BERTIE’S GUIDE TO LIFE & MOTHERS – Alexander McCall Smith

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I’ve spent a delightful afternoon renewing my acquaintance with the cast of characters who inhabit the 44 Scotland Street series.

 

There’s Bertie, about to turn seven, an important step for him. All he wants is a penknife as a birthday gift, but no, his domineering mother, Irene, buys him a non-gender specific super-hero action figure i.e. a doll (!) and a United Nations Peacekeeping Kit for children game . I thank my lucky stars the domineering Irene wasn’t in my childhood. She has firm ideas on child rearing, and is determined to develop her hapless son in a gender-neutral way. To which end she sends the unfortunate kid to Yoga, Italian lessons, and saxophone music lessons. But, to my delight, Irene gets her just deserts (this is not a spelling error, but a feeble pun) at the end of the book.
The usual assembly of Edinburgh characters walk through the story: henpecked Dad Stuart; vomiting sibling Ulysses; Cyril the dog with a gold tooth; Big Lou the coffee bar owner, and others. All familiar and dearly loved by readers, including me.
Alexander McCall Smith has a happy knack of making the mundane interesting, with his gentle humour and his precise turn of phrase, which allows for humour to enter his stories. One of the things I enjoy about the Scotland Street series, is the way that McCall Smith adds his own philosophical musings about modern life, and Edinburgh in particular.
For me: a joy to read. If you want something very Scottish, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable, then read this book. It’s the ninth book in the series, but you should be able to pick up the story easily and its not necessary to start at Book 1 (title is 44 Scotland Street) but if the series is to your taste, then you have the pleasurable prospect of another eight novels to explore.

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MOTHERING SUNDAY – Graham Swift

 

 

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I need to add the novella to my List of May Reads but I find myself in a dilemma. Because I have structured my page according to a star rating system, I really don’t know how to rate the novella.

 
On the one hand, I was filled with admiration at the structure of the story. Swift has chosen to focus on one afternoon in the life of young housemaid Jane Fairchild, in an English country house, in 1924. With skilfully worded and placed short asides, he gives us the back story (orphaned, put into service at age 14, seduced by the young neighbour Paul Sheringham; in those years it was almost expected that one of the males in the family would be bonking the staff. ) Later he fast-forwards us to Jane Fairchild in her eighties, and then in her nineties. Briefly, but with telling effect.

 
Swift reveals the inequities of the English class system mercilessly, and the miracle that a poorly educated working class foundling – he actually uses the Dickensian word ‘foundling’ – succeeds in “bettering herself” by leaving domestic service and ultimately transforming herself into a famous writer. It’s Jane’s love of reading that is the key to this social miracle, and oddly enough, the novels of Joseph Conrad, of all unlikely writers, which are the catalyst.

 
He also uses the theme of war – in this case the First World War – as a reminder of the losses incurred by English families which serves as a brooding undercurrent to the narrative; a sort of harbinger of forthcoming developments.

 
So far so good. A very English novella, brilliantly plotted and written by an acclaimed British author, recipient of many awards and prizes. This said: what was my problem? I simply did not enjoy the book.
Star-wise, I cannot reasonably leave it ungraded at zero stars ‘No Comment’; neither was it 1 * – dismal; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 3* – average; none of these broad categories apply. I suppose I ought to give it a 4* rating on the strength of the structure and language.

 
Because of the interminable length of the main scene – the bedroom finale – the endless picking over every nuance, every gesture, every possibility I grew impatient. And the repetitive attention paid to the “leaking seed”, (oh please!) was downright irritating. And also very male. Women really don’t think this way! But Swift makes it clear that in 1924 it was men who counted. All very true of course, but no less irksome nearly a century later.

 
Following on this whole seed/emissions repetition, there were continuous ongoing references to the maid changing the sex-stained bed sheets: on and on and on. Again : enough already! Do I sound like a nervous Nellie on the topic of bodily functions ? If so, let me refute  this false impression.

 
I note the subtitle is “A Romance”. This baffles me. If it’s meant to indicate the story is a light, fanciful frippett , then I cannot agree. If the subtitle was chosen because of the sensuous quality of the major scene, I can grudgingly agree but today’s readers who enjoy the Romance Genre would chuck the novella aside round about page 9, if they ever got that far.

 
Was I reading out of my comfort zone ?No, I was not. I’m happy to tackle literary novels by esteemed writers. And have enjoyed many. Maybe I need to revise my opinion of my reading tastes down a notch or two! As I age, I find I prefer a more straight forward narrative . I don’t do subtle very well.

 
In the end I consulted Goodreads to sample readers’ reviews: the first 3 pages were pretty much 90% rave reviews with a very few 2* and even a 1* review. As we all know, you can’t please everybody. I was struck by the phrase “7 year love affair” between the young man and the maid, used by many reviewers. It certainly did not come across as a love affair to me, with no gestures or words of affection between the couple. Initially the story spoke of the maid’s deflowering as ‘prostitution” and that was the abiding sense of the relationship that stayed in my head.

 
I’d welcome comments from others who have read the novella.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/14/graham-swift-mothering-sunday-fiction-secretive-award-hawthornden-prize-drue-heinz#img-1

THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF A BOLLYWOOD STAR – VASEEM KHAN

 

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Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) late of Mumbai Police, assisted by Baby Ganesha (a small 200 kb elephant) become embroiled in a dramatic tamasha of events.

 
The title says it all, but what fun we have along the way with hordes of minor characters, sub-plots, abductions, imperious film directors, diva film stars, doubles, a daring escape plot from India’s most dreaded jail involving some dancing and a performing elephant: after all this IS a Bollywood story*. There’s love, betrayal, deception, high drama, operatic emotion; pretty much every character wildly OTT (see previous note*) And not to forget the crucial role played by the eunuchs.

 
What a colourful crazy story – most appropriately the action takes place before, during and after the Holi Festival.
Really a fun read. I love Indian themed stories.
Recommended.

APRIL 2018 READING ROUNDUP

 

 

 

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When I finished Bone Meal for Roses by Miranda Sherry , I was a happy reader. Finally I’ve read a South African novel that simply sets out to tell an emotional family story that is not banging a political soapbox, pushing a social issue, or harking back to the “bad old days” pre-1994. South Africa is bedevilled by politics, and thus far, much of the turbulence has stained our fiction.
It’s just a story, and I don’t mean to use the phrase in italics in a pejorative way. Far from it. We’re 24 years on as an independent African republic, and as a reader I’m thinking : enough already. All I want is a South African story with credible contemporary characters against a South African background, that will provide me with entertaining and relaxing reading. Sherry’s novel is not Great Literature, it doesn’t pretend to be, and that’s fine by me.
I enjoy reading Cookbooks too, especially those which provide a blend of memoir or history alongside the recipes, so the District Six book was an enjoyable read for me. The photos in these books are wonderful, which adds to the enjoyment. If you’re interested in the social history of Cape Town, this book is not to be missed.

 

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* Difficult Women – Roxanne Gay. Stunning collection of short stories. Sincere, candid, shocking, sexy – modern. Recommended. Reviewed on this blog.
4* Junkyard Dogs – Craig Johnson. Longmire stories never disappoint; fully rounded with good plots & wonderful characters. Plus authentic natural settings. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* Bonemeal for Roses – Miranda Sherry. A South African family saga; authentic, contemporary . An engaging read. Reviewed on this blog.

3* The Keeper of Lost Things – Ruth Hogan . Another easy read. Good touches of humour. Recommended. Reviewed on this blog.

2.5* The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper – Phaedra Patrick . Easy entertaining read. An implausible plot! Reminiscent of The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but in much lighter vein.
https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/26722820

District Six Huis Kombuis : Food & Memory Cookbook – Tina Smith . A lovely blend of history, memoir and food from Cape Town’s District Six. Reviewed on this blog.

DIFFICULT WOMEN – Roxanne Gay

 

 

 

51QJnX0bTsL._AC_US218_What a rich assortment of stories lie between the covers of Roxanne Gay’s short story collection. The collection is powerful and contemporary, chiefly focussed on the gritty reality of American women’s lives, but a couple of stories in the magical realism genre provide welcome breaks. I’ll mention Requiem for a Glass Heart , which remains with me. I’m still pondering over this one.
I found Roxanne Gay’s stories adopt unexpected, surprising perspectives. She sees women and the world in a fresh and novel way. There are certainly some familiar tropes but there are also refreshingly different stories, skilfully told. A couple of stories have elements of magical realism, which I liked.

 
Roxanne Gay doesn’t shy away from taboo topics, like sex, violence, mourning, abuse, but she write with clarity and a certain amount of restraint. Whilst she doesn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade, she doesn’t overload her stories with gratuitous detail.

 
I don’t like the title; my immediate reaction is: it ought to be difficult men! No, I’m not a man hater, but this said, many of the men – and some of the women too – can be described as damaged, either by upbringing or by past events. As ever, one wonders why the women stick around.

 
! I particularly enjoyed the story about Bianca in ‘Water, all its Weight’. Perhaps because we have finally enjoyed heavy winter rain which has broken our terrible drought. I’m very water conscious at the moment, so the story resonated with me. I don’t want to say any more about Bianca and her unusual relationship with water, lest I spoil it for you, but don’t miss it.

 

Read the book and see what you think. Recommended.

BONEMEAL FOR ROSES – Miranda Sherry

 

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Poppy is a survivor. She needs to be. Her life gets off to a tough start with her drug addict mother. Fortunately, Poppy is rescued by her Grandparents and moves to their tiny property in the Western Cape Boland. We follow her vastly improved life from survivor to thriver, and then back to the trials of a survivor again. The story is a coming of age story, as well as the story of an artist’s obsession with his muse.

It’s also the story of one perfect marriage offset against another faltering marriage.
What sets the book apart from being the clichéd unfolding of a family sage riven by jealousy, are the wonderful lush, lyrical passages about the Annekie’s garden, and also the veldt surrounding the tiny farm where Poppy lives.
I enjoyed the book, and particularly relished the choice of title.

http://jonathanball.bookslive.co.za/blog/2016/11/04/bone-meal-for-roses-the-new

DISTRICT SIX HUIS KOMBUIS

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Food & Memory Cookbook – Tina Smith
The District Six Huis Kombuis cookbook commemorates the rich fusion of food and cultural heritage in District Six through personal stories, recipes, historical images and craft work. The book is a culmination of memories and narrative. It weaves through the days of a typical week in District Six, focusing on traditional family recipes that were prepared with love and often limited resources. This is a visual celebration of the vibrancy and warmth of the community – who foraged, preserved, baked and cooked together. Portraits of 23 former District Six residents, accompany recollections of lives lived in a significant time. Artefacts, food and anecdotes bring the spirit of District Six alive again.

 

 

A beautifully produced book, with a wealth of historic photographs of the people and the place, as well as tempting pictures of the traditional cooked dishes. The book preserves simple food, family favourites recipes. I also particularly liked the hand embroidered panels that accompanied some of the recipes – to see recipes carefully and beautifully embroidered onto fabric – that’s something special!

 
I enjoyed the stories, all part of Cape Town’s history and heritage. Meeting the tannies and oumas, matriarchs and patriarchs, of a little district in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD is special. I’m glad they’ve not been forgotten, despite the Apartheid Government’s attempts to remove them from society.

 
Highly recommended for those interested in traditional Cape recipes, history, and craft.

JUNKYARD DOGS – Craig Johnson

 

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I make no apologies whatsoever for being a die hard Walt Longmire fan. Any book that Craig Johnson writes about Longmire, is a hit with me. The current read being no exception.
I enjoy Johnson’s ability to make you feel the freezing wind, snowdrifts, and general winteriness of the high plains of Wyoming. In Johnson’s Longmire stories, the weather is as much as character in the unfolding tale, as are the actual people and circumstances.

 
Johnson writes with a dry humour, aided by a deft turn of phrase. His Western stories are bang up to date with all the trappings of modern life: cellphones, TVs, big SUVs, casinos, property developers, marijuana farms – the whole nine yards buried under two feet of snow and zero visibility most of the time.

 
Walt Longmire doggedly ploughs through the snowdrifts, despite injuries that would cause a lesser man to take two week’s sick-leave, he just keeps on doing his job. Oh that we had more Walt Longmires in this world, and more particularly, in South Africa where I live.

 
Another happy feature of Johnson’s Longmire novels is that his characters are well-rounded, their personal quirks deftly conveyed in the odd phrase here and there, the throwaway line of dialogue that speaks volumes. Longmire, for instance, buys a lady a house, as a Valentine’s Day gift – she has no idea that he’s done so, but it affords him quiet satisfaction. Beneath that laconic exterior, lurks a tender heart.

 
I have one last novel tucked away in my TBR pile, a treat in store. I’m keeping it for the time when I need a really good, engrossing, entertaining read. I know I won ‘t be disappointed.

 

THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS – Ruth Hogan

 

 

 

 

51dir0tPoeL._AC_US218_AMAZON SYNOPSIS: A charming, clever, and quietly moving debut novel of endless possibilities and joyful discoveries that explores the promises we make and break, losing and finding ourselves, the objects that hold magic and meaning for our lives, and the surprising connections that bind us.
Anthony Peardew is the keeper of lost things. Forty years ago, he carelessly lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancée, Therese. That very same day, she died unexpectedly. Brokenhearted, Anthony sought consolation in rescuing lost objects—the things others have dropped, misplaced, or accidentally left behind—and writing stories about them. Now, in the twilight of his life, Anthony worries that he has not fully discharged his duty to reconcile all the lost things with their owners. As the end nears, he bequeaths his secret life’s mission to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura, leaving her his house and and all its lost treasures, including an irritable ghost.

 

The novel offers a happy bouquet of everything: romance, mystery, a ghost story and varied assortment of characters. You seldom read a novel that includes a Downs Syndrome girl as one of the main characters; but this story offers you Sunshine, whom I found quite delightful.

 
I enjoyed the touches of humour, particularly the excerpts from the horrible Portia’s manuscripts which shamelessly borrowed/used/plagiarised characters from famous novels. I think the Harry Potter parody was my favourite.
A light, relaxing read. Recommended.

MARCH 2018 READING ROUND UP

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In March I managed to read one from my big TBR pile; only 9 more to go to hit my 2018 target of 12 reads. It was the Murakami short stories. You either enjoy Murakami, or you don’t. Rather like pickled onions! That said, if you’ve never tried Japanese writers, then this is the book to sample , to see if you like the  genre. Murakami is famous as a novelist, but his short stories are equally brilliant.
I did a QD (Quick Dip) into Neil Gaiman’s version of traditional Norse mythology. He sails into the stories with gusto – a satisfying read if you enjoy super-hero reads.

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 QD: quick-dip

4* Gravel Heart – Abdulrahazak Gurnah . An intricate family story set on the Indian Ocean Island of Zanzibar and modern London. Highly recommended. Reviewed on this blog.

3* The Lightkeeper’s Daughters – Jan Pendziwol. Canadian novel about a family living on an isolated island in Lake Superior; twins, identity, the accidents of fate. Reviewed on this blog.

3* The Digested 21st Century – John Crace. Longtime Guardian columnist’s amusing parody/satire on modern life. Reviewed on Goodreads.

3* The Elephant Vanishes – Haruki Murakami. Short storieszfrom the Japanese master of the surreal.
Reviewed on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/9555

3* Earthly Remains – Donna Leon. Another satisfying mystery with Commissario Brunetti, featuring Venice, the lagoon, and ecology. Reviewed on this blog.

DNF: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman. A splendid re-telling of traditional Norse myths.