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Saturday 28 October 2023

IN SOLITARY - Book review


Garry Kilworth’s debut novel In Solitary was published in 1977. Since then he has produced novels in a broad number of genres, among them science fiction, fantasy, and history.

Earth has been under the domination of aliens for centuries. The Soal are uncompromising, their laws stating: ‘No member of the Human Race born a native of the Planet Earth may have contact with any other such native by any medium, natural or otherwise, after the age of 170 months [just over 14 years-of-age] except for the performance of mating. No member of the Human Race under 170 months of age born a native of the Planet Earth may have contact with any male member of the same race. The penalty for disobedience of the Soal Law is death’ (p6). Hence, the males are effectively ‘in solitary’ all their life (save for the rare mating events).

The Soal resemble birds with pointed beak-like faces and a web of elastic skin joining the upper and lower limbs; fine hair-like feathers cover their bodies. They’re about a metre tall – ‘more like flying foxes than birds’ (p8).

The book begins with Tangiia – a native Polynesian – embarking to sea on a mating journey in the Oceania area near Ostraylea. Apparently the earthquake of 2083 Old Time had altered the physical relationship between Brytan and Yurop. Apart from the first chapter, the novel is in the first-person, related by another human, Cave, who is serving the Soal in Brytan – until he is banished to live among the mud people… Here, Cave meets a female, Stella, who is quite formidable. They live in tall towers – mushrooms – and barely subsist. Eventually, these two join forces with others, including Tangiia – all the while evading Soal patrols for, clearly, if they were caught congregating, they would be killed.

Of them all, Tangiia is the romantic: ‘She is what makes it so beautiful. Man was made to have woman by his side, otherwise there are just empty holes in our chests where our hearts should be’ (p70).

Kilworth has created an original scenario and populated it with humans and aliens who exhibit all the usual traits – anger, deceit, violence, hate and love. And close to the end, after a rebellion against the Soal, a twist in the tale is revealed.

At 139 pages, it is a short book, but packed with fascinating descriptions of an unusual environment and traumatic events.

Thursday 26 October 2023



This is the third book by Mark Mills – each one different in place and time. The Information Officer was published in 2009. It’s set in Malta in 1942 during the second great siege (the first being against the Turks in 1565). [The book brought back memories of the time my wife Jen and I lived in Rabat in 1974-75].

There are two maps – one of the Maltese islands with significant places shown; and a second of the Grand Harbour – which will prove helpful if you’re unfamiliar with Malta.

It begins (mistakenly in my opinion) in London, May 1951 with a viewpoint by a restaurant’s maître d’ with the hint of a spoiler. The real story begins in Malta, April 1942 when a young woman is murdered.

Major Max Chadwick is the Information Officer in Malta, responsible for reporting to the populace with suitable material to maintain morale. Max has a number of friends, among them Freddie, the medic who works out of Mtarfa hospital [I worked there in the 1970s; it’s now a school and apartments]; Elliott, an American serviceman; and Ralph, a cavalier pilot.

When Max is told that there have been three young women murdered yet the authorities seem to be hushing it up, he decides to do some private investigating himself. Digging around for clues is not easy for an amateur, granted, and it is made more difficult by the wartime conditions, notably the constant air raids.

The submarine base on Manoel Island, the Tenth Submarine Flotilla, was one of several targets for Italian and German bombers; inevitably, the airfields were prime targets too: Ta’ Qali, Hal Far and Luqa; and of course the many quaysides and docks of the Grand Harbour and its inlets. [Jen learned to drive in Malta and took her driving-test on the old airfield at Ta’ Qali].

Mills quickly immerses the reader in the place and period. ‘It was typical of many Maltese homes in that the unassuming façade gave no indication of the treasures that lay behind it’ (p21). [When living there we’d seen many examples of this.] He also has a fine turn of phrase: I liked his ‘bewilderment of bastions’ when describing Valletta.

‘…he accompanied her and her mangy dog to the Blessing of the Animals at the church of Santa Maria Vittoriosa’ (p130). [We’d seen these ceremonies in Malta and Spain].

‘… he’d been forced to crash-land in a field – a near-impossible thing to do on Malta without hitting a stone wall’ (p191). [Not much has changed with this overbuilt island].

‘The Point de Vue Hotel stood on the south side of the Saqqija, the leafy square separating Mdina and Rabat’ (p230). The hotel ‘took a direct hit during an afternoon raid, killing six’ (p230). [We enjoyed a splendid meal here].

He mentions the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra (p243) and on the same page on Dingli Cliffs the primary Radio Direction Finding station is found there; [even now, though the spying is somewhat more sophisticated].

He conveys the absolute terror of living through intense bombing day after day. ‘The ground beneath him had bucked like a living thing, and all around him the air had rung to the tune of flying splinters, a lethal symphony of rock and metal overlaid by more obvious notes: the whistle and shriek of falling bombs, the thump and crump of explosions, the staccato bark of the Bofors firing back blind, and the screams of the diving Stukas’ (p43).

Intermittently, we are privy to the male murderer’s thoughts, jotted down in his notebook, though he remains faceless; a man without empathy, a thoroughly unpleasant specimen. The mystery of his identity is maintained almost to the end.

It was obvious that Mills did a lot of research for the story and highlights two of the many books he consulted: Malta Magnificent by Francis Gerard and Fortress Malta by James Holland. ‘Twice the tonnage of bombs dropped on London during the worst twelve months of the Blitz had rained down on their heads in the last two months alone’ (p61).

There are a couple of interesting choices of character names he has used:

Chadwick lakes are formed behind a number of dams constructed by Sir Osbert Chadwick, a British engineer, in the late 19th century.

Mabel Edeline Strickland was the editor of The Times of Malta before and during the war. Mills’s book The Savage Garden has a main character called Adam Strickland…

If you have any interest in wartime skulduggery or Malta, you should find the book a fascinating read.

I’d also recommend Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten by Philip Vella. And of course Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta.

Editorial comment.

Two characters go to see a film at the Rabat Plaza (p229). Jen and I often went to the Adelphi cinema in Rabat (sometimes twice a week!); according to the Old Cinemas in Malta Facebook group, Rabat has only ever had two cinemas – the Adelphi and the Astoria.

Saturday 14 October 2023

THE NIGHT OF KADAR - Book review


Garry Kilworth’s second novel The Night of Kadar was published in 1978.

It’s a fascinating novel based on the generation starship concept. It begins in the vast spaceship that had been travelling for a thousand years and is finally nearing its inhabitable planetary destination. Embryos are activated in their tanks and grown rapidly, while being educated. Unfortunately, the ship’s designers did not plan for a subtle minute alien incursion that sabotages the intelligence units irreparably; ‘One of their manipulative interests was ecology – a natural area of study for a static race’ (p177).

The ship lands on an island in a sea of quicksand. The enigma of their purpose remains a mystery, doubtless lost in the wiped tapes. ‘We, the ship’s people. Born of a machine; an engine. But what is a planet, the planet Earth, if not an engine, a large beautiful engine that turns in space, and manufactures life?’ (p93).

The main character is Othman, who was born at the age of thirty Earthyears. Others emerge from the ship, including a pre-programmed wife Silandi. It seems that about half of the complement of settlers were born mentally impaired, referred to as morons; this was due to the malfunction in the circuitry. Inevitably, conflict between individuals arises, causing tension and even rebellion…

The ship automatically constructs tools and machines from its own huge carcass.

The senders, the people who launched the ship were of the Islamic faith; however, no Koran is supplied and their knowledge is bereft of any religion. As time goes by, they recall a childhood they never lived but was imprinted: these ‘false memory’ interludes are detailed in Arabic settings, coloured by the author’s time living and working in the Middle East. ‘She knew these questions could only remain questions. Earth could only be the somewhere of her simulated childhood – a place she had never physically touched’ (p86).

Othman becomes their natural leader and is determined to search for their destiny, their reason for being on this planet. To that end, he enforces the construction of a bridge across the expanse of quicksand to the mainland beyond. This is not always a popular decision, as the number of the island’s trees is depleted: ‘Man is an artist at destruction, even though his intentions may seem pure. Ten, a hundred, a thousand years to grow a tree, and ten minutes to bring it to the ground’ (p41).

The book’s title is from the Koran: ‘Better is the Night of Kadar (Glory) than a thousand months…’ ‘On the night of Kadar, the night he died, he would like to go to those stars, perhaps become one of them’ (p159).

Kilworth’s prose is always good and often eloquent: ‘the crisp salt of their bodies mingling as the wetness flows from their skin, the iron in their blood forming tight wires to jerking muscles, the smell of oxygen burning, circuit fusing in their veins as they reach out to touch the innumerable corners of the universe’ (p99).

Some later scenes are quite horrific. For this planet is no Garden of Eden. And yet they are survivors and they grow as the generations move on. Quite an imaginative feat, this book.

Editorial comment:

When writing, Kilworth could not have imagined that mentioning computer tapes (p3) would be obsolete so quickly.

One of my pet annoyances: ‘Othman first thought privately to himself…’ (p124) ‘thought privately to himself’ is obsolete.

Friday 13 October 2023


This 78-page graphic novel was published in 1987. Written by Mike W Barr and illustrated by Jerry Bingham.

A terrorist attack on the Gotham chemical plant is underway. Two hostages have been taken. This is a job for Batman. There’s an intense fight, and Batman is wounded. He recovers consciousness in the Bat-cave – with Talia Al Ghul in attendance. A madman called Qayin needs to be stopped – and Talia’s father R’As Al Ghul has personal reasons to get involved.

The Al Ghuls and Batman join forces and all mayhem is let loose. Talia is a previous love interest of Bruce Wayne; she knows his secret. Their relationship becomes strengthened as they begin to track down Qayin and his men.

There are a few amusing if familiar asides, for instance: Bruce insists on donning his costume even though still recovering from a bullet wound. Talia says, ‘You can be most exasperating at times.’ And Alfred simply says, ‘Indeed.’ (p16).

Bingham’s artwork is clean, slick and fast-paced with plenty of action – and explosions! This is good storytelling in pictures.

A fine addition to any Batman fan’s collection. 

Thursday 12 October 2023

LEO THE AFRICAN - Book review

Amin Maalouf’s
Leo the African was published in 1986 and translated into English by Peter Sluglett in 1988. This paperback copy was published in 1994.  The book is based on the true-life story of Hasan al-Wazzan, the sixteenth century traveller and writer who came to be known as Leo Africanus. It is told in the first person, and covers his first forty years.

He begins his narration when he was born – not as absurd as it first appears: we’re privy to second-hand details from his father and mother about their time in Granada in the late fourteen hundreds. His mother Salma befriends a Jewish pedlar-clairvoyant and healer, Gaudy Sarah, and ‘began to read my palm like the crumpled page of an open book’ (p6). Sarah’s prediction – and her elixir of orgeat syrup – result in Salma’s pregnancy (with Hasan).  Sarah also ‘doubled, when necessary, as midwife, masseuse, hairdresser and plucker of unwanted hair’ (p8).

The days of Islamic Andalusia are numbered. ‘And did not Andalusia flourish in the days when the vizier Abd al-Rahman used to say jokingly: “O you who cry ‘Hasten to the prayer!’ You would do better to cry: “Hasten to the bottle!” The Muslims only became weak when silence, fear and conformity darkened their spirits”.’ (p38).

The Arabs were evicted from Spain in 1492, among them the ineffectual ruler Boabdil, who lingered on the last ridge that afforded him a view of Granada – a place the Castilians thereafter called ‘The Moor’s last sigh’. It was said that the fallen sultan had shed tears there, of shame and remorse. ‘You weep like a woman for the kingdom you did not defend like a man’ (p57). At this time of expulsion of his family, Hasan was three years old. After eight centuries, no more would the voice of the muezzin be heard to call the faithful to prayer.

Hasan grew up in Fez, alongside Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. It is during this time that he learned about the philosophy of life and death: ‘… thank God for having made us this gift of death, so that life is to have meaning; of night, that day is to have meaning; silence, that speech is to have meaning; illness, that health is to have meaning; war, that peace is to have meaning…’ (p103)

Hasan’s friend Harun the Ferret got a job as a porter: ‘Three hundred men, simple, poor, almost all of the illiterate, but who had nevertheless managed to become the most respected, most fraternal and best organised of all the guilds of the city’ (p108). This guild takes care of its members; ‘when any of their number dies, they take over the responsibility for his family, help his widow to find a news husband and take care of his children until they are of an age to have a professions. The son of one is the son of all’ (p108).

The families would hang on the walls of their adopted homes the keys of their homes they left behind, hoping one day to return to Granada. Hasan was a quick learner and soon became successful in trading.

One of the most powerful men in Fez was the Zarwali, an ex-bandit and murderer who ‘had built the largest palace in the city, the largest, that is, after that of the ruler, a piece of elementary common sense for anyone who wanted to make sure that his head remained attached to his body’ (p131).

Harun the Ferret had learned about Zarwali’s past and his behaviour. Zarwali was ‘always convinced that his wives are trying to betray him, particularly the youngest and most beautiful ones. A denunciation, a slander, an insinuation on the part of one of her rivals is enough for the poor unfortunate to be strangled. The Zarwali’s eunuchs then make the crime look like an accident, a drowning, a fatal fall, an acute tonsillitis…’ (p137). Hasan and the Zarwali will clash – and there will be dire repercussions…

There are several amusing and even apt sayings scattered about the book, for example: ‘Destiny is more changeable than the skin of a chameleon, as one of the poets of Denia used to say’ (p57); and ‘If anyone tells you that avarice is the daughter of necessity, tell him that he is mistaken. It is taxation which has begotten avarice!’ (p154); and ‘I had become very susceptible to magic and superstitions… This is probably the fate of rich and powerful men: aware that their wealth owes less to their merits than to luck, they begin to court the latter like a mistress and venerate it like an idol’ (p196); and, finally, ‘in the face of adversity, women bend and men break…’ (p250).

Hasan ventures to Egypt and witnesses the Ottoman conquest there; he is abducted and becomes a prisoner in Renaissance Rome under the Medicis, and yet remarkably finds himself being a confidant of the Pope, and converts briefly to Christianity, and ultimately witnesses the horrendous sack of Rome in 1527.

The book possibly suffers from too much barely digestible religion and politics, yet these were the driving forces that impelled Hasan to wander.

The smells, the colours and the feeling for the period are well-conveyed and indeed instructive for anyone interested in these historic times.