Saturday 31 December 2022

Book Review: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a lover of fictionalised accounts of real peoples lives but I seem to have picked up a few recently. This was a book club read and I did manage to finish it. Barnes as usual writes well and has clearly done his background reading of the Shostakovitch biographies which he references in the Afterward, but I can only ever wonder which parts are truth and which are the fiction. What he does do well is expound upon the questions of courage and cowardice, conscience and survival, Power and art. At times it reminded me of Kafka, or of Solzhenitsyn. It does however read well the reader does not really need to know much about this musician to go with the flow of the novel and I mean that as a plus point. Mainly written as an interior monologue Barnes covers the denunciation of Shostakovitch, his visit to the USA and his joining of the Communist Party. Since this final act is a humiliation beyond all the others the story line is a sad one of a fearful artist, manipulated by and submitting to political dogma.

Thursday 22 December 2022

Book Review: Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon

Miss Iceland

Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, transl. by Brian FitzGibbon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

A deceptive, quiet, slow novel with no real ending which grasps the struggles of woman and gay men in 1960s Iceland and beyond. As the world goes through tumultuous change both physically with the 1963 sea volcanic eruption and creation of the new island of Surtsey, and socially with the assassination of JFK in the USA, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King's 'I had a dream' speech and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the narrator Hekla, poet and novelist, struggles against sexism in both workplace and in society at large. This is also the time of Miss World contests, the parading of young women in bathing suits, of measurement by vital statistics.

In Reykjavik she eyes the poets in their cafe huddle but does not venture in to join them. She moves in with one, Starkadur, but still keeps the fact that she is a published poet secret from him. As he struggles to write and be published, she writes and finishes her novel in secret. Inevitably he finds out, inevitably she leaves him.

Her friend Ísey, having gone down the socially expected route of marriage and family, finds herself married to a man who can barely read while she hides her diary in which she writes about what has not been said and what has not happened. Her other friend, Jón John, wants to make theatrical costumes but works and does not fit in to the traditional male domain of fishing and life aboard long haul deep sea trawlers and whalers. Persecuted by his work mates, in dreams of love and seeks escape.
How these four people understand each other and support each other is the up side to this novel - the power of friendship in times of powerlessness against persecution and prejudice.

The novel barely has what could be called an ending. I was disappointed that Hekla wasn't the volcano she was named after and didn't break through the glass cage. I was sad that escape was but a dream for them, that Jon John would have to wait more that the 'seven minutes to midnight' for a change in the law and that most likely the only dream likely to come to fruition would be Issy one of delivering hoards of children.

What this novel does very well is remind us who lived through these times how whilst everything may not be ideal things have thankfully changed for many if not for all - women can be successful published poets, novelists, writers; both men and woman can express there sexuality as they desire in many countries. But as I write this today we hear that after park bans and university education were stopped the Taliban in Afghanistan are now ceasing girls primary school education - yet another generation of dashed dreams and future generations of illiterate women with unfulfilled potential.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Book Review: The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer

The Years The Years by Annie Ernaux
Trans. by  Alison L. Strayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not much of a Francophile and have never really holidayed there and will admit to having never heard of this author prior to her being shortlisted for this book for the International Booker in 2019 and winning the Nobel for Literature in 2022 and my book club chose it for its monthly read. Also I am not a fan of memoir or creative non-fiction. The Booker folk must have thought there was enough fiction in this to qualify but perhaps not enough to win. It has a very strange "we" voice with occasional lapses and even when it enters the third person it it referring to the girl , then young woman, in various photographs. This creates a weird sense of collective and individual in which to look back at their/her life experience from 1941 to the 21st century through a very nostalgic lens voiced as lists of events, things encountered . These lists of brand names, movies, music, politicians, historical events, social upheavals etc one level provoke the reader to think of the equivalents in their own lives, but after a while begin to feel like a bad history lesson. I found this wallowing in nostalgia, with little in the way of storyline or plot to be overwhelming. Combine this with the remoteness of the main character which the voice and style of writing creates I was just not engaged by the book. I persevered for half of it then really could not go on. It may well appeal to readers of memoirs and readers more in tune with all things French. Whereas brand names can usually be transmuted into those from ones one country many non-French readers may feel at a loss to relate to with regard to French Politics of the De Gaulle era, the Algerian war. I'm left with the feeling that the audience who will love this book is quite specific and does not include me .

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Monday 28 November 2022

Book Review: Storm Birds by Einar Karason tranlsated by Quentin Bates

Storm Birds Storm Birds by Einar Kárason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This slim little paperback of 110 pages found on my local libraries shelves was a delight. The story of the efforts for survival by the crew of an Icelandic fishing trawler as they battle severe weather in the North Atlantic whilst out fishing for highly valued redfish. Although fiction it undoubtedly draws upon Icelanders experiences of fishing in the late 1950s when it was one of the most deadly occupations in the world. They battle continually against massive ice build up, each new wave of sea water recreating the ice they seaman have chipped away from the deck and its machinery. Each wave lurching the boat onto its side, its stubborn refusal to return to the upright. Days and nights with out sleep the Captain tries everything to lighten the trawler, to escape the freezing winds. The engineers try to keep the engine running. The cooks makes meals to keep the seam's energy levels up for their work. Touch and go for 4 days. I felt I was there, being tossed about, feeling the cold deep into me.
This is a story which anyone who has been to sea will like, anyone who has survived a life threatening storm, readers who like books like The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea and movies like All is Lost .

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Sunday 27 November 2022

Book Review: The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard, Translated by Mark Polozzotti

The War of the Poor The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a short book and not one I would have picked up but I wanted for various reasons to try and read a piece of creative non fiction fiction which has always been a genre that flummoxed me.
This was billed as an account of an event I knew nothing about namely the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25 and its instigator Thomas Muntzer a radical theologian of the time. It describes conflict between peasants and gentry which I thought might politically be interesting as even today that differential divide between the haves and the have nots continues. As I started to read it felt like a exercise in name dropping - the Archbishop of Magdeburg, various Munzers, Monczer, Miinzers Johann Sylvanus Erganus, , Nikolaus Stroch, Mark Stubner, Thomas Drechsel etc - all names which meant and mean nothing to me . Undaunted I continued to read about how Thomas Muntzer read the Bible, how he transformed into a radical preacher and provocateur. Central hear is the Gutenburg printing of the Bible, its translation from Latin and the relationship between Church, State and Power which as the ordinary people were more and more able to hear, speak and read it in their own languages caused a growing political awareness of their social circumstances and those of the establishment. It brings in John Wycliffe , John Ball , 1380 poll tax in England , Wat Tyler and the violent conflicts that arose at that time between the English Throne and its citizenry . Then it returns to what is happening in Bohemia with Jan Hus Czech translations, sermons and their resulting riots. The writing spans centuries, back and forth, and spans countries and it does it in 66 pages! To that extent it is classic short piece writing, every word must count, nothing is extraneous. But, and for my this is big but, it is like reading a potted history, like a concise Shakespeare, so much is left out, we have just the bare bones. This is not therefore a book which will appeal to readers of historical non fiction, may not appeal to readers of historical fiction as it doesn't give any depth to the characters of their motivations. This book was translated by American Mark Polizzotti and was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize which is for novels or short story collection but I feel it doesn't quite fit that bill. Not a book for me.

Thursday 10 November 2022

Short Story Podcast Review: The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain by Yoko Ogawa, read by Madelaine Thien

The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain by Yōko Ogawa 

Text at
Audio at New Yorker Fiction podcast Oct 1st 2022
I just listened to Yōko Ogawa's story The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast Oct 1st 2022 . The podcast audio is read by Madelaine Thien. For me here voice took a little getting used to, I found it too soft, airy, and had to grind my teeth a bit, but I persevered and acclimatized enough to enjoy the story. What was excellent was the discussion Thien and the podcast host Deborah Treisman had about the story afterwards. One to recommend I think.

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Monday 7 November 2022

Book Review: Good Offices by Evelio Rosero, tranls by Anna Maclean and Anna Milsom

Good Offices Good Offices by Evelio Rosero
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A marvelous novella for reading around Halloween. Billed as a satire on the Catholic Church I was a little concerned before picking it up as I am not a great reader of the comical, quite often don't get written humour of any form, but this is one that left me desperately wanting #Guillermo del Toro to get hold of the movie rights. . Its gothic, its surreal, its horror, its Bacchanalian, it reminded me of Victor Hugo, of Robert Burns.

It simmers towards its climax on the night Father Almida and his right hand man the sacristan are off visiting his church's benefactor vainly trying to keep their income flowing, leaving the acolyte Tancredo (the Hunchback), Sabrina the sacristan's niece (Esmerelda) and the church's cooks, the three Lilias (the Three Witches) to host the last minute, last option locum priest Father Matamoros (Auld Nick) who has come to stand in for Father Almida at Mass. To their amazement this disheveled, drunken substitute sings the mass with the voice of an angel and transforms the parishioners. Who can blame them for not wanting Almida to return!

Beautifully translated by Anne Maclean (in this case along with Anna Milsom - the two of them have also translated his Feast of the Innocents) Maclean has also translated the other works by him ( The Armies and Stranger to the Moon and most recently Tono the Infallible) which have so far appeared in English. It would be great to get this translated work available as audio recording.

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Wednesday 26 October 2022

Book Review / Audiobook review: Outlaws by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Narrated by Luis Moreno

Outlaws Outlaws by Javier Cercas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne McLean the translator has translated many famous authors writing in Spanish including two I have read and enjoyed Isabel Allende and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, so following on my usual 'follow the translator' route I came to Javier Cercas. This is the first book of his I have read. I chose this one to start with because it had an audiobook version. It was narrated by Luis Moreno (, whom I thought did a great job. I liked the tone of his voice and would love for him to record more of Cercas' works and other Spanish author's translated into English but whose books have yet to make it to audio.

As for the book, the story is presented as a series of interviews by an unnamed author writing a book about El Zarco, a teenage criminal from the era just after the death of Franco. These first person narratives come from a number of people each of whom offer different perspectives on life of Zarco - Ignacio Canas, Zarco's lawyer and ex-gang member, Police Inspector Cuenca and Eduardo Requena, Superintendent of the Prison. Their interviews are often rambling and repetitive, but in my opinion this structure works well, their almost monologues are very realistic of how people's memory work, a story unraveling bit by bit, each with contractions and unknowns from this series of unreliable narrators. They flow extremely well and with their slow reveal of the back story really keep the reader's attention throughout. I found it hard to put the book down at the end of the day.

Do we ever get to the whole truth, or just to various versions of the truth, a series of truths, or even only a partial picture of part truths? I was left to wonder what book the author would actually construct from these interviews. Just as Zarco's life and exploits had become something of a legend over time, a myth which for Cañas finds echoes in the story of Lain Shan Po that he (and I) recalls seeing on TV as The Water Margin ( ), the reader begins to consider whether it is ever possible to know it all, to understand how and why it all happened. As Cañas says "even if we find it comfortable to find an explanation for what we do, the truth is that most if what we do doesn't have a single explanation, supposing it even has any" Ca

But what is presented is a very entertaining and well written thriller. Lurking within and behind it, there's a somewhat murky picture of the social deprivation in post Franco times - the impact of poverty, bad housing, drug addiction, AIDS. It's never 'in your face' but it is ever present from the contrast in backgrounds and subsequent lives of Cañas and Zarco, between their opportunities or lack of afforded by between being a poor immigrant to the city a charnegos or being a quinquis a delinquent, small time criminal, life on two sides of the tracks, here a river, again echoing the Chinese story. The sadness of Cañas's continual involvement with Zarco and its impact on his life may not be that he initially became involved because he fancied Tere, a girl gang member with Zarco on Cañas' first meeting, but as Cuenca says the best thing that happened in my life happened to me due to a misunderstanding, because I liked a horrible book (in his case Galdos' book about the siege of Gerona which made him seek a posting in the city) and because I thought a villain was a hero

An excellent read, and highly recommended

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Thursday 20 October 2022

Book Review: Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga, translated by Megan McDowell

Camanchaca Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange but intriguing little book. I came to it via other works by its translator Megan McDowell who amongst other things translated the marvelous Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. This is the first book by Diego Zúñiga and it has been immediately translated into English. He was included in the Bogata 39 list of the best fiction writers under 40 from across Latin America, see

The first thing to strike the reader is that this is an episodic novel of very short passages, 110 in all ranging in length from a short line to almost a full page. My copies rear page says this "A long drive across Chile's Atacama Desert, traversing the "worn-out puzzle" of a broken family - a young man's corrosive intimacy with his mother, the obtrusive cheer of his absentee father, this uncle's unexplained death. The camanchaca is a low fog pushing in from the sea, its moisture sustaining near -barren landscape. Sometimes, the silences are what bind us". This is spot on as a summary and intro.

The text is as fractured, disjointed and distributed as the young narrator's life - he floats from his mother's house, to his father, to his grandfather's house and between childhood memories and the present. It is fully of references to contemporary music, gaming and sport (I particularly related to his excitement at watching the amazing football (soccer) match between Man U and Bayern Munich). The narrator's life is a mess, his family is broken and dysfunctional, his neighbourhood dangerous, and references to those who disappeared in previous generations abound. The fog of the title is metaphorically felt throughout - his memories are vague, they are from a childhood when he was too young to know, to ask to understand, his questions aren't really answered, and the mystery of what happened to his Uncle Neto deepens - both reader and narrator do not know, the past remains unexplainable. Atmospheric, lyrical and quietly addictive. An ambitious structure for a first novel, and it leaves this reader wondering how much is biographical and about what is to come

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Monday 17 October 2022

Book Review: By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah

By the Sea

By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why had I not read Abdulrazak Gurnah before!

He writes beautifully. His prose is like a luxuriant duvet of baroque damask - rich, poetic, precise and the reader experiences the sublime warmth of a writer who tends to his every word. He leads the reader on a journey of character discovery, of plot illumination. Just gorgeous.

4* only in expectation that he might have written an even better one. I will definitely be reading more.

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Sunday 16 October 2022

AudioBook Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, narrated by Bernadette Dunne

We Have Always Lived in the Castle We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Previously I have only ever read Shirley Jackson's famous short story The Lottery and I promised myself that one day I would read her novels.

The first thing that struck me about Mary Kathleen was her age. 18! Never! She's a child. A child with OCD at the very least. The second thing that struck me was just how well Shirley Jackson showed that character. I loved the touch of humour, its honest craziness was wonderful. 5* on character portrayal. Made my think of the Adams Family. The characters just leap of the page and some of the scenes are incredibly visual eg when Uncle Julian is showing Mrs Wright round the dinning room.

"“Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow from his wheel chair, and Mrs. Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at once that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”
"“Alas,” Uncle Julian said. “Then, on either side of my brother, his daughter Constance and my wife Dorothy, who had done me the honor of casting in her lot with mine, although I do not think that she anticipated anything so severe as arsenic on her blackberries. Another child, my niece Mary Katherine, was not at table.” “She was in her room,” Mrs. Wright said. “A great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper. But she need not concern us.”

The choreography of it is superb. As it is in the scene of the girls escape from the burning of house. I am intending to watch the movie version and I hope it translate well, although I know for me the actor playing Uncle Julian is nowhere near frail or old enough to match my impression of him from the book.

I agree Mary Katherine is not your traditional unreliable narrator because act actually what she sees is she does so with incredible clarity - she sees through Charles immediately. I listened to the audio which was well read by Bernadette Dunne , and I noticed that at the point where she starts the first the narrator slowed down as if to emphasize Mary Katherine's thought process in action. I'm not sure whether if I had just been reading the text I would or would not have put that sway to it. I'd be interested to hear how those of you just reading the text saw that episode - did she do it deliberately or just clumsily?

I am left unsure of why both women are such damaged characters. Was Constance an agoraphobic only after the trial? What caused Mary Katherine to be so? If we believe Mary Katherine did the poisoning knowingly then what caused her to be so disturbed at an age before the deaths? I've listened to the link Dan supplied and still feel she is less a 'witch' than a stumbling child using the burying of trinkets as somewhat of an extension of the "Step on a crack, break your back / step on a line, break your spine" chants we all heard in childhood as a means of establishing order in what she perceives as a chaotic world, establishing her safety zone just as Constance establishes her by never leaving the house.

And why does Uncle Julian keep asking whether it happened or not? It here I suppose is the poisonings nothing anything else. His moments of coherence and moments of incoherence/forgetfulness, staged and not, make him unreliable or more reliable? If anyone is living in an alternate reality it is Constance with her food fetishes, cooking frenzies, and hot flushes for Charles.

The ending needs consideration as well. Here the alienated sisters have returned into their new decrepit half destroyed safe zone, shored up by vines and hidden behind cardboard and junk, seeing the real world only through a peephole. What minimal contact they had had with the outside world dwindles away until they become the ghosts of other's childhoods. It is in many ways a very sad ending - and oh that last phrase "Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.” The mad women have sequestered themselves away; and they will be happy there until they die; and when they die, no one will ever know.

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Sunday 31 July 2022

Short Story Review: A Slow Boat to China by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami (signature), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Slow Boat to China by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Murakami's first short story can be found in the collection The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami and if you have access to Jstor at

The introspective narrator tells the reader the stories of his first encounters with Chinese - the teacher in the Chinese elementary school at the edge of the world", mistakes made on a first date with a Chinese co-worker, an encounter with a encyclopedia salesman.

Written with some beautiful phrasing eg "The years '59 and '60 stand there like gawky twins in matching nerd suits." and "...the new me - five chickens and a smoke away from what I was...."

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Wednesday 15 June 2022

Book Review: Songbirds by Christy Lefteri


Songbirds by Christy Lefteri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First some facts
(1) In Cyprus, an estimated 605,000 migratory birds were caught in mist nets and killed in the autumn of 2021 to lace the diner plates in fancy restaurants and homes - see

(2) The UK issues over 20,000 Overseas Domestic Worker Visas per year to people coming from outside the EU , https://www.thevoiceofdomesticworkers...

(3) It is very common for migrant women to work in domestic servant jobs in middle class Cypriot homes. In 2019 the body of one was found and with it a multiple murder investigation into the disappearance of 5 woman and 2 children their hopes for a better life brutally ended.

Lefteri, herself from a Cypriot family, weaves a rich brocade of a story around the fictional disappearance of Nisha, a maid from Sri Lanka, a widow with a young daughter back home whom she has not seen for 10 years. For those 10 years she has served Petra, herself a widow and brough up her daughter. Nishi and Yiannis, the tenant in Petra's upper flat, are lovers. Yiannis confesses to her that following the bank crisis he lost his job and has ended up catching birds. They both live on the edge of complex, far reaching and in Yiannis's case illegal, operations. Their love affair remains hidden as Nishi fears losing her job and being unable to repay her 'arrangement' fee.
The story alternates chapters from Petra and from Yiannis as Nishi's story is released to the reader. As I started to read this I was struck by how involved I felt in the story even although the final outcome of Nishi's death is all to apparent from the start, but my involvement all the more surprising because I disliked both the bird hunts and the attitude of Petra to her maid. We know Yiannis will finally break from his bird hunter role, that he will go and see Nisha's daughter in Sri Lanka, and that Petra will finally see the wealth of love that Nisha brought into her and her daughter's life. We also see the horrid nationalistic racist misogynistic attitude of the police who will not investigate Nisha's disappearance and who did not investigate the initial reports of the disappearances of the women murdered in Cyprus. Interspersed with these two character’s chapters is the story of the hunter, the Red Lake and a dead hare. It is beautifully crafted and well worth a read. The excellent audio version is narrated by Indira Varma, George Georgiou, Art Malik and Lolita Chakrabarti. Totally compelling read, Highly recommended

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Monday 16 May 2022

Book Review: China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

China Room

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Beautiful. One thread is the heart wrenching story set in 1929 Punjab of 15 yr old Mehar's misreading of who is her husband - how can this happen? she is one of three young wives to three brothers, all ruled over by the strict, often callous, family matriarch. The girls live together in a small room, and are veiled at all times, in absolute segregation. But Mehar is inquisitive and thinks she has worked it out. Intertwined with this is the modern storyline where a teenage recovering addict from the UK visits family in modern Punjab.

In what I think is one of the most honest author video interviews I have watched Sahota tells how a story from his own family gave rise to Mehar's, how structure is all important to him when writing. That structure, apparent to some extent when I read the novel, is one of the two threads circulating each other,  spiralling closer and closer, with shorter and shorter chapters building reader tension as he explores social and pyschological imprisonment and escape. Personally, I found Mehar's story by far the strongest, but at the same time the reflections of it in the modern line cleverly bring out more than the sum of the parts.

This is his only third novel, he is now an Assistant Prof teaching Creative Writing at Durham Univ in England. I read his second [book:The Year of the Runaways|42200524] which I thought was marvellous - see my review . It is clear that Sahota can write both men and women characters, in stories which totally engage the reader. Now I really must go and read his first [book:Ours Are the Streets|9826870].

Highly recommended

Thursday 5 May 2022

Book Review: The Anomaly By Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly

The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was alerted to this book by a member of my online bookgroup who has similar reading tastes to myself. Not disappointed. 

It might be difficult to review this French book sensation without allowing any future reader to experience the organic reveals Tellier does so well. Victor writes a book entitled The Anomaly. Victor writes a book which bears witness to the anomaly. His editor says it is too complicated and he narrows his suite of characters down to eleven. Victor senses that even eleven is too many. The reader is reading a book called The Anomaly. It takes time to introduce so many characters and Tellier keeps the reader going as she begins to realise they all have one experience in common. How the outcome of this experience is managed, by them and others forms the second half of the book.
I loved the quips at Macron, and the unamed US President who would have stalled Twitter if the same experience happened on Air Force One! If on a Winter's Night....Circularity spirals.

A captivating read. Great ending. My advice is do not read book reviews of this book before you finish it.

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Friday 22 April 2022

Short Story Review: Half Light by Tayari Jones

Half Light Half Light by Tayari Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short story about twins Amelia and Camelia Hall who have identical faces but look nothing like each other in all other respects. They are on a mission to retrieve a portrait of their mother painted by Jacques Toussaint. While still in ‘till death do us part’ mode dermatologist Amelia had given the portrait, originally given to her by her mother, to her musician husband in return for one of his songs written on paper. He ended up with it after their divorce where Camelia had acted as Amelia’s attorney. This retrieval is of course illegal and we all know that the best plans go wrong in this case when they meet the much younger, cake baker, Melanie in the ex’s kitchen
This is the second short story I have read by Tayari Jones, the trouble is I’m just not normally interested in the domesticity of family lives that she writes about but I have to say this one held me so much more that my previous read, Dispossession. Once again this was a free Audible Original and I’m glad I listened to this one.

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Short Story Review: Dispossession by Tayari Jones

Dispossession by Tayari Jones

My Rating 2*

Mothers and sons, the American dream soured, families split, daily life struggles, low paid work, evictions. All mirroring the narrator’s own past. Not really my sort of
but if you like Tayari Jones then this free Audible Original production of her short story may be for you.

Thursday 21 April 2022

Short Story Review: The Didomenico Fragment by Amor Towles

The Didomenico Fragment The Didomenico Fragment by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 *

Percival Skinner has financial troubles as regards his retirement planning. He is an art assessor and is approached by dealer, Sarkis, looking for a certain painting by the Renaissance master Giuseppe Didomenico. It happens to have been owned by his ancestor who divided up the painting giving a piece to each of his children. Over the generations these children carried on the tradition until the inheritance was reduced to a fragment. Most had been sold, except the one owned by his young nephew Peter, his wife Sharon and their son 10 year old Lucas. Skinner is offered a 10% finders fee if he could arrange for its sale which could secure his future retirement. And so he hatches a plan to get his hands on the fragment, but of course things do not go actually as he planned.
It is classic Towles - great characters, well constructed story which he packs so much.
The Audible recording of this short story is narrated by actor John Lithgow. He does it marvellously. If you want a way to pass a very entertaining hour I can highly recommend this one.

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Monday 18 April 2022

Book Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third piece by Towles that I have read, they are all different, they are all well written. In Lincoln Highway the storyline itself is quite thin but it is a storyline packed with tales, a story made up of stories. I loved the way Towles used the device of Prof Abernathy’s Compendium to give voice to Billy, to explore the characters, and to scaffold the whole storyline. So how does one end such a necklace of stories, why with a clasp of course. A completion of the circle with all the characters in their correct places. 

Correction, this was actually the 4th piece by Towles I have read, how could I have forgotten his short story The Line.

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Sunday 6 March 2022

Homage to Homs by Sheila Ash


I wrote this back in the Summer of 2014, heartbroken by the destruction of cites, lives, histories in Syria, sadden by the ultimately futile defense of Homs. 

Who would have realised that Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Sumy, and many others would now be following suit in their demolition to rubble, without humanitarian corridors and without the closure of skies. 

Homage to Homs 

The city walls will not forget
the long fought, weary, fighters as they left
Who’d stood so Homs would never fall
through bombs and blasting one and all
Till surrounded, starved, deprived of aid
their exit finally was made.

July 2014© Sheila Ash 

References for the forgetfull 





Monday 21 February 2022

Book Review: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Story of Your Life Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have dipped into Ted Chiang's science fiction stories before and today I read the title story ( more a novella really) from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others. I loved it. It is the story from which the move Arrival is made, directed by Denis Villeneuve who has just done the new Dune movie. Both movies impressed me and made me think about reading the originating works. The novella was a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella ( and a Nebula Award for Best Novella Winner ( in 1999, and the collections won Locus Award for Best Collection in 2003 ( .

Story of Your Life is about a linguist working to understand alien visitors, the Heptapods. Her coworker is a physicist and they eventually will have a child. The unravelling of the way the visitors think, their maths, their language is quite abstract in the movie from what I recall from seeing it when it came out, but in the story it is described in great detail, in great linguistic detail.

In the story Chiang creates a fantastic world view where, although remaining earthbound, the differences are explored by way of how language and writing is used to communicate. Whereas we see the world in sequential terms of cause and effect and our spoken and written languages are structured accordingly with variants on Subject Verb Object structure to reflect our sequential method of percieving the world and events. In contrast, the Heptapods parse their perceptions of things differently, working with a simultaneous mode of consciounessness, and their, to us highly complex, semasiographic writing system reflects this. They know the outcome before starting their sentence and language itself is a form of action where "saying equaled doing"

Interspersed with this linear recollection of the unravelling of their langauge, is the personal 'Story of Your Life' , namely the life of their child to which we are given insights. That story is told from, and finishes with, when he proposes that they make a baby, "the most important moment of our lives". Here time is distorted, with some of the child's life being told in the past, some in the future. That is a very clever way to illustrate what working with the Heptapods gives the linguist "ocassionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside of time" At that moment of his proposal, she knows the destination, and she and we know that there will be ups and downs along the route, but she still says yes. Leaving us heart warmed and heart broken, wondering what we would do if we knew for certain the future?

In places it is not an easy story to read with all the linguists, but if the movie didn't make sense to you, try and persevere with the story, I think it really makes its case well.

Sunday 6 February 2022

Short Story Review: Open House on Haunted Hill by John Wiswell

Open House on Haunted Hill

Open House on Haunted Hill by John Wiswell

Audio online at LeVar Burton Reads Podcast
Text available at Diabolical Plots 

Read more about the author on his site  

This is a warm hearted short story about an empty house "just a family short of a home" and a young father and daughter in need of "somewhere to start fresh"

A couple of good lines struck me in the writing -
"He looks at the couple of ripples in the green floral wallpaper, with the expression of someone looking at his own armpit" and "The house cannot cry. There is just a little air in its pipes"

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Short Story Review: The Walker by Izumi Suzuki, transl. by Daniel Joseph

The Walker

The Walker by Izumi Suzuki
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Test available online at

Izumi Suzuki was Japanese writer living between 1949 and 1986. The most informative account of her I found is from 2021 posting on Literary Hub ( from around the time her story collection Terminal Boredom: Stories appeared in English with stories translated by Polly Barton ( whose name I recognised from several other translation of modern Japanese writers), Sam Bett, David Boyd (who has written about translating her work ), Aiko Masubuchi, Helen O’Horan and Daniel Joseph who is the translator of this story. That collection is all the has been translated thus far.

According to Granta, Daniel Joseph holds a Master's from Harvard in medieval Japanese Literature and who according to his Amazon's page he specializes in both modern and classical literature, science fiction, pop culture, music, and the avant-garde, and if this story is anything to go by that list may qualify for the addition of the term 'weird' ,

The Walker is a short 4 page story, set in some unknown time and place where a narrator seems to have been walking for ages and seems icompelled to continue to walk, except that she encounters a woman with food cart. ******SPOILER ALERT*** hungry and with no money she exchanges an item of jewellery for food. This seems a fantasy encounter, told quite realistically, but the final twist left so gobsmacked, my only though was 'How strangely weird!'

I've put Terminal Boredom: Stories on my To Be Read List 


Postscript: Daniel Joseph has also written about her on Art Review  in 2021 ( )

Monday 24 January 2022

Book Review: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov transl by Andrew Bloomfield

The Dead Lake 

by Hamid Ismailov

transl by Andrew Bloomfield

3* out of 5 

I've recently been introduced to the Peirene Press and their series of translated short, under 200 page novels. This is the first one I have picked up to read although I have had its write, Uzbek journalist Hamid Ismailov on my to be read list for sometime having come across his name via the BBC World Service where he worked following his exile from his homeland of Kyrgyzstan. As with all translations I check out the translator as well. This one is by Andrew Bloomfield who I then noticed had translated several other Russian, Ukranian writers including the sci-fi series by Kazakhstan born Sergei Lukyanenko beginning with Night Watch which I listen to on Audible some years back,a sort of vampire storyline set in modern day Russia, good v evil, light v dark story.

The Dead Lake of the title refers to the environmental impacts of the Soviet block series of nuclear tests carried out at the Semipalatinsk Test Site (The Polygon) in eastern Kazahkstan between 1949 and 1989  and Chagan Lake formed by a blast and often called the world's most dangerous lake.

The book tells the story of a young boy Yerzhan who grows up in a community of 2 families manning an isolated railway stop, who makes his living selling to train passengers, and plays the violin well. But all is not as it first seems, Yerzhan is not the twelve year old he appears to be, because his growth has ceased. He is twenty seven. His life has been shapped by the Steppes and by the explosions, his isolation and the callous disregard of human beings as politicans sanctioned a race to out do America. The fact that the continuing impact of this still impacts Kazaks today makes the story all the more poingant. It is as gruesome as a grizzly fairtale, reads like a folk tale or parable. As Yerzhan's story unfolds to the unamed train passenger narrator we see the simple humanity of the members of those two families as the live, love, survive and die. Beautiful and sad.

(YouTube Interview with Hamid Ismailov about the Dead Lake by Columbo Post in Sri Lank)

( 100 books to read from Eastern Europe and Central Asia )

Sunday 23 January 2022

Short Story Review: To Jump Is to Fall by Stephen Graham Jones, read by LeVar Burton

extreme, extreme sport, parachute, sports equipment, skydiving, skydive, sports, parachuting, air sports, parachutist, skydiver, atmosphere of earth, windsports, Free Images In PxHere 

To Jump Is to Fall by Stephen Graham Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another story from the marvellous LeVar Burton Reads Podcast. The story text is available online at

For me this one had a slow start and took a bit of time to engage me. I was aware early on of the precarious position of the sky diving telepath upon his survival with the plan eing to get him to a hospital staffed by his employers people but the reason for the twist at the end I did not see coming as he considers his one jump for a golden payoff v his moral compass!

Monday 17 January 2022

Book Review: Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Luckenbooth Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read Jenni Fagan's other two novels, The Panopticon and The Sunlight Pilgrims and I have her fourth Hexon order and I am a growing fan. With Luckenbooth I believe she is finding her narrative voice particularly with the core of the story, namely that of Jessie MacRae, the Devil's daughter, sold into surrogacy. It is when telling the story of Jessie, Elsie and their daughter Hope that a wonderfuly gothic ghost story leaps of the page in such a vivid way it will have to be made into a movie sometime very soon, I hope.

The book is set in, and is in many ways a love story about, Edinburgh but one told with the a mix of the grittty realism of Scotland's post-Trainspotting generation with the classic ghost tales and folklore of a nation and its historical and fictional horrors. For those of you who do not know the city , under its South Bridge lie vaults rediscovered in the mid 1980s which had been used at various points in time as tradesmans workshops, merchants storage, gambling dens, illegal whisky gins, drug havens and homeless hangouts. They are reportedly haunted.

There stands No.10 Luckenbooth Close, a traditonal Edinburgh Tenement with multiple flats/apartments over several floors, around a common stairwell, owned by the childless businessman Mr Udnam. It has been occupied by various families over the years and it is those people and their flat numbers which give the book its important 3 part structure , 3 Parts/ sections by time and within each of these 3 characters's stories told in 3 parts -

Part 1 set 1910 - 1939
Flat1F1 Jessie MacRae (the Devil's daughter) , Flat 2F2Flora ( a chimeric hermaphrodite) , Flat 3F3 Levi ( an African American working with bones in Edinburgh's famous Royal School of Veterinary Studies or as it is more commonly called the 'Dick Vet' ;

Part 2 set 1944 to 1963
Flat 4F4 Ivy Proudfoot (about to embark on being a 'Night Witch' with SOE), Flat 5F5 Agnes Campell (spiritual medium) , Flat 6F6 William Burroughs (the writer);

Part 3 set 1977 - 1999
Flat 7F7 Queen Bee ( gangster, mother, leader of the fictional 'Original Founders'), Flat 8F8 Ivor ( the phengophobic miner unable to do daylight work now the mines have gone), Flat9F9 Dot (daughter of the city).

These characters' stories are a mixture of purely fictional and real people explored in a fictional way within factual and historical detail eg William Burrough did visit Edinburgh, the Baska Murmanska polar bear, Nora Noyce was a famous Edinburgh 'madam', the Pubic Triangle is a real area of the city.

I loved this structure which reflects the building, its layers/levels spatially and temporally. After all it is the building that gives the book its title , this is a tale about the building, but like the building many tales lie within it, all linked to the life of the building and the lives in it linked by the march of the deathwatch beetles and their tap, tap tap as the building is slowly eaten away and the sound of the 'cloven hooves' of approaching death, all hanging round the central thread of the story of Jessie, Elsie Udnam and their daughter Flora and what happened to them from Jessie arrival to the final demise of both building and its final occupant.

Fagan's feminist perspective and Scotland's political history is also played out in the context - powerful corrupt men who fear and silence women get their cumupence. My favorite lines have to be in the final chapter ****SPOILER ALERT **** 'Edinburgh’s daughters – will not stay walled in.'

One reviewer of Luckenbooth, Lauren Beakes in the NYT , signed off her review with 'Stories can be like a house, somewhere you can inhabit for a while. The best kind leave behind a room inside you. For me that truly sums this book up.

Tuesday 4 January 2022

Dreechit Decembers by Sheila Ash

nature, water, drop, drizzle, rain, moisture, precipitation, liquid bubble, photography, monochrome photography, dew, black and white, liquid, glass, macro photography, Free Images In PxHere

Dreechit Decembers

Fog, rain, drizzle, drizzle,
Fog, rain, drizzle, drizzle,
Rain, rain, fog,
Rain, fog, rain
Drizzle, fog, rain, fog, drizzle
Fog, fog, rain, fog, fog
Drizzle, fog, rain, fog, drizzle
Fog, rain, drizzle, drizzle,
Fog, rain, drizzle, drizzle.

© 2021 Sheila Ash

(published in Friday Flash Fiction )