THE BOOKSMITH’s 2022 READING YEAR REVIEW

To my relief, the Cape Town Libraries re-opened earlier in the year, as the Covid Pandemic started to wane.  I really  missed the Public Library during the lockdowns, and my bank balance suffered accordingly, because I was buying books online as a substitute. My best buy in 2022 was These Precious Days by Ann Patchett. Essay collections hospitably  provide for return visits over the years.  As do comic novels: I’ve re-read several of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy novels and  chortled happily, all over again.

Another excellent investment was the 2022 Collins Scrabble Dictionary. My existing copy was published in 2010. And we all know how many new words creep into the compendious English language annually. Over 200  in 2022.  How the compilers keep up is an enduring mystery.

I remained steadfast to my two main Bookish Vows i.e. not to enter reading challenges, and to firmly close books that I’m not enjoying. The acronym DNF  does not bother me one smidgeon!

This was the year I abandoned Goodreads. It’s time consuming, I don’t like their restrictive star system and their year-end stats never coincide with mine.  But, in fairness, I must admit GR helped me find followers when I launched my book blog, The Booksmith.

I’ve re-read some old favourites on my shelves – otherwise, why am I keeping them? “Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale,” opined   Gabriel García Márquez,  which reminds me, I want to re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude; I read the book when it first debuted, which is a long time ago.   I frequently see the title on lists, you know, 100 Best Books Ever, and the like.

I keep eyeing two very battered collections of W S Somerset Maugham’s stories and perhaps they should feature top of my 2023 Targets list. This year I’ve read very few short story collections. I’ve read Essays,  but few shorts  or novellas.

 I didn’t keep track of my book buying this year,  but inspired by Bookish Beck’s  meticulous record keeping,  I did keep track of other stats. For example: up to mid-December 2022,  I read 85 Books, 33 of which were written by men and the remaining 52  by women .  Not that I was hellbent on reading female writers, it just turned out that way.  Let it be noted that women wrote outstanding non-fiction as well as entertaining fiction.

I’ve always seen myself as an intrepid explorer of the Backlist Territories, but to my surprise, scanning my primitive stats, I see that 32 of this year’s reads were published during the two year period 2020 / 2022.  Just under a third, so it seems  I  didn’t spend all my time in the Backlist undergrowth this year.  

Fellow Book Bloggers have provided pleasure, entertainment and introductions to marvelous books, for which I thank you. A special thanks  to Book Jotter, who provides a comprehensive weekly review over the bookish world.

All things being equal, I intend to continue reading and book blogging in 2023, and I wish you heaps of gift wrapped books over the Festive Season, plus a peaceful, healthy New Year.

Rebecca Foster

bookishbeck.wordpress.com·

Paula Bardell-Hedley, Book Jotter

bookjotter.com·

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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

MY 2021 READING HITS

My 2021 reading year was brightened by the  discovery of three new authors, who illuminated my year in bursts of glory. 

Novelist Nicola Barker –  endlessly inventive, wildly creative, completely original. Thus far I’ve read and loved: 5 Miles from Outer Hope, I am Sovereign and The Cauliflower. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Humorist Ben Schott – who has written two brilliant homages to the Master of British humour: P G Wodehouse. I own Jeeves and the King of Clubs and Jeeves Takes a Chance. Schott has channelled  The Master’s style, frothy plots and witless characters; and of course featuring  the brainy Jeeves. Both books were a tonic in a difficult year.

SF Writer Becky Chambers –  her Wayfarer series has provided hours of entertainment, plus intriguing ideas, fresh possibilities, with  future scenarios peopled by vivid characters. Her series has a strong feminine slant, and not a raygun in sight. This is thoughtful, philosophical young writer with a fresh take on the Universe. She has taken SF writing into a  fresh dimension.

On the Non Fiction side, I discovered Robert MacFarlane, via his wide ranging  book, Underland, which is a rich and varied reading experience. I  knew RMF was a Nature writer, but I had no idea that his approach was so eclectic,  including  elements of History, Myth, the Anthropocene, and  Travel, to mention but a few. His book is both literary and scholarly (it took ten years to write) but the writing is lyrical,  vivid, thrilling ….  I shall treasure and re-read the book.

And the Misses? I decided to let them sink quietly into the depths of my hard-drive. Of course I had Did Not Finish and Definitely Not for Me reads during the year, but after a hard year I’ve no wish to re-visit past disappointments.

 Ten Terrific Reads 

  • Motion of the Body Through Space – Lionel Shriver (novel) #1
  • Little Family – Ishmail Beah  (African novel)
  • Hum if you Don’t Know the Words – Bianca Marais (South African  novel)
  • The 100 Years of Lenni and Margo – Marianne Cronin (novel)
  • Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett  (novel)
  • Word Freaks – Stefan Fatsis (Non-Fic) Scrabble
  • The Salt Path – Raynor Winn (NF) memoir
  • Look at Me – Nataniel (NF) memoir
  • Vesper Flights – Helen MacDonald (NF) nature writing
  • The Library Book – Susan Orlean (NF) Libraries!

My book of the year. After some agonising I am nominating the novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Apart from the strange and wildly original story, the book itself is a thing of beauty with the  metallic copper lettering on the black cover, plus a dust-jacket executed in the same black/copper theme, plus an elegant faun playing his Pan Pipe, atop a slender classical column.

The book offered a missing person mystery as a sub-theme, but the major theme was : the existence of a different corporeal reality, into which people from our world are inserted. Followed by another theme: what is personal identity ? and another question: what constitutes mental derangement? A haunting read. .

Wishing my readers an enormous pile of gift wrapped books during the Festive Season, and another splendid reading year ahead in 2022. May we all be safe, and be well.

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.

READING ROUND UP SEPTEMBER 2020

I’m trying to read more African writers in 2020 so naturally I was intrigued with news of the novel The Old Drift,  set in Zambia, and the writer’s name indicated that she might be a Zambian author – of whom, to the best of my knowledge, there are few. Plus the novel was recent, being published in 2019.

 I have an antipathy to  African novels that are  merely a soapbox from which to thump the anti-colonialist drum. I prefer novels that tell an engrossing story, and do not club the reader to death with polemic. But  Namwali Serpell  avoided the pitfalls and  certainly gave me  my money’s worth in terms of a big, epic read.

 The novel took many years to write, and given its sprawling time line over  a century,   charting the lives of three different families, I’m not surprised. Luckily there’s a Family Tree diagram at the beginning of the book, otherwise I would have been lost.  The  family lives cross, collide, combine and co-habit across the generations often with surprising – if not disastrous – results.

Namwali Serpell has painted a vivid picture of the development of the country Zambia, and its people, moving through  straightforward history, followed by magical realism, a touch of speculative fiction, ending with  elements of  a thriller,  and interjections by that ubiquitous African pest : the Anopheles  mosquito, who philosophizes about man, nature, Africa, disease and a whole lot more besides. It’s a genre busting novel, but don’t let that put you off.

Reviewing it in The Guardian, Nadifa Mohamed wrote: “Namwali Serpell’s first novel is a rambunctious epic that traces the intertwined histories of three families over three generations. …Serpell is an ambitious and talented writer, with the chutzpah to work on a huge canvas.”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zambia

The popular Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce has been showered with well deserved praise. What a good storyteller she is!  She’s such a skilful writer that she manages to take three seriously flawed characters and combine them into a rich and unusual story, carrying the enchanted reader along into what really is a wildly improbable plot, but do we care? No, we do not, we breathlessly turn the pages: will Miss Benson find her Beetle? What will happen to Enid? And what of the damaged, tragic figure Mr Mundic, completely shattered after surviving a Japanese POW camp? Even Mundic has our sympathy. And there’s a rag-tag mongrel dog, named Mr Rawlings – irresistible!  At this point (mid September)  a strong contender for my Book of the Year.

FICTION

The Old Drift – Namwali Serpell . A meaty read, a long and vivid saga of three families whose lives and loves form part of the growth of the  Zambian nation. If you’re interested in modern day Africa, minus  heavy politics and pious correctness,  read the novel. I didn’t want it to end, so that signals a good read. Recommended.

Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce. A ten-star read. Beg, borrow or steal a copy. Not to be missed.  A wild adventure story, featuring two mismatched English women, beetle hunting on the  French island of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific. The book offers surprising emotional depth, alongside an unusual plot. I loved it. Highly recommended.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett. I enjoyed the novel, which features a beautiful house and the family that owns it, but by the end I felt unsatisfied by the motivation behind the actions of some of the characters. That said, it’s a good read and currently very popular.

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murukami. Wildly fantastical, surreal. I really liked the chubby female super-hero, with a fetish for the colour pink. Think Hello Kitty on steroids. Probably a novel best enjoyed by die hard Murukami fans.

RE-READ:

The Cat’s Table – Michael Ondaatjie.  Some years ago I roared through the novel in a big hurry, because it was a  Book Club loan. I remember enjoying the account of the 21 day voyage from Sri Lanka to Southampton, because of my own childhood similar voyages.  But second time around I appreciated the dark, shadowy understory that’s happening around the boys’ escapades, of which they’re (mostly) unaware. Later adult reflections reveal the entire story. Ondaatjie is such a good writer. Definitely worth the re-read.

NON FICTION

The Choice – Edith Eger.  A powerful, harrowing memoir of a 17 year old girl who survives a year in Auschwitz, then post-war Europe, then emigration to the USA in 1949.  Astonishingly she succeeds in qualifying as a clinical psychologist, surviving a challenging marriage, and eventually coming to terms with her own past. What a book, what a woman! Recommended.