“The Winter Queen” by Boris Akunin


The Winter Queen

Boris Akunin is the pen-name of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, who was born in Tbilisi but has spent most of his life in Moscow.

This is the first Erast Pietrovich Fandorin mystery. The action is set in 1876. Erast is very young and reckless orphan, a novice in Criminal Investigation Department, still wet behind the ears. 

When a talented student from a wealthy family shot himself in broad daylight in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens, a death in keeping with a craze for a dangerous game of “American Roulette”.

American Roulette…You take a revolver and put in one cartridge. It’s stupid, but exciting. A shame the Americans thought of it before we did.

Our hero is not satisfied that it is a simple suicide. He starts digging deeper and eventually stumbles upon a vast conspiracy. 

Erast gets himself into some dangerous situations where in a James Bond like way he is saved at the last minute. His investigations take him from Russia to London and back. In London he narrowly evades adding his corpse to the pollution of the Thames of London’s Docklands. The background detail is engaging but the plot is a little thin and gets a bit ludicrous in the second half of the book. I also found there were too many characters to follow the plot easily.

My rating 3 out of 5


Posted in 3 star review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Enter Wildthyme” by Paul Magrs

Enter Wildthyme

Enter Wildthyme

Humour and science fiction is a difficult act to pull off. Even Douglas Adams struggled after the first two Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. This book is a wacky story, Iris Wildthyme of the title is a time traveller whose mode of transport is a London #22 bus, which unlike the TARDIS of Dr Who fame is “smaller on the inside”. Doctor Who already used a London Bus to travel through space in “Planet of the Dead”(2009). Iris’s nemesis is a murmuring poet called Anthony Marvelle with a gun-toting poodle called Missy as a sidekick.  Marvelle steals Iris’s pinking shears which are able to cut through the Very Fabric of space and time (Very Fabric is capitalised in the text and seems very like a Terry Pratchett touch). Travelling through the galaxy there seem to be no scientific problems to be overcome and communication with alien species is undertaken without any explanation of how they are communicating in English.

Much of the action centres around Darlington: “Darlington’s the entire gateway to the entire multiverse, believe it or not. “I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief. Simon who has been given a Darlington bookshop is a character like Arthur Dent or Rory in Dr Who, a rather clueless earthling taken along for the ride.

Oh, and there is a sentient vending machine called Barbra. I think maybe the author has had too much cheese too close to bedtime or something.

My rating 2.5 out of 5

Posted in 2.5 star review, time travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down” by Jeff Kinney


If you are familiar with the Wimpy Kid books, Greg needs no introduction,  this is more of the same formula, Greg a middle school slacker wants to sit around playing video games but his parents have other ideas for him. This is the eleventh book in the series, Greg like Bart Simpson doesn’t age. The timing is set around Halloween which for Greg means candy and trying to get an invite to the cool girl’s Halloween Party. As usual things don’t work out as Greg wants. To get to the party, he has to join the school band, but he has no musical talent and after getting a French Horn he can’t play his parents insist he persevere. The book also sees Greg and his long suffering sidekick Rowley attempt to make a horror movie with Gummy Worms and a shower scene. It is a quick easy read with some truly funny moments.


ZOO-Wee Mama!

My rating 4 out of 5

Posted in 4 star review, Bande Dessinée, children's Literature | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Where’s my Jetpack?” by Daniel H Wilson

For a while this was my chosen reading matter for Reading in the Smallest Room.


Where’s My Jetpack? with Matchbox Freeway Flyer


Daniel Wilson looks at all the gadgets and suchlike promised in science fiction books and films. Stuff like ray-guns, flying cars and underwater hotels. The tone is light-hearted, sometimes the humour seems a little forced.

There are thirty or so chapters each exploring a different item.



A chapter was usually sufficient to distract me from my early morning ablutions. There are illustrations by Richard Horne for each chapter in black, white and blue.


The book published in 2007, already seems a little dated as some of the technologies like self steering cars, have made great advances in the past decade. Also, in architecture, the Burj Khalifa has sailed past Taipei 101 as the world’s tallest skyscraper.

I found the book nether sufficiently serious nor sufficiently humorous for my taste. It was at best mildly entertaining.

My rating 3 out of 5 (and feeling that maybe a little generous)

Posted in 3 star review, non-fiction, Science Fiction, Toilet reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Encylopaediae as raw material for art fun

Does anyone still use print encyclopaediae? There seem to be a lot of people throwing them out. I picked up some volumes of a 1955 Soviet Encyclopaedia for a lari (approx 41 cents)  a piece.

My grandchildren Lazare (2) and Elene (4) like playing with paint. So I thought I’d see what would happen if I gave them encyclopaedia to paint on instead of the usual paper. I’d already taken out some maps and illustrations, that I wanted to keep.


three volumes some paint and some water


Lazare and Elene get to work on some approved vandalism


Elene gives the illustrated woman a red dress


abstract expressionism over a map


a touch of yellow to some bananas in Guatemala


Elene’s pontillism

This seems a little like the wanton destruction of books to my inner librarian, but it kept the children amused for a couple of hours.

On Pinterest, there are other ideas of alternative uses for old encyclopaediae: Uses of Old Encylopaediae

Posted in Art Books, book related stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Nemesis” by Isaac Asimov

Published three years before the death of one of the great masters of sci-fi in 1989, “Nemesis” is a stand alone novel. Unusually for Asimov there is a strong central female character in the shape of Marlene, a plain but highly intelligent teen, who is very perceptive about what others are thinking. Her character is developped as the story progresses.

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

The Nemesis of the title is a Dwarf Red Star which is heading towards the Solar System. It hadn’t been detected earlier because it wasn’t very bright. The setting is  the twenty-third century, Earth is over crowded and 1% of humans have left for self-sustaining orbital settlements. Most of these settlements orbit various asteroids but one, Rotor has left the Solar System with a secret hyperspatial drive, to lock into an orbit around Erythro, a moon orbiting a gas giant orbiting Nemesis. Marlene is on Rotor but feels the attraction of Erythro, where the only life detected is on the tiny bacterial scale (erythryotes), enough to give the moon a breathable atmosphere but seemingly not enough to present a threat to the humans. Rotor is a white separatist’s dream being –

“Snow White,” said Fisher. “I never saw one black person there.”

Earth’s hope is in a prototype ship theoretically capable of superliminal travel, on board a crew of five volunteers including Marlene’s father.

Asimov has a science background and a career of prolific publishing. The physics and biology necessary in the story is presented in realistic detail, even if, for example, superluminal travel proves impossible in the future.

I read a lot of Asimov as a teen and it was interesting reading him again after so long. The pacing of the novel is good, encouraging page turning although the ending is a little predictable. I have seen many unfavourable reviews of this novel but I found it good, I found the characters interesting especially Marlene and the story entertained me.

My rating 4 out of 5

Posted in 4 star review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

No books finished in May

It has been a long time since I failed to finish a single book in a month. What has happened is I do most of my reading on the metro and whilst I’m still making many metro journeys, I’ve been distracted by a game on my phone. I used to look disdainfully at the other travellers on their phones, the digital generation addicted to their black mirrors.

The game I have been caught up in is 2048 a number puzzle game, many of you may know. You pair number tiles with the objective of reaching 2048 (2+2=4, 4+4=8….1028+1028=2048). I have managed to reach the goal of 2048 on 4 occasions, so now the game has less hold over me and I’m doing more reading again.

you win

There are a few books I’m “Currently Reading”. I expect to finish Isaac Asimov’s “Nemesis” very soon, there is also “Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.” which has short chapters on different technology that has yet to arrive, a great read for the smallest room. On my phone I started Pickwick Papers many months ago and more recently War and Peace, I’m just 3% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, so don’t expect a review anytime soon. There are also a few books on my shelves waiting to be read.

I expect to be reviewing a few books in June.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak


The Forty Rules of Love

Like In Kate Mosse’s “Labyrinth” here we have two parallel narratives—one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century. But the thirteenth century thread is set in Konya not Carcassonne. In the present we have Ella, an unfulfilled Jewish housewife in Northampton, Massachussetts, who is working part time for a literary agency. She is given a manuscript to read “Sweet Blasphemy“, where we find our 13th century narrative. “Sweet Blasphemy” is about the relationship between the famous poet, Rumi and the Sufi Dervish, Shams of Tabriz.

The contemporary story is told through Ella, who starts an intimate correspondence with the writer, Aziz Z. Zahara, a sufi, strangely of Scottish origin.

Like with Labyrinth, I found the 13th century narrative more compelling and almost resented, when it jumped to the present parallel narrative. Shafak tells the story of Rumi and Shams through many different narrators: Rumi’s family who are not happy with the arrival of Shams, and various townsfolk affected by Shams, the harlot, the beggar, the drunk, the zealot etc…

Shams is like a Paulo Coelho character bringing wisdom and forcing changes upon those around him especially his host, Rumi. Shams has a strong uncompromising personality, causing many to hate him. There is a Christ like dimension to Shams, he has seen his days are limited and wants to impart his wisdom, these forty rules of love, before his inevitable end. There is a conflict between Sufism, a religion of the heart and the strict sharia laws of the head. Shams meeting the zealots is like Jesus meeting the Pharisees.

It is an engaging and entertaining book. There are many parallels between the religious conflicts of thirteenth century Turkey and our own time.

My rating 4.5 out of 5

Posted in 4.5 star review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Revival” by Stephen King



Stephen King has written over 50 novels, of which maybe I’ve read half, he is a consummate storyteller. This story builds slowly, starting as a contemporary drama type book that creates complex characters, looks at themes of religion and family, and builds up an interesting three-dimensional portrait of a small community. But as the novel moves along, it becomes darker and creepier, you know you can trust King to ratchet up the tension.

The story is set over a long time period stretching from the sixties to the 2010s. Our protagonist, Jamie begins the tale as a young boy meeting a new young pastor in his district the Reverend Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is obsessed with electrical experimentation and shows Jamie a model of Jesus seemingly magically walking on the water.

Kids … Electricity is one of God’s doorways to the infinite.”

After a horrifying motor accident, Jacobs delivers  a particularly terrible sermon and leaves town. Many years later Jamie is a rhythm guitarist in his mid thirties addicted to heroin, he runs into Jacobs at a county fair with a sideshow making “Portraits in Lightning”. Jacobs cures Jamie of his addiction using what he terms his “secret electricity”. But Jamie senses that “something happened“. Jamie is cynical and researches into what happened to those Pastor Jacobs cured of various conditions using his “secret electricity”. He finds some unsettling after effects and worries about what might be Pastor Jacobs ultimate goal.

King is also looking at the fear of aging, he himself is long past the double nickel of dread.

“The three great ages of the Great American Male -youth, middle age and you look fuckin’ terrific.”

“I think for most people, life’s deceptive deliriums begin to fall away after fifty. The days speed up, the aches multiply and your gait slows down…”

The book’s electrical undercurrent reminds me of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Stephen King’s earlier novel “The Tommyknockers”. Strangely, I picture in my mind the character of Rev Jacobs as the Doctor Who persona played by Matt Smith.

My rating 4 out of 5

Posted in 4 star review | Leave a comment

“Fugitive Pieces” by Anne Michaels

These Canadian authors have a poetic way with words: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and now Anne Michaels…


Fugitive Pieces

This is the story of Jakob Beer, a seven year old Jewish boy in the Polish town of Biskupin, the site of an ancient Iron Age fort. The Nazis have invaded Poland and Jakob’s parents have been killed, his precious sister, Bella, has disappeared and Jakob has survived only by hiding behind a wall. He is  smuggled out of Poland by a Greek archaeologist/geologist named Athos, who had been working on the site. Athos takes young Jakob to the Greek island of Zakynthos, where he remains hidden throughout the war.

Athos is a learned man and teaches Jakob in a mix of Greek and English. Athos’s library contains volumes of Linnaeus, Darwin and Mendeleev alongside Dante, Aeschylus and Solomos. After the war the pair emigrate to Toronto, where Jakob eventually becomes a poet. The story begins with him attempting to write his memoirs, not for our benefit but for his own. The fugitive pieces are fragments of his own memories pieced together with what he later learnt.

There are two rules for walking in Greece that Athos taught me as we climbed a hill and left Kyllini behind. Never follow a goat, you’ll end up at the edge of a cliff. Always follow a mule, you’ll arrive at a village by nightfall.

Over halfway through the book, the narration is taken up by Ben, whose parents survived the Holocaust but are deeply traumatised. When their house in Toronto is threatened with flooding and the neighbours bang on their door, they don’t answer. Ben is their third child but just named “Ben”, the Hebrew for “son”, not even Benjamin, fearing he maybe lost like his elder siblings. Ben is an academic who admires the poet Jakob and becomes obsessed with his story.

The writing is often stunning. There are so many beautiful and deeply profound passages of prose in this novel.  Sometimes these passages appear like isolated magical islands, somehow adrift from the main narrative.

My rating 4 out of 5

Posted in 4 star review | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments