Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra – Book Review

Cousin K


Cousin K


Yasmina Khadra

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and Alyson Waters

University of Nebraska Press

US, April 01 2013. UK, June 01 2013

96 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-3493-2

ISBN-10: 0803234937


Yasmina Khadra literally means green jasmine and is the pen name of the Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul , adopted by him to avoid military censorship – he was at one time an officer in the Algerian army.  His latest work, Cousin K, is a novella and, at 96 pages including the Afterword by Robert Polito, a quick read. Yet in that hour or so Khadra takes the reader on an emotional journey so disturbing, with an ending so shocking, that the only option is to go back to the beginning and start it again.

The opening line makes it impossible not to want to find out what this little book is all about:

“For some people nothing turns out right.”

Is the narrator cursed in some way, one of those people whom good fortune always manages to avoid? Certainly there will be many readers who empathise with hating school, being the youngest of three children and the one seemingly left out. The name of the narrator is never given, but that is more than made up for in the dark secrets that are skilfully and dramatically revealed as the end draws near. There are eloquent and sensuous descriptions that almost trick the reader, rather like a car passenger enjoying the scenery but with a nagging worry about where they are being led. Almost at the end, Khadra provides just enough to allow the reader to worry, then delivers the shocking confirmation.

What makes Cousin K stand out from the crowd is not the story itself but the story combined with exquisite writing. Almost every sentence is worth framing, and quite clearly the translators are to be congratulated, too. Consider this introduction to the village where the story is set:

“From my watchtower, suspended between lyricism of memory and the decay that goes with absence, I stare tirelessly at the chaotic village at the bottom of the hill. I try to trap the secrets behind the closed doors, to thwart the plots hatched amidst the twisting lanes; impossible, I can’t do it. I imagine, one by one, the little people nibbling away at their slice of existence, harbouring few illusions, bundling up their dashed hopes, consigning them to the junk room of disappointment; I feel no compassion.”

And no reader can fail to feel the sense of loss and despair when the elder brother to whom the narrator is very close departs after a brief visit to the family home:

“A restless swallow, my brother left at dawn, taking his springtime with him. I can still hear the voices, the laughter, visualize the bright swaths of daylight, the figures like wisps of mist – a whole fairy tale detaching itself from the walls of the manor and abandoning the place as though inhaled by the fast-disappearing car. The grandest of dreams lasts no longer than a sigh; the slightest thing transforms it into a pipe dream. As the rumble of the engine faded, the landscape itself became barren.”

It may be a small book but it is a giant of a literary work. The good thing about the size is that it fits into a pocket or purse with ease, enabling the reader to keep it at hand and dip into a magical world of the flawed and broken heart at every opportunity.

This review was written for The New York Journal of Books.



The Hangman’s Daughter: Book Review


Publisher: AmazonCrossing (24 May 2011)

ISBN-10: 161109061X

Author: Oliver Pötzsch


Germany, 1660: When a dying boy is pulled from the river with a mark crudely tattooed on his shoulder, hangman Jakob Kuisl is called upon to investigate whether witchcraft is at play in his small Bavarian town. Whispers and dark memories of witch trials and the women burned at the stake just seventy years earlier still haunt the streets of Schongau. When more children disappear and an orphan boy is found dead—marked by the same tattoo—the mounting hysteria threatens to erupt into chaos.

Before the unrest forces him to torture and execute the very woman who aided in the birth of his children, Jakob must unravel the truth. With the help of his clever daughter, Magdelena, and Simon, the university-educated son of the town’s physician, Jakob discovers that a devil is indeed loose in Schongau. But it may be too late to prevent bloodshed.

A brilliantly detailed, fast-paced historical thriller, The Hangman’s Daughter is the first novel from German television screenwriter Oliver Pötzsch, a descendent of the Kuisls, a famous Bavarian executioner clan. Three further titles in the Hangman’s Daughter series are currently in translation.


And that blurb sold it to me, but I can only hope the three further titles have a different translator. Let me dwell a little on the translator rather than the author, because I have to give voice to the possibility that my disappointment with the book lies not in the story but the English version. Alas, my German is not good enough to read it in the original. The translator is apparently no amateur. We are treated to a biography even in the book. On Amazon his bio is much bigger than the author’s, so he begs scrutiny.

Lee Chadeayne is a German-to-English literary translator. Most recently this includes The Settlers of Catan by Rebecca Gablé, a historical novel about the Vikings and their search for a new world, and The Copper Sign by Katja Fox, a medieval adventure in 12th-century England and France. As a scholar and student of both history and languages, especially Middle High German, he was especially drawn to the work of Oliver Pötzsch, author of the bestselling novel die Henkerstochter (The Hangman’s Daughter) a compelling and colorful description of customs and life, including love, murder, superstitions, witchery and political intrigue during early 17th-century Germany in a small Bavarian city.

The first thing I have to say about the book is that it contains not one memorable or thought-provoking line. That’s never good. It contains many confused and ambiguous sentences that any fledgling writer would have thrown back at him. The prose is, frankly, dull. And yes, maybe it’s not like this in German, but that is something I can’t prove.

But it also disappoints in ways that suggest the author may be to blame. It gets off to a good start but soon becomes a dull, historical detective story. There are no witches or sorcery, no devil and quite honestly there may as well be no hangman’s daughter. Considering the book is named after her, it’s a pity she has about as much relevance to the plot and the outcome as if she had been the milkmaid. I felt cheated. Add to that the sheer drudgery of the prose, the repetition of clues  that would have enable Clouseau to solve the case before the halfway point, and you can see why getting to the end felt like walking round the equator in a pair of stiletto heeled shoes.

It had so much promise. I want to believe it’s in the translation.

Review: Miss Abigail’s Room


Click to Buy


Title: Miss Abigail’s Room

Author: Catherine Cavendish

Published by: Etopia Press



It wasn’t so much the blood on the floor that Becky minded. It was the way it kept coming back…

As the lowest ranking parlor maid at Stonefleet Hall, Becky gets all the dirtiest jobs. But the one she hates the most is cleaning Miss Abigail’s room. There’s a strange, empty smell to the place, and a feeling that nothing right or Christian resides there in the mistress’s absence. And then there’s the blood, the spot that comes back no matter often Becky scrubs it clean. Becky wishes she had somewhere else to go, but without means or a good recommendation from her household, there is nothing for her outside the only home she’s known for eighteen years. So when a sickening doll made of wax and feathers turns up, Becky’s dreams of freedom and green grass become even more distant. Until the staff members start to die.

A darning needle though the heart of the gruesome doll puts everyone at Stonefleet Hall at odds. The head parlor maid seems like someone else, the butler pretends nothing’s amiss, and everyone thinks Becky’s losing her mind. But when the shambling old lord of the manor looks at her, why does he scream as though he’s seen the hounds of hell?



Following that book description, to say any more about the plot would certainly spoil it. This is a perfectly crafted English ghost story in the Gothic tradition. What struck me was the incredibly believable sense of place created by Cavendish. I was there in that old house, could see the servants at their table, the maids scrubbing and polishing. With the recent success of Downton Abbey, I reckon Cavendish is on to something, especially among women readers who want a change from romance. Nice to see the use of a doll to invoke fear, too. Stars out of 5? It has to be worth 4 for the attention to detail and the writing.



Review: The Concrete Grove

I’ve read some really disappointing books this year purporting to be horror. At times I’ve felt quite down about it. One book that didn’t disappoint is The Concrete Grove. I read that last year! But it’s so good, I thought I would post my review here from the New York Journal of Books. You can access the original site via this link:

“The Concrete Grove conjures up images that will haunt readers long after the book is put away.”




The Concrete Grove is the first book of the eponymous trilogy from British horror writer Gary McMahon. Set in the northeastern of England, it tackles the very real and current issues facing those who find themselves trapped at the bottom of the pile, either in rundown housing projects or in lives that have turned bad for one reason or another.

Mr. McMahon’s writing is crisp and minimal. As a result, the crime and misery of a crumbling urban landscape are portrayed with an uncomfortable edge. As if this were not enough, a parallel supernatural world is woven deftly into the story.

The reality of The Concrete Grove—underfunded and crumbling estates, drugs, murder, rape, corruption and general urban decay—will be all too familiar to some. Mr. McMahon says that he has based his characters on real people, and they are incredibly engaging—even the villains. It is impossible not to empathize with even the nastiest of thugs.

Such a story of desperation could stand on its own, but author McMahon adds the chill of a darker world that exists alongside the housing project. Some of the creatures are works of genius, and the use of hummingbirds to send shivers down the spine of the reader is the height of originality.

The Concrete Grove conjures up images that will haunt readers long after the book is put away.

McMahon’s writing builds the tension and keeps the reader guessing to the very end, cranking up the terror with the turn of every page. His complex vision of the supernatural world echoes the early works of Clive Barker yet is original to the core.

The Concrete Grove twists and turns through dark alleyways, finally delivering a shocking an unexpected finale. The second book in the trilogy will be eagerly awaited. Mr. McMahon is a welcome and refreshing member of the horror scene.

Ash – But Not A Phoenix In Sight

Book Review*

The much anticipated new blockbuster from the grand master of chiller fiction…

Title: Ash

Author: James Herbert

Published by: Macmillan

ISBN: 978-0230706958


The World Grand Master of Horror cordially invites you to an idyllic Scottish retreat with beautiful rooms, luscious gardens, a breathtaking view . . . and a basement full of secrets.

Author Bio

James Herbert is not just Britain’s number one bestselling writer of chiller fiction, a position he has held ever since publication of his first novel, but is also one of our greatest popular novelists. Widely imitated and hugely influential, his twenty-three novels have sold more than fifty-four million copies worldwide, and have been translated into over thirty languages including Russian and Chinese. In 2010, he was made the Grand Master of Horror by the World Horror Convention and was also awarded an OBE by the Queen for services to literature. He is married with three daughters and lives in London and Sussex.


I don’t usually start my reviews with the official author biography but in this case there is good reason. First, the publisher’s blurb is so scant it makes me shake my head in disbelief that it’s the best they could do for such a hyped up and long awaited book from the ‘Grand Master’. Second, Herbert’s standing and achievements are so great that they warrant mentioning in view of what I am about to say. And let me be clear on this point: Herbert is one of the greats and I do not wish to imply otherwise. But…

The marketing has been well planned for Ash, Herbert’s first novel for six years, part of which was to reduce the price of his back list. I bought Shrine for my Kindle for £1 and enjoyed it – for a book that was written almost thirty years ago. When one reads books of that era and beyond, certain allowances often have to be made in relation to technique and style. In Shrine, the biggest issue is Herbert’s constant head hopping (what we call point of view shift), closely followed by an annoying habit of using the word ‘for’ (in the sense of because). Both these things could have been dealt with in the editing stage quite easily. Nevertheless, Shrine is a great story, no doubt about it.

So I looked forward to Ash, not just as a reader but as a horror writer. I had little doubt that Herbert would have come up with a brilliant story, but I was eager to see if – given the passage of time – he would have tightened up his technique. I really, really, wanted him to have done so, to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of six years of silence. And you’ve guessed it, haven’t you?

Since I lost my heart to my Kindle, I always download the sample of a book before buying it. I got the sample of Ash and sat down to read immediately. I forgave Herbert for the rather rambling opening couple of paragraphs, but the head hop that occurs within moments of the book’s beginning is so glaring, so shocking, that I almost stopped reading there and then. I forced myself on, believing that the plot would be worth the effort,  but soon I found myself obsessed with the technique – rooted in the fiction of the 1980s – and the plot took second place.

Now, at this point I suggest you go over and read the top notch review on SFX. It’s here:

Done that? When I’d read the sample, I said the same thing – overwritten and bogged down with details of no relevance. And don’t forget the POV shifts. Why do I go on about POV shifts? Because new writers are constantly harangued  by ‘the establishment’ on this very matter; fiction today must be told from one point of view per scene. If a new writer strays from this, they are likely to end up in the litter bin without a second thought for their brilliant story. In today’s world, technique is as important as creativity – and rightly so, in my humble opinion, because if technique and genre are in harmony the reader’s experience is heightened.

So, for all I admire Herbert for his achievements, I have to say (with a heavy heart, I add) that Ash is a disappointment. I am convinced that if it had been submitted by an unknown author it would not have been published. Now, I’ll come clean. You see at the top of this post I put an asterisk after Book Review? That’s because for the first time ever I’m reviewing a book which I have not read in its entirety. As I said, I got the sample. And it was enough – at least at the asking price. I find myself dismayed at the writing, yet wanting to know the story because that sounds interesting. Just not enough to accept the price tag, so maybe this is one to get from the library?

I’m left feeling cheated and also sorry for Herbert. Where was the editor, I wonder? The faults could have been dealt with so easily. Maybe the Grand Master is just untouchable and no editor dare take the top off his/her red pen? Or perhaps, as I wonder in my cheekier moments, the greatest ghost writer of all needs to find a, erm, ghost writer?

Update: Quite astonishing that a new book and a bestseller would be dropped in price to 20p but it means that I now am reading the whole book and will update this review accordingly in due course. But…I am not impressed.

My review of ASH is here at the New York Journal of Books:

James Herbert Dies 21/03/13: