Short story collections have hit the Big Time during the last two/three years. Suddenly publishers are presenting us with a wide choice.

Ken Liu has won numerous awards for his work in the field of SF – no surprises here . He is a Chinese-born American science-fiction and fantasy writer and translator of science fiction and literary stories from Chinese into English. He gives us an Asian perspective and setting in many of his stories, and I enjoyed that. It makes a refreshing change from the usual fare.

Liu’s dazzling stories are highly original. He offers views into the far future which – due to his powerful imagination – are thought provoking and present alternate realities that I never even dreamed of! Despite his wide ranging scenarios, the stories are often deeply human, and frequently emotionally moving. The Paper Menagerie and Mono ne Aware affected me deeply.

The fact that he writes easily make his story collection a joy to read, but it’s not a collection to be zipped through. I found I needed an interval to digest each story before moving on to the next.

If you’ve never read him, I urge you to do so. Even if you don’t usually read short stories, do yourself a favour, and make a detour in his direction.



A WORD FOR LOVE – Emily Robbins





”A mesmerizing debut set in Syria on the cusp of the unrest, A Word for Love is the spare and exquisitely told story of a young American woman transformed by language, risk, war, and a startling new understanding of love.

It is said there are ninety-nine Arabic words for love. Bea, an American exchange student, has learned them all: in search of deep feeling, she travels to a Middle Eastern country known to hold the “The Astonishing Text,” an ancient, original manuscript of a famous Arabic love story that is said to move its best readers to tears. But once in this foreign country, Bea finds that instead of intensely reading Arabic she is entwined in her host family’s complicated lives—as they lock the doors, and whisper anxiously about impending revolution. And suddenly, instead of the ancient love story she sought, it is her daily witness of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet-like romance—between a housemaid and policeman of different cultural and political backgrounds—that astonishes her, changes her, and makes her weep. But as the country drifts toward explosive unrest, Bea wonders how many secrets she can keep, and how long she can fight for a romance that does not belong to her. Ultimately, in a striking twist, Bea’s own story begins to mirror that of “The Astonishing Text” that drew her there in the first place—not in the role of one of the lovers, as she might once have imagined, but as the character who lives to tell the story long after the lovers have gone.

With melodic meditation on culture, language, and familial devotion. Robbins delivers a powerful novel that questions what it means to love from afar, to be an outsider within a love story, and to take someone else’s passion and cradle it until it becomes your own. “



Initially I was intrigued to read a novel set in a modern Middle Eastern country with the conflict lurking as an ugly shadow in the background.

I was equally intrigued to have  a first-hand account of life, as a foreign American student, living with a Muslim family.  The background details of social attitudes and daily domestic life , from an almost solely female point of view, were unusual; obviously new to me, a non-Muslim living in a Westernised African country.

But this said, the tortoise pace of the story, the claustrophobic domestic atmosphere , (he home is virtually a prison for the females in the story) the minutiae of trivial domestic detail, began to bore me. The   cautious  progress of the love blossoming between Nisrine the maid in the household and the policeman, Adel, visible on a nearby roof was initially  scary – downright alarming, given the political activism of Baba, the head of the household, but it all gradually trickled away due to the slow pace of the narrative. No doubt my loss, but in the end I decided I didn’t care whether the lovers did or did not meet; or whether the American student Bea ever succeeded in prising the famed love poem text out of the university library.

I suppose maybe  Bea’s witness of the Adel/Nisrine romance, accompanied by Adel’s shower of poetry might be taken as a substitute for the famed un-available classical text, but again …  I simply lost interest.

The information about the formation of Arabic words, and the elegance of Arabic script was interesting . My Google search informed me that Emily Robbins did indeed spend time with an Arab family, as a foreign exchange  student. The novel has a bright ring of authenticity about it, no question.


I would like to hear from readers who have read and enjoyed the novel. For me it was a “DNF”  read .







I’ve spent a delightful afternoon renewing my acquaintance with the cast of characters who inhabit the 44 Scotland Street series.


There’s Bertie, about to turn seven, an important step for him. All he wants is a penknife as a birthday gift, but no, his domineering mother, Irene, buys him a non-gender specific super-hero action figure i.e. a doll (!) and a United Nations Peacekeeping Kit for children game . I thank my lucky stars the domineering Irene wasn’t in my childhood. She has firm ideas on child rearing, and is determined to develop her hapless son in a gender-neutral way. To which end she sends the unfortunate kid to Yoga, Italian lessons, and saxophone music lessons. But, to my delight, Irene gets her just deserts (this is not a spelling error, but a feeble pun) at the end of the book.
The usual assembly of Edinburgh characters walk through the story: henpecked Dad Stuart; vomiting sibling Ulysses; Cyril the dog with a gold tooth; Big Lou the coffee bar owner, and others. All familiar and dearly loved by readers, including me.
Alexander McCall Smith has a happy knack of making the mundane interesting, with his gentle humour and his precise turn of phrase, which allows for humour to enter his stories. One of the things I enjoy about the Scotland Street series, is the way that McCall Smith adds his own philosophical musings about modern life, and Edinburgh in particular.
For me: a joy to read. If you want something very Scottish, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable, then read this book. It’s the ninth book in the series, but you should be able to pick up the story easily and its not necessary to start at Book 1 (title is 44 Scotland Street) but if the series is to your taste, then you have the pleasurable prospect of another eight novels to explore.





I need to add the novella to my List of May Reads but I find myself in a dilemma. Because I have structured my page according to a star rating system, I really don’t know how to rate the novella.

On the one hand, I was filled with admiration at the structure of the story. Swift has chosen to focus on one afternoon in the life of young housemaid Jane Fairchild, in an English country house, in 1924. With skilfully worded and placed short asides, he gives us the back story (orphaned, put into service at age 14, seduced by the young neighbour Paul Sheringham; in those years it was almost expected that one of the males in the family would be bonking the staff. ) Later he fast-forwards us to Jane Fairchild in her eighties, and then in her nineties. Briefly, but with telling effect.

Swift reveals the inequities of the English class system mercilessly, and the miracle that a poorly educated working class foundling – he actually uses the Dickensian word ‘foundling’ – succeeds in “bettering herself” by leaving domestic service and ultimately transforming herself into a famous writer. It’s Jane’s love of reading that is the key to this social miracle, and oddly enough, the novels of Joseph Conrad, of all unlikely writers, which are the catalyst.

He also uses the theme of war – in this case the First World War – as a reminder of the losses incurred by English families which serves as a brooding undercurrent to the narrative; a sort of harbinger of forthcoming developments.

So far so good. A very English novella, brilliantly plotted and written by an acclaimed British author, recipient of many awards and prizes. This said: what was my problem? I simply did not enjoy the book.
Star-wise, I cannot reasonably leave it ungraded at zero stars ‘No Comment’; neither was it 1 * – dismal; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 3* – average; none of these broad categories apply. I suppose I ought to give it a 4* rating on the strength of the structure and language.

Because of the interminable length of the main scene – the bedroom finale – the endless picking over every nuance, every gesture, every possibility I grew impatient. And the repetitive attention paid to the “leaking seed”, (oh please!) was downright irritating. And also very male. Women really don’t think this way! But Swift makes it clear that in 1924 it was men who counted. All very true of course, but no less irksome nearly a century later.

Following on this whole seed/emissions repetition, there were continuous ongoing references to the maid changing the sex-stained bed sheets: on and on and on. Again : enough already! Do I sound like a nervous Nellie on the topic of bodily functions ? If so, let me refute  this false impression.

I note the subtitle is “A Romance”. This baffles me. If it’s meant to indicate the story is a light, fanciful frippett , then I cannot agree. If the subtitle was chosen because of the sensuous quality of the major scene, I can grudgingly agree but today’s readers who enjoy the Romance Genre would chuck the novella aside round about page 9, if they ever got that far.

Was I reading out of my comfort zone ?No, I was not. I’m happy to tackle literary novels by esteemed writers. And have enjoyed many. Maybe I need to revise my opinion of my reading tastes down a notch or two! As I age, I find I prefer a more straight forward narrative . I don’t do subtle very well.

In the end I consulted Goodreads to sample readers’ reviews: the first 3 pages were pretty much 90% rave reviews with a very few 2* and even a 1* review. As we all know, you can’t please everybody. I was struck by the phrase “7 year love affair” between the young man and the maid, used by many reviewers. It certainly did not come across as a love affair to me, with no gestures or words of affection between the couple. Initially the story spoke of the maid’s deflowering as ‘prostitution” and that was the abiding sense of the relationship that stayed in my head.

I’d welcome comments from others who have read the novella.





Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) late of Mumbai Police, assisted by Baby Ganesha (a small 200 kb elephant) become embroiled in a dramatic tamasha of events.

The title says it all, but what fun we have along the way with hordes of minor characters, sub-plots, abductions, imperious film directors, diva film stars, doubles, a daring escape plot from India’s most dreaded jail involving some dancing and a performing elephant: after all this IS a Bollywood story*. There’s love, betrayal, deception, high drama, operatic emotion; pretty much every character wildly OTT (see previous note*) And not to forget the crucial role played by the eunuchs.

What a colourful crazy story – most appropriately the action takes place before, during and after the Holi Festival.
Really a fun read. I love Indian themed stories.





When I finished Bone Meal for Roses by Miranda Sherry , I was a happy reader. Finally I’ve read a South African novel that simply sets out to tell an emotional family story that is not banging a political soapbox, pushing a social issue, or harking back to the “bad old days” pre-1994. South Africa is bedevilled by politics, and thus far, much of the turbulence has stained our fiction.
It’s just a story, and I don’t mean to use the phrase in italics in a pejorative way. Far from it. We’re 24 years on as an independent African republic, and as a reader I’m thinking : enough already. All I want is a South African story with credible contemporary characters against a South African background, that will provide me with entertaining and relaxing reading. Sherry’s novel is not Great Literature, it doesn’t pretend to be, and that’s fine by me.
I enjoy reading Cookbooks too, especially those which provide a blend of memoir or history alongside the recipes, so the District Six book was an enjoyable read for me. The photos in these books are wonderful, which adds to the enjoyment. If you’re interested in the social history of Cape Town, this book is not to be missed.


Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish; NF – non-fiction

5* Difficult Women – Roxanne Gay. Stunning collection of short stories. Sincere, candid, shocking, sexy – modern. Recommended. Reviewed on this blog.
4* Junkyard Dogs – Craig Johnson. Longmire stories never disappoint; fully rounded with good plots & wonderful characters. Plus authentic natural settings. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* Bonemeal for Roses – Miranda Sherry. A South African family saga; authentic, contemporary . An engaging read. Reviewed on this blog.

3* The Keeper of Lost Things – Ruth Hogan . Another easy read. Good touches of humour. Recommended. Reviewed on this blog.

2.5* The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper – Phaedra Patrick . Easy entertaining read. An implausible plot! Reminiscent of The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but in much lighter vein.

District Six Huis Kombuis : Food & Memory Cookbook – Tina Smith . A lovely blend of history, memoir and food from Cape Town’s District Six. Reviewed on this blog.