JULY 2022 READING ROUND-UP

I’m opening the July bulletin with a biggie: Lionel Shriver’s extraordinary novel Should We Stay or Should We Go. The book packs a huge punch. It certainly knocked me sideways  – maybe  because I’m an octogenarian?

The basic premise is this: Cyril Wilkinson is a GP working for the British NHS; Kay,  his wife, is a nurse at St Thomas Hospital. Kay’s father dies of dementia, and it’s a messy, grim, prolonged departure. The couple are reviewing his death and decide they don’t want a Dad-type death. Cyril proposes a suicide pact once they’ve both turned  80th.  From their current  mid-50s standpoint it seems a sensible plan.

The book then goes on to explore twelve permutations of the pact, once they turn 80. Think parallel universes.  The outcomes are all different.  A couple of  chapters are sheer fantasy; a couple are unutterably horrific; all are unexpected.  There’s a dark sense of humour about some of the scenarios.  The blurb uses words  “ … hilarious, touching, playful, grave …  exhilarating and poignant …. very moving. “

It’s a provocative book, it’s a compelling book; it’s an uncomfortable book. Lionel Shriver never writes the same book twice. The words ‘potboiler’ and anodyne’ don’t exist in her work.  That’s why I keep on reading her novels. I suggest you try her latest.

FICTION

Should We Stay or Should We Go – Lionel Shriver.  One hell of a read.  See above.

Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus.  Wildly original, highly entertaining. Meet Elizabeth Zott, chemist, researcher,lover, mother, rower and reluctant TV show host. Elizabeth is eccentric, and  focused on her career as a chemist. 1950s societal stereotypes try (unsuccessfully) to cram her into her little housewifely box.  The conflict is epic. What a glorious read! Steal, beg or borrow a copy – make sure you read this novel.

The Distance – Ivan Vladislavic.

In the spring of 1970, a Pretoria schoolboy falls in love with Muhammad Ali. He begins to collect cuttings about his hero from the newspapers, an obsession that grows into a ragged archive of scrapbooks. Forty years later, when Joe has become a writer, these scrapbooks both insist on and obscure a book about his boyhood. He turns to his brother Branko, a sound editor, for help with recovering their shared past.  An unusual novel. The brother write turn & turn about; Joe about Muhammed Ali and Branko about their shared  boyhood. I preferred  Branko’s Pretoria memories.

Ivan Vladislavic is an acclaimed  SA novelist. Suggest you start with Portrait with Keys  which is more accessible than The Distance.

*The Husbands – Chandler Baker.The female author  is described as  queen of the feminist thriller. She sure is. Her book kept me up late, wondering how? Who? Why? We’re in the reverse Stepford Wives  zone.  And if your marriage is going through a rocky patch, the book is best left alone.  Trust me, for your own good. Assuming you’re a female reader, that is. Men, on the other hand, would do well to read the thriller.

*Indicates Library Loan

ON-GOING READS

I’m slowly reading Lev Parikian’s delightful Light Rains Sometimes Fall , following the chapters by date. An ideal few pages with my early morning cuppa.  Each chapter covers 4 or 5 days, according to an ancient Japanese calendar, detailing the natural world according to the changing seasons. Lev’s done the same, from his North London, British perspective.

Another delightful early morning read is Australian  Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence , essays on … awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark …

A BookBlogger,  who I follow,Travelling Penguin, generously sent me a copy which miraculously  navigated our dire postal system, to provide many hours of pleasure.

And then there’s the mammoth Books of Jacob . The cold, grey ,wet weather seemed a good weekend to have another stab at it.  The print is abominably small, and at almost 900 pages it is a challenger. But on I go, have dread about just over a quarter of the book. Thus far, my one definitive conclusion is: thank all the gods I wasn’t born into the 1750s in rural Poland. Life in South Africa is tough, but  the  historical scenario  is causing me to count my modern blessings!

JUNE 2022 READING ROUND-UP

My gosh: mid-year already!

Periodically I read an unforgettable book. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is such a book. It’s the story of a 24 year old marriage. Lotto and Mathilde, tall, glamorous, incandescent with each other. For me, Mathilde was the more interesting character. In part one, Fates, we learn about Lotto. Everything.  And Mathilde, cool, iceberg wife who makes life run effortlessly. But in part two, Furies, we really find out about Mathilde and learn that the submerged part of the iceberg is a cauldron of boiling fury. A powerful and compelling tale that left me murmuring ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.

FICTION

Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller. A much anticipated read, which did not disappoint. A  story of life on the fringes of society. Twins, living in rural England,   dependent upon their manipulative mother, who dies; her death uncovers secrets. The title is apt: a very unsettling book indeed but an excellent read. Recommended.

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff. The story of a contemporary American marriage, written in an almost feverish, rapid style that hurricanes  you away, even when you mutter: enough, already, but you read on. Can we ever really know our partners? Apparently not.  Not to be missed.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder – T A Willberg. A quirky sort-of Fantasy whodunnit, set in 1950s London. Ultimately we find out who did the deadly deed and the motive. An okay read, but I think it will miss the target for Fantasy fans, and probably irritate crime fans. A cross-genre novel is a tricky thing to tackle successfully.

Expectation – Anna Hope .  Whilst the novel is not in the Chick Lit category, its squarely in the Women’s Fiction section. Love, motherhood, marriage, friendship, betrayal, children (or lack thereof), modern life in 21st century London. Three young  women learn that expectations seldom come to fruition. That’s life, ladies.

Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit –  P G Wodehouse . Short story collection. A retro comic tonic. A sparkling collection of stories, set in 1920’s/30s Britain. The unflappable and inimitable Jeeves; exasperated  relatives v.s.  young men filled with high spirits (& alcohol) and yearning hearts. If you’ ve never read PGW, one of the greatest comic writers in the English language, do yourself a favour, and dive in. Bon Voyage, pip-pip and enjoy the fun.

Non-fiction

Sovietstan Erika Fatland . A Journey through Turkmenistan,  Kazakhstan,  Tajikistan,  Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.  The collapse of the Soviet Union was final by late 1991, leaving the above mentioned   states free to form their own destinies. Which they did. None of them successfully,  landing up in a swamp of corruption, autocracy and dictatorships by 2014, when the intrepid Norwegian writer travelled through the area. Central Asia has been inhabited by nomads for centuries, so  communist ideology, collectivism and a blind switch to  agriculture, didn’t work well for the land or its people. A fascinating account of an area about which I knew very little. Travel fans, and those interested in geopolitics will enjoy the book. I know I did.

MAY 2022 READING ROUND UP

I’m still mulling over Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.  As a friend remarked : if we’re still talking about the book, debating whether we enjoyed it, then surely it must be a good read?

After Towles universally beloved second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, he had to produce a different rabbit out of his hat for book #3. Which he certainly did.  Reading Lincoln Highway I felt as if Towles was channelling a mixture of Mark Twain and O. Henry, both renowned American writers. Twain gave us the boyhood adventures of Huck Finn, and O. Henry gave us hundreds of stories based on Americans living in the late 1800s/early 1900s. His range of characters and themes was all encompassing, to say the least, and Towles assorted cast of disparate characters was strongly reminiscent of O Henry’s work. Then, for good measure, Towles tossed in a sort of Child’s Guide to Greek myth, notably the adventures of Ulysses, germane to the story but …. 

I’m aware my expectations led me astray. The title and the cover, and the era of the story (1940s America) gave rise to expectations  of a Jack Kerouac road-novel/bro adventure type story. Hence my confusion.

I’m still undecided. Yes, it was a rattling good yarn.  But, nonetheless: did I enjoy it or didn’t I?  Did you?

Here’s a king-size grumble: why do so many of Anne Tyler’s novels feature such useless, hapless characters, stumbling (usually unsuccessfully) through their ultra-ordinary, middle class American lives? The characters in   Noah’s Compass exasperated me beyond measure. Here’s a vow: no more AT novels for me.

On a happier note, I have nothing but praise for These Precious Days – Ann Patchett, an essay/memoir collection. Despite disparities  between us  in age, culture, and geography, AP  addresses universal themes such as  her daily life, family, friends, reading, life and death., which resonated with me. Oh: and shopping – or, rather, not shopping.   I ‘m smiling as I recall her essay on Snoopy (from the Charlie Brown comic strip) titled ‘To the Doghouse’ and found it heart warming that Snoopy is such a source of inspiration to her. I shall treasure, and re-read the book with  renewed pleasure.

FICTION

Lincoln Highway – Amor Towles. America in the 1940s, two brothers on a road trip that  leads  them east, instead of  their intended destination, westward. A mix of boys’ Own Adventures, Classical Mythology,  a diverse cast of characters – with a powerful, if somewhat abrupt, ending. Give it a try.

*The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid.  Cleverly structured, and elegantly written. The unusual first-person narrator addresses only his American guest? CIA assassin? in a quiet, courteous voice that contains an underlying menace – or does it?  An unpredictable storyline, with an ambiguous and challenging ending.  I can see why it reached the Booker Shortlist in 2007. A very good read indeed.  Recommended

**

The Ruin of Us – Keija Parssinen. Tradition, and life under the autocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia, make for a compelling story, written by a Saudi expat. Polygamy rears its troublesome head, as does fundamentalism; human conflict abounds and there are no easy answers in a Saudi/American long standing marriage. Due to the authentic setting, an unusual read.

*The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted  – Robert Hillman . Hungarian Hannah Babel doggedly survives WWII in Europe:Auschwitz, death of three beloveds, and finally emigrates to Australia. Rural Australia in the early 1960s, lonely farmer Tom Hope, whose wife has joined a religious cult and taken her son Peter, who adores Tom. Worlds collide in a dramatic unfoldment, with plenty of flashbacks to Hannah’s survival in wartime. Not the light read I was expecting; I was mislead by the title. But well written, and an unusual setting.

Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler. Retrenched 60 yr old school teacher Liam stumbles through life in a fog, exacerbated by a head injury during a midnight robbery, which leaves him semi-amnesiac  and subsequently coupled with an equally unhappy, lost female … oh, I can’t go on. If you enjoy AT suggest you look up the publisher’s blurb for the novel. A big NO from me.

RE-READ:  Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer. I’m a life-long fan of GH’s Regency historical romances, and periodically I indulge. Scheming mamas, flirtatious  minxes, virtuous heroines, rakish suitors, stern fathers, duels,  elopements  – candlelight, lace, jewels, the Georgian aristocracy in a comedy of manners – a delightful escape from  21st century Covid and climate change.

*RE-READ: State of Wonder – Ann Patchett. I can’t resist an Ann Patchett she’s such a wonderful writer. A Medical research team deep in the Amazon jungle, a dead team member; a miracle drug, but above all the seething tropical jungle and its people. A magnificent read; possibly AP’s masterpiece.

NON-FICTION

These Precious Days – Ann Patchett. A collection of essays and memoir, mirroring contemporary life in the USA, but with enough common human experience that should resonate with any reader. Entertaining, thought provoking, funny – a wonderful reading experience.

  • * Indicates a Library loan from Cape Town Public Libraries

APRIL 2022 READING ROUND-UP

Officially I neither read nor enjoy crime, but this is not strictly true. I do enjoy the antics of Richard Osman’s feisty, geriatric amateur detectives in the Thursday Murder Club: chatty Joyce, brainy Ibrahim, slightly thuggish Ron and lastly, brilliant, mysterious former spy,  Elizabeth who leads  the intrepid band. Yes,  there are bodies and bullets, but no gratuitous gore and yucky details. There’s plenty of time for grandkids, homebakes, romance, fascinating personal history background – Elizabeth has an ex-husband? And former lovers? My word! Startling news!  As  the plot briskly unfolds taking in, en passant, stolen diamonds, international crime, the American Mafia, underground vaults …. You really get your money’s-worth with The Man Who Died Twice.

The Forest of Wool  and Steel – Natsu Miyashita  provided a complete contrast to the above jolly romp. It’s a short, Japanese novel set in the arcane and subtle world of piano tuning.  Seventeen year old Tomura embarks on his training, under the tutelage of three master tuners. He’s beset by doubts about his abilities. That’s about it, really, not much happens, but Tomura slowly matures, learns his craft,  and finds his purpose in life. The novel has mystical overtones. All I can say is: its very Japanese. If you’re looking for something different to read, try this one.

Another nature themed read was Lanny by Max Porter, who reshapes the centuries old Green Man folkloric myth into the modern Dead Papa Toothwort who is tuned into an unusual, fey boy called Lanny. The results are magical, scary, enchanting,  nail-biting; I can’t say more without  releasing a spoiler. But what I can say is I’m glad I finally read the novel which first hit the spotlight in the 2019 Booker Longlist. I resisted reading it at the time,  because I avoid books based on …. Drat, another spoiler hovering over us. Suffice to say, it was worth the wait. I enjoyed the format of short, personalized sections , while the multi-person chorus in Part 2 was a brilliant device to reflect an entire village during a crisis. You will have to read it for yourself.

FICTION

The Man Who Died Twice – Richard Osman. Bk 2 Thursday Murder Club Mystery series.Four geriatric sleuths , assisted by various partners in crime,  conquer the baddies & get the loot. Jolly good read, can’t wait for #3 in the series to appear.

The Forest of Wool  and Steel – Natsu Miyashita , translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Music lovers will enjoy the story of an apprentice piano tuner. Unusual. *

Lanny – Max Porter. Nature is not always benign, and nor are small English country Villages. An intriguing, dark, magical story that kept me turning the pages. A contender for my Book of the Year in December.  Highly recommended.  *

The Woman of the Stone Sea – Meg Vandermerwe. A fascinating blend of Xhosa myth combined with the life, love and losses of  Hendrik, a down to earth fisherman living on the Cape West Coast. A flavourful, memorable and unusual novel. Recommended. *

Being Lily – Qarnita Loxton. Chick Lit, set in Cape Town. A light, relaxing read.

The Hill Bachelors – William Trevor. Short stories by an acclaimed writer. The Irish  stories tended to be  opaque – not to my taste. *

NON-FICTION

Leap In – A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim – Alexandra Heminsley. Part memoir, part How-To Manual, shows the writer’s struggle to re-learn how to swim, conquer her fears, and – inter-alia, cope with unsuccessful IVF treatment. Deeply personal, but also  an informative tour of the world of open water swimming. Recommended. *

*  Indicates loans from the Cape Town Library system

MARCH 2022 READING ROUND-UP

On the whole, I’m not a fan of crime fiction.  However, this said, there are a few crime writers whose work I do enjoy. Donna Leon is one of them.

She has created a wonderfully human fictional detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti who works for the Questura in Venice and shrewdly unravels a variety of  crimes.  I enjoy the meticulous detail, for example: what Brunetti is wearing,  or eating for dinner on a particular day –  tiny family details; the route of the vaporetto, or his rapid walk through the calle and over the many bridges; the Venetianness of it all.

I’ve noticed in both this month’s Leon novels,  that she’s not averse to taking a swipe at Italy’s cumbersome legal and bureaucratic structures, always expressed in cool, clinical terms. No soapboxing here, just critical reportage with a touch of cynicism. Her novels are multi faceted, one of the qualities that makes them so readable.

Throughout the many novels the same characters appear, familiar as ever, but with light touches of difference that make each read enormously enjoyable. Donna Leon provides her audience with a completely rounded story and for me, that’s the standout quality that brings me back again and again. And, as I often state: I don’t read crime. But I will, if its written by Donna Leon.  

FICTION

The Night Circus -Erin Morgenstern. Magical Fantasy. See my review 13 March 2022. https://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/2022/03/13/re-visiting-the-n

La’s Orchestra Saves the World – Alexander McCall Smith. WWII, Britain, gentle and philosophical . People exhibiting fortitude and courage during wartime.

Trace Elements – Donna Leon. Commissario Guido Brunetti, Venice,  an eco crime. Excellent, as ever. Authentic detail.

Doctored Evidence – Donna Leon. Commissario Guido Brunetti, Venice; the  title cleverly hints at the unravelling of the motive of the murder of an unpleasant old woman.

The Map of Salt & Stars – Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. The 1001 Tales from the Arabian Nights and Al-Idrisi, the legendary mapmaker, melded with modern story of refugee family from the current Syrian war. History, myth, fantasy and the modern mingle and mix. Exotic and unusual.  

Weather – Jenny Offill. Brilliantly minimalist, no doubt, but not for me.

The Rules of Magic – Alice Hoffman. An enchanting family saga about a magical (literally) family. Herbalism, magical powers, animal familiars, tragic doomed loves, ancient historical family feuds. A jolly good read.

Ness – Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood. Mythic prose poem. Nature overcomes human madness. Wildly unusual.

Unusual uses for Olive Oil –   Alexander McCall Smith. The gravely serious exploits of Prof. Dr von Igelfeld, recorded by that  comic genius, Alexander  McCall Smith. Priceless.

Hex – Rebecca Dinnerstein Knight. Bright sharp writing, but neurotic, obsessive narrator with supporting cast of solipsistic characters. Enjoyed the writing but not the book.

NON-FICTION

The Bookseller’s Tale – Martin Latham. Rave, rave ….. See my review 24 March 2022,https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/1429

FEBRUARY READING ROUND-UP 2022

February has been a month of excellent reads: all of them, even the difficult South African novel by Mark Winkler.

Two stunning novels : The Book of Form and Emptiness (reviewed on 17 February 2022, https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/1386 )  and then:

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter. Winner of the 2020 Prix Goncourt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prix_Goncourt.  Described, accurately, as  …  an existential thriller …. it was a mind-blowing, one-session read. The wildly original basic premise is that flight Air France 006 enters a huge storm, en route to New York, and the plane and its passengers are duplicated. #1 question is: how did this happen? Why? And now what? In search of answers the novel dives into science, religion and philosophy, plus psychology, human relationships, individual stories of (some) of the pilots and passengers.  What a read!  And the ending was hair-raising – shocking, actually. Not to be missed.

Go to https://youmightaswellread.com/2021/12/28/buckle-your-seat-belts-for-herve-le-telliers-the-anomaly/  for a comprehensive review.


FICTION   

The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki.  See my review , link above.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter. Gallic wit, sophisticated thriller and brilliant translation

Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson. Magical realism reveals dark underbelly of middle-class English surburbia

A Promise of Ankles –  Alexander McCall Smith: Scottish serial novel, #14 in series; charming & gentle

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig: Historical Fantasy; magical and inventive

The Mystics of Mile End – Sigal Samuel. Coming of age in a Jewish neighbourhood of Montreal, exploring the mysteries of Jewish Kabbalah. Esoteric & fascinating.

The Graveyard Shift – D M Guay: Comedy horror; fun, trashy, escapist

Due South of Copenhagen – Mark Winkler. The bad, sad years of South Africa’s Border War in the 1980s. Futile, haunting & disturbing.

A Town Called Solace – Mary Lawson. Small town  drama in 1970’s Canada’s Northern Ontario. Difficult, fractured, child /parent relationships.  Grief, remorse and love play out.

JANUARY 2022 READING ROUNDUP

My first read of 2022 was memorable. A debut novel by Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah – The Book of Memory. See my review on 21 January, https://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/2022/01/21/my-first-read-of

I followed it up with another very different, but spellbinding read by prolific Turkish author, Elif Shafak.

                                               

FICTION

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak. What a marvelous story-teller  this Turkish Writer is – she has mastered the art. Leila is a street walker who is murdered,  and her fading consciousness reveals her five close friends, and how their relationships started and grew. All  the women are social outcasts, ostracized by rigid social norms, but vibrant human beings. The novel glitters with the Istanbul background, rich with sensual detail, and is an immersive read.  I loved it.

The Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom – John Boyne. An epic tale of humanity over two millennia, the themes of love, loss, vengeance, violence, fathers and sons, the dismal fate of women endlessly repeated. The constant change of country, background setting, and new cast of characters was confusing and exhausting. Not for me, but I’m sure Historical Fantasy fans will love the book.

The Authenticity Project – Clare Pooley.  A light read, set in London. “Desperate to confess the deep loneliness he feels, Julian begins The Authenticity   Project – a small, green notebook containing the truth about his life, to pass on and encourage others to share their own”. The results are explosive, dramatic, funny, sad, wildly unpredictable, involving recognisable, contemporary people; I was rooting for all of them. A  thoroughly enjoyable read. If you want a feel-good read, with a satisfying ending, this is it.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley . Summer, sea, sun, sand, swimming, sex and family complications, including several dramatic and horrifying childhood incidents which extend tentacles into present adult lives. I’m tempted to label it as a Beach Read, but the writing deserves a better rating, due to the descriptive writing of the coastal area. Action and history unfold between the American East Coast states & NYC . Blurb used words like ‘immersive’ and ‘addictive’. An OK read for me.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People –  Farahad Zama. Have I saved the best until last? Possibly. I always enjoy Indian novels, chiefly for their colour, rich, spicy atmosphere, peopled with characters who stand by their very decided opinions. Great insights into the Indian system of arranged marriages, such a foreign concept to the modern, Western world. But given our divorce rates, their system may have considerable merit. This novel ticked all the boxes: setting, characters, dialogue, plot, satisfying ending. And, I’m delighted to discover that Farahad Zama has written 4 more books in the series, all available on Kindle. I can’t wait!

All in all, a good start to my reading year. How has yours been ?

READING ROUND-UP DECEMBER 2021

FICTION

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke. An elegant concept, and elegantly constructed in the telling. A Chinese-box sort of novel, gradually revealing its secrets. Curious as to the title, I googled the Italian Piranes, which helped my understanding and enjoyment of the book. A wildly different novel, that will  haunt me for some time to come.

A Mumbai Murder Mystery – Meeti Shroff-Shah. The thing I most enjoyed were the  descriptions of the mouth watering food served frequently to  the Jain family that are involved in the murder mystery. Sure, I puzzled over  the whodunnit aspect, but the background and setting stood out for me. I hope Ms SS  gives us another murder mystery  soon.

The Bear – Andrew Krivak. A Re-read. Just as moving, the second time around. The natural world continues its age old cycles of  birth, life and death, the seasons change, the equinoxes wax  and wane, and so does human life. An adult fable elegantly written in sparse prose. Probably a masterpiece.

What are you going Through – Sigrid Nunez. A thoughtful, reflective quiet novel about friendship,love, death and dying. Wise and  compassionate but not an easy read. Fans of Literary Novels and Sigrid Nunez will enjoy the novel.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns. A Virago Press reprint. The two things I enjoyed about the book were the catchy title and striking cover. Other than that,  London in the 1930s, Bohemian artists’ life, poverty, children, selfish, immature characters did not appeal. The book was promoted as funny, but didn’t tickle my funnybone. Fortunately the book was a quick, short read.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café – Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Appropriately, my last read of 2021, came from my TBR shelf. On my second attempt to read the book , I reached the last page, but with relief.  Whether due to  the author’s natural style, or the translation from Japanese, the story was stilted, which was a pity, because the premise of the book is time travel. Visitors to the café can travel backwards or forwards in time, but must return before the coffee in the cup turns cold. Four stories of guilt, grief and regret unfold: husbands, lovers, sons, surrogate fathers all wanting to make amends, or explain . The book was a big hit in 2019, but not with me. You can’t win ‘em all.

NON FICTION

Dear Reader. The Comfort and Joy of Books –  Cathy Rentzenbrink.  I devoured the book,  what a joy to share Cathy’s love of books and reading!  She’s my soul-mate.  A book to keep, treasure, and re-read many times. A must for booklovers.

Underland  -Robert MacFarlane. I’ve found my quintessential Desert Island Book. If permitted only one book for my Desert Island sojourn, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack Underland. It is a marvellous mosaic of science, history, culture, personal memoir, a veritable treasure chest of facts, travel writing and stories. A slow, thoughtful, delightful read.  Highly recommended.

Bon Appetit! – Peter Mayle. With his customary charm, the foodie writer par excellence,  shares his travels around his beloved  France, visiting Festivals and food fairs en route. The book is sub titled: Travels through France with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew. A neat summation of a delightful, atmospheric read. Perfect armchair travel with a light touch.

DECEMBER DIPPER

Zen Dust.  A Journey Home through the back roads of South Africa – Anthony Osler. A couple of pages daily is balm to the soul.  A mixture of gentle humour, wisdom , travel notes, the occasional poem or haiku fragment, together with elegant black and white photographs.  Occasionally a glimpse of a beloved teacher or local Sangha member that I know,  make the book personal for me.  Another book to treasure .

READING ROUND UP NOVEMBER 2021

FICTION

Transcription – Kate Atkinson. The murky world of spies in Britain, during WWII and into the post-war cold war period. The opaque, nothing is as it seems atmosphere and characters kept me glued to the pages. This was a read-in-one-sitting book. Recommended.

A Shot in the Dark. A Constable Twitten Mystery – Lynne Truss. Lynne Truss is a British columnist, writer and broadcaster. She’s produced a hilarious whodunnit, set in Brighton, that combines cosiness with cake, a series of murders, whilst  taking  a satirical swipe at  police procedure. Its such good fun that you don’t even notice the wildly improbable plot. Highly enjoyable.

Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers. The life stories of five characters, Exodans living in the Fleet i.e. a huge colony of human migrants  in space. The book explores  not only the philosophical ideas of an exodus from dying planet earth and  re-starting in space, but also the logistical minutiae of surviving generationally in space.  Many fascinating ideas chanelled through the 5 disparate characters: one older woman, two middle aged women  , one  young male adult, and a teenage boy. Not to mention a many tentacled Harmagian cultural anthropologist on a visit. I’m a fan of Becky Chambers’ approach to SF.

To be Taught if Fortunate – Becky Chamber. A novella relates the story of  four astronauts on a 4-planet space exploration mission ,that ends starkly despite  their success. Thought-provoking and philosophical. Recommended.   

Transient Desires – Donna Leon. Good old Comissario Guido Brunetti is still solving crime in Venice, this time in the brutal world of human trafficking. Donna Leon always delivers an atmospheric, flavourful whodunnit and this book ticked all the boxes. Enjoyable, despite the grim subject matter.

The Tearoom – Gretchen Haley. Tubby Reddy is a cook, a husband, father, a dreamer in the little coastal town of Usendleleni, Kwa Zulu Natal.  He ‘s in love with Yogi, who works in his kitchen; he dreams of another life with her, away from his volatile, pious wife Lynette. He’s waited patiently until both his kids are adults, and is poised to start  living his dream life , but …. You will have to read on. An original novel, featuring the KZN Indian community. The bittersweet ending was bravely authentic  – life seldom provides neat, tidy solutions. Recommended.

The Victory Garden – Rhys Bowen. A feel-good read set in WWI Britain. Middle class  Emily joins the Land Girls to her parents’ horror, and gains independence, a lover, a knowledge of gardening and herbs, and ultimately freedom on her own terms. Plus wartime romance and tragedy. An enjoyable light read.

NON-FICTION

The Library Book – Susan Orlean. What a marvellous book! It relates the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, a seemingly  dull topic but as Adrian Liang, Amazon Editor, says: Orlean can peer through the keyhole of a seemingly picayune topic and see endless fascination on the other side of the door.  Every page offered colourful anecdotes, library history both local and global, plus a detailed account of the devastating fire that swept through the Library in 1986 inflicting devastation in its path. A must read for readers and book lovers.

P.S. The book is worth reading for the history of eccentric journalist, adventurer, Charles Lummis who was appointed City Librarian in 1905 – despite having no prior training in the field! The Library Board  summarily dismissed the current City  Librarian, Mary Jones, simply because she was a woman – infuriating to read this! However,  Lummis proved to be a mixed blessing. To describe him as a colourful character is an understatement. The Library Board should have stuck with their female Librarian!

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

OCTOBER 2021 READING ROUND-UP

OCTOBER HITS: 

Bewilderment – Richard Powers. What  a story! A dazzling blend of visionary science – biology, Astro biology, astronomy, neuro science – and the tragic story of a 9 year old boy, whose brain has a few short circuits, filled with grief and bewilderment at an uncaring, baffling  world. The title is well chosen, the characters are well rounded and the portrayal  of a capitalistic,  uncaring America is well timed. I think it must have been written in the terrible Trump years.. I empathised with the recently widowed Dad, trying to cope with his mercurial son and life in general. A wonderful read. I hope it wins the 2021 Booker Prize.

Jeeves and the Leap of Faith – Ben Schott.  An Homage to P G Wodehouse. And what a splendid homage it is!, Bertie Wooster patriotically involved with  the machinations of the  British Secret Service v.s. the odious Black Shorts, lead by the unpleasant Lord Sidcup; the usual  terrifying aunts,  a dipsomaniacal  fortune telling addict, a criminal bookmaker, and – of course –   romantc complications on every side. Every chapter produced gales of giggles from me. A tonic and a treasure.  Highly recommended.

Hum If You don’t Know the Words – Bianca Marais.  A  story set in a dark period in South Africa, the mid 1970s, when apartheid held the country in its iron fist. Two unlikely people – Robin, a recently orphaned white 10 year old girl, and Beauty a mid-50s black mother desperately hunting for her daughter – are flung together by events. The Soweto student uprising is the catalyst, but despite the grim circumstances, the book is full of heart and humour, and humanity. I approached it with reluctance, but was surprised how much I enjoyed the story. Recommended.   

A Closed and Common Orbit  – Becky Chambers. Another enjoyable space opera from BC.

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg – Harry Kalmer. Sub-titled ’A City Novel’. Spans more than 100 years, covers many lives, follows one family but the disjointed narrative  was difficult to follow.