Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #14: December 12th - 24th - Las Posadas

Question: For the book task for Las Posadas, does the entire book need to be set in Mexico?


I have just started Hugh Fraser's (yup, THE Hugh Fraser - as in "Hastings") first novel, and it is set in Mexico and the UK from what I can tell.


It's a kinda gritty crime noir type of thing ... which has already had me chuckle a couple of times, as the MC, a woman assassin, seems pretty kick-ass.


I had no idea Fraser wrote books (there are three in this series so far apparently) until I checked his Twitter profile a couple of days ago. Has anyone read any of them?


Book themes for Las Posadas:  Read a book dealing with visits by family or friends, or set in Mexico, –OR– with a poinsettia on the cover. –OR– a story where the main character is stranded without a place to stay, or find themselves in a 'no room at the Inn’ situation.



Reading progress update: I've read 371 out of 652 pages.

William Pitt the Younger: A Biography - William Hague

Huh? I had no idea that the episode of Hornblower that featured Quiberon Bay (the one with Antony Sher as the mad French Aristocrat) was based on a real event.

Reading progress update: I've read 314 out of 652 pages.

William Pitt the Younger: A Biography - William Hague

Hague only spent 14 pages on Pitt's involvement in the abolition of slavery.


14 teeny tiny pages.


One of the shortest chapters in the book so far.


I can only surmise that he left the details for his subsequent book on William Wilberforce, which I will read, too, at some point because I am enjoying Hague's writing quite a lot. (And that's something I'd never thought I'd say!)


Here's hoping Hague goes into more detail about Pitt's stance on Ireland.

16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #14: December 25th - Quaid-e-Azam

Kingdom's End: Selected Stories - Saadat Hasan Manto Manto: Selected Stories - Aatish Taseer

Book themes for Quaid-e-Azam:  Pakistan became an independent nation when the British Raj ended on August 14, 1947. Read a book set in Pakistan or in any other country that attained sovereign statehood between August 14, 1947 and today (regardless of what part of the world).



I had a lot of help with this task: I love exploring. I love going new places and I love reading about new (to me) places. So, when the task came up to read about Pakistan I got excited. Then I realised that I don't know that much about Pakistan and that I cannot actually name a single author who actually lived in Pakistan and wrote with a setting in Pakistan. (I did briefly consider Exist West, but I believe Mohsin Hamid may be writing about the human condition in general without naming a specific country.)


So, I asked Midu for help and she recommended to try Saadat Hasan Manto, whom I would never have come across if it had not been for Midu's recommendation! (Btw, if you're not following Midu already, check out her BookLikes Follow Friday post!)


The more I read about the author, the more intrigued I am about his short stories. I mean, what's not be intrigued by about an author whose openness apparently led to several trials for obscenity, who's been labeled as a rebel, and whose despair over the social and political situation he lived in led him to seek relief in an addiction to alcohol that ultimately killed him.  


Link to a fascinating article about Manto in The Guardian


I have a couple of choices of books - I found a reasonably priced collection on Ammy, translated by Aatish Taseer, which seems to include some of his most controversial stories, and I also found a collection of Kingdom's End at my library, which seems to contain a wider selection of his writings. 


I'll start with Taseer's collection for the purposes of the 16 Tasks.


The Gift of Rain

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng



I tried about 75 pages of this over the last week and it is not doing anything for me for the following reasons:


1. This is a slow-build of a novel at a time when I am not in the mood for a slow-paced, potentially over-written story.


2. Although the story is set in Penang and I have an interest in the place, it seems to be rather similar to Tan Twan Eng's second book The Garden of Evening Mists, which also deals with a WWII setting. 


3. I have a feeling that I can guess where this story is going, and if I am right, it will be very similar to The Harmony Silk Factory. Too similar for my liking. 


So, I am going to set this one aside for a book that does not feel like a repetition right now.


No rating.

16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Books, Tasks, and Updates

Alright, time to get organised: I'll use this post to link to the various books, tasks, and related posts. I have no idea how many of these I will complete, but thanks to Murder by Death's and Themis Athena's stupendous efforts we have a multitude of options to have fun with this. 


Links to the original posts: 16 Tasks and Rules 

Link to the Tasks in calendar format: November and December


My updates:


Square 1: November 1st:

All Saints Day / Día de los Muertos / Calan Gaeaf


Tasks for Día de Muertos and All Saint’s Day

- Book for Día de Muertos and All Saint’s Day


Square 2: November 5th:

Guy Fawkes Night (Bonfire Night/Fireworks Night) / Bon Om Touk (Cambodian Water Festival)


- Task for Guy Fawkes Night

- Task for Bon Om Touk


Square 3: November 11th:

St. Martin’s Day (11th) / Veterans’ Day / Armistice Day (11th)


- Book for Armistice Day 

- Task for St. Martin's Day

- Task for Armistice Day


Square 4: November 22nd and 23rd:

Penance Day (22nd) / Thanksgiving (23rd) 


- Task for Thanksgiving Day 


Square 5: December 3rd and following 3 Sundays:




Square 6: December 5th-6th and 8th:

Sinterklaas / Krampusnacht (5th) / St. Nicholas Day (6th) / Bodhi Day (8th)



Square 7: December 10th & 13th:

International Human Rights Day (10th) / St. Lucia’s Day (13th) 



Square 8: December 12th - 24th:

Hanukkah (begins 12th, ends 20th) Las Posadas (begins 16th, ends 24th)  


- Book for Las Posadas 


Square 9: December 21st:

Winter Solstice / Mōdraniht / Yuletide / Yaldā Night  



Square 10: December 21st:

World Peace Day / Pancha Ganapati begins (ends 25th)



Square 11: December 21st-22nd:

Soyal (21st) / Dōngzhì Festival (22nd) (China)


- Task for Dongzhi Festival 


Square 12: December 23rd

Festivus / Saturnalia ends (begins 17th)


- Book for Saturnalia


Square 13: December 25th

Christmas / Hogswatch


Book: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett  (planned read, just using this a reminder)


Square 14: December 25th

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti / Quaid-e-Azam’s Day


- Book for Quaid-e-Azam’s Day


Square 15: December 25th-26th:

Newtonmas (25th) / St. Stephen's Day/Boxing Day (26th)


Book: Forensics by Val McDermid 



Square 16: December 26th-31st:

Kwanzaa (begins 26th, ends 31st) / New Year’s Eve / Hogmanay / St. Sylvester’s Day / Watch Night




Total Points: 13





16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #4: November 22nd and 23rd - Thanksgiving


Tasks for Thanksgiving Day: List of 5 things you’re grateful for –OR– a picture of your thanksgiving feast; post your favourite turkey-day recipe.  –OR– Be thankful for yourself and treat yourself to a new book and post a picture of it.



 Thanksgiving Day is not a holiday that is celebrated where I am from or live now, and I have no pictures or recipes to share from the Thanksgiving meals that I have experienced when living in the US as I was unwell on both occasions - I always seem to pick up a viral infection towards the end of November... Although, one of the two turkey days turned out to be quite memorable as the friends I stayed with all suffered from the same infection. We still made an effort to put a meal together, and it did look impressive, but by the time we sat down for dinner, everyone practically fell asleep at the table...or felt too ill to actually eat.


Anyway, this does bring me to my actual task: There are a lot of things that I am thankful for - most are in no particular order:


1. Health. Relatively speaking. Most people will have niggles and things as do I but all are manageable, not life-threatening, and thanks to living in a country with a healthcare system open to all (long may it last!) are not impeding on anything too much.


2. My Mom. She is awesome. We've not always seen eye to eye and it has taken us both a long time to fully accept that there is a limit to the amount of time that we can spend in each other's company without needing a break, but that just makes the time we do spend together so much better.  


3. Friends. They are all weird but wonderful and I am grateful that they want to spend time with me. I am picky about friends. What I mean is, I don't take friendships lightly. I have a relatively small group of very good friends from all walks of life, and many of them have been friends for a very long time. 


4. Challenges. I have been lucky in that I have not had to face truly horrible situations, and know that in many respects, I've been privileged. So, when faced with the (relatively speaking) small challenges I do come across I do value them as a reminder of that privilege and as a reminder to not get too complacent with any situation I might find myself in.  


5. Travel. I am thankful for the ability to travel relatively often and to destinations that I would not have thought I'd ever visit. I know a lot of people who would like to travel but aren't able to for various reasons, and I also know some people who like the idea of travel but lack the confidence to leave their comfort zones. 


So, those are the 5 things I choose to be thankful for this year. As a 6th, I would add books and bookish people like all of you in the BL community, who are making my days a lot more colourful than they would be otherwise.


And as no holiday would be complete without the acquisition of a book, I picked up this one on the trip to Penang (the coffee was recommended by friends - it's not what I expected but it goes well with the book):


The Joye of Snacks

Maskerade (Discworld, #18) - Terry Pratchett

‘Beats me why people’d fall over themselves to read a cookery book, though,’ she added. ‘I mean, it’s not the sort of thing that—’

The room fell silent. Nanny Ogg shuffled her boots.

Granny said, in a voice laden with a suspicion that was all the worse because it wasn’t yet quite sure what it was suspicious of:

‘It is a cookery book, isn’t it?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Nanny hurriedly, avoiding Granny’s gaze. ‘Yes. Recipes and that. Yes.’ Granny glared at her. ‘Just recipes?’

‘Yes. Oh, yes. Yes. And some … cookery anecdotes, yes.’

Granny went on glaring.

Nanny gave in. ‘Er … look under Famous Carrot and Oyster Pie,’ she said. ‘Page 25.’ Granny turned the pages. Her lips moved silently.

Then: ‘I see. Anything else?’

‘Er … Cinnamon and Marshmallow Fingers … page 17 …’

Granny looked it up. ‘And?’

‘Er … Celery Astonishment … page 10.’

Granny looked that up, too. ‘Can’t say it astonished me,’ she said. ‘And …?’

‘Er … well, more or less all of Humorous Puddings and Cake Decoration. That’s all of Chapter Six. I done illustrations for that.’

Granny turned to Chapter Six. She had to turn the book around a couple of times.

‘What one you looking at?’ said Nanny Ogg, because an author is always keen to get feedback.

‘Strawberry Wobbler,’ said Granny.

‘Ah. That one always gets a laugh.’

It did not appear to be obtaining one from Granny. She carefully closed the book.

‘Gytha,’ she said, ‘this is me askin’ you this. Is there any page in this book, is there any single recipe, which does not in some way relate to … goings-on?’

Nanny Ogg, her face red as her apples, seemed to give this some lengthy consideration. ‘Porridge,’ she said, eventually.


‘Yes. Er. No, I tell a lie, it’s got my special honey mixture in it.’

Granny turned a page.

‘What about this one? Maids of Honour?’

‘Weeelll, they starts out as Maids of Honour,’ said Nanny, fidgeting with her feet, ‘but they ends up Tarts.’

Granny looked at the front cover again. The Joye of Snacks.




16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #12: December 23rd - Saturnalia

Maskerade (Discworld, #18) - Terry Pratchett

Book themes for Saturnalia:  The god Saturn has a planet named after him; read any work of science fiction that takes place in space.  –OR– Read a book celebrating free speech. –OR–  A book revolving around a very large party, or ball, or festival, –OR– a book with a mask or masks on the cover.  –OR– a story where roles are reversed.


Having just returned to "home base" for a coffee and a break before finding tonight's dinner destination, I need something to match the rolling thunder (and probably impending rain, again):


This should suit:


THE WIND HOWLED. The storm crackled on the mountains. Lightning prodded the crags like an old man trying to get an elusive blackberry pip out of his false teeth.

Among the hissing furze bushes a fire blazed, the flames driven this way and that by the gusts.

An eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we … two … meet again?’


Thunder rolled.


I am fairly sure this book would also suit the Festivus task, but my edition has a mask on the cover, so I'll go with that one.


16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #11: December 21st-22nd - Dōngzhì Festival


Tasks for Dōngzhì Festival: If you like Chinese food, tell us your favorite dish – otherwise, tell us your favorite dessert. (Recipes, as always, welcome.)


I love Chinese food. Having just spent a long weekend on a Chinese food trail - seriously, the friends I traveled with had their priorities set straight on food, which meant that we constantly sought out all kinds of hawker stalls and restaurants to find different kinds of food - mostly Chinese, some Indian, some Malay, some Thai (only because we couldn't find the Chinese one they were looking for).


My friends are all fluent in Mandarin and Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) and English and without them I would have had difficulty navigating around the different offerings - especially since there are some differences in understanding of what is "vegetarian"...


Anyway, there are quite a few different Chinese dishes that I consider favourites but probably none more so than steamed or fried dumplings and pao (or pau or bao or ... ). 



This one (above) had a filling of red bean paste, which I prefer over the one with lotus paste. 


The one in the centre below (which you can't see properly) is a charcoal pao with a sweetcorn filling, which was also super delicious.



There were a few other kinds, too, like a specialty one with a (boiling hot!) sweet egg yolk custard filling. And of course, there are several non-vegetarian versions.


Unfortunately, we didn't find any veggie dumplings. :( But I am motivated to learn how to make them myself when I get home. If I feel adventurous, I might investigate making pao, too, as I can totally imagine pao with a savoury veggie filling, which isn't something that people seem to have caught onto, yet, in the places we visited on this trip.

16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #2: November 5th - Bon Om Touk


Tasks for Bon Om Touk:  Post a picture from your most recent or favorite vacation on the sea (or a lake, river, or any other body of water larger than a puddle), or if you're living on the sea or on a lake or a river, post a picture of your favorite spot on the shore / banks / beach / at the nearest harbour.


I love all things open water and there are a number of favourite pictures to choose from. However, seeing that I have just returned from a trip with friends to Penang Island (in the north of Malaysia), I'll share the following picture(s) of the Malacca Strait:



#1 - Batu Feringghi



#2 - Batu Feringghi


#3 - George Town


#4 - George Town



Batu Feringghi is in the north of the island, and - unfortunately - has been developed into a tourist resort with more hotels and shops than maybe necessary. There is another beach just along the shore to the west called Monkey Beach, which smaller and less developed, but it was getting late and we wanted to spend some time on the beach before dark. 


Btw, I'm glad we did not get there earlier than we did because temperatures during the day ranged between 34C and 37C without any wind to speak of that would have provided relief and not many clouds to provide cover from the sun. I am simply not built for hot weather - I start to melt when exposed to the mid-20s (C)!


The 3rd and 4th picture are taken along the promenade in George Town. My friends were going to a wedding for the afternoon, and although they assured me I was welcome to join them, I did not feel comfortable to crash the party. So, I seized the opportunity to go sight-seeing. Of course, that was hampered by the heat and I ended up chilling in an air-conditioned cafe with some iced tea and a book after visiting Fort Cornwallis.

16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #1: Día de Muertos

Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

Book themes for Día de Muertos and All Saint’s Day:  A book that has a primarily black and white cover, or one that has all the colours (ROYGBIV) together on the cover.


I'm trying to do a bit of catch-up on the 16 Tasks but find that the task and books for each square seem too fabulous to pass or simply move on to another square.


I've been meaning to revisit Brideshead for quite some time, but every time I seem to come across Waugh I am reminded of the last couple of titles of his I read and how much I dislike his spite. (And yet, I adore Vile Bodies!)


From what I remember, there are parts in Brideshead Revisited that are absolutely fabulous, but it has been too long (15+ years?) since I read it, and I am sure that my observations will change, too. 


This visitation was brought on by my finding the audiobook (unabridged) read by Jeremy Irons to listen to alongside the book.


My editions - kindle and audiobook - have the black and while cover.


Adventure awaits...

...and trust my friends to designate a Buddhist book and tea shop as our starting point.






Anyway, I will be offline for a few days. Mostly.

16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square #3: Veteran's Day/Armistice Day


Tasks for Veteran's Day/Armistice Day: Make, or draw a red poppy and show us a pic of your red poppy or other symbol of remembrance –OR– post a quote or a piece of poetry about the ravages of war. 



There are lots and lots of poems and quotes about war. Way too many. And while I could have easily chosen one of the famous war poets, or a quote from a celebrated work, or, to be obnoxious, some piece of punk sarcasm, I'm going with this passage from the prologue of Erich Maria Remarque's The Road Back (Der Weg Zurueck, 1931):


"The fog moves and lifts. And suddenly I know what it is that has thrown us all into such a state of alarm. It has merely become still. Absolutely still.

Not a machine gun, not a shot, not an explosion; no shriek of shells; nothing, absolutely nothing, no shot, no cry. It is simply still, utterly still.

We look at one another; we cannot understand it. This is the first time it has been so quiet since we have been at the Front. We sniff the air and try to figure what it can mean. Is gas creeping over? But the wind is not favourable; it would drive it off. Is an attack coming? But the very silence would have betrayed it already. What is it, 

then? The bomb in my hand is moist, I am sweating so with excitement. One feels as if the nerves must snap. Five minutes. Ten minutes. “A quarter of an hour now,” calls Laher. His voice sounds hollow in the fog as from a grave. Still nothing happens, no attack, no sudden, dark-looming, springing shadows——

Hands relax and clench again tighter. This is not to be borne. We are so accustomed to the noise of the Front that now, when the weight of it suddenly lifts from us, we feel as if we must burst, shoot upward like balloons.

“Why,” says Willy suddenly, “it is peace!” —

It falls like a bomb.

Faces relax, movements become aimless and uncertain. Peace? We look at one another, incredulous. Peace? I let my hand grenades drop. Peace? Ludwig lies down slowly on his waterproof again. Peace? In Bethke’s eyes is an expression as if his whole face would break in pieces. Peace? Wessling stands motionless as a tree; and when he turns his back on it and faces us, he looks as if he meant to keep straight on home.

All at once—in the whirl of our excitement we had hardly observed it—the silence is at an end; once more, dully menacing, comes the noise of gunfire, and already from afar, like the bill of a woodpecker, sounds the knock-knocking of a machine gun. We grow calm and are almost glad to hear again the familiar, trusty noises of death."


This passage breaks me every time.


Remarque is, of course, best known for All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of school leavers into the hells of the First World War. However, it is in The Road Back that he shows how those that survived the front had to keep on surviving, and how the "ravages of war" took lives in more ways than by bullets and shells.

Kif: An Unvarnished Story

Kif: an unvarnished history - Gordon Daviot

In my attempt to get to know the works of Josephine Tey a bit better, I came across the following description of Kif in Jennifer Morag Henderson's excellent biography Josephine Tey: A Life:

In the Highlands, as elsewhere, the whole way of life was changed by the war: from being a relatively stable, hierarchical society, the idea of change and the progress of technology was pervasive, even if the reality of change and progress took longer to arrive. Beth was to become very aware of how Britain was not the ‘home for heroes’ that the returning troops and their families wanted it to be, and her first full-length novel, Kif, was to deal particularly with the effects of economic depression and the difficulties that people, especially returning soldiers, faced after the end of the First World War.


I was really intrigued how Tey (then still writing as Gordon Daviot) would handle this. It was a contemporary issue and surely could have been a somewhat controversial issue (at the time of publication), but while Tey/Daviot showed some of the difficulties that veterans faced when returning to civic life - such as not finding employment - this book was not even scratching the surface of what she could have shown.


Instead, we get an account advertised as "An Unvarnished Story" which reads like a sanitised story for children, telling of a boy's own adventure in the trenches, which are full "old sports". None or the realism of trench warfare that we know of from other accounts is present in Kif


As for the miserable treatment of veterans back home, this is there to some extent, where Kif cannot find long-term employment and survives on short-term jobs and some winnings at the race grounds. Now, this may have been the most realistic part, but the Tey/Daviot spoils it by Kif - who has evidently no skills in the field - joining a gang of burglars. He's caught, he's sent down. Upon his release, he is unemployable. Then tragedy strikes again.


The problem I have with this part is that Kif knowingly turns to crime. He is not forced into it. There is no compulsion for him to join the burglars, but it is portrayed as a splendid whim that lets him join up. In turn, how does this then portray issues that ordinary men faced who did not turn to crime?


This book was interesting from the point of seeing Tey/Daviot develop as a writer, but it did not work for me as a worthwhile book.

Sherlock Holmes: The Five Orange Pips

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection -  Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

My wife was on a visit to her mother’s, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.

“Why,” said I, glancing up at my companion, “that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?”

“Except yourself I have none,” he answered. “I do not encourage visitors.”

“A client, then?”

“If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady’s.”

Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door.

I'm not going to comment on every Holmes story - I left out The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for example - but will focus on the ones that have left me with thoughts, and The Five Orange Pips definitely has done so.


It is a relatively short story, but there were quite a few points that got my attention on this re-read / re-listen:


1. Forget Sherlock's "mind-palace". Sherlock is much more down to earth. ACD gave him a brain-attic. I am not kidding, here's the textual proof (although I apparently missed its mention in A Study in Scarlet):

Holmes grinned at the last item. “Well,” he said, “I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.

I much prefer the brain-attic. It is much easier to relate to. ;)


2. Watson has obviously changed his mind a little about Holmes' shortcomings with respect to general knowledge. In this story, Watson now laughs about his initial assessment of his friend's intellectual capacity. In fact, both Watson and Holmes seem to find it funny in hindsight, which again tells me that some people get Holmes wrong when they say he belittles Watson all the time. Holmes clearly acknowledges his friend's assessment, but instead of being offended by it, he just explains his reasons for not expanding his general knowledge.


It is this interaction between the two and the acceptance between the two make the stories so much fun for me.


3. There is a reference to Georges Cuvier, one of the forces that established the sciences of comparative anatomy and paleontology. He's much forgotten in today's general knowledge but is mentioned in this story. It made me smile. It also brought home that this story was written only a few decades after the natural sciences were really taken seriously.


4. Without going into the plot of the story, I loved the acknowledgment that Holmes can fail, and that his sense of pride is not the only motivation in his attempt at make good, but that he is also driven by the senses of justice AND personal responsibility. 

5. This is going to be a spoiler, so look away if you want to read this story untainted:
The way ACD describes theactualparts about the KKK was handled well. I loved that ACD does not explain them to the reader much. To explain the KKK would provide a platform to argue about their "cause" or their "justifications". ACD cuts this out from the start by presenting them as the contemptible murderers they are.
(show spoiler)
6. This is also going to be a spoiler, so look away if you want to read this story untainted:
As my reading buddy points out, the ending is a bit disappointing because it is left to fate to bring about the end of the three murderers, and it would have been a stronger message to have a people stand up to bring about justice.
At the same time, tho, the sense of unresolvedness and denial of that delivery of justice also carries some power as a cautionary tale that these secret societies of evil exist in our midst and that people must keep vigilant about spotting their actions.
(show spoiler)
There is much to admire about this story. It definitely is another story in the Holmes canon that is underrated.
“I have come for advice.”
“That is easily got.”
“And help.”
“That is not always so easy.”

Currently reading

The Tremor of Forgery: A Virago Modern Classic (Virago Modern Classics) by Denise Mina (introduction) Patricia Highsmith (author)
Progress: 61/258pages
Manto: Selected Stories by Aatish Taseer
Progress: 27%
William Pitt the Younger: A Biography by William Hague
Progress: 396/652pages
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 21%
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 21/295pages