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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Jim Crace’s brilliant The Melody explores loss, ageing, greed and gentrification, writes Paige Nick

Published in the Sunday Times

The Melody *****
Jim Crace, Picador, R285

After his Booker-nominated Harvest (2013), Jim Crace was never going to write another novel – until three things happened. The first was at a literary festival in India, in a luxury hotel where high walls and security kept the world out, except at night when animals and humans fed loudly from the bins next door.

The second was a year later, in Malta, when Crace stayed on a promenade built for sun seekers in the 1800s. But now the buildings cast it into shade, except where an early Victorian house, badly in need of repair, had survived. Just one storey high, the sun got through and locals gathered in that little moving square of sunshine. This conflict between the built and natural world lives in all Crace’s work.

So Crace collapsed India into Malta and Malta into the Mediterranean as The Melody started to form in his head.

The third thing happened years ago while writing a short story for The Devil’s Larder (2001). In story No 60, a character named Tambar appears in just one sentence. Crace liked that the musician’s name sounded like “tambourine”, but later came to dislike it. So before the American edition came out he renamed him Alfred Busi.

And so Busi is The Melody’s lead; a famous singer coming to terms with retirement and his wife’s death. One night a lonely Busi is attacked by what could either be a wild animal or a feral child stealing food from his pantry. The attack spins the town folk into panic and Busi’s nephew, a developer, uses the crisis to further his own agenda as they wage war on whatever or whoever is living in the forest. The novel explores loss, ageing, greed and gentrification, as well as the refugee crisis and xenophobia.

Crace is the master of allegorical novels, set in no particular time or place. What The Melody lacks in fast-paced plot it makes up for with Crace’s superb lyrical style. And though the reader may not be able to pinpoint when this brilliant book is set, that doesn’t make it less of a novel for our times. @paigen

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Book Bites: 22 April

Published in the Sunday Times

The Last RomeoThe Last Romeo
****
Justin Myers, Piatkus, R285

What would you get if you were to combine Adrian Mole and almost any Marian Keyes novel? Justin Myers’s brilliant debut novel and its lead, James. James is at a crossroads. He’s 34, gay, has broken up with his toxic boyfriend, and isn’t loving his job making up celebrity gossip for a hot London rag mag. He starts online dating and blogging about his encounters using the nom de plume of “Romeo”. The idea is simple; James dates and then blogs anonymously about the encounters. If a date is rude to him, it’s open season. But if he meets someone who turns out to be The One, he’ll give up the blog. James meets a series of weird/gross/hot men and the results are hilarious, sad and mostly true to life. Then he meets a closeted Olympian and his drunken blog post about the encounter sends Romeo’s social media profile through the roof, and all hell breaks loose. The Last Romeo is sharp, witty and combines a good laugh with touching sincerity. Russell Clarke @russrussy

Woman of State
***
Simon Berthon, HarperCollins, R295

Maire McCartney, a moderate Belfast Catholic, was persuaded by her extremist boyfriend to be part of a honey-trap, the seduction of a British policeman who would be blackmailed into betraying British operatives. Except the policeman was murdered, and Maire forced to flee, assume a new identity, and move to England where she becomes a human-rights lawyer, and eventually Minister of State for Security. What of her past though? Berthon presents an enthralling and believable tale of love, loyalty, and death. Aubrey Paton

The Boy Made Of Snow
****
Chloe Mayer, Orion, R295

It is 1944. Annabel is left alone to look after her son, Daniel, while her husband is away at war. The connection between the pair is fragile, due to Annabel having never fully recovered from her postpartum depression. They do, however, share a love of fairy tales. Like sweet magic, a German PoW enters their lives; yet well-read readers know that the original fairy stories are dark and harrowing. Artfully, Mayer has woven the shadows of the Snow Queen into the narrative, creating a story that will haunt long after the final pages are read. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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“His Michael K has to stand on his own. And he manages to do just that.” Lorraine Sithole reviews Nthikeng Mohlele’s Michael K

Published in the Sunday Times

Michael K
****
Nthikeng Mohlele, Picador Africa, R220

Nthikeng Mohlele is brave to bring out a book under the heavy shadow of JM Coetzee’s classic The Life And Times Of Michael K. His Michael K has to stand on his own. And he manages to do just that. Mohlele writes his story beautifully with a tactile sensuality. He arranges words, sentences and paragraphs like a gifted composer.

The book begins with Miles, the narrator. We are then transported to Dust Island where Miles meets Michael K, who has nothing but the rags on his body, a few seeds, a bent spoon and a string.

Miles spends 31 months on the island, hoping that being with Michael K will awaken his inner poet. In those months, he is fascinated by Michael K’s harmonious existence with nature. No more than two words are exchanged between them, and Michael K remains an enigma to Miles as he lives a life devoid of earthly trappings.

Miles leaves Dust Island following a tragic event. He settles in Johannesburg with the intention of writing poetry, a quest he hopes will get him to live on the periphery of life. Miles soon discovers that, unlike Michael K, he cannot exist merely by the soil.

Miles becomes consumed by Michael K. He questions, prods and dissects Michael K’s existence. How does a man grow into an adult having not touched and experienced carnal pleasures? A shot of good whisky? A great piece of steak? Having not voted? Not participated in a protest?

Michael K survived wars and deprivation but came out with his soul well on the other side. Maybe, just maybe, Miles thinks, we are not fully living because of the societal, economic, political and cultural pressures. Maybe Michael K was the answer to a life of true freedom for he was beholden to no one. To nothing.

As in his previous novels Rusty Bell and Pleasure, Mohlele writes with an orchestral precision about the nature of pleasure and existence. Lorraine Sithole @LS3841

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“An excellent novel about the issue of comfort women” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Mary Lynn’s Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum

Published in the Witness: 12/04/2017

White Chrysanthemum
Mary Lynn Bracht, Chatto & Windus

THE issue of “comfort women”, kidnapped by Japanese forces from Korea and China and forced into prostitution for the use of their soldiers is one that has simmered shamefully along since the end of the Second World War.

Neither the Japanese nor the Korean governments have shown sufficient willingness to confront the issue, let alone insist on a genuine apology or reparations from the Japanese side. It has taken determination by the surviving women themselves – now very few – and other activists to drag this horrible episode into the light. They erected a bronze statue of a comfort woman, the Statue of Peace, in Seoul opposite the Japanese embassy: the Japanese demand its removal as the precursor to any kind of admission or apology.

Mary Lynn Bracht, a Korean-American, has taken the subject of comfort women for her very impressive debut novel.

The politics and history of Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria and Mongolia are little known in the West, and make a fascinating and elegantly illuminated backdrop for the stories of two sisters, Hana and Emi. They live on the island of Jeju off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and are the daughters of a haenyeo, one of the women who dive for fish and crustaceans. Even under Japanese occupation, it was a powerful, matriarchal society, now sadly reduced to little more than a tourist attraction.

Bracht’s novel is told in alternating chapters by Hana and Emi. Hana’s are set in 1943, the year in which, as a young woman diver, she rushed out of the sea in an effort to save her little sister from a Japanese soldier she saw approaching. She did save Emi, but was herself taken captive and removed to a life of abuse and rape at a military brothel in Mongolia. Emi’s story is set in 2011 when she is an elderly woman, consumed by guilt that her sister vanished while protecting her and still desperately trying to find her, or at least discover where she went and what was her fate.

Perhaps Bracht is guilty of striving a little too hard for a sense of closure, if not exactly a happy ending to a story that ended badly for the estimated two hundred thousand women taken into slavery and for those left behind, but this is fiction and in White Chrysanthemum, she has created two powerful and unforgettable characters. And shone a spotlight not only onto an episode that should never be forgotten but onto the plight of women and girls in all theatres of war. An excellent novel.

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Book Bites (8 April)

Published in the Sunday Times

Darwin Comes To Town *****
Menno Schilthuizen, Quercus, R315

This book started many conversations: with my children, husband, his co-workers and friends. It contains observations on how animals and plants are evolving and adapting to urban landscapes. There are crows that have alarm systems for approaching hunters, catfish that have figured out how to catch pigeons, mosquitoes that have evolved different varieties for different tunnels of London’s Underground, and Sendai crows who, in Japan, use slow-moving traffic as their nutcrackers. Fascinating. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

After the Fire ****
Henning Mankell, Harvill Secker, R280

Mankell is famous for his thrillers featuring the melancholy Wallander, but this is the last book he wrote before his death in 2015 – and it’s different. It is not about crime, nor is it thrilling. It is, however, vastly compelling. This is the elegiacally written story of Fredrik Welin, a doctor who retired in disgrace to the family home on an island in the Swedish archipelago. Old age is starting to bite and Welin has few friends. As in a Greek tragedy he loses everything when his home is destroyed in a fire the police suspect him of setting. He endures a grim winter of discontent, but does not give up. Others die, or leave, but he continues until spring brings warmth and new hope. It is a fitting epilogue to Mankell’s oeuvre. Aubrey Paton

Year One ****
Nora Roberts, Little Brown, R295

There’s romance but it’s a smidgen compared to how broad Roberts goes in her latest endeavour – a trilogy of post-apocalyptic fiction. An untreatable flu has spread. Originating as a curse in Scotland on a magical rock where a bird’s blood released it, two billion people were subsequently infected. Now survivors have to leave the cities where The Raiders — a group intent on looting, raping and murdering – rule. The good survivors have to find solace but it’s not just The Raiders out to get them. The government is taking them against their will, and the evil of the dark forces – witches and wizards – has been increased by the curse. It’s incredibly entertaining. Most horribly, book two is out only in December. Boo. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Toll of madness, redemption of love – Michele Magwood reviews Zack McDermott’s Gorilla and the Bird

Published in the Sunday Times

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love
*****
Zack McDermott, Piatkus, R315

This book is one of the gems of the year, the true story of a young man who suffers a catastrophic psychotic break and his sliding, slipping climb to normality.

Zack McDermott was a promising public defender in New York, an idealistic man raised working class in Wichita, Kansas, “a baloney sandwich throw from the trailer park”. His mother nicknamed him Gorilla as he was barrel-chested and hirsute. He calls her The Bird because of the small, avian movements she makes with her head. The Bird taught high-school English to the roughest students, gathering “any thug, gang-banger, ex-con or other members of the discard pile” around their dining-room table every afternoon for extra lessons.

It was understandable that he would want to become a lawyer defending “the dregs, the cast-offs, the addicts and the Uncle Eddies”. Uncle Eddie, it turns out, was institutionalised for schizophrenia.

So mental illness is in the family gene pool, but in Zack’s case it has manifested as Bipolar 1 disease.

Pitched straight into the gutting system in New York, he soon feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of his job and the hopelessness of his abject clients.

At the same time he is doing some fairly crazed stand-up comedy at night. He’s smoking dope, not sleeping, not eating. And one morning he steps out into the city believing he is being filmed, Truman-style for a real-life documentary. We want to avert our eyes as he careens through the day, until he ends up shirtless and shoeless on a subway platform, sobbing. From there he is transported by police to the pysch ward, deep in psychosis. Only the Bird can rescue him.

Seeing it from the inside, bipolar is utterly terrifying, and Zack’s struggle – he has more breakdowns – is deeply affecting. But the story belongs to the big-hearted Bird, too, for her determination to not let go of him. @michelemagwood

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Margaret von Klemperer reviews Musa Ngqungwana’s moving memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer

Published in The Witness: 26/03/2018

Odyssey of an African Opera Singer
Musa Ngqungwana
Penguin Books

South Africa is rich in musical talent, but as Musa Ngqungwana’s moving memoir makes clear, whether it is discovered or not is something of a hit and miss affair. In his case, it has taken an immense determination to learn and succeed, along with a couple of lucky breaks, to see him travel from poverty in Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth to a home in Philadelphia and roles on some of the world’s top opera stages.

The contrast between his background – poor and political, with two uncles locked up on Robben Island – and his chosen art form-– Western and potentially elitist – could hardly be more marked. It also taps into the cultural appropriation debate that gets aired regularly in the world of the arts, and can be guaranteed to raise tempers. For me, the power of any art form to cross boundaries both real and imagined is its greatest strength, and something to be celebrated.

Like so many African singers, Ngqungwana came to singing through church choirs, where his astonishing voice was first recognised. But it was only later, after a failed attempt to study engineering which was ended by a lack of money, that he began to realise that music could be a career, albeit an always insecure one. It became an all-encompassing passion.

Success in various competitions eventually saw him at UCT’s opera school, and he pays generous tribute to those who helped him. But it wasn’t all easy for the township boy, pitched into an overwhelmingly middle-class university, short of money and lacking the basic musical training that many of his peers had had. Also, music as a career can be an anti-social one, and took its toll on many of his relationships, both with girlfriends and family.

Scholarships took him to America, and again, the early years were a struggle. Having been a biggish fish in the small South African pond, the realisation that he was just one more hopeful was hard to take, but Ngqungwana persevered, and although he is the first to admit that he is still learning his craft, his book shows him to be one of his homeland’s most admirable exports.

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Bron Sibree reviews Amy Chua’s new book which traces tribalism in America

Published in the Sunday Times


Nuestra Senora de la Santa Muerta (Our Lady of the Holy Death) is a female deity personifying death. Her prominent cult holds many poor Hispanic Americans in its grip Picture: Getty Images

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
*****
Amy Chua, Bloomsbury, R295

Amy Chua is no stranger to controversy or bestseller lists. In the wake of her 2011 bestselling memoir about her attempt to raise her daughters the strict “Chinese” way, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Yale law professor garnered death threats and accolades. Then came the outcry triggered by her 2015 book, The Triple Package, which examined why some ethnic and religious groups outperform others in America. Co-written with her Yale professor husband Jed Rubenfeld, it was accused of new racism but it, too, became a New York Times bestseller.

“I never think my books are going to be controversial,” says Chua, “but somehow I keep getting into trouble. I just wonder what’s going to happen with this one,” she says of her fifth book, Political Tribes. “I’m sure I’ll get into trouble again.”

There’s no denying that Political Tribes – which delivers new, uncomfortable insights into tribalism in America and the human instinct to form tribes – is a biting criticism of conventional American thought on everything from foreign policy through to identity politics and the rise of Trump. In examining why America, a land of immigrants, is so uniquely, dangerously, blinkered to tribal politics at home and abroad, Political Tribes also delivers stinging home-truths – any one of which can ignite controversy.

Yet it is American exceptionalism, argues Chua, that blinds it to tribal identities abroad. For America is exceptional, maintains this American-born daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants from the Philippines. Its ethnicity-transcending national identity, and its unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins, qualifies it as a super-group, the only one among the world’s great powers. “This has shaped how we see the rest of the world, and deeply influenced our foreign policy,” says Chua. “This is not to say we haven’t got terrible racism, but unlike France, or even England, this is a country with a very strong national identity. So American people just think ‘Oh Sunnis and Shias, why can’t they just be Iraqis?’ It’s a naive view, and it’s pretty ignorant.”

Tribalism propelled Trump to the White House, argues Chua. Race has been traditionally at the core of American tribalism, but Chua notes that America is “on the verge of an unprecedented demographic transformation”. Yet even the growing “whitelash” to the “browning of America” which many consider a factor in Trump’s rise to power, is as complex and divided as the identity politics of both left and right – which are fracturing so rapidly thanks to bigotry and racism on one side and political correctness and a kind of “oppression Olympics” (when two or more groups compete to prove themselves more oppressed than the other) on the other. She believes it is tearing the country apart. Her insights into the sports of Nascar and World Wrestling, powerful tribal identities that see themselves as the “true America”, are illuminating.

But it is her analysis of lesser-known tribal identities like the Sovereign Citizens, a bizarre anti-government group that law-enforcement agencies have identified as a greater threat to their communities than Islamic extremists, and the Prosperity Gospel – a Christian sect that preaches that being rich is divine and is especially popular with disadvantaged minorities – that are as disturbing as they are revelatory. Not to mention the potent tribal identities of America’s 27000 street gangs. Or the lure of Narco-saints like Nuestra Senora de la Santa Muerta (Our Lady of the Holy Death), a cult which holds many poor Hispanic Americans in its grip as well as many members of the LGBTQIA community.

“America’s identity as this single, unified country that still allows for a lot of diversity is really under threat today, and from both sides. It’s why I wrote the book, so that we can get back to seeing that this super-group status we have is extremely unique,” says Chua. “It’s about saving America, the country that my parents love, and that I love.” @BronSibree

Political Tribes

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“Intense, haunting, exceptional” – Anna Stroud reviews Sally Partridge’s Mine

Published in the Sunday Times

Mine *****
Sally Partridge, Human & Rousseau, R240

“People are complicated and love can make us do crazy and unkind things,” says Sally Partridge, whose fifth young adult novel, Mine, is an intense read. It follows the lives of two ordinary teenagers who fall in love, but their love turns sour as their pasts come back to haunt them.

Kayla is a beautiful skater girl with long blue hair and a love for comic books and classical music. Her mother sends her to a posh school in Rondebosch where she can hone her musical craft, but the boys take advantage of her and the girls smear her name. Friendless and alone, Kayla finds it difficult to trust Finlay, who enters her life and promises to save her. Fin makes promises he can’t keep. He’s broken too, and copes by smoking weed and binge drinking. He lives with his old man in Lansdowne, and often arrives at school with fresh bruises on his face. Fin is repeating matric, but he’s the lead rapper in a crew (not band) and calls himself Thor on stage. When he meets Kayla, all he wants to do is protect her from the world that’s been so cruel to her.

But good intentions have a way of causing more trouble.

The most impressive thing about Mine is that the characters are three-dimensional young people who could be from anywhere in the world, battling with anxiety, self-doubt, paranoia, and self-sabotage.

Partridge says the young adult genre appeals to her, “because this is the time we start experiencing the moments that define us and not all those experiences are happy ones. I try to explore how we deal with these experiences.”

Some of the scenes were difficult to write, she says. “If say, a description of a young girl being manipulated or gaslit (having her head messed with) is important to the story or the message I want to communicate, then it needs to be written, even if it’s uncomfortable.”

Partridge gets inspired by “watching people and wondering what’s going on in their heads, making up their stories”. She has a notebook and jots down observations.

Mine is exceptional, from the fast-paced plot, evocative landscape and haunting characters to the awesome cover art by illustrator Astrid Blumer. @annawriter_

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Alexandra Fuller had the choice to speak out in her debut novel, or to remain silent. She decided on the former, writes Michele Magwood


Alexandra Fuller, author of Quiet Until the Thaw. © Wendell Locke Field

Quiet Until the Thaw *****
Alexandra Fuller, Penguin, R280

‘A wise woman said to me after my father died that grief is a dismantling thing, but that you get to choose how you re-mantle. And this novel was really my re-mantling.” Alexandra Fuller doesn’t so much as wear her heart on her sleeve as slice open her chest and pin back the skin to reveal it beating, hotly and bloodily. She is an intensely visceral writer, but immensely skilled, too, always, sometimes just, staying this side of melodrama and solipsism.

She is known for her series of memoirs, beginning with the incendiary Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, about her deranged upbringing in what was then Rhodesia. Through this, and three subsequent books, we got to know her family, whom she refers to in ironic tones as The Fullers Of Central Africa. She’s made us care about them, their singular spirit and flaws, their bad luck and bad choices. And so when her father, Tim, died in 2015 her readers felt that they had known him and mourned with her. Doubtless he would have been appalled.

Fuller was already writing Quiet Until the Thaw when he passed away – in Budapest, of all places, so far from his beloved Zambia – and his death had a distinct effect on the writing of it.

It is the story of two Native American cousins growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

This is the Rez, a barren, God-forsaken stretch of land onto which the Lakota Oglala Sioux were herded and dumped. And if that sounds familiar to South African readers, it is. “Anyone who’s been to a former homeland in South Africa or a Tribal Trust Land in Zimbabwe will recognise it,” she says. “You can’t begin to imagine the poverty and social problems. But the beauty, too.”

Fuller, who lives in Wyoming, has been visiting the Rez for years, beginning with a three-month stay in 2011. “I felt this jolt of homecoming.” It was inevitable that she would write about the community, but chose to write it as a novel. “It felt less appropriating to fictionalise it, and I wanted a way to stitch together all the stories I’d heard on the Rez.”

She approached the project with humility, and went to visit an elder called Alex White Plume. “I went up to his farm – he breeds war ponies and grows hemp – and he was happy to talk to me, but said ‘Before I open my mouth the first thing I have to do is forgive you and all the people who look like you.’”

The main character of the novel is Rick Overlooking Horse, a gentle, reticent soul, “a child, and then a man, of shockingly few words” while his cousin You Choose Watson is a treacherous brat who grows up sly and corrupt.

He escapes the draft by feigning diabetes while Rick Overlooking Horse is sent to Vietnam and is burned almost to death by friendly fire. He returns to the Rez, sets up a teepee in a remote meadow and becomes something of a sage, though Fuller points out that the Lakota Oglala don’t have words like chief and medicine man. People start to go to him “with their wounded hearts and curdled souls”, she writes, and he quietly guides them “out of all the noisy unbecoming we do between birth and death”.

“I rewrote a lot of the book after my father died and there was a lot of him in Rick Overlooking Horse, his taciturn sort of stoicism. From being a lesser character he became the generator, the voice of the book.”

There are other vividly named characters such as Le-a (pronounced Le Dasha) Brings Plenty, Mona Respects Nothing and a man nicknamed Small Nosebleed Indian, because “a mild haemorrhage from a single nostril would be all it would take to get rid of every last drop of his native blood”.

The years unfurl as the cousins orbit and crash into each other. Fuller writes in short, punchy chapters dense with allusion, with such wry titles as “Mina Overlooking Horse Drinks Coffee as a Substitute for Having a Feeling” and “Meantime, Names for a Red Man, and Why He Doesn’t Care”. The chapters distil the gutting oppression of the people and the ravages of poverty, but also the idea of circular time and the notion of kinship. Some are mordantly funny – such as when two Rez boys are hired for an act at Disneyland Paris – all are a revelation, a portal into a history that has been kicked aside over and over again.

Quiet Until the Thaw – the title comes from a Swampy Cree narrative poem – bulges with wisdom but has the venom of a rattlesnake. Like so much of Fuller’s work it is blisteringly, resonantly beautiful.

She will undoubtedly be accused of cultural appropriation but she weighed it up very carefully, asking what would be worse – her silence or her speaking out. As painful as it was, she had to tell of the Rez. And we’re the richer for it.

“Writing it erased me, it eroded me,” she says, “the trajectory I was on went over a cliff.” After her father’s death she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – “like a bloody war vet” – and is now taking medication. She can’t drink anymore and has been sober for three years.

“My life as it was ended with this book. I began it living in a comfortable condo on the golf course, now I’m living in a yurt! I am so relieved to be living this close to the grounding ground again. It’s not under a tree of forgetfulness, but through the dome at night I can see the stars of the northern hemisphere.” @michelemagwood

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