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Review: ‘Thirty Three Cecils’ by Everett De Morier

August 17, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Description: This novel purports to be the found journals of two men; Walker Roe (a once prominent cartoonist who went to jail for swindling and counterfeiting) and Riley Dutcher (a functioning alcoholic who worked in a landfill site office). What happens when their paths cross, and they start recording their experiences, is what the story is about. It’s just a story about a couple of ordinary Joes, really. But what a story!

Author: Everett De Morier is a jobbing author, writing anything from articles about fishing to books about marriage. He is editor in chief of 543skills.com. He is also a playwright who has created seven original theatrical scripts, all produced by Cornerstone Drama of Dover, Delaware. This is his first novel. You can read more about him and the book here : https://www.amazon.com/Everett-De-Morier/e/B001K8J462.

Appraisal: This is an extraordinary book. It defies description. In a good way. It begins by telling you the end (and it doesn’t matter): it continues by telling you the same story from two different viewpoints (and it doesn’t matter): and within each of those viewpoints material is often revisited several times (and it doesn’t matter). Despite this the account is both complex and fantastical. The story is fake news. Or is it? Its two protagonists are, neither of them, proud of their lives to date. And it is far from clear that their final project is anything to be proud of either. Their escapades, severally and together, are bizarre. The events that occur are impossible (and – guess what? – it doesn’t matter). There is a sort of cosmic inevitability about the plot development. Coincidences abound. Indeed, serendipity is ‘the scary thing’ that drives the book. That and the deep desire of Roe and Dutcher to become different men, to make amends to themselves, each other, their families and everyone else who was touched adversely by their lives.

I couldn’t put it down. And I know very well it will repay rereading.

I have no idea what genre this belongs in. But if you like a slow burn of a novel (and I do mean burn), then definitely put this on your ‘to read’ list.

FYI: It’s a tad overwritten. De Morier does like to make the same point (usually) three times – and (being a fine, inventive writer) likes to make it in a different way each time. This does not lend itself to the wham-bam-thankyou-Ma’am style of novel which is currently fashionable. I occasionally felt I was disappearing over the hills and far away when following one of De Morier’s shaggy dog stories (are they called that in the States?). But I found resistance to be futile – this book is completely beguiling if you just go with the flow.

Approximate page count: 288 pp

Review: A World Apart by L J K Oliva

August 15, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Genre: Urban Fantasy/whodunit

Description: This pretty much sums the book up: “There are things that go bump in the night, Mr. MacMillian. It’s my job to bump back.” In these two sentences we learn that Powonia (Lena) Alan is a medium, helping stranded souls cross over, comfortable and competent in her work for ‘the other side’, fazed by very little, and certainly in much better control in such situations than PI Jesper MacMillian, who is coming at this particular case from the side of the living. Delightful encapsulation.

Author: LJK Oliva says she writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance. That is all I can find out about her, despite her presence on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Pinterest etc. The book under review is #1 in her Shades Below series. As well as things that go bump in the night, the series includes forays into vampiric and Ancient Egyptian plotlines.

Appraisal: This novel is a lot of fun (if one can say that of a novel about dead people). The protagonists are drawn to the same crime – a dreadful death – by the unquiet soul of the deceased (which is the ambit of Lena and her brother Cyrus) and by his parents (who engage the aforementioned MacMillian, together with a cop ex-buddy called Mark Durbin: Durbin and MacMillian have baggage). The story flitters between the living and the more or less deceased, drawing on well-established tropes, but also investing them with original thinking.

There is romance in the mix. MacMillian and Lena have chemistry from the off. But then she meets and quickly begins to date the absurdly gorgeous Durbin, giving opportunities for introspection and angst within that triangle.

As well as romance we have Romani characters (MacMillian is one) bringing their hierarchies, prejudices and empathies to play in the story.

Minor characters such as Emil and Puzzle are well fleshed-out too (and carry their own stories later in the Shades Below series). The idea that there are people in the world who have the surname ‘Zarubabbel’ on their driving licences pleases me immensely.

In Lena, Oliva draws a character who feels completely real, apart from her ability to see dead people. I, too, felt I would finally be a grownup when I bought my first new cooker. (I turned out to be wrong. So is Lena.) Lena runs a tea shop. She is an expert on tea, treating each infusion as a little ritual. Lena’s inner monologue (through which much of the book is unfolded) is consistently believable and interesting.

However, one doesn’t read the book for the tea infusion recipes. This is a fast-paced whodunit incorporating the spirit world. The interactions between the characters (living and not so much) keep the pace going lickety-split throughout. The episode of Jimmy-as-poltergeist was particularly delightful.

Format/Typo Issues: there was a slightly irritating tic involving short hyphens and missing spaces in the copy I read. Then there are the occasional malapropisms: ‘caliper’ for ‘calibre’; ‘tram’ for ‘pram’, ‘banquets’ for ‘banquettes’. There are some other odd word choices which provide a momentary puzzlement before one decides it doesn’t matter and plunges back into the story. For example, I have no idea what ‘in the Veil’ refers to, nor how Powonia belongs ‘in hospice’.

I became a little irked by the number of men in the book whose names began with D. (Especially when I needed to refer back when I came to write the review.) Durbin, Darius and Daniel is two Ds too many: there are 25 other letters in the alphabet…

But these are minor grumbles compared to the pleasure the book gave.

Rating: ****

Approximate page count: 308 pp

Review: ‘A Company of Roses’ by Megan Goodenough

August 13, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Genre:   Thriller, mystery

Description:   

This is a treasure hunt in the ‘history and mystery’ genre. Cas is sidekick to charismatic, beautiful Lacey. Lacey goes missing, leaving behind a trail of destruction and a set of enigmatic clues to an Elizabethan treasure. Cas will have to find a courage and resourcefulness she’s never known before if she’s going to find the treasure and, with it, save her friend.

Cas races across Brighton, London and some stunning English landscape (you could follow her progress on a map) searching for and solving Lacey’s clues. The clues include appearances from Mary Shelley, Ada Lovelace, Queen Elizabeth I and other strong women from British history with whom you may be less familiar.

The end of the journey is more personal than Cas could have imagined as she finally unearths the British Government’s most well-kept secret, and faces the organisation sworn to protect it.

Author:   

Megan Goodenough is a British author, a graduate of York University with a degree in archaeology. She’s been short-listed for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, long-listed for the TS Eliot Award and won competitions with BBC Writers Room. This is her first novel.

Appraisal:   

I enjoyed this a lot – to the point where I couldn’t put it down. If you like historical mysteries this will appeal to you. If you enjoy Dan Brown’s clever clues (especially if you find the violent deaths and severed body parts in his books a tad superfluous) you will enjoy this. As you can see above, Goodenough’s expertise is in areas which feed the creation of this sort of novel. Readers familiar with the British Tudor dynasty will be aware that Tudor works of art were chockful of symbols. Her research (even – or perhaps particularly – if it has led to imaginary artefacts) is first class yet her learning is placed lightly on the page. Goodenough draws strong, engaging female characters. She leavens the book’s action with wit and humour, and even permits her characters some introspection when time serves. The result is a real page-turner.

The book is set in the present. The two female protagonists are young, talented artists. Cas is drifting through her life, intending to get a grip on it soon. Or maybe not. Then suddenly she has to shape up much more quickly than she intended. So the book is as much a rite of passage as it is a thriller.

Cas and Lacey are delightfully believable. I have had a relationship like that. I have had that revelation about it. Cas’s vacillation about Reuben (the single major male character) also rings true. How Cas handles a gun made me think the author picked one up for the first time as research for this book and put the experience accurately on the page. Cas’s dead gran is beautifully drawn: a character from beyond the grave, but none the less potent for that.

Up until the end I thought that the prologue was an unnecessary give away. It isn’t, it’s a clue. The motivation for finding that which is lost changes two-thirds of the way through. At first I thought it was wobbly plotting. It isn’t, it’s a change of motivation which shows the heroine (for she is more than a protagonist) becoming a finer human being.

Readers in the US: brace yourselves for British spellings. But as a trade-off you get descriptions of famous British places that only a Briton in love with them could provide. The Great Court at the British Museum is the standout example (it is stunning and she does it justice). There are a number of others.

If the book has a flaw, it is that some of the information fed to the reader at the beginning of the book isn’t very helpful until one reaches the end. Which could also be a good reason to read it again.

Approximate page count:  300 pp

Rating: *****

Review: ‘Treading Softly, Breaking Shells’ by Kim Balett

August 12, 2017

**Originally written for “Big Al’s Books and Pals” book blog.
May have received a free review copy.**

Genre: Historical romance

Description: in 1878 Louisa travels to Seychelles to live with her brother. She finds it difficult to get used to life on the islands in general and on her brother’s plantation in particular. The climate, culture and amenities are very different from what she’s used to. This is a land where the memory of slavery is still recent and colonialism still present. Relationships between the old French families, the ex-slave population and the English incomers are complex. The veneer of civilisation is sometimes very thin.

Author: Kim Balette is an Australian writer living and teaching in Seychelles. Her love of travel and History led her to research the colonial past of Seychelles and the result is this, her debut novel.

Appraisal: the book follows Louisa through her first eight months on Seychelles, as she tries to acclimatise to the climate and the people. Quite often the reader is shown Louisa through the eyes of others.

The Seychellois setting is unusual and a big part of the book’s appeal. (Certainly it was a major reason this reader chose the book.) Balette draws delightful descriptive pictures of the islands, as here: ‘… the seaweed patches made pictures in the water. Louisa wondered if one could read the future from these swirls as gypsies did from tealeaves (sic) in a cup.’

Three languages are in use on the islands: French (Seychelles had been a French colony for a time in the eighteenth century), English and Creole which the former slaves developed from French. A smattering of these three languages adds savour to the book.

As well as talking about the land, Balette also describes meticulously how people lived there at this time. Descriptions of making soap, salting fish and meat, harvesting pods from the vanilla orchid, pruning breadfruit trees and many other quotidian occupations also add interest.

Various small mysteries are set running; there is romance; there are suspicious deaths; there is sickness; there are financial worries; and there are several sexual episodes which are described elegantly but graphically. But at bottom this is a book about people getting along with each other, or (in several cases) not.

For this reader the descriptions of place and the daily doings of the inhabitants (delightful as they were in themselves) began, after a while, to get in the way of the story. Or perhaps the problem was that there wasn’t really enough story to prevent the pace of the book from flagging.

Several salient pieces of information that the reader could have done with early on were withheld until it was too late for them to matter much. In the absence of authorial clarity, you can make up your own mind as to what the hints dropped may mean. The major romance followed that pattern where each party misunderstands the other for lengthy periods of time and much unnecessary angst results. You may be a fan of this approach: it is certainly a tried and tested romantic formula.

At the end this reader considered the experience and could only conclude that it had all been something of a storm in a rather beautiful teacup.

FYI: Some ‘literary’ but fairly explicit sexual content.

Format/Typo Issues: some typographical and some syntactical errors. One persistent tendency was to insert commas where they simply got in the way of understanding the sentence, another was a vagueness with pronouns which on occasion made it impossible to work out who was doing what to whom.

Rating: ***

Approximate page count: 180 pp

Boys become men

August 1, 2017

This is one of several beginnings that my book about Genghis Khan has had while I’ve been writing it. It’s about 3500 words long. I hope you enjoy it.

When he was growing up, the Mongolian boy, Temujin, suffered many hardships. So important was he to the Mongolian people that they retell the stories of his life to this day. Those stories contain seeds of truth and clues to the origins and personality of the great warrior and leader that the world knows as Genghis Khan.

Mongolia: 1179 CE

Belgutei and his two brothers had been hunting since the first glimmer of a pale winter dawn, hoping to surprise some steppe-dwelling creature in the half light. They had had no luck then, nor as the brief day brightened towards noon.

The three of them trudged on through the white world, three tightly-wrapped roly-poly fur and hide bundles, their bellies growling with hunger, their bows in hand – but with nothing to shoot at. It wasn’t surprising; they’d hunted the area around their encampment until it was as empty as their bellies. Not a rat, not a sparrow, remained. Every day they needed to plod further and further from their ger before there was anything to shoot.

A Mongolian does not enjoy walking. A Mongolian does not use his own two legs for locomotion – he rides. That the three boys had to trudge on foot through the snow put all of them in a foul mood. Belgutei knew very well why they were walking. Bekter, his younger brother, knew also. Both glared at the back of the boy in front who was forging a path through the snow: Temujin. It was because of Temujin that they were walking. Temujin. Always Temujin.

Today they had slogged further across the frozen steppe than they had ever gone. Still they had not seen anything to nock an arrow at, except an eagle circling in the snow-grey sky high above them. Now the day had passed its best ; it would be twilight soon. The long, dark, hungry walk home began to beckon.

*

So many mouths to feed on so little. Even when you knew where to look – and Belgutei knew where to look, every Mongolian did – sometimes the steppe was just an empty sea of grass. And grass soup is the saddest meal in the world.

The plump quail had flown south as soon as autumn began to lose its colour; the little flirt-tailed antelope followed soon after. Belgutei and his family should have followed the migrating game – like all the other clans had done – but they had no ponies. Only the toughest creatures remained on the steppe through the winter: the marmots. They disappeared deep into their burrows when winter began to bite and were difficult to unearth.

Belgutei’s family had no ponies because of his foolish half-brother, Temujin. The family was marooned on the steppes – nomads with no means of wandering – because of Temujin. They were disgraced, impoverished and starving because of Temujin. The rest of their clan had gone south nearly two moons ago. Back at camp the tracks of that departure were still plainly visible; the ruts cut into the autumn mud by the wheels of their heavy carts, the hoof prints of their ponies and cattle, yaks and goats peppering the ground around the ruts. The spoor was a constant, now frozen, reminder of Temujin’s disgrace – which his whole family must share. To punish Temujin for his temerity the clan’s council had decreed that the family’s livestock should be forfeit. Without animals the ambitious Temujin and his disruptive mother, Hoëlun, would cause no more trouble through the winter. By the following spring the rebellion would be frozen out of them. They might actually starve; then the problem they posed would be solved for good.

Hoëlun had pleaded for at least her younger children to be parcelled out amongst other families and allowed to travel with the clan. But the elders had shown no interest in alleviating the family’s problems even this much. Mongolian clans were not known for sentimentality. No one who lived on the move, on the steppes, could afford such a luxury.

And besides, Mongolian women were strong. Hoëlun had complained long and loud that the clan had failed to take revenge against the Tatars who had killed her husband. Too long. Too loud.

Far from seeking conciliation with his uncles and cousins, Temujin had still been fuming that they had not permitted him to take his dead father’s place as clan chief. That a boy of only ten winters could believe himself ready for such an honour was beyond crediting. Belgutei – Temujin’s elder by two winters – had himself not yet formally become a man, and would have been horrified had the clan asked him to put on their father’s heavy mantle of responsibilities. Nevertheless Belgutei’s was the stronger claim, as he had been born to Yesugei’s senior wife, rather than the junior Hoëlun who was Temujin’s mother. Belgutei, as eldest brother, had advised Temujin to remain silent, to embrace caution. But silence and caution weren’t words in the younger boy’s vocabulary.

Temujin had been living with the Onggirat clan of his betrothed, Borte, when news reached him of his father’s death. The boy had ridden two ponies into the ground to get back to his own clan. Despite his haste Yesugei  had been two weeks dead by the time Temujin had arrived to avenge him and claim his birthright. The clan’s elders had simply laughed at him. A perfectly satisfactory chief had already been chosen. Why should they consider a boy when what the clan required was a man to lead them? And as for the other matter – this was no time to be taking revenge. All through the camp men were greasing and wrapping their fighting swords and putting them away for the winter. Now was the time for culling beasts, salting and smoking meat, checking the weatherproofing of the family ger and getting ready to move south.  Even if the Tatars had poisoned Yesugei, vengeance would have to wait for the spring. But Temujin wouldn’t let it lie. The Tatars had violated the inviolable when they poisoned the guest-gift of mare’s milk they gave his father. Their deaths should be swift and bloody he insisted – as befitted the cowardly murderers of Yesugei Baghatur, khan of the Kiyads.

Hoëlun added her own pleas to Temujin’s. There were good practical reasons for wreaking bloody murder on the Tatars. She had four other children by Yesugei. His first wife, Sogichel, had contributed Belgutei and Bekter to the family. She now spent her days humming and rocking mindlessly beside the fire, so it fell to Hoëlun to maintain Yesugei’s household. Who would protect the family now? Who would feed them? The goods and slaves Hoëlun would receive from a successful raid of the sort Temujin wanted to mount would turn away the poverty that currently stared the family, unblinking, in the face. This was how the world turned on the steppe.

Eventually, of course, the uncles and cousins of Yesugei grew impatient. In the summer, on the steppes, a horse will gallop many miles to be free of the ever-biting flies. Thus had the elders finally decided to deal with Temujin and his irksome mother and all the other little flies associated with their buzzing: they packed up in the night and moved away at dawn. They took with them every beast the family owned – every yak, sheep, goat, and all five of the family’s precious horses.

*

Musing wouldn’t feed the nine of them. The sorry saga had run through Belgutei’s mind so often that it had almost the numbing effect of a mantra. Almost.

He brought his mind back to the present and took yet another look around for something, anything, disturbing the white blanket of snow and ice covering the steppe. The land was flat ahead of him for as far as he could see. Behind him, a long way behind him, gently rolling hills sheltered the family’s camp. All around him the ground was white except where tussocks of brown grass poked through.

But wait. Belgutei strained his eyes until they watered, while making his way in the direction of … something brown. It wasn’t grass. It was … earth. Brown earth. Earth piled up like that could only mean that close by was the entrance to a marmot’s burrow!

Belgutei looked around for his brothers. They were easy to spot. The slightest movement betrayed the hunter in this white winter world. And marmots were easily spooked. What a blessing that they were also incurably curious. If you found a marmot warren and drummed on the ground the creatures would all disappear into their burrows quicker than you could nock an arrow. But if you waited a little while, quietly, up they’d come again to see what had made the noise.

In the distance Bekter waved his bow to attract attention and signed that he’d found a warren with signs of recent activity. Belgutei began to jog towards his brother. His belly rumbled as he ran and he prayed silently to the Earth Mother to give them something more than grass soup tonight. His eyes watered with the effort of trying to see marmots in the poor light. But marmots were masters of camouflage.

Bekter joined Belgutei and Temujin at a distance from the occupied burrow, then the three of them began to whoop and stomp on the ground. Half a dozen previously invisible dull brown, scrawny rodents at once made a dash for their burrows. Watching them disappear down their holes Belgutei felt the juices in his mouth start to flow so suddenly and fiercely that it hurt. The best way to cook a marmot was by skinning it and piling the meat back into the bag of skin with hot stones from the fire. But before you could skin your marmot you first had to catch it.

Now was the time to be quiet.

Each of the boys made his way silently to one of the holes into which the marmots had bolted. Each of them cast silently about until he’d found a good place to out-wait the stupid rodents, made himself as comfortable as possible on the lumpy frozen ground and nocked an arrow. With luck it wouldn’t be long.

It was bitter cold on the steppe, and there wasn’t much light left in the day. Belgutei was losing the feeling in his feet and fingers and having trouble focussing in the fading light. But he promised himself that he wouldn’t return to the ger without his arrow through a substantial supper,

Suddenly he heard the twock and hiss of an arrow. At almost the same moment he heard another arrow fly. And then a third. He hoped his brothers had shot true and hunkered down, looking for a target, hoping for a shot himself. But now a screaming began – not the scream of an animal: a human scream. The scream became a gurgle, then there was silence.

*

Belgutei lumbered to his feet, cursing the cold which made him slow and clumsy, and whatever accident it was that had destroyed any hope of bagging another marmot. He tried to spy out his brothers in the deepening dusk. What had happened? Where were they?

Casting about he caught sight of a glimmer of white where it had no business to be. Instead of soft-edged whiteness, it was a tiny, hard-edged thing thrown into relief by the tussock of brown grass behind it. Belgutei’s mind was still processing the possibilities when he realised what this must be. Temujin’s made his own flights out of white eagle feathers. It was a typical, needless extravagance for a mere boy to insist on fletching his arrows with such superior feathers – but Temujin bartered for them and bound his arrows himself. Temujin, at least, had shot something.

Quickly Belgutei made his way towards the white-fletched arrow. It was sticking out of a marmot, as was a second arrow – one of Bekter’s. Belgutei was bending over the kill when he became aware of Temujin marching towards him, in a towering fury.

‘Get your hands off that marmot, Bel,’ he snarled. ‘I’ve killed one of you whelps for it and I don’t care if I have to kill you both.’

Belgutei was so shocked by the boy’s words and the madness in his eyes that he straightened up and took a step backwards. In doing so he trod on something soft. Stumbling, he turned and found himself on his knees beside Bekter, dead on the steppe with a white-fletched arrow through his throat and his eyes wide open.

‘What have you done?’ Belgutei gasped. There was blood still flowing out of the wound, which made Belgutei uncomfortable. He sat back on his heels to get away from the stench of death, and to keep an eye on the raging Temujin. ‘Why? In the name of the great sky above us, why have you done this?’

‘It was my shot and Bekter took it.’ The younger boy spat the words out. There were flecks of white spittle on his lips. He bent and jerked both the arrows out of the marmot. His own white-fletched arrow he wiped carefully and returned to its quiver. He broke Bekter’s arrow over his knee and threw it on his brother’s corpse.

At this Belgutei’s astonishment at what had taken place was overtaken by a fury of his own. Mongols never harmed their own. It was bad enough that Temujin had killed a fellow member of the clan – and, even worse, it was his own brother who lay dead at their feet. Yet the boy showed no remorse. Indeed, the killing rage was obviously still upon him; it would be laughable in one so young, if matters weren’t so deadly serious. Belgutei fought for control of his own emotions as he reached for the scruff of the boy’s clothing. He could hear his stepmother’s voice in his head, exhorting him to look after Temujin, to set a good example, not to let the boy come to harm. He needed to get a firm grip on this young djinn and take a moment to think what to do.

The djinn, however, wasn’t cooperating. He squirmed in Belgutei’s grasp and Belgutei heard Temujin’s skinning knife sing from its scabbard. The boy cut the thong holding his topcoat closed and slipped free, leaving his brother holding an empty jerkin. Temujin went into a fighting crouch and began to toss his blade from hand to hand. The tactic was a good one – in the lowering light it was as much as Belgutei could do to keep track of the weapon. Temujin lunged. Belgutei stepped back, flat-footed. The devil in front of him, freed from the heavy hide jerkin that now encumbered the older brother, danced lightly on his feet looking for a vulnerable place to stick his knife. Belgutei bundled Temujin’s jerkin around his shield arm and continued to back up.

‘Temujin,’ he called. ‘Temujin!’ But the younger boy continued to circle round him, his body coiled to strike.

There was nothing for it, it seemed. Belgutei tried not to think ahead to the point where either he or Temuin must lie dead beside Bekter, and began to stumble towards Temujin across frozen tussocks now almost invisible in the twilight. As he closed the distance between them, reluctantly, he drew his own knife. He must put an end to this now: night was upon them, the temperature was dropping, they were far from home and had a dead weight to carry between them, as well as the marmot which was the cause of all the trouble. The boy continued to circle him. Belgutei felt like an old bull yak, turning too slowly. All he could do was continue to face this brother who had suddenly become his enemy, close the distance between them, look for an opportunity to entangle his knife hand, catch him in a clinch and wait until the madness left him.

But above all else he must concentrate on that weaving knife blade. Too late! In the heartbeat during which he had been distracted the boy had danced sideways, stepped in, and stabbed through the thick hide of Belgutei’s coat. He felt a sting where Temujin had pricked him. A few moments later a warm, sticky sensation told him he was bleeding. By the eternal sky, it was possible that this mad child would kill him and his brother both, over a scrawny marmot! Belgutei felt his own rage burn now. He would not die on this steppe at the hand of this child, Temujin.

With a roar Belgutei launched himself at the boy. Temujin danced aside but left a foot in the bigger boy’s way. Belgutei felt himself falling. The frosty tussocks and his own thick clothing broke the fall, but he was winded all the same.

Knowing that his next few heartbeats might well be his last, Belgutei wriggled over onto his back, protecting his organs with the coat wrapped around his shield arm and defending the space between himself and Temujin with his knife.

The boy ignored both shield and weapon and threw himself at his brother’s head, slashing and scratching at Belgutei’s eyes with his knife and fingernails. Belgutei scrabbled to bring his own hands up to protect his face from this new, frenzied attack.

As soon as he had done so Temujin moved his attack to Belgutei’s midriff. Almost at once he severed the long belt bound around Belgutei’s coat and, as Belgutei writhed beneath him trying to catch his hands, the coat flopped open. Now the boy sprang into the air, coming down with one knee driving into Belgutei’s testicles and one elbow ramming into his solar plexus. Belgutei felt something give inside his belly and lower down, in his balls, pure agony blossomed. He could not prevent the bellow of pain and fear which escaped him. He had never known such pain as this.

Temujin got to his feet. Belgutei more felt than saw the boy loom over him. If Temujin wanted his brother dead one stab now would see the job done: Belgutei had no resources left to resist him. The pain – aah! The pain would not stop.

‘I’m taking my kill in now,’ said the boy. ‘You can bring your brother. Or not. As you like.’

He picked up the marmot and walked away into the gloom.

*

Belgutei lay where he had fallen. The pain took a long time to ease. When he began to lose feeling in his fingers and toes he knew he must move or die where he lay. He struggled to his feet and did his best to retie his belt to hold in place whatever was broken in his belly. The cold had finally dulled the pain in his testicles, but getting to his feet brought it rushing back so badly that he bent over and retched.

Then he began to stumble after his little brother, back to the family’s camp at the foot of the distant hills which it was now too dark to see.

About Bekter he could do nothing. He told himself he would return tomorrow for the corpse, but he knew that long before morning the hungry things of the steppe would have discovered this source of food that until recently had been Bekter. By morning Bekter’s body would be gone. That was the way of the steppe – the body was simply a vessel, transportation for the soul. After death it became fuel to enable other creatures to survive another night. Bekter would survive for as long as he was remembered. When his name was no longer spoken his soul would slip out of the eaves of the family’s ger into the steppe wind; from there it would fall, at last, to the earth and be trodden into the ground by the wandering herds of the nomads. He, Belgutei, would not forget. He clenched his teeth as a gesture of remembrance – and to stop them chattering with pain and cold.

He concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other, leaning forward, bringing the hind foot forward. He kept the wind in his face, for that was the way home, but it beat against him cruelly. After a while he felt as though he was floating over the steppe, until the grass reached up and pulled him down into an icy embrace. Time and again he struggled to his feet, pain screaming through him, and stumbled on.

It was full dark now. He didn’t know how long it had been so. Still he plodded forward. Something nagged at the back of his mind. Wasn’t there something he had to remember? He didn’t know what it could have been.

His teeth were chattering. Had Temujin told him to stop his teeth chattering because the sound would scare away the marmots? Then he remembered: Temujin was far ahead of him, had left him to die after having killed their brother over a marmot.

Belgutei realised that he was afraid of his younger brother, had been for some time before the insane events of this day. The fear weakened him, but he couldn’t rid himself of it.

But there was another conviction that stayed with him too. There would be a reckoning for this. Temujin was a mad little shit – and one day Belgutei would make him pay for killing Bekter. One day.

Belgutei continued on across the dark and icy steppe. To keep himself going he began to chant under his breath,

‘At … my … hand. He … will … die. At … my … hand. He … will … die.’

The end

 

Review – Baby Boomers and Brutalism

May 19, 2017

Raw Concrete: the beauty of Brutalism by Barnabas Calder

This book came out in 2016. Through dogged perseverance, I have managed to get it from my local library twice now – it is very popular and far from cheap to buy. It’s popularity is slightly surprising as it is not an easy read, if you are not steeped in architectural forms (as I am not). Nevertheless, it is fascinating.

Barnabas Calder is an entertaining writer, although he makes no allowances for the tyro reader. I enjoyed his enthusiasm for concrete structures – and learned a lot about them: the different finishes that can be achieved with physical effort (eg chipping away the top surface with power tools – various – to expose the one underneath), the sturdiness of the builds and their fitness for purpose (which was usually social housing). I have not learned to love them, but I do feel I understand them better now. The sink estates that some of Brutalist designs became was apparently (and why would one be surprised by this) due to parsimony by the councils operating the estates rather than flaws in the buildings.

Some spectacular structures I have always thought were Brutalist, he does not mention (the ziggurat halls of residence at UEA, the Alexandra Road estate in Camden). I once spent a week ‘sleeping’ on the concrete bed extrusion in one of those hall rooms at UEA. Yes it had a mattress: but said mattress was only about three inches thick. I had recourse each night to copious amounts of alcohol in order to lie comatose and not attempt to turn over in the night. Turning over resulted in bruised hips because the mattress was so thin and the bed so hard, and scrapes on knees and hands from semi-conscious contact with the rough concrete wall. Calder speaks with admiration of built-in furniture of this kind – and describes how he spent a night in a Brutalist concrete sarcophagus in the ‘Hermit’s Castle’ at Achmelvich somewhere near Lochinver in Scotland. As this is a sort of pilgrimage for him, the night he passes there has rather a different quality from the week I spent on my concrete ledge. I could only pity students who had to spend whole terms thus. Those bed shelves must’ve been a powerful contraceptive for the student population.

So, an interesting and enjoyable book. But I have to take issue with the illustrations. Architecture is an art: art is best illustrated with pictures. It is true that the book has a goodly number of illustrations. Unfortunately they are all in matt greyscale on a buff stock, which makes them very muddy and reduces many of them almost to pattern, rather than picture. This I suspect was deliberate, to demonstrate the subtle textures and formwork in the concrete. OK. If you must. But there are two more serious defects with the illustrations: 1) a lot of them have no captions and 2) a lot of illustrations which would have been really helpful are not here. A building by Corbusier and one by Frank Lloyd Wright are needed. So is an example of a Modernist Thirties building which Brutalism succeeded post war, for comparative purposes. There are no portraits of any of the architects, even Ernö Goldfinger (who was, yes, the model for Ian Fleming’s villain of that name). More plans of the inside of places like Trellick Tower would have been helpful too (as Brutalist architects tended to create buildings holistically). But splitting the illustration of the ‘Hermit’s Castle’ across two pages was the worst idea of the lot – the crack in the middle makes it impossible to get any sense of the proportions or uniqueness of the building.

Nevertheless, Baby Boomers like me grew up with Brutalism and Barnabas Calder explains very ably why Brutalism was, what it was, and why that was a good thing. If you have any interest in the buildings around you, you will find this book rewarding. Just don’t expect to get much from the illustrations.

Sprouts

May 12, 2017

I wrote this poem nearly ten years ago, when Tesco stopped stocking loose sprouts for a period.  I wrote to them about it and wove the reply I got into the poem. Some few years after I wrote the poem Tesco began stocking loose sprouts again, although I can’t take any credit for that! I believe they still do so, although I don’t shop there.

I was sad to think this poem had gone out of date (although happy about improved sprout availability). Today I learn that Asda have done the same nul-sprout thing. I am chuffed to learn that the poem once again has a purpose. So here it is …

Sprouts

Fresh sprouts can be sourced all year round, of course
but we don’t carry stock outside the
Christmas period. There are always delicious frozen
sprouts available from our freezer range.

Our sprouts are mainly sourced from California.
No, there’s no need to pick them after frost.
That it improves the flavour is an old wife’s tale.
And flavour’s not our main consideration.
In order of priority we want:
first a good shelf life; next an attractive sprout –
the sprout should be a bright, consistent green.
The ideal sprout shape should be regular.
Here’s a diagram of our in-house sprout screener.
And here’s a picture of the perfect sprout.

I’m surprised that you should throw the old tag
‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ at us. We have moved on.
Now we prefer to demonstrate our pricing edge
with representative baskets, as compared with our competitors.

We strive daily to improve our shopping culture,
heightening consumer choice and pleasure.
The results are plain to see – well-filled trolleys
pass through our check-outs constantly.
To facilitate our efforts we train
in-house focus groups to simulate
our perfect shopping standard. Thus we know
fresh sprouts are only eaten around Christmas.

No, we don’t use consumer feedback to inform
our sprout decisions. Consuming units are
unreliable. No, we don’t call them people.
We don’t ask consuming units about stocking.
That’s too complex for them. We research
consumer preference all the time, but we
don’t ask consuming units. Consuming units don’t know
what they want until we give it to them.
They only want to know which aisle the sugar’s on.
Our focus groups provide much better data.

No, we don’t have a focus group for sprouts.

 

April 22, 2017

Love Songs of Carbon (The Yellow Earl: Almost an Emporer, Not Quite a Gentleman) by [Gross, Philip]   I found the first two poems of this collection very difficult and left the book alone for some months. But then I thought – either read it or take it down the charity shop (I do sometimes wonder who buys the books I leave at the charity shop – the last one was a bone-dry biography of Ben Nicholson: but I digress). So with a small sigh I re-entered Love Songs of Carbon – and wow! ‘Thirty Feet Under’ uses the imagery of a super-low spring tide to talk about ageing. ‘Mould Music’ is fascinating about the moulds that appear on all living things (except, actually, human bodies – if you have mould you need to see a doctor, stat). But I have now reached ‘A Love Song of Carbon’ (the title poem) and have been absolutely blown away by this about scattering the ashes of his parents on Dartmoor. I am now chomping through the rest with great enthusiasm. He uses as his colouring pencils not only the natural world, but also the part of the world I am from.

I sometimes write poetry and have always denigrated what I write as ‘just nature stuff’ because robins and storms and seasons figure largely in it. I may stop doing that (denigrating), because I now see that the natural world is a fine metaphor for the human condition. Why would it not be? We and it are all made of carbon, after all. Even my storms are distributing carbon from here to there.

If you have only read the first couple of poems you have absolutely not seen the best this collection offers. (And it has to be said that the cover does not beckon one in either). But what is inside that rather dull cover is akin to reaching the top of the hill outside Weymouth and seeing the sea sparkling in front of you. Go on! You will be rewarded.

Review of ‘The Chinese Spymaster’ by Hock G Tjoa

March 23, 2017

The author provided me with an e-file of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Chinese Spymaster by [Tjoa, Hock]

I enjoyed this book a lot. I like to learn New Stuff when I read fiction and, for me, this book contained plenty of fascinating, fresh, information about the Chinese in general, particularly their intelligence agencies; the Pashtun people and their fragmented existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the reaction of intelligence communities in countries such as Israel and the UK to their Chinese counterparts. Tjoa maintains that his depiction of the Chinese intelligence agencies is without foundation in fact. However, it is certainly founded on intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and rang very true.

The premise is that the Pashtuns are seeking to acquire a portable nuclear device to use as political leverage. They are talking to six different potential suppliers. (This is not a spoiler: it is part of the blurb.) It was an interesting and timely plot device. And enabled Tjoa to investigate the character of Spymaster Wang, who was a child during The Great Leap Forward, when blame and self-criticism were vicious tools of the state, and recognises that elements of that mindset still exist in China today. The ways in which Chinese friendships and families work are subtly different from western ways. As are their work relationships. Tjoa shows us this through Wang’s way of working and his social interactions.

At its best this book stands comparison with Le Carré’s early work. Spymaster Wang and George Smiley would very much enjoy each other’s company. Much of the book consists of people finding stuff out and puzzling over what it means. I prefer this sort of spy thriller to those where there is a high and bloody body count. There is action, but the espionage is more cerebral than physical.

A nice line in Chinese aphorisms runs through the book. I particularly liked ‘act without desiring the results of your action!’, a mantra apparently predating the Lord Buddha, taught by Japanese Zen masters, who were themselves taught by Chinese Zen masters.

By the end of the book I felt I knew considerably more about the way in which power is shifting towards the East in our world. It is moving not only towards China, but also towards various, post-Soviet, ‘Stans along the Silk Road and lining China’s borders – and, of course, one must not forget the firestorm which is the Middle East. Le Carré and others cast about constantly for new theatres of espionage and intrigue now that the Iron Curtain has come down. These days a refreshing breeze disturbs the Bamboo Curtain, giving us glimpses behind it. Charles Cummings touched upon nationalism among the Uyghurs (one of China’s ethnic minorities who also turn up in The Chinese Spymaster) in his 2008 book Typhoon. Tjoa also contemplates the rumblings of nationalism in this part of the world (might it begin, in truth, with the Pashtuns?) This is fruitful ground for the modern spy thriller writer.

There is rather more ‘telling’ in the book than the modern, western, fashion in fiction-writing favours. But in the context, it is probably the most economical way to keep the story moving.

The occasional shifts in where and when we were kept me on my toes. In one case we unexpectedly timewarped some ten years into the past. However, it very quickly became apparent that this was essential information. And how else was it to be offered to the reader?

Tjoa thoughtfully provides a ‘Key Words, Abbreviations and Institutions’ section, and maps. An aide memoire to the large cast of characters would also have been helpful. I had no difficulty with Hu and Yu. Nor with Wang, Tang and Owyang. The use of nicknames (apparently a Chinese schtick) helped. But I did have difficulty remembering who was who among the many minor characters. (I would make a lousy spy!)

If you like your spying bang up to date and more mental than action-based, I believe you will enjoy this book.

‘Impact’ by Rosalind Minett

March 4, 2017