Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Cairo begins with a hashish smuggler called Ashraf sitting at his mother's grave as he relates to her how his day went.
"So today I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck."
He tells her the Bedouin have fields of marijuana out in Sinai. The camels graze on the stuff. He tells her about the Israeli border guards who nearly catch him smuggling hash hidden inside bulbs of Smelly Beet. He tells her not to worry, that's just life in the City Victorious. It's a deft and assured way to start the story off, introduce a major character and set the tone. The other pieces of the mosaic follow on soon after: A female Israeli special forces soldier, injured and rescued ironically by the very Bedouin that Ashraf curses for not securing their camels; in the sky above is a passenger jet with two Americans on board, one of Lebanese extraction called Shaheed with an idea to live up to his name, the other a naive girl trying to broaden her Orange County boundaries; dating Ashraf's sister is a journalist/activist who amusingly knows more about Peter Parker and Spiders Man (that wasn't a typo) than some Americans; and Shams who lives in a hookah.
The cover blurb cites the book as belonging to a genre called magical realist, which I've never heard of before but suits the book. Primarily it's a book set in a Cairo, before the people's revolution, but not an overtly fictionalised Cairo or one seen filtered through western preconceptions. Sure it's full of magic and mysticism with a plot about a magician gangster trying to recover a powerful artifact guarded by a Jinn but it's all authentic Egyptian mythology and the writer G. Willow Wilson, though American, is heavily committed to Cairo and its people, having lived there for many years to this day and formerly a regular contributor to the now defunct Cairo Magazine. I loved all the idiomatic Arabic expressions, though I suspect in respect to the colourful cursing, the translation into our woefully inadequate English doesn't quite do it justice.
The art is excellent too. Turkish artist M.K. Perker delivers some extremely expressive and detailed shaded black and white pencils, bringing the characters and locations to life.
It all ends a little too soon and if the concluding tone is one of hope and perhaps wishful thinking, in the land of the Jinn anything is possible.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Dead of Winter

Imagine if Le Fanu had tried to write for a YA market and he might have produced something like The Dead of Winter. I'm sure Chris Priestley would cite him as one of his primary influences, along with others like Elizabeth Gaskell. Her 'The Old Nurse's Story' springs to mind quite strongly. The book, more a novella, is artfully written, perfectly invoking the Victorian setting that uses as much Gothic imagery and motifs as it can possibly pack into the page count. Michael Vyner is a young orphan, who becomes the ward of a rich man whose life was saved by the boy's late father. Reluctantly he agrees to spend Christmas at his sprawling mansion. What is it about ghost stories and Christmas? I blame Dickens - no, I blame the Victorians. Now I have to read every ghost story with the nagging compulsion that I should have saved it for Christmas. This one is told in the first person (what other form would suffice?) by the adult version of the boy, writing an account of that fateful Christmas. The mystery is too slight though for a book of this length. The atmosphere is well maintained but there is not really enough complexity to the plot to make the conclusion anything other than expected.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Faceless Killers

I really enjoyed the BBC adaptations of the Wallander books. People tell me I should try the Swedish-language series but to be honest if I'm going to have to cope with the subtitles I might as well go the whole hog and read the books by Henning Mankell. So here we go. Start at the beginning is my mantra, even if this first story is still relatively fresh in my memory from 14 months ago. Faceless Killers kicks off with a prologue cunningly disguised as Chapter One (I say that because I hate prologues with a vengeance so fierce that I wouldn't put any devious trick beyond their nefariousness). I needn't have bothered as it turned out to be the best piece of writing in the book; a stark, poignant prelude detailing the discovery of the murder scene before we join our main protagonist for the duration.
The rest of the book stays tight to following Wallander around as he doggedly directs the investigation while trying to scrape the remains of his private life into something he can cling onto, skimming his internal monologue where required. The book works well as both a police procedural and as a character study, coloured (if that's the right word) by the cold bleakness of the Swedish winter. If there are problems with the book I'd have to point at the long list of poorly drawn supporting characters, starkly one dimensional against
the richness of Wallander's character. The less Wallander cares about a character the less you get to know about them. Some are barely characterised at all; one detective's only distinction is a liking for horse racing. The translation from Swedish to English pokes you in the eye a few times with some slightly off context dialogue, but it's not too bad. Maybe I've read too much Chinese to English manga for it to bother me.
Kurt Wallander is the acting chief of police in the small Swedish town of Ystad. His marriage has been devoured by his dedication to his job, his daughter avoids him, his father is slipping into senility and what friends he once had have faded away. He works long hours, eats badly, drinks too much and is dogged by bad luck.
For those who want a bit of extra seasoning to spice their reading tastes there's a social commentary going on throughout, most notably examining immigration and the way society compares to people's conception of the past. I'm glad Mankell chose to use real Swedish locations and didn't just create an imaginary town. I always prefer to read about real places. It's refreshing to see the world from a different perspective than the usual American or British standpoint.
I'll definitely continue with the series, even though I've already encountered many of their tv incarnations.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

French Detective the third

Loose-limbed by David Barrie sees Captain Franck Guerin of the Brigade Criminelle invite us once again to sit in on his latest investigation. The Paris Opera Ballet is preparing for the premiere of a bold new Ballet based on the Greek myth of Diana and Acteon. Franck is called in when the female lead dancer is found strangled in her apartment. Like me he knows next to nothing about the world of Ballet so he has to learn fast at a time that he has to cope with absorbing all the mass of information that the first days of an investigation throws up (interviews, crime scenes, forensics, etc). It's a formula readers of the first two books will be familiar with - one that works very well I hasten to add. I'm still enjoying Franck's company and I was happy to meet a few of the recurring characters from the series again, especially Sylvie and Sonia, though there is no shortage of strong female characters in the books.
It's hard to comment on the main aspect of the book, the murder mystery itself, without giving too much away. I really hate spoilers, so I'll just say that I almost put it all together before Franck did and leave it at that. I was impressed with David Barrie's attention to detail and thorough researching of the different aspects of the story. There's nothing worse than lazy researching or sketchiness to ruin the verisimilitude. The Parisian locations are as beautifully described as ever, not least the Opera de Paris itself, with all its myriad internal locations, its architecture and history. Although it's the focal location of the book the story doesn't spend all its time there. It acts more as a central hub for the story and we still get to visit the cafes, restaurants, parks, hotels etc that surround it as well as some more further afield. The author points out things of interest, often using his characters to do it, which helps to colour the narrative without it straying into pedantry. Loved the stuff about Dumas - it really has been too long since I last engaged with those musketeers.
A very good detective story, with engaging characters, an interesting puzzle of a plot, well executed from a hidden gem of an author who seems to be hitting his stride. Recommended.
Loose-limbed will be published in the UK on the 18th of March 2011.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Madam Crowl's Ghost

In judging the quality of this collection of ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu I think it's worth mentioning that this particular collection was compiled by M.R. James to bring together all of Le Fanu's anonymously published supernatural short stories. It's not a collection of his best work, far from it. Le Fanu's writings throw up all sorts of obstacles for the more ordered reader wishing to read all of his back catalogue. Many of these stories appeared uncredited in Le Fanu's own Dublin University Magazine or Dickens' famous periodical All the Year Round. James' included notes are invaluable to anybody embarking on a Le Fanu reading list. Though Le Fanu's penchant for publishing his stories, ideas and characters many times, often revised in small ways, completely rewritten, or subsumed into other works, tests even James' extensive study of his works. These stories are often set in the author's native Ireland or in the North of England, some very close to where I live in Lancashire. The English setting, mostly in his later works was an attempt to appeal to the larger English market. Exploiting the English market was probably one of the factors resulting in some of the revised publications.
Le Fanu is rightly acknowledged as one of history's finest writers in the genre of the ghost story. Though none of his very best are included here. His stories are often characterised by a slow build up of atmosphere through the use of highly evocative language, with the supernatural elements often included sketchily or by implication. It's a formula that he made himself master of, though this collection does highlight some of his shortcomings. His syntax sometimes becomes meandering. His habit of transcribing regional dialects directly into the dialogue does add local flavour but more often renders the text almost indecipherable. Sometimes his story structure is undermined by the inclusion of little extras tagged onto the endings. There is still much to be admired. My favourite story from this collection is 'An Account Of Some Strange Disturbances In Aungier Street'. Very creepy. though even this does sport some of those extras I mentioned or as Le Fanu would have it some 'valuable collateral particulars'.

Stories included are:

Madam Crowl's Ghost
Squire Toby's Will
Dickon the Devil
The Child that Went with the Fairies
The White Cat of Drumgunnoil
An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street
Ghost Stories of Chapelizod
Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling
Sir Dominick's Bargain
Ultor de Lacy: A Legend of Cappercullen
The Vision of Tom Chuff
Stories of Lough Guir

Friday, 4 March 2011

A Kind Man

I read my first Susan Hill book back in the dim, misty past of my college days. Nestled in my English Lit reading list amongst Thomas Hardy, T.S.Eliot, G.B.Shaw, Grahame Greene etc was I'm the King of the Castle by Susan Hill. To an 18 year old who was more used to reading wall to wall epic fantasy and sci-fi I found Hill's writing the most accessible, though I admit it wasn't until a much later reread that I really appreciated the sheer depth and truth of her writing. Although A kind Man doesn't hit the heights of her earlier works it is as ever a very emotive read. This short book initially seems to be a somewhat prosaic story, set in a northern mill town during a hard depression, about the life paths of two sisters and the petty resentments that follow. One sister, Mirriam, marries a selfish and inconsiderate man, the other, Eve, marries the titular kind man, Tommy Carr, as selfless and giving a man as it 's possible to know. Mirriam can't stop having children, all boys, and Eve struggles to conceive at all. Eventually she has a single girl. From early on in the narrative, Hill generates a sense of anxiety, which is very subtly felt at first, but as the story advances and tragedy strikes, this anxiety slowly increases. What happens next is totally unexpected and far from prosaic. It's Hill's skill in engendering empathy from the reader for her characters that draws the reader in, making you worry for them and pre-empt their decisions. Essentially the book is a parable about love and kindness in a world that seems to be forgetting their value in a self made hell of drudgery and selfishness.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Assassin's Prayer

This is the fourth in Ariana Franklin's 12 century mysteries featuring anatomist, doctor and mistress of the art of death Adelia Aguilar. King Henry II has tasked Adelia with watching over the ten year old Princess Joanna on her journey to meet her new husband in Sicily. As ever the best scenes are with the King though in this case they are so short as to hardly be worth mentioning. Likewise, the cameos by the King's sons, including Cœur de Lion himself are too brief to make much of an impression. Franklin seems to be collecting characters too beloved to herself, and to some readers, for her to leave out of the narrative. And there lies the problem. The book is great fun, with lots of the characters that we've all grown used to but the mystery aspect of the book seems to be anemic by comparison. Tracking Adelia is the totally nutso outlaw Scarry, disguised as one of the travelling company and bent on bringing Adelia down before he kills her in revenge of her killing of his outlaw lover from the previous book. Working out this mystery shouldn't be too taxing even for the most amateur of armchair detectives, which considering we don't have the same benefit of having already seen the guy, as Adelia has, begs the question how does it take so long for our heroine to work it out. Barring several pages with the curious incident of the ex-goat in the nighttime there is very little opportunity for Adelia to call on her deathly arts at all. Having several sub-plots but no notable primary plot turns this one into a colourful travelogue rather than a mystery. It's still an enjoyable and easy read, bolstering the already rich ensemble of characters with some new note worthies, like Boggart, the O'Donnell and Rankin - an overly caricatured Scotsman (the peeps, the peeps). The historical aspects of the journey are fascinating, not least the emerging religious and political landscape of the middle ages. Fans of the series will probably be too satisfied to be back in the company of old friends to be concerned with the shortcoming's of the plot.