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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Book bites: 23 October 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

I Shot the BuddhaI Shot The Buddha
Colin Cotterill (Soho Press)
Book Mystery
This is the 11th novel featuring Dr Siri Paiboun, now retired as the best (and often only) coroner in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. A Buddhist monk disappears. He was sheltered by Siri and his wife, Madame Daeng. He left a note asking them to smuggle a fellow monk back across the Mekong River to Thailand. The pair soon find themselves not only investigating the monk’s disappearance, but also a trio of murders that took place on a single night in 1979. A whodunit with a slight supernatural twist, I Shot The Buddha shines in its wit and its multifaceted characters, set against a backdrop of the conflict between communism and spirituality. – Andrew Salomon

The Bone SparrowThe Bone Sparrow
Zana Fraillion (Orion)
Book monster
Madeleine L’Engle said: “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” This is what Zana Fraillion has done with her heart-shredding tale of Subhi, a Rohingya refugee who lives in an Australian immigration detention centre. This young storyteller and his sidekick, a Shakespearian rubber duck, take readers into the camp where hope is a scarcity and residents yearn to be visible to a society that would prefer to forget they exist. His only connection to the outside world is Jimmie, a motherless girl, who lives on the other side of the fence. Together, through their shared love of stories, a friendship is born. A must-read for all ages. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

How To Sound CulturedHow To Sound Cultured: Master the 250 Names that Intellectuals Love To Drop Into Conversation
Hubert van den Bergh & Thomas W Hodgkinson (Icon)
Book brain
Hodgkinson recently wrote in a Telegraph piece that he and his co-author had only two rules when compiling the list of philosophers, scientists, poets and artists included in this book: the first was that each name had to be one that was bandied about by intellectual show-offs and the second was that it had to be one that made one feel personally insecure because we either knew nothing about the person or because we were aware that we ought to know a little bit more. These short, punchy bios are not only unusual bits of info but are also downright funny. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The One ManThe One Man
Andrew Gross (Pan Macmillan)
Book thrill
The Nazis, the Holocaust, and the race to develop the atom bomb are subjects that never get tired: this well-researched action adventure combines all three. Despite co-authoring five books with James Patterson, Andrew Gross is a good writer, and this story is close to his religious and cultural roots. The US sends a spy to infiltrate Auschwitz and rescue a Jewish scientist, the one man with the knowledge the Manhattan Project desperately needs. Ranging from chess to electromagnetic physics and romance, with great escapes and a couple of exciting twists in between, The One Man is the perfect distraction, and not just for World War II buffs. – Aubrey Paton

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Arresting accounts: Andrew Brown and Paul McNally discuss their books Good Cop, Bad Cop and The Street

Published in the Sunday Times

Arresting accounts: Andrew Brown and Paul McNally discuss their books Good Cop, Bad Cop and The Street
The StreetGood Cop, Bad Cop


In our latest “aeroplane conversation”, Andrew Brown and Paul McNally discuss their books about bribery, honesty and hardship in the police service:

Brown: How fortuitous is this, Paul? To end up sitting next to you on this plane, me flying to Johannesburg with the usual trepidation, you fleeing the sleepy Mother City to return home. I’ve just finished The Street – great book, congratulations. An important book, I think. Interesting – and difficult – for me as a cop to read this perspective on corruption in the police. Do you feel the research confirmed existing fears you already harboured? Did you go out looking for – or anticipating – this story?

McNally: Thanks very much. Even though I discovered a range of corrupt relationships between the police and drug dealers in Johannesburg, writing the book and interviewing police officers in their homes made me incredibly sympathetic towards them. The conditions and lives we force on our police is astoundingly horrid. I set out to write about corruption, but found stories of how everyday South Africans are pushed into a world of drugs and murder and how they are forced to adapt and survive. I’ve just finished reading your book, Good Cop Bad Cop, which I loved. I was fascinated by how you balanced your duties as a police reservist with those of a suburban father. In The Street I found people really battling to reconcile a mission of fighting against crime and personal goals, and yet you seem to have managed it. Tell me more?

Brown: One of the chapters in the book is titled “Schizophrenia” and that is really what it feels like sometimes. The chapter describes me saying goodbye to my 20-year-old son as I go on duty – all kitted out in bullet-proof vest and heavy boots – and his habitual refrain, “Don’t get shot, dad.” It hits my heart every time, week after week. You never get used to it. I think he knows that, he wants me to be awake, to be conscious about what it is I am going into. And all around the country, every evening, every morning, hundreds of policemen and women are bidding their children farewell and getting the same poignant reply. Most of them will come home. But not all. And it takes its toll. You describe that in The Street – policemen like Khaba, trying to do the right thing, trying to stay sane, trying to keep the moral compass working.

McNally: Khaba was the officer who brought me into this world of watching the police and the bribes they receive from the drug dealers. For my first visit with Khaba he was “leaking” – he wanted to speak to someone about what he was seeing in the police. Khaba was on the run from KwaZulu-Natal for trying to prosecute two of his colleagues for torture. They threatened to burn his house down when he said he would talk. And when he fled to Joburg he was forced to live in the police barracks for his own protection. He lived in a single room not much larger than a double bed. His meticulous scrubbing with bleach of his tiny room and the sharp creases of his running shorts revealed Khaba as a proud man whose poor financial state didn’t sit well with him. He believed his poverty was a sign of him being clean and not taking bribes. He would tell me there were colleagues of his in the force who were swarming around, hungry to collect their bribes. He believed himself to be different from these men. He was offered bribes himself every day, but a more powerful draw was the opportunity to expose colleagues — and this could directly endanger him. I wanted to know how you stay motivated as a reservist when the police are so corrupted?

Brown: I think your book was challenging for me because my view of the police is not of an institution that is inherently corrupt, and you painted a picture that was unsettling. I struggle with senior police management who seem sometimes to have no structured plan, and with political interference in policy and decision-making. But on the ground, working where I do, I don’t see corruption as endemic. Maybe I am naïve, or just lucky, but I have never seen one of my colleagues take a bribe. I have been offered bribes many times – the drunk middle class are quick to offer their wallets. I was offered a considerable bribe by a drug dealer once – he had a lot of cocaine on him! I don’t know if the area you were working in was particularly bad, or if you were looking for it harder than I do (although it did seem to be pretty blatant). I was hoping that you had just picked the rotten part of the apple. But I fear that your depiction may not be inaccurate and that the problem is getting worse. What is your sense of that?

McNally: I am encouraged to hear that you have never seen anyone take a bribe, but I can assure you that Ontdekkers where The Street is set isn’t the only patch where cops and drug dealers have a financial understanding. What was most fascinating for me was how residents are asked to choose where they stand on a daily basis. And they feel that the more they protest against the police, the more likely they aren’t going to receive support and protection from the cops when they truly need it.


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Are publishers afraid of new ideas? Margaret von Klemperer examines the trend of updating Jane Austen and Shakespeare

By Margaret von Klemperer for The Witness

EligibleWhat is happening to creative imagination? Killed off by a push for profit? These questions are prompted by the arrival on my desk of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible for review. I’ve been looking forward to this – Sittenfeld’s American Wife was a terrific book – and with Eligible, she has been persuaded to join in Harper Collins’s Austen Project.

I thought she might rescue one of the silliest ideas to come from a publishing house in recent years – not as daft as adult colouring-in, but close. The plan was for bestselling writers to “update” Jane Austen’s novels into a contemporary setting, keeping the basic plot. First was Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility (the ampersand to distinguish it from Austen’s version, not that anyone was likely to confuse the two). She could have been a good choice, but she lacked Austen’s delicate sense of irony.

Then we had Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. I was never going to be easy to convince as this is my favourite Austen, and it was a thumping dud. The plot, which worked in the early 19th Century is disastrously wrong for the 21st, and McCall Smith’s central character is irredeemably nasty in a way Austen’s never is. Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey was harmless but unmemorable. Comedy of manners is tricky when manners have changed so much in a couple of hundred years, and this one fell flat.

They all flopped. Good writers being laced into cripplingly tight corsets. So on to Sittenfeld. She has moved Pride and Prejudice to Cincinnati, called it Eligible after the television dating show in which “Chip” Bingley has been a participant, and produced a lively, hefty (it clocks in at 514 pages compared to the 369 of my battered old P&P) romp. The Bennet girls are older than in the original. Jane teaches yoga; Lizzy is a magazine journalist; Mary a perpetual student and Kitty and Lydia do nothing except tone themselves in the gym and live off their parents. Mrs Bennet is a compulsive shopper and Mr Bennet has been too idle to keep control of his money, so times are about to get very hard. Darcy is an arrogant neurosurgeon, alarmed by the extreme tackiness of the Bennets. It is engaging, and Sittenfeld has found clever ways to deal with things like elopement that would hardly cause a flutter now. Fun, but for a writer of Sittenfeld’s ability, it seems rather pointless.

So, who are the readers for this wobbly collection? Austenites are unlikely to be blown away by a feeble attempt to update their favourite characters. We also know the stories, so narrative tension is long gone. Anyone who hasn’t read Austen is hardly likely to be sent to the originals. Trollope, McDermid, McCall Smith and Sittenfeld fans may be a bit bewildered.

Personally, I blame Colin Firth’s delectable wet shirt moment in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Suddenly, Austen was sexy. So greedy publishers’ eyes turned to pound and dollar signs at the thought of a contemporary bestseller hitched to sexy old Jane. I haven’t seen an announcement of new names attached to Persuasion or Mansfield Park, so I hope this is the end of it.

There has been life in Austen for authors happy to use their own imaginations rather than be dragooned into a publisher’s template. PD James had fun with Death Comes to Pemberley, taking the Pride and Prejudice story forward, and even better was Jo Baker’s dive below stairs in the Bennet household in Longbourn, which is a fine standalone novel. A homage to Austen that digs a little deeper.

Poor old Austen isn’t the only one getting the treatment. There is the Hogarth Shakespeare series where – wait for it – bestselling contemporary authors are reworking the plots of some of the plays into novels. This is actually more successful – a borrowed cloak rather than a straitjacket. Three have crossed my path up to this point, all using problematic Shakespeare texts. Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is a new look at The Winter’s Tale. The novel is a winner, being clever, sparky, moving and managing to make a kind of sense of what, with apologies to Will, is a distinctly weird story.

Ann Tyler’s Vinegar Girl takes on the rampantly un-PC The Taming of the Shrew. The play is seldom staged these days, but here another writer at the top of her game has picked it up and shaken the pieces into a glorious jeu d’esprit with a fabulously silly twist. When it comes to Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name, I admit to not being Jacobson’s greatest fan, but the novel has been well received and Jacobson has wisely not tried to update the plot but has tackled the underlying themes. Still to come, we have Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, published this month as Hag Seed and set in a prison; Tracy Chevalier’s Othello; Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet; Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.

But even if all of them, the Austens and the Shakespeares, worked well, I would still ask: what is it for? It is as if publishers, like movie makers who seem to rely on films based on comic book superheroes to win at the box office, are afraid of genuinely new ideas. Attach the names of Austen or Shakespeare to something and make money. But two or four hundred years from now, I doubt if any of the updates will still be around. Unlike the originals.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is published by Harper Collins.

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Past imperfect: Michele Magwood talks to Marianne Thamm about her ‘memoir of sorts’, Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela And Me

Marianne Thamm struggled to come to terms with her father’s Nazi history, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Marianne ThammHitler, Verwoerd, Mandela And MeHitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me
Marianne Thamm (Tafelberg)

Marianne Thamm subtitles this book “A memoir of sorts” but it is less a memoir than an exorcism of some vexing ghosts. “I see it as a ritual slaughtering of a beast to my ancestors,” she laughs. “All of us require at some stage to go back and excavate a bit – to try and see who we are with the politics, the religion, the culture and everything else sloughed off, to try and find an essential self.”

Thamm is a towering figure on the intellectual landscape of the country, a ranging, incisive commentator with a quick wit and a gutsy mien. As the ghostwriter of such books as the bestselling I Have Life: Alison’s Journey she’s proved to be a fluent and sympathetic voice for harrowing stories. As a hard news reporter on the Cape Times in the ’80s she calmly covered appalling violence. She’s a one-woman fight club swinging at the bullies, the brainless, the venal.

It’s fascinating, then, to learn what forged this mettle. Thamm was born in the UK to parents who found refuge there after World War II. Her mother, Barbara, was a near-illiterate Portuguese woman who had fled the septic regime of the dictator Salazar to work “in service” in England. Her father, Georg, was a full-blown Nazi, first a member of the Hitler Youth, then a pilot in the Luftwaffe, who had been captured and interned in a POW camp in England. When the war ended he chose to stay in England, and met the gorgeous Barbara at a social club for immigrants and refugees. He proposed to her using a Portuguese-German dictionary. Like many who had walked out of the ruins of the war, they were eager to start a family, to live a “normal” life.

Her father’s past dogged Thamm from an early age, especially after watching The World At War series on TV. They argued about it constantly. She would ask him what his response had been to Kristallnacht. “I vas just a boy on a bicycle,” he replied. “I was very hard on him,” she says, “because for me he embodied Nazism. I was horrified that he was of me and I was of him.” But, she adds, “I see in retrospect that by casting him as the negative, the dark side, I could exonerate myself from exploring my own dark side, as a white South African.”

She could never understand why they chose to move to South Africa, and ultimately learned to her horror that he had been recruited by the Department of Defence in Pretoria to work on a “classified” project. Georg, a toolmaker, made the trigger for the first R1 rifle. Worse, he handed the first one to Verwoerd himself on the factory floor.

Thamm rages at this karma. “Not only six degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Now Hendrik Verwoerd had entered the orbit.”

Growing up in the depressing suburbs north of Pretoria, Thamm was wild, feral, running with a pack of children from the rough neighbourhood. “I became a tomboy because of the freedom boys had,” she says. “To move through the world without being harassed I figured I had to pass as a boy.” Not that it stopped the casual predation of adult men: when a neighbour felt her up her father refused to believe her. When a cafe owner did the same, she told her mother who accosted him furiously. Thamm would threaten men with a smashed bottle if they tried anything. “I abhor violence but you need to stand up for yourself at times.”

Barbara was an enigma to her daughter. She lived for Marianne and her brother Albert and was protective of them, but Thamm knew very little about her upbringing in Portugal. She had a stroke when Thamm was 21 and lived, speechless, for the next 14 years. “I lost all source of benevolent love and light. It’s interesting in terms of metaphor that when she could speak she was silent, and then she became silent.”

It was only when Thamm became a parent herself that she came to truly appreciate her mother. As a gay woman, she had never considered motherhood. “I didn’t long for it. It was something that I never thought I would be.” Settled in a long-term relationship, though, she and her partner adopted two black daughters. “It has profoundly shifted me. They’ve made me real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.” Like her mother, she protects them fiercely, especially against the racism and sexism that “comes at them” constantly.

She’s preoccupied with the question, “How do we learn to become decent, fair and just?”

We are shaped, she says, by historical forces, the personal is the political. Hence the title of the book. “Leaders bring out the best and the worst in us. Hitler and Verwoerd brought out the absolute worst in the people they led. But Mandela – while there’s much to fault about his first government – made people feel better about themselves at a very crucial time. He had moral authority.”

She’s come to terms with her father’s life and legacy. “We’d spoken through everything by the time he died. It was a blessed position to be in, to make peace with a parent. And I resolved that I was just going to try and be happy.”

•Listen to Marianne Thamm’s interview on the Magwood on Books Podcast:


Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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Temptation of a dangerous liaison: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Nape a Motana’s novel Hamba Sugar Daddy

Published in the Sunday Times

Hamba Sugar DaddyHamba Sugar Daddy
Nape à Motana (Jacana)

The setting of this novel is Mamelodi Township in Tshwane, where we meet 18-year-old Rolivhuwa Ramabulana, a pupil at Solomon Mahlangu High School. Here we are introduced to the lived world of township blessers and potential blessees.

By the second page, you can smell the stench of the river of poverty in which young Rolivhuwa is swimming. And already on the second page, one of her peers advises her that she could use her “God-given body to make good pocket money”. Rolivhuwa, her friends and family then explore the author’s vexatious subject: the blesser/blessee phenomenon.

Kedibone, Rolivhuwa’s high school friend, lures her into the world of blesser relationships. Khomisa is her born-again friend who tries but fails to stop Rolivhuwa from becoming a sugar baby. Bigvy Masemola, a middle-aged Mamelodi businessman, soon becomes Rolivhuwa’s “blessing on two legs”, as he calls himself.

Rolivhuwa is a reluctant blessee from the start. At the heart of the book is her struggle to get out of this relationship. Tellingly, her mother, who sees her daughter’s blesser as “a big-hearted man”, is complicit in the exploitation of her daughter. She opposes Rolivhuwa’s attempts to get out of the relationship at every turn.

To her mother’s chagrin, Rolivhuwa eventually breaks free from the loveless relationship, which is characterised by painful sex and rape. Later, she discovers that she is HIV-positive and becomes an anti-blesser-activist and the lead actor in a play titled “Hamba Sugar Daddy” (go away, sugar daddy). She also finds love.

Although the plot is simple, the subject of this novel is socially significant, given the blight of the blesser phenomenon and the high rate of new HIV infections in the 15 to 24 age group. There is very little nuance, paradox or irony in the plot or in the personalities and motivations of the main characters. After Rolivhuwa moves out of her blesser relationship, the novel changes into a kind of superficial motivational book.

Follow Tinyiko Maluleke on Twitter @ProfTinyiko

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Book Bites: 9 October 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

Three Moments of ExplosionThree Moments of An Explosion: Stories
China Miéville (Picador)
Book fiend
The short-story collection starts with a bang and maintains that level of excitement and terror throughout. Die-hard Miéville fans might struggle with the new format at first (can’t he just write more Bas-Lag books, already?) but after the titular story you’ll be hooked and thirsting for more. Stand-out stories are “Säcken” – a research trip to the German countryside unleashes untold horrors – and “After the Festival” – a macabre depiction of mass fandom and addiction. Miéville not only experiments with the short story form, he reinvents it. It’s disturbing and brilliant. – Annetjie van Wynegaard @Annetjievw

Hot MilkHot Milk
Deborah Levy (Penguin Random House)
Book buff
Sofia has abandoned her anthropology doctorate to tend to her mother, who suffers from mysterious pain and paralysis. The two women enact a filial dance of control and co-dependence, love and resentment. When her mother limps, so does Sofia. “Her legs are my legs.” In desperation, they travel to Spain to consult a doctor. While her mother undergoes the doctor’s (possibly quack) ministrations, Sofia begins to overcome her own existential malaise – she steals a fish, frees a dog, and takes lovers (male and female). Hot Milk is meticulously crafted and vivid with myth and landscape. Levy moves gracefully between pathos, poetry, humour and intriguing internal imaginings. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

Lily and the OctopusLily & The Octopus
Steven Rowley (Simon & Schuster)
Book hug
Ted’s unbreakable bond with his dachshund Lily is what keeps him going, giving his existence shape and meaning. Together, they’re an unbeatable team, a mutual adoration society. It’s the relationship that Ted can count on every day without fail, his one true friend. But when an evil “octopus” suddenly affixes itself to his beloved Lily’s head, threatening everything, he’s thrown into terrible turmoil. Hilarious, sardonic, imaginative and also incredibly sad, this is a must-read for anybody who has ever loved a pet. – Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin

The Couple Next DoorThe Couple Next Door
Shari Lapena (Bantam Press)
Book thrill
Remember the McCanns who left their daughter Madeleine alone while they had supper nearby? Anne and Marco Conti do the same thing: when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they leave six-month-old Cora alone and dine with the neighbours. Like Madeleine, Cora is stolen; the police suspect the parents and more and more revelations point to them. A ransom is demanded and paid, but the baby is not returned and police fear the worst. The Couple Next Door is excellent, especially for a debut, with good, tight writing and a thrilling twister of a plot. – Aubrey Paton

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A life of striving and compassion: Tiah Beautement chats to Athol Williams about his memoir Pushing Boulders

Published in the Sunday Times

Pushing BouldersPushing Boulders
Athol Williams (Staging Post)

“Life is about the dream that lay on the other side of the boulders,” says Athol Williams, in his inspirational memoir Pushing Boulders. On its surface, it is a heartwarming tale of a Cape Flats boy making good. But it asks hard questions about the impact of privilege in education, the workplace and everyday life.

“I felt that we need records of the lives of ordinary South Africans who lived through apartheid,” Williams says of his motives in writing the book.

“While the stories of the Mandelas, Tambos, Sisulus, etc have been told, we are largely blind to what life was like for ordinary people struggling through the burdens of apartheid and who still suffer under the enduring effects of it.”

His path required great courage, tenacity and luck.

“Many of us forgo our dreams and thus live lives of mediocrity at best,” he says.

“I think this is because we have romantic ideas of fulfilling dreams rather than the appreciation that fulfilling dreams can require effort, struggle [and] sacrifice.

“To be alive is to walk a path to take a journey; it matters less where the path leads than that we have the courage to walk.”

Despite his tremendous efforts, Williams almost didn’t make it. His tale demonstrates why commitment to hard work and study is not enough when born into inequality. His achievements required others to boost him over the boulders of poverty, classism and racism.

He says: “A lot [of talented minds are] lost when we systematically oppress a group of people – we rob the oppressed group of realising their full potential which in turn robs society of this group’s contribution. At a spiritual level I think we also rob everyone of realising our unity as humanity.”

Much of Williams’s life has been focused on his own dreams. After the death of his father, however, he rethought his definition of success. He searched for ways to help those still living in the disadvantaged areas of South Africa.

He describes this time as, “A devastating experience, one that made me question so much for the first time – where should I live, what should I do … it was the start of me really looking away from myself and considering my place in the lives of others.”

Williams, an award-winning poet, is familiar with putting himself out there through his words. “I do reveal a tremendous amount in the memoir and have tried to reveal as much of who I am, my fears and desires, but the nature of poetry is such that reveals your soul, which I think memoir can hint at but not fully reveal.”

The book isn’t perfect; among other things, the prose could have been tightened. Despite this, Pushing Boulders should be widely read.

“I always hope that my writing serves as a catalyst for constructive conversations,” Williams says, and this book achieves precisely that.

Follow Tiah Beautement on Twitter @ms_tiahmarie

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Book Bites: 2 October 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

This Must Be The PlaceThis Must Be The Place
Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)
Book buff
Few authors write about relationships with such acuity as Maggie O’Farrell, and in this seventh novel she delivers another deeply satisfying story. American linguistics professor Daniel Sullivan lives in the remote countryside of Ireland with his reclusive wife. When the story opens she is brandishing a rifle, seeing off a stalker lurking on their property. She is a world-famous French-English actress – think Angelina Jolie-meets-Brigitte Bardot – who had scandalously vanished from the public eye several years before. They are both wounded souls but are quietly raising their children in a home-schooled idyll when Daniel happens to hear a familiar voice on the radio, that of his first great love. He is shocked to learn that she died soon after being interviewed and this revelation tips him over into a downward spiral of guilt and regret, a spiral that begins to pull everything he has built up into a vortex. With her hallmark style of multiple narrators and switching timelines, O’Farrell carefully examines the notion of love as redemption. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Last OneThe Last One
Alexandra Oliva (Penguin)
Book thrill
Give any reality show half a chance, and you will be hooked: In the Dark is the standard Survivor-style product in which 12 strangers compete for the million-dollar prize – except there is no time limit to this show. It ends when there is only one competitor left – and Zoo is determined it will be her. Things start to go badly wrong, but Zoo thinks the corpses are mere special effects, not realising a pandemic has struck the US, killing millions. Or is she right – could it be part of “the game”? Gripping, intriguing and suspenseful, it is a thrillingly impressive debut. – Aubrey Paton

Marc Raabe (Bonnier)
Book thrill
Translated from German (Schnitt) and set in Berlin, this debut slasher novel is much better than the lurid cover suggests. Gabriel is an antisocial security guard who spent years in a mental institution after the death of his parents when he was 11. Now 40, he is beginning to unfurl emotionally with the help of Liz, his pregnant girlfriend. When Liz is kidnapped, Gabriel becomes a vengeful angel who must maintain his sanity even as an unspeakable horror from his childhood returns to his memory. The tight plot, clean writing and complex protagonist make up for a somewhat cartoonish villain and superfluous segues into the machinations of TV corporations. – Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Ink and BoneInk and Bone
Lisa Unger (Simon & Schuster)
Book fling
Unger’s writing is the perfect mix of Stephen King’s creepy horror and Nora Roberts’s easy reads. It’s not just a mystery about a missing girl (Abbey is abducted in the woods), it’s also about how 20-year-old Finley has to find her psychic groove. Finley can see dead people. She also cannot stop hearing the “squeak-clink”, which is a clue to solving Abbey’s whereabouts. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Love is in the details: Russell Clarke talks to Garth Greenwell about his book What Belongs to You

Garth Greenwell wants you to know his book is gay and universal, writes Russell Clarke for the Sunday Times

What Belongs to YouWhat Belongs to You
Garth Greenwell (Picador)

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs To You catches one’s eye, not only for the striking jacket but for the shout on the cover, that quotes Hanya Yanagihara: “Language as beautiful and vivid as poetry.”

The shout proves prescient, as Greenwell is a poet by training. His opening salvo, with its taut writing and sheer scale of detail, conveys great depth of emotion.

What Belongs To You is the story of an unnamed American narrator, a teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, and his relationship with Mitko, a rent boy with whom he becomes deeply involved. Divided into three parts, the novel first outlines with frankness how the narrator meets and strikes up a relationship with Mitko, by cruising a bathroom in Sofia’s National Palace of Culture.

The second part, and the heart of the piece, is a 60-page paragraph that follows the narrator as he walks around Sofia contemplating the imminent death of his father and his painful childhood in Kentucky. The last section of the book fast forwards a few years, as the narrator and Mitko are reunited.

Greenwell is unapologetically queer. My first question to him is around how to define the genre of his novel, and how he feels about it being labelled queer fiction, but with a universal set of themes.

He takes delicate umbrage at the question.

“I would say that my only quarrel with how you just characterised the book is the word ‘but’. You know, that it’s a queer novel but universal.

“I think that what that does, that word ‘but’, which is a word we all use … ‘This is a book about black lives, but it’s universal,’ or ‘This is about trans lives, but it’s universal,’ and you think, ‘Well, no.’

“There is some kind of human experience that is not marked and characterised by race, gender, class, but by particulars. You know, literature is made out of particulars, art is made out of particulars, and I think the weird thing about literature is how it is only through brooding very deeply, as deeply as possible, into particulars, that it arrives at experience that is communicable across all of those categories.

“And it’s a book that I hope is written for queer people, in the sense that I hope it is a book that does not try to take queer lives and package them in a way to make them intelligible, or to make their value intelligible, to people who are antagonistic to queer lives.”

Greenwell is trained in opera, and is a poet, high school teacher and now novelist. The first section of the novel began life as a novella entitled Mitko.

“Mitko was the first fiction I’d ever written, it was the first prose I’d ever written. I’d always read novels voraciously, but never with an eye to craft. I’d always been a poet. When I finished that first section, what would become Mitko, I thought the story was done, I didn’t have any intimation that the story was going to continue.”

A friend suggested he send the piece to the Miami University Press Novella competition, and it won. It also won the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and a Lambda Award. Greenwell describes writing the second part of the book in a “white heat, a harsh, angry emotion”, on scraps of paper.

The last section was workshopped at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, of the TV show Girls fame.

Greenwell’s narrator is very attached to control. He appears to furnish the reader with everything we need to know, but it is in the contradictions that he embodies – desire tinged with fear, disclosure tinged with guardedness, the shifting roles of aggressor and complier (a specific relationship that the rent boy and narrator have) – that we discover that he isn’t really all he presents.

It’s tempting to try to figure out how much a novel reflects an author’s lived experience. “I wrote the book without thinking of myself as a fiction writer, without thinking of it as a novel I was going to publish. I wrote it while I was teaching high school, living in Bulgaria, feeling very isolated.”

It is this sense of isolation, of aloneness, of linguistic alienation that runs throughout the book as a theme – one many queer readers will recognise – a life of being outside, of othering, and this strikingly defines the narrator.

Greenwell is emphatic, though, that the book is a piece of crafted work that does not attempt to be a chronicle of his own life.

Follow Russell Clarke on Twitter @russrussy

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Books for the higher-brow selfie, by Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times


It’s cool to be seen reading again. The trendy folks are putting down their smartphones and picking up a book. It’s hip to be square, to be seen having an identity outside the digital world, even if it is only to Instagram that you are reading in the real world.

The settings are important – gastro pub/coffee shop, yacht/rowing boat, beach/lake/pool, bus/train station, or just on your couch with your dog/cat.

And the cool authors have books out now – one can be a total lit geek and be trendy at the same time.

Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in 10 years has just been published, Here I Am. Set in a period of three weeks, it focuses on a family in Washington DC going through a moment of crisis (marriage, life, existential) and how they are connected to a massive earthquake that has devastated the Middle East. It is filled with hefty themes of identity and political crisis and is 571 pages long – so it ticks all the boxes for lit bragging rights. And there is also Foer’s mind-blowing exchange of emails with Natalie Portman that The New York Times has published. Some say it’s painful and pretentious. That’s just more ticks.

Heroes of the FrontierDave Eggers is loved for many of his literary endeavours. McSweeney’s has a page that is one of the most irreverent and funny sites to go to daily and have a laugh, but it is also his not-for profit publishing house. His latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, is about Josie, a woman who takes her two children on a road trip into the Alaskan wilderness. It’s an examination of modern life with Eggers’s keen sense of observation and humour.
Known and Strange ThingsIf you want non-fiction, and still want the literary street cred, Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things is a collection of about 50 pieces on his thoughts from politics to photography. His book is filled with references to Seamus Heaney, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, James Baldwin and more. Plus the cover is totes beautiful for Instagramming.
Homo DeusYuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens (which was praised for cleverly explaining where we came from), has written his follow-up called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. It asks the ultimate question: where do we go from here? Besides delving into our scary digital future, the cover is also simple and beautiful and worthy of being on your Instagram.
And if you really want to impress, there’s always the Man Booker shortlist to get through.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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