THE HIGH MOUNTAINS OF PORTUGAL – Yann Martel

 

 

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Like everyone else I was blown away by Martel’s hit novel Life of Pi. I wondered what could he possibly produce after such an imaginative triumph. His High Mountains of Portugal novel, is his post-Pi novel and I dithered for ages about buying it, thinking it could only be a disappointment after the wonders of Pi. I found a low-priced copy on a sale last December, and bought it.

 
I’m 82 pages into the story, and am enjoying it immensely. Thus far, the book fits into the Quest/Adventure genre. Our hero, Tomas, inspired by an old century diary written by Father Ulisses who was marooned in the African colonies, sets out to find the mysterious artefact which Father Ulisses shipped back to Portugal. After some deductions, Tomas decided the likely location of the artefact will be in one of the remote churches situated in the High Mountains of Portugal.

 
Here the novel takes an unexpected swerve. Tomas has only ten days holiday in which to reach and search the region. How will he get there? His rich uncle lends him a fully equipped and kitted out shiny new Renault motor car! The story is set in the very early 1900s when motor cars were rare, and regarded as a new-fangled abomination in the age of horse drawn conveyances.

 
You and I, dear Reader, do not give one millisecond of thought about driving or travelling in our motor cars. To us, nothing could be more mundane or unremarkable. But to Tomas, passenger in the Renault, being hurtled around Lisbon by his Uncle’s enthusiastic combative driving, the experience is bewildering and terrifying. Martel shows us a car that leaps and pounces on the roads – we get a clear picture of a dangerous, mechanical beast! His writing is terrific. We experience the roaring, fumes, bumps, rattles, dodgy steering, and of course, the incredible speed. In third gear, no less! At one point a dizzying 50 kmph.

 
I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a story that deals with the period of moving out of the slow horse drawn age into the mechanical motorised age. What a traumatic transition it was, for all concerned : drivers, passengers, road users, and bystanders.

 
I actually don’t care whether Thomas succeeds in finding this historical artefact. Just to read about the trials and exhaustion of early motoring has been a joy in itself.

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THIS WAY UP

 

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The inimitable Paige Nick gives us the story of the Frankel family, beset by upheaval. Every body’s life is in turmoil. Consider this: youngest daughter rocketing around Europe on a gap year, adventure after adventure. Another sister announces her lesbian status. Eldest sister is besieged by three rambunctious children and a working life. Mom & Dad are in crisis mode after decades of marital bickering. Dad – a non-smoker- starts somnambulist smoking.

 
But its twins Lucy and Stella who provide the catalyst that turns the whole shebang upside down. Communications count. And when the comms chain breaks, misunderstandings multiply by the page. Goody-two-shoes starts to live her life for real instead of via her Agony Aunt column in a magazine . Read on! Its light, its fun and its Chick-lit.

 
I couldn’t put it down. Enjoy.

JANUARY 2018 READING ROUND UP

 

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

My eyesight presented problems in January, so my reading time was curtailed. However, I managed to read some wonderful books, the two 4* books, and the enjoyable anthology on gardens. I enjoy books that are ‘Dippers’. You can dip into them at intervals, when time is short, put them back on the shelf for another time.

4* The Pigeon Tunnel – Stories from my Life – John le Carré. Master storyteller’s anecdotal account of a lifetime lived either in the shadows or the limelight. Fascinating.
4* The Song Collector – Natasha Solomons. A lifelong passion for music, home, and the natural world. The magic of the English countryside.

 

3.5* The Way I See it – The Musings of a Black Woman in the rainbow nation – Lerato Tshabalala. Soweto collides with Cosmo magazine. Feisty, funny & fabulous.

 

3.5* Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan . Joey’s suicide inside the bookstore wrenches open old, bad personal history for bookstore clerk, Lydia. Mystery/cold case murder story.

 

3* The Garden of Reading – edited by Michele Slung. Sub-title: Anthology of 20th Century short fiction about Gardens and Gardeners. Enjoyable. Reviewed on GR: https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/1563529

The Pigeon Tunnel – Stories from my Life – John le Carré

 

 

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le Carré ‘s stories based on his long life reads like a souped up version of one of his spy novels. Oxford student, teacher at Eton, recruited by M15 and then by M16 during the Cold War era; his civilian life as a writer. He’s met them all: mighty British Establishment figures, prime minister and politicians, former espionage colleagues, diplomats, no less than three heads of the KGB, traitors, fellow writers, Hollywood producers and actors. I loved his account of Richard Burton who acted the part of Smiley in The Spy who came in from the cold; and Sir Alec Guinness Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

 
He’s a very productive writer .Twenty three novels to his credit. I enjoyed this book far more than some of his novels. I read his early novels The Spy who Came in from the Cold, A Small town in Germany, The Constant Gardner but not his more recent books. I didn’t enjoy his convoluted shadowy stories , but I recently enjoyed two films The Night Manager (done so well by the BBC for TV) and The Tailor of Panama. Reading about his research for his stories, for example, visiting Panama, makes one realise that his success is the result of hard work and research.

 
I wonder : does he tell all?. Of course not, because he’s still bound by the British Official Secrets Act, but he does succeed in giving a good idea of some episodes, even if they’re not name and location specific. Having read the book I wonder how many seemingly mild and innocuous men, who work in some branch of government service, might actually be spies?

 
Reading le Carré ‘s memoir reminds me yet again, how amateurish the British spy services sounds , based so far as I can see, on the upper class Old Boy Network . I snarkily think: no wonder the traitorous Kim Philby deceived them for decades! I suppose my perceptions of secret agents are heavily influence by 007 Bond movies, and no doubt the truth is vastly different if we did but know it.
A fascinating book : recommended.

 

THE WAY I SEE IT

THE WAY I SEE IT – The Musings of a Black Woman in the Rainbow Nation – Lerato Tshabalala

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Pasop, wena!* You have no more family secrets, or any other secrets for that matter, because if you know sis Lerato, she will tell all! A thoroughly modern, urban black lady tells it how it is. South Africa, warts, maids, relatives , rascally building contractors, and all the other joys of life in the Rainbow Nation.

I was entertained, shocked, amazed, and laughing. If you’re a white reader, prepare to experience the same. Actually, I suspect if you are ANY category of South African reader, brace yourself. Sassy, fresh, original. Not quite a Must Read, but pretty damn close.

*Pasop, wena! Look out you!

READING RETROSPECTIVE FOR 2017

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2017 introduced me to some new authors. Happy discoveries were the essays of Rebecca Solnit (American); the novels of Miriam Toews (Canadian) and esteemed English novelist Margaret Drabble.

 

I find as I age that I am reading more non-fiction. Its appeal grows as the years roll by. Let’s face it, there are only a certain number of permutations on the Basic Plots, and sooner or later they begin to sound horribly familiar. I suppose inevitably one becomes jaded with popular novels, same-old-same-old etc. But that said: I still love to read, whatever the genre.

Inspired by Bookish Beck’s detailed 2017 summary I did a quick sweep through my Book Journal and discovered that during the year most of my reading was in the Fiction category, with Non-Fiction coming in at just under 30%. Did I prefer Female to Male authors? An almost even 50/50 split – by happenchance, not by design on my part.

 

This year I read 89 books . I’d hoped to make it a neat 100, but hey! who’s counting? Well, actually, I was but … oh, never mind.

I’m not a huge fan of targets, but I promised myself that I would read 18 books out of my TBR pile. Score? I managed 16. Close but no cigar. Trouble is, I belong to a Book Club at my local Library, and every month introduces me to fresh temptations. And when it comes to books, my willpower is not that strong. So the TBR pile hasn’t diminished that much, due to my book club’s monthly offerings, plus my inability to pass up a book sale. Maybe I should devote January to reading only the TBR pile? Now there’s a notion!

However, I can proudly report that I did manage to stick to my self-promise that I wouldn’t buy any new books between 1 January and 31 March 2017. Of course on 1 April, there I was on-line, wrecking my credit card again and eagerly watching my postbox for the parcels.

Naturally I attended a number of book sales throughout the year, and found some terrific bargains. The McGregor annual book sale in support of the Donkey Sanctuary was a highlight (see my post The McGregor Booksale posted in December); as was the huge Booksellers’ Winter Sale held at the V&A Waterfront ( see my post in June: A genuine book sale).
I’m still formulating my Bookish Promises for 2018. As age roars on and my eyesight etetriorates, I probably won’t bother with the classics that I have never tackled. Sorry, Virginia Woolf – way too late now. Maybe I’ll make a determined assault on the TBR pile, perhaps donating some of the pile to charity, and focus on the books that I really, really want to read.

I’m flirting with the notion of Audiobooks, and also the notion of buying a Kindle. My only interest in the Kindle is that you can enlarge the text to a readable size. Still under consideration.

Promises or no promises, declining eyesight or not, I’m looking forward to another year of reading more wonderful books! I wonder what you’ve set your sights on?

 

DECEMBER 2017 READING ROUND UP

 

 

 

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

 
At this late stage of the year, some really good reads came my way, courtesy of the Milnerton Library. The Margaret Drabble novel was wonderful. I can’t wait to read more of her novels.
The next wonderful read was Gail Honeyman’s story Eleanor Oliphant : Awwww – I just want to give Eleanor a big, big hug. Funny, touching, horrifying, sad. A great read.
And my third (dare I say) jewel in the crown (pun intended) was Vaseem Khan’s Mumbai mystery. Loved it. Can’t wait to read more.
For once I read a thriller, but it was a sort of cross-genre novel, it definitely had its toes in the Horror category. I don’t read Horror, and having read Steve Mosby’s story, I have remembered why!

 

5* The Dark Flood Rises – Margaret Drabble. Everything a good novel should be – colourful characters, superb writing and an exploration of …. themes. Reviewed on this blog.

 

4.5* The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown – Vaseem Khan. I love Indian novels, & this mystery set in Mumbai featuring Inspecotr Chopra (|Retd) was a real gem. Heartily recommended. See review:https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2215793912

4*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. Eleanor’s cautious re-entry into life. The redemptive power of friendship.

 

3.5* Born a Crime – Trevor Noah. Growing up in the 90s in SA; feisty, funny and throught provoking
3* Another Man’s Mocasins – Craig Johnson. Sheriff Walt Longmire’s Vietnam war exploits raise their ugly head again in modern day Absaroka County, with grim results. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2241861966
3* I Know Who Did This – Steve Mosby. A thriller/horror novel. Intricately plotted and gripping. Reviewed on GR : https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/26349624

 

 

1* After Alice – Gregory Maguire. Beloved childrens’ stories are not successful when re-worked. Pretentious. Reviewed on GR:

2017 : HITS & MISSES

Here it is: my 2017 Hit Parade. I hope you find some inspiration for your future reading.

BOOK OF THE YEAR
The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Natasha Solomons *

BEST SOUTH AFRICAN BOOK
The Miracle of Crocodile Flats – Jenny Hobbs *

MOST UNFORGETTABLE BOOK
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara*

BEST MEMOIR
Books, Baguettes, & Bedbugs – Jeremy Mercer

BEST TRANSLATED
The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean Paul Didier Laurent *

BEST FANTASY
Uprooted – Naomi Novik *

BEST BRITISH NOVEL
The Dark Flood Rises – Margaret Drabble

BEST THRILLER
Beside Myself – Ann Morgan*

BEST FOODIE BOOK
Picnic in Provence – Elizabeth Bard *

BEST TRAVEL
A Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

FUNNIEST
Razor Girl – Carl Hiaasen *

MOST ORIGINAL
The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall

NOT TO BE MISSED
The Book of Joy – His Holiness the Dalai Lama &
Archbishop Desmond Tutu *

TERRIFIC READS
Tannie Maria & the Satanic Mechanic –
Sally Andrews*
Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth *
How it all Began – Penelope Lively *
The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson

BEST NON-FICTION
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
21 at 21: the Coming of Age of a Nation –
Verwoerd & Ngcowa *
My Life with Bob – Pamela Paul
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
A Life Full of Holes – Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi

THE MISSES
Palm of the Hand Stories – Yasunari Kawabata
Die Laughing – edited Joanne Hichens *
Hunger Eats a Man – Nkosinathi Sithole *

EAGERLY AWAITED READS IN 2018
La Belle Sauvage – Phillip Pullman
More Walt Longmire Western crime novels by Craig Johnson

* = available at Milnerton Library

THE DARK FLOOD RISES – Margaret Drabble

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I can’t think when last I enjoyed a novel so much. I read it in fairly short doses, savouring the witty, energetic prose and revelling in the cast of interesting and sometimes eccentric characters. The theme of the book is an exploration of elderly people’s inevitable journey towards death and dying. Grim and morbid, you may be thinking, but not so. Not at all. Some of the characters fade away into dementia, some deal bravely and heroically with the impending end, others  stubbornly keep on keeping on.

 
I loved the central character Fran Stubbs, whizzing about, still employed, restless and always doing, doing. I have to say I could see many aspects of myself and my own life in Fran’s busyness. Except I certainly don’t share Fran’s zeal for determinedly driving up and down the highways of England! Fran lives in London on her own, as does her lazy ex-husband Claude gently passing his declining years in bed, in the utmost comfort and luxury. She nobly takes him home- cooked plated dinners at intervals – silly woman. Like I said: busy, busy.

 
Fran’s son Christopher is on Lanzarote, following the unexpected death of his partner Sara. Here he meets the affable duo of Sir Bennett and his partner Ivor who are hospitable and entertaining . As I said, the cast of characters is varied and lively . Most of the main characters share tenuous connections or shared histories, and its fascinating to see how networks of friends and acquaintances form and dissolve in elderly people’s lives.

 
Apart from the six main characters and the unfolding of their lives, Margaret Drabble packs in an astonishing amount of wildly varied information en route, as she tells us about the characters’ life work, or their current hobby horse, or simply their personal history. One comment on the back cover referred to the boom as “wide ranging”. It certainly is. That was part of my enjoyment of the book – the snappy detail about a huge variety of topics. The book offers depth and texture without being tedious in the process.

 

 
I didn’t want the book to end, but of course, it did and I closed it reluctantly. What a feast! Heartily recommended.

P.S. I would love to hear younger readers’ opinions of the book. I’ll check on Goodreads. I suspect the book’s primary appeal will be to older readers, but I could well be wrong.

 

THE MCGREGOR BOOKSALE

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Pausing at the Pass en route to McGregor
This mammoth book sale, in aid of the McGregor Donkey Sanctuary, takes place annually* in the small town of McGregor, situated in the Robertson wine area. I’ve always wanted to go and this year Nina helped me make my dream come true.
McGregor is a small country town, set on the edge of the Klein Karoo. Its arid, and yet people have made homes and lived here since the mid-1800s. Notice the thatched roofs, the beautiful dry stone walling, and the last pic, a general view, shows the surrounding countryside.

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We located the Town Hall, and as we walked into the grounds, we met people walking out smiling happily, and in one case, a strapping young woman carrying a huge cardboard carton of books on her shoulder! That was a good sign.
This was my modest haul after an hour of delicious browsing.
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The Chinese Horoscope Library – Snake – by Kwok an-Ho. Yes, I’m a snake … so watch out! I enjoy Chinese horoscopes, and find them helpful.
Air – Geoff Ryman . A British writer, who supports a Facebook page for African SF & Fantasy. A good enough recommendation for me.
Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen . I love Hiaasen’s Florida themed crime stories – you always get plenty of laughs amongst the gore and bullets.
General Tso’s Chicken and the 7 Deadly Sins – Maurice Kibel . A Collection of Rhyme and Reason. Illustrations by Tony Grogan. I recognised the name, from years back, in our early Bulawayo days – Mr Kibel was my kids’ paediatrician! And here was a book that, “celebrates a lifetime of words, and music and medicine”. Plus Tony Grogan is one of my favourite cartoonists. An irresistible combination.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton. An American writer I’ve always meant to read. And the book has a bright sky blue cover, fancy gold lettering, and in mint condition. I think I bought it as much for the cover as I did for the contents!Flying to America – Donald Barthelme. I frequently find mention of Bartheleme in literary blogs as being the man who set the benchmark for American short stories. For example:
“ Donald Barthelme almost single-handedly has revived the genre of the short story and made it a fresh art form… He can, and does, write stories of every kind.”
“Among the leading innovative writers of modern fiction”.
Well: with an intro like the above, clearly I am in for a treat.
As I said in my About page when I opened The Booksmith blog, my reading tastes are eclectic. I think my sale bargains prove this statement to be true!
Thanks to Nina Ganci for the pics. Exception is the bookpile, which I took.
* I’m posting this episode belatedly – we went to McGregor in May 2017.