The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

Stories of Hope and Wonder

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

This collection follows in the footsteps of Flotation Device: A Charity Anthology in being pulled together quickly near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in order to raise money for the NHS in the UK. Floatation Device was the local effort of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, while this was edited by Ian Whates of NewCon Press so has access to a much larger range of writers. There are over fifty stories here, comprising nearly a quarter of a million words. In all that, there are bound to be some that work better for an individual taste than others.

There are stories from across genres: lit-fic, SF, fantasy, horror and more. I’m not really a horror fan so those didn’t really work for me, but there were more than enough others to make up for it. There are stories from well-known names including Stephen Baxter, Christopher Priest, Tade Thomson, Lauren Beukes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter F. Hamilton and many, many more. It’s hard to pick out individual stories in such a large collection, read over so long, but I really enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Wars of Worldcraft (the pun in the title along endeared it to me) and Ian McDonald’s An Eligible Boy, set in the same world as his novel River of Gods.

So if a story doesn’t work for you, just move on, it’s not not like you’re short on choice. And it’s for a good cause.

Book details

Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

The Collector Collector

By Tibor Fischer

Rating: 3 stars

This is the story of Rosa, a woman looking for love. A story complicated by the conwoman who worms her way into Rosa’s life and immediately starts making it difficult. But most interestingly, this is a story narrated by a piece of ancient, sentient pottery, the collector collector of the title. Rosa is evaluating the pottery for its new owner and it witnesses the goings on in her life.

I say that’s the story, but it’s also a book that takes great pleasure in language, with lots of clever rhymes and turns of phrase, you get the impression that Fischer was enjoying himself immensely, as he was writing this.

The characters are very much caricatures, Rosa, the antiques evaluator who will go to extraordinary lengths to find love; Nikki, the woman who cons her way into staying with Rosa and who’s as obsessed with sex as she is with theft; Marius, the eccentric, and very rich, man who wants to collect the narrator. The bowl is, in a way, able to communicate with Rosa and feeds her anecdotes about its past, which breaks up the narrative every so often with an outrageous story from a former owner. These are fun and help pace the story.

If there was any sort of deeper meaning or subtext in the story then I didn’t pick up on it. It was an enjoyable read, but I don’t think it was a hugely memorable one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099268192
Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1997

Secret Language

By Neil Williamson

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve read the occasional short story by Neil Williamson in various anthologies over the years but never a collection of his own. Williamson’s style is quite dense and literary, I found I had to read the book quite slowly, taking just one or two stories at a time, otherwise it just got a bit blurry.

The major themes in the book are music and Scotland. He draws on the distinctiveness of Scots and Scotland to set up character portraits and story resonance without needing to go into great detail. And music is present in many of these stories in some shape or other, from the way the system dealt with Punk in Arrhythmia to the the very essence of what art is and if how it should be produced and consumed in The Death of Abigail Goudy, a piece which, it seems to me (and from the author’s afterword) came from very deep inside the author.

My favourite piece was probably the most science fictional story in the collection, Lost Sheep, a space opera set in the deep future, yet still coming back to the perennial theme of making and showing art.

It’s not what I would call a cheerful book, there’s a sense of melancholy running through it, even the stories that don’t directly have sad endings leave you with a sense of unease that things are probably going to get worse. There is a streak of dark humour running through it that stops it getting too miserable though.

So a book to dip into for me, rather than to swallow down. I can appreciate the quality of Williamson’s writing but he’s not an author that I’d want to read a lot of in quick succession.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935149
Publisher: Newcon Press


By Lucius Shepard

Rating: 3 stars

Barnett is an expat Briton living in Kalimantan, in Indonesia. A momentary act of kindness from him sends Curtis MacKinnon to a trading post deep in the jungle. After a while, Barnett gets alarming correspondence from the trading post that sends him to confront MacKinnon.

I’m not familiar with Shepard and from reading this, I assumed he was a literary writer, dipping his toe into the SF genre, but Wikipedia describes him as an SF author, albeit one with “an awareness of literary antecedents.” There is definitely a literary tone to this novella and the island land of Kalimantan is lovingly described.

The story straddles the line between SF and fantasy with talk of the spirit of the land, but also crashed alien spaceships on parallel worlds. The story is a bit of a character study, with MacKinnon and Barnett both being examined in some depth.

An interesting story, with a lot of pleasure to be had from the language and descriptions. While there is some action late in the story, this isn’t a book to read for that. It’s one for introspection and to delve into the landscape. Worth it, but be prepared to have to do a bit of work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780712636735
Year of publication: 1990

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

By Truman Capote

Rating: 3 stars

Like many modern readers, I imagine, I came to this book through the rather wonderful Audrey Hepburn film of the same name. The story that formed the basis for the film is short (I’d call it a novella) and this volume also contains three of Capote’s short stories as well. Starting with the title story, the basic plot is similar to the film, although the narrator is unnamed here, and any love is one-sided. The character of Holly Golightly is fairly similar, although from memory (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it), in the film, the character is possibly softened a bit, and the ending of the book is different, but totally in keeping with the character as she’s presented here. The story left me with a mild feeling of melancholy and a sort of pity for Holly, who keeps chasing happiness but seems destined to never find it.

Of the other three stories, they all continue with the melancholic theme to varying extents. The first of them is possibly the one that leaves the protagonist the happiest, although that is very definitely just one interpretation of the story. The second sees an older man in a prison, who finds unwanted hope in new inmate. Lots of stuff about age, wisdom, suppressed sexuality and more in this one. The final story is the most openly melancholic, in that it’s very definitely a happy memory, but bitterweeet as well. The end of that period of happiness.

This is my first attempt at reading Capote and although I enjoyed the title story and appreciated the others, I don’t know if I’ll explicitly search out any more of his work. There seems to be a sort of, if not exactly bitterness, then resignation at the state of human affairs, and I tend to prefer more optimistic work.

Book details

Publisher: Penguin Books, UK
Year of publication: 1958

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler

Rating: 4 stars

We meet our (first person) protagonist Rosemary at multiple points in her life in this novel, but the primary ‘now’ point is when she’s at college, in the mid ’90s, remembering things about her past, in particular the brother and sister who vanished from her life at different points during her childhood.

Rosemary starts her story in the middle, and then jumps around in time in a way that should be disconcerting, but I found worked remarkably well. Possibly because she always flags where and when she is, and even flags up when she hasn’t been altogether honest in past chapters. This is, to my mind, the best kind of unreliable narrator!

I’m finding this a difficult book to write about – it’s so unlike my normal reading material. It was recommended by a friend, and I’m glad that she did as I enjoyed it, but it’s still difficult to talk about, particularly so because to do so meaningfully requires spoiling a twist. Let’s just say that it’s a book about memory, and how it can deceive you; about family, relationships and what they mean and the different ways that they can hurt you; about truth and lies, especially lies to yourself, lies you repeat so often that you don’t know what the truth is any more and how memory can turn into lies, or, at best, “reported” memories, where you only remember the account of something, not the memory itself.

That’s an altogether unhelpful description of the book, but it’s warm, funny, sad and heartbreaking in places. It left me with a sense somewhere between melancholy and hope for the future. Definitely a book worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9781846689666
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Year of publication: 2013

England Made Me

By Graham Greene

Rating: 2 stars

Anthony Farrant is a loner who jumps from country to country getting and being fired from jobs. His twin sister Kate gets him a job as a bodyguard to her lover, a rich Swedish industrialist which goes okay until Farrant discovers something about his new boss that offends his sense of decency.

I really didn’t get this novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable, it wandered a lot and didn’t hold my attention particularly well. I think this may be because it was particularly character-focussed rather than plot-focussed, and I don’t cope well without a decent plot to hook on to (a problem I had with the Melvyn Bragg book I read recently as well). This perhaps says more about me than about the book, but still, I’m not sure if Greene is really someone I’ll watch out for in future.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140185515
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 1935

For Want Of A Nail

By Melvyn Bragg

Rating: 1 star

I really didn’t enjoy this story of a boy growing up in Cumberland without the affection of his parents. I picked it up because I quite like Bragg’s radio work and wanted to see what his literary stuff was like, but on the basis of this, I won’t be reading anything else that he’s done.

The protagonist was anything but sympathetic and the sort of chap you just want to tell to snap out of it, for goodness sake. In ways it reminded me of Nausea, but although Bragg may consider that a compliment, I don’t, since I completely failed to enjoy that either.

There’s probably subtle layers of meaning and Messages to be had, but I really didn’t find it engaging enough to make it worthwhile searching for them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340511824
Year of publication: 1965

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

By Mark Haddon

Rating: 4 stars

This is a book that I wouldn’t have picked up myself, but it was a present and I’m glad that I did get it, since I found myself really enjoying it. It presents the story of a murdered dog as told by a child with Asperger’s Syndrome and the point of view is terrifyingly good. I find myself sympathising both with Christopher himself and both his parents as they try to deal with life with their son. The difficulties of such a child are painted plainly and honestly and make me think about how I would cope in interacting with such. An excellently thought-provoking book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780224063784
Publisher: Random House
Year of publication: 2003

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