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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Reviewed: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson, Bloomsbury

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to KashgarSuzanne Joinson unfurls two elegant, exotic stories in this vivid novel. The first is that of Evangeline English, who travels to the old Silk Road city of Kashgar in 1923. Though she is not religious, Eva is desperate to flee the drear of Post-War England, so she joins her fragile sister Lizzie and the loathsome missionary Millicent on a journey to remote China to scoop up a few Muslim souls.

Eva insists on taking her bicycle, and persuades a publisher to a commission her to write a book: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. The trip is a disaster from the get-go as they barrel into violent political unrest, and when a young girl dies in childbirth in their care, they are accused of murder and witchcraft.

Cut to present-day London, where Frieda Blakeman is sleepwalking through her life, trying to sever a bad relationship, increasingly bored with her academic job which entails constant travelling in the middle east, a life she sees as “continual movement in circles away from herself.”

One night Frieda finds a homeless man sheltering outside her door. He is an illegal immigrant, a Yemeni filmmaker, and they become friends. When Frieda is named as the sole beneficiary of a woman she doesn’t know, she and Tayeb set out to trace the mystery of this unexpected inheritance.

Joinson’s descriptions of Kashgar and Eva’s flight across what is now the Xinjiang province are captivating. The history of the area is intriguing and will have you disappearing down alleys on the internet, viewing the stupendous mountains and deserts of the region, and Kashgar as it stands today. Combining this with the story of Frieda and Tayeb, Joinson leads us to reflect on the inheritance of history, on the nature of alienation and belonging and the many manifestations of freedom. A remarkable book.

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Reviewed: Stepping out by Steven Boykey Sidley, Picador Africa

Stepping OutJoburg’s Boykey Sidley is something of a prodigy, storming into the literary arena fully-formed, as it were, in his 50s. His accomplished debut novel Entanglement was soundly praised, and he has followed it up a year later with Stepping Out. Word has it that his third novel has already been delivered to his publishers – an astonishing output for any writer.

Perhaps it is because of his years and a wildly eventful life so far that he brings such wisdom to his writing, and because I know him to be a ranging, perceptive reader too. Wisdom, acute insight and in Stepping Out, a gnarly, anarchic humour too.

Set in the American Midwest, the book opens, and closes, with a eulogy. In the first, Harold Cummings considers the life of his best friend at college, a friend who was the most popular, the cleverest, the most fun to be around and expresses a lifelong wonder that he would have chosen the dull Harold as his friend.

For Harold is experiencing not so much a late-life crisis as a crushing melancholy about a life “nearly-lived”. He was always the conservative, reliable one and continued to be, marrying Millie, fathering two now-distant children, had a good job, is now comfortably retired. He misses what he calls “the small gods of anticipation”, the “cornucopia of short-term spangles – dinner parties, card games, a new car, gadgets and electronica, the small triumphs at work, an unexpected look of desire from a stranger, a baseball pennant championship, a fine wine, a friendly but loud debate about politics.”

Now all is clothed in a milquetoast ennui. “His generation,” he ponders. “They fade from sight. They leave no comet trails. There is no majesty in their deaths.”

It is the small act of a stolen chocolate in a store that ignites Harold’s comet trail, a trail that over the next two hundred pages will burn through drink, guitars, drugs, hookers, guns, pimps and a small tattoo on his butt with the name “Millie” in it. It is absurdly funny but warmly poignant, too, as Harold lurches inexorably on to a final flare of resolution.

At the funeral that bookends the story, Harold delivers another eulogy, to another friend, this time more genuine than the admiring veneer of the first. “He was a flawed man…an imperfect man,” he observes, and goes on to say “It is not our blemishes that define us. Not our lapses, not our missteps. It is how we manage our entireties, the great complex, indefinable, uncontrollable whole of ourselves.”

Fluent, knowing and enormously entertaining, Sidley continues to parse his preoccupation with masculinity and power and the questions of goodness and grace, that he introduced in Entanglement. I eagerly await his third book.

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Reviewed: Y by Marjorie Celona, Faber & Faber

YFrom remote, rainy Canada comes this compassionate story of an infant abandoned outside the Vancouver YMCA. The baby grows up as Shannon, who is fostered in fits and starts until she settles down with single mother Miranda and her daughter Lydia-Rose. Despite Miranda’s steady commitment she is a difficult child who tacks perilously close to delinquency, but from the outset the reader cares deeply for her. Her lazy eye hints at damage both spiritual and physical, but she has the fortitude of a survivor.

At 16, Shannon is determined to trace her parents, a near-impossible task considering she had been left on the YMCA step, wrapped in a dirty sweatshirt and with a Swiss army knife the only clue to her identity. And so Celona casts backwards and forwards across Shannon’s troubled life, quietly building up the devastating story of how a young mother came to abandon her hours-old child.

It is a story characterised by damaged, marginal people, by bad choices, by chances not taken. But there is redemption here, too, as we examine the tangled lines of belonging and identity, of family and fate. It is a memorable novel, from one of Canada’s brightest young talents.

A good Book Club choice.

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Reviewed: Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer, Bantam Press

RubberneckerI have been hooked on Bauer’s quiet thrillers since her brilliant début Blacklands. Tense and intricately plotted, she eschews the increasingly desperate sadism and forensic pyrotechnics in so many crime novels, keeping the gore to a minimum and ramping up the psychological intrigue.

Central to the story is the character of Patrick Fort, an 18-year-old Asperger’s sufferer. Brilliant, awkward and solitary, he has managed to be admitted to university to study anatomy. Since his father’s death in a hit-and-run accident when he was young, Patrick has been obsessed by the mechanics of dying. Working on his cadaver in the laboratory, he becomes convinced that the man’s death was no accident. No one else believes him, but he doggedly pursues his investigation. With his child-like frankness and curiosity, he is a refreshing protagonist.

Twined around this story are several others: the accident victim lying in a coma in a ward nearby, seemingly dead to the world but far from it; the repellent ambitions of a bimbo nurse; the broken life of Patrick’s friend Lexi.

As Bauer plays out the narrative, the stories come together beautifully and Patrick is finally able to understand why his father died. The great Val McDermid hails Bauer as “The most disturbing new talent around.”

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Reviewed: Endings & Beginnings – A Story of Healing by Redi Tlhabi, Jacana

Endings and BeginningsAs an appalled country tries to come to terms with the rape and murder of Anene Booysen, those wishing to understand the plague of rape in South Africa would do well to read this unsettling, moving book.

In telling the story of her childhood and her friendship with a feared gangster in the dusty streets of Soweto, Tlhabi reveals the webs of neglect, outmoded beliefs and moral and physical poverty that blight countless lives and create the conditions for unspeakable violence.

Tlhabi’s early childhood in Orlando East was a happy one. Her mother was a nurse, her father a former shebeen owner and a popular, charismatic man. She adored him, and he, her, so when she witnessed his body lying in the street, the life stabbed out of him and his one eye gouged out, she was acutely traumatised. She was just nine years old.

Two years later, in those same streets, she beholds another dead body, that of her friend and protector, the despised tsotsi Mabegzo. Killed on the corner where he always waited to accompany her home from school.

In Endings & Beginnings Tlhabi sets out to explore the nature of this unlikely friendship. Mabegzo was legendary in the community, a vicious killer and rapist. Mothers would threaten their daughters: “When girls misbehaved or played in the streets past their curfew, mothers would demand, ‘Do you want Mabegzo to take you? He will if he sees you in the streets. He rapes girls.’”

So when a handsome, polite young man approached her after school one day, she had no idea that this was the feared Mabegzo. At just 11, Tlhabi was being pestered by the 19-year-old Siphiwe, who had her in his sights. “Every time he appeared in front of me I began to shake like a leaf. He was ugly and menacing, and I would break out in a sweat that trickled down my back and my legs…I knew it was only a matter of time before he violated me.” She had just escaped another sickening encounter with Siphiwe when Mabegzo stepped into her life.

And so he began to look out for her, walking her home from school every day, bringing an umbrella to shield her when it rained and yet never, to the disbelief of those who saw them, trying to take her for himself. And in those walks Tlhabi learned about his background. Mabegzo was the child of a gang rape, of “jack rolling”, whose mother had been sent away to Lesotho in disgrace because she was pregnant as a result. He was taken in by his grandparents in Soweto, although his grandfather never spoke a word to him. He was seen as an evil child, born of evil. His mother married in Lesotho but never returned to claim him. He dropped out of school after he hit a teacher who was harassing his cousin. In short, he didn’t stand a chance. Abandoned, unloved, and uneducated, he played out his power in the only way he knew.

Tlhabi does not glamorise or excuse Mabegzo. When he heard that Siphiwe had been menacing her, he killed him. She learned that he was still “taking” women, and later still learned that he had a girlfriend and a baby at the time that he was chaperoning her. In her journey of healing she tracks down his mother and child and other relatives, trying to make sense of who he was and what had shaped him.

She examines the hollowness in both of their lives and how this bonded them. And she has, it seems, made peace with his memory.

And yet it is her descriptions of that milieu that worry, the commonplace occurrence of rape and wife beating, of the obdurate silence of the community. In that world “girls must be grateful that they haven’t been raped.” And if they are, they are judged harshly, it is somehow their fault.

It is no wonder that Redi Tlhabi is so outspoken about crime and violence and we applaud her for it. In her work as a radio and television presenter she is whip-smart and dauntless, but deeply sympathetic too. Her own life experience has shaped her. As she writes:

“With every news item about a young man who has raped, murdered or robbed someone, I have found myself asking, is this another Mabegzo? Where do these criminals come from? Who raised them and was there ever a time in their lives when they had hopes and dreams and their laughter filled the air?”

And so, as we watch the trial of Anene Booysen’s killers unfold, we will also ask these questions. This is an important, illuminating book and one which has taken immense courage to write.

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Reviewed: The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma by Chris Wadman, Jonathan Ball

The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert KambazumaIn September, the residents of the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo were ordered to flush their toilets at precisely 7.30pm. This synchronised blast would, it was hoped, unblock the waste silting up the aging sewers.

This curious event would have appealed to Chris Wadman, a connoisseur of Zimbabwean oddities. The Puck-ish Wadman, a lawyer and, like John van der Ruit, a product of Michaelhouse school, has drawn on both anecdote and newspaper reports to fashion this mercilessly funny satire of Zimbabwe today.

If George Makana Smith’s The Raw Man took the Zimbabwean story to new literary heights, then Cuthbert has achieved a new benchmark in brilliant political satire from this region. It is wildly comical, but as in all the best satire, deeply unnerving.

The book opens with one Teddington Chiwafambira bowling along at the wheel of a rickety bus, en route from Bulawayo to Harare. He has been hired to transport a batch of mental patients from one asylum to another, and he’s fed up. Hyperinflation is decimating his salary and the only way to survive, he believes, is to escape over the border to South Africa. For that he needs a million dollars.

Pulling over at a remote village to allow his passengers a break, he finds a well-dressed group of people stranded there. Money changes hands, the mental patients are abandoned and suddenly Teddington’s dream of Egoli is within his grasp. Except that the rescued passengers turn out to be members of the opposition MDC, and when he unwittingly dumps them at the Harare asylum he becomes a hero in the eyes of the authorities.

This is one of the most amusing sequences in the book, as the MDC politicians try and persuade the hospital staff that they are not, in fact, lunatics. The matron orders them to be medicated, and when she learns there are no drugs left, she prescribes a packet of cigarettes each to keep them quiet. The list of sources at the back of the book shows that this did, in fact, happen in Harare some years ago.

Teddington is rewarded with a farm, but when that’s run down he and his cronies turn their sights to a productive, verdant spread belonging to a children’s home. The staff members are desperate to protect the home and call in the “Doctor” of the title, Cuthbert Kambazuma, sorcerer, goblin-catcher and shameless charlatan, who pulls off a spectacular defence.

I loved the deadpan, faintly Victorian chapter headings: “Colonel Reginald Threscothic and his Wife Marie Discover the Infant Thomas in a Guava Tree”; “A New Suit from George Smith Men’s Clothing for Eight Million Dollars”, and “The Spirit of the Late Jimmy Moverley-Smith Lives on Inside his Hearing Aids”.

There’s a searing sadness that underpins the biting wit: the elderly couple driven from their farm, for example, or the woman who dies because of the lack of equipment at the state hospital. Wadman balances it all like a seasoned writer, segueing easily from mania to poignancy, from outlandish avarice to gentle humanness. It’s an audacious debut and I, for one, can’t wait to read more from this brilliant new author.

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Reviewed: The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo, MacLehose

The Last Man StandingIf you liked Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, then this is highly recommended. While McCarthy’s story played out in a landscape ravaged by some unspecified cataclysm, this is possibly more disturbing because it is set in a recognisable Italy in 2025. One only has to look at the bitter waves of unrest that have surged across Europe these past months to find Longo’s dystopia unsettlingly plausible.

Leonardo is an intellectual, a professor and novelist whose career and marriage have been ruined by a sexual dalliance. There are echoes of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace here. Like David Lurie, who flees his sex scandal in Cape Town to take refuge on a farm, so Leonardo heads for his vineyard in the country. Neither will find a safe haven in their retreats and like Lurie, Leonardo will ultimately be called on to protect his daughter.

Longo sounds the first notes of menace in his opening chapter, in a hotel now fenced in and guarded by armed men. “On the counter you could still see where objects, now vanished, must once have stood. One space looked as if it might once have held a computer. A telephone had survived, even if no longer attached to any cable.” On an old bed frame behind it “a lot of postcards showing places which were now inaccessible had been clipped with clothes pegs.”

The decaying hotel with its thieving owner is the harbinger of what lies ahead: closed borders, banks with no money, packs of feral dogs and gangs of equally feral youths ranging across the land. The state begins to putrefy. Leonard’s ex-wife brings their daughter and her new stepson to the farm for safety but when the place is ransacked he realises he has no option but to take the children and try and cross the Alps to Switzerland.

On this brutal journey of survival Leonardo will be stripped to the very essence of his being.

Davide Longo is one of Italy’s most esteemed authors. In the hands of his translator the writing is stately and spare, and his examination of human nature and the veneer of civilisation is deeply absorbing.

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Reviewed: The Hundred-year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Hesperus

The Hundred-year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThis is one of those slow-burning, word-of-mouth smash hits that publishers long for, like The Poisonwood Bible and The Hare With Amber Eyes. It had already sold two million copies in Europe before being picked up by a British publisher earlier this year. If you’ve come to associate Swedish writing with the icy noir of Henning Mankel and Stieg Larsson, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with this quirky tale of the 100-year-old Allan Karlsson.

As the town dignitaries gather in the room next to his in his old age home, ready to celebrate his great age, Karlsson hops it out of his window and makes a dash – or shuffle – for it. Wearing his “pee” slippers, so-called because old men tend to drip on their slippers, he gets to the local bus station where a rude young man asks him to look after his suitcase while he uses the bathroom. Karlsson nicks the suitcase and boards a bus, not knowing that it contains wads of ill-gotten money. And so begins a picaresque journey across Sweden as the old man stays a step ahead of the pursuing gangsters and the police, gathering a colourful troupe around him.

Interspersed in the pursuit chapters are those that glance back over Karlsson’s life. Like a crepuscular Forrest Gump, he has witnessed extraordinary events in history, meeting Truman, Stalin and Mao, helping to design the nuclear bomb, spending time in a Soviet gulag and going undercover for the CIA. It is hilarious, hugely implausible but somehow believable, .

Karlsson is a delightful character, a mischievous, vodka-nipping old sprite, with a deadpan humour and endlessly equable view on life. It’s a highly original, enjoyable read. Watch out for the movie version which will be released next year.

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Reviewed: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Ebury Press

JerusalemIf you’re anywhere near a serious foodie you will have heard of the Ottolenghi deli/restaurants in London, owned by Israeli chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Opening in a tiny space in Notting Hill 10 years ago, the first Ottolenghi piled counters with dazzling, fresh Mediterranean dishes that had, and still does, people queuing down the street. Several more branches followed, and two cookbooks, Plenty and Ottolenghi.

“Fresh” has become such a hackneyed word in food writing. Every restaurant boasts its food is “freshly made” or “made with the freshest ingredients”. The Ottolenghi guys showed what fresh really means, glazing platters of emerald French beans and mangetout with nut oil and strewing them with orange and smoky roasted hazelnuts. They crusted tuna with pistachio nuts and served it up with pawpaw salsa, sent out biting soups of grilled aubergine and lemon, and marinated lamb in coriander and honey.

The outlets became famous for their baking, too, in particular their vast, bloated meringues and both books feature recipes for these and for such delights as parmesan and poppy biscuits and caramel and macadamia cheesecake.

Now this gifted duo has produced a third book: Jerusalem. In it they have gone back to their roots in this ancient, fascinating city, but what makes it especially interesting is that Yotam is Jewish and Sami is Palestinian, growing up on the other side of the city in the Arab quarter. They only met many years later, in London, but the fusion of their different childhoods has resulted in a spectacular collection of recipes. Many feature ingredients readily available here, like Slow Cooked Veal with prunes and leek, Burnt Aubergine with garlic, lemon & pomegranate seeds, or Roasted Sweet Potato with fresh figs. Others will have you hunting down such ingredients as chermoula paste, tahini and za’atar. As always, clear, bold flavours predominate, and mounds of fresh herbs.

The photographs of the food and the city are dazzling, with forays into the complicated history of its myriad communities. As Yotam writes: “It is more than 20 years since we left the city. Yet we still think of Jerusalem as our home because it defines us, whether we like it or not. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences: foods our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goats and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pittas with minced lamb, parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies. The list is endless.”

There is a South African connection to Ottolenghi: Danielle Postma, the proprietor of the fabulous Moema’s in Johannesburg, worked in the restaurants in London before returning to SA in a fit of homesickness. Reproducing her recipe for a sweet potato gratin in Ottolenghi – The Cookbook, the pair pay tribute to her warmth and her talent as a cook. But we in JHB know that!

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Reviewed: The Agony Chef by Kate Sidley, Macmillan

The Agony ChefI’ve been lucky to sample fellow bookie Kate Sidley’s cooking – relaxed, unfussy and utterly delicious meals in her equally relaxed home. Here she takes on the persona of Delilah, witty Agony Chef who dispenses irreverent advice and admonitions along with great recipes. Here she is on comfort food: “No one is soothed by an asparagus foam topped with peach caviar within a chilli chocolate shell. We want bangers and mash!” She follows it with recipes for a satisfyingly squishy fish pie and Boozy Chocolate Mousse. She recommends baked potatoes bursting with bacon and cheese for 16-year-old waterpolo players who “eat like hippos.” Teenaged boys are, she notes, “just hormones with feet… they need lots of nutrients to power those hair follicles and sebaceous glands.”

I especially like Delilah’s view on parenting: “People are always blathering on about the importance of role models, but it’s all a myth. As you will know, if you watched Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous, the best way to turn out well-behaved children is to be wildly unpredictable yourself. It keeps them on their toes and provides a cautionary example.”

What to serve when your son kicks open the closet and brings his new “friend” home? When your fiancé invites his ex for dinner? When you have the mother of all hangovers? Trust Delilah: the advice is a giggle and the recipes are marvellous. Think Fennel, Pomegranate and Pine Nut Salad, Lovely Lemon Linguine and Sticky Pork Fillet. The Agony Chef is a delight.

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