A MID-WINTER BREAK

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I don’t think I’ve got the mid-winter blues, but I’m feeling very pap, as we say in South Africa. ‘Pap’ means listless, deflated, without energy.

 
So I’ll be taking a blogging mini-break in August. I won’t publish any reviews or recommendations, but will post the usual monthly reading roundup , for those who are wondering: what should I read next?

 
In my case the answer is: oh! the agonies of choice! There’s my TBR pile simmering on the shelf, plus the monthly Book Club offering, and … and … Perhaps it’s fortunate that I’m going away on a mid-month family visit, because the airline charges the socks off you for over weight baggage, so I’ve included only one novel How to be Both by Ali Smith which I’m struggling to read. Let’s hope a change of altitude and scenery will make it more approachable.

 
I recently bought an Amazon Kindle device, as an aid to travel reading, but alas! our South African rand is even weaker than ever, so that is a big disincentive to buy dollar-priced books. On past family visits I’ve ransacked the bookshelves, hunting for something – anything – to read, which means I’m striking out into my daughter’s territory of Africana, animal/bush related memoirs and novels, Rhodesian history. Well, it makes a change, if nothing else.

See you at the end of August. Meanwhile: happy reading!

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JULY 2018 READING ROUNDUP

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I started the month by reading RL Stevenson classic “Travels with a Donkey”, reckoned to be one  of the first Travel Books written. Stevenson undertook his 12 day , 200 kilometre solo journey through the Cevennes mountains in south-central France in 1878. His book was published the following year, and remains a classic to this day.

I enjoyed the rather old fashioned English, the vivid descriptions of the French countryside, and Stevenson’s  battle of will with Modestine, the donkey who carried his camping gear. For the first part of the journey the donkey  definitely had the upper hoof, but Stevenson finally established who was boss. And, I was able to tick it off my TBR list, which always creates a warm glow of satisfaction.

Purely by chance this month’s reads include two books with Birds in the title:  books which could not be more different. One about life and writing, the other a  charming account of a year’s bird-watching in Britain.

Whilst I was ill, I cheered myself with my favourite Sheriff, Walt Longmire. He’s laconic, resourceful, brave, principled and a hundred other good things: I’m adding him to my Christmas Wish List. If only!

And then Ruth Ozeki’s novel – a rich assortment of cultures and lives.  A book not to be missed. Definitely a contender for my Book of the Year list.

My other 5* read was Christopher Boucher’s Golden Delicious. If you want to try something out of the ordinary, something utterly different: then try Boucher’s crazy novel.

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding!  4*+  –  Good to very good;  3* – average;  2* – run-of-the-mill;  1* –  dismal;  zero * – no comment.   DNF – did not finish;  NF – non-fiction  

5* Golden Delicious – Christopher Boucher. Wildly original, dazzlingly inventive; growing up in the imaginary town of Appleseed. A Must Read. Reviewed on this blog.

5* A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki . Reviewed on this blog.

5* Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. Advice on writing and life.  A keeper to relish and refer to. Reviewed on this blog. NF

4.5* Why do Birds Suddenly Disappear?  200 birds. 12 months. 1 lapsed birdwatcher – by Lev Parikian. An absolute delight.  Entertaining and charming. Review to follow  on this blog. NF

4*Dry Bones – Craig Johnson.Sheriff Walt Longmire rides again, sorting out politicians, bureauocrats,  baddies and bones  with his usual courageous  aplomb.

4* The Dark Horse – Craig Johnson. Walt Longmire goes undercover (not very successfully) to solve the mystery of a ranch fire, charred equine and human  remains, and a witness protection programme baddie.Justice triumphs in the end.

 

3.25* Travels with a Donkey – RL Stevenson.  One of the earliest travel books in modern Western literature. Quaint and enjoyable.

3* The Highway Man – Craig Johnson. We have a ghost, a 30 year old robbery, a falsely accused Indian Highway Patrolman ; an explosive finish.

3* Visit Sunny Chernobyl  and other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places –  Andrew Blackwell.  Well written, interesting and timely.  But a bleak read.NF

 

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING – Ruth Ozeki

 

 

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Amazon synopsis:

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

 
What I like about Ruth Ozeki’s books are the unusual themes she pursues. Her first novel A Year of Meats made a huge impression on me, as did this book.

 
The story is multi-faceted covering very different strands e.g. a Japanese kamikazi pilot ‘s life & letters, WWII; the dilemma of Schrodinger’s cat which takes us into the Quantum world.; the whereabouts and identity of Nao the schoolgirl diarist; the narrator’s life on a small island off the coast of BC,. Canada; how Island life demands self-sufficiency and a willingness to deal with the unpredictable, and dangerous.
The sections I enjoyed most were those about Nao’s great grandmother , Jiko, a Buddhist nun. We hear Jiko’s story, and details of her life in a tiny traditional Zen temple, in modern times. Old Jiko used to tell Nao: only now. In other words: stay focussed on the present moment. Jiko also said: Up/down, down/up, all the same. A challenging statement for modern Western readers.
The book is rich in detail and characters, themes and ideas. I will definitely re-read it in a year or two. If you’re looking for an unusual, engrossing read, then this book will not disappoint.

GOLDEN DELICIOUS – Christopher Boucher

 

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I’m rating the book as a 5 star read, without hesitation. Where I am hesitating, is trying to frame a review of the contents. Why? you ask; you read the book didn’t you? Yes, I did, saucer-eyed and jaw droppingly speedily.

 
The dazzlingly original, wildly inventive contents knocked me sideways. I can commit to saying it is the story of a boy (nameless, he’s never named but always referred to as : ———- in the text) growing up in a regular family of Dad, Mom and sister in America. So far so good. Uh-huh: what’s so extraordinary about that? You’re probably thinking.

 
What I wrote about the narrator’s family circumstances is just about the ONLY regular ingredient in the tale. The wild, wacky craziness is in the setting , the life style, the society. I’m not even going to try to describe it. I couldn’t, without sounding crazy. This is a book you have to read for yourself.

 
I can confidently assert that you have never, in your wildest dreams, read a book like Golden Delicious. Unless you read Christopher Boucher’s acclaimed first novel How to Take Care of your Volkswagen. Another excursion into the altered universe of Boucher’s imagination and talent.

 
Read Golden Delicious . You’ll never look at life – or books and words – the same way again. Do not miss this book. P.S. Plant more trees, especially apple trees.

BIRD BY BIRD – Anne Lamott.

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Finally I get to read Anne Lamott’s book on writing and writers’ lives. I’ve waited a couple of years to read it, and the wait was worth it.

 
The book title always intrigued me : Bird by Bird. It seemed an odd choice for a work sub-titled Some Instruction on Writing and Life. The back book jacket explains the title’s source:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the timne, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. (It) was due the next day. We were Out at our family cabin in Bolinas and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Anne Lamott took her Dad’s advice to heart, and uses his technique in her own writing and teaches it in workshops. I read the book as if it were a novel, over the course of a day. I couldn’t stop reading, laughing and making mental notes along the way. Sorry, no notes on index cards to capture her gems. I should explain : AL uses index cards to capture fleeting events/thoughts/moments during her daily life, on the run as it were. But I’ll be back for a detailed re-read and note taking a little later.

 
Lamott is a strong advocate for the discipline of sticking to a period of daily writing, and starts her writing day at 0900. She sits down and writes. And that, people, is how she became an acclaimed American woman writing coach, journalist and author. You sit down, and you write. Perfectly simple.

 
I learned some useful new approaches to writing; for example her idea of short assignments, the acceptability – maybe I should have written inevitability ? – of terrible first drafts, the cultivation of child-like wonder (oh wow! Look at that!) in our lives as an aid to appreciating life and reflecting the wonder in our own writing. She boldly gives us an unvarnished account of her emotional roller-coaster life during the writing and publishing process. She’s certainly made me view the glory of publication in a very different light! Is it really the Holy Grail it’s supposed to be? I wonder. The process sounds more painful than pleasurable.

 

Highly recommended for aspirant writers and also for anyone who wants to live a vital, connected life.

 

JUNE 2018 READING ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

 

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My first read in June was a small collection of Indian stories – I was seduced by the writer’s wonderful name: Twinkle Khanna. It was okay, but not among my best Indian reads. I am a fan of Indian themed fiction, chiefly for the colour and the vivid characters. If you’ve never tried Indian themed novels, give yourself a treat and try one. But not this book. Try one of Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra’s series for a lively introduction.
I tried a Tony Hillerman Western crime novel but I’m a committed Craig Johnson fan, so I’m afraid the book ran a poor second best. The Hillerman crime novel had a heavy focus on the anthropology & cultural aspects of the case, which didn’t interest me hugely. By contrast Jassy Mackenzie’s South African crime novel was a gripping, one-session I-can’t-put-it-down read.
All in all, a pretty good month’s reading. It’s winter: chilly, damp, grey days are perfect for reading. A warm blanket, a hot cuppa and a book – what better combo could there be? Don’t answer that – I can think of several, but this is a sedate bookish blog!

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish; NF – non-fiction

5*The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North. The poignant life of a living ghost; and an expose of a sinister marketing scheme . Reviewed on this blog.

3.5* The Lost Empire of Atlantis – Gavin Menzies. NF. Fascinating account of research into the lost Minoan civilisation in the Mediterranean. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce . A delightful story of middle-aged love against a background of music. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* Bad Seeds – Jassy Mackenzie. South African crime novel, featuring feisty female PI Jade de Jongh, solving theft of nuclear material. A real page turner. Reviewed on this blog.
3* The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano. A study of loneliness. Original concept for a novel, but bleak and frustrating characters. Not a happy read! Reviewed on this blog.

2.5 Touch – Claire North. Original, intriguing, but overlong. Reviewed on this blog.
2* Talking God – Tony Hillerman. Crime novel featuring two Navajo Indian detectives.
2* The Legend of Lakshmi Prakash – Twinkle Kahnna. 3 short stories & a mini-novella. Strong feminist themes in an Indian setting. Reviewed on Goodreads.

THE SUDDEN APPEARANCE OF HOPE – Claire North

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I liked everything about the book, from the title (inspired), the jacket (a blurry outline colour pic of a woman) the story-line , the characters, and the ending. My 5 star rating is awarded not in gushing enthusiasm, but for a well-crafted story based on a strikingly original concept – the hallmark of Claire North’s writing, dazzlingly original concepts.

 
In short: Hope Arden is the girl who nobody remembers within 3 minutes of her departure from their field of vision. Think about it. Whenever Hope revisits people, to them this is a first time encounter. Regardless of location or circumstance. For example she is stabbed, lands up in hospital, and once put in a ward, receives no food or medical attention because the staff have forgotten she’s there. Quite literally.

 
Consequently Hope has no friends or lovers. Even her own family forget her! She is effectively a living ghost. I found her lonely life a poignant one, and her fierce, focussed fight to remain sane, and survive, to be the most notable ingredient of the book.

 
Of course, there is a plot in which Hope pits herself against an insidious Image & Celebrity Lifestyle marketing company called Perfection who are brainwashing their greedy gullible customers and making mega tons of money. Hope’s a crusader, and so is the shadowy Byron14, who is equally determined to stop the juggernaut of Perfection. Actually, the plot isn’t half bad, and I enjoyed the story on the level of Good versus Evil.

 
I hope Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t got the novel on his radar, because Claire North has a jolly good go at Facebook en route . But no doubt her publishers have squads of lawyers at the ready.

 
The book left a lasting impression on me. Not so much for the plot (which was unusual) but for the portrayal of Hope Arden, the girl who had total freedom to do exactly as she liked because nobody would remember who had committed the crime or the good deed; but oh what a price she paid.
A book not to be missed.

BAD SEEDS – Jassy Mackienzie

 

 

 

 

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My first encounter with tough PI, Jade de Jongh. She needs to be tough because she works in Joburg, South Africa’s biggest city that has its fair share of hardened, greedy criminals. The story revolves around SA’s nuclear industry and there’s explosive action (literally) , plus plenty of other murders and mayhem besides.
The characters are authentically South African, the story line is topical and credible, the atmosphere is gritty and exciting. I don’t care overly for thrillers, but this one had me turning the pages at a rapid rate until I reached the finale.
I will definitely be hunting for another thriller in Jassy Mackienzies series featuring Jade de Jongh.

TOUCH – Claire North

 

 

 

 

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Amazon Synopsis:
The electrifying new thriller from the author of the acclaimed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
Kepler is like you, but not like you. With a simple touch, Kepler can move into any body, live any life – for a moment, a day or for years. And your life could be next.SOME PEOPLE TOUCH LIVES. OTHERS TAKE THEM. I DO BOTH.

I’m a Claire North fan. I am in awe of her imagination. She dreams up highly original plots and has the ability to drive stories forward at a breakneck pace. But I’m afraid this book didn’t work for me.

 

It started off with a bang, and raced off. I found the constant touches/jumps/switches confusing, and – ultimately – wearisome. The narrative became repetitive: touch – jump/switch/ violent confrontation –jump- run/flee through some part of Europe, and repeat. Had this pattern been reduced by one-third, or even half, I would have enjoyed the book more.
I suppose Claire North wanted the identity of Galileo to slowly unfold, hence the length of the touch/jump/switch/run process, but for me it was too long drawn out.
The fault is probably mine, but I didn’t really understand the ending. As the phrase goes: I didn’t get it.
I’m sure other will love the book. It’s well written and exciting. But not for me.

THE MUSIC SHOP – Rachel Joyce

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A heart-warming feel good read: exactly the right book for winter!

 
I enjoyed the fact that the two main characters – Frank who owned the vinyl shop and Ilse the mystery lady of green coat fame – were middle-aged. I also enjoyed the fact that there was a fair amount of misunderstandings, disappointments, heartache and heartbreak along the way to true love. This wasn’t a story about hearts, flowers, fluffy pink marshmallow people. The characters were splendid , especially Maud the tattoo shop owner (often described, very accurately, as resembling the bad fairy) and Frank’s determinedly bohemian, music mad mother, Peggy.

 
I don’t know much about music, so while music plays a central role in the story and is crucial to the final scenes, even I , with scanty musical, knowledge, could enjoy and love the book. Even the most curmudgeonly reader or the music snob, should enjoy this one.
Recommended.