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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Reviewed: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann, Picador

Tigers in Red WeatherBy far the most glorious cover on the shelves at the moment, and the book more than lives up to it. Trailing whispers of another Gatsby, and written by a great- granddaughter of Herman Melville, there was a fierce bidding war between eight publishers for this debut novel.

Set mostly in Martha’s Vineyard in the years between 1945 and 1969, it plays out in five separate strands of narrative. Centre stage is Nick, an alluring, restive creature “with a rapacious appetite for life” who marries the dependable, golden club man Hugh. It begins in the years after the war, when so much was to change, and so much was promised.

Their life in Tiger House, the epitome of East Coast glamour,is oiled by martinis and saturated with ennui. Nick’s cousin Helene, as close as a sister, has made do with a bizarre marriage to a Hollywood man and she slips into addiction. Her creepy, disturbed son comes to Tiger House and is the catalyst for much drama in this rarefied playground for the smart set. The eye of the storm is a murder but it is the complex Nick who carries the story, as we view her through different points of view and at various stages of her life.

Elegantly written in a minimalist, evocative style and set to a soundtrack of Count Basie, this is an assured debut from a great new talent.

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Reviewed: The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton

The Wrath of AngelsJohn Connolly was in South Africa recently to take part in the Bloody Book Week and to promote this, his latest Charlie Parker thriller. He’s an affable, amusing man, the embodiment of Irish charm, and yet his stories are blackly disturbing, rooted in Gothic evil and peopled with grotesques.

Wrath of Angels is vintage Connolly, set in his familiar Maine woods, where the wreckage of a small plane is discovered. It is a mystery – no such plane had ever been reported missing, and there is no sign of bodies nor survivors. When two old friends stumble upon the wreckage while hunting deer, they find a suitcase of money and a list of names. Leaving the list behind, they take the money and live out their lives with their secret.

On his deathbed one of the men tells his daughter about the find, and she calls in Charlie Parker. Parker discovers that the list contains the names of powerful men and women who have, in a reworking of the old Faust story, struck deals with the Devil to advance themselves. What is clear is some diabolical characters are set on finding that list, and Parker is drawn into the battle to secure it.

A menacing, imaginative, other-wordly tale.

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Reviewed: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Random House

Let The Great World SpinFor most people, there is only one narrative about the Twin Towers in New York. Long before they were destroyed, however, they made front pages around the world. In 1974 the French acrobat Phillippe Petit strung a tightrope between the towers, and as the summer morning dawned the people of Manhattan watched, stunned, as he ran, danced, and lay down on the wire.

Colum McCann takes this extraordinary feat as the organising thread of this book. He plucks a handful of seemingly disparate characters down in the city and weaves them into a dazzling cyclorama of hope and pain and redemption. There’s the radical Irish monk Corrigan who wrestles his own furies as he looks after a group of prostitutes on the Bronx, a young artist involved in a hit and run accident that will reshape her life, a group of mothers who meet to grieve the death of their sons in Vietnam.

Adding more and more characters, McCann spins threads between them, linking their stories and their lives, syncopating a magical chorus that will stop on that day and look up at the Towers.

Not wanting the book to ever end, I went online to look at the pictures of Petit’s heart-stopping walk, and watched the recent Oscar-winning documentary about it, Man on Wire. I then went back to the Exclusive Books sale where I had found the book, and bought up the remaining copies to give to friends. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

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Reviewed: The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods by Jamala Safari, Umuzi

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the GodsWe all know that literature has the power to change minds, if not the world, to open eyes and hearts and through understanding, create empathy. The Great Agony is such a book, one that cracks open the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, and at a time when the coals of xenophobia are once again being fanned in South Africa, it is an important one. It also bares, with gutting precision, the experiences of child soldiers. In Safari’s hands they step out of the familiar news photographs of wild-eyed, ragged, gun-waving demons to become the drugged, traumatised, homesick children they really are.

Fifteen-year-old Risto Mahuno’s world is literally shattered when a bomb goes off on the soccer field of his hometown, Bukavu, in eastern Congo. His best friend is killed before his eyes. Fearing for his safety, his parents send him away, but they still can’t protect him from the marauding militias who abduct him and force him into the ranks of the kadogo – boy soldiers. When he is eventually able to escape, he sets off on an epic 2 000 km journey to the relative safety of a refugee camp in Mozambique. Ultimately he will return to his home.

Safari’s style is lyrical and almost innocent, as befitting the voice of a 15-year-old. The story is rich with images: “We heard Mama and our sister yelling and yelling, like birds whose feathers are being pulled out while alive,” he writes, of a brutal rape. Nor is it all grim, for threaded through it is a enduring love story.

The Great Agony is a deeply affecting, but in the end uplifting story, and you will find the headlines about the current upheaval in DRC, the conditions of refugee camps in Africa and the spurts of violence against foreigners, take on a new meaning. When you hear French in the street you will wonder what journey its speaker has taken to make it to South Africa.

Jamala Safari was a student when he left his home town of Bukavu, running away from war. He arrived in South Africa in 2006, and taught himself English.

He built a strong network of friends in Franschhoek where he worked and lived for 5 years, a network that would later assist him to hone his writing skills, and he went on to publish his first collection of poems in 2008.

As he longed to resume his studies, he worked hard and saved just enough to take him through his first year of studies. During his time at university, he took on several jobs to fund his studies; including radio presenting, writing, car guard (for 3 weeks at N1 City Mall), acting, and working as a call centre consultant and lab assistant.

Although he spent more time outside the lecture hall he still maintained high grades and became a member of the Golden Key Society after his first year of studies.

He finally received a partial bursary from HCI Foundation to complete his degree in Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape. He currently works in the Corporate Social Investment wing of a South African corporate.

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Reviewed: The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, Quercus

The Invisible OnesHaving had my fill of South African thrillers, I turned with anticipation to The Invisible Ones.

Stef Penney won the Costa Award in 2006 for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves, which was set in Canada in the 1860s. She’s taken her time with this second book, and it’s been worth the wait. The Invisible Ones is a marvellous mystery set in the Gypsy, (or as they are now known) Traveller community in England.

Small-time private investigator Ray Lovell wakes up in a hospital barely remembering how he got there. He has been looking into the disappearance of a young Traveller wife. The only reason he was given the case is that he’s half-Romany himself, otherwise the community would shut out any gorjio – non-Gypsy – investigator. Gradually he rebuilds the story of his investigation and its startling story.

This vanishing world is intriguing, with its ancient lore and customs, and Penney illustrates beautifully the pride of a people forced to live on the margins of society, disdainful of the idea on living “in bricks”. The story twists and turns until it reaches an astounding climax. A gripping read.

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Reviewed: The Miracle of Crocodile Flats by Jenny Hobbs, Umuzi

The Miracle of Crocodile FlatsThe word that kept coming to mind while reading this delightful book was “mirth”. Not only the response the reader has to the sometimes sly, sometimes broad humour, but the relish with which Jenny Hobbs writes.

She must have laughed out loud when writing it. It reminded me that back in the day Jenny used to write an equally funny and irrepressible column in the old Darling magazine. “Blossom” was set there by Bez Valley and the wooing and the doings of a range of hilarious characters had us lining up at the CNA for each new instalment.

The fictional Crocodile Flats is a shabby settlement clustered on the fringes of an old mining town.

“It could be described in two words: Dead Endsville. But there were minor consolations. The shacks were served by a lively network of spaza shops, shebeens and itinerant dealers trundling their goods in liberated supermarket trolleys. The weather was temperate, the kids were mostly in school and there was no actual starvation.”

What Crocodile Flats has is pockets of every conceivable religion, from crusty Anglicans to the Correct Baptised God Came Down in Africa Church, led by the prophet Hallelujah. The Catholic nuns The Little Sisters of Extreme Destitution coexist uneasily with the Quakers, the Salvation Army and a Buddhist retreat., while Jewish and Muslim charities try to provide some relief too.

And so when young Sweetness Moloi sees a vision of Mary – Ma-Jesu – in a shack, smelling of vanilla cupcakes and as brown as can be, everyone wants a piece of the action, and everyone in the town is caught up the ensuing drama. As a counterpoint, a whisky-drinking Pretoria apparatchik is wanting to blitz Crocodile Flats off the map and relocate the inhabitants to a desolate new township.

Hobbs works on a grand, teeming canvas. There’s the tsotsi Smart Fikile and his hapless gang called the Lucky Boys, who are anything but. On a neighbouring farm the Boers have declared a Republic called Vanderlindelea with its own Constitution and coat of arms, ruled by Swart Barend Van der Linde. The crepuscular sisters Winifred and Dulcie sleep under a “patchwork blankets of cats”, while former yuppies Greg and Cassie wonder why the hell they ever left the city for the less than bucolic joys of the platteland. Girlie Ming runs the Beijing Bazaar and Benjamin Feinbaum the failing Outspan Hotel. Watching it all grumpily is the snuff-schnarfing Chief Mohlalipula, cowed by his brisk wife.

The action tumbles along as Hobbs skilfully conducts this manic orchestra of characters and voices. The world’s media descends on the (perhaps not) God forsaken Crocodile Flats and she builds it all to a delirious crescendo. I loved this roiling, witty and affectionate story, for its wise take on South Africa now, and its human heart. It’s the kind of book you send to friends living now in sterile suburbs of Perth or Toronto.

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Reviewed: My Father, My Monster by McIntosh Polela, Jacana

My Father, My MonsterWhen McIntosh Polela heard his book had been shortlisted for the Alan Paton award, he wept openly on the stage. Those in the audience who had read the book felt tearful, too.

Polela is well-known to South Africans from his work as a television presenter on eTV. Latterly he has become the spokesman for the Hawks, his comments and quotations appearing regularly in the media. Handsome and well-educated, one would imagine he came from a comfortable middle class family, privately schooled, perhaps, as he holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When McIntosh was five, he and his younger sister Zinhle were ripped from their home in the Durban township of Clermont and dumped with their extended family in a squalid settlement near Underberg. Bewildered, they had no idea why their parents had disappeared.

There is no doubt that poverty breeds violence, and McIntosh and his sister were forced to endure hideous beatings, burnings and near-drownings.

“The adults would strike with anything they could grab in the moment. They threw cans at our heads, firewood, even burning wood plucked from the fire. Other kids in the neighbourhood were probably punished just as severely as we were. But to me it seemed that we were the only ones being overworked and beaten up. Cleaning the blood off myself after a beating was something of a ritual.”

At six McIntosh was herding cattle, wearing rags and constantly hungry. It was so cold in winter that he curled up where the oxen had been lying on the grass to get some of their warmth.

And yet he prevailed, determined to get an education and get away from the village. A kind nun here, a priest there, an alert teacher, missionary shop owners, wise Tecknikon staff. Along the way small and large acts of kindness from these people propelled him further and further towards his dream.

He very nearly fell through the cracks as a teenager, caught up in the violence between ANC and Inkatha factions, manufacturing home-made guns. Once more, though, he got back on track, a track that eventually led to the LSE.

The question of his parents’ disappearance drives the narrative, and when he learns the truth he and Zinhle are devastated. It has taken McIntosh most of his life to confront and absorb this appalling truth, helped finally by writing this moving memoir.

It is ultimately an uplifting, inspiring tale, but it raises the question of the tens of thousands of children in South Africa who aren’t getting the helping hand they need. And it compels us, too, to reach out our own.

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Reviewed: The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic

The Restless SupermarketIvan Vladislavić is a towering presence of the South African literary landscape; his books are freighted with awards, including both the Alan Paton award for non-fiction and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. No other author assays Johannesburg with such quiet power, such lethal delicacy as Vladislavić.

In books such as The Exploded View and Portrait With Keys, he carefully lances the membrane of the city, coaxing out unforgettable characters and examining their milieus, the wealth, the squalor, the cockeyed architecture and miasma of the pulsing metropolis.

Of course, his work has now become wrapped in academia, critics and commentators parse his brilliant sentences, deconstruct his style, view his observations through the lens of sociology. It is a pity in a way, as too many regular readers imagine Vladislavić is too “hard”, too “difficult” to read. They don’t know what they’re missing, because what may have been forgotten in all the serious scrutiny is that he is very, very funny.

Thankfully, Random House has seen fit to republish The Restless Supermarket, the 2001 novel that won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and placed Vladislavić firmly on the map.

It is a joy to meet up with these characters again, to reconsider its setting through the telescope of 20 years on, to splutter with laughter at the biting wit: “The park in Beatrice Street had a bench; but then it also had a reniform paddling pool that attracted the wrong sort of toddler.”

The Restless Supermarket is set in Hillbrow in 1993. Times are changing in the country, mirrored in the changes to this seething clutter of buildings, changes that make Aubrey Tearle despair. Tearle is one of the great characters of South African literature: a retired proof reader of telephone directories, he is a buttoned-up prig and curmudgeon. He rails at the New South Africa slipping over the horizon, and believes that literal sloppiness reflects the general decline of standards.

Here he is on the old TV game show called Tellyfun Quiz: “Telly. The word turned my stomach. Loo, brolly, iffy, butty, bumpf. A degenerate vocabulary descended from the nursery. Words without spines, the flabby offspring of a population of milksops. ‘Telly’ was bad enough on its own, but squatting on ‘fun’ like a slug on a cowpat, it was repulsive.”

Every day Tearle makes his way to the Café Europa, crossword at the ready, splenetic Letters To The Editor ready to be posted, where he meets up with other odd characters.

There’s Myron the retired optometrist, the heartbreaking Mevrouw Bonsma who tinkles sadly on the piano and Merle, fellow polymath and possible love interest for Tearle, if he could only see it. And then there’s Wessels, whom Tearle privately calls “Empty”: “I had a startling impression of Wessels’ hair, sleekly crouched over his brutal thoughts like some marsh dweller on its eggs.” And Darlene, common and blowsy. Tearle can’t stand her: “She kept saying pri-horrity and cre-hative, negoti-hation and reconcile-hation.”

Vladislavić explores how this cast of characters negotiates the shifting sands of change in their world, with the narrative leading up to the closing-down party of the Café Europa.

The novel has been hailed as a classic novel of the South African transition. How I wish it were a Matric setwork , as it reveals more about us than many worthier works. It deserves to reach an entirely new generation.

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Reviewed: Open City by Teju Cole, Faber and Faber

Open CityIt takes a while to be drawn into this quiet, meditative book, an extended diary of a man’s wanderings across New York. The narrator is Julius, a young Nigerian psychiatrist, who roams the city after hours, lonely and alone, ruminating on his past and the characters he meets. He is a deeply cultured man, making reference to art and literature and the classical music he loves, and so startles us with other details of his life: time spent in a Nigerian military school; his estrangement from his German mother.

In his meanderings Julius meets other emigrants, the Haitian shoeshine man, an illegal Liberian refugee beached in a detention centre in Queens. At one stage he takes off for Brussels in the vague hope of finding his beloved grandmother there. He has sex with a stranger he meets in a gallery, spends hours drinking and debating Islam with a Moroccan student who runs the Internet cafe, always reflexively noting his thoughts and responses. He reminds me of Yeats’s “long-legged fly” floating on the surface of experience.

Back in New York he resumes his wanderings. Gradually we come to realise that Julius is not walking towards something – a sort of spiritual fulfillment – but away from something – true self knowledge tamped down by an incident in his youth, a shocking revelation that makes the reader rethink him entirely. If it’s plot and a clear message you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed in Open City, but if your taste runs to literary fiction and original, subtle writing you will be impressed. The book has won several awards already, including the PEN and the Hemingway.

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Reviewed: The Colour of Power by Marié Heese, Human & Rousseau

The Colour of PowerVisiting the Roman ruins of Glanum near the town of St Rémy in Provence last year, I was struck by how sophisticated the city had been in 300 AD.

An aqueduct had been built to channel mountain water to the settlement to power grain mills, the remains of hot and cold baths and advanced sewerage was evident, all ringed with soaring, beautifully carved pillars and arches. There are ruined fountains, courtyards and the stone slabs of temples. Of course, the site is plain and bare now but one could imagine a thriving, civilised community.

In her book The Colour of Power Heese fills in the mosaic of Roman life with vivid shades. It is the story of Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, who ruled with her husband Justinian in Constantinople far to the east of Provence in 600 AD. Their empire was vast, stretching from Greece and Turkey down through Syria, Palestine, Egypt and along the north African coast. Theodora herself was Syrian-born but moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) with her family.

It is depressing to be reminded that throughout history women have relied on beauty, sexual favours and scheming to advance, and Theodora was no different. The daughter of an actress and a poor bear-keeper, she was blessed with exquisite looks and became an actress and high-class prostitute before luring the Emperor Justinian to the altar.

Heese recreates her life sympathetically and this ancient world comes alive with detail. Heart-stopping chariot races, jewels of jade and pearl, court gossip and military strategy all combine in an irresistible toga-ripping tale.

The historical jury still seems to be out on whether Theodora was a wise and adored matriarch or an insatiable nymphomaniac. In Heese’s hands she is an intriguing, living figure and the world she ruled over as corrupt and dangerous as, well, as it is in that region today. Plus ça change, as they say.

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