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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

“Just stick to cricket, Shane.” Good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more in this tedious biography, writes Archie Henderson

Published in the Sunday Times

No Spin: My Autobiography **
Shane Warne with Mark Nicholas, Penguin Random House, R320

Shane Warne deserves a good biography.

This is not it, even with Mark Nicholas as his amanuensis.

Nicholas, an accomplished broadcaster and writer, played a marathon innings, listening to his subject, recording him, transcribing their conversations and bringing some coherence to the garrulous Warne’s ramblings.

He fails to rein in Warne and a book of almost 400 pages (including seven of fascinating statistics) could have been half the length, enough to accommodate the best part of the book, the cricket.

Warne was a great cricketer – many aficionados believe he was one of the greatest – but he can also be a great bore.

His peccadillos with a variety of women and his affair with film star Liz Hurley are tedious.

His obsequiousness toward the rich (Kerry Packer et al) is embarrassing, especially his blatant pleading to be invited to Johann Rupert’s next golf outing at St Andrews.

And his participation during a TV reality show in the “jungle” near the Kruger Park is ludicrous and irrelevant.

Stick to cricket, a strong captain – Steve Waugh, perhaps, whom Warne loathes – might have advised.

But good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more.

When he does stick to cricket, he redeems himself and his book.

He is a deep thinker on the game, was a brilliant exponent of the difficult art of leg-spin bowling and would have made a very good Australian captain.

Sadly, part of his behaviour cost him that job. Now it’s cost him a good book.

One day, when time has created some distance for dispassion, Warne will get his deserved biography. It might even be by Gideon Haigh, the Australian who is as good a writer as Warne is a bowler and who has already compiled a series of essays on the player. In them Haigh describes Warne’s bowling action as being “both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat”.

Now that’s a book that would be worth reading.

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Book Bites: 14 October

Published in the Sunday Times

Broken Ground ****
Val McDermid, Little Brown, R325

Val McDermid is not known as the Queen of Tartan Noir for nothing – apart from her cleverly crafted plots she serves up fabulously atmospheric settings. In this latest offering we find ourselves deep in the Highland countryside where a body is unearthed from a peat bog. As it has evidently been there so long it falls to DCI Karen Pirie and her historic cases unit to solve the mystery. Pirie, described as “a dumpy wee woman with bad hair and terrible dress sense” is a deliciously grumpy character, given to such observations as “What they needed was support, not some strutting Glasgow keelie who thought he’d been sent to be their saviour.” Rich with idiom and description, this is a satisfying escape. Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Insomnia Museum ***
Laurie Canciani, Head of Zeus, R265

At 17, Anna can’t remember ever being outside her father’s crammed flat. She can’t read and spends her time re-watching The Wizard of Oz with a plastic Jesus figurine. Her father, a drug addict and hoarder, leaves only to bring back more junk for them to tinker with for their Insomnia Museum. Then one day her father doesn’t wake up and Anna calls the only other person she knows, a good Samaritan she met through the closed door. Anna’s experience of the outside world is dreamlike and distorted, creating an almost untrustworthy narrative where the reader encounters dysfunctional characters in a violence-ridden council estate from a child-like perspective. It makes for a dizzying read. Sally Partridge @sapartridge

Agatha Christie: The Mystery of the Three Quarters **
Sophie Hannah, HarperCollins, R320

If this is a homage to the Queen of Mystery then Hannah has somewhat failed. This is tedious, with an enormously pompous, arrogant and twirling mustachioed Poirot that is very much like Kenneth Branagh’s bombastic creation in his film Murder on the Orient Express. Four letters accusing four people of murdering Barnabas Pandy are sent to them by someone pretending to be Poirot. The detective is at once insulted and intrigued. Who sent these letters? Who is Pandy? And was he murdered? It’s a dry read. There is a lack of pacing and Hannah’s normally clever plotting becomes obvious. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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In Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel there is no distinction between the real and the magical, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

The Theory of Flight ****
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, Penguin Books, R270

Imogen “Genie” Zula Nyoni, the gap-toothed heroine of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel, The Theory of Flight, is said to have hatched from a golden egg.

She inhabits an idyllic childhood, playing among the sunflowers with her friend Marcus. Her life changes when adult concerns interfere. Marcus’s parents take him away. And soldiers – the feared red berets – bring death and horror to the village.

When the author was just seven the men with the red berets entered her own idyllic childhood on the plot of land her grandfather owned in Zimbabwe.

“I remember the sunflowers and having that space to let my imagination run wild. And I also know we had droughts, we had the men with the red berets. My memories of my childhood have to contain both those things. Not to take away from the atrocity, but people are able to go through horrible things and still live and laugh and love each other.”

This is the challenge of post-colonial literature, says Ndlovu.

“How do we tell the story of where we come from without reducing it to the doom and gloom you see on the TV news?”

The novel is set in an unnamed southern African country – a smart choice which relieves her of the burden of a real country’s deep history and inevitable complexity.

She is able to look at the issues of Zimbabwe – war and HIV and homelessness run through this book – without them overwhelming the essentially human story, the story of Genie’s life, and the author’s other themes: love and loss and friendship and the transformative power of imagination.

The tale emerges through the lives of a few families and intriguing characters, from colonial times to the present.

There’s Genie’s father, Golide Gumede, a revolutionary who endured Soviet winters to study aeronautical engineering and build a plane, “because he understood that after the war – when independence arrived – people would need to know that they were capable of flight”. And her mother, Elizabeth Nyoni, a self-styled Dolly Parton in a blonde wig, with dreams of Nashville. There are farmers, war veterans, a journalist, street kids and the brutal bureaucrats of The Organisation of Domestic Affairs.

Ndlovu is a gifted storyteller, skillfully interweaving the real and the magical, beauty and devastation, historical and personal perspectives, simplicity and complexity. She has a vivid imagination and the tale shimmers with magic, though she balks at the “magical realism” label.

“I simply told this story as honestly as I could, in the way stories have always been told around me, with no distinction between what is magical and what is real. My job as a writer is not to confine my imagination, but to use all the elements I need.”

Her background as a filmmaker informs her writing: “It was important to me to try to capture all of what was happening from the best vantage point I could have. As a writer you have this all-seeing ability but in real life you only see something from a certain angle. So each character sees Genie differently, and she has a definite understanding of herself, even when the other characters don’t. When you have multiple viewpoints and voices, there is nuance.”

She adds: “I experience the world visually and try to communicate that vision through the careful use of words. If I can’t get you to see why Golide has fallen in love with Elizabeth’s ankle, then I’ve failed.”

In this case, she succeeds – both in the telling of Golide’s ankle-inspired infatuation, and in the book itself, which is a marvellous and unusual flight of fancy. When Genie dies, and flies away on huge silver wings, she will take a little piece of your heart with her. @KateSidley

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If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness, writes Michele Magwood of Louis de Bernières’ new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis de Bernières’ latest novel is character-driven. Picture: David Levenson/Getty Images


So Much Life Left Over ****
Louis de Bernières, Harvill Secker, R290

Louis de Bernières’ new novel picks up where he left off in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, though you do not have to have read that to appreciate this book. It opens in a valley in colonial Ceylon in the years after World War 1, where two former fighter pilots are shooting the breeze as well as a row of tin cans.

“Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death.” They, and other survivors, “had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with”.

Daniel loves Ceylon and his job on a tea plantation, but when his wife Rosie gives birth to a stillborn baby, she falls into a depression and insists that they return to England to the bosom of her sprawling family.

De Bernières employs a multi-hued, multi-voiced technique to narrate the story, which is character- rather than plot-driven.

Rosie has three sisters: the giddy Sophie, married to a doubting Anglican minister, Ottilie who is in love with Daniel’s brother but who settles for another, and Christabel, a Bohemian who lives with a woman artist in a distinctly Bloomsbury setup.

If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness. Affairs abound, loves go unrequited, they burgeon or sour and are compromised. Some fly. One senses a society bewildered, groping for purpose even as it trudges towards another war.

Colourful and quickly moving, De Bernières counters humour with darker strokes. Daniel’s heroic, officer brother becomes a street-sweeping drunk; his son will have nothing to do with him.

Most moving of all is the character of the gardener, Oily Wragge. Wragge spends his days hiding in a cave beneath the conservatory, trying to shut out his nightmares of the war in Mesopotamia, the death marches and his slavery in Anatolia: “Starved and ill, in heat so scorching it can’t be imagined or told, without food, without water, we are driven along by Arab horsemen. The beatings with rifle butts, the trampling of the dying. Shit running down our legs, pains like childbirth in our guts. Yallah! Yallah! Move on! Move on!”

As the guns of war sound yet again, De Bernières leaves the stage open for the last book in the trilogy. @michelemagwood

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Charles Massy’s book on agriculture in drought-stricken Australia has incited furious debate, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth *****
Charles Massy, Chelsea Green, R500

Charles Massy seems an unlikely revolutionary. Yet this softly spoken 65-year-old Australian farmer, bird lover and zoologist first won plaudits for exposing the political skulduggery that led to the decline of the Australian wool industry in his 2011 book, Breaking the Sheep’s Back.

He is now leading the charge for an agricultural insurrection with Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth.

It is a 500-plus-page tome so persuasive it incited furious debate in farming circles in Australia prior to its South African release this month, with prominent environmentalist Tim Flannery likening its power, scale and honesty to Rian Malan’s great saga of SA, My Traitor’s Heart.

Massy, who still tends the farm his family has tilled for five generations, prefers to describe the book as “a gentle course in teaching landscape function through lots of stories”. But he is quick to acknowledge that many of the revolutionary ideas he describes in it, indeed, “came out of Africa”.

He is eager, too, to confess to his own agricultural crimes, and to the palpable sense of urgency that drives Call of the Reed Warbler, which is at one level a momentous history of industrial agriculture and the ravages it continues to wreak upon global landscapes at a moment in “this Anthropocene epoch where”, says Massy “we are entering unknown and frightening territory”.

At another, it is the deeply personal story of a cluster of individuals who have transformed their farms from drought-blighted dustbowls into moist, fertile, financially viable farmlands by using a range of regenerative techniques – “techniques that many regard as counter-intuitive”, says Massy.

Among the many techniques he details in the book are the radical livestock grazing practices advocated by controversial Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory, whose story, along with that of fabled South African botanist John Acocks, is one of many he tells in Call of the Reed Warbler.

“It was influences like that that helped save me,” says Massy, who advocates the Savory method of rotating livestock regularly and rapidly through small paddocks to imitate herd behaviour of wild hoofed animals in Africa.

This brings intensive bursts of manure and urine to the soil which in turn stimulates all important microbial and fungal activity – as well as greater germination of perennial grasses and cereal crops. He also advocates – and uses – a form of farming called Keyline, which deploys contours in the land to maximise water and conserve rainfall.

All in all his book is an elegant and exhaustively detailed plan to enhance five key landscape functions: the solar-energy cycle, the water cycle, the soil-mineral cycle, diversity and health of ecosystems at all levels, and the human-social.

For Massy, the latter is the key, and the most difficult. It is our very Western industrial mindset or what he calls the “mechanical mind”, that has led to such wholesale degradation of our soils and food.

He first began questioning the reigning agricultural paradigm in the wake of the ’80s drought.

“Every day for five years there were mocking blue skies; it got to the stage where the district was dust. We’d never seen anything like it. I had a little family, my father was dying and I was depressed but didn’t realise it. My mindset was that old paradigm – ‘I’m going to fight it and beat this drought.’ It’s a fairly arrogant statement isn’t it?” he now quizzes, “and of course I lost.”

His painful honesty in detailing how he dug himself out of “decades of debt” – and, more crucially, out of the “mechanical mindset” which led him to perpetuate the mistakes that turned the family farm into “a dustbowl” – is part of what makes this vast hybrid of a book so compelling.

Massy’s unparalleled ability to convey the beauty and complexity of the natural world to the page is another. He is keenly aware, too, that in writing about the destructive impact of industrial agriculture on the one hand, and proffering counter-intuitive solutions on the other, he is rubbing up against the same paradigms and vested interests that reacted with vitriol to Savory’s earlier ideas.

“But there is more receptiveness to change now,” he says, “because farmers intuitively know something is not right.”

Since the book’s release he has addressed farmers and scientists in various parts of the globe about the regenerative agriculture he describes. Yet he shrugs off the rigours of piling those added labours onto the demands of farming in the interests of transforming the way we farm, eat and think about the earth itself.

“You only get a small unique window of advocacy, and if you believe in something, well, you’ve got to grab it, haven’t you?” @bronsibree

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Book Bites: 30 September

Published in the Sunday Times

One Way *****
SJ Morden, Gollancz, R295

Frank Kittridge is serving a life sentence for murder, yet that doesn’t stop him being approached to go to Mars. He will be part of a team of skilled inmates who will build and maintain Mars Base One while serving out their sentences. Frank is all in – he could do with a change of scenery. However, when the chain gang arrives on the Red Planet and the crew members start to die, Frank needs to play detective or risk ending up in a body bag. Morden delivers action from the first sentence, a refreshing plot, and a shocker of a twist. Thrilling, hard to put down, and deeply satisfying – this book is the perfect trip for an off-world escape that will leave you reeling. Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

A Noise Downstairs **
Linwood Barclay, Orion, R305

Paul Davis is a literature professor who was hit on the head by Kenneth Hoffman, a colleague who happened to have the bodies of two women in the boot of his car when Paul stopped to offer roadside assistance. Now Kenneth is in jail and Paul is at home recovering from his injury but suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He decides it might help to write about the event on the typewriter his wife has bought him. Then Paul starts hearing typing in the dead of night. Barclay dispenses a basketful of red herrings along the way, but mostly of the good kind – the ones that swim close to the solution while still throwing the amateur sleuth off track. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Something in the Water **
Catherine Steadman, Simon & Schuster, R305

Flip. This started off so well. The protagonist googling on how to dig a grave on a dead man’s phone: “a poor burial comes down to three things: 1) lack of time 2) lack of initiative 3) lack of care”. She makes sure she doesn’t make these mistakes. Then we go back a few months. It’s entertaining but Steadman’s characters make it irritating. It’s told from the view of Erin who goes on honeymoon with new husband Mark. While diving in Bora Bora they find a bag filled with diamonds and a million pounds and decide to keep it. They get back to London and things go awry. Sympathy of character is needed to make this a compelling read but Erin and Mark are a bit too unlikeable. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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“This pacy account, featuring a mix of memoir and analysis, hits the mark” – Carlos Amato reviews Judith February’s judicious new book

Published in the Sunday Times

Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of SA’s Democracy ****
Judith February, Picador Africa, R280

With SA’s political economy feeling as stuck as a 24-year-old lump of chewing gum, the moment is right for grounded perspective on the country’s democratic journey. This pacy account, featuring a mix of memoir and analysis, hits the mark.

Since the late ’90s Judith February has undertaken critical research and advocacy on governance issues in SA. While at the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (Idasa), she fought tirelessly for a full accounting of the graft involved in the late-’90s arms deal, and later for transparency in political party funding. Neither battle has yet been won, but the war is long, as her book makes clear.

February provides a particularly clear-eyed account of the continuities and causal links between the Zuma era and the Mbeki era, and even the Mandela era before it.

The public discourse – particularly the ad hominem language of Mbeki’s faction against its critics to the left and right alike – became coarser and more inflammatory. This, she notes, sowed the seeds of the Polokwane revolt and all the rhetorical, ethical and institutional decay that followed.

There is a similar long view in her analysis of state capture. Its origins, she argues, stretch way back to what might be described as the original sin of the democratic era – the signing of the arms deal. February co-authored a seminal report by Idasa on the volley of hideously wasteful arms transactions and their poisonous effect on the integrity of the state in 2001.

Among the casualties of the arms deal, she says, was the vigour of the standing committee on public accounts, which became a partisan battleground instead of the relatively non-partisan watchdog that it should be.

But all is not lost: the epic scale of the Zuma-era corruption, February notes, has reawakened the public’s concern about the strength and protection of public institutions – from parliament to the Chapter 9 institutions to the media to the judiciary – that monitor and curb executive power.

When damaged, these institutions can be repaired. But having seen the slow progress of the decay in meticulous detail, February warns that recovery is not a quick or easy process.

She also explores the increasingly fractious and racialised tenor of our national dialogue in recent years – at least as it is enacted and reflected in the media and social media.

SA is undergoing an autopsy of the fantasy of the “Rainbow Nation”, she argues.

But the reactionary nature of the debate – not least in the populist theatrics and violent rhetoric of the EFF – about what sort of reality should replace the fantasy is taking us nowhere.

The true, simmering potential of our society, she suggests, lies in the emerging worldview of Mokoni Chaka and Evert du Preez, the two Kroonstad boys who rescued injured passengers from the wreckage of a train in January this year.

Evert du Preez and Mokoni Chaka, two friends who rescued injured passengers from a train wreck in Kroonstad this year. Picture: YouTube.

The 12-year-old heroes have been best friends since preschool, and they are both bilingual in Sotho and Afrikaans. “Hulle is baie erg oor mekaar,” said Du Preez’s mother. (“They are very serious about each other.”)

“This should not be unusual in SA but it is,” writes February. “It is in the innocence of two 12-year-old boys that we understand that [Mandela’s] vision is worth fighting for every day and every inch of the way.” Even in this jaded moment, February refuses to give up on the slow transformative power of democracy itself – an ideal that she separates from its rainbowist rhetoric. @CarlosCartoons

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Book Bites: 16 September

Published in the Sunday Times

PontiPonti ***
Sharlene Teo, Picador, R285

In 2003, Szu Min lives shyly in the shadow of her beautiful mother Amisa Tan, a former B-movie actress and her Aunt Yunxi, who works as a medium. In 2020 Szu’s childhood friend Circe is put in charge of the media blitz for the remake of the 1970s horror film Ponti, in which Amisa plays the leading role. This drives Circe to reconsider her friendship with Szu Min and its bitter end. Split between several decades as well as Circe, Szu and Amisa’s perspectives, Ponti is a quietly tragic and slow-moving read exploring grief, abandonment and broken loyalties in Singapore. Though Teo’s debut is atmospheric in language and setting, it fails to satisfy in its resolution. Efemia Chela @efemiachela

A Double LifeA Double Life *****
Flynn Berry, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, R285

Lord Lucan’s disappearance in 1974 still fascinates true-crime aficionados. Berry’s story is told from the point of view of Claire, a London GP who has lived under a new name since her father vanished. Names and dates have been changed in this fictionalised tale but the crime in the novel mirrors the real case: in his absence a court found Lord Lucan guilty of murdering a servant. In this version eight-year-old Claire finds the body of her au pair and still bears the emotional scars. Berry flips between past and present as Claire pursues the only course of action that will free her from her father’s shadow. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

The Chalk ManThe Chalk Man ****
CJ Tudor, Penguin, R175

If Stephen King and the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) had a British love child, her name would be CJ Tudor. The Chalk Man is spine-tingling and deliciously macabre; Tudor spins a tight yarn with remarkable constraint. A gang of pre-teens ride their bikes around town causing mischief when one day they stumble upon a body in the woods. There’s a strange new teacher who coaxes them into playing with chalk, and every time someone dies, creepy chalk men appear near the murder scene. Nothing is as it seems, and everyone seems to be nursing a secret. Right up to the very last page, The Chalk Man thrills and simultaneously terrifies. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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“A collection of stories about nobodies who discover that they matter” – Mohale Mashigo discusses Intruders with Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

Published in the Sunday Times

By Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

The acclaimed author of Intruders, Mohale Mashigo. Picture: Sydelle Willow Smith.


Intruders ****
Mohale Mashigo, Picador Africa, R180

“A collection of stories about nobodies who discover that they matter.” That is how Mohale Mashigo describes her latest, Intruders. And while the short stories are set in the future (yet deeply rooted in the past) SA, and they feature familiar characters, the author requests that we don’t label the tales in Intruders “Afrofuturism”.

She says Afrofuturism (the genre du jour in literature, film and – as Nando’s points out in their latest cheeky ad – marketing) doesn’t “feel like the right coat to dress my stories in”.

And once you’ve devoured all 12 stories in the book, you understand why Mashigo feels the need for that disclaimer in the first place. To refer to Intruders as Afrofuturism is lazy and inaccurate. The stories aren’t as performative as that label would suggest and while they have a strong sense of familiarity, it’s not in a “seen this all before”, unoriginal way.

The familiarity in Intruders is both comforting and disconcerting. The people in the stories could be our friends, our families, our neighbours – they could be us. The settings are familiar to anyone who knows any corner of this land. That makes it harder to dismiss these tales of werewolves, mutants, monster slayers, shapeshifters and magicians as just tales of fiction.

It’s difficult to do so when you get sucked into them quickly because you recognise the world they are set in. Some of the stories themselves are inspired by or make reference to tales that many of us grew up on.

About this, Mashigo says: “Some of our stories are so magical, scary and downright beautiful. I wanted to show people that there is value in what we have … Our things are nice too!”

For instance, “BnB in Bloem”, a story about two sisters who hunt monsters, brings up the legendary story of Vera the Ghost.

There are a few different versions of Vera’s story, but the basic premise is that she is a beautiful hitchhiker ghost picked up by men who would sleep with her and then later wake up at her gravesite. In “BnB” Vera isn’t just one apparition, but many, who are terrorising men. All of the Veras have died at the hands of the opposite sex, and are out for revenge.

“We would never have to deal with a Vera if men would stop killing women,” one of the sisters says. Imagine if every woman in SA murdered by a man returned for retribution.

That’s part of the beauty of Intruders: it is also a commentary on gender, violence, race, addiction and class in SA done masterfully and in such unexpected ways that stumbling across bits of commentary in the stories feels like discovering sweets you didn’t know were hidden in your pockets.

Take “Once Upon a Town”, for instance. It’s the tale of two brilliant children who were both the hope of their families and communities, who end up hiding in the shadows because of afflictions they have no control over.

Streetlights reflect off the Orange River in Upington. Picture:

While it’s a charming love story, “Once Upon” is also incredibly sad because – while it deals with the supernatural – it’s such a familiar South African tale.

The tale of brilliance that flourished in the sun for a while before being snuffed out by circumstances beyond the control of the gifted; the gifted kids who grew up in a place that wasn’t made to nourish their kind; the gifted kids who were the hopes of their families and communities for a better life; the gifted kids who, in the end, couldn’t escape the world they lived in.

One of the best stories in the Book is “Little Vultures”, a sci-fi fantasy set in a Jurassic Park-esque world, minus the horror (well, at least in the beginning). Basically, a sci-fi Garden of Eden. A widowed scientist, who is a pariah because of an experiment, lives on a farm with the animals she has created or resurrected. She is joined by two women, both coping with their own pain in different ways (one through cosmetic surgery, the other through isolation).

While the story is a literary Venn diagram about science and magic, at its heart is a stunning tale of loss, grief, loneliness and the value of life. The story ends on a suspenseful note, which is both fantastic and frustrating. Frustrating because you want to know more.

And that is the only disappointment with the tales in Intruders: how incomplete they feel. It’s as though Mashigo sucks the reader into her supernatural world as quickly as she spits you out from it. A lot of the stories leave you feeling like an addict who needs a fix. More please. @Pearloysias

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