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Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England)

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McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (Vintage Contemporaries Original) [ MCSWEENEY'S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES (VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES ORIGINAL) ] by Chabon, Michael (Author ) on Mar-25-2003 Paperback
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (Vintage Contemporaries Original) [ MCSWEENEY'S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES (VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES ORIGINAL) ] by Chabon, Michael (Author ) on Mar-25-2003 Paperback
by Michael Chabon
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars "Is the gun for the animals or the people?" she asks..., 22 Dec. 2014
There are some big names in this issue of McSweeney’s - Glen David Gold, Nick Hornby, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Karen Joy Fowler, and the wonderful Michaeal Moorcock. In The Case of the Nazi Canary by, Michael Moorcock, we find ourselves in Germany, between the wars, embroiled in an alternative future as Adolf Hitler makes his bid for power. The death of his neice Geli proves to be his nemesis in a wonderfully prescient and quirky tale. It could so easily have happened like this, as Moorcock digs beneath the lies and narcissm of Hitler’s nature to wipe out WWII with the help of Sir Seaton Begg, Metatemporal Detective.

In The General, another favourite for me comes from Carol Emshwiller, when, in a nameless country a poverty sticken old lady and her daughter protect a soldier who has run foul of the political infrastructure in the cruel depths of winter. All goes well for a while, but even as memories are lost of the reason for the General’s downfall, the faceless beaurocracy’s will prevails.

Rick Moody’s contribution The Albertine Notes is marvellously complex and thrilling, as one man tries to unravel time and go back to the onset of the ubiquitous drug named Albertine that has led to the total destruction of Manhattan Island. Likewise in Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly by Dave Eggers, the metal of the participants is tested, as Rita in Tanzania, on a trek up the Kilimanjaro Mountain, uncertain why she has agreed to take the risk and doubly uncertain that she will survive the trek. She does, though others do not.

These stories are uncompromising, sometimes violent and disturbing. They have the flavour of new beginnings and very old preoccupations. These are some of the best short stories on the planet. You have been warned!

The Hired Man
The Hired Man
by Aminatta Forna
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars ... missing an arm, a leg, or maybe just some part of their soul..., 16 Dec. 2014
This review is from: The Hired Man (Paperback)
This is a superbly written novel. Aminatta Forna has got to grips with the politics of Serbo-Croatia and managed to render the conflicts of the past a chilling and horrendous warning of man’s calumny to his fellow-man. It begins with Laura, who brings her family, the faux world-weary Mattie, the unprepossessing Grace, to Gost, a coastal town in the former Yugoslavia. Conor, who is not the children’s father, merely Laura’s husband, and Mattie in particular is uncomfortably rude towards his step-father at times. In any case, Conor flits to and fro between the former Yugoslavia and the UK, attending to his business affairs.

Duro Kolak quickly makes himself indispensible. He helps Grace find her mosaic, he teaches Mattie how to hunt, He works on restoring walls inside and outside the house and he helps Grace discover a talent for restoration as she reconfigures the beautiful mosaic on the front of the house, and the enchanting pool mosaic.

The reader can’t help falling for Duro’s narrative. In contrast there are men with darker motives in this town and Duro cannot help falling into some of the traps that are laid for him. The narrative is not consecutive and breaking into the gentle stories of restoration and discovery in the new Serbo-Croatia are far darker moments of memory and another kind of discovery that brings back to the reader the terror of conflicts that haunt all wars. The contrast between Laura, her naivety and her children’s ordinary awkwardness, and the deep sadness and sorrow of the past are acute reminders that some wars never really end, but somehow people must learn to live with that reality.

Gorky Park
Gorky Park
by Martin Cruz Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars "You going to puke?" ... "Not if it will interfere with your work.", 14 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Gorky Park (Paperback)
Martin Cruz Smith has written a very difficult but skilful version of Russia, in that it neither falters in the face of truthfulness and still has enough faith to place most of the terrors and shameful elements in the places they belong.

There has been murder in Gorky Park – three people are dead, and it’s up to the Chief Investigator Arkady Renko to make preliminary investigations. But before he can begin, his investigation is already corrupted by the KGB as Major Pribluda wades into the crime scene and tramples over what may be vital evidence. Pribluda is there merely to make his presence felt and adds nothing to the investigation. Renko would prefer him to take charge immediately, but after his superior credentials are established, Pribluda leaves Renko in charge. It’s not interesting enough for Pribluda, it’s just, he assumes, a troika of miserable drunks who have had an argument and shot each other.

Renko, however, is sufficiently unusual to delay any pronouncement until he has some facts to make the investigation thorough, careful and accurate. This is not what it has been assumed to be. The details are established and the two men and the woman who have been killed are victims in a sophisticated crime with international implications. It will be Renko who solves it, if anyone can.

The novel is a little too drawn out, perhaps, for five stars, but at the same time it tells a marvellously wicked tale and comes to a conclusion spanning nationalities. I will certainly read any other Renko novels I come across. This comes alive with the atmosphere of a conflicted country and enough detail and redolence of the 1980s in Russia to satisfy the completist. Very well written indeed.

Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars You creature with the eyes! (from Pippa Passes), 10 Dec. 2014
Thomas Blackburn is a renowned academic and he gives a just verdict on some of Browning’s lesser poetry as well as an assessment full of character and enjoyment on some of his best poetry. I often find myself quoting Browning, quite by accident, because so much of his poetry has entered the language. In this book I only found one quote from a poem that hadn’t crossed my radar before – it was Browning who suggested in a poem set in Venice that there is a point “when the kissing has to stop.”

He suggests in critical mode that the eyes of Browning (and Tennyson) “...were cocked all too often towards a reading public. When inspiration was at a loss,,, they tended to give this public not what they as poets really knew and felt about the human predicament but what they knew the public felt they ought to feel.” As Blackburn remarks: “inspiration is a rare visitor and comes in its own good time.” But one has to set these small infelicities against the major works, especially the love poetry and some of the poems where Browning delves deeply into the human morass, reaching the depths of human calumny.

He continues: “The best work of Browning has been largely neglected, perhaps because it is disturbing, because it insists on asking questions and will not be passive material for the scalpel of analysis. It scrutinized those philosophical and religious formulae and habits of thought which often explain away rather than elucidate the mystery of existence. Because it explores the human being in depth and questions conventions of morality and behaviour. Browning’s great poetry can elicit from the reader a self reappraisal which may be both arduous and disturbing.” Here’s an excerpt from the poem I mentioned above:

As for Venice and its people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop.
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

‘Dust and ashes!’ So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold
Dear dead women, with such hair, too – what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 10, 2014 4:16 PM GMT

Cop Killer : The Martin Beck series
Cop Killer : The Martin Beck series
by Maj Sjowall
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars More from Maj and Per, 9 Dec. 2014
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The murder of a woman is the opening problem for Superintendent Martin Beck, but the ambition of this series of novels is always at the back of one’s mind. The nationalisation of Sweden’s police force in 1965 would seem to be the bigger crime going by the intense concentration on some of the features this led to, including the alienation of the general populace (especially young people) as the 1960s darkened into a decade of anger and retribution. The nationalisation also led to the police force becoming a more paramilitary force, with greater use of firearms and military equipment. “There is also the damaging statistic which is difficult to ignore, that Stockholm has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.” In this series of ten books the downside of the welfare venture is apparent and reveals a preponderance of young victims. “As the series unfolds the energetically promoted version of Sweden as a kind of paradise, home of the sauna and smorgasbord, basking in its international reputation for sexiness and pleasure, it is revealed to be nothing more than a desperately enforced myth.”

The world of Martin Beck is revealed as one crowded with teenage runaways, single mothers and drug users. And meanwhile he has to negotiate a way through the idiocies of his superior officers with what talents they have revealed as a mixture of hostility and contempt towards those they have to deal with day to day. They have a suspect for the murder of Sigbrit Mard, whose husband hasn’t been home for some time. He might be suspect no. 1, except later he proves that he was elsewhere. Suspect No. 2 is a neighbour, who was involved in another crime some time ago, and Beck’s superiors seem content to suppose he must have strangled the woman, since his attitude towards women is fairly strange. He is held in custody for the crime and not until other matters – a shooting and a short, admirably handled siege – is the truth about this murder uncovered. The characterisation is excellent and this is a very unusual and informative crime novel.

by Therese Bohman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.61

4.0 out of 5 stars "I have no intention of letting go...", 9 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: Drowned (Paperback)
Yet another woman at risk novel - why do we like them so much? Are we addicted to the genre, or is it merely so we can step out of our safe ordinary lives and live vicariously through a more exciting scenario for a while? In any case, compared to The Book of You and Gone Girl, etc, this is a distinctly more subtle and less violent example of the genre. It is a more intelligent book than either of the two mentioned above. Yes there is danger, but no - we are not in psychopath territory - this is much closer to reality, and as a result it suits me much better.

It is sensual and engaging in a way the others are not. It tells the story of Marina, and her sister Stella. Marina has come to stay at their lovely old (but isolated) house, where she is supposed to be writing a thesis on Rossetti and his milieu. She is not getting on with the job very well, however. Furthermore, she is much more interested in Stella's husband than she should be. He's an older man - but devastatingly attractive. He's also a writer and is facing the task of re-writing a large section of his latest book, at the publisher's request.

Then there is what I will call an incident (or was it an accident?) that has profound repercussions for both Stella and Marina. Certain activities, however, continue to make the book an entirely seductive read. Gabriel is a man who cooks, he's good-looking, tender towards Marina, but not wholly to be trusted. It was more to my taste, but perhaps it shouldn't have been quite so seductive, for a more subtle danger lurks. This is a Swedish translation, and it is perfect. It also has a subtle, but truly chilling, sting in the tail.

The Book of You
The Book of You
by Claire Kendal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars "He's not my boyfriend...", 9 Dec. 2014
This review is from: The Book of You (Hardcover)
While being a little stretched out, this chiller has real impact. It’s also an education in what to do if you have been singled out for unwanted attention. The pains taken by Clarissa are at one end of the spectrum, and if you are of a nervous disposition, perhaps living alone and unnerved by someone who won’t take no for an answer this might prove a useful book to have read.

The violent denouement is utterly gripping and, while it takes it’s time in terms of culmination, it poses an intriguing scenario. Clarissa has been called up for jury service and it initially solves a few problems around a boyfriend who has unrealistic expectations. She wants him out of her life but he won’t take the hint. Gradually the evidence piles up, however, that he’s never going to take the hint. His devious behaviour quite quickly becomes way over the top. But he’s clever. His obsession with Clarissa is frighteningly psychopathic.

Some of the descriptions are quite graphic, which I could have done without, but on the whole this is a powerful novel about stalking. Prepare for the odd nightmare, maybe?

Ghost Moth
Ghost Moth
by Michèle Forbes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The lie now sat like another presence in the room, expecting to be fed, 9 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Ghost Moth (Paperback)
This is a heart-breaker of a book, telling the story through two time-periods, separated by thirty years or so. When Katherine was young she was in love with, Tom, a man she cannot forget and her life is still haunted by what happened to him. She was also very fond of another man, whom she married: George. She was a talented singer and took part in amateur dramatics. Tom was a tailor and he made her a beautiful costume for her part in Carmen. At the time she was married to George he was a part-time volunteer in the Fire Service. He spent much of his free time helping to rescue people who were caught up in some of the Irish Troubles.

She had three daughters, Maureen, Elizabeth and Elsa and a delightful three year old, Stephen. After what happened to Tom she gave up the amateur stage and brought up her children. But it haunted her life.

This book is truly beautiful and sensually alive though, what happens in the second time period severely tests her marriage. There are secrets kept by George, just as there are secrets kept by Katherine. As she grows older she becomes a victim of cancer and she decides to get things straight, by revealing what happened during the early part of her marriage. I won’t reveal any more about this, but it has a profound effect on her life.

The writing is simply beautiful; the story is heartbreaking. I’m far too world-weary to reach for the tissues, but I suspect it will touch your inner feelings deeply. It is heavy on the sentiment, but there was no other way a story like this could be written.

Cassandra at the Wedding (New York Review Books Classics)
Cassandra at the Wedding (New York Review Books Classics)
by Deborah Eisenberg
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Like it a lot..., 7 Dec. 2014
Cassandra is one of twin daughters. Their mother has died in the not too distant past, but They live with their grandmother and father, both of whom are not given much to do in this novel. It’s the women who are important in this well-written and highly enjoyable book. Cassandra and her twin sister Judith have been at different colleges. But are on their way home to the Ranch, where they live charmed lives. Cassandra is the chief protagonist. Her sister Judith is a talented musician who is planning a wedding to a medical student, and Cassandra has a Thesis to finish.

Something goes wrong shortly after they arrive home. But rather than say exactly what, I’ll leave the reader to find out for herself. It puts the life of one of the sisters at risk; however, it doesn’t stop the wedding.

The writing is careful and clever. We immediately sense which of the sisters is going to prove to be a problem and her particular mindset is beautifully delineated. The book brilliantly arrives at a final situation and along the way we have seen that a devastating idea has been worked through, awkwardly and piquant by turns. The character creation is absolutely superb, The sisters’ conversations are marvellously written and we catch at the meanings that lie beneath their talk. It demonstrates their closeness, even while they are at odds in this deeply solid relationship. This is a brilliantly written book. Sharp, devastating and marvellously erudite. I found it deeply affecting. It also demonstrates how to create someone unbalanced, difficult, but still ultimately loveable. I liked this one a lot.

The Templars: The Dramatic History of the Knights Templar, the Most Powerful Military Order of the Crusades
The Templars: The Dramatic History of the Knights Templar, the Most Powerful Military Order of the Crusades
by Piers Paul Read
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ, 7 Dec. 2014
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The Knights Templar were a contingent of men who responded to the Pope’s call to restore Jerusalem to Christendom. They became a skilled body of fighters who also colonised parts of the outremer (surrounding regions). They built or in some cases rebuilt their own castles and strongholds and they are the first men to establish a form of early banking, which allowed them to hold onto their goods and money while serving as knights in the battles. The book follows closely on the whole story behind the Templars and is invaluable for anyone who wants to know more about the men who came on Crusade.

Many of the main figures in this historical period were a kind of mercenary army, following the lead of Kings or the Pope. The book gives chapter and verse over three centuries of activity in the Palestine and Arabian regions. It is a lucidly written account that gives the novice to this period a good sense of what was going on. Read describes the characters, and action and I doubt I’d find a better book to tell me of this extraordinary time. There are many battles and skirmishes, and thousands of people die. It is interesting that Saladin, an Arabian leader, is one of the most interesting and charismatic of the people described. He was a courtly figure, proud but not bombastic, and an able leader, cultured and just.

The Knights Templar built up a large contingent of houses in their homelands, where charity could be dispensed. The Knights themselves, initially relatively poor, soon became rich, but they had very strict rules by which to live. They were not allowed to associate with women, not even their own relatives. It should be recognised that many of their members were admired as fighters but when it came, the angle of attack chosen by their detractors, was one which was difficult to refute, especially as torture was used to extract confessions. It was a slow and shameful decline for the men who left their homes to adventure abroad and found themselves embroiled in a holy war of devastating proportions. This book is a solid mass of fact and could not be a better introduction to some of the most appalling crimes commissioned against them, and those who sinned and committed crime themselves in the wars between Christendom and the Muslim world.

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