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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Book Bites: 18 September 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

The Midnight WatchThe Midnight Watch
David Dyer (Atlantic Books)
This is an astoundingly good novel on the sinking of the Titanic, no doubt the most fictionalised ship of all time. Forget the romances, murders, mysteries and domestic dramas usually spun around that voyage: this book is based on real events. The SS Californian was within sight of the Titanic, close enough to see her lights. So why did she not go to her aid? Fictional journalist John Steadman interviews the crew, looking for answers. Real events, real people, meticulous research and excellent writing transform this roman à clef into a literary thriller. – Aubrey Paton

How to Find Love in A BookshopHow to Find Love in a Bookshop
Veronica Henry (Orion)
After his partner’s death, Julius Nightingale opens a bookshop in the Cotswolds. He had met the love of his life in a bookshop and believes that’s just what the town needs – love. 32 years later, his daughter Emilia finds herself stumped. The bookshop is running at a loss and there’s a property developer breathing down her neck to sell. But as more and more customers share their stories about what Julius and the bookshop means to them, Emilia realises that selling is just not an option. A feel-good novel with frills – the perfect antidote to a bad news-headlines kinda day. – SA Partridge @Sapartridge

Imagine Me GoneImagine Me Gone
Adam Haslett (Penguin Random House)
When John is hospitalised for depression, his fiancée Margaret decides to marry him anyway. The story of this couple and their three children is told over decades by alternating family members, and the intimate and elegant prose captures the individual characters and their inner lives and struggles. John’s depression returns, with tragic results. The eldest son Michael shares his father’s illness, becoming increasingly anxious and, eventually, debilitatingly drug-dependent. The book is an empathetic and candid portrayal of the effects of mental illness on the family – the poignancy of the devotion and loyalty, as well as the relentless frustration and fear. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

The King's AssassinThe King’s Assassin
Angus Donald (Sphere)
Anyone who has missed the first six novels of The Outlaw Chronicles, and who loves medieval blood-and-thunder, had better get going with The Outlaw and work up to this one. Alan Dale (sweet singer and harder-than-nails warrior) still narrates, dictating to a monk, his story of the devilishly charming, ruthless and brilliant Robin Hood, mighty foul-mouthed Little John, and others equally interesting. Dark betrayal, torture and personal complications interlace with Donald’s usual roaring action. Never have the Robin Hood legends or the 12th century been as vivid, as bloodily real and as stirring as here. – David Pike @pikedavey

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They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars

Published in the Sunday Times

They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars


The PeculiarsThe Peculiars
Jen Thorpe (Penguin)

The Peculiars at a glance seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist of books about mental issues. But it’s an easy read, although Jen Thorpe doesn’t make light of any of the issues in her debut novel, which is part mystery, part romance, part family drama and part political thriller.

It’s about phobias and Thorpe has a deft touch discussing what is a debilitating problem for a lot of people as she had a fear of driving herself – the same phobia her main character Nazma has. “I understood how frustrating it could be to be limited by what type of public transport was available, and safe. This was all before Uber so I was often stuck wanting to go somewhere but limited by my own fear.”

Nazma signs up for group therapy sessions at the Centre for Improved Living. The centre brings together a quirky lot of other characters – among them Sam, whom Nazma and Ruth (the director of the centre who has to hide her own tics) have both taken a liking to. There’s also the racist Simon who has a fear of immigrants, and Nomboniso, a yoga teacher, who suffers from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. All of them are relatable and Thorpe gives them real phobias to work through.

“I obviously had my own personal experience and ideas about how I’d overcome it, but I wanted to make sure that a group setting like I’d envisioned could actually work for the characters. So I read up quite a bit … the book is certainly not meant to be taken as psychological theory, but I did make sure it was at least possible to try.”

And then there is Cape Town. It’s not the sunny, picturesque, postcard version. It’s the harsh winter – a windy, grey and rainy city. Thorpe makes it feel as if it is another obstacle to deal with when you have particular phobias. “I am originally from the warm, sunny North Coast, and all you see of Cape Town is sunny perfect pictures. Then I got here and my first winter felt like a lifetime of wet jeans and damp shoes. It really felt like a force to be reckoned with … when the wind blows here it still feels like a character to me.”

There are many threads that Thorpe pulls on: there’s Jericho, the homeless man who when not pissing on the wall outside the centre, spouts visions that seem to come true; Nazma’s mother who has a secret fear of her own; and the minister of wellbeing who was insulted by Ruth and now seems to be on the warpath.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Glowing all the way to the grave: Michele Magwood reviews The Radium Girls

Kate Moore gives us a cautionary tale of corporate evil, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
Kate Moore (Simon & Schuster)

It usually started with their teeth. Young female factory workers in the United States were complaining of toothache, and it being early in the last century, when cosmetic dentistry was unheard of, the problem teeth were simply removed. But their mouths didn’t heal, and more teeth were rotting. The dentist in Newark, New Jersey, was confounded, until the day he tried to remove yet another tooth from a young woman’s mouth, and her entire jawbone came away in his hand.

The patient’s name was Mollie Maggia and she worked at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. When she died soon afterwards, the doctors insisted the cause was syphilis.

In this gripping account of appalling corporate malfeasance and awing courage, Kate Moore presents a roll call of the bright young things who went to work in the factories producing luminous dials for clocks and watches and also for military instruments. The job was well-paid and glamorous. The paint they used contained radioactive radium, which made it glow. There was so much of it in the air that the girls’ clothes sparkled with it in the dark; and they used to paint their teeth with it to make them shine at the dances. They were told that it was completely safe, even beneficial, in small doses. As ludicrous as it seems now, radium was marketed as “liquid sunshine”, and infused into everything from face creams to chocolate, butter and lipstick. Radium-laced lingerie promised to perk up sex lives; taken orally it was claimed to act as Viagra.

To paint the dials the girls were instructed to suck the end of the paintbrush into a fine tip – “lip-pointing” – thereby ingesting the radium-laced paint, which settled into their bones.

The girls in New Jersey began to fall ill. Apart from tooth decay they grew grotesque bone sarcomas, their paper-thin skin split open, their leg bones shortened on one side. Their spines disintegrated and they had to wear steel braces. Death certificates stated random illnesses like diphtheria and heart attack as cause of death.

Then in 1925 a pioneering doctor, Harrison Martland, proved the connection between the paint and the illnesses, but the company denied responsibility. It lied to the workers, covering up evidence with its own “expert” advisers. The women didn’t have the money to pay lawyers – they could barely keep up with their medical bills.

Over in Illinois another radium painting studio opened, but the staff were unaware of the danger. There was little sharing of medical information at that time so doctors in the town didn’t make the connection, and after a few years the agonising ailments started up there, too.

This time a young lawyer took the case pro bono for a group of dial painters who had been given only months to live, accusing the company of “cold, calculating, money-making murder”. The press went big with it, dubbing the girls “the living dead” and igniting enormous sympathy. There were photos of dramatic bedside hearings, interviews with families, and a ghoulish demonstration of lip-pointing for the court by a victim who had had one of her arms removed.

The case was long and drawn-out but they finally won, after eight appeals, in 1938.

Moore started investigating the radium girls when she directed a play about them called These Shining Lives. She was shocked to find so little information about the women themselves, so she set about researching them, travelling to the US to visit the sites of the story, interviewing the girls’ relatives and raiding newspaper and court archives.

By centering her book on the girls themselves, their backgrounds, personalities, friendships and loves, she pays homage to their short lives. There is some comfort in knowing that because of them, proper safety standards were introduced to protect not only a new generation of dial painters, but also those working with plutonium in making atomic bombs. The girls’ case transformed workers’ rights in the US, leaving a crucial legacy of legislation to ensure safe working conditions. “The radium girls did not die in vain,” Moore writes.

There’s an eerie footnote to the story. Years after she was buried, Mollie Maggia’s remains were exhumed to test the syphilis diagnosis on her death certificate. When her casket was opened, they found her bones were still glowing faintly.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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Andy Martin describes the unusual process of writing Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

Published in the Sunday Times

Reacher Said NothingReacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me
Andy Martin (Penguin Random House)

“I’ve just written this great four-word sentence,” said Lee Child. “Come and have a look.” He ushered me into his apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park. He works in an office in the back, adorned with framed pages of the New York Times bestseller lists featuring his own novels sitting squarely at no. 1. I perched on the couch and he hit me with his four words. They were good words. High quality, high value. Each word emerging from his keyboard was worth $100. Each of his books is at least 100 000 words long. Make Me, the book he was working on, was his 20th Jack Reacher novel. You do the math.

Child, numero uno thriller writer, a giant in airport bookstores around the world, is half-poet, half-pirate, both ruthless materialist and dreamy head-in-the-clouds fantasist. The real mystery was: what the hell was I doing there? Which is a question a lot of his friends were asking. “Lee, hold on a second. You’ve got a Cambridge academic sitting behind you watching you write? You cannot be serious, man! He’s going to put you off your stroke. He is a literary voyeur!”

It was a crazy idea, I admit. Bear witness to the moment of creation, be there while a writer is writing and write about him writing in real time. Follow the composition of an entire novel from the first word (“Moving”) all the way through to the last word (“needle”). Capture the process at close quarters, try to climb inside the writer’s head, spectate while the words are spun into a book, like watching an alchemist transform lead into gold. Complete madness, obviously.

But Child said, “Yes, cool idea. You’d better get over here. I’m starting next Monday.” He always starts a new book on September 1, it’s a religion with him. It could have been any writer, in theory. But Donna Tartt takes 10 years, so I crossed her off. And Albert Camus was dead. I saw Child as not just a bestselling phenomenon, but as a serious writer whose first book, Killing Floor, reads like a sequel to Camus’s The Outsider.

Child has this theory that anyone in the world might want to kill quite a few people, given the opportunity. Jack Reacher kills people on our behalf. He enacts the revenge we so rarely get the chance to carry out ourselves. He is a Messiah and avenging angel all rolled into one. And he is like a kid, just a very big one (1.95m and 113kg).

Those four words? Reacher is surveying the street before breaking into a house. It’s empty. “No eyes, no interest,” Child writes. A characteristic structure: “No x, no y.” No hell, no heaven. A double negation. Notice that, in those four words, Reacher is an inaction hero. And this for me is what makes Reacher work, as a protagonist. Of course he beats people to death with his elbows. But he is also a philosopher who thinks his way through his fights.

Child is the same when it comes to writing. I didn’t really have to ask him questions. He was like Lionel Messi running rings around the opposition and at the same time commentating on what he is doing and exactly how he is going to score.

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‘I did not intend the book to be my resignation letter’ – Andrew Brown on Good Cop, Bad Cop: Confessions of a Reluctant Policeman

Reservist Andrew Brown tells William Saunderson-Meyer why his hopes for a noble new SA police service hang in tatters

‘I did not intend the book to be my resignation letter’ – Andrew Brown on Good Cop, Bad Cop: Confessions of a Reluctant Policeman

Good Cop, Bad CopGood Cop, Bad Cop: Confessions of a Reluctant Policeman
Andrew Brown (Zebra Press)

After many years at the sharp end of policing, the cop who first made his debut in Street Blues: The Experiences of a Reluctant Policeman returns in a new collection of stories. The reluctant copper is Andrew Brown, an advocate, highly regarded author and long-serving police reservist. Good Cop, Bad Cop marks Brown’s passage from being a committed ANC activist to his present-day disillusionment, alienation and concern.

Street Blues was written, says Brown, in a kind of literary time-out, after he had won the Sunday Times fiction award for his novel Coldsleep Lullaby. “I felt completely intimidated by winning the prize and it had directly the opposite effect to what a prize is supposed to achieve, in that I felt intimidated and not sure whether I would be able to write fiction again.

“Now I’ve come back to the autobiographical short story, not simply to try to show what it’s like being a policeman, but more as a confessional … to express my concern and anguish at where policing is going in South Africa.”

The watershed moment for Brown was Marikana in 2012. “[It] brought home to me that the ANC, my party, the movement for which I took risks as a young activist in the apartheid years, is failing to deliver.

“I’m not here to bash anyone. I accept that Good Cop, Bad Cop might spell the end of my work as a reservist if it causes unhappiness at some high managerial level. But it is not my intention that the book should be my resignation letter.”

Whether the career of Sersant Brown of Mowbray police station can survive the political fallout remains to be seen. Managerial drones, the political appointees that he mocks so amusingly in the book, are generally not of a forgiving nature.

They will hate, too, one of the themes that links Brown’s vignettes – that the present-day police service is betraying not only its constitutional duties but also a unique burden, the promise to be different to the police of the apartheid state.

“The police force of the 1980s was all about quelling justifiable community protest. Some 20 years into democracy, not that much has changed.

“Mostly the protests are justifiable. It is not as if ordinary South Africans like throwing stones and burning tyres. They feel they have no other option. And in response, our policing is stepping backwards to the 1980s, while at the same time stepping forwards to another Marikana.

“Policing should be about dealing with the occasional aberrant individual, it should not be about dealing with the consequences of the failure of the state to provide constitutionally mandated services.”

Throughout the book, Brown draws a clear distinction between cops on the street and political appointees in the upper ranks. “Ordinary cops, by and large, are honest, trustworthy people. Every day they put their lives on the line for your or my flatscreen TV but you can be damn sure they don’t have flatscreens in their own working-class homes.”

Follow William Saunderson-Meyer on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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Human tragedies – Margaret von Klemperer reviews East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands

Philippe Sands gives a gripping lawyer’s-eye-view of genocide, writes Margaret von Klemperer for the Sunday Times

East West StreetEast West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Don’t be misled by the subtitle with its hint of dusty legal libraries. Philippe Sands, though he is a legal academic, has created an utterly compelling book. Its heart is in the city of Lvov, or Lwow, or Lemburg, and currently Lviv, one of those places that has lurched between the Austrian empire, Poland, Russia, Germany and now Ukraine, changing its name to suit its masters.

Linked to the city are four men: Sands’s grandfather Leon Buchholz, who was born there; Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who were both involved in the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials; and one of the nastiest men in the dock, Hans Frank, the brutal governor of German-occupied Poland who was known as “the butcher of Warsaw”.

Sands interweaves the personal stories of his characters with wider issues. The three Jews – Buchholz, Lauterpacht and Lemkin – escaped from the Nazis. Most members of their extended families were not so fortunate. Like many Holocaust survivors, none of them spoke much about their family history, and Sands has searched records, across Europe and beyond, to piece together the scandals, loves, disasters and day-to-day happenings that make up the human condition.

He does the same for Frank, though there is less about his childhood. During the 1930s, he was Adolf Hitler’s personal lawyer. Sands made contact with Frank’s youngest son, Niklas, and the two struck up a surprising friendship. Some of the most moving passages in the book are those dealing with Niklas Frank, who keeps a photograph of the body of his hanged father in his wallet: “To make sure he is dead.” How the children of war criminals deal with their patrimony has been the subject of many studies: here Sands gives us the stark reality in a poignant portrait.

He opens and closes his book with the Nuremberg Trials, and again, he makes his retelling personal, mentioning the 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg, in which Spencer Tracy as a judge flirted with Marlene Dietrich as the widow of a German officer. While the reader knows the outcome of the trials, in places Sands’s book reads like a legal thriller.

Lauterpacht and Lemkin were not friends, and their different approaches to war crimes play out to this day. Lauterpacht’s focus was on crimes against humanity, dealing with the individual, while Lemkin’s passion was for the group, whether defined by race or some other criterion. Before the war Lemkin had been involved in trying to avenge the mass killing of Armenians by Turks, and from him came the notion of genocide.

It was not always popular: the Americans were nervous that if genocide appeared on the statute books, their treatment of the Native American population could come under scrutiny. Lemkin, a volatile, emotional character, managed to get genocide mentioned in the Nuremberg judgment, but it was only later that the UN did what the Nuremberg judges failed to do and made genocide a crime under international law.

Sands deals with the debate, ongoing to this day, in a measured manner. Perhaps now, more than half-a-century after Nuremberg, genocide has inched ahead in the hierarchy of crimes. But, as Sands points out, by focusing on the group over the individual, there is potentially an increased risk of a group being singled out and targeted. All this makes for a thought-provoking, profound and immensely readable book; it hardly matters whether your taste is for legal argument or human stories.

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Book Bites: 11 September 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

Jilly Cooper (Bantam)
Book fling
Jilly Cooper brought class and humour to bodice rippers in the ’80s with Riders. Since then she has been the mistress of double entendres, the upper-middle-class lifestyle and entertaining sex. Mount! is the latest of her one-word exclamatory titles. Richard Campbell-Black is 60 and still the “lushest” man in England. All women want him and all men want to be him, but all RCB wants is for his horse to be champion stallion. With 90 human characters, 50 animal characters, six storylines and 600 pages, Mount! is a complex story that limps along. Alas, Super Cooper is now more Drooper Cooper. – Aubrey Paton

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury)
Book buff
It’s London, 1883, and dissatisfied telegraphist Thaniel Steepleton finds a strange gold pocket watch on his pillow. It then saves him (with a screeching alarm) from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. He tracks down the maker of the watch, the mysterious Japanese immigrant Keita Mori, and their lives become intertwined. Meanwhile, the unconventional Grace Carrow wants to continue her Oxford studies as a physicist before her parents force her to marry. By turns magical and unnerving, the tale is an interesting depiction of what life might have been like at the time. – Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin

The Woman in Cabin 10The Woman in Cabin 10
Ruth Ware (Harvill Secker)
Book thrill
Lo Blacklock is a journalist on a luxury cruise on behalf of a travel magazine. One night Lo borrows mascara from the woman next door. Later, Lo hears a splash and sees blood smeared across the neighbouring balcony. The woman is gone. But everyone insists the cabin was never occupied. They say no passengers or staff are missing. They suggest Lo saw things that do not exist. Lo knows she is being gaslighted but she doesn’t know how to prove it or find the killer. A page-turner of a psychological thriller. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Antonia Hayes (Little, Brown)
Book buff
This debut novel by an Australian newcomer is a fantastic story weaving the laws of physics into the ordinary world of Nathan, an extraordinary 13-year-old boy who is a physics genius. He discovers he has been diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome. He must now navigate his close bond with his mother while trying to learn more about his father Mark, who disappeared when he was four months old. Hayes is a wonderful storyteller with a remarkable talent to break down the complexities of the universe into the complexities of life, marriage and childhood. – Monica Laganparsad @Monickan

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Chains of events: Jennifer Malec speaks to Yaa Gyasi about her book Homegoing

Chains of events: Jennifer Malec speaks to Yaa Gyasi about her book Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi covers two continents and three centuries in an epic story of race, war, slavery and exploitation, writes Jennifer Malec for the Sunday Times

Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Random House)

Ambitious and absorbing, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing stands out, even among a recent crop of outstanding fiction by young African writers. The book spans seven generations and 300 years, and has been compared to Alex Haley’s Roots and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “a monster” – especially for a debut. Roxane Gay calls it “the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time”.

Gyasi, who was born in Ghana, made headlines last year when she was offered a seven-figure advance for the manuscript of Homegoing. “It’s been overwhelming but wonderful,” she says of the acclaim. “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child, so the warm reception that Homegoing has got has made me so grateful that I’ve been able to fulfil that dream.”

Gyasi has lived in the US since she was two, but Homegoing is charged with the mythology and customs of her home country. “My parents always made sure to foster community with other Ghanaian immigrants wherever we lived,” she says, “so I always had this extended family of elders who shared the stories, food and language.”

The geographical distance, however, gave her the room to explore Ghana’s history openly and honestly. “I had to build so much of the Ghanaian world in the book ‘from scratch’ rather than from that point of familiarity with which I approach the American world,” she says.

Homegoing begins in the 18th century on the Gold Coast, with two half-sisters: one is sold into slavery; the other marries a British slaver. While Esi is being kept captive in horrifying conditions in a dungeon, Effia is living in luxury on the castle’s upper levels. The narrative that follows traces the sisters’ descendants on each side of the Atlantic, with each chapter focusing on one character.

The structure of Gyasi’s novel is in delicate balance with the narrative, and the result is enjoyably pacy. Although abandoning a character just as you get to know them can feel frustrating, this feeling is soon soothed by the pleasure of immersing yourself in the next story.

Gyasi says the structural limitations she imposed on herself were a sacrifice to the whole. “I really wanted this novel to feel like a mosaic piece of artwork, one where the individual pieces were beautiful and strong, but when you step away and see the whole piece, the work gains its meaning. The long arch of this novel was so important to me that I didn’t mind moving on to a new chapter when the time came.”

Gyasi’s characters are not simply drawn and what sets Homegoing apart is its brutal honesty in depicting the complicity of Africans themselves in the slave trade. “Growing up in Alabama, I was kind of always thinking about race, and the irony of being from a country that had a role in the slave trade and ending up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt was never lost on me,” she says.

“When I took a trip to the Cape Coast Castle in 2009 and heard the tour guides talk about slavery — not just from the European perspective, but from the Ghanaian as well — I realised that you shouldn’t have to travel to Ghana to have this information.

“Complexity of individual human nature is crucial in a book like this,” she adds, “where there are so many characters and so much ground covered. I wanted all of the characters to be complex, even the minor ones.”

The last character we are introduced to is Marcus, a Stanford graduate student researching black history who in the course of his work finds himself overwhelmed by his subject matter and incapacitated with anger.

Homegoing itself deals with slavery, the Asante-Fante wars, British colonialism, Southern plantations, coal mining in Alabama and the convict-leasing system, the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent heroin epidemic.

But fiction offers some specific advantages in the face of such vast and troubling subject matter. “I think fiction gives you access to a kind of emotional truth that can be obscured when you have to adhere to the facts,” Gyasi says.

“Fiction can also collapse that distance between reader and character in a way that allows the reader to feel deeply empathetic for people who don’t even exist. It’s a powerful tool.”

Gyasi’s sketching of characters is occasionally patchy and some may argue that Homegoing suffers from a regrettable lack of levity. But the novel draws its strength from the accumulation of subjects, echoing its epigraph, an Akan proverb: “The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”

Homegoing’s momentum is captivating and its impact is powerful. It’s a forest well worth getting lost in.

Follow Jennifer Malec on Twitter @projectjennifer

* * * * *

Yaa Gyasi’s favourite books

The Door of No Return
The Door of No Return by William St Clair. This book takes you through the Cape Coast Castle in great detail. I used it in researching the first two chapters.


Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900
Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama 1865-1900 by Mary Ellen Curtin. I used this book to research H’s chapter and it was truly eye-opening. I knew very little about the convict leasing system and this book helped me enter the world.


One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A wonderful, bold book. Reading it made me feel expansive, like fiction could do anything.


Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I read this in my senior year of high school. It was the first book by a black woman that I had read and it gave me something to aspire to. It is still my favourite book.


Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love how this book engages with questions of the African diaspora.


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Book bites: 4 September 2016

The Forgetting TimeThe Forgetting Time
Sharon Guskin (Mantle)
Book thrill
Here’s a book with Hollywood written all over it. Four-year-old Noah suffers from petrifying nightmares and is inexplicably terrified of water to the point of refusing to bath. His single mother, Janie, is at her wits’ end, and when he starts begging to go home to his “real” mother, she reaches out for help, only to be told he may be schizophrenic. Janie refuses to medicate her child and sets out on her own research. Enter Dr Jerry Anderson, a psychiatrist with an unusual field of study: reincarnation. Can Noah be remembering a previous life – and violent death? Guskin intersperses the fast-turning chapters with real-life case studies, lending weight to a fascinating premise. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Louisa Young (HarperCollins)
Book buff
Louisa Young’s first two books in this series dealt powerfully with World War I and its shocking trauma (physical and psychological); this one develops the early characters and their children between 1928 and 1939, with red-black memories of war looming from behind and the monster clouds of World War II ahead. Riley, Nadine, Peter and Mabel, plus the next generation, fill this novel with Young’s usual probing, vivid, complex personal stories, and there is a highly perceptive portrayal of the rise of Italian fascism and its effects on Nadine’s Italian (Jewish) cousins. – David Pike @pikedavey

Blood WeddingBlood Wedding
Pierre Lemaitre (Quercus)
Book thrill
Blood Wedding is a new generation thriller, with female protagonist Sophie convinced she is going mad. Her charmed life – successful husband, sexy job – becomes a nightmare when fugue states blank out everything from minor misdemeanours to murder, and Sophie is on the run, wanted for crimes she has no memory of committing. The twists are gentle curves and the herrings pink rather than red, but it’s a pretty good read. – Aubrey Paton

The LivingThe Living
Anjali Joseph (HarperCollins)
Book buff
The Living is two novellas. The first is of Claire, a single mother working in a British shoe factory. The other is of Arun, a family man who makes chappals by hand in Kolhapur. The two stories are written around each other, sharing the themes of shoes, past hurts, family, loss, sex and friendship. But Claire and Arun’s stories do not cross or interrelate. Together, Anjali Joseph’s stark writing paints a broad portrait of everyday living: “It is the living we should pity, for the life they have yet to go through.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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A resounding debut: Alan Muller reviews Loud and Yellow Laughter by Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese

Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese

By Alan Muller

I have read an alarming number of arguments that centre on the refrain: academia kills creativity! It seems as though this argument may just have been laid to rest with Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese’s debut collection titled Loud and Yellow Laughter. The collection stems from a Masters degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and shows an uncommon balance between emotional tenderness, creative flexibility and analytical and structural integrity.

Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese

The collection of 39 pieces includes a selection of personal photographs and scanned notes and ledgers to accompany the poems. This visual component is offset by the collection’s overall layout that – complete with individual scenes, a dramatis personae and sporadic stage directions – resembles a stage play that is difficult to picture. I do not, however, read this difficulty as a shortcoming, but rather a strength. The “Major” characters remain nameless and are known only as “The Mother”, “The Father”, and “The Girl Child”, giving this tangible collection a lightness that threatens to slip like smoke through the fingers.

Scene 1 titled “Where was I” recounts The Father’s experiences of war and the loss of his brother Lenny between 1931 and 1944. Despite Lenny’s absence in the blank “photograph” labelled “Nude #1″, he makes a spectral appearance in “Brothers” where Busuku-Mathese experiments with dialogue and manages to give one poem three narrative options where The Father could be speaking to himself, Lenny’s apparition could be speaking to itself, or the physical Father and the spectral Lenny could be in dialogue. This experimentation with dialogue and narrative voice sets the tone for the rest of the collection as pieces are delivered via The Mother’s diary entries, letters, and The Girl Child’s consciousness. These voices and figures in the collection come to the fore and then retreat into the mists of memory in a process of concealing and revealing that seems to mirror The Girl Child’s journey to find out exactly what kind of adult The Father was.

Memory and documentation play particularly striking roles in this collection. The Father’s opening account leaves a number of gaps in the form of both a redacted soldier’s Description of Enlistment and a blank “photograph” by a mysterious Laim Doyle. The redaction of the enlistment form and the letter from Doyle seem to express a wilful repression of memories while the blank picture might be considered a result of either repression or the decay of memories with time. The imperfections in both visual and textual accounts in this collection serve to both reveal and conceal the character of The Father and some characters associated with him.

Between the titled and listed pieces, Busuku-Mathese has included a handful of “unofficial” pages not listed in the contents that contain only two lines. Read together, these fragments form their own complete, albeit short, narrative about darkness and light, coming to terms with loss, and moving forward. This emotionally weighty collection of poems, in a way that often reminds one of Ingrid Jonker’s Swart Vlinders, is delicately dark yet punctuated by brief yet unshakable moments of optimism; of yellow laughter between the darker search for closure.

Quite rightfully praised by the likes of Gabeba Baderoon and Sally-Ann Murray, this collection is a resounding debut for a poet that will almost certainly develop into one a standout voice in page poetry. Her poetry has been featured in several South African poetry journals such as New Coin, Prufrock, Ons Klynji, New Contrast, and Aerodrome. Her poem “Portrait of a Mother and Indiscretion” was the runner-up for the 2015 Sol Plaatje European Union Award.

Loud and Yellow Laughter is available from, Clark’s Books and The Book Lounge.

Author image courtesy of Stellenbosch University

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