SEPTEMBER 2021 READING ROUNDUP

Hard to believe that Sigrid Nunez’s  Salvation City  came out in 2010: does the woman own a crystal ball, I wonder?  She writes of the civil and social havoc experienced in a (fictional) post-pandemic America and produces a wonderfully nuanced coming of age novel from a teenage boy’s perspective. She introduces contentious themes:  religion, gun ownership, fundamentalism, familial relationships, parental relationships, and climate change  but never hauls out her soapbox – admirable, given the subject matter. I will definitely be reading more of her novels.

And then there’s Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah’s third novel: Little Family. I was looking forward to the book, and it did not disappoint. Such an engrossing read, as we follow the fortunes of a ragtag little family of survivors (maybe ex-child-soldiesr? Or maybe some of them are war victims? so much is delicately hinted at, with reference to a recent civil war). One young adult man, one budding teenage girl, two pre-teen boys, and one ten year old girl live by their wits on the fringe of the city, in an abandoned aero-plane hidden in the African bush. Crime is their business, booze and ganja provide the escape from deeply buried memories – and we are talking about kids here, may I remind you!

Avni Doshi’s debut novel Burnt Sugar landed up on the 2020 Booker Prize Shortlist. Set in 1980s Pune, India,  we experience the emotional conflict of Mothers vs Daughters, Daughters vs Mothers,  families v.s. women. Toss in formative childhood years spent in an Ashram, childhood neglect, a sadistic Catholic Boarding School,  topped off with a Mother sliding into Dementia – or is she? And a daughter sliding into madness – or is she?  A disturbing read, one that will stay with me quite a while..

September has turned out to be Memoir month: the wonderful, outrageous, flamboyant Nataniel;  author Roald Dahl during WWII; and Allen Johnson, who explores life in France. Great reads, all three.

FICTION

Salvation City – Sigrid Nunez.  A dystopian novel set in a post-pandemic America. The ‘flu strikes, devastation and chaos ensue. Against this setting,  teenager Cole struggles with the loss of this parents, contracting the disease himself, surviving a brutal orphanage and then adoption by a fundamentalist Pastor in the Mid-West. A wonderful coming of age novel, highly recommended.

Little Family – Ishmael Beah. An engrossing story about five young people, survivors and/or victims of an African civil war. Add the coming of age story of the teenage girl who cannot resist the feminine in herself, despite her dangerous lifestyle as a post-war victim/survivor  In a hostile environment. What does family mean? Read the book and find out. Recommended.

Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi.  1980s Pune, India. Family conflict, emotional drama, the aftermath of a neglected, abused childhood playing out into adult life. Plus the turmoil of a Mother’s slow descent into dementia, not to mention a daughter’s decline into madness. A riveting read, and not as heavy as it sounds. Recommended.

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman. What a fun read!  A classic murder mystery, but the twist is that the amateur sleuths live in an upmarket country retirement home.  The excellent plot turns every which way, but all is revealed at the end, very satisfactorily. Moral of the story is: don’t underestimate the elderly. They are not brain dead. I can’t wait for RO’s next book. Happily, there is one in the pipeline.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Wayfarers (1)  – Becky Chambers. (e-book)Another happy discovery – Becky Chambers writes refreshing SF, that does not place the human species at the top of the tree ( au contraire, pretty near the bottom due to our endemic violence); and introduces dazzlingly imaginative scenarios of future worlds and alien species. I can’t wait to read more.

Dreams and Assorted Nightmares – Abubaker Adam Ibrahim.  Zangor is the mythical African town conjured up by  the Nigerian writer, where a collection of interconnecting short stories explore life, death, hopes, dreams, passion – in short: hot, busy, African life. A very different read for me, but oddly enjoyable.

NON FICTION

Look at Me –   Recollections of a Childhood. Nataniel.   Flamboyant dramatic performer Nataniel, artist, cook, and all round eccentric, shows us where his roots lie: in three small Boland towns. It’s a gorgeous feast of people, food, buildings, streets, neighbourhoods, trees, gardens  and small town life in the Western Cape  during the 1970s. I’m a fan of his storytelling, outrageous costumes, extravaganzas and music, and loved every page.

Pardon My French: How a Grumpy American Fell in Love with France  – Allen Johnson .(e-book)Allen  and his wife Nita, spend a year in a small coastal town in the south of France, where he battles with the intricacies of the French language and the baffling social customs of his new friends and neighbours. And he catalogues  his skirmishes with horrendous French bureaucracy.  But Allen  is up for all and any new experiences,  and  thrives in his new French life. A very enjoyable read.

Going Solo – Roald Dahl.  Memoir. In 1938, aged 22, Dahl goes out to Tanganyika/Tanzania, East Africa, to work for the Shell Oil company. His life in East Africa fills the first half of the book, and I loved his stories of life in Africa. He has some hair raising snake stories! The second half of the book  details his war time experiences in Greece and the Middle East, as a RAF pilot. I thoroughly enjoyed the East African section.

AUGUST 2021 READING ROUND-UP

I really related to Birds of Uganda, due to its East African setting. The descriptions of the country, the people, the markets, the food, the towns, the weather, were familiar to me, because I was born in Nyasaland,  a small country to the south of Uganda, but nonetheless somewhat  East African . The themes of colonialism, racism, and workplace bullying loom large, but luckily the human interest aspect was more predominant, the  knots and tangles of family relationships, a love story.

And I am Sovereign fizzed across my life in spectacular style. Loved it!

FICTION

I am Sovereign – Nicola Barker. Wonderful – the novel reinvented. Funny, original ,fresh.See my review on this site on 19 August. Rave, Rave, Rave.

We are all Birds of Uganda – Hafsa Zayyan . Hard to believe it’s a  Debut novel.  Second and Third generation Asians were kicked out of Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972 , and reluctantly re-homed by Britain.  The slow exploration of an Indian family’s past, and struggles with the younger generation in the  present, made for an engrossing family saga. Recommended.

Mobile Library – David Whitehouse. A cracking adventure story  combined with a coming-of-age theme, plus a  homage to  books, childhood classics,  and adventure stories, that we all loved.  An exciting contemporary read, with a satisfying ending.  Recommended.

The Reunion – Joanne Fedler. Seven women friends rendezvous in a country house on a weekend getaway. Secrets and stories are aired and shared about motherhood, marriage, men, triumphs, and tragedies.  The narrator gets very personal and intense, too much so on occasion.The major takeaways were: the male species is a mystery, teenagers are monsters, and women do the best they can against massive odds. Men will run a mile from the book, women will embrace it.

The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse. A memoir of a childhood – Robert Muponde. Growing up in rural Zimbabwe during the 1970s and 80s.  If you want to find out about growing up in a large, poverty stricken rural African family then read the book. But be prepared for full on, no holds barred, raw, vivid,  story telling. Between the folktales, songs and poems, there’s plenty of violence (against children!) animal cruelty, and sex. Sensitive readers will not enjoy the book.

Endurance – A C Spahn. (e-book) Refreshing to find a space opera written by a woman who gives us the entire gamut of purple, Space Opera,  heroic action and  glory with an old, battered space ship, a disgraced Captain, a crew of misfit geniuses,  plus aliens with tentacles, and more. Lotsa fun!  One for the SF fans.  

The Girl in the Red Dress – Ann Tyler. Ordinary people living ordinary lives; finnicky middle aged PC techie mucks up his tepid  romantic  relationship. Not a rave read for me.  

READING NICOLA BARKER

Reading Nicola Barker’s novels is like ….  Finding a piquant slice of dill pickle in a bland potato salad.  Like  assuming all car factories produce only white sedans (if you live in South Africa, you might well think so)  and then a screaming- red- flamenco -red- fire- engine- red sports models roars past:  HELLO!  IT’S GOTTA BE NICOLA BARKER.

My previous recent read was another novella by a very popular, well-known author, who shall remain anonymous. I finished the story, yawned, and thought: oh for %^*’s sake: another boring, solipsistic, American family story. Boooorrriiiinnng . And then I did myself a huge favour and picked up Nicola Barker’s novella.

 And my capital letters are an homage to her novella  I AM SOVEREIGN.  She has heaps of fun  playing around with the typeface.  AMERICAN TYPEFACE in particular, which MS Word doesn’t offer.  She has more fun with fonts ranging from huge to teeny tiny   less than oh, I don’t know, 4 pt?  In case you are shaking your head, take a look at the following pic from I Am Sovereign.

Hey! Shoo! Wow! etc.  The four protagonists, five, if you count the Sudanese man who NB cuts out of the narrative and tells you why, to which he peevishly responds in italics; where was I ? oh yes: the entire action takes place during a house for sale viewing, over a period of twenty minutes. During which time we  engage with Kabbalistic mysticism, a dictatorial  self-help guru, a teddy bear maker, a Chinese wheeler dealer and her  cowed daughter-translator.  Towards the end of the novella, Nicola  has some introspective chats with us, (the readers) about writing the novella, and about her recent trip to Normandy in France.

She also inserts periodical rants about the infuriating Auto-Correct feature of  her word-processing programme  that continuously  changes the name of the Sudanese man – probably the main reason she excised him from the story. Both she and her copy editor are driven mad by this. We can empathise with her frustration, can’t we?  Don’t even get me started on Auto Correct on WhatsApp.

So: Nicola Barker is endlessly inventive, that’s one of the joys of her work – she doesn’t churn out repetitive books, as do so many popular authors – see  my grumble above.

I suppose she’s avant garde. Actually, I don’t care what she is or isn’t labelled, all I know is her books are fresh, invigorating,  and hugely enjoyable.  Thus far I’ve read The Cauliflower (historical and much more serious), Five Miles from Outer Hope  (hilarious) and now I am Sovereign. 

I can’t wait to read more!

HELLO, ISHMAEL BEAH & SIERRA LEONE

The arrival of a courier van  at my front door was a happy event today. The red and white plastic flyer contained a book – yay!    It was the  Ismail Beah book that I won at the Virtually Yours Zoom session in July.  The lucky draw at the end of the interview selected my name, along with  four other names. VY  and the Goethe Institute are so generous, donating  five books per session.

So now I have Ishmael Beach’s Little Family  to look forward to. I discover that he  is a Sierra Leonean – American hybrid

I must admit I had to consult my atlas to locate Sierra Leone. I knew the country was located in West Africa but no more than that.  I live in Southern Africa, and  must confess that West Africa is a confusing jumble of countries, some familiar names, but no more than that.  Usually we get snippets of  news from the two larger countries of Nigeria and Ghana, but beyond that?  Nope.

Wilipedia filled in more gaps for me about the writer himself:

BornIsmael Beah
23 November 1980 (age 40)
Mogbwemo, Bonthe District, Sierra Leone
Occupationauthor, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Children Affected by War, human rights activist, former child soldier
NationalitySierra Leonean
Notable worksA Long Way Gone
Little Family
Radiance of Tomorrow

Vanity Fair  declared him to be:  “ Arguably the most-read African writer in contemporary literature.”

THANKS,  VIRTUALLY YOURS  for putting  one of his books into my hands. Watch this space for a review

JULY 2021 READING ROUND-UP

JULY HITS

I roared through many books in July, including one DNF (did not finish). I promised myself that at this late stage of my life – very close to my 80th birthday – I could no longer waste valuable eyesight and reading time on books that did not entertain, en,lighten or charm me. Take it or leave it.

FICTION

Jeeves and the King of Clubs – Ben Schott.  A sparkling combo  of  Bertie Wooster blundering along affably, being quietly rescued by the inimitable Jeeves at every turn. A winter tonic for me. See my review posted on  11 July.   Not to be missed.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot – Marianne Cronin. An unusual story of friendship between terminally ill patients. Margot 83 and Lenni 17. Tender, funny, poignant, a lifetime of stories. Despite a tinge of dissatisfaction right at the end ( Margot’s relationship with Maia) it was a wonderful read.

Olive Again – Elizabeth Strout. The quotidian made luminous; a tender account of life in a small Maine town. Literary – and beautiful. Definitely on my 2021 Best Books of the Year list.

The Broken Earth Trilogy – N K Jemisin. Magnificent Fantasy saga, written by an outstanding female Fantasy writer. See my  review published 20 July.  A must for Fantasy fans. Highly recommended.

Smoke and Ashes – Abir Mukherjee. Capt Sam Wyndham  lands up in the Indian Imperial Police Force, Calcutta, in 1921. He’s battling his opium addiction whilst  trying to solve three murders. The thriller plays out against the colourful background of teeming, chaotic Calcutta where  Ghandi’s Congress Party is staging massive anti-Brit demonstrations, and Crown Prince Edward is due in town for a ceremonial State Visit. The story builds to a dramatic finale, that had me reading breathlessly to the end. Recommended.

Exit – Belinda Bauer. Can a crime novel be funny and charming? In this case: yes. Well-meaning geriatrics are involved in a seemingly humane charity, which turns out to be part of an intricate loan  shark scheme. An ingenious plot, completely unpredictable. Recommended.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennet. Stella and Desiree are identical twins growing up together in a small Southern black community. At 16 years old  their lives split when they run away to the city.  One twin passes herself off as white, whilst the other eventually returns home. Each twin has a daughter, and the strands of their lives twist and twine for decades. Enjoyable and engrossing.

The Seal Cove Theoretical Society – SW Clemens. (ebook)  Finally,  a well written  e-book.  A slice of life in a small coastal town unfolds, mixed with some philosophical musings, inhabited by a motley cast of people, and their amiable dogs.   A pleasant light  read.

DNF

The Two Lives of Louis and Louise –  Julie Cohen. I found the basic premise of the story to be contrived, and the narrative slow. The book didn’t work for me. You can’t win them all!

JULY DIPPER

Ali Smith’s Supersonic 70s – the Pocket Penguin 30 series.  The book was a gift to me, back in 2008; hiding amongst bigger books. It’s a slim volume so no wonder I overlooked it. I’m enjoying the short stories at intervals. Ali S packs so much into one story, they need a bit of time to settle.

NON-FICTION

Word Freak – Stefan Fatsis.  A fascinating survey of the top Scrabble  players in the USA during the late 90s and early 2’s. The book was published in 2002, and Scrabble remains as popular as ever. If you enjoy words,  Scrabble and an insider’s account of the geeks and freaks who inhabit the subculture, then you’ll enjoy the book. I certainly did. Another book that will feature on my 2021 Books of the Year.

Recommended. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Scrabble_Championship

THE BROKEN EARTH TRILOGY – N K JEMISIN

I’d read so many reviews about Nk Jemisin’s Fantasy/SF that my curiosity got the better of me, and I splurged on a Trilogy. In my defence, it was a reduced price, bargain offer. I’m happy to report it was money well spent.

NKJ  has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Her Trilogy  is intricate and extraordinary, displaying  originality both in the world building and the characterisation.

What I enjoyed about the trilogy was  that women were front and centre stage, including a brave girl-child, Nassun who in Book 3 faces off against her powerful mother Essun in a battle to either save or destroy  the earth.  The female characters are shown as being strong, resourceful and  courageous. All necessary qualities if they are acting against an epic backdrop. Make no mistake, NKJ has written an Epic Saga, and carried it off in style.

NKJ has impressive World Building talent and doesn’t put a foot wrong. She succeeds in creating true aliens, the Stone Eaters,  who were utterly foreign to me, in concept.  However, she uses sufficient  current earth flora and fauna details to make the setting and background events recognizable and plausible.  There’s nothing wo-woo about the Broken Earth Trilogy. It is no exaggeration to say she expands the range of what Fantasy can achieve in the hands of an excellent writer.

What made the trilogy stand out were  the earth sciences which are crucial to the story: volcanology, geology, plate tectonics plus climate related  natural phenomena. The trilogy is not in the  sword and sorcery genre, nor in the supernatural genre, which came as a happy relief. With this Trilogy NKJ has moved the genre into an altogether different place. The results are seismic (insider quip).

A  significant recurrent theme  is  personal sacrifice, and to a lesser extent: vengeance. The main characters encounter tests, trials and tribulations some of which were horrific, but the ending comes to a satisfying and credible conclusion.

I can’t wait to read more of N K Jemisin’s work. 

JEEVES AND THE KING OF CLUBS – Ben Schott

The sub title is:  An homage to P G Wodehouse.

It most certainly is an homage to the wonderful P G Wodehouse, probably the best comic novelist in the modern  canon of English fiction. What fun to read! I laughed out loud, chuckled , giggled, grinned and was hugely entertained from first page to last, and was very sorry indeed to reach the end of this glorious romp.

Imagine if you will, the feather-brained, man about town, Bertie Wooster being recruited by M15.  No! I hear you cry in alarm: Bertram Wooster a government spy? I mean: dash it all! But fear not, because his manservant Jeeves, is also enlisted in the caper, so obviously Jeeves’ mighty brain will ensure that all ends well. It later transpires  that Jeeves harbours  deep, devious  secrets beneath his impeccable shirtfront, but heaven forbid I release a spoiler.

Familiar beloved characters roam through the pages: Aunt Dahlia, trying to  usurp Lea & Perrins sauce from their prime place on the nation’s dinner plates; Anatole, the  volatile Brinkley Court French  chef  is duped and doped; Lady Florence has penned yet another 3 hour stinkeroo of a  play; Madeline Bassett is determined to snaffle a title by marrying an unpleasant Lord; the Drones Club is the usual  melee of inebriated  good cheer. 

We are introduced to  Lord MacAuslan, the smoothly devious head spy, camouflaged behind a blaze of tartan and Scottish pride. We learn there’s dirty work afoot: Britain’s Enemies need to be routed.

Read on!  I promise you a sparkling  read and the excellent news is that the estimable Ben Schott has written another homage, namely Jeeves and the Leap of Faith. I can only surmise that Ben Schott’s mother read him PG Wodehouse books from   babyhood,  which he absorbed at a cellular level whilst in the cradle.  Either that, or Ben Schott is channeling dear old Plum from beyond the grave.  Regardless of  the source of Schott’s talent, do yourself a favour, and re-acquaint yourself with the delightful world of P G Wodehouse.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._G._Wodehouse

 http://www.benschott.com/about.html

MY JULY PROJECT

Dizzy with my TBR success with Prof Harari’s Homo Deus, I plan on using the same technique on another long languishing tome:

Periodically I purge my bookshelves, and time after time, I pick up the hefty chunk, saying THIS HAS TO GO! xxx? years have passed – I never stuck a book label showing the purchase date on the flyleaf, (did I never really take ownership of the book from Day One? ) and I still haven’t read it! And then I page through the book and am instantly intrigued by a paragraph, a factoid, a word – for instance, how about the word Gamboge? Irresistible. I learn it means a shade of yellow. Huh. Who knew?

So I will apply the tried and tested Twenty-Pages a Day method to the book. It worked like a charm on Homo Deus. Furthermore, I have hunted down my favourite bookmark to mark my progress. I don’t know why, but the ridiculous combo of a cat wearing a fisherman’s hat and an earnest expression, is somehow very endearing. Hopefully the July Reading Roundup will contain more on my progress. Yellow is an optimistic colour, so fingers crossed for finality by the end of July.

JUNE READING ROUND UP

                                    TBR SUCCESS

At last! I finished Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari.  The book languished on the TBR shelf for over a year.  I had to go back to page 1, but it was worth it. YNH has got to be the liveliest historical writer of the century, plus his panoramic vision of history, across a wide spectrum encompassing religion, science, humanism and the age of AI, makes for a thought provoking  read.

Two of my favourite sections were ‘A Short History of Lawns’ (astonishingly pertinent) and the final section of Dataism.  Other reviewers described his writing as  fresh and lively … a master storyteller and entertainer. Thrilling and breathtaking

If you like  a substantial read, that is actually enjoyable along with the radical ideas about what the future might hold, then read this book.

                                    WILDLY CREATIVE! WEIRDLY ORIGINAL! Gotta be Nicola Barker’s Five Miles from Outer Hope. One reviewer said: you will gasp, wince and laugh out loud. I did. The narrator is sulky 16 year old Medve ( from Hungarian, and translates as ‘bear’ – paws ‘n claws.)  Medve’s eccentric family is disrupted by the arrival of a South African conscript who is a deserter; we’re in the 1970s.  Events deteriorate disaster-wards from hereon in.  The book is awash with crochet garments, lentils, rice cakes, the hippy lifestyle, and fond references to the American humourist James Thurber. What a read! If you crave something different, this is the book.

                                    BIRTHING THE OED – The Dictionary of Lost WordsPip Williams

Huh? What? The Oxford English Dictionary, the authoritative 29 volume fount of knowledge, that was 73 years in gestation? Yes, that one. A novelized account of the unsung workers, all women, who helped the mighty project to finality. It’s a skillful blend of fact and fiction, taking in the Victorian age with its huge families, domestic servants, life in academic Oxford with its dons, gowns, bicycles, colleges; and also, the Suffragettes. There’s a low key  love story, plus touching accounts of women’s friendships and, of course, the lost words of women: intimate and earthy, deemed unfit for inclusion in  the august OED. I loved every page and lovers of the English language will enjoy the book.

                                                            FRENCH MAGIC

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure –  Joanne Harris.  More Vianne Rocher chocolate magic, lush late summer in the small village of Lasquenet, discord between the French villagers and the new incomer from North Africa; culture clashes, religious intolerance, and the mystery Woman in Black? Who is she? A sensuous book but with dark undertones.

FICTION

The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams . Women’s words, lives and friendships. Oxford be

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure –  Joanne Harris. Tons of French charm. To my surprise, I was captivated; it’s a good story and that always works for me. Recommended.

Five Miles from Outer Hope  – Nicola Barker. Quirky, off-the-wall 1970s family slice of life. Exhilarating, funny and different. A huge hit with me!

Us and Them – Rosemund J Handler. A book that darkens as the story of twins Paola, Aliza, their Jewish mother Jen, and Irish father Gordon, unfolds. The burdens and secrets of family history, heritage, tradition,  superstition and mental illness develops against a  Cape Town background. I was enthralled and read obsessively until I was finished.  

The Moroccan Daughter – Deborah Rodrigues. Arabic Moroccan traditional marriage norms collide with young Westernized Moroccans who return home from California to attend a family wedding. Much family drama ensues. A quick light read, with bags of Moroccan atmosphere – the souk, spices, the medina, life in a riaad,  the desert, etc etc .

With your Crooked  Heart – Helen Dunmore. An intense, convoluted story of two brothers, one wife, one child. Moody, dark exploration of family and relationships.  

NON-FICTION

Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari. Prepare to have your  every belief, cherished  theory  and your very identity, briskly shaken, Spring  cleaned, then reassembled in different configuration.  Futurists should enjoy this one. Highly recommended.

NEW BOOKS – JUNE

The Book Delivery Fairy flew past my house on a damp, chilly Tuesday and cheered up the day no end. He wore a baseball cap, to keep his smile dry, and arrived in a white panel van, but to me he was a magical apparition.

I so enjoyed Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower, I treated myself to two more of her novels. Any other Nicola Barker fans out there in the Blogosphere?

Robert Muponde’s memoir of a childhood was well reviewed, and I’m diligently pursuing my Read-more-African-Writers project, so watch this space.

Happy Reading!