Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz

This is a whodunit within a whodunit. One Friday evening, Susan Ryeland, the Head of Fiction at Cloverleaf Books, picks up Magpie Murders, the latest manuscript by Alan Conway—one of their most successful writers—and takes it home. She pours herself a glass of wine and starts to read.

As she reads the manuscript, so do we. Conway’s book is Anthony Horowitz’s homage to Agatha Christie. It reads like a traditional English murder mystery. Like Hercule Poirot, detective Atticus Pünd is a foreigner who has moved to the UK during the Second World War.

The manuscript of Magpie Murders begins in the village of Saxby-on-Avon with the funeral of Mary Blakiston, a woman who used to clean for Sir Magnus Pye, the owner of the big house, Pye Hall. Mary has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in what looks like an accident. A few days later, Sir Magnus is found decapitated in his home.

There are rumours in the village that Mary has been murdered—her son Robert had been heard arguing with her the day before she died. The past also holds its secrets. Mary’s younger son Tom had drowned in the pond at Pye Hall when he was 11. Was Tom’s death really an accident?

Just as Pünd is about to reveal all, Susan finds that the last chapter of the manuscript is missing. She is not only frustrated but also worried—Conway’s books are vital to the publisher’s survival. The copy that Charles Clover, her boss, has is also incomplete.

Meanwhile, Conway has been found dead at the bottom of a tower in his mansion in Farmington. The verdict is suicide. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Charles has a letter from him hinting at his intentions.

But Susan is not convinced and suspects foul play. When she goes to Farmington, she finds that the village mirrors Saxby-on-Avon. Many of the characters in the book are based on people living there—like Vicar Robeson who appears in the book as Osborne (an anagram of his name). Conway’s house is the model for Pye Hall. Was he trying to leave clues in his book about what was really going on?  

The story moves between the manuscript (set in Courier font) and Susan’s world. Horowitz also includes an excerpt from the first book that Conway wrote and the notes that Conway’s sister made about their childhood. Horowitz gets the different tones right—the pretentiousness of Conway’s early “serious” work is very different from the Atticus Pünd novel. But I’m not sure we needed two pages of it.

Horowitz said (in a Penguin Podcast) that writing a regular whodunit would be boring—the only way to liven it up would be to play with the form. He does that here and has great fun with it. I love whodunits and got two of them in one book here! This is an entertaining read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Gap of Time: Jeanette Winterson

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“God doesn’t need to punish us. We can do that for ourselves. That’s why we need forgiveness.”

A man driven crazy by jealousy, a wife accused of adultery and a lost child: this is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.[1] But unlike Othello, The Winter’s Tale allows the for redemption and a chance to right wrongs. Like the original, The Gap of Time is ultimately a book about forgiveness.

The plot: Leo is a wealthy man, living in London, used to getting his way. He is married to a French cabaret singer, MiMi, and they have a nine-year-old son, Milo. Leo has a hedge fund, which specializes in buying and stripping the assets of business, and loading them with debt, making a profit for himself and his stockbrokers.

Leo is convinced that MiMi is having an affair with his best friend, Xeno, and that the child she is carrying is his. In a jealous rage, Leo tries to kill Xeno. Xeno flees. When the baby is born, Leo refuses to acknowledge her as his. He gives her to his gardener Tony with a briefcase full of money, and bribes him to take her to Xeno.

Tony sensing that he is being followed by muggers, hides the baby in a BabyHatch (a place for abandoned babies). She is found by Shep and his son Clo, who take her home and raise her. With the money in the briefcase, they also find a diamond necklace and a piece of sheet music titled Perdita. That’s what they name the baby: the little lost one.

Having got rid of the child, Leo takes Milo and tries to catch a flight to Berlin to escape MiMi. Milo doesn’t want to go and runs away from his father straight into the path of oncoming van.

Leo and MiMi divorce, and she returns to Paris, a shadow of her former self. Leo has to live with his actions that have resulted in the death of his son, the loss of his daughter, his beloved wife and his best friend.

Meanwhile, Perdita grows up happy and loved in New Bohemia, a place that feels like the southern US. Then one day, she throws a birthday party for Shep and invites her boyfriend Zel. Zel’s father turns up too, and secrets that have been long hidden come tumbling out. She decides to go find her biological father and confront him.

I enjoyed this “cover version” as Winterson calls it. Perdita’s two fathers, Shep and Leo, are antitheses of each other: one open and kind, the other self-centred, focused on accumulating money and power. Xeno is an interesting character—sexually ambiguous, he is close to both Leo and MiMi, and won’t allow himself to be dominated by his friend. The friendships are destroyed by the fact that Leo can’t bear to share people he loves with anyone else. It takes the child to heal the wounds caused by the adults.

I liked the way Winterson turned the King Leontes’s empire into the cut-throat world of finance. Some of the coincidences are a little far-fetched, but she is just reflecting Shakespeare, who used them fairly liberally. I’m not complaining—they bring the plot together and allow a resolution.

The writing is lyrical. Part of the joy of this book is rereading some of the passages. There is so much I can quote, but I’ll restrain myself to this:

“And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.”


[1] The Winter’s Tale is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Also reviewed on this site: Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth.

Flicker: Theodore Roszak

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“[E]ntertainment rules more lives than art and rules them more despotically. People don’t put up their guard when they’re being entertained. The images and the messages slip through and take hold deeper.”

Flicker is a thriller, a history of film (with a conspiracy theory thrown in) and a cautionary tale about the power of movies.

Jonathan Gates, a young film student in Los Angeles, becomes obsessed with a German B-grade movie director called Max Castle. He discovers Castle’s films at The Classic, “the best film repertory film house west of Paris… a legendary little temple of arts wedged between Moishe’s Strictly Kosher Deli and Best Buy Discount Goods”. The Classic is run by Clare Swann and Sharkey, who handles the antiquated movie projector.

Jonathan begins an affair with Clare, who is a trenchant film critic. She hunts out forgotten films to show at The Classic, and finds a copy of Castle’s lost film, Judas Castle. The film leaves them uneasy, feeling unclean.

Jonathan becomes an expert on Castle, tracking down his films and finding the few people who knew him. Thanks to him, the films have found a cult audience.

In his search for the elusive Castle, Jonathan keeps coming across the Orphans of the Storm, a powerful sect. Descended from the Cathars, the sect sees the body as a living hell and advocates not bringing children into the world, not by killing but turning people off sex. This puts them in direct opposition to the Catholic church, which encourages procreation. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars were hunted down by the Church and went into hiding.

The modern Orphans of the Storm has partly emerged from the shadows and is known for taking care of abandoned children. However, its real power has never been acknowledged. Its influence is far-reaching—having infiltrated politics, entertainment and everything else, the Orphans spread their creed, always behind the scenes. The young orphans are taught film-making and how to insert images under the actual film—the flicker—that has a subliminal effect. Castle is an Orphan but fell out of favour because of his independence.

Meanwhile, Clare becomes a respected film critic and lives in New York. The theatre is taken over by Sharkey, who is showing mostly low-grade films, with lots of violence and sex. Like the films of Arthur Dunkle, an 18-year-old who makes graphically violent films.

Dunkle’s films take the world by storm—it’s not just the kids who love him but also the critics. Jonathan hates the films but can see the skill with which they had been made. To him, they signal the loss of taste, of real storytelling. Not surprisingly, Dunkle is one of the orphans. Jonathan, still on the trail of Castle, uses the excuse of interviewing him to get into the orphanage in LA. But the more he learns, he gets deeper he gets. Until he takes one step too far.

I read Flicker in the early 1990s and thought it was brilliant. It didn’t make it to my top 15 books, but came close. This year, I decided to reread some of these books and see whether I felt the same about them.

It was an interesting experience. There was a lot I had forgotten about it. I remembered Jonathan, Claire (a wonderful creation), the Classic, the inserting of images and the twist in the tale but everything else felt new. It’s a good story, and I can’t resist convoluted plots. But reading it now, I found it much more disturbing and bleaker. Maybe it’s the times we live in: the graphic violence in films and the way AI has seeped into our lives makes it feel almost believable. And like a good conspiracy theory, it’s impossible to prove or disprove. Not that I’m saying I believe any of this happened—this is, after all, fiction—but it left me feeling uneasy, in the way I imagine Max Castle’s films would. This is not a book that you will forget, and believe me, you will never see a film in quite the same way again.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk

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Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“[S]ometimes I feel we’re living in a world we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with that we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

The middle of winter in Poland, near the Czech border. Janina Duszejko is one of three people who live in the little hamlet during the winter, when the summer visitors have gone.  She is woken one night by her neighbour Oddball (she has names for everyone—she finds their given names inadequate), who tells her that their neighbour Big Foot is dead. They find Big Foot lying on the floor of his house, having choked on the bone of a deer he had killed and cooked. Duszejko feels it is rough justice. 

Big Foot’s death is followed by the murder of the chief of police, who used to hunt. He is found in a well with deer footprints all around him. And then the body of the rich entrepreneur who runs a fox farm is found in the woods, weeks after his disappearance. Duszejko is convinced that it is the animals taking their revenge, but she is dismissed as a batty old woman.

But this is not a simple whodunit and Duszejko is no batty old woman. She is the narrator, observant, funny, honest and a little melancholic, haunted by the disappearance of her two dogs. She looks out for the animals who live in the forest around her and has far more sympathy for them than for most humans.  

One of her frequent visitors (almost the only visitor) is Dizzy, who used to be her student and is now working with the police. On his visits, he not only keeps her abreast of the investigation but works with her on his real passion: the poetry of William Blake that he is translating. Lines from the poetry of William Blake are scattered throughout the book, resonating with Duszejko’s connection with nature and her anger at the way it is being desecrated.

Interwoven with the murder mystery are questions of animal rights and astrology. As Duszejko tries to unravel the mystery around her, she muses on vegetarianism, human arrogance and the importance of astrological forces—she is a keen astrologer. Convinced that the alignment of stars at a person’s birth can predict their death, she starts studying the charts of the victims.

This is an unusual book, a riff on the relationship between humans and animals, and how skewed it is. The hunters have erected wooden towers, reminiscent of a concentration camp. These are called pulpits. Listening to a priest praise hunting at a mass, celebrating it as honouring nature, Duszejko understands why: “In a pulpit, Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.”

There is a lot of passion here, and Duszejko is an engaging character: sharp, unafraid to tell it like it is, angry and empathetic at the same time. I loved this book—it has been beautifully translated, and the use of initial capitals on some nouns reminded me of some of the classics of the 18th century. But this is very much a novel of its time. I would strongly recommend it.

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.

32 Yolks: From my Mother’s Table to Working the Line: Eric Ripert

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With Veronica Chambers

“Only if you cook what you love and truly understand will people be happy with your food.”

Good food—how it can sustain you, both physically and emotionally—is the centre of these memoirs. Eric Ripert, a well-known chef, writes about growing up in France and Andorra, and his early years in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Ripert didn’t have an easy childhood. His adored parents, Monique and André, split up when he was very young, and André moved away. His stepfather Hugo bullied him when Monique wasn’t around, which was every afternoon after school. At 7 years old, there wasn’t much that Ripert could do.

Not surprisingly, he became a “difficult child”. When he was 8, his mother sent him off to a Catholic boarding school, something he saw as an ultimate betrayal from the one person he relied on. He didn’t stay long at the school because the priest who took him under his wing tried to molest him—yet another betrayal from an adult he trusted.

The bright thread running through these years was a love of food, inherited from Monique, a superb cook. One of the joys of the summer holidays spent with his grandparents was watching his grandmothers cook. As he says, “when things were bad, and later, when bad went to worse, food became my main source of comfort, my most consistent pleasure”.

When he was 11, André died. Ripert was devastated. To try to cheer him up, Monique took him to a small but well-known Andorran restaurant, Chez Jacques. Jacques took an immediate liking to Ripert, who would spend afternoons listening to Jacques’s war stories and watching him cook, instead of being at home with Hugo.

Inspired by Jacques, Ripert went to a cooking school and got a job as a junior chef in La Tour d’Argent, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. Nothing he had done so far had prepared him for the gruelling work in a restaurant kitchen. The first day was a disaster. It took him 20 minutes to separate 32 eggs for his first task: to make a sauce hollandaise. The pan became unwieldy. “I didn’t have the strength to move thirty-two yolks and make a light and foamy sabayon. … I couldn’t ask…so I failed, at this simplest of tasks.”

But he worked hard and eventually got a job in Jamin, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant under Joël Robuchon, a chef with a terrifying reputation. Working at Janin made La Tour d’Argent seem easy. Robuchon lived up to his reputation and ran his kitchen on fear. There was no chatter, no kidding around—just a kitchen full of people determined not to upset the chef.

The book is poignant, heartbreaking and vivid. You get the feel of what it must be like to work in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant—the constant pressure, the heat, the lack of space and the dynamic between the people. His descriptions of food are mouth-watering: his grandmother Maguy’s apple tart, where “[t]he scent of butter and apple was sunshine itself”; Monique’s soupe au pistou, with “the basil brightening the flavour of the white beans”; and his first taste of caviar: “the saltiness, the richness, the briny finish as I swallowed it”.

And there is the way that food can capture a moment in time. In Ripert’s case this was the chocolate mousse he had the first night at Chez Jacques. “Proust had his madeleine, and because of Jacques, I had my mousse. … It is the taste of friendship. It is the taste of belly laughs, and war stories, and the memory of a man who could jump out of planes and make a leg of lamb with equal amounts of skill and ardor. But more than anything, chocolate mousse is the taste of being welcomed: of Chez Jacques, where, for me, the door was always open.”

The Sultanpur Chronicles—Shadowed City: Achala Upendran

Welcome to a world of magic, flying carpets and rakshasas[1]! Before I go any further, full disclosure: Achala Upendran is a friend. This is her first novel.

Sultanpur is a vast empire, ranging from mountainous Firozia to the cities of Dastakar. It is home to humans, djinns and other beings. Peace has come after a fierce war between humans and rakshasas, after which the demons were banished from Sultanpur, and no one in the kingdom is allowed to even mention them. The Sultan has kept the peace by imposing strict limits on magic and on certain books.

But the books still exist, and it is possible to get hold of one if you know the right person, for example, Ismail, a bookseller. His sister, Roza, a handmaiden of the Princess, persuades him to get her a forbidden volume. Using the spells in the book, she summons Manukarmini, a rakshasi, in a land where they had not been seen for three centuries.

But is that really true? Devankar, a reporter working at the Sultanpurian, uncovers a bombshell: Sudhakar, the Sultan’s commander and one of his most trusted advisors, has rakshasa ancestry. Devankar takes the story to his editor, who sells him out to the Palace. Before long, he has not only the Palace guards on his trail, but a dangerous group called the Dawn Worshippers.

The Dawn Worshippers has been formed by the Master, a war veteran and an extremely powerful magician. The Master has sworn vengeance on Sultanpur and has returned to wreak havoc, accompanied by his two disciples, Mrinalini and Farzan.

This book is the first of a series, which explains some loose ends. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and loved the little touches like the public and private carpets (public and private transport). There are plenty of strong female characters, including the Princess, who has a bigger role to play than this review suggests. Manukarmini is sympathetically portrayed—Upendran doesn’t see her as the “other” but as someone who gets caught up in events and does the best she can.  

The best fantasy reflects our world in some way, and the thread of the division between humans and rakshasas echoes the polarization that we are seeing in so many countries. The kingdom’s peace has been achieved by completely excluding a group. But as we all know—or should know—real peace comes with understanding the other.

I am looking forward to the next installment and to seeing this world develop and grow. A warning for readers outside India: the print edition is only available in India. Readers elsewhere will need to download the Kindle version.


[1] Demons in Hindu mythology.

The Selector of Souls: Shauna Singh Baldwin

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As the book begins, Damini commits a crime because she believes there is no choice. No one sees her commit it except the goddess Anamika Devi (the Unnamed One), but it haunts her. With this incident, Shauna Singh Baldwin sets up the theme of the book: how women cope in a society where they are not valued, where they have to fight for the freedom to live as they want.   

Damini works for Mem-saab, an elderly deaf woman living in Delhi. Damini is not only her carer but also her ears, and the women are very close. Mem-saab is a Sikh widow, whose sons squabble over their inheritance. One of them moves in with his mother, bringing his family with him, ostensibly to take care of her but actually to persuade her to sell her house. Eventually, Mem-saab, realizing that her sons would never stop harassing her, dies. It is an open question whether she committed suicide or not. Damini has her suspicions but says nothing. Unable to support herself, Damini moves to Gurkhot to live with her daughter and her sick son-in-law.  

Anu is a middle-class housewife in Delhi, living with her husband Vikas, daughter Chetna and Vikas’s parents. Vikas is violent, but his parents seem to think that Anu should just put up with it. Anu sends Chetna off to her cousin in Canada and, once Chetna is gone, she files for divorce—a move frowned upon by everyone around her. Looking for a safe place, she joins a Catholic order, feeling that it would be the last place that Vikas would look for her. She ends up as a nurse in Gurkhot.

But The Selector of Souls is not just about women in India. Singh Baldwin also brings in the abortion of girl foetuses, HIV, class distinctions and religion, in particular the rise of the Hindu far right that Vikas, his parents and Damini’s son Suresh are all part of.

This is an angry book. Most of the men don’t come off well at all—Vikas is a truly nasty piece of work, Suresh isn’t much nicer and even Anu’s uncle Sharad, to whom she goes for help, betrays her. The head of the mission, Father Pashan, is a good man but he is never really developed. The fact that there are almost no good men makes the book feel a little unrelenting.

It gets a little preachy towards the end, when Damini holds a religious ceremony to appease the god Lord Golunath. During the ceremony, the ojha (priest) channels Lord Golunath and speaks out on women’s rights, which seems a little unlikely, given that almost every other male in the book has opposed them. It does feel like she uses this and Damini’s channelling of the goddess Anamika (which is more convincing) to lecture her readers. That is a pity—it takes away from a strong novel.

But the two main characters are well drawn, and you invest in their journey to find their place in the world and to make a difference, no matter how small. And there is hope in the end, when the women discover and learn to use the strength that they had all the time.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Madeleine Thien

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“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

This novel is an encapsulation of the modern history of China, from the early years of Mao’s rise to the present, seen through the lives to two families. It is a story of upheaval but also of the love of music.

The book starts in Vancouver in 1989. Marie—or Ma-Li—is 10 and living with her mother. One day, the police come to the door to tell them that Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, has committed suicide in Hong Kong. Marie realizes that she actually knows very little about him.

In March 1990, Ai Ming, a young woman fleeing the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiannamen Square protestors, comes to live with them. Ai Ming’s father, Sparrow, and Kai were close, and through her, Marie starts to piece together the story of her father’s life.

Their stories are recorded in the handwritten Book of Records, “the shape of a miniature door, bound together with a length of walnut-coloured string”. The book, a mix of fact and fiction, ends up with Marie’s mother. When Marie gives it to Ai Ming, Ai Ming reads to her from it, introducing her to people who seem strangers but—as we will discover—are connected to her. There is Big Mother Knife, with “a jackdaw laugh, a terrible temper, and shouting voice”. Her sister Swirl and husband Wen the Dreamer, the author of the book, have a child, Zhuli. When Swirl and Wen the Dreamer are caught up in the Land Reform for owning property, they leave Zhuli with Big Mother. Zhuli grows up to be a talented violinist.

Zhuli’s love of Western classical music is shared by Big Mother’s son, Sparrow, a gifted composer, who is absorbed by the symphony he is working on. Big Mother named him Sparrow to keep him safe: “the little sparrow was a bird so common that gods and men, idealists and thieves, Communists and Nationalists, would pass over him in disdain”. The third in this trio is Kai, who is a concert pianist. The three become very close, attending a study group that discussed forbidden topics (with the radio turned on loud to discourage any eavesdropping). But soon their world is turned upside down as the Revolution targets musicians who play Western music.

Music is one of the leitmotifs running through the book—the thread binding many of the characters.  Big Mother Knife and Swirl could sing “harmonies so bewitching that problems large and small disappeared the enchantment of their voices”. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli live and breathe Western classical music.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing brings China’s history to life in the way that good fiction can—by humanizing historical events, showing how ordinary people were affected by them: the  betrayals and the lives destroyed, and the need to hide your inner life. As the Professor in the study group says, “This is a skill we perfect from an early age. How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust.”

It is a moving and beautifully written book. As Marie learns the stories of her father and Ai Ming’s family, she discovers the pain and heartache that joins them. This is also a story of a country, as Madelien Thien charts China’s journey from the cataclysmic events of the Revolution to the modern-day consumer society.

Frankenstein in Baghdad: Ahmed Sadaawi

Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Ahmed Sadaawi takes the story of Frankenstein and transposes it to Baghdad in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Bombs go off regularly on the streets and people die every day. But not all of them get a decent burial—bits of bodies lie rotting on the streets, unclaimed. Wanting to force the authorities to recognize that the body parts are as deserving of a proper burial as whole corpses, Hadi, a rather disreputable junk dealer, starts collecting and stitching them together to make a whole man. He dubs the corpse Whatsitsname.

But things get out of hand. There is a huge explosion on Tayaran Square—a bomber tries to attack the Sadeer Novotel Hotel but is thwarted by Hasib, a young security guard. The hotel is spared the explosion but Hasib is blown up in the process.

Hasib’s soul, released from his body, drifts towards the river, wanting to touch it. He sees a man in a white vest and shorts drifting with the current. “Go and find what happened to your body”, the man says. “Don’t stay here.” A teenager sitting on his grave gives him the same advice. “You have to find it or some other body, or else things will end badly for you.”

But Hasib’s body isn’t whole anymore. He goes looking for another one, finds Whatitsname and moves in.

Hadi wakes up in the morning to find the corpse missing. Hasib/Whatitsname has gone to the house next door, which belongs to Elishva, a widow. She never got over the fact that her son Daniel never returned from the war, although everyone around her is convinced that he is dead. So when Hasib, in his new body, walks into her house, she is convinced that Daniel has come back.

Initially, Hasib/Whatitsname wreaks vengeance on those who are responsible for killing the people whose body parts he is using. But as the parts decompose, he has to keep replacing them, and some of the dead are not exactly innocent themselves. As rumours about him grow, he gathers a following who move in with him. Meanwhile the head of the Tracking and Pursuit Unit has decided to capture this strange creature haunting the streets of Baghdad.

This is a clever book, full of black humour. You do need a strong stomach at times, but it is well worth it. The story is told partly from the perspective of Whatitsname, who records his account for a journalist. The characters are vivid, especially Elishva, whose closest confidants are her cat and a picture of St. George on her wall.

Sadaawi paints a picture of a city caught up in violence and uncertainty but where people still try to get on with their lives. And where everyone has a right to their story, even if it is a creature that is an amalgamation of various humans. It is funny, poignant and in spite of drawing the central idea from Mary Shelley, is utterly original. It is not surprising that it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord—Liel Leibovitz

“Lots of writers have dared walk up to the edge of reason and stare into that great chasm, into the abyss. Very few people have got there and laughed out loud at what they saw. It’s the divine comedy.”

—Bono, on Leonard Cohen

You either love or hate Leonard Cohen’s music. I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen when I was in my early 20s. I had never heard anything like it: the spare songs with minimal instrumentation, the almost monotonous but compelling voice and the clever, beautiful and sometimes funny lyrics (in spite of complaints that his music is suicidal, it’s often laced with humour). The record saw me through a period of deep depression when I was unable to listen to music. It felt like only Cohen’s songs seemed to be able to penetrate the darkness, and it is still one of my favourite albums.

Liel Leibovitz makes it very clear that this is not a biography of Cohen. Instead he tries to understand what makes Cohen so important. As he puts it, there have been better poets, more skilled novelists and songwriters with greater talent. “But Leonard Cohen lingers and thrives because he is not really any of these things, at least not essentially. He is something more intricate, the sort of man whose pores absorb the particles of beauty and grief and truth that float weightlessly all around us yet so few of us note.”

But who was Leonard Cohen and what shaped him? He was from a Jewish family in Montreal. His father, Nathan Cohen, died when he was nine, something that affected him deeply. One of his early influences was his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, who spent almost a year with them after his father’s death. Rabbi Klinitsky-Klein’s Judaism, with “its language of punishment and justice, of damnation and salvation”, was far more fiery than the “polite theology” that the Cohens followed. It was spiritual but also erotic, something that spoke to an adolescent Cohen. This influence can be seen through many of Cohen’s songs: the drawing on images from the Bible and the mix of the sacred and profane. As Cohen puts it: “Real spirituality…has its feet in the mud and its heart in heaven”.

If you know Cohen’s songs, you will enjoy this book. Leibovitz goes into detail about how some of the well-known songs were conceived. When Cohen went into the studio to record Songs of Leonard Cohen, the producer John Simon thought Sisters of Mercy needed a hurdy gurdy to give it a sense of a “mobile healing operation pulling into town” (quite clearly, Simon did not understand what the song was about). Cohen relegated the hurdy gurdy to the background and put the lyrics front and centre, which is where they needed to be. “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.” Why would lyrics like these need to be dressed up?

And then, of course, there is Hallelujah, the song that took Cohen a year to write. There are probably around 80 verses but most versions—including Cohen’s—only use a handful of them. The song is a masterpiece of pain and loss.

“Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

What I liked about this book is that it tries to explain what made Cohen the poet/songwriter he was. It is not a gossipy, tell-all book but gives a more in-depth perspective of the times that Cohen lived in—the literary scene in Canada, the rise of the protest song in the US or the politics in Israel—and how he reacted to, and was affected by, these events. Cohen was one of the greatest poets of our times, and this book does his work justice.