Eyesight problems put a crimp in my February reading, but here’s a very brief summary.
This month’s top read is Eyrie by Tim Winton. Bloody brilliant. Essential reading.
Other Fiction Reads:
Mrs Smith Reads Books
Eyesight problems put a crimp in my February reading, but here’s a very brief summary.
This month’s top read is Eyrie by Tim Winton. Bloody brilliant. Essential reading.
Other Fiction Reads:
2023 JANUARY READING ROUNDUP
My first read of the new year was a dazzling novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida. I’ve already listed it as an entrant on my new 2023 Books of the Year List.
It’s a contemporary novel about a youngish American woman who constantly has to re-invent herself, in order to survive. The beginning of the story sees our unnamed narrator flying to Morocco, to escape the drama of a nasty divorce. But she encounters bizarre travel disasters upon arrival, that multiply daily.. The middle of the story see her tossed into the cast of a movie being filmed in Morocco, but this episode changes again. The last section of the book finally explains the backstory, which is shocking and heart breaking, the words betrayal and perfidy are insufficient. And then we see her yet again, in another persona, continuing on her journey. To what, and where, we don’t know. The finale is open ended.
A cleverly crafted story, that is unpredictable. A wonderful read.
All my January reads were good, but one more book needs an individual highlight: The Perfect Golden Circle – Benjamin Myers. The cover is striking, with its central golden circle, against a stippled corn-yellow background. The theme is quirky: two social misfits, in Britain, secretly creating crop circles of dazzling complexity. Why, how, where and when they do this, is revealed, but in oblique fragments. A thought provoking read, that is highly original.
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida. Contemporaryfiction, a murky mystery unfolds in a glamorous setting. A female runaway who survives against all odds. An adventure story, and the exploration of identity, that is personally liberating. Excellent!
The Perfect Golden Circle – Benjamin Myers. Two oddballs create crop circles in Britain. Calvert is a scarred Falklands SAS veteran, Redbone is an ex punk-rocker. He’s the visionary circle designer, Calvert is the Ops guy. It’s an unlikely friendship, that has great depth. The novel celebrates the search for perfection, and male friendship. An outstanding read. I guarantee this novel will rank amongst the 2023 highlights, for quirky originality.
Shrines of Gaiety – Kate Atkinson. Soho, London 1926, The Great War is over, and people just want to have fun, drink dance, flirt, do drugs, have fun. Which is where the redoubtable Nellie Coker and her 5 nightclubs come into the story. She’s an indomitable character, a force of nature. The book is worth reading just to make her acquaintance. But there are other strong women, young Freda from York, a provincial with stars in her eyes; Gwendolen, who nursed during the war, living life on her own terms. Beneath the gaiety lies the seedy underbelly of crime, exploitation of girls, murders. Soho deserved its notorious reputation. Kate Atkinson does not disappoint – a cracking good read. Recommended
Sea of Tranquility – Emily St John Mandel.Speculative fiction/SF. The theme is time travel and deliberate disruptions to historical timelines. The tone is calm, measured; the prose is simple and factual. It’s a novel best read in one go, in order to grasp and appreciate the swirling complexities . Fortunately the book is not a dense read. I made the mistake of reading halfway, allowing a week to elapse, before finishing the story, whereupon I had to skim read the first half in order to appreciate the second half. An intriguing story.
Nothing Ventured – Jeffrey Archer. More art theft, fraud and crime on all levels, including police forces. The beginning of young William Warwick’s stellar career in the Scotland Yard Fraud Squad. A well plotted and written story, with good court room scenes as well. The book is worth reading for the outrageously cheeky final line – I gasped and then laughed. But you need to read the entire novel in order to grasp the joke. A good read.
Hidden in Plain Sight – Jeffrey Archer. William Warwick continues his Scotland Yard career, this time helping to bust a drug empire, but as a dual plot line, Miles Faulkner is up to his old tricks with art fraud and defeating the machinations of his vengeful, soon-to-be Ex-Wife. Again, episodes in the court room; Justice triumphs at the end, but there’s a nasty sting in the tail. Entertaining read.
The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver. Fan though I am of Lionel Shriver, this novel defeated me. It’s a dystopian story about the collapse of a wealthy American family due to the vagaries of the stock/bond/and world currency markets. The financial background was too arcane, and the characters did not appeal to me. Splat! Out it went.
To my relief, the Cape Town Libraries re-opened earlier in the year, as the Covid Pandemic started to wane. I really missed the Public Library during the lockdowns, and my bank balance suffered accordingly, because I was buying books online as a substitute. My best buy in 2022 was These Precious Days by Ann Patchett. Essay collections hospitably provide for return visits over the years. As do comic novels: I’ve re-read several of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy novels and chortled happily, all over again.
Another excellent investment was the 2022 Collins Scrabble Dictionary. My existing copy was published in 2010. And we all know how many new words creep into the compendious English language annually. Over 200 in 2022. How the compilers keep up is an enduring mystery.
I remained steadfast to my two main Bookish Vows i.e. not to enter reading challenges, and to firmly close books that I’m not enjoying. The acronym DNF does not bother me one smidgeon!
This was the year I abandoned Goodreads. It’s time consuming, I don’t like their restrictive star system and their year-end stats never coincide with mine. But, in fairness, I must admit GR helped me find followers when I launched my book blog, The Booksmith.
I’ve re-read some old favourites on my shelves – otherwise, why am I keeping them? “Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale,” opined Gabriel García Márquez, which reminds me, I want to re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude; I read the book when it first debuted, which is a long time ago. I frequently see the title on lists, you know, 100 Best Books Ever, and the like.
I keep eyeing two very battered collections of W S Somerset Maugham’s stories and perhaps they should feature top of my 2023 Targets list. This year I’ve read very few short story collections. I’ve read Essays, but few shorts or novellas.
I didn’t keep track of my book buying this year, but inspired by Bookish Beck’s meticulous record keeping, I did keep track of other stats. For example: up to mid-December 2022, I read 85 Books, 33 of which were written by men and the remaining 52 by women . Not that I was hellbent on reading female writers, it just turned out that way. Let it be noted that women wrote outstanding non-fiction as well as entertaining fiction.
I’ve always seen myself as an intrepid explorer of the Backlist Territories, but to my surprise, scanning my primitive stats, I see that 32 of this year’s reads were published during the two year period 2020 / 2022. Just under a third, so it seems I didn’t spend all my time in the Backlist undergrowth this year.
Fellow Book Bloggers have provided pleasure, entertainment and introductions to marvelous books, for which I thank you. A special thanks to Book Jotter, who provides a comprehensive weekly review over the bookish world.
All things being equal, I intend to continue reading and book blogging in 2023, and I wish you heaps of gift wrapped books over the Festive Season, plus a peaceful, healthy New Year.
Paula Bardell-Hedley, Book Jotter
The Bullet that Missed – Richard Osman cheered me enormously. Finally some cheer! Not Festive, seasonal cheer given that its crime genre, but hey! After the year we’ve been through, I’ll take it.
This is #3 in his Thursday Murder Club Series, and he is writing #4, which I cannot wait to read.
His splendid cast of geriatric sleuths finally unravel the ten year old mystery of Bethany Waites’ death. En route they tangle with an ex-KGB officer, the world of local TV, crypto-currency, money launderers – you really get your money’s worth with this one. The novel is hugely entertaining, despite the general murder and mayhem.
If you need cheering up, either buy a copy yourself or firmly inform Family & Friends that its top of your Xmas Wish List. Enjoy. I did. Every page.
The Bullet that Missed – Richard Osman. Four geriatric friends team up to solve a murder mystery … ‘Mystery fans are going to be enthralled’ says Harlan Coben; and ‘So smart and funny. Deplorably good” says Ian Rankin. Highly Recommended.
Impossible – Sarah Lotz. It’s difficult to review the book without revealing spoilers, but: what do two people do when they find their soulmates but will never be able to meet? The story offers ingenious solutions, surprising twists and turns delivered with warmth, charm and humour. The contemporary setting and tone are spot on. A lovely, engaging read. Recommended.
Less is Lost – Andrew Sean Greer. The charming, bumbling Less and a mid-life crisis send him running away from his problems, via the Mid West, the South and to his mid-Atlantic birthplace; mistaken identities and situations abound, providing tragically funny episodes and characters. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
We shall Sing a Song into the Deep – Andrew Kelly Stewart. A dystopian story; the novella’s ‘protagonist struggles through coming of age whilst a press-ganged member of a fanatical community of monks, manning an ageing nuclear submarine that has a sacred mission, namely to trigger the Second Coming by launching a nuclear missile attack against the ungodly surface-dwellers. Grim, paranoid, and haunting; not a light or easy read, but gripping and original. Squeamish readers should avoid.
False Impressions- Jeffrey Archer. A Family Visit Read, scrounged off son-in-law’s bookshelf. Art Theft, ruthless tycoon outwitted by female art expert. A global setting, London, Tokyo, stately home. A satisfying ending: Villain got his just desserts.
Boundary Born – Melissa F Olson. A Holiday bargain from a Charity Shop. YA Paranormal thriller. Not my usual genre, but its good to read beyond one’s comfort zone periodically. Witches, vampires, ghosts – the whole nine yards. If this is run-of-the-mill reading territory for the Millenials, I have some serious concerns! But hey, I’m probably just a fuddy duddy wrinkly old bookworm. That said, I quite enjoyed it, I have to confess.
Light Rains Sometimes Fall – Lev Parikian. This wonderful book has been my early morning companion throughout the year. Lev took the traditional Japanese 72 micro-seasons, and applied the dates to his own calendar, in North London, England, for one year, recording his outdoor experiences during daily walks around his neighbourhood. He walks through streets, parks, a wild cemetery and his own garden, enjoying the flora and fauna (mostly birds, though there’s a fox, living in the cemetery.) We experience the gradual progression of the seasons through his eyes, via his attention to detail, laced with humour, and his ability to deliver great prose. I’ve loved every page. Finally: extending gratitude to my generous friend C for the gift – one of the lovliest books you’ve ever sent me. Thank you!
I’ve enjoyed my reading year, and looking forward to further exploration of the Backlist Territories in 2023. Plus the occasional foray into Lit Prize territory like the Booker, the Caine Prize, the Sunday Times Lit Awards etc.
I have written a detailed account of my 2022 reading year in another post, which will appear later in December.
And so to the Hits of 2022. I no longer list my reading debacles, which I list in my monthly reviews under the DNF tag. I’d rather focus on the triumphs.
What were your favourite reads?
Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree (translator – Daisy Rockford) Indian novel
THE REST OF THE BEST
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt – contemporary novel
10 minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World – Elif Shafak
The House of Rust – Khadija Abdalla Bajaber – Kenyan fantasy
Lanny – Max Porter – fantasy
The Music of Bees – Eileen Garvin – contemporary novel
BEST TRANSLATED NOVEL 2022
Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree (translator – Daisy Rockford) Indian novel
BEST SOUTH AFRICAN/AFRICAN
Paradise – Abdulrazak Gurnah – historicAfrican novel
The Woman of the Stone Sea – Meg van der Merwe – fable/fantasy
Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter – Gothic tales
WORTH A MENTION
The Thursday Murder Club series – Richard Osman. Romps with Geriatric Sleuths
Impossible – Sarah Lotz. Paranormal romance
#1 Light Rain Sometimes Falls – Lev Parikian – Nature writing
These Precious Days – Ann Patchett – essays/memoir
The Bookseller’s Tale – Martin Latham – memoir
Book of the month is Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell. A wonderful read. Such an exuberant book, playful and lively in style. While the bones of the story are fairly simple – 80 year old Ma rises from deep depression and sets out on an odyssey, driven by unresolved issues from her early years in Pakistan, during the period of Partition. The treatment of the story, the language, the word play, the diversions and detours into a myriad other topics are what makes the novel so original.
The brilliant translator of the novel, Daisy Rockwell, says … Tomb of Sand is above all a love letter to the Hindi language.
And: … a tale of many threads, encompassing modern urban life, ancient history. Folklore, feminism ,global warming, Buddhism …
Not to mention Ma’s unseemly friendship with Rosie a hijra (eunuch/transvestite/wedding entertainer); then there’s Ma’s Daughter Beti, a modern bohemian woman determinedly living a single life away from her family; there are talking birds; there’s a long divagation into Ma’s sari collection, and much much more.
If you prefer novels that are clear-cut and plot driven, you probably should give the book a miss.
If you like Indian novels, with all the colour, smells, vivid characters and uproar of daily life, then this is the book for you.
I need to record my thanks to my generous friend C, who presented me with the book and made great efforts to get the book to me. Gratitude, my friend.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The novel won the international Booker prize in 2021, no surprises there. Highly recommended.
Postscript: here’s a link to an excellent article on the book.:
The Music of Bees – Eileen Garvin . The golden thread of honey from the lives of bees and their beekeepers, sticks this heartwarming story together. Recently widowed Alice and newly paraplegic teen Jake get their lives back together through beekeeping, while hapless Harry enters their little farm and is healed by friendship and kite-surfing. The healing power of friendship is a major theme, with sub-themes of dysfunctional families and the villainous mega company destroying the orchard industry . I enjoyed the book enormously.
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur – Alka Joshi. Sequel to The Henna Artist. Family secrets abound, as do love and jealousy, and gold smuggling. Modern India, colourful and complex. Enjoyable but not memorable . Fans of Indian novels will love it.
Doris was completely, utterly and forever, in love with books; with reading the printed word. As a precocious 5 year old she suddenly made the connection between the black marks on the page and words, and that was it, the magic of reading struck powerfully, and for life.
Of course during her 60 years Doris experienced other loves – briefly for her husband and cautiously for her children, but her one abiding love and passion that did not fade over the years was for books, and the happy past time of reading. People would have been amazed to discover how passionately Doris felt about books, because Doris effectively camouflaged herself as the archetypal Little Old Lady, and faded discreetly and quietly into the background. It just made life simpler.
The arrival of gray hair, a little stoop to the posture, and a few extra kilograms aided the process of becoming virtually invisible; and when she was visible, it appeared that the Little Old Lady persona swamped any other impressions. She was philosophical about her official Little Old Lady status and in many ways it quite suited her. A little hesitation here, a little flutter or quaver there, certainly oiled the wheels and made things easier.
She was therefore surprised and flattered when Anne, a fellow volunteer at the local library asked whether Doris would like to join their Book Club.
“ I know how much you love your thrillers and whodunits, and most of our club just love them too – you’ll have a ball,” she said cheerily.
So Doris joined the Southern Suburbs Book Club happily ignorant that she been approached in desperation to make up the numbers.
“ Just as a temporary measure, she’s a quiet old duck, but very reliable and she does love her thrillers,” Ann breezily told the club.
Doris felt as if she died and gone to heaven. The Club had an enormous collection of books, packed into plastic crates and carted round to members’ houses for the monthly meetings. Oh the joy of reading all the latest thrillers, whodunnits, best sellers, family sagas, prize winning novels, biographies and travel books, and occasionally chick lit micro novels .Doris felt like the proverbial kid in that candy store, the alcoholic let loose at a bachelor stag party. Doris was ecstatic.
A year passed by and suddenly the honeymoon was over. Doris began to notice how careless the other woman were with the books, treating them roughly, returning them dog eared or with coffee-mug stained jackets; losing them altogether or keeping them way beyond the loan period .
In Doris’s eyes this cavalier attitude to books was criminal, outrageous behaviour, heinous beyond belief or acceptance. However, she paid her Subs and returned her books religiously. She sat quietly and unobtrusively at Book Club meetings, neatly in old lady mode slowly sipping her glass of white wine, only one for me thank you dear , and watched the raucous antics of the ladies. She was surprised to discover that many of the members regarded the Book Club as an excuse to have a night out, away from husband, home and kids, to relax in a friendly female atmosphere helped along with a few bottles of wine.
Certainly all the Book Club members could be classified as readers, but as book lovers ? No definitely not, rated on Doris’ scale of passionate obsession. The eleven other members scored minus five points on a scale of 10, with one or two exceptions of course, but on the whole, lamentable.
Doris brooded moodily. In private of course, because archetypal Little Old Ladies are not supposed to harbour dark, moody, broody thoughts. No of course not, perish the thought! The night Betty spilled a glass of red wine over the newest Jonathan Kellerman in a tipsy fit of giggling was the night that Doris decided that enough was enough.
As a child Doris existed on a solid diet of her father’s Crime Book Club selection of thrillers and late 1940s private eye novels: Peter Cheney, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie – undisputed queen of the genre – Edgar Wallace, Ellery Queen, the names flicked through her head in a satisfying, familiar roll call.
Other children filled their school days with the jolly hockey sticks activities of the Enid Blyton books but not Doris, who roared through these tame escapades and quickly discarded them in favour of the exciting, risqué adult world of car chases, hangovers, chain smoking detectives wearing raincoats, armed with pistols, alternating with the polite,sophisticated Society of Europe in the 1930s – sports cars, cocktails, foxtrots, backless evening dresses, aristocratic sleuths; and always, always, MURDER as the solution to all of life’s little problems, financial, personal or romantic. It seemed the perfectly reasonable solution to the book-despoiling Betties of this world . Anybody who treated books in such a disrespectful way definitely had it coming to them, thought Doris . It would solve the Betty problem and then of course there was the odious Susan, but, one thing at a time, Doris chided herself . Softly, softly catchee monkeee, she murmured to herself, and carefully, carefully plot and plan, no good solving the Betty problem and getting oneself all tangled up . No, no!
“Betty dear”, she murmured hesitantly,” I wonder if I could ask you – I know how busy you are – but I did wonder …” and out came the request for Betty to help Doris with her volunteer duty at the library, next Tuesday afternoon .
“It’s just two hours, from two until four, and the lady who usually helps, is in hospital having her hip replaced, and it’s a bit much for me on my own … “ .Doris’s request tailed off uncertainly .
Betty thought, shame, all those heavy books to cart around, it probably is a bit much for her ,“ OK, I’ll make a plan – see you at the library on Tuesday “.
Betsy duly arrived at the library and Doris was flutteringly grateful for the help. “Cup of tea, dear? “ Doris inquired, “ shall I put the kettle on”, and then: “ Betty, I can hear the kettle boiling, would you mind? You’ll have to turn it off at the plug, it’s an old one, not an automatic, “ and obliging Betty groped her way into the dark corner housing the tea-making equipment, failed to see the cunning puddle of water in which she stood, didn’t notice the crafty removal of the earth wire in the kettle plug; the electricity sizzling up the wires did her no good at all: DOA at the emergency unit in Groot Schuur Hospital .
Poor old Doris, quite shattered . and what an awful accident, was the Book Club verdict. Doris, heavily in Little Old Lady mode, deliberately missed the club meeting after Betty’s sad accident, and when she did appear, she looked paler than usual (careful application of face powder two shades lighter the normal, did the trick) and seemed very subdued.
Shame, must have been a terrible shock, said the Book Club.
Then Fate played right into Doris’s hands: the odious, careless, non- book returning Susan unexpectedly had a stroke and was rushed to hospital . Susan was stricken the day before the monthly club meeting, and Anne breathlessly reported that Susan was in Our Lady of Fatima hospital, run by the nuns, up in Oranjezicht .
Now it so happened that Doris had spent time in the hospital the previous year, having her gallbladder removed. Such dear, sweet nuns, she remembered rosily, such devoted nurses . Quite like the old days and such a quaint old building . Originally it been a large convent but when new novices declined to a thin trickle, the nuns decided to convert the building into a modest hospital in order to financially sustain their dwindling community . Yes it was an old building, she reflected . Hmmm.
so, Good Samaritan Doris visited Susan the next day, bearing a small pot plant, and fussing over the bed covers, and exclaiming over the life- support machine that ticked and bleeped next to the bed and assisted Susan’s very paralyzed body to breathe.
Doris didn’t stay long . “ I don’t want to tire you out, dear, and I do want to go and say hello to that nice sister Francis, she was so good to me last year. Bye, dear, I’ll come again tomorrow.”
Doris headed briskly for the Ladies cloak room, making a short detour down a small passage to check that her memory of the floor plan was correct. Yes indeed it was, there on the wall was the electrical distribution board . Who would have thought that marriage to an electrician would prove so useful so many years down the track, mused Doris, as she whisked into a nearby supply room to find a broom with a sufficiently long handle to push up the mains switch . Having switched off the power it took just another quick whisk into Susan’s room to turn off the life support machine at the wall plug.
This time Doris didn’t stop to say goodbye to Susan, seemed pointless really. The corridors were filled with nurses and nuns scurrying distractedly to and fro in search of the cause of the power failure and when the power was finally restored, everybody assumed that all was well with Susan and her life support machine, but alas, this assumption proved false and the dear, sweet nuns didn’t notice that the wall plug was switched off . Accidents happen, even in the best regulated hospitals.
Book Club meetings for the next couple of months were much quieter and better ordered with the removal of Betty and Susan. Doris attended happily, now secure in a neatly ordered club until somebody suggested that maybe they should look for two new members? The rising price of books and the two missing monthly subscriptions were causing a bit of financial strain. Two new members were recruited and Doris anxiously watched their behaviour, their demeanor, their attitude towards books. Christine was a librarian, quiet, bookish and a fan of travel books and biographies. She’d do mused Doris, a real book lover.
She wasn’t so sure about Pam, though. Pam loved her wine and offered an inexhaustible supply of dirty jokes . She only borrowed one book a month and didn’t appear to particularly enjoy reading . It transpired she was married to a very ambitious eye surgeon, who was hell bent on making his first million by the age of 35 . Enough said .
In December Pam spilled a bottle – a whole bottle – of wine over a stack of 10 books. Well! Doris’s lips tightened. This wouldn’t do at all.
Doris was still working as a volunteer at the local library, and being very careful in the kitchen, with the old kettle. Honestly, you’d think that they would have bought a new one after that awful accident, wouldn’t you?
“ I don’t know what we do without Doris, a real book lover and such a worker,” said the librarian and, “ Do be careful when you leave the library Doris, those trucks come over the bridge at a hell of a speed. Last week one of those big breweries’ trucks came over the rise at the bridge too fast, and very nearly ran over old Mr van Tonder, you know him Doris? Old man with a stick? “
Yes, Doris knew old Mr van Tonder . He’d had such a lucky escape, hadn’t he? Hmmm.
Doris cornered Pam at the next Book Club meeting, very smartly, before Pam got stuck into the wine. “ Pam, “ she said cosily “I’ve been meaning to ask you, I know busy you are, but I was just wondering whether you could help me out next week at our local library, my usual helper has gone to Hermanus for two week. Do you think you……? “
If you enjoyed the story, perhaps you would consider making a small donation by way of an amazon.com gift voucher? Due to the negative exchange rate between our currencies, it is too expensive for me to keep my Kindle running. For details, kindly email me on email@example.com
October’s top Read was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
Her new book, The Goldfinch, is her most ambitious undertaking. “The process was different in that it was three places—Park Avenue, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam—that dictated the story, and it takes place over a much longer span of time,” Tartt says. The Goldfinch follows 14-year-old Theo Decker as he oscillates between high society and the seedy underbelly of the antiques and art world’s black market.
In the novel Theo takes possession of the painting The Goldfinch after a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills his mother and sets his life on a traumatic course. Essentially it’s a coming of age story, but wonderfully executed.
She credits 19th-century novels with teaching her how to write, and she lists Dickens, Stevenson, Conrad, Wodehouse, and Nabokov among her favourite authors. Her literary influencers shine throughout the book. I was constantly delighted by the rounded characters, the immersive nature of the action and the general satisfying flavour of the read.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. As usual, I’m stumbling around in the Backlist Territory, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this novel.
At this point in the year, the novel will definitely feature in my Top Five of 2022.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. A magnificent novel. A literary thriller, involving the theft of a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, the deep friendship of two (semi)orphaned boys, Theo and Boris, the transition to adulthood and a satisfying ending. Not to be missed.
Shipwrecks – Akira Yoshimura. A short, spare novel about the harsh life of a community of Japanese fisher folk during the medieval period. They live on the edge of starvation and so take whatever bounty the sea and O-fune-sama a folkloric female deity, might send them i.e. wrecked merchant ships. They take certain practical measures to assist the process. Reading the Introduction by David Mitchell is essential. He describes the novel as ‘austere’, and it is. Nonetheless, recommended as a slice out of a very different type of life.
The Fire Portrait – Barbara Mutch. Francesstruggles in early life to pursue a career as an artist, against familial and social disapproval; after several romantic disappointments, she settles for a marriage of convenience, marries Julian, who is a shy school teacher and 15 years her senior. Her married life starts with a move to a small, remote Karoo town. At this point the novel gains more depth, and describes the complexities and nuances of South African life in the 1940s, the lingering aftermath of the Boer War, the Afrikaner Nazi sympathizers, the birth of the Nationalist Party and apartheid. The ending is surprisingly powerful and complex. Initially an easy read, but progressively more demanding. Recommended
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown – Vaseem Khan. A re-read, but still vastly enjoyable, maybe because one of the characters is a baby elephant? An old-school whodunnit, set in Bombay, filled with charming and truly villainous characters, no shades of grey here. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Island on the Edge of the World – Deborah Rodriguez. The Haitian setting is very much part of the story : a vibrant, colourful, chaotic, destroyed, disaster-ridden island. Four women in search of a missing baby. Dishonest pastor and adoption agency, Voodou priestess, American psychic, – hold on to your hats! My first Haitian based read …. Interesting to say the least, and accustomed to Third World living conditions as I am, along the way, I still exclaimed: OMG!
What’s Left of Me is Yours – Stephanie Scott. Debut love story/crime set in modern-day Tokyo, inspired by a true crime. A young woman’s search for the truth about her mother’s life, and her murder. Impeccably researched, well written but the characters did not speak to me. If you enjoy Japanese stories, this book is for you.
September Read of the Month is The House of Rust – Khadija Abdalla Bajaber. The Kenyan writer’s debut novel offers a feast of African storytelling, heavily laced with the Arabian Nights. Kjhadija is a fabulous storyteller, as well as a fabulist. On the one level it’s a coming of age story about a rebellious girl who passionately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, go to sea, have adventures and roam free. Conventional marriage, husband and family, a steady life in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast? Pah! Not a chance.
On another level, the books is an adventure into magical realms peopled with talking animals; two crows and Hamza, the scholar’s cat, among others; plus terrifying sea monsters which she has to vanquish in order to save her father. There’s Zubeir the local magician/medicine man and finally the enigmatic Almassi, the dangerous resident of the House of Rust.
The book won the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize. The Prize …. Is awarded for a first novel manuscript by an author primarily residing in Africa. Founded in 2017 to facilitate direct access to publishing in the USA for a new generation of African writers ….
I’m so grateful to the Graywolf Press making this marvelous book available to English speaking readers.
Followed by another African writer’s acclaimed novel – Paradise, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Again, the setting in East Africa, again Kenya. It’s the early days of the 20th century, before Africa became Westernised. 12 year old Yusuf is pawned to rich, powerful merchant Uncle Azziz, to pay his father’s debts. Uncle Azzis takes him to his property on the coast, where Yusuf learns how to keep shop, and to trade. It’s a coming of age story, against the backdrop of African myth, dreams and Koranic tradition; travel adventures, and a doomed love story.
I was born on the edge of East Africa, so the book resonated with me in many ways – the people, the scenery, the social attitudes. And Gurnah ‘s prose does it justice. I’m still mulling over the final paragraph, on the last page. An open ending, in that another chapter of Yusuf’s life begins – I wonder what happened to him?
If you’re tired of gung-ho safari/male machisomo/adventurers’ version of Africa, this novel provides an insider’s portrait of Africa. Give it a try.
And, P.S. In case you were unaware, Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.
The House of Rust – Khadija Abdalla Bajaber . Original, magical, labyrinthine, multi-layered as Mombasa itself. A sparkling mix of Arabian nights storytelling and new African fiction. Rave, Rave.
Paradise – Abdulrazak Gurnah. A rich and layered novel set in East Africa. Yusuf’s coming of age story, part adventure story, part love story; always strange and beautiful, and often violent. The genuine old Africa. I really enjoyed the book. Recommended.
The Milk Tart Murders – A Tannie Maria Mystery. Sally Andrew. This is #4 in the series, and I’m a fan. There’s murder /s, there are recipes, Tannie M and Jessie are as intrepid as ever, but more importantly, Tannie M and Henk have a major fallout .The book has more emotional depth and is all the better for it. I particularly enjoyed the background detail about the Little Karoo flora and fauna. I think I put on 2 kgs just by reading about the luscious food. Highly recommended, as a feel-good read.
The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter. Kudos to Virago Press fore- issuing this 1967 novel in 1987. What a wildly, wickedly exuberant writer she is! Three orphaned children dumped into the seedy South London home of their awful Uncle. Its a modern baroque fairy tale, that grows more and more disturbing but ends with a satisfying bang! Plus, a surprising expose of female sexuality. If you’ve never tried Angela Carter, do so now: she has no equal.
How high we go in the dark – Sequoia Nagamatsu. See my review 23rd on this blog. A powerful novel, in the Speculative Fiction/SF genre. It’s a Plague novel (no, not Covid) that explores humanity’s response to a deadly virus. Powerful, bleak, thought provoking to say the least. Not for everyone, but a memorable read. And, I sincerely hope, not prescient!
Afterland – Lauren Beukes. Another Speculative Fiction Plague novel, right after the above Japanese book, but a very different read. South African writer Lauren Beukes produces a fast paced thriller, well written, enormously readable, exciting read. In a future where most of the men are dead, Cole and her twelve year old son Miles are on the run …. Plenty of action, a real page turner. I enjoyed the book. Recommended.
This Speculative Fiction/SF novel by Sequoia Nagamatsu makes a powerful impact.
How can it not? It posits a world which has been hit by a Plague, unleashed upon humanity when an ancient corpse, of a 6 year old child, in revealed due to the melting of the permafrost. The unknown virus discovered in her body during scientific examination in a research lab situated in the Arctic, somehow float out into the atmosphere and the damage is done.
The fourteen intricately interlinked stories explore humanity’s reaction to the catastrophic event.
Two of the early stories were shocking, and haunting. City of Laughter features a theme park, dedicated to being fun! Fun! Fun! for terminally ill children , whose final ride on a monster roller-coaster ends in euthanasia during the ride, immediately followed by cremation. The parents spend one last, precious almost normal day with their child, and then dispatch them to a merciful finale.
And I don’t really want to go into too much detail about the Chapter titled Elegy Hotel. Set in a Mortuary Hotel where bereaved families get to spend a precious final 48 hours with their embalmed loved ones ….. shudder.
Likewise, the squeamish reader would do well to avoid the Chapter titled Songs of Your Decay. However, said chapter also contains a wistful sort-of-might-have-been-almost-love story. The book offers other love stories and inter-generational-family conflict stories. In short: slices of human life.
I enjoyed reading a novel with so many Japanese characters, written by a Japanese author, who produced a novel that wasn’t swathed in opacity as is so often the case with translated Japanese novels
Later chapters deal with lighter themes: the survival of the human race, and the finale reveals the origin of the virus.
Towards the last third of the book, the genre switched from Speculative Fiction to downright SF. I thought the Spec Fic two thirds worked better than the SF section. Others will no doubt disagree.
The book is not a light read. Bleak and sobering are two words that spring to mind. Hardly surprising, given the subject matter. But it is a thought provoking read, to put it mildly.
Did I enjoy it? Ummm …. I’m not too sure it is a book to be enjoyed, given the topic. But on the plus side I can recommend it as an unusual read, and definitely a book of its time.
I’d be interested to hear other readers’ views and reviews.