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!

MAY 2021 READING ROUNDUP

MAY HIT PARADE

Heading the list, con brio,  is Happy Little Bluebirds by  Louise Levene . What a great champagne read! The book opens with grey, besieged 1940s wartime Britain, where newly widowed Evelyn Murdoch gets a merciful reprieve from her mother-in-law from hell, with an unexpected transfer to Hollywood, USA. Something to do with Britain’s war effort – the plot largely escaped me, but I didn’t care because I was enjoying the series of Hollywood vignettes that zipped along filled with colour, sunshine, OTT characters from the movie world, parties, cocktail, and waspish witty dialogue.

A complete contrast was provided by Nicola Barker’ s The Cauliflower, a novel based on the life of a mid nineteenth century Bengali mystic saint. Sounds like a weird topic for a 2021 novel, but trust me, you’ve never read anything like it. I certainly haven’t and doubt I will ever encounter the likes of it again. Unless Nicola Barker has more excitements hidden up her literary sleeve. I can’t wait to find out!

I’m conflicted about #3. I’m torn between an e-book series by Deborah Coonts, the adventures of Lucky O’ Toole in Las Vegas, which entertained me no end, saucy, fun and packed with mis-adventures and surprises. But  I will opt for The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox instead. A whopper of a Fantasy novel, skilfully weaving in Norse Mythology, the Sidhe ( forget about Disney’s Tinkerbell, this is the real deal), a Quest, 21st century murders and puzzles, it’s a rich and engrossing read.

FICTION

The Cauliflower –  Nicola Barker. A wildly unusual novel featuring the Bengali saint and mystic, Sri Ramakrishna. I loved every page.  Devotees of Ramakrishna should probably avoid. But the rest of us will enjoy it enormously. I did.

Happy Little Bluebirds by  Louise Levene . A colourful, witty, entertaining read. I loved it. The novel made my day, if not my week. Such fun!  To quote Miranda’s mother (UK TV series) .

The Absolute Book – Elizabeth Knox. A rich mix of Norse legend, modern crime, the Sidhe, and a literary mystery. A must-read for Fantasy Fans.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore. Siblings Rob and Cathy, abandoned  by their parents, live in the country with their Grandfather, in his decaying  grand house. Rural England, prior to WWI is the setting. Beneath the idyllic country life are dark currents of obsession, madness, lust, bitterness and  loss, which start to play out. Superb writing. Highly recommended. 

The Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett. It is 1968. Rose Clinton loves to drive her car. It’s the only time she feels free. She drives away from her dull husband and an unwanted pregnancy to St Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers, in Kentucky, to have the baby, leave it for adoption, and drive on. Only life takes her and others in  unexpected directions. A great read, including a psychic nun. For a debut novel, its excellent. A foretaste of the future excellent novels coming from Ann Patchett

Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller. Portrait of an unconventional marriage; husband Gil is  womanizing, selfish, a blocked writer ; wife Ingrid is young, hopeless and ultimately, missing, presumed drowned. Younger daughter Flora is completely  impossible. Thank goodness none are members of my family. This said, it was an engrossing read and well written. 

Maid in SA: 30 Ways to leave your Madam – Zukiswa Wanner. Maids and Madams is always a vexed topic in SA, and Zukiswa attacks the topic with piercing humour and satire. A great read, good for a wry laugh, but also has a Ninja section at the back, listing the CCMA’s offices and contact details. ZW comes down 100% on the side of the Maids.                                                                                                                                                                      

 Lucky O’Toole  Vegas Adventures – Deborah Coonts. e-book series. All the Vegas glitz, glamour and shenanigans you could wish for. Entertaining light read.                                                                                                                                         

NON-FICTION

The Café de Move-On Blues –  Christopher Hope.  I skimmed this combination of travel, history and review of modern South Africa.  Whether focusing on the past or the present, the grim picture is chilling.