Without doubt, Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald is top of the list. She’s an English naturalist, ornithologist, who writes brilliantly about the natural world, and particularly about birds. Her observations and experiences make for compelling reading.
I particularly enjoyed the title essay Vesper Flights : an account of swifts, that fly up to ten thousand feet altitude, and then go into deep sleep mode! Verified by scientific observation, let me add.
The essays are mostly short, but concentrated. One essay gives you plenty to think about, mull over and return to. I enjoyed the book so much that I’ve ordered my own copy.
My second April Hit is The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer, South Africa’s #1 crime writer. What an excellent read! I seldom read crime because every time I consume any local media, crime confronts me. I read to escape it, not be faced with more of the same! However, that said, the book is set partly in Cape Town and I always enjoy reading stories set in my city. Deon Meyer is hailed as SA’s best crime writer, with good reason. He knows how to plot and tell a darn good story, and how to create authentic characters.
Some years ago, before he became super-famous, he was kind enough to attend our West Coast Writers’ Circle meeting as guest speaker. What a modest, down to earth man who was prepared to give time to aspiring writers.
Lastly but by no means least, my third April Top Read : KIara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Generally I’m not an Ishiguro fan, but this book blew me away. How refreshing to read such an original book. The book is narrated by Klara, an Artificial Friend; robot companion to a lonely and sickly teenage girl, Josie. The book explores the theme of love, via childhood, adult and AF forms of love. Humans don’t always emerge covered in glory .
Its fascinating to see our world through the eyes of an Artificial Creature and to be party to the sometimes skewed (by human standards) thoughts of an Artificial Creature.
The title is enormously apt. AFs are solar powered, and Klara views the Sun as a god; to expand on this aspect would be a spoiler.
I continue to mull over sections of the story, it leaves the reader with plenty to think about, on many levels. Beg, borrow or steal a copy.
On the downside, I read two African novels, Bitter Eden (see earlier review) and the Booker Short List nomination (2019) This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangaremba. I found the novel a difficult read, because of the oblique mode of narrative. I struggled to relate to the main character Tambudzai, she was such a solipsistic woman. This said, the novel gives insight into the harsh realities of Zimbabwean life.
Two DNFs this month. If I’m not enjoying a book, I firmly close it. Sometimes books are not to one’s taste, or they arrive at the wrong moment in your life. C’est la vie.
Gold Never Rusts – Paul-Constant Smit. Action packed, epic South African novel that starts with the pre-Biblical era Queen of Sheba, and finishes in 1901 at the end of the Anglo-Boer War. Adventure, wildest Africa, pioneering, mining, political intrigue, romance, and gold. Fans of historical novels with an African setting will find plenty to enjoy.
The Last Hunt – Deon Meyer. A cracking good thriller set in current day captured, corrupt South Africa, and France. A crime and an assasination plot, peopled with credible characters . It’s a page turner that provides a truly satisfying ending. Recommended!
Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro. A speculative novel that explores the ramifications of introducing Artificial Friends (AI /robots) into close relationships with humans. Thought provoking, fascinating; a melancholy and truthful ending. Highly Recommended.
Ordinary Grace – William Kent Kruger. A thoughtful literary mystery, a tale of fury, guilt and redemption; also a coming of age story set in 1960’s Minnesota. A compelling and satisfying read. Recommended.
Bitter Eden – Tatamkhulu Afrika. Men struggling to survive WWII POW camps in North Africa, Italy & Germany. Male friendships, and their aftermath. A challenging read. See my review posted on 10 April 2021.
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangaremba. A challenging read. A young Zimbabwean woman’s struggle to succeed in the big city of Harare. She struggles against herself (chiefly) but also against society, her rural relatives and background. Ultimately, after many trials and failures, she remains at the bottom of the heap. Life in Zimbabwe, not a comfortable read.
Vesper Flights – Helen MacDonald . A collection of essays about human relationship to the natural world. The perfect dipper. Well written, most of the essays are short but crammed with ideas and questions about us and about the natural world.
I’ve been joining a monthly Zoom session, Virtually Yours, hosted by the Goethe Institute, where Zukiswa Wanner interviews an African author on their work, and each session ends with a lucky dip giveaway of the day’s book, for five lucky readers. Guess who got lucky in April? Me!
Look what arrived at my door today, in a red and yellow DHL bag, all the way from Kenya.
The April guest was Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, from Nigeria, and his Dreams & Assorted Nightmares is a short story collection. I enjoy short stories, and will read it as next month’s Dipper. I always like to have a book of shorts, whether poetry or prose, to dip into, when reading time is scarce.
In addition, Zukiswa kindly sent me a copy of her book: Maid in SA. I sort of get a Madam & Eve feeling from the Maid book, due to the cover pic, but the contents might not be as funny as our beloved cartoon characters. We shall see. Watch this space.
I encountered Tatamkhulu Afrika in the mid-1990s, at Gus Ferguson’s monthly Poetry meeting, held at the Natale Labia Museum in Muizenberg. Gus Ferguson made an enormous contribution to poetry, and publishing of poetry via his Snail Press. One of the poets he championed was Tatamkhulu Afrika, and it must have been on the occasion of the launch of TK’s poetry collection in 1995, Lemon Tree, which is still on my poetry bookshelf.
I recall TA as a gaunt , white-bearded, old man, accorded much respect by Gus. I knew nothing at all about the poet or his extraordinary background. Which I have now remedied via Wikipedia – see link below. It’s a story worth reading.
This post is a short review of TA’s novel Bitter Eden , published in 2002, by Arcadia, a British publishing house. I borrowed the book from the Library, as part of my Read More African Writers in 2021 project.
Boyd Tonkin of the Independent’s quote on the cover says: “Ordinary male relationships in extraordinary circumstances”. That’s one way of putting it. I don’t know that I would have come up with the phrase, in describing the novel. Knowing the man’s poetry, his novel came as a bit of a shock!
Briefly: the narrator (Tom Smith) relates his experiences as a POW in North Africa, Italy and Germany during WWII, and his male friendships. The aftermath of these frames the story, and provides one of the most explosive final sentences I have ever read anywhere.
That said, this is not a book for the faint-hearted because TA is graphically straightforward about basic human functions and male genitalia.
The story tells the progress of difficult, emotional male friendships under brutal circumstances. It also highlights the basic inhumanity of man towards man, and the horrors of war.
It’s not an easy read by any means. Did I enjoy the book? No. But that said, its unforgettable. Not recommended for sensitive readers of any gender.
Ismail Joubert (7 December 1920 – 23 December 2002), commonly known as Tatamkhulu Afrika, which is Xhosa for Grandfather Africa, was a South African poet and writer. His first novel, Broken Earth was published when he was seventeen (under his “Methodist name”), but it was over fifty years until his next publication, a collection of verse entitled Nine Lives.
He won numerous literary awards including the gold Molteno Award for lifetime services to South African literature, and in 1996 his works were translated into French. His autobiography, Mr Chameleon, was published posthumously in 2005.
It wasn’t the Easter bunny who knocked on my door on Easter Saturday bringing Easter goodies, but the Takealot.com delivery service. No chocolate eggs could equal the contents of the box he delivered. Earlier in March Takealot had a sale, with real markdowns, so I took full advantage. I do love sale bargains!
I can’t wait to read Klara. The reviews have been bombarding us , for months. I just hope its not going to be a case of over-hype.
The NK Jemisin Trilogy has been stashed away to be read in winter, when we have a week of solid rain, as sometimes happens in Cape Town. I have hunted in vain in the Libraries, and shops for the trilogy – or any of NKJ’s books, for that matter. Again, the praise chorus has thundered out loudly for the trilogy, so I’m looking forward to it.
I wondered if any of my readers have read the books? if so, I’d love to hear your verdict.
What made me nominate the three titles as March Favourites? the Remy Ngamije novel was finally an African novel that told a darn good story, as opposed to the usual polemic tub thumping, and the Joe Heap book posed such a fascinating What If: scenario, that kept me thinking and discussing with friends. Looking back, I see that the Joe Heap novel was a February read, so if I’m still rambling on about it in March, that’s a sure indication of readability & note?
The Hundred Year House is a novel with a retrogressive timeline. The story started in 1999, and divided into in five sections, finishing in 1900. The Prologue appeared second last, prior to the section starting in 1900. Rebecca Makkai’s writing is witty and clear enough, but the big cast of characters (an Artists’ Colony situated in Laurelfield house, hence the title, The Hundred Year House) ultimately led to confusion in my mind as to who was who, and who did what, and finally when the action happened. I checked other reviews, and discovered I was not the only befuddled reader. Adventurous and experimental plots, timelines and characters – why not? This is the world of fiction, after all. But, at books’ end, when readers are saying: Huh? I don’t get it, then maybe a more conventional style would work better.
I succumbed and bought a boxed set of Faith Martin’s DI Hillary Green Mysteries, #1 – 5. What a good buy it was! Set in England, written by a writer who thinks up unusual plots, peoples them with credible, contemporary characters and appears to have a good grasp of modern policing in Britain, especially as it applies to police women facing good old fashioned male chauvinism on the way up the ladder. I’m not a huge crime fan, but Faith Martin provides intelligent readable mysteries, that I enjoy reading.
I was looking forward to Raynor Winn’s follow up book to The Salt Path. In Book Two the couple battle bravely on, despite the lack of money and a permanent home, plus Moth’s deteriorating health. Despite the difficulties, they continue, in no small part due to their love for each other, and the natural world.
Raynor Winn has an intense, visceral relationship to and with the natural world. So Book Two provided lyrical descriptions of nature, particularly about their hike in Iceland, but I must confess I enjoyed The Salt Path much more.
The Eternal Audience of One – Remy Ngamije . Life, love, refugees, student life in Cape Town, from a Namibian writer’s viewpoint. Some laughs, surprises , heartbreak, hard times, confessions, life lessons. A contemporary African novel. Try it.
The Motion of the Body Through Space – Lionel Shriver. Brilliant! A dissection of obsession with extreme sports, and an examination of a long marriage. A vastly entertaining commentary on contemporary life. Best book I’ve read so far this year. Not to be missed.
The Porpoise – Mark Haddon. I didn’t enjoy this choppy narrative mashup between the old story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, melded onto a modern tale of incest. Not because of the incest, which was sensitively handled, but because of the narrative switchovers. Not for me.
The Hundred Year House – Rebecca Makkai . A confusing novel about an artist’s colony in Laurelfield House, and the family who owned the house. Family, Fate, ghosts, and a house.
Waiting for Monsieur Bellivier – Britta Rostlund. But who is Monsieur B? this is the mystery at the heart of a novel set in Paris. The revelation of his identity delivers a Tunisian grocer from his humdrum life and his family filled with deceit. The quest also delivers Helena from a numb and lonely life. It was an okay read, but not rave material.
The Reminders – Val Emmich. Ten year old Joan can remember every day in her life since the age of 5. Her main goal in life is to be remembered, so she and her dad compose a song and enter it into a contest for songwriters. The novel is about family, music, ageing, dying, secrets, and gay men dreaming of a baby to complete their own family, narrated (mainly ) via Joan’s eyes. An unusual contemporary novel. Recommended.
The Wild Silence – Raynor Winn. Life after The Salt Path. Moth goes to University and Raynor struggles with living in the city. Then a stranger offers them use of his rundown neglected cider farm in Cornwall, and a temporary home in return for re-wilding the farm. A return to outdoor life and hard work, proves beneficial to both. They undertake a rugged hike along a wild trail in Iceland, which they survive despite appalling weather and really tough conditions. The book ends with their return to the farm, and the apple harvest.
We’ve all read book blurbs. They can be many things: appealing, enticing, informative, baffling, boring, misleading , downright untrue …. and a host of other options. Listed below are some of the common phrases we often read. Familiar, yes? Aha! But they’re coded, and now the hidden meaning is revealed. Tongue in cheek? Of course! Read on.
Enchanting there’s a dog in it
Heartwarming a dog and a child
Moving a child dies
Heart-rending A dog and a child die
Thoughtful Mind numbingly tedious
Haunting set in the past
Exotic set abroad
Audacious set in the future
Award winning set in India
Perceptive set in Norther London
Epic editor cowed by author’s reputation
In the tradition of shamelessly derivative
From the pen of a master same-old, same-old
Spare and taut under-researched
Richly detailed overly-researched
Disturbing author bonkers
Stellar author young and photogenic
Classic author hanging in there
Vintage author past it
I’m sure you could add a few definitions of your own. I’d love to read them in the Comments box – feel free.
I need to add that I picked the list up on Facebook, where there was no indication of the original author. Whoever, and wherever you are, thanks for the laugh and applause for your witty list.
In 2021 I’m trying to read more African writers. I formed the idea last year, and am actively on the lookout for African writers. Please note: this does not necessarily mean black writers. African is home to writers of the light skinned variants too. Our continent stretches over vast geographical and cultural distances, from the Arab world in the far North, moving South to the racial hodgepodge world of South Africa.
We all know our neighbourhood Congolese car guard. Apparently the Congolese have the car guarding sector all sewn up, in Cape Town. Much the same way that the Zimbabweans have cornered the waitron sector, and the Malawians the Petrol Jockey jobs.
Way back in 2019 in the happy days when we attended large public events, I listened to Remy Ngamije speak on a panel at the annual Open Book Festival, at the Fugard Theatre. He was introduced as a Namibian, but his heritage goes back to Rwanda. His family fled the country during the civil war.
He made an impression on me, and mentioned his novel in progress. I recall him being somewhat dismissive of life in Windhoek. I made a note to buy his novel, and here it is.
His novel is heavily autobiographical, as first novels so often are. Serafin is the narrator, oldest boy in a Rwandan refugee family of three boys, transplanted to Namibia and a different way of life in every regard. It’s a coming of age novel, that covers boyhood, then student life at varsity in Cape Town where Sera makes friends, composes interminable playlists, goes clubbing with diligence, and samples women with even more diligence.
Ngamije’s writing style offers a wry turn of phrase, often barbed and critical , but handled deftly. He has plenty to say about life in South Africa, racism, and the endemic corruption, plus the hardships of refugee status in both Namibia and RSA. Most of the opinion is very familiar, but its refreshing to read the familiar criticisms about South African life from an African writer.
The highlight of the book for me was his character, Maxime, the Congolese hairdresser in his Mowbray barbershop – an area I know well. Maxime’s outrageous stories are laugh-out-loud funny. We also meet other characters from the continent: Idriss, the taxi driver from Benin, the students from Zimbabwe and others, notably the rich, white chicks from Camps Bay, in Cape Town. Plus the Coloured Lesbian, Bianca, the only girl in Serafin’s High Lords posse. If you live in SA, you’ll understand why a Coloured Lesbian is a contentious character.
On the downside, the book is a tad under 500 pages; a pacey, action-driven novel it ain’t. And then, after all the leisurely story-telling, suddenly the ending is abrupt.
Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I gain insight into the life of refugees? This is Refugees 101 on steroids. Yes. Can I recommend it? Yes.
The Eternal Audience of One – Remy Ngamije . Life, love, refugees, student life in Cape Town, from a Namibian writer’s viewpoint. Some laughs, surprises , heartbreak, hard times, confessions, life lessons. A contemporary novel. Try it.
I’ve read some good novels this month, due to the generosity of friends who loan me books from their shelves. You know who you are.
The latest Robert Galbraith Cormoran Strike novel, #5, Troubled Blood kept me reading feverishly : whodunnit? You have to read through 927 pages to find out. Not a book for readers with weak wrists, the darn thing must literally weight a kg. Its already earned the slot in my 2021 Reading Review as Doorstopper of the Year. Many readers complained it was too long. Was it?
Initially I struggled with the cast of thousands, but once I grew accustomed to the names, I sailed along. Yes, I could have done with shorter or less backstories but that said, this it is an epic novel with many unsolved crime stories meshing together, hence the backstory detail. The blurb declared it: … a labyrinthine epic …. I agree. “Unputdownable” declared the Sunday Times. Yes. Is it a terrific read? Yes.
In my usual Late-to-the-Party reading style, I finally managed to read The Salt Path. It came out in 2018, to high praise, and prizes – deservedly so. It falls into the genre of Nature Writing, melded with Memoir. Raynor Winn and her husband Moth (just diagnosed with an obscure, incurable neuro-illness) are booted off their farm, lose everything: property, home, and money. In their shell-shock homeless state, they take the bizarre decision to walk the coastal route from Wales down to Land’s End, and up the other side of the peninsula, a trek of 638 miles. It’s a remarkable story of human endurance, the healing power of Nature and steadfast love. The book will definitely feature high on my 2021 Hits & Misses list.
Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith. #5 Cormoran Strike Series. A 40 year old cold crime case that takes an entire year to unravel to a satisfying conclusion. Recommended.
The Grammarians – Cathleen Schine. The grammarians are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. A story about family, sibling love and rivalry, the interplay of language and life. Novel is surprisingly funny, charming and utterly irresistible if you enjoy words, language, and books.
Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano. 11 year old Eddie Adler is the sole survivor of an air crash that kills 191 passengers & crew, en route to Los Angeles. The book describes how he slowly re-enters his new life, minus his family, and comes to terms with the aftermath. A number of the other passengers’ backstories form part of the story, as do the many letters (hence the title) written to Edward by bereft family members. Utterly engrossing. But I’m glad I have no plans to travel by air in the near future.
The Second Sleep – Robert Harris. A mind-bending story of a future rooted in the past; a post-Apocalyptic, post-scientific, semi-Dark Ages future, ruled by the Church determined to root out dangerous (and now heretical) knowledge of the technological past. A quest to discover the secrets of the Ancients, mired in good old human greed, treachery and lust. Thought provoking! How would we fare if all technology ceased working today? Right now? Ask yourself the question. The answer is not a happy one.
A Theatre for Dreamers – Polly Sampson. The Greek Island of Hydra, an idyllic summer of sun, sea, wine, sex, and 17 year old Erica from London grieving over her mother’s recent death, adrift, growing up and surrounded by a bohemian expat community driven by passion, gossip and artistic dreams. An atmospheric novel, loosely based on a period in the lives of George Johnson and Charmian Clift, both writers; Leonard Cohen also features. An immersive read that made me itch for a ticket to Greece.
Red Joan – Jennie Rooney. Cambridge University in 1937, awash with ideas and idealists – Joan is swept away by exotic, glamorous Sonya and her cousin Leo. Only problem is they’re Russian spies. Young, idealistic Joan hasn’t a clue and is drawn ever deeper into their web of treachery and deceit. A well-researched, intelligent spy novel. Recommended.
The Midnight Library – Matt Haig. I couldn’t wait to read this one, & it didn’t disappoint. The main premise is: what if you could identify and resolves past regrets and go on to live life fully? The midnight library provides the parallel universe mechanism to do this and experience many alternate lives until she finally works it all out. An unusual and satisfying read.
The Rules of Seeing – Joe Heap. Blind from birth, Nova undergoes an operation to restore her sight, and the process of learning to see is challenging. Add a lesbian love story to the mix, plus a dangerous psychotic husband bent on revenge and you have an unusual read. The novel changes the way you see the world, says the cover. A good read. Recommended.
The Salt Path – Raynor Winn. A nixture of memoir and Nature Writing, and wholly engrossing. The wild coastal landscape, the wild turmoil of bad circumstances, the physical challenges, the endurance and spirit of the two walkers. Unforgettable. Not to be missed.
I like to read and if possible, promote local south African novels, so I was looking forward to this acclaimed 2020 release. In this instance my expectations were skewed by the misleading jacket blurb.
Paige Nick, enthused on the front cover: What a novel! Hilarious and beautifullywritten, I smiled the whole way through. Reverting back to her comment when I’d finished the book, I wondered whether we’d been reading the same book. The Blurb is misleading . Emphasis is on the Nine Letters, when in fact, 65% of the book relates to narrator, lawyer Teddy Dickerson, nephew of the recently deceased Aunt Val( who wrote the Nine Letters and the progress of a very emotionally fraught contested deceased estate case. It felt as if two unrelated stories (1) the letters/Aunt Val’s nine correspondents and (2) the Smollen family and their fight over the estate had been stuck together. Not very successfully. Granted, unhappy gay lawyer Teddy is the common factor between the two story threads, but the blurb makes no mention of the legal story. Guided by the blurb I was expecting a fun, light read but found the book far from a laugh fest.
TD is going through a mid-life crisis, gloomily contemplating a bland and predictable old age. The Smollen mother and daughter have enormous emotional baggage, and are haunted by a dark family history with a tragic secret at its heart.
And what of quirky old Aunt Val and her surprising collection of correspondents? Here the book becomes uncomfortably philosophical. I’m a life-long letter writer, so was looking forward to this part of the story but on the whole I found the letters disappointing. And overshadowed by the dramatic legal side of the story. Granted the letters did enable unhappy TD soften somewhat and discover that he actually was fond of his difficult Aunt Val – well, sort of.
I did enjoy the Kwa-Zulu Natal setting of the book. A province that I have visited often.
I finished the novel with mixed feelings. However, other may have different views. I’d love to hear from them.