READERS’ RADAR: R to Z listed alpha by title 2011 – 2016

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RAZOR GIRL by CARL HIAASEN

I’m not crazy about crime novels. The bleak Scandi crime novels leave me stone cold – well, they would, wouldn’t they? All that snow, ice and long dark winters are bound to produce that effect. Obviously.

And the Pathologist-cum-detective genre make me queasy. If I’d wanted to minutely investigate human anatomy I would have studied medicine. Which I chose not to do. Probably last on my Career Choice list.

Therefore, it is with a sigh of relief that I dive into the sun kissed frolicsome  pages of Carl Hiaasen’s novels. Any novel set in Florida is allowed to have the word frolicsome  in the review – sun, sand, bikinis, East Coast winter fugitives, retirees, oranges, hurricanes … clearly the setting is bound to be jollier than sub-Arctic Norway.

In Hiaasen’s semi-mythical world of the Florida Keys, there is a profusion of criminal low-life:  scammers, insurance fraudsters,  adulterers, gold-diggers, (all that sand encourages the pests), drunks, burglars, weed pushers, cold beers, rattling palm leaves, the Mafia, crooked property agents, lawyers (a.k.a. scum of the earth in Hiaasen’s world), muscular heavies, fishing and more cold beers, disgraced but noble ex-detectives, mistresses, car-crashes … it’s all fun, fun and more fun still.  Oh – last one: the odd murder or two, but that’s in passing. And the deceased deserved it anyway.

Hiaasen’s latest romp has the added entertainment of a truly terrible red-necked TV Reality Show , the patriarch of which sorry series is the catalyst for a seemingly never-ending chain of events involving a deranged, semi-brain dead fan of said dreadful TV garbage,  abduction, kidnap, ransom;  the TV show’s   scheming  Agents and Execs, their private jets, suspect contracts, deals and deception,  etc. etc. And the cherry on  top is that Hiaasen is laugh-out-loud FUNNY. Yes, you heard me. In a crime novel, nogal* .

If you think I’ve given the plot away, relax: I haven’t. The plot in Hiaasen’s latest criminal caper has so many wonderful colourful stories tangled up like nylon fishing line, that I couldn’t possibly be writing a spoiler.

Thank heavens for Mr Carl Hiaasen, and his cheerful, clever crime novels.  He’s a prize-winning journalist with a regular column in the Miami Herald ; a born and bred Floridan, still resident in that sunny State. I suspect many of the outrageous incidents and  bizarre characters in his fiction originate from  his  life as a  working journalist. You can’t make up some of the incidents in his novels,  you really can’t.

Thank you, Mr Hiaasen, from a jaded reader. Thank you for a marvellous series of novels that provide pages of sparkling entertainment. In fact, now that I think about it, I do believe I am going to start collecting his crime novels. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading  Hiaasen, do not wait another minute, run  to your nearest Library &/or book shop. Start reading. Immediately.  Enjoy!

*nogal – South Africanism =  yet.

 

 

 

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SAHARA – by Michael Palin, photos by Basil Pao

This is the book version of the BBC TV series.  The series was entertaining at the time, but by flipping though the book just to enjoy the photographs, one is spared Michael Palin’s somewhat forced humour.  I enjoyed the rich ochre colours of the dunes and the wave-like ripple patterns in the sand.  Pao perfectly captures the mystique of deserts, their immensity, the sheer emptiness and the vivid contrast of a blazing blue sky that definitely borders eternity.  And his portraits of the natives of the Sahel: pitch black skin and vivid boldly patterned fabric wraps – the colours are so bold and so primary.  Perhaps they make such an impact because the backgrounds are sand and there is nothing to distract the eye?
I’m fascinated by deserts  – quite why, I’m not sure.  All that space and emptiness?  An echo  – of sorts –  of the Buddha’s teaching as seen by the Zennists where emptiness is a recurring theme.

Note to self:  I must hunt up my review of the Freya Stark autobiog, plus my notes about her own voluminous travel diaries and writings. And then there is the  book I borrowed from the Ixopo Library, in 1990, which has haunted me for years – an account by a young Westerner who joins one of the few remaining salt caravans across the Sahara, and nearly dies on the journey, from heat, thirst, loneliness … the book made a huge impression on me, and of course, I’ve forgotten his name and the title. If one of my blog subscribers can send me the title, I’d be overjoyed, as I want to read the book again.

 

 

SHORT GIRLS – Bich Minh Nguyen

I really relate to the title. Those who have seen me, will understand why.

Novel is my first Vietnamese novel – I enjoyed it even though the theme is the same-old, same-old:  immigrants’ identities – how to fit into the new country; the clash between traditionally reared  parents and American born children. Then there the ties of the local Expat community, with the expectations and cultural norms of the older generation to succeed at all costs. Especially after the parents’ big sacrifice to provide a better life for their kids.

Linny and Van are sisters, but they’re not close. They grow up  and are desperate to escape from Mid-Western Michigan. Their mother dies an early, unexpected death, leaving them with their traditional Asian father who never assimilates and follows the  usual paternal pattern of minimal communication: never explains, never apologies. What I particularly liked about the book was that the author left the family mysteries and secrets remain undisclosed. For e.g. what circumstances made the parents decide on such a major step as emigrating to the USA? (particularly given the fraught relationship between the Americans and the Vietnamese post-war).  What was the parents relationship with each other really about. At one point the Father retreats  to the basement and lives there for years, after a fallout with his wife. But we never find out what triggered the drama. It just happens.  He remains in the basement until his wife dies, and then moves back upstairs. And yet the Mother seems to have cared for him, during the basement period, with occasional small kind gestures.

Van is the model star student, marries a successful lawyer, but it doesn’t last. Linny lives a rackety life and can’t settle.  Two daughters, polar opposites, who finally reconcile in adulthood.

Despite a slow start, I read on with growing enjoyment. Recommended.

 

SNOW by Orhan Pamuk

After ploughing through Pahmuk’s  The Museum of Innocence  I decided to try another of his books. This earlier novel is a great deal shorter, but more complex,  than the first one I read.

The blurb says that when the book came out in 2002 it angered Islamists and westernised Turks alike and promptly sold 100 000 copies: it seems to me that any books that irritates absolutely everybody must be doing something right!

Reading Pamuk is like visiting another planet. Although the books are translated skilfully into smooth English, there is a foreign-ness about them, an otherness, a picture of a radically different culture that underlies the characters, the events, the background.  Pamuk is not writing about tourist Turkey : the Turkey of Istanbul, semi-westernised, picturesque tiled domes, crowded bazaars, leather goods and woven carpets.  No.  He is writing about something entirely different, the far north-eastern city of Kars. I had to haul out my giant atlas to locate Kars, it’s in the middle of nowhere, en route to the Iranian border. Pamuk is writing about provincial Turkey, where poverty, unemployment, dirt, hopelessness, government surveillance, plots and counterplots,  spying, arrest and torture, infuse the lives of the Turkish, Kurdish, radical Islamists and Attaturk secularists residents.

The city is drowned for three days in a mammoth blizzard of snow, cut off from the outside world, cut off from sanity almost, as events develop.  He’s writing about a familiar theme: when the world of traditional old-style Turkey collides with the wicked West, but this time he throws nationalism versus Islamic reformers into the mix as well. The poet Ka returns from exile in Germany to write an article about the rash of suicides carried out by the ‘headscarf girls’ who return to head-covering thereby incurring the wrath of the secularists.  Ka falls in love with the beautiful Ipek, daughter of the hotel owner, whose other daughter Kadife is in love with the dangerous Islamist revolutionary Blue, one-time lover of her sister ….  the plot writhes and twists like a demented snake.  Meanwhile the political ferment explodes into a Ruritanian  revolution that takes place during a bizarre theatre performance.  The wildly improbable theatre troupe of two provide a modicum of comic relief at intervals, notwithstanding the fact that Sunay, the actor/impresario stages a dramatic and extraordinary climax to the events in Kars.

Despite all this tumult and turmoil, the snowy landscape inspires Ka to write eighteen brilliant poems structured on the diagram of a snowflake. He writes down the poems which arrive perfect and complete, as if he is an amanuensis, but for who or what is never revealed.  Apart from falling in love, Ka regains (fleetingly) his lost faith when he visits a famous Sheik in the city. As a counterpoint to Ka’s adult love for Ipek there are the religious school teenage boys passionately in love with the headscarf girls, to whom they have never spoken, but for whom they are prepared to sacrifice their lives in noble gestures of pure idyllic love. Can you imagine any Western teenagers behaving like this?

Finally, the novelist inserts himself into the story, under his own name (just as he did in the Museum of Innocence) he seems to feel he has to explain why he is telling us the story of the poet Ka. This strikes me as an odd  approach.  I wonder if he does it in all his books? Clearly I shall have to read more to find out.  Question is: do I have the strength?  These two books were not an easy read.

 

 

STATION ELEVEN – by Emily St John Mandel

I waited  nearly two years for the book to surface in a bookstore or library in Cape Town. In the end I succumbed to Book Depository’s excellent prices and bought it on-line. It was worth both the money and the wait.

The book is a dystopian novel set in Canada after a world ‘flu pandemic kills 99% of the population.

A small group of actors and musicians band together to form the Travelling Symphony. Not only do they perform music, but also Shakespearean plays, which have proved to be the most popular items in their repertoire.

Twenty years later they are still travelling on their well established circuit in the Great Lakes region, visiting the tiny settlements where people are gamely starting over.

What was so good was that the story didn’t haul out the tired tropes of Mad Max, or a pack of Zombies!  However, a religious polygamous  cult who provided the  danger element to the story, which affected lead character Kirsten. Both  Kirstin and the cult  proved to be linked directly back to the pivotal character,  Arthur Leander.

The book is beautifully written and  elegantly plotted. Despite the grim premise, the story is engaging and the characters likeable. The theme of Interconnectedness is cleverly woven through the narrative, via the life of Arthur Leander, a famous actor; we see him before and during the pandemic, and the reverberations of his life continuing to affect survivors  in the post-apocalyptic world.

The interesting issues were:

What the world lost (apart from inhabitants) : technology and science – there’s no electricity and therefore no Internet  – imagine the effect of these losses on daily life?

And a big question: what – or even who – would you save as you fled to the wilderness away from the plague?  Lead character Kirstin grabs seemingly inconsequential items and stuffs them in to her backpack, and escapes. The objects play an important role in joining together the puzzle pieces of the story.

A wonderful 5 star read. I loved it.

 

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THE ANGEL’S GAME – CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON 

Zafon returns to Barcelona (he lives there) for another book-based tale of mystery, twists and turns in another story  based on the theme of books and writers, pregnant with atmosphere  and mystery …

I loved this book just as much as I loved Shadow of the Wind . I’ll never part with either of these books, and know I shall re-read them whenever I need a book that tells a rippingly good story, that keeps me glued to the page and thoroughly entertained.  In fact, these two Spanish Gothics constitute my Literary First Aid Kit which I shall apply whenever I suffer from a surfeit of precious, trendy novels. My literary Asprin, if you will.  I recommend you add them to your shelves as a precaution.

 

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO – Junot Diaz

I finally caught up with this 2008 novel which was greatly acclaimed at the time.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – deservedly so. It’s original. There’s a nerdy anti-hero (Oscar); feisty Dominican female relatives; the history of the Dominican Republic during the years of the dreadful Trujillo dictatorship and post-dictatorship into the 90s.  We get a picture of expat Dominican Republic (DR) people fighting to make a new life in the USA. I enjoyed the book despite seriously grim DR historical content, which was in lengthy footnotes; normally long footnotes annoy the socks off me, but the slightly  droll tone of the account made them palatable.

I knew absolutely nothing about the DR and  had to consult my atlas to locate the country.  I  discovered DR was in the Caribbean. The Island of New Hispaniola, was divided into two – Haiti and the DR.  Haiti having an even darker, more violent, grimmer history than the DR if that can even be possible.

Reading the book certainly puts the Republic of South Africa’s dismal history  into perspective.  Sometimes we tend to forget we’re not the only country with a difficult and dangerous past. Man! those South American dictators were something else – torture was their middle name.  Urrggghhh!!

The black DR women were ferocious survivors – loud, harsh, sexy. Their child-rearing methods would not go down well in today’s p.c. climate. Despite this, their kids survived, although the book title might give prospective readers a clue.  A recommended read, it has warmth and humour,  but not for the faint hearted.

 

 

THE CALL OF THE LITANY BIRD –  Surviving the Zimbabwe Bush War  – Susan Gibbs .

The book is an account of events in the Nymandhlovu farming district,  southern Matabeleland,  Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) 1977 to 1983/4, written by farmer’s  wife, Susan Gibbs.

Sue Gibbs loved the farm, the bush and Rhodesia – this comes through clearly on every page, but in the end President Robert Mugabe’s  genocidal attacks against the  Nedbele, and their leader Joshua Nkomo,  plus the crimes of dissidents, who stayed in the bush after Independence and were nothing more than bandits,  committing farm murders and ambushes –  made life on the farm too dangerous.  Despite having the Agric Alert radio system, and despite PATU (Police Anti-Terrorism Unit) and the Army being on hand – despite living in wired enclosures, despite carrying sidearms and driving around in bombproof vehicles on account of the landmines:  the slaughter of farmers continued. In the end, these factors drove the Gibbs (and many other farmers) away from their farms, the land and the people they loved. And I need to emphasize that the phrase  people they loved refers not only to their friends and families, but also to long-time  loyal farm workers and servants.

On a very personal note: I lived in Bulawayo  during the 1970s, and worked for a time at the Matabeleland Farmers’ Co-op and came into daily contact with many of the farmers mentioned in her book, including her husband Tim Gibbs.  The sunburnt, hard-working men and women came into the Co-op on their weekly visits to town, to collect machinery spares, veterinary products, building supplies, seed and fertiliser, plus an enormous range of other items necessary to maintain a farm in the Rhodesian bush.

Our family had a close friend who ran a cattle ranch in the Shangani District, so I could relate to Susan Gibb’s  account of farm life in Rhodesia – the lovely gardens, the servants, the animals, the snake stories, the floods of visitors.  Rhodesian farmers were  generous, hospitable  folk, always ready to offer a meal, or a weekend on the farm, out in the bush.

On the one hand the book is a lovely read in the  nostalgic “when-we” category. On the other, an exposure of black atrocities against white farmers, and their black farm workers, in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. There was enormous suffering all round in the farming community.

I hope Susan Gibb’s  book receives wide recognition for an honest account of the attrition.

 

THE CITY OF DREAMING BOOKS – WALTER MOERS

12/6/09 –  my first review:

One of my best reads EVER.

  • It’s totally original. Moers is incredibly inventive. He takes his hero, OPartimus Yarnspinner, to the City of Dreaming Books, a book-obsessed metropolis, where he falls into the clutches of its evil genius, Pfistomel Smyke, who treacherously maroons him in the city’s labyrinthine catacombs. Constructed from books (naturally) and inhabited by one-eyed creatures called Booklings., whose vast library includes live books equipped with teeth and claws. Yarnspinner is in a subterranean world where reading books can be genuinely dangerous, where ruthless Bookhunters fight to the death for literary gems, and the mysterious Shadow King rules …..
  • It has adventure, horror, mysteries, thrills, puzzles, humour, villainous villains, heroic heroes. AND it contains dark line illustrations – what more could anyone want? All this glorious fantasy, and pictures too!
  • The one missing ingredient is romance.
  • It was such a meaty, satisfying read, as soon as I finished I turned to page 1 again, and had to stop myself from starting over.
  • Halfway through I realised some of the weird names were anagrams of famous writers e.g. William Shakespeare who we meet as Aleisha Wimpersleake.
  • His entire back-story is congruent – I haven’t read such a fully realised universe since I read The theme, tone and execution are all book related.
  • There was a fascinating list of obsolete words which I wanted to look up and now can’t find. Will just have to read it again!

I re-read ( 31/5/2010 and by this time, my very own copy – yay!)  this marvellously inventive fantasy with its anagrammatic fake authors’ names – only managed to unscramble five of them. The book provides all that a good book should: mystery, suspense, horror, comic interludes, adventure , and ends with a satisfactory conclusion where the villains are defeated and the victim of their plot voluntarily seeks a heroic martyr’s finale: great glorious grand stuff!

Definitely one of my all time favourite books.

 

THE COMPLETE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE – Nick Hornby 

I’ve waited at least three years for this book and when I came across it at the Book Lounge  I pounced on it, and bought it immediately.  Whenever I visit the Book Lounge I find an extraordinary book that is just marvellous.  It’s because they stock literary books that the chain-stores don’t keep.

I enjoy books about books and this one did not disappoint: in fact I devoured it in two-and-a-half days, leapt on line to Takealot.com and ordered the second volume of Hornby’s book reviews without turning a hair – can’t wait to read it.  I made happy lists of NH’s Books Read in my own notebook ,so I can trawl the Libraries for his reads.  I’m thrilled that he shares my enthusiasm for Gilead and I want to read Marilyn Robinson’s second novel.  Hornby admits he buys books, piles them round the house and doesn’t always read them. Sounds very familiar – it’s a good thing we don’t share the same living space!

I had fun on the Internet looking up Nick Hornby – he’s a busy boy; apart from writing very successful novels, he writes articles about sport, rock music and also  writes book reviews. He has cleverly turned his passions into a rewarding career. His novel About a Boy  has been filmed, starring Hugh Grant, and I loved it

I Googled The Believer which NH writes for; it’s an American literary magazine for which  NH’s book diaries were written, and formed the basis for Polysyllabic Spree.   He’s irreverent, erudite, funny, has catholic reading tastes, and he loves Dickens.  Note to self: read more Dickens.  P.S. Novelist Robert Harris is NH’s brother-in-law.

 

 

THE EVERYTHING STORE – JEFF BEZOS AND THE AGE OF AMAZON –  Brad Stone

A fascinating account  of visionary entrepreneur /business tycoon/tyrant Jeff Bezos  and the birth and rapid growth of Amazon over the last 17 years..

JB emerges as the manic visionary who practically invented on-line shopping.  His business mantras (known as Jeffisms by his acolytes) are: Frugality and Customer Satisfaction. Incidentally, he’s clearly  the Boss from Hell, I would hate to work for Amazon. Apparently the company is renowned for burnouts and rapid departures. Hardly surprising, given Amazon’s meteoric growth since 1995. Squads of talented, bright people have worked for JB and contributed to Amazon’s success.

I thought Amazon.com was just a book retailer but they’ve morphed from their original concept literally into an Everything Store : clothing/ tools /jewellery/baby supplies/ DVDs – you name it, riding roughshod over competitors en route.  Because of their mega sized operation they can play the long game, waging a war of attrition with ever decreasing prices until their smaller competitors roll over and die or sell out to the giant. JBs vision led his company into development of the Kindle, space travel , the smartphone, and cloud storage for computer data. It’s worth following the Wikipedia link here to read more detail about amazon.com .

Bezos seemingly does not understand the meaning of words like boundaries and limits. Having taken Amazon so far, one wonders what he can possibly dream up next? Is there anything left to visualize?  Personally, I wish he’d turn his laser-gaze on to a cure for the common cold.  He’d certainly make another gazillion dollars if he did.  Apparently JB is not motivated by money or a flashy lifestyle – Brad Stone shows a man who values his family’s privacy and lives a relatively modest life.  Stone’s engrossing  book is  crammed with facts, figures, history, fascinating anecdotes.. You don’t have to be an MBA student to read and appreciate the book – I certainly am not, but I  read every page with great interest and enjoyment. Highly recommended.

 

The Faraway Nearby  – by Rebecca Solnit

Had I finished the book prior to posting My 2016 Year in Reading on my blog (http://despatchesfromtimbuktu.wordpre…) this book would have occupied the #1 slot: 2016 Book of the Year.
It is superlative, both in terms of language, structure, content and storytelling.
Solnit writes vividly, yet cleanly. Her book is part memoir – an account of her difficult relationship with her mother and her mother’s slow, fatal descent into Alzheimers – and part story. I found her chapters on the Arctic absolutely fascinating.
In fact, almost every paragraph provides enough substance for a week’s reflection.
I could rave on and on.
If you enjoy memoir or essays, buy this book immediately. .
I can’t wait to read it again. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

 

 

THE MOLE PEOPLE  by Jennifer Toth

Who needs SF/Fantasy when an alternate universe exists right under our noses? Provided you live in New York  City, that is.

An extraordinary book  by an extraordinarily brave young woman: 24 year old Jennifer Toth, who explored the sub-culture living below the streets of Manhattan in disused (but also  in currently operational) subway tunnels, closed/abandoned Metro Stations, in caves and natural caverns underground.  She went into the tunnels for 2 years – a dangerous project, which she stopped when Blade, a tunnel dweller, threatened her life.  Two common threads emerge in the book: drugs as a frequent cause or reason to drop out, and it sounded as if the majority of Tunnel Dwellers (aka The Mole People) were  black – a  big indictment of the American social and educational system.

The Tunnel Dwellers should not be confused with the street-living homeless, who live aboveground.

Toth interacted with the Metro Transit Police, – often mostly policing search, harassment and eviction operations, down in the tunnels. Other NGOS,  and Social Agencies,  had  projects with the Mole People. But  Toth found them to be ineffectual, or in the case of NGOs, sometimes self-surviving. The Metro Transit Police ‘s methods and attitudes she found to be questionable.  Official estimates of the numbers of tunnel dwellers ranged uncertainly between 4 000 – 6 000. In short, nobody really knew.

Below ground are established, organised communities, some with ‘Mayors’ as community leaders.  The Mole People care and look after their own, one community even had a designated nurse, and a teacher!

Apart from the groupings, she found singles, pairs or trios. Some  dwellers are completely mad (literally chucked out by the Health & Welfare system). There are the drunks, the druggies, plus the plain dis-functional, who are unable to live in ordinary society;  criminals on the run, refugee children , for Heaven’s sake, fleeing abusive families or the awful Child Welfare/Adoption system. And then the Libertarians who reject taxes, Government, and every aspect of society and want to do it ‘their way.’ Jennifer Toth also met a couple of PhDs, living underground with their small store of treasured books.  Go figure.

Some Mole People even had low grade jobs above ground,  e.g. in the fast-food outlets, or janitorial work, but chose to live rent free underground, because they could not afford the rental on even the most modest accommodation in NYC.

Toth met the Graffitti artists, who chose the tunnels or walls of embankments on which to inscribe their art. Yet another, different semi-underground group.

A darker group were a formal Gang who undertook contract killings (sometimes for as little as $20! How bizarre is that?)

America is  definitely not the land of golden opportunity that we might assume it to be.  The book will feature on my 2015  Top Reads, that’s for sure! Read it if you can. I read it, wide-eyed, counting my blessings.

 

THE ORCHID THIEF – Susan Orlean

For years I’ve been promising myself that when I’m in my dotage, housebound and no longer able to run around like I do now, I shall grow orchids. It’s something I’ve always fancied doing. I’m now having second thoughts, having read Susan Orlean’s account of all things orchid related in Florida, USA. Although, let’s face it, I don’t see orchid growing in Cape Town, South Africaowever, I’m now having second thoughts, having read theII

, being one-hundredth as exciting as orchid growing in America.

It’s an extraordinary book.  No wonder it featured on the New York Times Bestseller list – I’ve never read anything like it in the non-fiction category. And by the way, difficult to believe it is non-fiction.  The book is hot, steamy, lush and colourful just like the Florida Keys where some of the events (I nearly said ‘action’) takes place. Throw in the local Florida Seminole Indians who claim rights to anything on their tribal land i.e. the muddy, gator infested swamps, where orchids flourish. Add a band of orchid thieves, smugglers, growers and collectors, add a few adjectives like: manic , obsessive, passionate, and  conniving and you’ve got my  liveliest non-fiction read of 2015.

From early 1800s  to  the close of the 19th century, the heyday of orchid hunting and collecting, the chapter is titled “A Mortal Occupation”,  aptly titled, because the casualties were legion. Orchid hunting in the jungles of South America and Asia was perilous, ruthless, dangerous, life-threatening. If not from tropical disease, dangerous wildlife, hostile inhabitants then there were the other orchid hunters to contend with. Many of the exploits of the orchid hunters read like episodes from an Indiana Jones adventures.

A Victorian orchid Grower, living in Britain  Frederick Sander, was ruthlessly competitive. He employed professional  orchid hunters who routinely gave up their lives to fuel his passion. His chief adversary was a German collector Carl Robelin, and these two Victorian orchid hunters went to extraordinary lengths to secure rare plants.

That old buccaneering, adventuring attitude to orchid collection appears to live on in the world of orchids.  The 21st century  orchid scene is rife with  burglaries, swindles, and  shenanigans  which would fit well into any of Carl Hiaasen’s Florida crime novels.

Who knew such beautiful flowers generated such passion, such criminality? Who knew that modern orchid shows attract orchid fanatics, some of whom are millionaires; some of whom bankrupt themselves in pursuit of their passion? At its height, in Europe, mid 1800s, the orchid craze surpassed the Dutch tulip craze of centuries ago.

Maybe I’d better start my orchid growing project now, whilst I’m still strong enough to fight off rival collectors?

Don’t miss this book: its hugely entertaining and informative. The book is not that recent, it was published in 1998, but it’s worth hunting down. (In the true spirit of orchid collecting!)

 

 

THE MOUNTAIN  SHADOW  by GREGORY DAVID ROBERTS

This big, sprawling novel, with a cast of thousands, re-connects us with GDR’s alter-ego, the Australian Lin a.k.a. Shantaram, and his exploits in the Bombay underworld.

Some of the characters from the first novel, blockbuster Shantaram,  are re-assembled, plus squads of new ones.  There are few new quirky, attractive characters , the Zodiac Georges. Two street people, who are undying friends, both named George and differentiated by their birth months, hence Gemini George as opposed to Scorpio George. The new characters also provide arch villains. There’s the deeply unpleasant Lightning Dilip, the sadistic police sergeant , who routinely beats up suspects, and extorts bribes on every occasion. Concannon, the homicidal Irishman, wants to beat Lin to a pulp.  I could never quite understand why. There are many others, but as I said, there’s a cast of thousands.

Testosterone and violence permeate the first third of the book; thereafter we have holy men, spiritual teachers and quests for love and faith, mingled with bouts of violence. It’s an uneven mix.

The story revolves mainly around the convoluted, not to say torturous,  romantic  relationship between Lin and his soul-mate, Karla and one of the novel’s major weaknesses are the pages and pages of waffly dialogue between them when they have verbal sparring matches. Boring. As are the  tedious passages about earnest philosophical issues, with spiritual overtones.  GDR needs to make up his mind whether he wants to write a Philosophy 101 textbook, an exposition on his personal  brand  of spirituality, or a ninja novel. A mix of all three ingredients doesn’t work and we have to toil through 873 pages to confirm this for ourselves.

Mercifully GDR is restrained when it comes to writing about sex.  He does not indulge in pages of soft porn as so many blockbuster writers do. He confines s his purple passages to one  dreadful poem  and for emotional or soulful pages.

When  Mountain finally staggers to a halt, with all loose ends tidied up, it’s an anti-climax. A review on Goodreads  said something about a possible third Shantaram novel. No. Enough already.  I enjoyed Shantaram, but his second outing on the theme is way, way too long.

What does work is GDR’s pages about the city of Bombay itself, its vibrant street life, its slums, mansions, and inhabitants; the myriad mini-stories of human struggles.  I was intrigued to read about the business activities of the Bombay underworld, and the pervasive graft and corruption at all levels throughout the  city.  Even subtracting 50% of the accounts as literary hyperbole, it made me realise that the country I live in is in the junior league, compared to the shenanigans in Bombay. Which, in a weird way, makes me feel a little better.

At the end of 2015, which has been a tough year, I needed a relaxing, escapist read. I guess GDR’s novel was it, but, boy oh boy, it was a long haul!  Where was his editor, I wondered? Maybe if you’ve written a  wildly successful blockbuster first novel like Shantaram,  your editor treads softly.

Speaking of which, there’s an intriguing final page titled Proclaimer  where GDR makes it crystal clear he does not endorse the criminal lifestyle, drugging, drinking or smoking, and has merely used them as foundations for his story.  There’s a terse note on the back jacket flap that says GRD has retired from public life to pursue other projects and writing.I was intrigued, and a Google search  led me to an in-depth interview with GDR by the Sydney Morning Herald. The interview was tagged ‘The final Interview with GDR’.You can find it at:

 

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/gregory-david-roberts-final-interview-on-the-mountain-shadow-by-shantaram-author-20151005-gk1o20.html

 

As ever, GDR has plenty to say.

 

 

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE BY  ORHAN PAMUK

A  LONG, meaty read. I had to work hard to finish the book.  Due to my sore neck I had to spend hours lying on my bed, so I could read for hours.  Luckily, or else I would not have finished it. Our Book Club chose the book because it was by a Turkish author and we hadn’t read any Turkish books in the seven years of our Club’s existence.

The blurb described the novel as “a work of romantic love”  –  if this was romantic love, then it isn’t  my version. The blurb went on: “a haunting novel of memory, desire and loss … with fascinating insights into a society tugged between East and West” : a much more accurate summation.  Especially the East/West conflict.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the city (Istanbul and the  Istanbullus and traditional Turkish life and I enjoyed the stories about the outdoor cinemas held in gardens, on balmy nights, under the mulberry trees)  but the main character – Kemal –  I  could cheerfully have attacked with an axe, after reading every other page!  Under the heading of MEN.  He behaved so badly towards his lover Fűsan; however,  in retaliation, she made him suffer for years.

I could not believe my eyes when I read the  last sentence in the book : “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life”. This, as the ending of a book about obsessive love, after pages and chapters detailing years of misery, loss, and fixation!

I liked the little touches e.g. Lemon, the canary. This bright yellow little caged bird belonged to Fusan and was probably one of the happiest brightest characters in the entire book! If not the only gleam of brightness in the book.

On the whole, the Turkish men came across as chain smoking hard drinkers – several of them dying in their early sixties, of heart attacks.  The women also smoke constantly. Because Turkey is the home of Turkish tobacco, I suppose this was not unsurprising or unrealistic. But what was a surprise to me was the portrayal of rich, upper class society.  I never thought of Turkey during the 60s/70s as having the Filthy Rich that are portrayed in this novel.

My first book by this Turkish Nobel Laureate. I might try some more.

 

The Outsider  – Albert Camus

My first stab at Camus could just be my last.  It was a short book – 119 pages – which meant I actually managed to finish it. Book first published in French in 1942.

One of the things that struck me forcibly about the book, was the change in social attitudes.  Now, in 2013, the attitude to beating up your girlfriend and being cruel and abusive to your dog, both actions treated in a calm tone of acceptance in the novel, are shocking to the politicised, sensitized eye of today. Ditto the casual naming of the local Arabs) as ‘natives’ jars in today’s ears  (book is set in Algeria – Camus was Algerian).

I read the foreword by Cyril Connolly and discovered novel was intended as an attack on French bourgeoisie attitudes prevalent in her colonies as well as a portrait of ‘the Mediterranean man’ as opposed to the man of mainland Europe. Neither of these themes was obvious to me, as I was reading.

To me, it was a portrait of a man who might possibly be suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. Mersault was portrayed as a man with  zero emotional tone. He was a sensual man – he enjoyed physical sensations – smoking, swimming, sex – but came across with no emotional affect at all.  He also seemed to be curiously passive throughout his arrest and trial. At the end, when he is badgered by the priest to acknowledge the existence of God, he refuses and finally looses it, when he attacks the priest. Even when he murders the Arab on the beach –  it comes across as curiously flat.

During the murder trial, it seems as if the prosecutor is more incensed at Mersault’s calm unemotional lack of reaction to his Mother’s death and funeral, than he is at the murder of the Arab.

It was a curious and disquieting novel. I don’t think I shall be trying any more Camus.

 

 

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS – NEIL GAIMAN

The book is a must-read for Fantasy, Sci Fi, graphic novels, music fans. Neil Gaiman has his finger well and truly on the pulse of popular culture.  He started his career 30+  years ago as a writer,  but  he’s a versatile chap, and has been involved right across the cultural spectrum.

I first came across him when I read his Good Omens which he co-authored with the late, great Terry Pratchett.  The book remains one of my favourites, and if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and hunt up a copy. It’s funny, (of course it is – TP was involved), offbeat, and marvellous. You probably need to delve into a second-hand bookstore, but it’ll be worth the effort.

The View  contains essays, transcripts of speeches made at the opening of big events like Comicon … in  LA; it contains magazine articles; it contains introductions to an impressive number of Sci Fi and Fantasy novels, collections and anthologies. Gaiman knows everyone in the SF/Fantasy world, and for those writers who preceded him, e.g.  Jules Verne, H G Wells, he provides anecdotes of his boyhood reading experiences, when he first became acquainted  with (and was enchanted by) the great forerunners of speculative fiction.  For this reason, the book is a marvellous reference source, and I shall treat it as such.

The book is a terrific dipper : you know what I mean – a chapter here and there, or an intro to a collection of the great masters of horror, like HP Lovecraft, for example. Lovecraft sounds creepy beyond horror, but it has reminded me I’ve never read any of his stories. I’m not too sure I’m brave enough to remedy this lack. Time will tell!

 

TOLSTOY & THE PURPLE CHAIR – Nina Sankovitch

I’ve just finished reading.  I’m completely bowled over.  On a number of counts. Firstly, I’m drop-jawed at Nina’s basis for her project: she set out – and SUCCEEDED –  in reading a book a day, for a year. That’s 365 books, people. Furthermore, she wrote a book review on each book, prior to diving into her next book.  And this was accomplished by a woman who is a wife, and mother to four busy boys … so tick the boxes for taxi driving, laundry, cooking, cleaning, homework supervision … do I have to continue?

She embarked on the project to overcome her sadness and grief over the early death of her sister, who died way too soon, a cancer victim. Three years on, Nina realised she needed to get off the must-keep-busy –at-all- costs track, so she decided to read a book a day, for a year, and treat it as a job. She sat in her smelly purple chair (the family cat, don’t ask) and read for hours. She did note that she reads fast: 70 pages an hour. But even so.  Not all the books were skinny little volumes, but I think she avoided the doorstopper books. Not unreasonably!  Actually, on my re-read, I picked up the fact that when choosing books off the Library shelves, she aimed for books with a spine of about one inch width, not more.

There’s an efficient catalogue of the books she read; I can’t wait to annotate my own copy once it arrives. I’ve noted some great reading suggestions in her list, and managed not to deface a Library book by ticking items on the list.  I definitely need my own copy, so I can deface it with ticks, notes and marginalia to my heart’s content.

So apart from successfully finishing her mammoth task, remaining married, sane and emerging from the process as a healed human being, she has produced a wonderful book that is part memoir, part reading journal, part healing manual; the minute I finished the book I raced to my PC to order my own copy immediately.

If you love books and reading, do not miss this book!

 

 

TWILIGHT  by Stephanie Meyer

My bookish friend Norma and I were discussing the popular series of  vampire novels for Young Adults, written by Stephanie Meyer. Neither of us had read any of her books, and were wondering what made them such a huge success. So I read ‘Twilight’ for research purposes.  My curiosity is now satisfied. However, had I not seen the movie version, I don’t think I would have persevered with the book.  I enjoyed the movie, which I saw prior to reading the book.  There were pages and pages of dialogue consisting of  vapid teenage mumbling or angst, which didn’t advance the plot one iota. Teenage preoccupations and obsessions are not very interesting at best. But then, I’m not a teenager. The dialogue reminded me of murky marine encrustations on a sunken ship’s hull.

The best thing about the books are the covers.  They are dramatic, sexy and striking in their black, red and white artwork. In fact, the book covers are absolutely brilliant.  What a pity the contents don’t follow suit.  Again and again the author has her characters sighing, or (worse yet) smirking, followed by numerous repetitive descriptions of the Vampire’s marble beauty, perfection, glorious eyes, etc. etc.

I discovered to my utter amazement that the author is a Mormon, and attended Brigham Young University. I wonder what the Mormon position is on the topic of the Undead?  Much has been made of the Abstinence Factor in her novels, it’s been hailed as a bright beacon of purity in the hormonal swamp of teenage lust.  If we’re talking about lust and the Undead I’m much more enthusiastic about Anne Rice’s vampire novels –  they have a lush, erotic sensual quality which is truly bewitching. And the quality of the writing is a hundred times better. No more Stephanie Meyer for me. Lead me to the Vampire Lestat, please ….

 

 

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UNACCOMPANIED WOMEN –  JUNE JUSKA

I loved the book, I devoured it! Yes! older women can and do still have an active libido.  Perish the thought. What a wonderful warm, wise, funny book. June Juska has written honestly relating the events before, during and after placing her personal ad in the New York Review, candidly stating “before I turn 67 I would like to have sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me”.

Her first book ‘A Round Heeled Woman’ relates how her  her bold, brave request changes her life. In this second book , written at age  72, she continues her search for love, friendship, sex and by no means least: a roof over her head. Along the way she shares stories from readers of her first book – powerful, sad, happy, touching stories from the older generation. Her book is the real deal – not romantic slush, not womens’ magazine motivational: it’s about real life with real people . Read it: you might identify yourself amongst the pages!

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