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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Reviewed: Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer, Bantam Press

Finders KeepersI have been waiting for this book for months, ever since discovering Belinda Bauer last year. She is the sister of the well-known SA writers Charlotte and Katy, and her debut novel Blacklands was an astounding psychological thriller that won the CWA Gold Dagger prize.

In this, her third book set in the Exmoor town of Shipcott, she does not disappoint. It helps to have read the first two, Blacklands and Darkside, but even so it is a compulsive story and I finished it in two intense sittings.

A girl disappears while waiting in her father’s horsebox early in the morning; the only clue is a Post-It note saying “You don’t love her”. Soon, several other children are snatched with similar notices, and the community is in an uproar. Bauer is brilliant in building unease but also in her perceptive understanding of character: this is not high-octane, forensic-driven crime but rather an enthralling tale of madness and the triggers that can blow it into bizarre events. Bauer ladles the tale with the quiet insecurities of the everyday: teen love, men with hair implants, lonely policewomen.

We all have favourite crime authors and Belinda Bauer is one of mine. It’s no wonder that Val McDermid calls her “The most disturbing new talent around.”

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Reviewed: Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away Christie Watson, Quercus

Tiny Sunbirds, Far AwayI have been recommending this book as “The Kite Runner for Nigeria”, as it does what that book – and all good fiction – does, it opens your eyes to a world you may not have had much interest in or knowledge of. After reading The Kite Runner we understood more about Afghanistan and the news headlines began to make sense. After reading Tiny Sunbirds, the same is true for Nigeria.

Twelve-year-old Blessing and her older brother, the asthmatic and scholarly Ezekiel, live with their parents in the upmarket Better Life Executive Homes in Lagos. But when their father abandons them for another woman, they are forced to move to their mother’s village in the Niger Delta. The extended family is poor, living in a compound with no electricity or running water, but they make up for it in resourcefulness, ambition and old-fashioned unconditional love. And not a little humour.

Gradually the trauma of her parents’ divorce and the loss of comforts give way to a different rhythm and we are caught up in the ordinary life of Nigeria, with vivid characters. Here Blessing tells us of one:

“Grandma’s Efik friend Mama Akpan ran a business of getting girls fat before their wedding day. Grandma said she owned the last of the fattening rooms, as so many girls were worried about heart disease. She was Grandma’s best friend. Mama Akpan was rich, and she was famous for not spending money. She lived in Calabar, in a house with peeling paint, and did not own a car. People had stopped going to her for loans. She had no house-girl, or woman to wash her clothes. The only jewellery she wore was gold-plated, sent by her son, Akpan, in England, who bought all her gifts in the Marks and Spencer sale. Mama Akpan kept them in boxes with the labels still attached, wrapped in oversize plastic bags. She got them out whenever we visited.”

But the intrigues of village life shrink against a larger canvas of the predations of international oil companies, gangs of boy soldiers, and politics. In smaller threads the author examines Islam, female circumcision, education and the age-old themes of tradition versus modernism.

Tiny Sunbirds has just won a Costa Book Award and deserves to reach a broad audience, particularly an audience cynical about Nigeria. Warm, humane and sad, but ultimately consoling, it is an outstanding novel.

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Reviewed: At Last by Edward St Aubyn, Picador

At Last This is the fifth, and probably the last, in Edward St Aubyn’s blackly funny, viciously witty Melrose series. It kicks off with a scorching five-page monologue delivered at a funeral by a loathsome old family friend:

“I suppose your Aunt will be here soon. I saw her last week in New York and I’m pleased to say I was the first to tell her the tragic news about your mother. She burst into tears and ordered a croque monsieur to swallow with her second helping of diet pills.”

The funeral in question is that of the once-wealthy Eleanor Melrose “the daughter of one bewildered family and the mother of another”. Her son Patrick is a middle-aged advocate, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. In the previous books in the series: Some Hope; On the Edge; A Clue To the Exit and Mother’s Milk (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize) we have witnessed the diabolical dysfunction of this family, based on St Aubyn’s own life.

Now it seems Patricks’s demons can finally be banished and the story unfurls over the day of the funeral as he comes to terms with Eleanor’s death and his tentative sobriety. With his brittle wit and piercing social commentary St Aubyn has often been compared to Evelyn Waugh. Of one character he writes:

“She had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.”

While it is possible to read any one of the Melrose books as a stand-alone, it is worthwhile reading them from the beginning. Be warned, though, this is not cosy comedy.

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Reviewed: White Dog by Peter Temple, Quercus

White DogIf you haven’t discovered Peter Temple’s thrillers yet, it’s high time you did. Temple is South African but emigrated to Australia in the 70s and has become one of that country’s most popular and decorated authors. The Jack Irish series features his troubled hero, a Melbourne-based criminal lawyer who gets called in to help solve murders, collect the odd debt, find missing people and investigate the seedier characters living in the cracks of society. He’s written a string of stand-alone novels, too. The latest, Truth, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010.

Irish is a marvellous character, a gambler and footie maniac, a trainee cabinetmaker with a laconic, cynical mien. The dialogue is fast and snub-nosed, often hilarious in that pithy Aussie way, and Temple has a compressed, taut delivery.

In White Dog Irish is hired to help in the defence of a woman accused of murdering her ex-lover. All the signs point to her guilt, until Irish gets onto the case.

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Reviewed: My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly, Fourth Estate

My Former HeartCressida Connolly is the daughter of the infamous British critic Cyril Connolly, who once wrote that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” His daughter has proved him wrong. With three prams, variously, in her hallway, she has had a distinguished career as an incisive, perceptive reviewer and journalist. My Former Heart is her first novel, following on from a collection of short stories and a biography of the Bohemian Garman sisters titled The Rare and the Beautiful.

My Former Heart is a graceful, deceptively placid tale of three generations of women. Deceptive, because as she charts their lives over 60 years Connolly downplays the peaks and troughs that other novelists would amplify, the divorces and affairs and births and desertions, showing instead the inexorable dance of relationships, a dance, to paraphrase Anthony Powell, to the music of time.

The story opens during the war, when the capricious and beautiful Iris takes her daughter Ruth to the cinema. Iris believes she sees an old lover on a newsreel, fighting in the desert, so she sends Ruth to her in-laws in the country and takes off for the Middle East. We follow her life, and Ruth’s, and that of her daughters Emily and Isobel as they step on through their lives, finding love in unexpected places, contentment in the ordinary.

What could have been a light, schmaltzy read – or worse, a misery memoir – is instead a subtle, satisfying tale that lays bare the human heart and illuminates the redemption in the everyday.

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Reviewed: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, Little Brown

The Glass RoomThis enthralling book has been on the shelves for a couple of years, but a new paperback edition is available in bookstores. It is an extraordinary story that encapsulates art and architecture, regret and loss, intimate matrimonial hostilities and cataclysmic historical events.

It is the late 1920s in Europe, a time of shrugging off crepuscular tradition and forging a new world. Czech couple Viktor and Liesel Landauer are newlyweds, wealthy, cultivated and politically progressive. When they meet the brilliant architect Rainer von Abt he persuades them to build one of the first truly Modernist houses. The Landauer House, as it will become known, is a work of genius, a spare cathedral of light with specially designed furniture and state-of-the-art engineering, “a place of balance and reason”. The Landauers are happy, raising their children within its avant garde walls, until the Nazis march over the borders. Viktor is Jewish and foresees what is to come, taking his family to Switzerland and boarding up the house.

The Nazis requisition it first, using it as a sinister genetics laboratory; the Red Army stables its horses there for a while, later it is used as a rehabilitation centre for disabled children who respond to its bright spaces. The house endures, “plain, balanced, perfect”, through the swirl of decades. In the moving ending, Liesel returns, frail and blind, to claim her home.

As well as being a compulsive story, The Glass Room is fascinating on the subject of brave, embattled Czechoslovakia, and on the subject of Modernism. A brief note in Mawer’s acknowledgements mentions that the house is based on an existing building, the Villa Tugendhat outside Brno, which has resulted in several happy hours on the Internet looking at pictures of the rooms Mawer describes so beautifully, and the work of Mies van der Rohe, who designed it. The Glass Room is absolutely unforgettable.

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Reviewed: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, Penguin

Gods without MenI was fortunate to interview the acclaimed writer Hari Kunzru at the recent Open Book Festival in Cape Town. Acute and urbane, Kunzru strode onto the literary stage nearly 10 years ago with his audacious first novel “The Impressionist”. On the strength of it he was voted one of Granta’s Best New Novelists. No pressure, then, for the next. Fortunately he has grown from strength to strength and his latest novel “Gods Without Men” is a virtuoso triumph.

Kunzru is a writer of Daedalian imagination, and here he wrangles a seething cast of characters whose stories zigzag across the centuries. He tethers them to a rock formation in the Mojave desert called The Pinnacles, “Three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky.” First up is a WW2 aircraft engineer who abandons his beaten wife in the late 40s and flees to the desert, setting up base near the pinnacles to try and make contact with extraterrestrials. Cut to 2008 and a seedy, vain British rock star washes up in a motel near the Pinnacles searching for his muse at the bottom of a tequila bottle. Cut to 1778 and a Spanish mission in the area, where a “wily old friar” shepherds his flock of Native Indians. Back to 2008 to meet the central characters of the novel: Jaz, a detribalised Sikh “only a generation away from the mustard fields of Punjab” and his Jewish intellectual wife Lisa.

Jaz is a financial genius, Lisa an editor and they are living the smart New York life until their first child Raj is born severely autistic. Their marriage starts to ray under the strain of his illness and Kunzru charts its dissolution with tender acuity. The troubled family blows into town en route to Phoenix and while they are there Raj is abducted. Soon we’re off again to the Seventies and a hippie cult, but the thread of the disappearance will keep drawing us back as an appalling Madeleine McCann/Dingo – like media frenzy breaks out.

As frenetic as the action sounds, and as packed as the narrative is with extraordinary detail – Indian folk lore, obscure silver mining techniques, Sikh rituals – there is nothing tricksy about it. Kunzru is, first and foremost, a supremely gifted storyteller. He also has a minutely tuned ear for different voices, be it the narcotic Cockney of the rock star, the gushing of a teenaged hippy or the braggadocio of a Wall St mogul. Kunzru syncopates it all into an unforgettable story grounded by the eerie, empty desert itself, a story about transcendence and, quite simply, the nature of God.

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Reviewed: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller, Simon & Schuster

After telling the story of a Wyoming oilman in The Legend of Colton Bryant, Alexandra Fuller is back on familiar territory in this latest book, essentially a love letter to her “fierce, broken, splendid” mother.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of ForgetfulnessWe first met Nicola Fuller Of Central Africa ten years ago in Alexandra’s vivid childhood memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight. In it her mother was portrayed as eccentric, alcoholic and mentally unstable and she now refers to it as “that Awful Book”. Now, it seems, age and her own experiences as a mother have softened Alexandra’s stance and the woman who emerges from these pages is a complex, aristocratic, grand romantic. She is also immensely courageous.

Cocktail Hour traces Tim and Nicola Fuller’s own childhoods, his in England and his wife’s on the Isle of Skye and in Kenya. Her mother is, she writes, “one million percent Highland Scottish”, from the McDonald of Clanranald clan. “We’re very mystical, very savage people”, she tells her daughter.

She and Tim met in Kenya, a land, Fuller writes “of forbidding perfection”. Nicola was beautiful; Tim patricianly handsome and they were a glamorous couple. But Nicola’s desire for a glorious, adventurous colonial life was shattered over years of loss and hardship. Fuller tacks deftly backwards and forwards through their history, through wars and poverty, farms that went bad and others that were all-too-brief paradises.

From reading Dogs we know that Tim and Nicola lost three children, but still Fuller moves us to tears revisiting their deaths. Such is her range, though, she moves us to loud laughter in many chapters, too, such as an hilarious account of her mother dressing her up in an insecticide barrel for a fancy dress party. And as always in Fuller’s stories, peculiar characters abound: Nicola’s best friend in childhood was a chimpanzee called Stephen Foster; an ancestor called Muncle kidnapped two Tasmanian aborigines and brought them home to Skye; drunk grannies fried themselves in fireplaces and deranged ayahs pinched their charges black and blue.

The story has a happy ending. Tim and Nicola now farm successfully in Zambia, surrounded by grandchildren and the elderly set of orange Le Creuset pots that are virtually the only things they have carried with them over the years. Their story is one of deep love and endurance.

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Reviewed: Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns, Jonathan Ball

Lost GroundThere is a murder mystery at the heart of Michiel Heyns’ latest novel, further proof of his adroitness as an author. Heyns, once Professor of English at Stellenbosch University, is a national literary treasure and his range is vast, be it alchemising great Afrikaans novels into lustrous English, spooling out a vaguely deranged humour in The Reluctant Passenger or mastering the clipped, corseted tone of the Pankhursts and their milieu in Bodies Politic.

Freelance writer Peter Jacobs returns from London to his home town of Alfredville in the Karoo. Gay, buttoned-down and somewhat superior, he has come to investigate the murder of his cousin, killed, it is believed, by her black husband. Jacobs is hoping to turn in a New Yorker-style piece meditating on race, crime and Othello, but instead he finds himself pulled back into the community he turned his back on 22 years before and his story implodes as he unravels the identity of the killer.

But this is not a stab at a krimi novel; Lost Ground is vintage Heyns in its acute portrayal of small-town Karoo, its examination of identity and loss and its barbed commentary on contemporary South Africa. I particularly liked this sly observation of the standard ex-pat novel: “We have had about twenty of those, treating us to their momentous return to the mother country and the examination of their own entrails and consciences. The details may differ but the essence is the same: a mixture of self-examination and self-congratulation, with poor tired old South Africa serving as both punch bag and security blanket. Your novel, like the others before it, will sell reasonably well and be commended in the press. The Brits like being reminded that South Africa is after all as backward as they always suspected before they were obliged, for short while, to profess admiration.”

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Reviewed: The End of Everything Megan Abbott, Picador

The End Of EverythingDescribed as The Virgin Suicides meets The Lovely Bones, this is a deeply nuanced, unsettling coming-of-age novel. Set in 80s American suburbia, it is the story of Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver, 13 years old and the bestest of friends.

In the way of pubescent girls, they do everything together, and their symbiosis extends to Lizzie’s adulation of Evie’s father in the wake of her own parents’ divorce. They know each other “bone-deep”, every thought and dream and bruise and freckle, until the day Evie disappears.

As the last person to have seen Evie, Lizzie becomes the most important witness, and as she digs away herself at the mystery she begins to wonder how well she knew Evie at all.

There’s a fevered, menacing tone to the story, as the undercurrent of nascent desire and fantasy erupts and changes lives forever. As Lizzie says in telling the story, “It was long ago, centuries. A quivery mirage of a thirteen-year-old’s summer, like a million other girl summers, were it not for Evie, were it not for Evie’s thumping heart and all those twisting things untwisting.”
Highly recommended for book clubs.

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