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

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

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.

THE ABSOLUTE BOOK – Elizabeth Knox

After reading the reviews, I was so looking forward to the book, which I recently received as a gift.  

I devoured the book. In  two days. A  hardcover door-stopper at 626 pages. I read until 11.30 at night, determined to finish. Because: what happened??  I’m not sure the ensuing book hangover was worth it.

Basically the book is a Quest/Riddle  Story. What is the Firestarter,  what does it contain and why do people and entities want it so desperately?

The book cover yacks on about ‘the value of reading and libraries’  (which is actually a sub-theme, when all is said and  done) ; says the book is a masterpiece – it may well be the jewel in the crown in EK’s oeuvre, but  a masterpiece? No.  Not for me.

That said, it is  undeniably a tour de force of the  novelist’s imagination.

Norse mythology underpins  the story. Then there’s a 21st century  crime story which is a major story strand overlaying the Quest material. It concerns the murder of  narrator Taryn’s sister, Beatrice.   In this section there’s a fiendish  death trap , devised by Taryn’s deranged assassin who had dispatched Beatrix’s murderer, but he then  tries to kill off Taryn. He, in turn, meets an unexpected and gory  end. 

Finally,  a major portion of the book contains a beautifully imagined exploration of the world of the Sidhe, their history and habits.  It’s a major creative  accomplishment. The Sidhe and their part in the Quest story are a major component, as is Taryn and her several back story elements, particularly her relationships.

The book is a complex strand of the Quest, the Crime and the Sidhe,  and I probably need to re-read it, at a more leisurely pace to fully appreciate it.  I read rapidly, swept along by book’s rich tapestry of action, quest,  myth, and relationship dilemmas.

Certain parts of the story were absolutely  horrific, which came as quite a surprise to me.  Perhaps it was the contrast between the idyllic world of the Sidhe and the action sections.

I’ve only read one other EK  novel, The Vintner’s Luck, which is much shorter, but it blew me away twenty years ago. If you can get your hands on it, read it. It’s brilliant!

Fantasy fans will love the book.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Knox

HELLO! NEW BOOKS!

I often have to wait months, and sometimes months, when I order books on line. The above wonderful trio was well worth waiting for.

I partially read Vesper Flights, before returning it to the Library, but knew I needed to have the book on my shelf, so I ordered a copy.

As for the other two books, I’ve always enjoyed Deborah Rodrigues and I’m fascinated by Morocco , so …

And as for the Cauliflower book: well, irresistible to me! My 20+ year history as a yogi, and my love of quirky books made this one a must read. Plus, it has a very unusual and quirky cover.

I wonder if any of you have read these books? if so, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

So: watch this space for reviews.

Early May book delivery happiness!

APRIL READING ROUND UP

APRIL HITS

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.

FICTION

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.

APRIL DIPPER/NON-FICTION

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.

DNF

In the Midst of Winter- Isabel Allende

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Macdonald_(writer)

https://www.deonmeyer.com/bio.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazuo_Ishiguro

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.za/author/paul-constant-s

TATAMKHULU AFRIKA

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.

https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2020/12/27/gus-ferguson-1

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.