kittiwake: (Default)
First published in 1980, "Leaden Wings" is the story of the attempts by the Ministry of Heavy Industry to modernise Chinese factories. Zhang Jie was divorced when she wrote this novel, and as well as being a satire on Chinese industry, her female characters show the contradictions between being able to get good jobs and rise to high political rank, while their personal lives are constrained by the remnants of the feudal social system. This theme ties in very nicely with "The Good Woman of China", which I read recently.

The female characters are mostly rather negative, so Virago's afterward (which seems to be apologising for publishing it) is at pains to explain that Chinese women face different challenges from Western women. I preferred the other introduction, written by the translator Gladys Yang, who was brought up in in China, was the first undergraduate ever to study Chinese at Oxford, married a Chinese man and was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, so she really understood what the author was trying to convey.
kittiwake: (stormclouds)
Oxford academic Patrick Grant sees a retired head-mistress fall to her death from the Acropolis, and when her closest friend dies in a fall down steps at the British Museum, he decides to investigate.

I wasn't that impressed by the detective, who is one of those people who seem to trip over corpses wherever they go.
kittiwake: (travel)
I'm very glad that I wasn't born a Chinese woman during the 20th century, since the women Xinran interviewed for her radio show seemed to have uniformly harrowing lives. My favourite chapter was about the children's home run by women who lost had their own children in the 1976 earthquake, with the story of the girl who died fourteen days after the earthquake being particularly traumatic. When I read the last chapter of the book, I was stunned that the villagers of Shouting Hill lived in such primitive conditions as late as 1996, but according to Xinran, they were the only women she spoke to who were actually happy.
kittiwake: (history)
Thomas Blades, a seventeenth-century English curate living in the North Downs, finds a portal to another world in the grandfather clock that he inherits from his father. He finds a landscape that matches the geography of the North Downs, but seems completely empty, without houses, roads or agriculture. There are humans there, but living in primitive conditions in underground burrow complexes, as the savage eight feet tall purple humanoids known as the Null are the top predator, hunting humans for meat and tearing them apart when they catch them. Blades rationalises the presence of the Null, saying that they must be biblical giants who never made it into Noah's Ark in our world

He resolves to help the humans fight back against the Null, with the help of seventeenth-century weaponry. Gradually the humans build an above ground society, helped by slaves from our world, who are kidnapped to order for their skills/
Blades becomes their Emperor, the Downs-Lord, but his many wives and children are jockeying for power and his is not the only portal into this world.

I hadn't heard of this author before selecting this book for a ReadItSwapIt exchange, but I enjoyed it and will try to get hold of the sequels. I prefer alternate history stories that don't include fantasy elements, and "Downs-Lord Dawn" just made it, as the Null seemed more like aliens or the result of alternate evolution than like fantasy creatures.
kittiwake: (mythology)
My role is to see, describe and, now, write about what I saw. Someone or something is using me to untangle the tangled plot over whose direction I have as little influence as the pen has over the poets who wield it, or the man over the gods who manipulate him, or the knife over the murderer. A plot whose denouement lies in your hands, Jorge.

Or should I say "in your tail".


When an annual Edgar Allen Poe conference is suddenly transferred to Buenos Aires, Vogelstein is thrilled that is is close enough for him to attend. Looking forward to seeing the talks by some of the Poe experts who are known to hate each other, he is thrilled to be introduced to his literary hero, Jorge Luis Borges, some of whose stories he has translated into Portuguese for publication in a magazine.

When one of the Poe experts is murdered and Vogelstein finds the body, he and Borges become involved in the investigation, but is this highly amusing story all that it seems?
kittiwake: (history)
Think of that quarter-deck. At the forward end, looking across the waist to the forecastle, there was only an open rail. That is where your Horatio stood. Think of him there, dressed impeccably, full uniform, cocked hat, silk stockings, buckled shoes, Immaculate. Unoccupied, fully aware of his danger, carnage all around him. Like a rock, Charles, like a rock. That is the way, that is the way forward, Horatio is your lifeline, stay with him, he will get you out and about. Join the Nelson Club, there must be one - in London there is a club for everything under the sun. I'll get my secretary to find the address.

As a child Charles Cleasby became interested in Lord Nelson, encouraged by having a schoolteacher who was a Nelson buff, but his interest faded during his teens. When he had a nervous breakdown at university and refused to leave his room at all, his psychiatrist suggested that he take up his hobby again, as a way of rekindling his interest in life, but unfortunately his hobby developed into an all-consuming interest, and Charles started to see himself as Nelson's other half.

He never went back to university or got a job, and at the age of fifty he is a virtual recluse living in the house he inherited from his father, and his only social life is attending the twice weekly meetings of the Nelson Club in Bloomsbury. He keeps a large collection of Nelson memorabilia in his basement, where he also re-enacts all of Nelson's battles on their anniversaries, even if that means getting up before dawn to start the battle on schedule, moving his model ships across the glass table in the basement at the exact time they did so in the real battle.

When he employs a secretary to come in twice a week to help him with the biography of Nelson that he is writing, he is perturbed by her wilfulness in seeing Nelson as a vain man, interested in money and honours, who cares nothing for the lives of his men, rather than as the patriotic hero revered by Charles as a bright angel. What makes things worse is that he has just reached a very difficult point of the book, when he has to decide how to approach the events in Naples in June 1799 which may not show Nelson in a good light at all. I seem to remember reading something else in which the exact meaning of the word embark is vital.
kittiwake: (Default)
Sometimes we walked too close together, sometimes too obviously far apart. We walked in circles - then took a train, straight through the suburbs, out, away from Tokyo, away from the wires that crossed the skies and kept the people netted to the streets.

Anna is a young British woman who spends a year working as an English teacher in a Japanese school. Her supervisor, Moriya sensei, monopolises her time, preventing her from making other friends and making her feel very uncomfortable.

The book's rather odd title comes from a quotation from Stevie Smith about writing stories about real people, rather than making a joke of the peculiarities of foreigners.
kittiwake: (mythology)
Reprieve. Into the Minotaur's life there occasionally comes a reprieve from the inevitable loneliness, relentless and exhausting, that is endured by those who live forever. These moments of reprieve are dangerous times, though. When looking out at eternity, it's easy to lose sight of the past, to repeat the same mistakes. If not careful the Minotaur can be seduced by a turn of luck - can be blinded, so to speak. In these sweet and rare moods, he's prone to acting hastily.

M is the Minotaur who lived in the labyrinth of Knossos all those years ago, who came to an arrangement with Theseus and slipped out of the back exit leaving the Greek hero to claim that he had killed him.

Five thousand years later he is a chef in a grill restaurant in North Carolina, having realised a long time ago that cookery skills will always be needed and don't change too much over the centuries. In this version of our world people are aware that the old immortals are still hanging around, so although they may be shocked to see a man with a bull's head, no-one rings the newspapers and M isn't likely to end up in a freak show.

Unfortunately for M, his bull's head makes him top-heavy and he is always ripping things accidentally with his horns. Speech is also hard for him, so he doesn't like talking and finds it difficult to connect with his neighbours and his colleagues at the restaurant.
kittiwake: (history)
A murder mystery set in New York in 1909, during Sigmund Freud's only visit to America. The mystery was interesting, as were the conspiracy against Freud and the New York politics, but I never actually felt that I knew any of the characters well enough to care what happened to them.
kittiwake: (history)
Newspapers went wild with theories. No murderer would have dumped a body in such a dress, at such a location, without some reason. One reporter saw it pointing at the Shanghai Music Institute, located across the street opposite the flower bed. One deemed it a political case, a protest against the reversal of values in socialist China, for the mandarin dress, once condemned as a sign of capitalist decadence, had become popular again. A tabloid magazine went further, speculating that the murder had been orchestrated by a fashion industry tycoon. Ironically, one result of the media coverage was that several stores immediately displayed new lines of mandarin dresses in their windows.

"Red Mandarin Dress" is set in the 1990s, at a time when China is in transition, undergoing rapid social and economic change. The Big Bucks are making obscene amounts of money while the poor are getting poorer, corruption is rife and the police can no longer rely on neighbourhood committee membersknowing every detail of the lives of people living in their areas.

When a young woman clad only in a red mandarin dress is found dead by a main road in Shanghai, followed a week later by the discovery of a second body in an equally prominent spot, there is no way for the authorities to hush it up even though their position has always been that there are no serial killers in China. As psychology was frowned on until recently, the police are forced to begin by discussing the serial killers they have read about in Western novels, before managing to get their hands on some psychology text books.

Chief Inspector Chen, who is a poet as well as a policeman, is off work for a few weeks doing a literature course, leaving Detective Yu in charge when their team is handed the case after the second murder, but he is soon drawn into the case. Both Chen's girlfriend White Flower and Yu's wife Peiqin help out unofficially, with White Flower researching Mandarin dresses while Peiqin finds out about the lives of the 'three-accompanying girls' (a euphemism for prostitutes) via her contacts in the restaurant trade.

It makes a nice change to read a murder-mystery set in such a different culture.
kittiwake: (mythology)
Despite the revolting ugliness of each of its component parts, viewed as a whole the city looked extremely beautiful, but the source of this beauty was beyond all understanding. That's always the way with Russia, thought Maria, as she ran her hands up and down the cold steel - when you see it from afar, it's so beautiful it's enough to make you cry, but when you take a closer look, you just want to puke.

What is real? Is it Pyotr's experiences as an intellectual masquerading as an officer in the Red Army just after the Russian revolution? Or is he really an amnesiac patient in a mental hospital after the fall of communism, who can’t cope with the stresses of the new regime? Or is nothing real, as Chapaev and the Black Baron claim? Characters and events from one reality bleed into another, the stories of Pyotr's fellow patients fit into the jigsaw somehow, and although you may think you have it all sorted out in your mind, the last words of the book may make you think again.

I had never heard of this author before picking this book up for 30p in a library sale, but after reading this one I will be definitely be adding his other books to my wish list. When I looked Victor Pelevin up, I discovered that Chapaev is a revolutionary folk-hero, and that he and his comrades Anka and Petka are the subjects of numerous Russian jokes. I've just lent "The Clay Machine-Gun" to my father who is interested in Buddhism, and used to learn Russian at evening classes.

'My dear Pyotr', said the Baron, 'there are quite incredible numbers of invisible elephants wandering around us all the time, please take my word for it. They are more common in Russian than crows.'
kittiwake: (Default)
Mickey had been made from a craft kit called 'Sew your own Charlie Chimp the gangster' given to Kate by an auntie. Charlie had languished along with all of Kate's other soft toys throughout most of her childhood, but when she'd started up the detective agency last year she thought he looked the part. Charlie Chimp was no good though. Instead he became Mickey the Monkey. Kate would run through the agenda with him each morning and he always travelled with her in the canvas army surplus bag. The waitress brought the order. Kate ate the burger and perused the first Beano of the new year, while Mickey kept a steady eye on some suspicious teenagers below.

A ten-year-old detective haunts the Green Oaks shopping centre, looking for suspicious behaviour and hoping to foil a bank raid. Twenty years after her mysterious disappearance she seems to be haunting the shopping centre again, when security guard Kurt sees her ghost on the security cameras.

It's funny and sad in turns, and the mystery at the heart of the book is gripping. I'm not surprised that it won the Costa first novel award, as I couldn't put it down until I found out what happened to Kate all those years ago.
kittiwake: (travel)
I picked this Canadian novel up sometime last year, but didn’t get round to reading it before my holiday last autumn. It's the story of a boy growing up in an isolated part of Manitoba in the 1950, living with his mother and younger cousin. His father is rarely at home as he spends most of the year on trips to survey and map the interior of Canada. Noah spends his summers staying with his friend Pelly in the small village of Quill about 90 miles from his home and this part of the story was extremely enjoyable.

The part set in Toronto wasn't so interesting, and the story just seemed to stop dead rather than being finished properly. Why go on so much about Mina's obsession with Noah's Ark when that thread of the story goes precisely nowhere?
kittiwake: (travel)
Initially the story seems like a replay of the historical race to the South Pole, with the 'agreed furthest point from civilisation' replacing the pole as the objective of the British and Scandanavian teams, but at certain moments things didn't seem quite right.

It reminded me of watching "Fight Club" in a way, as I knew something was wrong, but wasn't sure what, although in this book you don't have to wait right until the end to find out what is happening.
kittiwake: (Default)
What I really liked about the short stories in this collection, is that the author doesn’t give too much away at first. Reading the first few pages you are unsure where and when the story is set, but you gradually realise what is going on as the story progresses. It started exceedingly well with the story "Singing My Sister Down", and carried on in the same vein.

Loved it! Definitely recommended to anyone who likes short stories that make you think.
kittiwake: (stormclouds)
A struggling author called Viktor becomes the proud owner of a depressive king penguin called Misha when the zoo in Kiev gives away the animals it can no longer afford to feed. A year later, he takes what seems initially like a simple job writing obituaries ahead of need for a Kiev newspaper, and finds himself and his penguin entangled in some rather sinister goings on.

This black comedy set in the post-communist Ukraine is a short tale full of humour and pathos. I loved the thought of Misha the penguin being asked to attend funerals to add a bit of class!
kittiwake: (history)
I first noticed this book soon after it was published, due to the cover picture which is based on the cover of a railway timetable for the newly opened Metropolitan underground line.

Set in 1864, just a year after the opening of London's first underground line, the story starts with the discovery of a young woman's body in a second-class carriage. The crime is investigated by Inspector Decimus Webb, who is seen as eccentric by his fellow policemen because he rides a newfangled boneshaker bicycle, but the story is seen from several points of view, not just that of the investigating officers. I liked the setting, but some of the characters didn't ring true, and the policemen didn't seem to do much detecting.
kittiwake: (travel)
"The are two types of comedian," states Carlton in the preface to his dissertation, "both deriving from the circus., which I shall call the White Face and the Red Nose. Almost all comedians fall into one or the other of these two simple archetypes. In the circus, the White Face is the controlling clown with the deathly pale masklike face who never takes a pie; the Red Nose is the subversive clown with the yellow and red makeup who takes all the pies and the pratfalls and the buckets of water and the banana skins. The White Face represents the mind, reminding humanity of the constant mocking presence of death; the Red Nose represents the body, reminding mankind of its constant embarrassing vulgarities.

Alex Muscroft and Lewis Ashby are a comedy double-act working the outer reaches of the solar system, known as the Road to Mars. They are accompanied by their robot Carlton, who is writing a thesis called De Rerum Comoedia (Concerning Comedy), although he doesn’t understand irony or what makes a joke funny. After Alex's big mouth blows their chances of a long engagement on a solar cruise liner, and leads to the cancellation of all the other gigs they had booked, they decide to head straight for the bright lights of Mars, but find themselves caught up in a some rather dangerous events.
kittiwake: (stormclouds)
Only 100 pages long, this is a tale of mystery and danger on the high seas. After the sinking of the ship Glen Carrig, two boats carrying her surviving crew and passengers find themselves in dire straits. Attacked by monstrous devil-fish and unseen dangers lurking in the darkness, as well as the expected dangers of storms and running out of food and drinking water, they have only their own ingenuity and the experience of the cool-headed bo'sun to bring them to safety.

I liked it a lot, and my book contains four novels by this author so I have three more to look forward to.
kittiwake: (mythology)
This was quite an interesting cyberpunk story, but was spoilt by something that irritated me intensely once I noticed it. For some reason, the author italicises lots and lots of words, not just for emphasis but names of companies, tv shows, books and newspapers, and foreign words too (including French, Italian and Japanese). But he's inconsistent; not all company names are italicised (for some reason WeGuard is but CySat isn't) and not all foreign words, while some perfectly ordinary English words which happen to be of foreign origin, such as 'via', are italicised too.

There is another book by this author on my TBR shelf, and I have just flicked through it. He still seems to be fond of italics, but he doesn't go quite so over the top with them in '9Tail Fox'.

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June 2012

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