For someone who doesn't normally like novels about thirty-somethings' angst, Murata's novel sped along and was a delightful read. At only 163 pages it is well worth popping in your bag for a train/plane journey.

Sunday 19 September 2021

Book and AudioBook Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman, narrated by Adjoa Andoh

First of all probably the best narration ever by my favourite female narrator, Adjoa Andoh, it permits her full vent to her extensive range of voices and accents, English, American, Nigerian, Indian, young, old, northern, southern, Cockney etc. Just brilliant! She brings real texture, changes in speed, pitch, emotion and vocalisation to this work. 5* narration.

The book inverts the world. Bookended by the correspondence surrounding the draft of a book by a male author. The story in his book being the core, interspersed with factual pieces from history. It depicts a world where, apparently suddenly, all girls have the power to release electricity from their fingertips, and soon all women, but only women and post puberty girls. As with all speculative fiction you have to go with the premis and here it will take you on an incredible journey alongwith its princple characters - Allie, an abused American foster child who reivents herself as a faith leader building a commmunity away from men, Roxy, streetwise teenage daughter of a London gangster, Tunde a young Nigerian journalist who reports on this pehnomenon witnessing how it shifts the society's balance worldwide, and middle aged Margot, an on the rise American politican.

And it does change the world. From overturning regimes in Saudi Arabia, to freeing women from trafficking, but mainly it inverts everything as regards gender, just as Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses up-ended race in her thought provoking look at prejudice, so Alderman up ends gender in an equally thought provoking manner.

In essence what this book is about is Power, what it is and how it is wielded. And as such it is not for the faint hearted - think of all the situations where power exists today from the writing of history, waging war, abuse of individuals, groups and peoples, exploitation etc, the power to cover up, the power to spread false news, the power to manipulate etc.

The book I felt started well, took a little bit of time to give us all the characers and start to bring them and itself together, and then it got The Power and thundered all fully charged. Some of the scences are horrific, but at the same time nothing that does not happen. This book does what all great speculative fiction should do, pose pretty soul searching, fundamental socio=political questions about the way we live and why. Up there with the best. The 1984 for 21st century.

Monday 6 September 2021

Book Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

The Sunlight Pilgrims The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jenni Fagan's second novel and my second read of hers too, The Sunlight Pilgrims brings us an odd bunch of characters at a caravan park in northern Scotland in the leadup to and beginnings of the most extreme winter known. There's Dylan, a giant of a man, who has just lost mum and gran, and the arthouse cinema they lived in and ran in London. His mother has left him a caravan. He arrives ashes in luggage en route to send them off in the islands beyond. Stella, a determined transgender kid at a critical moment, already lives on site with her mum, a bit of a survivalist who upcycles discarded furniture and sells it on as shabby-chic. Barnacle, a hunchbacked old man who loves the skies is one of their neighbours. He has had lots of money and lostit, drunk it away and otherwise spent it all . These are marginal lives, rooted in realism but their story is written which poetic touches of mysticism. Fagan is herself a poet. The plot is relatively straightforward, somewhat slowly revealed, but the book holds the reader. As a second novel this clearly signed a future worth attention. I have her third and latest novel Luckenbooth on my to be read pile.

Thursday 2 September 2021

Book Review: Under the Blue by Oana Aristide

I came across this book when I caught a few minutes of an interview with the author at this years Edinburgh Book Fest . She had started this dystopian novel before the COVID pandemic and it was published near the start of it.

It consistes of two threads, which seem quite disconnected as one begins to read the novel even though you know they must be, and as you read you think or might assume you understand how.

One concerns an artist, living in London, who immersed in his own work doesn't register what is happening to the rest of the world as it succumbs to a fatal plague. Harry, his neighbour Ash and her sister Jessie end up as the apparent survivors and start to head out across Europe into Africa to try to escape the impending nuclear meltdown as they run out of emergency power to maintain their cooling systems. En route they pick up a car, an old, well maintained indulgence Mercedes, they nickname Lioness.

The other thread are past and present computerscript conversations over the years between Dr Lisa Dahlen and Talos XI , an AI and between Lisa and her coworker Paul who are Talos's constructors.

It is through the conversations and thoughts of the two threesomes that the two storylines unravel and finally merge. These are philosphical, about the value of Art, of AI and the idiosyncrasies of being human and hold the ethos of the book. I thought it was well constructed and an enjoyable, quick read.

Friday 27 August 2021

Book Review: Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

I managed at the last minute to catch online the session with Jon McGregor at this year's Edinburgh Book Fest . He is an author I have been meaning to read yet never seemed to get round to him. He was not at all like what I had imagined, younger ( should have done my homework), somewhat hesitant in his words but clear so I concluded he thinks about what is he saying. He spoke about this book which was published earlier this year, about his trip to Antartica as art of his research for it, his experience of teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham. He is one of the Guardian's 10 writers to see live  I was pleased I did, immediately fascinated by the book, went and bought the audio and borrowed the ebook from my local library very surprised to not find a waiting list for it. The audio version was read by Matt Bates

The book starts of with one old hand Robert "Doc" Wright and two novice youngsters post docs Luke and Thomas arriving at a research station in Antartica. This section is as gripping as any thriller as they are unexpectedly and suddenly caught in a storm with Doc up a hll to provide persective for Thomas' photographs, separated from them he returns to base and ***SPOILER ALERT ***suffers a stroke, Luke makes it back, Thomas does not.

The second section transfers us to England, to Robert's wife, Anna, how she finds out what has happened, her trip to the hospital in Chile, their return home, the impact of the incident on her life. Robert is trapped behind a barrier to the articulation of words. How often have we ourselves said "we'd been lost for words", unabe to explain or recant something. My own father, had several strokes, first loosing the ability to communicate and then to move. Reading this section I found myself thinking back to how my own mother must have been in Anna's position, how on earth did she cope and to the unsaid frustrations that must have been going on in my father's head as he struggled to make himself understood. McGregor writes these very well, quite realistically in my opinion.

The third section is in many ways about bravery. Robert gets discharged and ends up going to group sessions for asphasics which address communication through non standard means such as movement, sound, strategies for communicating that circumvent the word that cannot be found and said. Robert initially resents and doesn't want to be at the group. Many would say he was brave going of to the Antartic for months every year, that Anna was brave to soldier on without him, bringing up their children, repairing their house, having her own career, alone for long peroids of time. But this section is about the bravery of tackling the loss of the ability to undertake that most fundamental of human activities, namely to tell stories, to tell another person what you had done in a day, to say how you feel, to ask how they are, to respond to their stories all because you have lost the ability to speak, and to make progress towards communication.

This is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I thought it was extremely well written, with an insteresting construction of being part like a thriller, part an insight into how people recover from brain injury and how it effects their family, from mapping the terrain of the Antartic contenant to mapping the terrain of recovery this book has exquisite word use, for example some of the distorted word grouping that the group members say are rhythmic others poetic as they grapple with the complexity of language, McGregor writes it beautifully. I couldn't put the book down. Highly recommended.

Monday 23 August 2021

Book Review: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Great storytelling on the themes of love, loss, loneliness and transformation. I listened to the audio version narrated by Vivienne Acheampong who reads the sections voiced by the mermaid Aycayia and Ben Onwukwe who reads the main narration by David the fisherman who rescues the mermaid caught by the tourist fishermen from Florida who see "it" as part of their catch,theirs to sell to somewhere like the Smithsonian and getting their hotos on the cover of Time Magazine. David takes Aycayia home expecting to return her to the sea, but she changes back into a woman. This basic storyline - outsider allows group to understand itself - are the stories of other islanders also suffering their own losses and lost loves. It is a beautiful read which won the Costa Book of the Year Award for 2020.

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Sunday 22 August 2021

Book Review: In My Father's Den by Maurice Gee

In My Father's DenIn My Father's Den by Maurice Gee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for my in person book group. I'd never come across the book or the author before the group picked it as one of its New Zealand reads. In the end it proved a difficult book to get hold off, with only me being able to source a reasonably priced second hand one, this resulted in us altering our choice s. Sch a shame. This is a gem of a book. Very well written, well crafted, full characters, good plot. It opens with a Prologue of newspapers coverage of the brutal murder of a 17yr old school girl Celia Inverarity.Then we are into a first person narrative by Paul Emerson, her English teacher and mentor who finds himself a suspect. Celia's death propels Paul back into an examination of his past, his childhood with his parents and two brothers, the death of one and the mother, the strain between his father and his mother's atitudes to life, faith, his father's escape to his shed, his den and his own life, how he became an English teacher. It is a shortish book of 174 pages through which the writing flows beautifully. I read it over two late night sittings, thoroughly engrossed in Paul's memories and the lovely storytelling style of its writer Maurice Gee. Highly recommended.

Maurice Gee is one of New Zealand's most distinguished and prolific authors. He has written more than 30 novels for adults and children, has won numerous awards, including multiple New Zealand Book Awards.

In My Father's Den has been made into a movie starring Matthew MacFadyen

Friday 20 August 2021

Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

The Panopticon The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator of this story is 15 yrs old Anais, in the care system. Now too old for adoption, she has spent her life going too and fro from pillar to post, from foster parent to foster parent, from social worker to social worker, from care home to care home, from name to name. The author, Jenni Fagan, has created a class character of Scottish grime literature, often compared to Irvine Welsh Trainspotting's Renton, and gives her a brilliantly authentic voice, full of curses, but it is also a vehicle for her dreams, dreams of Paris, a new life where she is in control not the system, not the abusers. In the meantime that's where she is and she takes the reader on a tour of that life, her relationships with others in the children's unit, the documentaries she watches on the unit's TV, her love for Frieda Kahlo, in a rollicking first person narrative voice. We experience the highs and the lows, the loves and the hates, the friendships and the anything-but-friendly-ships. ****SPOILER ALERT **** the voice is gently Scots, full of curses, expletives abound throughout, as does violence as the book mounts to its horrific events which precede what we hope is the resurrection and redefinition of Anais as Frances.

Note: "The panopticon is a disciplinary concept brought to life in the form of a central observation tower placed within a circle of prison cells" developed by philospher Jermey Bentham

Not sure why I have not read anything by this author before, she is Scottish after all, so I should have. This was her debut novel in 2012, the author having spent much of her own childhood in the care system and one hopes that not too much of this is autobiographical. Thoroughly riveting. I listened to the Audio version narrated by Gayle Madine.

I've now got her most recent Luckenbooth to read.

Tuesday 29 June 2021

Book Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Meet Me at the Museum Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a pick for my in personbook group. Probably one I would not have picked up, BUT.
I've read it describe in what could be construed to be saccharin terms - ' a gem of a novel' ' a charmer' and yes those do apply, BUT.
The book is written by a Brit in her 70s who had never written a book before , BUT. ( you can see there is a pattern here!)

It is an epistolary novel, a series of letters written between two grandparents with grown up children - Tina, a farmer's wife, best near Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk, who is mourning the loss of her best friend and Anders from Denmark who works as a curator in the Silkeborge Museum, who is recently widowed. Their correspondence is something of an accident. Tina and her friend had always talked about going to see the Tollund Man, immortalised in the poem by Seamus Heaney because according to this storyline been among the group of school girls to whom the Danish archeologist Prof Glob who excavated Tollund Man had dedicated his book on the subject entitled The Bog People. In her grief Tina writes to him, but he is long since dead and Anders replies instead. There begins a totally rivetting 18 month corrrespondence between the two.
Through their letters they unwind and take increasingly openly about their different lives, their loss, their marriages, their children. They philosophise about the choices which took them to where they find themselves in their lives and as they do so their letters move from the formal opener of 'Dear Mrs Hopgood' to 'My dear Tina', from the friendly but respectful closure of 'Best wishes' to 'All my love'.

Youngson creates to distinct voices - Anders is very matter of fact, analytical, his English style of writing echoing his hestitancy in life but as the correspondence continues his confidence with English reflects his rise in confidence in his life. Tina is concerened about decisions and choices she made which led to her marriage, to her living and working on a farm, and about what she has missed out on. The reader gets quite an insight into the life of a farmer's wife. Youngson's uses a great metaphor for second chances which she gives her characters provides a framwork for their discussion of whether the fruits of life have been overlooked as result of decisions, keeping the peace etc. Their correspondence helps them both, and they each provide encouragement and enthusiasm for the other's thoughts, feelings and dileemas. They way she tells the story and develops here characters through their written voice is excellent.

It is a delightful book. It is very well crafted. I did pick up on the ending a little before we got here, but that did not in any way detract from it. I loved the way she ended the book *****SPOILER ALERT ***** in a way that says to me she is a confident writer, secure in the strength of her story, the strength of her character development through their distinctive voices, and so not needing to supply prescribed Hollywood ending.

The book was shortlisted for the Costa Best First Novel in 2018 and won the Paul Torday Prize for Debut Fiction by writers over sixty ( I never knew this even existed!) and I would say deservedly so. Most definitely recomended.

Thursday 17 June 2021

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I read this for my in person book group. I must admit it would not have been my choice as I am never good at reading humour. However I listened to the audio of this and thoroughly enjoyed it. A very short and light read. Lots of culturally appropriate intertextual references from "Danger Will Robinson" to "When Harry met Sally" and "Casablanca" as Prof Don Tillman navigates his way through the world in search for a life partner. A lighthearted romcom with a man with Asperger's as he searches for "the one" to meet all his criteria only to find The One who doesn't but meets the most important one he didn't list in his "Wife Project" questionaire namely understanding and acceptance of him for who is is. One to read between two heavy weights to put a smile on your face and warmth in your heart.

Monday 14 June 2021

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alica Walker

I listened to the author herself narrate this book, it was excellent. Very befitting what is probably one of the best book ever written in my opinion. I had not re-read it since it fist came out, but so so pleased I did. It still tugs hard at my heart, I love its structure, its voices, its characters and its storyline. Just perfection.

No wonder it won both the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. I remind myself that at the time it was controversial, written in the 'folk speak' of Celie in her letters first to God and then to her 'lost' sister Nettie, it was the first time an African American woman had won the Pulitzer. It has been filmed by Steven Spielberg albeit without the essential relationship between Celie and Shug ( , and made into a stage muscial (

Back in 2007 for its 25th anniversary The Guardian wrote this review of book and author (

Although I have not read the book In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of Alice Walker’s Masterpiece by Salamishah Tillet, there is an interesting article by Tillet on the Legacy of The Color Purple ( ) who "offers up a history... on how sexism within the Black community - and the white establishment's preference to frame racial injustice in terms of concerns facing Black men - stood between The Color Purple and recognition as "an American Masterpiece"". In this reader's humble opinion, it always was and still is. A highly recommended reread.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Book Review: Leaving the Atocha Station by Adam Lerner

4* Probably the most compelling first person narrative I have read.

It is a rambling, uncertain, fictional (?) memoire of American student, Adam Gordon's time in Spain. He's drunk and /or drugged up for a lot of it, a poet supposedly writing but with no intention of completing the work required by his scholarship - his project is “a long, research-driven poem” exploring the legacy of the Spanish Civil War about which he knows nothing - instead he is hiding behind the supposed inadequacy of his Spanish as he negotiates friendships and lovers, translators of his poems, reading Tolstoy, Ashbery and Cerventes in a spaced out stupor. We are taken on a full-of-self-doubt, thoroughly engaging impressionistic drift through his time in Spain to the finale of a panel discussion on Literature Now and the launch of his poetry in translation pamphlet -

"was I in fact a conversationally fluent Spanish speaker and a real poet, whatever that meant? It was true that when I spoke to her (Teresa) in Spansh I was not translating, I was not thinking my thoughts in English first, but I was nevertheless outside the language I was speaking, building simple sentences with the blocks I had memorized, not communicating through a fluid medium. But why didn't I just suck it up, attend the panel and share my thoughts in my second lanagueg without irony? They wanted the input of a young American poet writing and reading abroad and wasn't that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent"

The writing is very engaging, oftimes funny. Clearly the author has a way with words and a little research showed me that he is in fact a published poet. The Audible audio version of this his first novel is well narrated by the author himself and I found it very good to listen to, helping me truly 'hear' the voice of his main character and get the book's humour.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is an ambitious novel, a well crafted story about lives shattered by drug addiction, by depression and by dealing with people suffering from both these illnesses. At the same time, it is an author's homage to a friend and her work which she uses as the basis for her central character Gifty's research.

The big things in the life of Ghanian - American Gifty have been religion, family and science. She looses her family - her father back to Ghana, her brother's life to opiods, her mothers to subsquent depression; she looses her faith along the way but finds it again; her science always seeming to be the questioner, the doubting Thomas, and yet the embodiment of all her hope.

The novel's structure is complex, lots of flashbacks, a hotchpotch or the past and the present, of reality and her internalisation of it, her constant quest for answers to questions which are often in themselves questions, all rendered in the first person. And therein lies my dilemna as a reader because I can see her achievements in this as a writer, but also its flaws for me as a reader.

For me, all the internalisation of her thoughts, the detail of the science and the education system in which the character grows up in the southern state of the US where evolution is not because of fundamentalist religious beliefs and the Pentacostal Ghanian church's repetivitive evangelicism made it an oppressive read. When she is describing the Ghanian pastor and all his shouts of "Amen?" to his loud and responsive Hallelujahs of his congregation, and having witnessed this myself in a Nigerian church, I am reminded of the United Free Church in Scotland where I once saw a vicar with equal fervour condem fire and brimstone from a pulpit to an equally deafing but totally silent congregation, likewise bowed in conformity. Perhaps readers of a more spiritual disposition will not be so impacted by this and see the novel very differently.

Whilst I felt the character of Gifty, but I also felt the book only came alive when she spoke about her brother, to a lesser extent her mother, with the other minor characters of Raymond, Anne, Katherine and Han only serving to fill out, round off her life story.

I would have loved to have given this book a 4 for ambition but alas for this reader some parts of it didn't come off 100%, so it is a 3 for a read.

Thursday 15 April 2021

Book Review: The Inugami Curse (sometimes called the The Inugami Clan) by Seishi Yokomizo

I don't often read Detective Fiction, although I love a good Noir detective movie. I read this when I signed up to a coourse in Japanese Crime Fiction at City Lit in London. I have read a couple of the Pushkin Press Vertigo Imprint Crime series and enjoyed them before and had been meaning to combin my love of Japanese novels with this. So this was my first foray. 

I found it a quite dry, very analytical novel. The character of the detective is not well developed but then it is only the second in this series, but it is very clear to follow even thught it is a convoluted plot with multiple murders, and imposter characters, and the characters are linked by historical family events - the story set in post war Japan essentially begins by reading the complex will of the deceased Head of the successfull Inugami family. I suppose this is quite a traditional murder mystery in that the 'star' detective wrestle with people's manners, words and deeds, until the end when everyone left standing gathers for the reveal of the murderer. 

An quick and easy read, the main facts and times of the story line being summarised at various points and the detective has a sidekick of the policeman to play off as his internal thoughts are relaid to the reader partially through the interactions between these two people.

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Sunday 4 April 2021

Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

March March by Geraldine Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not in principle a lover of fiction which takes a minor character from a classic and works it up, but this book does that exceptionally well. The Rev March is the largely absent father in [author:Louisa May Alcott|1315]' s [book:Little Women|1934], a book I confess never enthralled me and hasn't been reread since my schooldays, with two movie versions likewise leaving me somewhat cool about the 'perfect' family. I will also confess that because of this I had been put off reading this book when it first came out, when CR read the two books in parallel some years ago, and only picked it up now when my in-person book group is reading Australian and New Zealand Novelists this year.


This book surpassed all my expectations. Brooks creates an engaging portrayal of Mr March, which according to her Afterword is based around Bronson Alcott, the writer's father. Brooks says her starting point for any writing is finding and hearing the voice of her main character. I can absolutely relate to that, as in this book she most definitely creates that voice and through it brings the unknown Mr March to life as a fully formed character, albeit with his faults and imperfections, but with a solid heart taken utilising much of Bronson Alcott's teenage peddling to wealthy southern planters, and his radicalism of later years, his vegetarianism, and his transcendalist and abolitionist convictions. I could hardly put the book down as I listened to its narration by Canadian actor Richard Easton, whose lower register, mature tone and range of intonation brought Brookes' first-person story telling Mr March very much alive.


A quite memorable 5* read.

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