Friday 25 December 2020

Book Review: Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Ordinary People Ordinary People by Diana Evans
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I very seldom trash a book but this has been the most boring book I have ever read. It was my in person book club choice for this month and I've managed about half way through it and that was a stretch so as a Christmas present to myself I am giving up on it! It is everything I dislike in a a novel - domesticity abounds, huge amount of dialog such that it almost reads like a script, characters I have absolutely no interest in and who have nothing interesting happening to them. It is set in a part of London I know and granted her desciptions of the area ran true - and that's my only positive about this book. I read reviews about it praising its prose and insight Guardian Review but I just don't get it, I'm just not reading the same book. For me it lived up to its title Ordinary. More enticing reads await.

Sunday 15 November 2020

Book Review: The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky

The Fires of Autumn The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me a but to get into this book as the opening for me had too much detail and I wasn’t the least bit interested in the domesticity it portrayed.
As the story went on it got better in term of engagement but I disliked both Bernard – spoilt brat – and Thérèse who is in many ways not a woman who appeals to me, but is of her time in her dependency, although we see her strength as she finally does something brave and constructive and takes the family out of Paris to the safety of the countryside. Although the happy ending did fill me with emotion , I thought it played a bit too much to the romantic Hollywood version of life.

The writing good have done from a good edit – to give but one example, things like saying a man walked down the street carrying a loaf of bread and then explaining it was a baguette – unnecessary detail, repetitive, we all know what a baguette is, a loaf of a baguette would suffice , both was a waste and spoilt the flow and my read.

It has been years since I read Suite Francaise, so comparing it is tricky but I would say I think it is a lesser read. Now whether it would make a better film is another question, as the movie was not well done.

In conclusion, if you are a Nemirovsoky fan or student, yes read; if in the current time you're looking for a good happy weep and like period pieces yes read; otherwise move on

Sunday 11 October 2020

AudioBookReview: Travels With A Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson, abridged narraton by Denis Lawson

Travels With A Donkey

Travels With A Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I re-listened to the abridged audio book of this classic traveloque that I have as others in my face to face book group read the whole thing. It is well narrated by Scottish actor Denis Lawson. Beautiful lyrical writing by the author whose adventure and science fiction tales are the tracks of my youth 'Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Kidnapped and Catriona, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror, The Master of Ballantrae, The Black Arrow and the like, and whose travel writing - Letters from Samoa and In the South Seas" inspired me to travel to and write about his ultimate reting place in Vailamu Samoa. Modern sensibilities may be dismayed by his treatment of Modestine early on as he attempts to get the donkey to move at the appropriate pace but the writing pulls you in and along. What travel writing should be. It still gives a warm feeling all these years on from first acquaintance.

Thursday 8 October 2020

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I "discovered" theis author after reading his short story You Have Arrived at Your Destination which I loved and I was not diasappointed with his longer work either. Towles has created a lasting character, with a superb storyline, witty, paced writing which is superbly read by voice over artist Nicholas Guy Smith. I admit I was interrupted in my listening mid way and perhaps this made it feel a bit overlong, but I thought the build up to the ending was marvellous especially for any lover of the movie classic Casablanca which coincidently I had only just recently rewatched for the umpteenth time. 

I see that Kenneth Branagh has bought the movie rights to the book and there is supposed to be a TV miniseries of it coming out, presumably now delayed because of COVID. I'm really looking forward to that as I think it should translate to the screen very well, so fingers crossed Rostov's Metropole will be as lasting as Rick's American Café

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Wednesday 23 September 2020

Short Story Review: Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar


Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as part of the collection Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project .
This story can be found online

First, I thought I had better check what "anabasis" meant - "Anabasis (from Greek ana = "upward", bainein = "to step or march") is an expedition from a coastline up into the interior of a country" according to Wikipedia.

Upon starting to read this I was completely entranced by an early section which I found rivetingly poetic -

"My real mouth is full of sharp teeth and a sharper tongue, three languages coiled like snakes in my throat, scaly and silent. My real mouth is an armoury of words forged in the furnace of my chest, hot as a spitted sun. My real mouth is a storm, and my voice is thunder.
To pass among you I wear a different mouth: full lips unparted, always smiling. I paint it pretty colours. It speaks only when spoken to, softly. To pass among you, it tells you stories: I am sweetness. I am sunshine. I am here to hold your hand through the horror of my name. My mouth is a coin, and I spend it. "

According to the publishers , the story was inspired by a 2017 news story about the trecherous border crossing in the snow into Manitoba for refugees seeking Canada which reports that "A two-year-old member of a large group of refugees who walked into Manitoba from Minnesota ..told his mom he wanted to die instead of finish the walk". Heartbreaking.

El-Moktar's writing is stunning, she uses the Sumarian poem, Inanna's Descent into the Underworld to contrast with the mother's walk across the snow "Borders are shape-shifters,too: they change what goes through them. Time was, the only border worth crossing was into the underworld, to fetch back a lover's life" That writer is Canadian is extremely relevant to this piece - her passport, her struggle to remain Canadian in light of the border guard eyeing her as Arab, as Muslim. Her empathy with the predicament of those crossing
"If I could take each of my words and lay them in the snow at her feet. If I could.. eat this distance between us. If I could devour this border, if I could tell it to smile while I broke its teeth, if I could unsheathe the sword of my mouth and strike it down, if I could thread the needle of my mouth and stitch good shoes for her baby, if I could cut a path into this country with the sharpness of my tongue..." 
Unbelievably poignant.

I am very impressed by this piece, my mouth, my words fails to convey how much. 5 stars are not enough.

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Sunday 20 September 2020

Short Story Review: Pockets by Amal El-Mohtar

Pockets by Amal El-Mohtar
I've been meaning to read this author for some time when CR book club buddy gave me the heads up re this short story of hers from back in 2015.

It starts of pretty much like a mystery about surprising strange things being found in a woman's pocket. She calls on her girl friends for help to solve this mystery. By the end ****SPOILER ALERT**** the story has transformed into a piece about the art of writing and its readers, the author might never meet or get to know her readers but keeps producing her work anyway. The final letter Nadia finds in her pocket is a love letter from any writer to any reader. Neat.

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Saturday 19 September 2020

Short Story Review: As the Last I May Know by S L Huang

As the Last I May Know As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Hugo 2020 Award Winning Short Story originally published by is "an alternative history short story looking at decisions and consequences and what it takes to pull the trigger".

11 year old Nyma is a budding poet but she is also the chosen one. Inside her surgeons have planted a capsule containing codes to the most destructive bombs. If the newly elected president wishes to bomb the other warring party he has to first got these codes. This is the dilemma that The Order has put in motion to test the country's leaders in time of war since the massive destruction of 200 years before. Nyma has a choice but that is weighed aganst duty. The President also has a choice. Is he wiling to reisk the total destruction of his capital, the annihilation of everyone? Nyma is a fan of the ancient poet who had written "echoes have no tombs", she herself writes "I am here to make you doubt". The power plays between the Order and the Presidency play out in this story as war rages ever closer, as decisions surge toward its players.

I found the use of poetry in this short story quite evocative. It call to Nyma, it called to her tutor Tej, to called to the President and it called to the people. But will it be enough?

The author S L Huang has website, it informs me she is a MIT graduate, and Hollywood stuntwoman, who writes "eccentric mathematical superhero fiction"

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Monday 14 September 2020

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, narrated by Weruche Opia

My Sister, the Serial Killer My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite,  narrated by Weruche Opia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book, listening to the audio I felt re-submersed in Nigeria, the culture, the colour, the language, the way women are with their hair, their clothes and with the relationships between Nigerian women and Nigerian men, be they fathers or lovers or predators. For many dependency still rules, for many the man still rules hard in the home, for many the route to education and success has many obstacles. Sisters Korede and Ayoola have and always will have only each other, it is a beyond sisterly bond ++++SPOILER ALERT ****forged in the darkness of a hinted at, but never fully enunciated, episode which straddled the domestic and business worlds where a girl child is safeguarded at all costs until the price or prize is too great to ignore, the business deal worth too much.

We know from the beginning, indeed from the title, that Ayoola, the beautiful, is a killer, a serial killer, prone to knocking off her suitors. The novel opens with the line “Korede, I killed him.” We quickly find out that Korede her elder, plainer sister, helps clean up her mess and is complicit in body disposal of at least one of Ayoola's victims. The true extent of her involvement becomes apparant only as the book progresses. But who really is the victim here, and a victim of what? Who is exploiting who? The story line answers these questions in part and leaves the reader pondering them further even at the end of the book.

The novels oscillates rapidly in its scences, its chapters are small, tiny compare with what is more usual length. But the characters are just as full, their story just as powerful - Karode's father confessor type relationship with the comatose Muhtar, her admiration and love for Tade, the doctor and her fruitless attempts to keep her work life, and Dr Tade, apart from her home life and her sister. She is an extremely competent woman, used to thinking on her feet, handling the bureaucracy and corruption of Nigerian officials, dealing with and managing all types - skills you feel she learnt at a very early age from her dodgy deals father.

This is begging to be made into a movie under the deft hands of a good scriptwriter who gets the sharp humour, the situational comedy, but also its serious sociopolitical backdrop and, not least, the psychological profile of each of the sisters and their unique bond. As a first novel I though this was excellent and no surprise that it was longlisted for the 2019 Booker.

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Wednesday 9 September 2020

Book Review: The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier translated by Harriet de Onís


The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting to finally get an opportunity to read this book. There is a new, reportedly better, translation out, but my second hand copy is the one translated by Harriet de Onis.

It is difficult to know where to start, on the one hand this is supposedly a pivotal piece of writing from the early days, if not originator of magical realism, but having read so much Latin American Magical Realism I found it in many ways a bit light. Light with respect to storyline and character, but full of poetic, visual, ethereal, musical and lush passages. It is a short novella and therein is where I think lies the problem, I wanted more detail.

Having said that, Carpentier's writing, in this translation really gets into full flow and is at its best in my opinion in the later part of the book where he really takes senses and makes history coming alive in stunning imagery. Part 3 Chapter IV The Immured is for me where it really takes off when the protagonist Ti Noel re-enters the Cap and finds the "whole city in a death watch" The way Carpentier writes sound as political upheaval is in my opinion brilliant. Likewise in the following chapter V Chronical of August 15 he writes sound as hostility, threat and panic. This continues into the following chapter VI Ultima Ratio Regum which depicts the mutiny against Henri Christophe and his suicide. And it is colour and smells that he uses to write about the building of what will be the "mausoleum to the first king of Haiti" where flesh and blood, turn mortar red. And finally touch as memory and madness as Soliman is confronted with the corpse of his beloved Pauline Bonaparte in Part 4 Chapter 1 The Night of the Statues.

The other thing that came to me when reading this was its use of Voodoo, and of African gods and mythology, which must have been quite novel in any Western Literature at the time this book was written but which today is much more commonplace with the rise of "the African Novel" - only this week BBC 4 TV had a programme entitled Africa Turns the Page: The Novels that shaped a continent> and with the reawakening of the graphic novel genre onto the big screen with the like of "Black Panther" and the rise of Afrofuturism speculative fiction, all of which place African dieties central to their mythology and storytelling.

The final aspect which is worthy of noting, lies in the fact that this is a historical novel, steeped inthe history of Haiti. I only have a broad brush awareness of that countries history but it felt enugh to follow the novel as long as I went with the flow and didn't worry too much about the names which were dropped in, whether they were real of fictional. But I kept remembering reading Gabriel García Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth which is brilliant reimaging of the final days of Simon Bolivar and as a historical fiction Kingdom of this World comes in a distinct second.

So all in all mixed views on the novella, but still worth the afternoon spent reading it.

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Tuesday 8 September 2020

Short Story Review: Impatient Griselda by Margaret Atwood

Impatient Griselda by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only from the pen of Atwood!! She is such a wicked lady :) disturbing the folkloric Griselda tale used in the original Decameron and playing to the current global pandemic's feelings of alienation. The narrator's octupus-like alien on a intergalactical-crises aid mission struggles to communicate with the native bi-ped population, has overtones of third world aid condescension, faces all the linguistic and cultural issues of understanding the stories of the Other and although they are trying their best can't wait to get home and back to a 'normal' life. Brilliant. 

Available online

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Monday 31 August 2020

Short Story Review: The Last Conversation by Paul Tremlay, narrated by Stevan Strait

The Last Conversation The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Totally compelling read, straighforwardly (no pun intended) narrated by Stevan Strait, who some will know as the lead in The Expanse series. I'm not usually a reader of horror and so have never read anything from this author before, but I was impressed by his ability to deliver a grand hook of a tale. Yes I've read books and seen movies which deal with a single person in a room. Waking up,not seeing, not knowing how you got there and not remembering much, if anything, is where he starts his second person narrative. The protagonist is unnamed, ungendered and is being cared for by Dr Kuhn, or Annie as we come to know her, who initially our protagonist only hears as she is not in the room . *****SPOILER ALERT **** we gradually become aware, alongwith our protagonist, thatshe appears, ominously to be seeding him with memories. The reader's imagination runs riot trying to ensigage why this woudl be, and maybe some readers will work it out, but although I had many thoughts about this whilst reading it I didn't, surprisingly, get the correct one. We know there has been a pandemic, and that the protagonist is in isolation till his immune system stabilises. I'm not going to say any more about how the plot line develops as this really would spoil it big time. Suffice to say that in many ways this story, whilst ostensibly focused on the protangonist, is about Annie, and leaves the reader pondering her predicament at the end of the novella. The writing builds up beautifully and it is an addictive read. Trembley writes some thought provoking moments eg "how could one lose something as expansive as an ocean in a dusty crner of one's mind? What if, instead, to forget is to open a door to a void; the memory is not retrievable because it is not there, was never there" what a horrid thought!

This is another one of the stories from Amazon's Forward Collection, the more I read of these the more I am impressed by the selection curator Blake Crouch has put together. Highly recommend.

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Saturday 29 August 2020

Short Story Review: You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles

You Have Arrived at Your Destination You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This story is part of Amazon's Forward Collection which according to its curator was devise as a collection of stories about pivotal technological moments. In this story Amor Towles as chosen the subject of designer babies.

***SPOILER ALERT ***Sam is a successfull, moneyed, mortgage free 45 year old who is visiting Vitek a fertility clinic with a difference, not only can you pick boy/girl, blue/brown eyes etc but you can influence the intelligence and temperament of you future child. His wife Annie has done a lot of the legwork and when he gets to the clinic he is presented with her three options. These are presented as three short video montages of what each child's live would be like.

The first projection, Daniel One has " from the day he was born, Daniel had a smile on his face"; Daniel Two "marches to the beat of his own drum" and for Daniel Three "everything came easy". These are shown to Sam in a 15 seat movie theatre by MT Owens of Vitek, who sees these as mini movies and talks about each life as if it were a three act play. Seeing these potential lives acted out makes Sam reflect on his own life and his marriage. He takes exception to MTs talk about classic "second-act setbacks" during which people come face to face with their own limitations and there being "no point in pushing our personalities uphill". This is made all the more personal and cutting when MT remarks that Annie is still in her second-act, but Sam is already in his third and has been there for 15 years already. This prompts Sam to leave the building.

He ends up in a down at heels bar on a bypassed side road off the highway, where things get a little tense as Sam gets very drunk in conversation with Beezer and the barkeep Nick. More about Sam's upbringing is revealed and about the history of Vitek which Beezer reckons is an offshot of the previous occupants of that building the defense contractor Raytheon "because genetics is the fuure of defense". Sam goes back to Vitek to retrieve his DNA "sample" and returns to his new friends in the bar.

This story flows along really well, Towles paints three different characters as the potential children, and wonderfully interspaces their screening with Sam's own reflections, his concerns about his own life, about Annie's, about his father's impact on his childhood. The character of MT is perfectly OTT salesman, and the seed of a conspiracy theory which is dropp in towards the end by Beezer leaves a bitter taste not just with Sam but leaves the reader with a sense of dread.
It is very well structured, well ended and well written. It is just the type of short story which makes a great movie. I loved it and couldn't fault it, hence the 5*

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Short Story Review: This World is Full of Monsters by Jeff VanderMeer

This World is Full of Monsters This World is Full of Monsters by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading Jeff VanderMeer is like experience a surreal rollercoaster ride through a hallucinatory world of strange fleetings images drenched in nature and the unreal, perhaps a bit like a Salvador Dali painting where everything is familiar and unfaniliar at the same time. I keep reading more of his writing in a hope of figuring it and him out, I'm still trying.

All I can say about this story is at times I thought I caught onto what he was actually writing about and meaning and then it would slip from my grasp only to be replaced by something else to tackle. The story sees a man, a writer taken over by "a story creature" and I could stretch to interpreting this as what happens when a writer is struggling wiht his writing, becomes so into his emerging story that it takes over his life. The story creature sprouts and the narrator feels "some thing growing through me.....I was awash in dreams of chlorophyll and photosynthesis" and doesn't wake for a hundred years.

The narrator also encounters a "school-creature" and is "set loose as a history lesson". Then he encounters a "single celled creature" which acts as a life-presever in the ocean, but which is battered by the narrator as he struggles to disentangle himself from it.

He is given a brother by the story creature an dsees his life though the brother's eyes but when this brother dies he leaves "a residue that was an anti-story....(which) would grow and accumulate...until it was too late to do anything but turn to the left and change and change again" On reading that part I was thinking about 'false-news' especially when he writes "...more peope spread the anti-story until eventually it was the story not the anti-story and there had never been an anti-story at all, or any other story to rule the Earth".

His next embodiment is the "dead-shell creature" when the narrator feels he "was his own fish" experiencing what it is like "to be other than human" Shedding this body his final encounter is with the "story-sea" which ultimately disgorges the narrator into the cosmos where he tells of being "flung into the stratoshpere" as if from a "mighty trampoline", acheiveing "escape velocity" and being expulsed "through light and dark into dark and weightlessness....tumbling end ove end though vaccuum" as he and his fellow travllers were "dispersed farther and farther...headed to other become story-creatures" There's a circulatory sensation about this part, it is almost like a rebirthing much like a 'bigbang' as particales are flung out to 'populate' worlds and indeed one does feel as sense of having read an epic and is filled with a sense of optimism at the end of the piece.

JeffVanderMeer is for me a very strange, yet very compelling, read.

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Friday 28 August 2020

Short Story Review: Randomize By Andy Weir

Randomize Randomize by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short story is part of Amazon Forward Collection which according to the sleeve notes from its curator are from authors ask to explore "the resounding effects of a pivotal technological moment".
With this story Andy Weir chose quantum computing. According to wikipedia "Quantum computing is the use of quantum phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation" and therein to me lies the problem with this story - I didn't become entangled in the storyline.

The plot is a simple one, an external one, made into many stories and movies about Las Vegas Casino-land heists, brilliant minds powerd by greed think they can outwit the casino to win big. But add something as unfathomable as quantum computing into this mix and a lot of explanation has to take place to woo the average reader. We know Weir can do this from his brilliant The Martian and his explanation here of "agreement in advance" using the example of two drivers at cross directional traffic lights is clear, but ****SPOILER ALERT ***having the criminal mastermind explain it all to reassure her hsuband of their plan is for me a bit too obviously explanation for the reader.

Moreover the plot fails for me at three points,
(1) when the installer of the casino's new quantum computer says to its IT guy "remember it's only as good as the security on this computer" - dead giveaway;
(2) when the installer says to his wife "It was easy enough to sneak it (the computer) here for you to prepare" - really!!!
(3) bending a casino manager into the plan - athough perhaps it is credible that a person in this position would also be greedy, wouldn't he also have people background checking, monitoring and 'putting the fears' on him? - it was just too convenient an ending for me.

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Thursday 27 August 2020

Book Review: The Black God's Drums by P Djèlí Clarke narrated by Channie Waites

The Black God's Drums The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Continuing my reading of this author's works.

This is set in an alternative history where the 18/19 century Haitain slave rebellion's reach was much greater impacting the whole Caribbean, but the US civil war continued and a free and independent New Orleans was created.

It is here that street kid "Creeper" comes into possession of some important and sellable information about the whereabouts of a kidnapped Haitian scientist who invented a new and terrible weapon "The Black God's Drums" and who is now in the hands of a smuggler who is making a deal to hand him over with Confederates.

Whereas in A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 PDC interwove Arabic culture and folklore here he uses Yoruba dieties from Nigeria to infuse spirit into his female lead characters who carry the goddess Oya and Oshun's within them as per his dedication on the book's opening page "To those who survived the crossing, and who carried their Black gods with them". It is this melding of cultures that appeals to me in his work.

I loved the character of teenager Creeper, strong with the spirit of Oya the goddess of wind, streetwise, knows what she wants - to see the world. The information she uncoveres about the scientist offers her a means of becoming crew on the famous airship Midnight Robber whose captain is also endowed with the spirit of Oshun the goddess of water. How these two women save scientist, stop the use of the weapon and save the day for New Orleans and the world is a classic story but the scene where the goddesses come into action is well done and highly visual.

The audible version is read by a naarator called Channie Waites who does a great job making PDC's often weird sentance structures transform into a vibrant dialect and thus his characters become real and leap of the page with life, particular Creeper.

Just like in his Cairo works PDC creates a novel landscape in which to play out his story. Not great literature but another great piece of rollicking good storytelling.

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Wednesday 26 August 2020

Book Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P Djèlí Clarke

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm gobbbling up PDC's writings at the moment like they are a sweet tray of chocolates with cream to dip them in.

This is a novella length story set in his incredible fantastical steampunk , djinn filled world of an alternative 1912 Cairo. I love the blend of East and West, of detective drama and spirit world fantasy, of folklore and myth, "boilerplate eunuchs"and alternative sociopolitical histories.

In this story we meet more agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, Hamad Nasr a man trying to be a modern man, and his youthful rookie sidekick Onsi as they deal with the haunting of the title.

I love the way PDC brings related everyday things into this world - budget problems within the department, Suffragettes, the rookie reciting the legislation to everyone's boredom yet in the end his skills shine through and the older inspector warms to his new buddy, and the bug of detectives everywhere, paperwork.

Along with his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo this is a tour de force in world building which I am so pleased it looks like he is going to continue with in A Master of Djinn set for release in 2021. PDC definitely has an eye for the ridiculous, the comic, and for telling a great story, a master of balance. I hope this world continues to grow. A rollicking read.

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Saturday 22 August 2020

Short Story Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo By P Djèlí Clark

A Dead Djinn in Cairo

A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long story or novelette,  depending on your terminology, but above all a squashbuckling detective thriller of a steampunk story. It is available online

The author has created a fantastic world, set in an alternative early 1900s Cairo which has been opened up to magic and djinns and possibly angelic beings from another world. The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities now investigates disturbances between the mortal and the divine.

Our adventure is led by special investigator Fatma el-Sha'arawi, a dashing precence with her black bowler hat, light gray Englishman's suit, matching vest, chartreuse tie, red-on-white pinstriped shirt and black steel walking cane capped by a lion's head silver pommel. The call out of this night's work for her is to a dead djinn found dead in his home, apparently a suicide. But that cannot be. So begins a tour of the world the author has begun to create, to the old Khedive’s summer palace, to the fortune teller at the House of the Lady of the Stars, to the murky underworld where the beings meet, hints at the backstory of al-Jahiz who 40 yrs earlier had opened the hole to the Kaf, the realm of the djinn.

This is the second piece in two days that I have read by this P Djèlí Clark and I will be reading more. I listened to Audible's version, very well narrated by actress Suehyla El-Attar who I hope continues to be the voice of Fatma if Clark writes more about this world, which I sincerely hope he does.

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Friday 21 August 2020

Short Story Review: The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P Djèlí Clark

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story won the Nebula Best Short Story 2018 Prize. It tells the 9 stories behind the 9 teeth which are the subject of an entry (I suppose real entry) in a plantation account book. Each is a fantastical tale of their owner's life. Each is embued with magic, sorcery, and two words I had to look up 'thaumturgical' (Having, brought about by, or relating to supernatural powers or magic) and 'obeah' (a kind of sorcery practised especially in the Caribbean). Each tooth has a mysterious effect on its purchaser, one George Washington.
First thing I have read by this author, and am now on the hunt for more.

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Thursday 20 August 2020

Book Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slow and gentle story of friendship. It is subtle, full of brush strokes worthy of a grandmaster of the floating world - simple yet complex, seemingly light yet heavy with meaning. Just after finishing this story I watched the first episode of a BBC series entitled The Art of Japanese Life and was struck with so many similarities between the style of many modern Japanese novels and what the documentary was saying about the role of Nature , Zen and Shinto in Japan. I also watched the movie of this book directed by Naomi Kawase in intimate close up, perfect for the sentiment of the novel.

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Short Story Review: The City Born Great by NK Jemison , narrated by Landon Woodson

The City Born Great The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin
Loved the narration (4*) by Landon Woodson who captivated this listener with his voicing of the street wise, down at heel, graffitti painting, birth mother of the city of New York in this intriguing fantastical prequel to the new NK Jemison book The City We Became. I'll have to add it to my to be read list now. Jemisin never disappoints as a storyteller

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Short Story Review: Emergency Skin by NK Jemisin, narrated by Jason Issacs

Emergency Skin

Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliantly narrated by Jason Isaacs, this is just the best speculative short I've read in ages! It is witty, political, fully of social commentary, speculative yet highly relevant today. The voice of the AI inside the head of the bodyless soldier sent back to Earth to get cell cultures necassary for the survival of the elitist regime is the voice of the brainwashed, the fooled by dogma and false news and rewitten histories, the voice of oppression, the voice of enslavement. 

ashramblings verdict 5* Quite simply a brilliant way to spend an hour. Highly recommended

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Tuesday 23 June 2020

Book Review: The Pledge by Friederick Durrenmatt

The Pledge The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't often respond to adverts that pop up but I recently saw one for Puskin Press's Vertigo imprint which struck a chord. On checking it out I find it started in Fall 2015 to "publish crime classics from around the world, focussing on tour-de-force works written between 1920s and 1970s by international masters of the genre" This book was my first dip into that series.

Friederick Durrenmatt(1921 - 1990) was a Swiss playwriter and novelist. He was instrumental in the post WW2 revival of German theatre. He wrote detective novels. According to the notes in the book "he is famed for his philosophical crime thrillers, which draw comparisons to the works of Paul Auster and Umberto Eco for their post-modern questioning of the conventions of the genre" This one I noted had been made into a movie directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson (with that combination how come I missed it?)

But is The Pledge a detective novel? Yes and No. Yes, there is a murder, and yes there is a detective. It is constructed as a story within a short framing story. The narrator has been giving a talk on the art of writing detective novel which hasn't really gone that well, when he meets Dr H the former Chief of Police in the canton of Zurich, who offered to drive him back to Zurich. On that journey they stop at a run down gas station. There an old man sits on a bench, unkempt and smelling of absinthe while inside an old looking 16 year old serves the two men coffee. Dr H clearly knows them, he calls the girl by her name, Annemarie, an departs saying "Next time" to the old guy outside whose response is "I'll wait, I'll wait, he'll come, he'll come". Thus the story is set up for its telling by Dr H, as we readers are left wondering why Dr H made a point of stopping at this gas station.

The body of a very young girl, brutally stab, had been found in the forest by a travelling peddler, von Gunten. The peddler phones his detective acquaintance Mathai (at that time Dr H's first lieutenant) , because he is afraid he will be blamed as he has a previous conviction for relations with a 14 yr old minor. Matthai upon meeting the parents of the dead girl makes a pledge to find her murderer on his "eternal salvation". It is this pledge of the book's title that provides the core theme of the book. How far do you go to keep a promise? What rules do you break to do so?

Durrenmatt's detective novels are said to "reflect the absurdity of real life rather than proceeding liek mathematical equations with a definite solution" He disliked the logical playing out of the genre. The subtitle of The Pledge is "Requiem for the Detective Novel" . ***SPOILER ALERT *** Whilst the ending told by Dr H, provides a 'solution' to the murder, it comes from left field. Many readers will find this unsatisfactory. But it is meant to be an 'absurd' solution, and provides a comic, tragic story in and of itself.

The real skill in the book is how the author draws the spiralling disintegration of Mathai as he decays alons with his obsession to fulfill his promise. The 'absurb' solution is insult to injury both for the detective, and for the reader. The end is actually more disturbing than the unsolved crime would have been.

The tale and the framing story itself embody a critique about the predictability of the detective genre. Most definitely a genre busting thriller. I could not stop reading it. A great first dip into the Vertigo imprint. More will follow.

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Sunday 21 June 2020

Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Japanese do love stories like calligraphy, delicate brush strokes full of meaning, subtle yet straightforward, simple yet complex.

In this novella, a single mother is sent by an Agency to housekeep for a "difficult" client, a Maths Professor who lives in a cottage in the garden of a larger home occupied by his sister in law, a widow. After a car accident he has only 80 minutes of memory cycle for events post that time. To aid him getting through the day he wears the same suit, studded with notes to help him remember things, like that she is his housekeeper and she has a young son, whom he has nicknamed Root. The three of them develop an unexpected friendship through a love of numbers, mathematics and baseball. Now I'm neither knowledgeable about mathematics or baseball, and that might bog some readers down but for me it didn't matter mucvh because what matters is that the writer conveys the Professor's passion about numbers and about his baseball idol Enatsu as a way of showing the man the Professor was but also still is, a passionate person who cares deeply about children and sees beauty in numbers and the evening sky.

The book is narrated by the unamed housekeep, looking back on her years with the Professor. How reliable a narrator is she? Well the book is her memories, one sided perhaps, but clearly full of tender affection for the man, and for the love, inspiration, attention and praise he showed her son, who ended up being a teacher. She of course does not know and so neither can we as readers what exactly the relationship between the Professor and his sister in law was leading up to the car crash, but we can hypothesis. From a practical point of view the idea of notes pinned to the Professor's suit is a bit unfit for the purpose of remembering, but serves another purpose - it makes him appear ridiculous at first sight, like a jester or fool which he is most clearly not, and as such serves to reflect how society often views and treats people with memory loss, dementia etc .

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Thursday 18 June 2020

Book Review: You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann trans by Ross Benjamin

You Should Have Left You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this book upon finding Daniel Kehlmann' s book Tyll Shortlisted in the International Booker Prize 2020. I read a bit of background on the author, whom I had not come across before, noted that his first translator of all but on eof his previous book had died, and this was his second book translated by his new translator Ross Benjamin|. To me it is always a good sign when an author and translator build up a report and are a constant pairing.  Tyll was till very expensive to buy and libraries are still closed due to the COVID crisis, so I took a look at their other collaboration and noted that it is due out as a movie for streaming release on 19th June ( as I write this that is tomorrow) starring Kevin Bacon and was available at a reduced price as ebook and via Audible. So I picked that up as a starter.

It is a really short book only 128 pages, 2hrs of listening.  The story is set in an Apline AirBnB being rented by a writer, his wife and 4 yr old child, while he is trying to write the sequel for his screenplay. The book is set over the days 2-7 December. He starts to expereince issues with the house which at first amount to getting lost within it which he puts down to it being unfaniliar and to his focus on his work. The work is not going well. He has no sense of where his characters are going and his producer is threatening to replace him as writer if he doesn't deliver on time. As readers we begin to realise there is stress within the family unit, although the writer is our narrator so in that sense we have only one side, therefore unreliable, but engaging and in my opinion well written. It is as if we are inside his head. His thoughts are jumbled moving from the reality of the family situation to his organically growing possible dialogs for the screenplay. Once you get used to these fleeting back and forth, I quickly found it very readable.  This really helps as the novel develops in  many ways like a classic haunted house story. We get the red flag warnings and with the narrator we experience the phenomena he experiences, first as bad dreams, again very plausible with a stressed out imagination at work and finding it hard to rest. There is most definite sense of creeping horror. There is a real sense of disorientation and doom which is lightened only by his relationship with his daughter which is beuatifully written, with some very real touches of an adults perspective on constantly praising a child and reading inane children's stories again and again.  This relationship is key part of the book.

I'm impressed by this small book, can't wait for the movie to see how the director handles this, and oh yes I can see Kevin Bacon playing this role. Mr B aced another role choice.  Not only does Kehlman blur the lines between reality and  imagination, SPOILER ALERT he blurs dimensionalites in lines between ghost story and space/time. He curves space and time within and around the house  in a way that adds to the panic the narrator and we readers feel. I loved the device he chose for this, a simple plastic triangular set square we will all remember using in geometry class at school.

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Monday 27 January 2020

Review: The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures by Charlie English
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found I didn't like the way this book was laid out - alternating chapters on the history with those on the story of the book smugglers, I suspect that was because I knew much of the history from reading done prior to visiting there in 2005. But for anyone not aware of this then it is a reasonable broad sweep intro to the "myth" of Timbuktu and European fascination and exploration to the fabled city.

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