Sunday, 7 February 2016

This week's links: 7 February 2016

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
Delft University of Technology
Delft University of Technology, A concrete future (See also: Concrete concept - in pictures)
      Jessica Backhaus
      From What Still Remains by Jessica Backhaus

      Book reviews, lists, & book-related blog posts:

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        Wednesday, 3 February 2016

        Reading round-up: January

        January 2016 books

        Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse - Full review / Pre-order
        Like Before We Met, Lucie Whitehouse's fourth novel is ostensibly a thriller, but it's a big improvement on its predecessor, so don't let that put you off. Our protagonist is Rowan; when her old friend, Marianne, dies in a supposed accident, she starts her own investigation and (of course) soon uncovers a web of secrets and lies. This is an enjoyable, compelling mystery that makes fantastic use of its setting, Oxford, and there's a good twist too. 

        The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan - Full review / Buy
        This beautifully written and effective fantasy follows two characters, circus performer North and gracekeeper Callanish, as they meet and fall in love. Their story takes place in a drowned world, in which those with homes on dry land - 'landlockers' - are the privileged few, while 'damplings' spend their lives at sea. It's an ethereal, magical tale and makes for perfect escapism. Those who enjoyed Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus will probably appreciate this too.

        You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman - Full review / Buy
        Without a doubt my favourite book of the month, and likely to be one of my favourites of the entire year. That said, it's pretty difficult to describe You Too..., which seems to be different things to different people: a dark comedy, a vicious satire, a horror story; an offbeat commentary on consumer culture, on body image, on relationships. With an unnamed narrator and secondary characters only known as B and C, it brings together seemingly unrelated elements - a macabre supermarket chain, a spate of disappearances, a series of animated adverts for an entirely synthetic food - via a sinister, cult-like organisation, the Church of the Conjoined Eater. It's deeply surreal but frequently insightful; it doesn't try to push some predictable message on the reader, but it's not just weirdness for weirdness' sake, either. A future cult classic. 

        Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh - Review TK / Buy
        Deeply grim and unpleasant in a good - in fact, great - way, this is a masterful character study that really gets under the skin of its title character. Eileen is filled with self-loathing and plagued by disturbing thoughts; trapped in the backwater of 'X-ville' in the mid-1960s, living with her alcoholic father, she dreams of escape. That fantasy starts to seem more plausible when she meets (and becomes obsessed with) the glamorous Rebecca. The story loses its way a little towards the end as a rather convoluted and unlikely denouement takes over, but nevertheless, it's a fascinating read, and Eileen a memorable addition to the pantheon of deliciously awful female characters. If not for the brilliance of Alexandra Kleeman's novel, this would've been the best book I read in January, and I suspect it will also make it onto my best-of-2016 list. 

        The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare, translated by Barbara Bray - Full review / Buy
        This novel imagines a society, based on the Ottoman Empire, in which citizens' dreams are recorded and analysed for signs of divine prophecy. Attempting to navigate this world is naive hero Mark-Alem, whose status as a member of the influential Quprili family earns him a job at the cavernous Palace of Dreams itself. It's an intriguing idea, but marred by an uneven style which I think is probably a result of the book having been translated twice - the English version is translated from the French version rather than the original Albanian.

        Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys - Full review / Buy
        Equally depressing and beautiful, Good Morning, Midnight is a quick, lucid read illustrating the life of a young woman in Paris as her thoughts move between the present and her recent past. It's an exquisite portrait of loneliness that's very simply written, yet often feels profound in a quite startling way.

        CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders - Buy
        A collection of bizarre stories, set in a near-future America which appears to have become one big dilapidated theme park; by turns funny, disturbing and moving. Saunders' characters are invariably weird, eccentric, even occasionally horrifying, yet they end up feeling more human than the majority of fictional characters. It's also satisfying to find I can now detect Saunders' influence in the work of so many other writers I admire. 

        The Man Who Drew Cats by Michael Marshall Smith - Buy
        Just a short story, but an atmospheric, powerful one. The first-person POV of a small-town observer is used brilliantly to tell the tale of a mysterious newcomer who has a penchant for painting oddly realistic animals. The creepiness is kept to a minimum, which makes the climax all the more effective.

        The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti - Buy
        In this brief novel (I read it in one go), a writer wanders Paris in search of the truth about a woman he loved long ago. It's a mystery of sorts, but also a dreamy stream-of-consciousness that's at its strongest when ruminating on the power of memory, allowing the narrator to slip from past to present until the lines between altered memories and reality become blurred. This is the first book I've read by Modiano - it won't be the last.

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        Sunday, 31 January 2016

        This week's links: 31 January 2016

        This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
        Versalles by Soledad Burgos
        by Soledad Burgos
            Mexico City House by Pedro Reyes and Carla Fernández
            Mexico City House by Pedro Reyes and Carla Fernández

            Book reviews and blog posts:

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              Monday, 25 January 2016

              My first 3 reads of 2016: Kleeman, Logan, Whitehouse

              A genre- (and expectation-) defying debut novel, a fantasy set in a drowned world, and a compelling thriller: my first three reads of 2016 were rather different from one another, but all very enjoyable.

              You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra KleemanYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (25 August 2015) by Alexandra Kleeman is a truly bizarre tale of a life unravelling, though it starts innocuously enough, as the nameless narrator ruminates on the odd behaviour of her roommate (known only as B) and the empty relationship she has with her boyfriend (C). Then her neighbours leave en masse, wearing white sheets like Halloween ghost costumes, to join what it soon becomes clear is a sort of cult - one our narrator herself is ultimately seduced by.

              Major elements of the plot include a supermarket chain where all the staff wear giant foam heads, a man who becomes famous due to his habit of shoplifting veal, and a game show for couples which ends with the losers being forced to split up. Then there's Kandy Kat, the animated mascot of the Kandy Kakes snack brand, who becomes something of a motif within the story: the narrator also develops an obsession with tracking down the all-artificial snack, and deteriorates physically in much the same way as the beleaguered, starved Kat. The many surreal details in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine make it feel more similar to the strange stories of Robert Aickman than typical litfic fare - in fact, I was surprised by exactly how strange it turned out to be.

              It's a weird combination of absurdist humour and creeping horror, laced with references to consumer culture, and definitely isn't the sort of story that will appeal to every reader. Nevertheless, if you ARE that reader, it's an absolutely fantastic experience, thrilling in its originality - yet more subtle than it has any right to be, given the often outlandish images it throws up.

              The Gracekeepers by Kirsty LoganThe Gracekeepers (23 April 2015) by Kirsty Logan was first featured in one of my Sampling September posts, and, as promised, I went back to finish it before winter was out. The setting is a waterlogged world in which there is a class division between two groups, each represented by one of the main characters: landlockers, the lucky few with homes on dry land (like Callanish, a gracekeeper who tends the graves of those who die at sea) and damplings, whose nomadic lives are spent at sea (like circus performer North). When a storm hits and tragedy strikes the Circus Excalibur, North and Callanish meet and are immediately drawn to each other; The Gracekeepers becomes a story about their connection, how they are inescapably drawn back to one another, and about how each is searching, in some way, for a family, for a home, for permanence.

              I said in that previous post I was worried the story would be too whimsical, but The Gracekeepers carried me along effortlessly with its beautiful description, strong characters and unique atmosphere. It has a cosy, magical feel that makes it a pleasure to read, but - like many good stories that initially appear to be whimsical - it has an undercurrent of darkness that adds spice and bite to a narrative that's often deceptively gentle. The setting is depicted as a dreamlike landscape (or, more appropriately, seascape), perfectly summed up by words like 'enchanted' and 'ethereal'. It might not suit those expecting a more explicitly post-apocalyptic backdrop, but I found the unreality beguiling.

              Keep You Close by Lucie WhitehouseKeep You Close (10 March 2016) by Lucie Whitehouse is the author's fourth novel, and it's an effective blend of her last book - Before We Met, a domestic thriller that I tried to enjoy but, if I'm honest, didn't - and her superior first two. It has the attention-grabbing thriller setup of Before We Met but, where that book was cold and sparse, this one has the rich, evocative description that worked so well in her first couple of books.

              The plot revolves around Rowan, a PhD student; she learns at the beginning of the book that her old schoolfriend, Marianne Glass, has died in what appears to be either an accident or suicide, having fallen from the roof of her home. Convinced there is more to Marianne's death than the police have concluded, Rowan embarks on her own investigation, seeking answers from Marianne's family, friends and colleagues. But there are also questions around the friendship between the two women: why haven't they spoken in ten years, having spent their teens and early twenties as close as sisters? What is the terrible thing Marianne did that Rowan alludes to, and why did it impact their relationship in such a way?

              Combining effective suspense with a vivid portrait of the city and suburbs of Oxford, this is a readable and thoroughly absorbing story. It succeeds at everything that matters in a book like this: creating characters you care about, building up atmosphere, keeping you guessing until the end is near - and I didn't figure out the big twist.

              I received an advance review copy of Keep You Close via NetGalley.

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              Sunday, 24 January 2016

              This week's links: 24 January 2016

              This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
              Turkey by Kamila K. Stanley
              Hazy, Dreamlike Photos from a Trip Across Turkey
               (by Kamila K. Stanley)
                  Blizzard 2016
                  21 Photos Of The First Bad Blizzard Of 2016 Best Appreciated From Indoors
                  . Stupid captions for some of them... but I just love looking at photos of lots of snow.

                  Book reviews & things:
                    Untitled by Masashi Wakui
                    By Masashi Wakui on Flickr

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                    Sunday, 17 January 2016

                    This week's links: 17 January 2016

                    This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
                    Charles H. Traub
                    Tokyo, Japan, 1983 from the series In the Still Life by Charles H. Traub
                      Akila Berjaoui
                      Ipanema by Akila Berjaoui
                      , from her Tumblr
                      Here are some more 2016 recommendations:
                      And more book stuff:

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                        Friday, 15 January 2016

                        Books to look forward to in 2016, part 2: March and beyond

                        50+ new books to read in 2016


                        If I had to pick a single book I'm most excited about in 2016, it would be Anna Raverat's second novel, Lover (10 March). The follow-up to her amazing 2012 debut Signs of Life, it's about a woman taking 'a long look at her long marriage' after she finds out her husband may have been cheating. Given how expertly Raverat handled relationship themes in Signs of Life, I have no doubt it will be moving and effective.

                        One of the few 2016 books I've already read is Lucie Whitehouse's fourth novel, Keep You Close (10 March). I wasn't keen on her last book, Before We Met, but this is a big improvement, an evocative mystery about the death of an artist in what appears to be an accident; her former best friend, whom she hadn't seen in ten years, decides to investigate. It's a tenuous link, but I'll put Freya by Anthony Quinn (3 March) in the same paragraph because it's also about a pair of best friends - in this case journalist Freya and would-be novelist Nancy, who meet as teenagers in 1945; the story charts the evolution of their lives and careers over the next twenty years.

                        Hot Milk (31 March) is Deborah Levy's first novel since the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home. Following a mother and daughter holidaying in a Spanish village, the story is 'a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic, examining female rage and sexuality'; it 'explores the strange and monstrous nature of motherhood, testing the bonds of parent and child to breaking point'. There are more unhappy families in All Things Cease To Appear by Elizabeth Brundage (8 March), a murder mystery spanning generations which also 'combines noir and the gothic in a story about two families entwined in their own unhappiness'.

                        A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare (24 March), translated by John Hodgson, is 'a stunning, deeply affecting portrait of life and love under surveillance', telling the story of a writer who comes under suspicion after a girl is found dead with a signed copy of his latest book. Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann (3 March), translated by Margaret Bettauer Dembo, offers a darker take on a transformative relationship, as a 'happy and unremarkable' protagonist suffers the unwanted attentions of a sinister neighbour. In The Half Life of Joshua Jones by Danny Scheinmann (24 March), the title character pretends he's the boyfriend of a girl in a coma (a genderswapped While You Were Sleeping?), but her real identity turns out to be more than he'd bargained for. 

                        Dog Run Moon: Stories by Callan Wink (3 March) is a collection that's already gathering acclaim; its tales play out 'against the rugged backdrop of the untamed West... populated by characters who are toughened by life but still tender enough to bleed, to cry, to care, and to dream'. The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks (8 March) sounds like a more whimsical set of short stories - a 'veritable cabinet of curiosities' that's earned the author comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link.

                        Maestra by L.S. Hilton (10 March) is a thriller with buzzworthy potential - indeed, its Amazon subtitle promises 'the most shocking thriller you'll read this year'. Reportedly the first part of a trilogy, it features a devious heroine who works in an auction house and discovers an art fraud-related conspiracy. The Truth About Julia by Anna Schaffner (23 March) also touches on controversial themes, tracing the motivations of a young woman who blows up a London coffee shop, killing 24 people, via her conversations with an investigative journalist.

                        Finally, on 3 March, Penguin will be publishing 46 new Little Black Classics, encompassing 'authors and works new to the Penguin Classics list, from around the world and across the centuries - including fables, decadence, heartbreak, tall tales, satire, ghosts, battles and elephants.'


                        I'm really looking forward to the much-talked-about Not Working by Lisa Owens (21 April), in which a woman quits her job with the aim of finding her 'true vocation', only to find her life unravelling. Camille Perri's The Assistants (21 April) is, if not exactly on the same street, then at least in the same neighbourhood, with its tale of a broke long-time PA who has to decide what to do when she discovers an opportunity to exploit the expenses system.

                        April is a strong month for books that have already appeared on lots of 2016-most-anticipated lists. There's Shtum by Jem Lester (7 April), about three generations of the same family, including mute ten-year-old Jonah, moving in together; a short story collection 'of baroque beauty and a deep sensuousness' from Helen Oyeyemi, titled What Is Yours Is Not Yours (21 April); The Bricks that Built the Houses (7 April), which sees performance poet Kate Tempest turn her hand to fiction with a 'multi-generational tale of drugs, desire and belonging'; and Eligible (21 April), Curtis Sittenfeld's modern reinterpretation of Pride & Prejudice, which transplants the Bennet sisters to modern-day Cincinnati.

                        One I haven't heard much about but am pretty excited for: Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell (5 April). Like her debut, The Other Typist, it's set in New York City, though this time the era is the late 1950s and the story concentrates on three idealistic young writers. I'm also interested in finally reading The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (7 April), originally slated for publication last year but repeatedly delayed. It's set in a Scottish caravan park during an unnaturally cold winter, so harsh that people are starting to think the world is ending, and is described as 'a humane, sad, funny, shimmeringly odd and beautiful novel... about people in extreme circumstances finding one another, and finding themselves'. And my beach read of choice (not that I'm likely to need one in April) will be 300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson (12 April), which promises to 'transport readers to a sunny Portuguese town with a shadowy past, where two women, decades apart, are drawn into a dark game of truth and lies that still haunts the shifting sea marshes'. 

                        The authors are new to me, but I'm tentatively adding these two to my wishlist as well: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (5 April), which traces the history of a painting through the story of two women - the artist who painted it, and a student who creates a forgery 300 years later; and Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (7 April), a story-within-a-collection-of-stories about the author's creation of the book Foreign Soil, as well as that book itself, and its eclectic, global cast of characters.

                        There's lots more to come from this month: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (7 April), the story of an American in Bulgaria who becomes obsessed with a charismatic young hustler; Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (28 April), translated by Nancy Forest-Flier, a tale of a cursed town with a modern twist - a group of teenagers decide to make the local haunting go viral; Prodigals by Greg Jackson (7 April), a collection of 'desperate, eerie stories' which 'map the degradations of contemporary life'; The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox (7 April), about a man with three families, all of which are kept secret from one another; and Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg (19 April), a modern noir set in the underbelly of Houston, with three female protagonists.

                        50+ new books to read in 2016


                        Everything I'm hearing about Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman (5 May) is making me more excited about it. A story about the friendship and rivalry between two teenage girls in the wake of a suicide, it's had great early reviews, and Stylist described it as 'a mini Thelma & Louise as directed by David Lynch'.

                        May is a good month for debut novels. Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss (26 May) is set in the New York art world in (no surprise) 1980, with a focus on three characters: an artist, a critic and a muse. The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (3 May), translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, 'evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism, and a very real vision of life after the Arab Spring' in a nightmarish interpretation of near-future Egypt. The Trap by Melanie Raabe (19 May), translated by Imogen Taylor, is a thriller that looks sure to be a hit (film rights have already been sold) - it's about a writer who pens a novel about her sister's murder with the aim of ensnaring the killer, who was never caught. Another thriller with big potential is Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan (19 May), in which an agony aunt receives an anguished letter - purportedly written by a girl who's been missing for years.

                        Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain (5 May) has an arresting one-line pitch: apparently, it 'reads like Vonnegut directing Grand Budapest Hotel, in space'. This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets (12 May), translated by Valerie Miles, is a Spanish novella about a woman recovering from the death of her mother over the course of a summer by the sea. Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad (19 May) is an internet-focused thriller based around the idea of what happens when an 'online celebrity', which is actually an artificial construct designed to test code, starts spilling people's secrets. Last but not least, Now and Again (5 May) is the second novel from Charlotte Rogan, author of the 2012 hit The Lifeboat. It sounds quite different from her debut; a woman who works at a munitions plant finds evidence of a high-level cover-up and develops a taste for excitement alongside her desire to right injustice.


                        The Girls by Emma Cline (16 June) is very high on my personal list of books to get excited about in 2016. The setting is Northern California in the summer of 1969. A lonely teenager, desperate to be noticed, is enthralled by a group of carefree girls and 'is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader'. The Power by Naomi Alderman (4 June) also sounds intriguing: it takes a simple idea - in this story, women are invariably physically stronger than men - and portrays a world in which 'sources of control have shifted... violence is enacted in surprising new ways and the link between physical strength, status, sex and power is made plain'. And of course I'll definitely be getting hold of The Essex Serpent (16 June), the second novel from Sarah Perry - an unconventional love story in which the central couple 'meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned'...

                        Fen by Daisy Johnson (2 June), a collection of linked stories, sounds very unique - it portrays the titular fen as 'a liminal land' where 'the wild is always close at hand... animals and people commingle and fuse, curious metamorphoses take place, myth and dark magic still linger'. As does The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (28 June): 'two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage - a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted'. In fact, it looks like a strong month for idiosyncratic fiction in general; there's also The Many by Wyl Menmuir (17 June), in which a man moves to an isolated coastal village and is unsettled by the attentions of the locals (as well as a'dream of faceless men'), and the 'postapocalyptic psychological thriller' The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis (30 June), narrated by a girl 'who has just learned that her adopted father may be a serial killer, and that she may be his next victim'. 

                        Silence Electric (9 June) is Essie Fox's fourth novel, but looks to be a departure from her previous tales of Victorian gothic; it starts off in the 1970s and examines the history of a silent movie star, uncovered when a young journalist finds her photograph in a junk shop. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2 June) is set amongst the New York restaurant scene, as a newly arrived waitress 'finds herself pulled in by the darker elements of the service industry and the city's ever shifting demimonde'; Invincible Summer by Alice Adams (7 June) follow four friends from university through to their thirties as they pursue diverging paths; and in The Crime Writer (2 June), Jill Dawson reimagines a year in the life of Patricia Highsmith.

                        July and beyond

                        Quite a bit to look forward to in the second half of the year, even though details are thin on the ground. Among my most anticipated is Lions by Bonnie Nadzam (5 July); the blurb says it's 'a scorching, haunting portrait of a rural community in a "living ghost town" on the brink of collapse, and the individuals who are confronted with either chasing their dreams or - against all reason - staying where they are'. I loved Nadzam's brilliant first novel Lamb, and I'm hoping this will be just as memorable.

                        In The Last One by Alexandra Oliva (14 July), a woman enters a survival-themed reality show, only to find it may be a game without end. It's a debut and has already been translated into 20 languages, so safe to say it'll probably be big, as will The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney, a 'Hitchcockian thriller' that doesn't come out until September but is already being talked (tweeted) about as one to watch. Meanwhile, The Trespasser (11 August) is the sixth entry in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. This time the focus is on Antoinette Conway, and it looks like the plot's as much about police in-fighting as it is the crime that's being investigated.

                        The Strays by Emily Bitto (15 August) won the Stella Prize in 2015 and is now getting its UK publication; in its portrait of an artistic family and their friends and hangers-on, it covers 'Faustian bargains and terrible recompense, spectacular fortunes and falls from grace'.

                        Two big books by established authors come out in September: there's The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (1 September), charting the relationship between two actors in mid-nineties London, and Nicotine by Nell Zink (8 September), which 'features smokers' rights activists, real estate troubles and a very strange love triangle'.

                        And finally, there's a new book by Sarah Lotz titled Dark Tourism (1 August) - although at present there is, more or less, nothing on the internet about it apart from that Amazon page, so I don't even know whether it is in fact a novel.

                        And that's a wrap! It's safe to say 2016 is going to be a very good year for new fiction.

                        Books to look forward to in 2016, part 1: January & February

                        Sunday, 10 January 2016

                        This week's links: 10 January 2016

                        This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
                        Cold Cold Ground by Pascal Fellonneau
                        From the series Cold Cold Ground by Pascal Fellonneau
                        Book reviews and book-related blog posts:
                          Skies of Concrete by Gisela Erlacher
                          Skies of Concrete by Gisela Erlacher

                          Some films I've either enjoyed recently or loved in the past that are available to watch on (UK) Netflix at the moment:
                          80s Argos catalogue