Mar 10 2019

An Interview with Simon Ings, author of The Smoke

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did The Smoke evolve?

A. The Smoke began as the first volume of a trilogy (and I’ve not entirely abandoned the idea even now) set in an alternative 1970s London. Obviously there was something in the air. Even as I was working on it, pretty much everyone started playing about in the same corner of the paddling pool. So I stripped what I was doing to the bone, abandoned any notion of “world-building” (which I anyway massively mistrust) and let the narrative dictate what weirdness it would. If you do that, of course, you end up with something inadvertently personal, which is fine by me. If it’s not personal, you’re not writing, you’re just barking.

Q. For all that The Smoke is a novel about alternate histories and potential futures, it also draws from classical mythology. What are some of the influences that inspired its writing?

A. The early reference to Homer’s Odyssey, which comes to underpin the structure of the whole book, was pure serendipity. Sometimes you hit upon a phrase, an image, a conceit, and it proves, by pure happenstance, to be the gift that keeps on giving. Most of the conscious models for The Smoke were post-war northern stories of various kinds: H E Bates stories, Elizabeth Taylor, and especially John Braine’s Room at the Top.

Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

A. Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment made a huge impression on me: I had no idea you could write a conflict from multiple viewpoints and get away with it. On re-reading and mature reflection, I don’t think Herbert got away with it either, not really, not in any satisfying way, but by God the ambition just drips off him. I never did, and never will, write anything like Herbert. That’s okay. It wasn’t his style that inspired me. It was his spirit.

Q. How did you learn to write?

A. By doing. By rewriting. By teaching a little bit. By reading widely. By disappointing other people’s power fantasies about what sort of writer I’d be.

Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?

A. Right now my life is centered around short pieces, mostly non-fiction, and multiple deadlines. Plus I have a full-time editing job. So long sessions involving the kind of novelistic concentration that wipes you out for the rest of the day aren’t really part of my practice any more. If I’ve the day to myself I will write for an hour, play piano or read for an hour, go back and write into another project for an hour. All very relaxed. I can pull 16-hour days of that sort and never feel particularly weary.

Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?

A. I plot like crazy. I have a scattergun imagination and letting it loose just leads to a horrible tangle and mess. Plus there’s that line of Stravinsky’ss: The more constraints you impose, the more you free yourself. And the more arbitrary the constraint, the more precise the execution.

Q. What made you choose science fiction as your means of expression?

A. Oh, just happenstance. My father read sf, my elder brother read sf, the house was full of Wyndham and Ballard and Bradbury. People who write sf tend to baff on for hours about their philosophy. They’re desperate to be new, to be cutting edge. I was quite as bad when I started. Eventually the penny dropped: there’s nothing as tired as novelty.

Q. It’s fairly rare for an author to go from writing science fiction to writing about science. How did that progression come about for you, and which do you prefer?

A. Fiction for a general audience is harder for me than science fiction, and non-fiction is the easiest of the lot. If I had private means I would write only fiction, and it would make me a better writer. As it is I get paid to express my beautiful opinions about history and science and art and all manner of other mischief. There are anecdotes tracing how I ended up writing into so many forms but the bottom line is I did what everyone else has to do: I followed the money.

Q: Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?

A. The great tragedy of the writer’s life is that one never really meets one’s audience. The great advantage, though, is that you don’t have to care about them. I can’t think of anything worse, as a reader, than to feel I was being *written at*. Better to think of books as lost kingdoms you stumble upon and explore. My favourite readers are people who come up to me and within five minutes we both realise we have nothing in common. Nothing. It’s a bit awkward at the time but if you think about it, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s First Contact. Primitive communication has been established with the Other through this bizarre bit of technology: a novel.

Q. Tell us why you love your book!

A. Why do I love it? Because it’s a love story. Because it tells the truth about the last five years of my life, which have been important, though not particularly happy. Because it is a novel about science fiction without being, to my mind anyway, a science fiction novel. Not that this is a virtue in itself, of course. But it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I think I got away with it.


Author Links

Simon Ings



The Smoke  was published in the US on January 28th 2019 and may be found at all good booksellers. My review of the book itself may be found here.

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Mar 09 2019

The Bridge by David Remnick

Because I am all about timely reading, I have just finished The Bridge, whose subtitle is The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, and which was published in 2010. As Remnick explains in the acknowledgments, his “hope was to write a piece of biographical journalism that, through interviews with his contemporaries and certain historical actors, examined Obama’s life before his Presidency and some of the current that helped to form him.” (p. 593) Remnick was editor of the New Yorker at the time he wrote this book (and still is, as of this writing), and it’s an amazing achievement simply to have written the book and to have conducted the 200 or more interviews that comprise the original reporting it contains, along with all of the historical research.

Remnick intends for his title to work on several levels in reference to Obama. He opens the book with a speech that Obama gave in March 2007, early in the presidential campaign that he would eventually win. He spoke at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, a church that was a crucial staging point for the 1965 civil rights march that Alabama state troopers and local police stopped with great violence just after the marchers had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. The confrontation at the Pettus Bridge prompted the federal government to take action to improve the ability of Black American citizens to exercise their right to vote. Without that legislation and its enforcement, Obama’s political career would have been impossible.

The maneuvering around that speech was also, in Remnick’s telling, Obama’s first serious confrontation with the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was then a US Senator from New York. Both Hillary and Bill Clinton had long been friends to Black voters and Black leaders; they had long-standing relationships with key African-American leaders, relationships that Obama lacked. Competition between Obama and Clinton put those leaders on the spot: support someone who had helped in ways big and small through many years, or support someone who was new but Black? Could Obama bridge the gap in experience?

In his speech, Obama spoke of the “Moses” generation of civil rights leaders, the ones who saw the Promised Land but did not make it there themselves, and of the current, “Joshua” generation, people who reaped the benefits of their forbears’ labor and now had to live up to the promise. As a candidate, he hoped to bridge the generations, to show the elders that their work had not been in vain, and to spur the younger folks to reach their potential.

Finally, and most obviously, Obama is a bridge between Black and white worlds. With a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father, he belongs to both, to which he adds experience growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, giving him crucial distance from the deepest conflicts. This distance is a theme picked up by quite a few of Remnick’s interviewees; they noted that Obama had a deep reservoir of confidence that even the most privileged African-Americans seemed to miss, and they attributed that to his crucial years outside of the continental United States. There’s another bridge for Obama: between America and the world. He experienced the wider world more closely than almost any other prospective president.

Continue reading

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Mar 08 2019

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy #1) by Marlon James

This is a daunting book to read, and not because of its length or its subject matter or, even, commitment to violence and vulgarity, but because it isn’t written like a book. The tale of Red Wolf (or Tracker, as he prefers to be called) is an oral history told, for the most part, by him to an inquisitor while he’s imprisoned. It covers his formative years as well as the hunt for a very important boy who could determine the fate of kingdoms, as well as the aftermath of that hunt. In keeping with Tracker’s skills and abilities, it is not told well. Tracker is not a griot, and his determination of what is important to the story as well as his interjections and narrative choices are often suspect and tiresome in the way listening to an over-confident dude ramble at length about his life story is. It doesn’t help that he’s kind of a douchebag. I was actually so put off by his misogyny that, at one point, I was going to put the book down for good… but then Marlon James had another character call him out for it. So while the female characters are depicted as deluded at best if not outright villainous, you know it comes from Tracker’s anti-women viewpoint, and not from Mr James’. I’m not sure if everyone appreciates this distinction, or the skill behind it, but I surely do.

Where this book really shines is in its fantasy world-building. Monsters of myth freely roam the African-based world Mr James has built, and people with superpowers, while rare, are a recognized part of life. Tracker is one of these latter, with an ability to track down anyone by scent. It is for his nose that he is brought together with other superpowered individuals in order to track down a stolen boy. The twists and turns wouldn’t be out of place in X-Men comics of the 70s and 80s, if said comics weren’t subject to the Comics Code and were able to get into some really grotesque, awful situations. The truth of Dolingo, especially, will haunt me for a while.

Overall, a worthwhile read, if challenging, and certainly more entertaining than the dismal A Brief History Of Seven Killings for which Mr James has been so lauded. I don’t believe I’ll continue with this series unless I have a lot of free time, however. This took me five days to read even with a Kindle, and I am sorely behind on work reading now.

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Mar 06 2019

An Interview with Fran Dorricott, author of After The Eclipse

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did After The Eclipse evolve?

A. I first had the idea for After the Eclipse during the 2015 solar eclipse. It started off as a flash of inspiration – what if something bad happened right now? In the darkness, how soon would people realise? I love the intricasies of stories/novels where bad things happen because people are distracted. It can leave a person with a lot of guilt, even if it was an accident. So I started to think about what might happen in that situation, say, if the one ‘at fault’ was only a child herself. Old enough to know better but still young enough to be distractable.

The idea grew from there, really. I was drawn to Olive’s character, to ideas that solar eclipses have been regarded as unlucky or as bad omens. I always  wanted to set a novel in a town that was reminscent of the places I spent time growing up. It felt very organic.

Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?

A. I knew I wanted to write a book for people like me. I love reading about the darker side of human nature. I also knew I didn’t want to write anything gratuitous, especially because the story involved children. Yet I didn’t want to forget the victim, so I knew I had to balance the Olive chapters carefully. I also like reading books about characters who seem very human; that is, they’re flawed, they make mistakes, they’re hot-headed and unstable and anxious and sometimes make very bad decisions. I think there’s sometimes a gap in genre fiction for books with narrators who are in their twenties – we’re considered ‘too old’ to read young adult (not that it stops us) and in adult books we don’t necessarily want to read about people with children because a lot of us aren’t there yet. As a narrator Cassie sits in that gap. Plus, she’s an unapologetically queer woman, whose narrative arc doesn’t centre around her coming out – and I hope that LGBTQIA+ readers can connect with her story. I for one love reading books where a character is diverse but isn’t defined by their sexuality.

Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

A. The first one was probably Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I read it without any preconceptions and was absolutely blown away – both by her writing style and characterisation and by the meticulous plotting that left me with my jaw on the floor halfway through. (If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should). Although it’s not a crime novel there’s a strong element of mystery about the book and the way Waters layers the elements of the story together is stunning. I was already writing at this point, but Fingersmith was the first book I read that made me sit and wish I’d written it.

Q. How did you learn to write?

A. I’ve always written. At least for as long as I remember! But probably the most formative thing in my early writing experience was discovering National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It happens every year in November and authors from all over the world try to write 50,000 words in a month. I first took part when I was around 14 years old and it gave me the determination to finish a draft! The writing group I joined was so supportive and enthusiastic. Everything I learned later in creative writing classes definitely built on a foundation that a local community helped me to build as an early teen. I’ve also always read voraciously, and I know that this absolutely has something to do with the burning desire to write. If you read enough books and still don’t see yourself reflected in them enough, plus you have an overactive imagination, it’s really only a matter of time.

Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?

A. I’m really fast and loose with my writing regimen. When I’m drafting I try to write every day, and I’ll have days where I write a lot. I sort of eat, sleep and breathe whatever I’m working on, and don’t take breaks. I get kind of obsessed. Then, between drafts, I don’t write very much at all. I sit and let the story stew for a bit before going back to it. Read some books, sleep a bit… I’m a very all or nothing kind of girl.

Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter? After The Eclipse is so intricately layered that I’d be very impressed if it wasn’t planned out in detail beforehand!

A. I am absolutely NOT a plotter. I wish I was! After the Eclipse was the result of me trying to plot and failing miserably and then giving up and just pantsing the whole thing. It went through a lot of revisions though, to get it where it is. I always knew whodunnit, and I always knew the emotional end of the story, but the bits in the middle were carved out in various different iterations until I got the right ones. I’m flattered that you think it’s intricately layered though! It means I’ve done my job.

Q. What made you choose mystery-writing as your means of expression?

A. I’ve always loved mysteries – I think, in some form of other, most people do. We love to ask why and how. Growing up I watched a lot of crime shows. I started on Scooby-Doo (of course!) and ended up years later on CSI, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order: SVU (still a firm favourite). I also think that sometimes crime novels have the ability to dissect culture in a way that other genres sometimes can’t. There’s an inherent dichotomy built into the structure and you, as an author, can explore both the good side and the bad. Motivation plays such a key role, and allows readers to see into many different kinds of thoughts. I think we need more empathy in everyday life, and I genuinely believe crime readers and writers are some of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met!

Q. I’ve read that you’re also working on dark fantasy for young adults, which seems quite different, on the face of it, from psychological thrillers for adults. What draws you specifically to these genres as the ones you prefer to write?

A. I honestly don’t think that the genres are that different on a very base level. They’re about psychology, about what scares people. They’re both about the darker sides of human nature. I’m drawn to anything that gives me insight into the depths of the human experience, darkness and obsession and even killer instinct. I think that’s what causes people to slow down when they see a car crash to have a look, it’s the kind of thing that draws people to read books and watch documentaries about serial killers. Humans are different from other species because we want to know why. Why everything is the way it is, why we do some things and not others – and why some people don’t have the same inhibitions. There’s something addictive about it, I think.

Q. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other crime novels that have a lesbian journalist as the heroic POV protagonist (tho I do very much have a soft spot for Stuart MacBride’s DS Roberta Steel, who finally earned her own book in recent years.) How important do you feel representation is, particularly in the fairly mainstream genre of psychological thriller?

A. I think it’s so important! There are so many people out in the world who simply don’t see themselves reflected in popular culture, and it can be really damaging – especially for people who struggle with their identities or want reassurance that they’re not alone. I’m almost certain I would have understood my own sexuality sooner had I seen it reflected in more books I read and shows I watched. It was actually a book with a lesbian protagonist that finally made me accept myself! I think we can’t underestimate the importance of diversity in fiction and the impact it will have not only on young people but on those of us who are a little older and who still want to feel loved and accepted by the world.

Q. What can you tell us about your next project?

A. I can’t tell you very much, but I can say that it’s another stand-alone psychological thriller about a serial abductor who steals children from their beds in the middle of the night and the two women who team up to unmask him. It’s another story about the darkness within humanity and the affect that past traumas can have on people.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. I’m currently jumping between two books. I’m reading the second novel in Leigh Bardugo’s YA Grisha trilogy Siege and Storm, which is fabulous, and I’m also reading an advance copy of Roz Watkins’ second DI Meg Dalton book Dead Man’s Daughter. I absolutely loved The Devil’s Dice and I’m so excited to see what Meg gets up to on her second outing.

Q. Are there any new books or authors in crime fiction that have you excited?

A. Aside from Roz Watkins’ new book, I’m also looking forward to getting around to reading The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley. I’ve heard such amazing things! It’s set in a remote hunting lodge in the Scottish wilderness and is about some old friends who gather for New Year only to have one of their group die – at the hands of a friend. It sounds excellent and I love locked room mysteries!

Q. Tell us why you love your book!

A. I’m so endlessly proud of After the Eclipse and there are a whole lot of reasons why I love this novel. Cassie is unapologetically queer, it’s a novel that doesn’t forget the victim and I hope is quite touching, it has this superstitious, dark undercurrent, plus is set in a small British town with some Druid stones, and lots of spookiness! I hope some readers love it as much as I do.


Author Links

Fran Dorricott



After The Eclipse was published in the US on March 5th 2019 and may be found at all good booksellers. My review of the book itself may be found here.

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Mar 05 2019

After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott

Cassie Warren is a hot mess, and for pretty good reason. Now entering her third decade of life, she’s recently lost her job as a journalist as well as her relationship and flat in London, and come back to Bishop’s Green, a town that fully capitalizes off the mysticism of its surrounds, to look after her ailing grandmother. Unfortunately, Bishop’s Green doesn’t exactly evoke the best memories. Sixteen years ago, on the day of a solar eclipse, Cassie’s 11 year-old younger sister Olive went missing during the town’s celebrations. Cassie was supposed to be watching her but wanted to make out with her new-found love, and the entangling of the trauma with her burgeoning sexuality has really done Cassie’s head in. Nowadays she self-medicates with alcohol and sleeping pills, but she’s trying to stay sober as she looks after her beloved Gran.

Trouble is, another little girl has gone missing just as another eclipse looms around the corner. Unable to shake the similarities with Olive’s disappearance, Cassie throws herself into investigating what happened to Grace Butler, extending her journalistic services to the girl’s mother as a sympathetic ear who will focus on amplifying the human costs of the case, the kind of support she wishes her family had had all those years ago. But her involvement soon draws the eye of a serial criminal who will not hesitate to harm the ones she loves in order to deter her pursuit.

I really enjoyed unraveling poor Cassie’s perilous inner state, even as I thought it was silly that, of all the people she felt she had to protect from physical harm, a trained police officer was one of them. Marion was 100% better suited to getting into dangerous situations, Cassie. That said, I did enjoy the way Fran Dorricott laid down the twisting paths that pointed to the guilt of various inhabitants of Bishop’s Green. For the longest time, I was convinced the perp was someone quite different from whom it actually was. And while I enjoyed the ending, I did not at any point in the proceedings care for Cassie’s dad. It’s patently unfair for an adult to blame a 14 year-old for the disappearance of her 11 year-old sister, especially when his anger was clearly fueled by his own guilt. And then to allow her distrust of him to impair their relationship is so much horseshit. Terrible, selfish parenting, especially considering what else Cassie goes through growing up.

Anyway, a promising debut from Ms Dorricott that centers a lesbian protagonist trying to break the violent cycle of the past. Interview with the author to come soon!

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Mar 03 2019

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

My first reaction upon finishing this book was to e-mail the friend who’d sent it to me and ask if she was okay, primarily because this is the latest in a string of sexual assault revenge fantasies she’s been recommending to me. Fortunately, she is alright and the theme has been entirely coincidental, but Elmet is the kind of book to make you look at the rest of your life and wonder whether you should be asking questions.

The best of these questions are, to a certain extent, political. I’ve considered myself a centrist social democrat for years (despite living in America, where the terms together combine to mean “stinking commie” for the average person. They barely even register in the political consciousness of most Malaysians, amongst whom I lived before this,) but Elmet had me leaning quite radically leftward in a “Down With Landowners! Hurray Nationalization!” sort of way given the privations that our main characters, a small family of three, have to undergo. And don’t @ me, I know full well that the real problem is lack of accountability no matter who is in charge: I just very much appreciated Fiona Mozley’s skill in eliciting this reaction.

Anyhoo, after a grade school incident involving Cathy, the daughter, followed by the death of their Grandma Morley, our family ups stakes from suburban life and moves to live off the land in Yorkshire. Cathy is devoted to Daddy, a giant of a man who finances their lifestyle with various illegal but not necessarily immoral pursuits. At the age of seventeen, she is feral and tough and deceptively strong. Her younger brother, Daniel, prefers domesticity over the outdoors, and takes pride in his cooking and decorating. He’s also more attached to Vivien, the neighbor Daddy’s asked to help educate the children, than restless Cathy is.

Their years of idyll are brought to an end when local landowner, Prince, discovers that they’ve built a house on his (untended) property. A corrupt man, Prince prefers to own rather than to lead, and soon sets himself and Daddy on a violent collision course. The chapters leading directly up to the climactic scene of the novel leave you with a sick feeling of oppression, as it looks like our family will be destroyed cruelly and cheaply. Fortunately, this it not (entirely) the case, but I did not find it a fun read and felt the catharsis too small when measured against the misery of the rest of it. Daniel and Vivien’s last few exchanges were especially heart-breaking for me, and I get that people are selfish and don’t change but eh. If I wanted to experience that, I’d just turn on the news.

I also didn’t particularly care for the style of Ms Mozley’s writing. While there were certainly lovely bits of woodland prose, there were also ponderous descriptions of, say, how the family cooks lamb chops that were unnecessarily belaboured. And as sex positive as I like to be, I’m pretty sure Daniel was still a minor and not legally able to give consent, no matter how he welcomed certain sexual advances. While I appreciated his seeming obliviousness as to gender, I didn’t think it made any sense that neither Cathy or Daddy asked him if he needed new clothes or a haircut, especially given the amount of time spent describing Daddy’s grooming habits. Also, the entire reaction to what happened to Cathy at school made no goddamned sense. Instead of kicking up a righteous fuss, Daddy just apologizes then essentially runs away? It seems completely out of character with the rest of his behavior.

Anyway, I can see why Elmet was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker but it wasn’t for me. Now to figure out how to say all this to the friend who sent me the novel…

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Mar 02 2019

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

There are lots of really great things about this book. The world-building is A++, with an excellent, well-described magic system and a very rich fantasy setting that is gloriously and unapologetically Afrocentric. The plot skips along briskly, and the depictions of rage and righteous anger are both compelling and wholly convincing. I liked that there was discussion as to whether magic should come back to Orisha, but thought, honestly, that some of the arguments against were so facile as to warrant more brevity than they were given. The question of arming insurgents is always a tricky one, but if the alternative is their continued oppression, to the point of eradication, what choice is there? Principles that allow for genocide aren’t moral principles at all.

Anyway, several years ago, the Orishan king managed to both eradicate and outlaw magic, killing all the adult hereditary magic users and stopping their children from being able to access their powers come puberty. Zelie is one of these children, marked with her white hair and dark skin. She, her family and her village are struggling to survive as the king increases taxes on those “harboring” people like her. In desperation, she and her brother, Tzain, travel to the capital to sell a rare fish to raise money for said taxes.

In Lagos, Zelie becomes embroiled in a plot to return magic to Orisha, courtesy of crown princess Amari. Amari’s older brother and heir to the throne, Inan, is sent to recover her, even as he hides a shameful magic-related secret of his own. The hunt to recover Amari and thwart her quest forms the rest of the book.

Much as with Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel Of The Sands, there’s a lot of potential here, but also a lot of “huh, what?” moments. The need to flee Chandomble made no sense given how difficult it was to breach in the first place, and there were a lot of weirdly rushed emotional notes, such as Amari’s final confrontation with her dad. Normal debut stuff (tho I cringed a bit to read that Tomi Adeyemi teaches creative writing,) but that’s part of the trouble: so much perfectly normal, perfectly average YA fantasy shenanigans. Only the world-building truly sets it apart from the other stuff out there. As with Ms Hamilton’s series, however, I’m hoping that this one crescendos to something truly remarkable, and am looking forward to eventually finding out for myself firsthand.

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Feb 26 2019

Last Night (The Searchers #2) by Karen Ellis

This starts out as a stunningly impressive display of teenage emotion, bringing together three kids — Crisp, the biracial overachiever; Glynnie, the privileged white wild child, and JJ, the street kid doing whatever it takes to survive — on a night of reckless camaraderie that turns into a really bad time when adult criminals get involved. The cops looking, at first separately, into the disappearances of Crisp and Glynnie, have their own compelling stories, but for some reason the book gets bogged down about two thirds of the way through, in what was up till then a taut thriller of intertwining narratives. I’m not sure if it has more to do with the muddle of Crisp’s dad knowing Dante, or with the absolute ludicrousness of the up-till-then sympathetic Detective Lex Cole freaking out about his boyfriend’s whereabouts, but it feels like the story spins out of control, at least tone-wise. It’s a little bit like the disorienting feeling of having to go back to one’s responsible daily life after a night-long bender, where you kind of hate everyone and just want the day to be over with so you can finally get some sleep. Somewhat fitting given the events of the book, but not the most pleasant reading experience.

I was actually pretty surprised to dislike Lex after his awesome role in the first book, A Map Of The Dark. Some jealousy is understandable, but his reaction at the end was just petty. I’m hoping the next book features Det Saki Findlay and dives into how her unusual mind works. And I’m really, really glad that the book ends the way it does, because it would have absolutely broken my heart if any of those kids had been damaged beyond repair. Karen Ellis is really good at getting you to care about the kids who are the main focus of this series, and I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

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Feb 25 2019

All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin

For a number of years, I was worried that Boris Akunin’s English-language publishers (the estimable Weidenfeld & Nicolson) had despaired of finding an audience for the Russian mystery writer’s work, and I would have to read the remaining stories in German and miss out on Andrew Bromfield’s witty translations, or really really really improve my Russian. In 2017, though, W&N returned publishing Akunin’s long-running series about Erast Fandorin, bringing out the eleventh book in the series, All The World’s a Stage. A twelfth, Black City, came out in 2018; two more novels, Planet Water and Not Saying Goodbye, as well as a collection of shorter tales, Jade Rosary Beads, await English translation.

All of which is to say that this deep in the series is probably not the best place to start. The Winter Queen, the first in the series, is probably not the best starting point either. I think that Akunin spent the first book figuring out what he was doing. The ones that come after, are more tightly plotted, better written, more vivid, and slyer. Turkish Gambit or Murder on the Leviathan are where I would start, if I were new to the series. They are also recognizable comments on established subgenres of mysteries, so readers unfamiliar with pre-revolutionary Russia will recognize the contours of the story, even if the settings, actions and modes of address are foreign.

Fandorin is the Russian Sherlock Holmes, with the benefit of a century of development in detective stories, so that the tales are not only interesting in and of themselves, but also for how Akunin addresses the conventions of the genre, and either follows them or subverts them. The author’s name is already a hint that he is going to play around with readers’ expectations. “Boris Akunin” is the nom de plume of Grigory Chkhartishvili (გრიგორი ჩხარტიშვილი, for the Georgian readers out there), and the surname roughly means “bad guy” in Japanese — Fandorin has extensive Japanese connections that are revealed over the course of the series. In Russian, names are often written with just the first initial and the surname; “B. Akunin” compresses to Bakunin, one of the best-known anarchist thinkers in the Russian tradition. Readers are thus forewarned that things are not as they seem.

Continue reading

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Feb 24 2019

Expedition zu den Polen by Steffen Moeller

Steffen Möller’s second genial book about Poland and Germany takes the train ride from Berlin to Warsaw as his frame to share more anecdotes from a life lived in both countries. Möller’s engagement with Poland began more or less on a lark, when he signed up for a language seminar in Krakow in the mid-1990s. Not long after, he returned to teach German to unsuspecting young Poles. Some years later, and after publishing two books in Polish, he landed a role in the long-running soap opera “M jak Miłość,” (L like Love, which ended in December 2018 after 19 seasons and 1422 episodes). He played an immigrant potato farmer who can’t quite find a nice Polish girl to settle down with; the role made him a minor celebrity in Poland, possibly the best-known German who was neither a politician nor an athlete.

Expedition zu den Polen (the title translates literally as Expedition to the Poles, and carries the same pun on polar exploration in German that it does in English) was published in 2012, and Möller opens the book with a series of optimistic observations about Poland’s overall development, how it had weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than most European countries, and how his fellow Germans were largely missing the positive transformation of their neighbor of 40 million people. Möller contrasts Poland’s development with that of his home town, Wuppertal, somewhat tongue in cheek but nonetheless pointedly observing Wuppertal’s loss of population, shrinking public amenities, and general decline. I’ve been to Wuppertal a lot over the years, and it’s not as bad as all that, but the general point is valid: Wuppertal grew on nineteenth-century industry, the end of the twentieth was hard on it, and its path in the twenty-first has been uneven and uncertain.

The book really gets underway when he arrives at Berlin’s main train station for the 0637 Eurocity that runs to Warsaw East, via Berlin East, Frankfurt an der Oder, Rzepin, Swiebodzin, Poznan, Konin, and Warsaw Central. Each of these stops marks a chapter in the book, and for each chapter Möller also lists the distance, the travel time, a particular culture shock, and a Polish word or phrase appropriate to that leg of the trip. These range from “rajzefiber,” travel fever and an exact Polish transcription of the German word, to “super buty,” nice shoes, or “stara bieda,” literally “the old poverty,” but more metaphorically either “the old misery” or “same old, same old,” and according to Möller a common Polish answer to the question of how one is doing.

Möller is enough of a regular on the Berlin-Warsaw Express that he knows the conductors by name, and the Polish conductor on this train, Pan Mirek, becomes a regular character in Möller’s anecdotes from the trip. On the train, everyone has a reserved seat, but Möller spend most of his time in the dining car, where he strikes up conversations with various people as they pass the time there, or remains content to observe and listen to others. He tells his stories in short sections, seldom more than three or four pages and often less than two, so that the book glides by as swiftly and easily as the north European plain between the two capitals. They relate either incidents from one particular Berlin-to-Warsaw trip or more generalized observations about aspects of life in Poland, with a leavening of background about particular stops gleaned from other trips and stories from other parts of Poland. He’s not averse to the occasional, brief, infodump (a page and a half about Adam Michnik) or embedded listicle (matching Polish license tags with area of origin, or the canon of literature that Polish high school students should have read).

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