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Thursday, 8 April 2021

Bad Day in Minsk by Jonathan Pinnock

We've all had bad days, haven't we? But rest assured they've never been quite as bad as the one Tom Winscombe's having - kidnapped after a failed break in at the offices of a secretive think tank, sent under-cover into Belarus, kidnapped again (by Belarusan mafia this time), escaping, getting caught in a fire-fight between various gangs while the building burns beneath him ... It's the stuff of nightmares, but since he became involved in the affairs of deceased mathematical geniuses the Vavasor brothers it's become all too frequent an occurrence for Tom.

Bad Day in Minsk is the fourth in the Mathematical Mystery series by Jonathan Pinnock, and as much, if not more, fun than the earlier stories. Always inclined to stumble into the sort of trouble that ends up with armed men threatening him, Tom finds himself coerced into posing as an expert on chaos theory and sent to Minsk. He's on his own this time, without girlfriend Dorothy who usually saves the day but with luck on his side, and help from some new acquaintances, Tom manages to not only escape with his life but come out of it all looking quite heroic (if only Dorothy would see that!)


Full of thrills, tension and laughs in equal amounts, it's a fun read, which, despite the danger that Tom frequently finds himself in and the high body count among his adversaries, doesn't take itself too seriously. For me, it's the kind of escapism I need right now. It is possible to jump into the series at this point, as Tom makes great efforts to explain the back-story of his highly improbably adventures as he goes along, but I think it's best to start at the beginning with book one - The Truth About Archie and Pye 


If you want to learn more about Jonathan Pinnock and the origins of the series see our interview with him here



Thursday, 1 April 2021

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

A holiday is an unusual, if not unheard of, thing for Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall, but his new American employer is back in the US for a few weeks, and Stevens is off on a trip to the West Country, to see the sights and visit a former colleague. Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, was formerly housekeeper at Darlington and Stevens hopes to be able to persuade her to return. His reasons are solid and practical, citing the unavailability of staff in the modern post-war world of the 50s, but hidden away he holds more personal, sentimental ones.

As he travels the quiet roads of 1950s England, Stevens reminiscences about the inter-war glory years, when Lord Darlington was heavily involved in European affairs, and the house filled with people of power and influence, ponders on what makes a 'great' butler and the meaning of dignity, and just occasionally lets his imperturbable butler's mask slip enough to let us glimpse the man behind - the emotions he's bottled away, the life and love he could have had if not for his belief that duty overrides all.

I first read The Remains of the Day sometime in the early 90s shortly after it won the Booker prize; I loved it then, and it was a pleasure to revisit it, though I think my feeling about Stevens have changed. Then I felt his life had been totally wasted, and that it was his own fault - his loyalty given to a man who never deserved it, the love of his life lost through his stubborn pride and 'dignity'. Now I'm inclined to judge Stevens less harshly; even feel sorry for him. Born and bred into the profession of butler, he follows his father's footsteps, and I feel there's little else he could have done. He copies the example set for him - believing that a butler should be ever-present, constantly at his employers beck and call, putting their needs above his own, never breathing a word of his own personal troubles. His aim is to be a perfect cog in a machine - in another life I could imagine him as the perfect Soviet factory worker putting tractor production and state quotas above personal feelings. 

And like that factory worker, Stevens has put total faith in his employer. His sole aim in life was to be the best butler possible. He didn't consider himself informed enough to have an opinion on anything outside this, particularly on the wider poltical issues of the day, but unquestioningly left that to his 'betters', such as Lord Darlington. Such loyalty has turned out to be misplaced (in the light of later events Lord Darlington is labelled as a Nazi sympathiser), and Stevens now finds himself adrift, unsure of how he should have behaved, and uncertain of what life now holds for him.


The Remains of the Day is a quietly moving story of a life spent in serving others, often at the loss of personal happiness, but ultimately I feel it's one of hopefulness as we leave Stevens with his professional brave face on, looking forward to to the future. 

Friday, 26 March 2021

Future Perfect by Felicia Yap


 When a model is killed and several high-profile guests injured at a prestigious Manhattan fashion event showcasing the work of designer Alexander King, the race is on to catch the perpetrator before they can strike again - at a second show due to take place in London.

Police Commisioner Christian Verger has other worries on his mind though - his fiancee, Viola, has left after an argument, and his i-predict horoscope app is warning that he has 99.74% chance of dying that day. Maybe if he can catch the killer, he'll reduce those odds?  Meanwhile, unknown to Christian, Viola is working on hunting the bomber too, using a piece of software she's been developing to identify potential criminals - unfortunately the program points its finger firmly at Alexander King's close associates. 

Set in the not-too-distant future, Future Perfect is a cleverly-plotted who-dunnit, with flashbacks to the troubled life of a teenager in Montana interleaving with the current day police hunt. 

The flashback sequences work really well. They tell the backstory of one of the main characters, without stating which one, and, of course, lead the reader to try to guess who it is and how their story fits with the attack on King.

It wasn't as futuristic as I'd imagined it would be (I'd half-expected something closer to Minority Report) so although set in 2030 it's nearer to the crime sector of genre fiction than it is to sci-fi.  In many ways I found the story-telling reminiscent of a classic detective novel in which the crime is solved by interviewing suspects, and spotting the weak link in their account of their actions, rather than relying on cyber ware. There are various tech-y advances - bird-shaped delivery drones (rather like mechanized versions of Harry Potter's owl postal service), Viola's criminal-catching software, the i-predict horoscope app which foretells the day's events with uncanny accuracy - but these don't take over the story.





Wednesday, 17 March 2021

The Kitchen Without Borders: recipes and stories from refugee and immigrant chefs by the Eat Offbeat chefs


 It's a while since I've reviewed a cookery book but I saw this being talked about on Twitter and decided it was something special. It brings together 70 recipes from around the world, but more importantly it introduces us to the fourteen chefs behind these dishes - their backgrounds, their stories of 'coming to America', the food that reminds them of home. Originally from places as far apart as South America and Africa, through the Middle East to Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, all of them have found a new home in New York, and a new family in the kitchens of Eat Offbeat catering company.

Sparked initially by a desire to recreate the hummus made by their Syrian grandmother, siblings Manal and Wissam Kahi founded Eat Offbeat in 2015, from the start having a mission to introduce New Yorkers to quality food from around the world, and, perhaps more importantly, to offer quality jobs for refugees and immigrants eager to share a taste of their homeland. For the chefs, cooking their favourite meals is a bond with home and family. To the diner, it's a way to experience other culinary traditions, and to see 'incomers' as more than statistics.

The recipes start with appetizers and dips, and follow through salads and soups, grain dishes, both vegetarian and meat main courses to desserts and drinks - and everything is mouth-watering. The instructions are clear and look easy to follow, photographs of the finished dishes are so tempting, and I've already book-marked a selection to try - salads of cucumber and tomato with lemon-sumac or lime-mint dressings; Chef Bashir's Chicken Karahi from Afghanistan, which stews the meat in turmeric, garlic and tomato sauce; Chef Mariama's mustard and lemon marinated Chicken Cilantro from Senegal; or maybe Chef Hector's recipe from Venezuela for Hallacas tamales stuffed with pork and beef (though the banana leaf wrapping may have to be replaced by rather prozaic aluminium foil), and to round off a meal either (or both) of the recipes for Baklava, one from Iraq, one from Iran.

For most of the recipes the ingredients are familiar - as in Riz Gras, a Guinean dish of rice, chicken, cabbage and carrots, or Sri Lankan Kowa Varrai, a dish of coconut and cabbage to be served alongside spicy curries - it's just the different combinations of vegetables, or additions of spices, which turn them into something extraordinary. Some of the spices and flavourings may be a little unusual, but are probably available from a large supermarket or specialist shop (or failing that, there are suggestions of where to buy them on-line). And, if like me you're often adrift with the US method of measuring ingredients there's a handy conversion table at the back of the book. 




From May 15, 2020, to May 15, 2021, (including any preordered copies that ship during this period), Workman Publishing will donate 2% of the cover price for every copy of The Kitchen without Borders cookbook sold in the United States and its territories, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and European Union member states, to the IRC, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict, with a minimum contribution of $25,000 USD. For more information, visit rescue.org/cookbookand https: //www.workman.com/kwob. No portion of the purchase price is tax-deductible. For additional information about the IRC, see rescue.org.







Friday, 12 March 2021

Redder Days by Sue Rainsford

At some unspecified time (presumably) in the future, twins Anna and Adam live in the remains of the commune where they were brought up. Their mother left when she felt they were old enough to survive without her, and the other commune members have slipped away over the years. The twins' only companion is Koan, once the leader of the group holding a fierce control over the lives of everyone, but now much diminished, physically and mentally, by age. 

The twins' lives follow a pattern of rituals, preparing for an expected cataclysmic end of the world, quenching the fires that burn from an underground mine, and keeping the area free from people and animals who show signs of the 'redness'. When former commune-members return, it becomes apparent that what the twins have been brain-washed into believing might not be true ... 


Redder Days is a disturbing, dystopian novel, one in which a virulent disease is sweeping the world, endangering humanity, while society as we know it appears to have completely collapsed to be replaced by small communes, subject to their own rules. Against this backdrop, Sue Rainsford looks at at the undue influence one man can have over a group of willing followers, and how he manipulates and abuses his power. 

The writing is dark, disturbing, uncomfortable with the story unfolding through a number of first-person narratives (not all reliable) set in different time-frames. This makes things a little difficult to follow at first. The reader is dropped straight into this strange world with no explanation, and I feel that having read it once, I'd like to go back, specifically to the early chapters, as I think I missed a lot of nuances. A lot is left for the reader to decide for themselves, particularly about the motivation of characters - for example how much did Koan deliberately mislead others? Was he acting maliciously or was he just mistaken?  It's certainly a book which left me intrigued, and wanting to read more by the author.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex


 
Far out to sea off the Cornish coast, the Maiden lighthouse rises 50 metres above the waves; a tribute to Victorian engineering, and home to three men - principal keeper, Arthur Black, assistant keeper Bill Walker, and relative new-comer the supernumerary assistant Vince Bourne.

In December 1972 those men disappeared. The entrance door was bolted from the inside. The clocks stopped at quarter to nine. The table laid for two places. Investigators from Trident House can find no explanation for the event.

Twenty years later, Dan Sharp, a writer of maritime adventure novels, approaches the women left behind. Arthur's wife Helen has tried to accept that the men must have been washed out to sea by a freak wave - the most logical of the various explanations, she believes. Jenny, Bill's wife, refuses to believe any of the theories she's heard, insisting that somehow the men must still be alive. Younger than the other women, Vince's girlfriend Michelle is the only one who's tried to move on, marrying and having children with a man who'll never quite compare to Vince. Talking to Sharp brings back memories the women would rather forget, but maybe this way the past can eventually be laid to rest.

Inspired by the disappearance of three keepers from Scottish lighthouse in 1900, this stunning novel from Emma Stonex is a classic closed-room mystery, and an exploration of the lives of keepers and their wives -  love that keeps them together, the independent temperament needed by both, the strains that long separations put on a relationship. And on almost every page, there's the sea - shimmering on a summer's day, raging in storms, calm under a full moon - and the Maiden lighthouse, almost a character in herself, standing firm through the worst weather, forming a third party in any relationship, and through loneliness and monotony ultimately twisting the men's minds. 

It is a brilliant book, which had me engrossed from the first page! It has everything I want from a mystery - characters that feel like real people, lots of atmosphere, a satisfying ending, neither too prosaic nor too supernatural. 
The Maiden has cast her spell over me too. There's something quite extraordinary about a man-made structure standing alone at sea. A remote island has a certain fascination but with a tower lighthouse there's no surrounding ground - the tower sits solitary above the waves. I've seen them plenty of times off the coast but never really thought about them. Now Emma Stonex has really sparked something in me - a desire to run away to a lighthouse, to feel the waves crash over it and the building shake, but still but sheltered from the elements - that's excellent writing!




c



Monday, 1 March 2021

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

 



Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were all students at the rather 'select' Hailsham school. Raised there from early childhood, their lives were free from outside influences and stress; in many ways it was an idyllic time. Now in her early thirties, Kathy reminisces about their years together, at Hailsham and afterwards, and the gradual realisation that their lives, and deaths, have been planned out for them.

This must be the fourth or fifth time I've read Never Let Me Go and it never fails to pull me in, to enfold me in its parallel world; one which seems so normal on the surface but is dark and dystopian underneath. 

At different times, it strikes me in different ways. Sometimes it's a coming of age tale, A fairly normal one of childhood tiffs and squabbles, of 'queen bee' Ruth who must be humoured else she'll make everyone's lives a misery, of the obvious differences of being brought up in an institution, even if it's one as supportive as Hailsham, Sometimes, it's far more sinister - a chilling tale of  human clones being bred to become organ donors. Or it can be nostalgic for the past, in which Hailsham represents a more caring world which no longer exists.

However it strikes me, Kathy's narrative plays out carefully, hinting at, but never outright declaring, the fate which awaits her, Ruth, Tommy and their classmates. Expressions such as 'donations' or 'completion' are bandied about as if both the children and the reader know what they fully entail; then the full enormity is revealed, and it's not quite a surprise, just a dreadful acknowledgement of what we'd suspected, but ignored, all along. That implicit acceptance leads to a far more chilling ending than if Kathy had raged against her circumstances throughout.