Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Man Booker prize 2017 longlist announced

The longlist for the prestigious Man Booker prize for Fiction 2017 has been announced. This prize is awarded annually to the best work of fiction written in English. The winner is awarded £50,000.

The list was chosen from 144 submissions published in the UK between 1 October 2016 and 30 September 2017.

Baroness Lola Young, chair of the 2017 judging panel, said the 13 books “showcased a diverse spectrum – not only of voices and literary styles but of protagonists too”.

The shortlist, consisting of six books, will be announced on 13 September, ahead of the winning book being announced on 17 October.

The 13 titles which made the longlist are:

4321
Paul Auster

On March 3rd, 1947, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous paths. Four Fergusons will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and passions contrast. Each version of Ferguson’s story rushes across the fractured terrain of mid-twentieth century America, in this sweeping story of birthright and possibility, of love and the fullness of life itself. Listen to Michele Magwood’s interview with Auster on 4321 here.

Days Without End
Sebastian Barry

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. But when a young Indian girl crosses their path, Thomas and John must decide on the best way of life for them all in the face of dangerous odds. Read Bron Sibree’s interview with Barry here.

History of Wolves
Emily Fridlund

How far would you go to belong? Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of northern Minnesota. The other girls at school call Linda ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. Her parents mostly leave her to her own devices, whilst the other inhabitants have grown up and moved on. So when the perfect family – mother, father and their little boy, Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. She begins to babysit Paul and feels welcome, that she finally has a place to belong. Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice. But how can a girl with no real knowledge of the world understand what the consequences will be? Click here to read our review of Fridlund’s debut novel.

Exit West
Mohsin Hamid

Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it. Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world … Read a review of Hamid’s, who was previously shortlisted for the Man Booker (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), longlisted novel The Guardian here.

Solar Bones
Mike McCormack

Marcus Conway has come a long way to stand in the kitchen of his home and remember the rhythms and routines of his life. Considering with his engineer’s mind how things are constructed – bridges, banking systems, marriages – and how they may come apart. Mike McCormack captures with tenderness and feeling, in continuous, flowing prose, a whole life, suspended in a single hour. Follow https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/04/solar-bones-by-mike-mccormack-review for a full review on McCormack’s novel.

Reservoir 13
Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family’s loss. It’s Midwinter. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed. The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must. As the seasons unfold there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals. Bats hang in the eaves of the church and herons stand sentry in the river; fieldfares flock in the hawthorn trees and badgers and foxes prowl deep in the woods – mating and fighting, hunting and dying. An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger’s tragedy refuse to subside. The Sunday Times review of Reservoir 13 can be read here.

Elmet
Fiona Mozley

Fresh and distinctive writing from an exciting new voice in fiction – Sally Rooney meets Sarah Perry, Elmet is an unforgettable novel about family, as well as a beautiful meditation on landscape.

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

Atmospheric and unsettling, Elmet is a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go. Click here for more on Mozley’s longlisted novel.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Arundathi Roy
A richly moving new novel – the first since the author’s Booker-Prize winning, internationally celebrated debut The God Of Small Things went on to become a beloved best seller and enduring classic. The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi and the glittering malls of the burgeoning new metropolis to the snowy mountains and valleys of Kashmir, where war is peace and peace is war, and from time to time ‘normalcy’ is declared. Anjum unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home.

We encounter the incorrigible Saddam Hussain, the unforgettable Tilo and the three men who loved her – including Musa whose fate as tightly entwined with hers as their arms always used to be. Tilo’s landlord, another former suitor, is now an Intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then there are the two Miss Jebeens: the first born in Srinagar and buried, aged four, in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, in a crib of litter, on the concrete pavement of New Delhi. At once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a heart-breaker and a mind-bender, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love-and by hope. For this reason, fragile though they may be, they never surrender.

Braiding richly complex lives together, this ravishing and deeply humane novel reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts. Michele Magwood’s recent interview with Roy can be read here. Click here to listen to the podcast of their conversation.

Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders
In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other.

February 1862. The Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son is gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory — called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo. Within this transitional state, where ghosts mingle, gripe, and commiserate, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices — living and dead, historical and invented — to ask a timeless question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Read Rosa Lyster’s Sunday Times review of Saunders’ novel.

Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie
From the Orange and Baileys Prize-shortlisted author comes an urgent, explosive story of love and a family torn apart

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.

A review of this internationally acclaimed author’s longlisted novel can be read here.

Autumn
Ali Smith
A breathtakingly inventive new novel from the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both. Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That’s what it felt like for Keats in 1819.How about Autumn 2016? Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever. Ali Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearian jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s Pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history-making.Here’s where we’re living. Here’s time at its most contemporaneous and its most cyclic.From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves. Here comes Autumn.

Click here for more on Autumn.

Swing Time
Zadie Smith

A dazzlingly exuberant new novel moving from north west London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty. Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either. Bursting with energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s most ambitious novel yet. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it . . .

Annetjie van Wynegaard’s Sunday Times review of the renowned Smith’s longlisted novel can be read here.

The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North. In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

Read Bron Sibley’s interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning author here.

Book details


» read article

A literary tap dance: Pearl Boshomane reviews Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses

Published in the Sunday Times

Black MosesBlack Moses
Alain Mabanckou (Serpent’s Tail)
****

The cliché that comes to mind after reading Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is “better late than never”, because I had previously never heard of him or his works. And I’m glad that I’m tardy to the party rather than never having cracked an invite at all. The novel, which made the Man Booker longlist, is a delicious read – even if its premise is a tragic one.

The Black Moses of the title is a boy who was named by a priest, Papa Moupelo, when he was a child in an oppressive orphanage. His full name is actually a sentence: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” While this name might seem almost ridiculous, Moses tries to live up to its meaning – as someone who will lead the lost out of the proverbial desert.

But after Papa Moupelo is plucked from his life and a Marxist-Leninist revolution erupts in 1970s Democratic Republic of Congo, Moses joins a street gang and reinvents himself as Little Pepper, before eventually appointing himself Robin Hood.

Black Moses shows a character at various stages of their life in what feels like a series of screen grabs. That’s not a criticism – it’s one of the things I love about it.

Mabanckou is a delightful writer whose long sentences (much like Moses’ name) are pretty rather than pretentious. Even when he writes about Moses’ descent into madness, it’s hard not to find pleasure in its description, as tragic as the subject matter is.

Example: “My memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.”

If writing really is like dancing as Zadie Smith said, then Black Moses is a literary tap dance.

Follow Pearl Boshomane @pearloysias

Book details


» read article

Twists and shouts: Anna Stroud talks to Fred Strydom about his latest novel The Inside-Out Man

Fred Strydom’s new novel explores identity through characters who are striving to find peace. By Anna Stroud for the Sunday Times

Photo © Joanne Olivier

 
The Inside-Out ManThe Inside-Out Man
Fred Strydom (Umuzi)
*****

Fred Strydom was a kid who always asked, “Why?” He started writing as soon as he could read, and in high school he wrote Pulp Fiction-style plays with his friend Sean Wilson that smashed the tedium of traditional school productions. It’s only natural then that his inquisitive mind and subversive streak should culminate in a book like The Inside-Out Man.

“Both The Raft and The Inside-Out Man are books about identity,” Strydom said about his debut and second novel. “[They’re] books about people being scared of who they are.”

The narrator is jazz genius Bently Croud – aka Bent, “the misshapen state” – who meets billionaire Leonard Fry. Leonard presents him with an unusual proposal: live in my house for a year while I lock myself in a room, and let’s see what happens.

Strydom’s characters are unnervingly honest. “Always write from the perspective of the person you trust the most,” he said. He spent the most time with Bent, but there’s also a part of him – a part that scares him – that identifies with Leonard. “Leonard does represent a twisted, idealistic version of how I wish I could sometimes be… to act on impulse, to say ‘to hell with it’, to make rash decisions, to be totally confident and to let the chips fall where they may.”

The setting is Krymeer, a countryside mansion – a three-dimensional character with a locked door at the centre of the narrative.

“Something can only be constricting if it’s alive,” Strydom said. Bent is trapped by the city, the countryside, and the deal he made with Leonard. “Each trap is presented to him as an option out… but it isn’t.”

Bent struggles to cope with the residues of an unhappy childhood – an absent father and an unhappy, alcoholic mother – and his own lack of self-awareness. The one thing he wants, Strydom said, is peace. “I think we’re more aware of how Bent’s past affects him than he’s aware of it.” Leonard, on the other hand, “represents somebody who’s trying to find peace with himself by keeping himself from a world that he can’t fit in with.”

The tension in The Inside-Out Man is maintained by the three characters in the house – Bent, Leonard, and Jolene (Bent’s girlfriend) – and their secrets. Strydom drew on influences like Edgar Allan Poe, the irrational horror of HP Lovecraft, Alfred Hitchcock’s film noir, and Raymond Chandler’s gritty dialogue. “There’s a femme fatale you can’t trust, there’s an anti-hero and there’s a mystery at the heart of it.”

There are strange parallels between Bent and his mother and Jolene and her son. He gets sucked into her world, and soon he can no longer recognise himself in the mirror.

Strydom writes his stories in his head, and finds the act of putting words to paper the “least interesting” part of writing. He wrote a third of The Raft during a road trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg. “If it’s good it will stick and if it’s not good it will go,” he said. “It’s just a case of getting a hold of your story.”

Strydom wants his work to inspire people to pursue their own talents. “We should have the courage to be pure storytellers,” he said. “I don’t mind if my book isn’t the best book of the year, but it’s really great if it invites people to take a stab at it.”

If one book can inspire others, it’s The Inside-Out Man. Multilayered, honest and, as promised, a hell of a trip. Don’t try to label it, but if you must, forget about it being speculative fiction. That raft has sailed.

Follow Anna Stroud @annawriter_

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 23 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Kill The FatherKill the Father
Sandrone Dazieri (Simon & Schuster)
****
Book thrill
Dante Torre always thought his life could be divided into before and after. During his 11 years as the abused hostage of a faceless man known only as the Father, every day was caged. After his escape, he seeks to help others and live as normal a life as possible. However, when detective Deputy Captain Colomba Caselli knocks on his door and asks for his help in a case involving the abduction of a child, Dante realises that perhaps there was no “after”. Italian crime writer Sandrone Dazieri is a master of the macabre, weaving a satisfying adventure and creating a sense of lingering paranoia. – Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

The Boy on the BridgeThe Boy on the Bridge
M.R. Carey (Little, Brown)
****
Book fiend
This is sort of a sidelong prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts. Not a sequel. But read Girl first and don’t panic when none of the characters is familiar. They become so quickly. Once again Carey writes with a light touch when it comes to the gore and the zombie/“hungries”. Once again there is a humane feeling of empathy with the lead character – this time an autistic boy, Stephen Greaves, who is supposed to save the world with the help of a bunch of scientists. Once again, Carey writes something that will become an important part of apocalyptic references. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The Fire ChildThe Fire Child
SK Tremayne (HarperCollins)
***
Book fling
SK Tremayne follows in the grand tradition of the Gothic romance in which an isolated woman, an iffy love interest, and the welfare of a child make for compelling reading. In a whirlwind romance, Rachel from the “sarf of London” marries rich, handsome widower David and moves to his historic family mansion in Cornwall, where she lives with her delightful stepson Jamie. David is home only for weekends though, and Jamie changes, becoming remote and claiming his late mother Nina is going to return. Is Jamie hallucinating? Eerie, scary and compulsive reading. – Aubrey Paton

Book details


» read article

Curmudgeon dressed as Lamb: Sue de Groot speaks to crime novelist Mick Herron about his irascible antihero in Spook Street

Published in the Sunday Times

Spook StreetSpook Street
Mick Herron (John Murray)
*****

When Mick Herron wrote Spook Street – the fourth in his series of spy novels about a cluster of misfits in Britain’s intelligence service – the Westminster terrorist attack had not yet happened. Nor had the attacks on London Bridge, in Manchester and at Finsbury Park.

All these subsequent events make Herron’s plot even more eerily relevant. Spook Street begins with the bombing of a shopping centre in the UK. (“It lasted seconds, but never stopped, and those it left behind – parents and families, lovers and friends – would ever after mark the date as one of unanswered phone calls and uncollected cars.”)

There is a grim echo, in the deadly flash mob at Westacres “pleasure dome”, of JG Ballard’s dystopian Kingdom Come – but where Ballard’s work is queasily alienating, Herron’s is warmly human.

His characters are flawed and vivid, particularly Jackson Lamb, head of a team of MI5 oddballs nicknamed “slow horses” (their office is in Slough House) and one of the most irresistibly unpleasant men ever to let loose a loud fart.

Herron, who on the phone is thoughtful and polite and about as far from Lamb as it is possible to get, says he has a lot of fun writing Lamb’s political incorrect dialogue.

“It’s kind of a safety valve,” he muses. “Lamb says all the things that you know you can’t say in public – you wouldn’t WANT to say them, you would never want to address other people in the way that he does – but there’s a great deal of fun and mischief to be had in doing it in fiction and knowing that for all the nasty things he comes up with, he’s saying them for effect, to annoy people. If he was behaving like that without being aware of how offensive he was, and actually believed the things he was saying, then he would be a different kind of person entirely.”

Lamb, like all the best characters in fiction, has slipped the bonds of his creator’s keys and taken on a life of his own. Herron says he often wonders what lies beneath the irascible old spy’s obnoxiousness.

“I know that there are things in his past that I haven’t fully uncovered. A key line to his character, from a previous book, is ‘when the Berlin wall came down he built another one around himself’. And there’s a line in what I was writing just this morning [the fifth book in the series will be published in 2018] where one of the other characters says Jackson ‘spent half a lifetime going to battle for what he believed in, and the second half of his life revenging himself on a world that seemed to have screwed things up anyway’.

“I think there’s a great deal of disappointment and bitterness there, and being obnoxious is his way of coping with it all, but I’m not sure I want to uncover the exact reasons behind the bitterness. I think one can destroy a character by probing too deeply into the reasons why they are how they are. I think it’s more fun just to let them get on with it. I’m very much enjoying winding him up and watching him go.”

Herron has the same attitude towards the universe in which his plots play out. He can be prescient about the real world but does not set out to write social commentary. In Spook Street he writes that the mall attack became “a made-in-Britain version of all those headlines, which had shrunk over the years to a page-7 sidebar, about events in distant marketplaces. Nothing brought the meaning of ‘suicide bomber’ home quite so hard as familiar logos glimpsed through the rubble.”

Having previously written successful crime novels, Herron turned to the world of spying because he “wanted to look at a broader canvas. One of the things that drove me to that was the bombings in London, the 7/7 bombings, that brought home to me how these huge events impinge on the lives of all of us, and that you don’t have to be a particular expert to have an opinion and to write about that sort of thing.

“These things are now happening … it’s not unusual to pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio and find that something very like that has happened – it’s chilling, and it now seems to be an ever-present danger, so that’s what I wanted to write about, the fact that we have those dangers there among us all the time.”

His focus, however, is always on the story. “I’m a novelist, and I do want to entertain, and the fact that I’m drawing the source of my entertainment from the real world is obviously a very important part of it, but I don’t feel that I have anything especially to warn people about or to tell them about, I’m just writing about how I perceive things to be. I don’t think anybody’s going to learn very much from my books, I do hope they will be entertained, thrilled, maybe shocked occasionally.”

Who should play Jackson Lamb?
Given the growing popularity of Herron’s novels, there will undoubtedly be several screen versions of the world’s rudest spy. When it comes to the actor who would best portray Lamb, Herron says: “If we went right through anyone who ever lived, it would be Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958). Physically, I think he looks like Lamb in that film; and his voice tone would also be about right.”

Not so silent: Lamb quotes
“The next sound you hear will be me, expressing confidence.” He farted, and reached for the cigarette behind his ear.

“So you’re the boss of the famous Slough House,” Flyte said. “Isn’t that where they keep the rejects?”

“They don’t like to be called that.”

“So what do you call them?”

“Rejects.”

“That is quite possibly the worst cup of tea I’ve had anywhere. And I’m including France in that.” – All said by Jackson Lamb in Spook Street

Follow Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 16 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The CowsThe Cows
Dawn O’Porter (HarperCollins)
****
Book fling
It’s OK not to follow the herd. That’s the premise of The Cows, a powerful novel about three women judging each other, but also judging themselves and their ideas of children – wanting one, having one, and not wanting them. Tara, Cam and Stella are living their lives as best they can, but being constantly pressured to conform, they find it hard to like what they see in the mirror. When an extraordinary event brings them together, one woman’s catastrophe becomes another’s inspiration, and a life lesson to all. This is a surprisingly funny novel. – Nondumiso Tshabangu @MsNondumiso

Here Comes TroubleHere Comes Trouble
Simon Wroe (Orion)
***
Book buff
Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian flair is reborn in Simon Wroe’s Here Comes Trouble. Kyrzbekistan, a fictitious Eastern Bloc country, is caught in the thrall of political turmoil that may sound all too familiar to many South Africans and Americans. As load-shedding seems to become permanent, troubled teen Ellis Dau attempts to rise to the occasion by restarting The Chronicle, his father’s independent press. Ellis’s humour (both intentionally and otherwise) is snort worthy. An excellent read for YA and new adult readers. Those over 30, however, may feel that they’ve heard this tale before, despite the fact we are living it today. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Last StopThe Last Stop
Thabiso Mofokeng (BlackBird Books)
*****
Book buff
Macko just managed to escape with his life after a bullet that was meant for him killed a child instead. His body may have survived but his mind is lost. He keeps seeing “things” and his stress is made worse by his dodgy taxi-owner boss and his money-grabbing girlfriend. Thabiso Mofokeng has done a sterling job of bringing to life the very real struggles of a taxi driver. It’s a poignant read and if you, like many, choose to forget the serious issues engulfing our country, this book will force them upon you. Thabiso, sir, never stop telling these very important truths. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Book details


» read article

An improbable page-turner: Margaret von Klemperer reviews Fiona Snyckers’ Spire

Published in The Witness

SPIREBACK in the mists of time when I was at school, the thrillers of choice were those by Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean – for me the latter’s Ice Station Zebra. And it was that book kept coming to mind when reading Fiona Snyckers’ Spire. It isn’t just the icy setting – this time the Antarctic rather than MacLean’s Arctic – but also the breathless plot-driven nature of the story.

Here the background is eco-war rather than Cold War. South African Caroline Burchell is a virologist who is spending the winter at Spire, a remote research station on the frozen continent, as one of a multi-national team involved in a variety of projects. But shortly after their arrival, her companions start dying off from all kinds of nasty diseases like Ebola, the plague, smallpox and bird flu, all bugs which Caroline brought with her in sealed vials. Soon she is apparently the only one left alive, her sole contact with the outside world via Skype or radio phone, when the weather allows.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project bosses in distant New York suspect her of bumping off everyone for some loony reason of her own. Caroline has to try to clear her name before the Antarctic summer allows rescuers and investigators to come in. And she slowly becomes aware that, in fact, she is not alone. Considering that she’s a brilliant scientist, she becomes aware remarkably slowly, and she’s not alone several times over, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Snyckers is inclined to over-egg her pudding, and by throwing everything at the plot, she compromises some of the tension her story ought to create. Caroline has to struggle with keeping herself alive, dealing with dozens of corpses and keeping the facility running, coping with being suspected of mass murder, personal problems, investigations into the lunatic fringe of eco-warriors on the dark web – she obviously has a better internet connection than some of us in less remote places – and the realisation that someone nearby is toying with her. But somehow, Spire lacks the creepiness and sense of foreboding all that should engender. It is just too improbable. Still, there is enough here to keep the pages turning. I’m not sure who Snyckers’ target audience is, but thinking back to my Alistair MacLean days, Spire could well resonate with readers looking for an escape from schoolwork. Margaret von Klemperer

Book details


» read article

Jacket Notes: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim discusses the characters in his award-winning novel Season of Crimson Blossoms

Published in the Sunday Times

Season of Crimson BlossomsSeason of Crimson Blossoms
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Cassava Press)

Sometimes characters walk into your mind like visitors that come with their mats, spread them out and settle down to enjoy the shade. Some stay for a short while, others stay for years. Some come in through the front door, but others, like Hassan Reza, scale the fence.

When I had persistent visions of Reza scaling a woman’s fence to rob her, but then accidentally bumping into her, I knew I had to write about these two people and the convergence of their very diverse lives. Him, 25, rascal, weed dealer, political thug and head honcho of a band of miscreants; and her, Hajiya Binta Zubairu, 55, mother, grandmother, devout Muslim and all-round good person.

What was supposed to be a simple tale evolved into something far more complex, surprising me with its range and scope.

How does one write about a chaste grandmother having a sexual relationship with a thug in a conservative Muslim community in northern Nigeria? How does one use a story like this, completely out of character with the literature that has depicted the people of this part of the world, to say important things and explore our shared humanity?

In writing I essentially relied on my characters. I followed them and recorded their stories. When I wanted to lead them, usher them down a path, they resisted. And so we had tug-of-wars that lasted days, weeks and sometimes months – we fought and gave each other the silent treatment. Some people call this writer’s block. Eventually we made concessions and moved on, reaching the finish line after four years.

And I fell in love with them, these characters. I worried about how it would be possible not to view Hajiya Binta as a cougar for taking up with a disreputable thug. And, not being overtly fond of writing sex scenes (those things are hard), I fretted about how much detail I should include.

What I completely underestimated though was how much people ended up liking Reza, the thug. Many people, mostly women, old and young, have accosted me over this character, demanding more details beyond what is conveyed in the book.

Book details


» read article

Far-right words: Kate Sidley talks to Tammy Baikie about her debut novel Selling LipService

Published in the Sunday Times

Selling Lip ServiceSelling LipService
Tammy Baikie
****

In the world of Tammy Baikie’s debut novel, Selling LipService, language is a commodity and a source of control. After the coming of haemhorr-age at around 18 years old, people can only speak if they’re wearing LipService transdermal patches, sponsored by corporations and scripted by copywriters so that the wearer’s every utterance promotes a brand.

The protagonist, Frith, experiences tastures – a sort of synaesthesia, whereby she experiences a taste with everything she touches. In addition, she has been introduced to literature by her father, who works in the repository where books are quarantined (they are no longer available to the public). She is eager to hold onto these meaningful experiences and escape the constraints of branded communication. She wants to silence “You” – the patch’s brand persona and her conformist alter ego – and to speak for herself. The plot deals with Frith’s attempt to circumvent the powers who control language in this consumerist society and to exercise her own voice outside of the brand babble.

Baikie is multilingual – German, French, Russian – and works as a translator, which she describes as a kind of ventriloquism. “It’s bizarre. You know you ‘wrote’ the words, but you are speaking for someone else.” This idea of speaking for someone else was the spark for this very original book.

It is oddly apt that we meet to talk about a book about language and the power that comes from defining how we talk about things on a day when the news is full of the language manipulations of Bell Pottinger and WMC and fake Twitter. “People don’t realise how carefully words are selected by PR and ad agencies,” says Baikie. “I notice it, too, when I listen to talk radio. A select vocabulary will be used around an issue or event and it is quite eerie to hear how those words come to be mimicked.”

Baikie thinks deeply about language, and the novel considers it in its many forms – as communication, as advertising copy, as art form; as a means of control or commerce or human connection. This is a big concept work, unusual and thought-provoking around those issues. And yes, you follow Frith’s struggle for speech and agency and connection. But for many readers the delight in this book is in the author’s inventive use of words themselves.

The commercial-speak of the LipService wearers, and the inner workings of Frith’s mind, provide rich opportunities for wordplay and the creation of words. Portmanteau, the melding of two words, is a key mechanism and something which Baikie notes is having a resurgence in our own era, with words like “frenemies” or “Brangelina” (which she calls “those celebrity shmoosh names”). She plays with verlan, a form of French slang which transposes syllables. Or she will retain the recognisable shape of an idiom, but swop out a word. It’s an ambitious high-wire act that at its best is quite thrilling for word nerds.

One wonders at the author’s seemingly endlessly linguistic manipulations. She puts it down to her training in and obsession with languages. “I’ve spent years of my life learning vocabulary. I read widely, mostly foreign authors, and have a taste for slightly weird stuff. Some of this has been useful in this book. I have hundreds of scraps of paper with word lists, lists of synonyms, rhymes, created words that I’ve fiddled with, putting them together…”

Here’s an example, in which a copywriter speaks: “Given the choice, focus groups prefered a whip-sharp quip to the old ad-lib. They like being able to twinpoint members of their own social tribe.”

Selling LipService was the winner of the 2015/16 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. Anyone who loves books and words and wordplay, or is fascinated by the power of language, will find this book intriguing and often entertaining. You can be fairly certain you’ve read nothing else like it.

Follow Kate Sidley @KateSidley

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 9 July 2017

The Sun In Your EyesThe Sun In Your Eyes
Deborah Shapiro (HarperCollins)
****
Book buff
This story of a complex friendship between two women comes spangled with praise from American critics. Years after leaving college, Vivian and Lee set off on a road trip to untangle the great tragedy of Lee’s life: the death of her father, Jesse Parrish. Lee was still small when Parrish, a leading singer/songwriter, died in a car accident. His life and death have become mythical, especially as the tapes of the album he was working on disappeared on the night of his death. Lee’s whole life has been burdened by his memory and it is time to deal with it once and for all, and to sever, or renew, her foundering relationship with Vivian. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Reservoir 13Reservoir 13
Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury)
****
Book biff
Fans of Jon McGregor know he is a painter who uses words rather than watercolours. Reservoir 13 is a portrait of English village life. A collection of everyday people whose everyday lives are shifted and haunted after a 13-year-old girl vanishes while on holiday with her parents. Each chapter begins a new year, with the characters slowly moving forward. It is we human beings who exist in routines that tend to alter at a gradual pace with age. This book is a work of art for readers who read for the pleasure of words and do not require tidy narratives with no loose ends. This novel is an echo of life. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Secret History of Twin PeaksThe Secret History of Twin Peaks
Mark Frost (Macmillan)
****
Book thrill
Twin Peaks – the TV series by David Lynch and Mark Frost – aired in 1991, and we were introduced to the town of Twin Peaks, the murder of Laura Palmer, and the cultish strangeness surrounding the killing. In 2016, 25 years after the series was aired, Lynch and Frost have collaborated on another season, and writer Frost has brought out his third book in the franchise. Presented as a dossier of FBI documents, photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and transcriptions, which may – or may not – elucidate the new series. But it’s pretty damn good, as Special Agent Cooper might say. – Aubrey Paton

Book details


» read article