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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Solve the girl-meets-boy equation by looking very closely: Rosa Lyster reviews Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

Published in the Sunday Times

The Idiot
****
Elif Batuman, Jonathan Cape, R290

It’s difficult to classify The Idiot. Elif Batuman’s novel begins on the narrator’s first day of college. Selin, a tall and clever Turkish-American girl, is going to Harvard. She is going to do all the things expected of a protagonist in a coming-of-age novel: she is going to make some friends, take some classes, and fall in love for the first time with an unsuitable mathematician called Ivan. She is going to Experience Life. Easy.

Not at all easy, though. The Idiot is about experience, but it’s also about the way we describe and understand experiences, and how we summarise the incoherencies and absurdities of everyday life and turn them into a story that makes sense.

Early on in the novel, Selin describes her approach to literature (and to life: Selin’s world is made of words). Selin believes that “every story has a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” How does she understand the meaning of the conversations she has with the unsuitable mathematician, where all they ever do is “mishear each other and say ‘What?’ all the time”, and yet she comes away from these interactions feeling so besotted and preoccupied she can hardly see straight? What is she supposed to do, and what is she meant to think, and how is she meant to behave all the time, and who is going to tell her? Who is going to decode the e-mails between her and the unsuitable mathematician, or explain what his sigh means when she produces a pack of alcohol swabs from her bag? Well?

This is all much funnier and much less tortured than it sounds. Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has a high sense of the absurd and a gift for observation that borders on the creepy. She see things that other people don’t see, and she makes her readers see them too. – Rosa Lyster, @rosalyster

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A Good Country is a thought-provoking coming-of-age story which explores racism and stereotyping in contemporary America, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

A Good CountryA Good Country
Laleh Khadivi, Bloomsbury, R290
****

Rez Courdee is the good, obedient 14-year-old son of Iranian immigrants in sunny California. His marks are top notch, and he’s winning prizes for chemistry. He keeps to himself and is home every night for supper with his stern, demanding father and meek mother, until a new friendship and his hormones draw him into a world of surfing and smoking weed.

Laleh Khadivi’s description of the lazy days of privileged adolescence and teenage angst and transformation are nuanced and vivid, with a powerful sense of how mutable and scarily vulnerable we are at this age. Nonetheless, Rez’s trials and tribulations are fairly standard fare – until a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon, followed by a bloody attack at a mall close to home. His world changes.

Suddenly, he’s a threat, an outsider. For the first time, he experiences racism and stereotyping. As his white friends turn away form him, he bonds increasingly to charismatic Arash and beautiful Fatima. Like him, they are of immigrant descent.

Like him, they’d thought themselves regular American kids. Now they find themselves under suspicion. Their response is to look to their faith to make sense of their changing world. Rez starts to explore Islam, first through his friends and then, increasingly, online.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking coming-of-age story, with a twist. Rez asks himself ordinary teenage questions – who am I? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? – in extraordinary circumstances. His radicalisation and the choices he makes are quite devastating. – Kate Sidley, @KateSidley

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Book Bites: 5 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight
Naoki Higashida, Sceptre, R315
*****

Naoki Higashida allows a glimpse into the life of autism. He was declared a “non-verbal” autistic, but can communicate through an alphabet graph, and what he says for himself and those like him will astound you. Between poetry, memories and musings, Higashida shows that “non-verbal” does not mean he cannot communicate. He shares his frustrations and offers alternatives to pre-conceived notions of autism. His simple request is to allow people with special needs to be accepted along with everyone else, and to avoid autism dictating every aspect of their lives. Higashida decries pity, and believes in humanity, love and hard work. He is wise beyond his years, and profoundly admirable. – Samantha Gibb (@samantha_gibb)

A Thousand Paper Birds
Tor Udall, Bloomsbury Circus, R318
****

Green thumbs will delight in this wondrous novel set in the Kew Gardens. Meet Jonah the musician and widower, Milly the inquisitive child, Harry the lonely gardener, and Chloe the artist who finds comfort in origami. These characters have only two things in common: an attachment to the world-famous gardens, and Audrey, Jonah’s dead wife. Mystery abounds in this lyrical tale, treading lightly into the supernatural. But this story is not all sunshine and orchids; thorns poke and puncture with the raw realities of grief, loneliness, and human imperfection. It’s The Secret Garden for grown-ups. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng, Little Brown, R275
****

A fascinating slice of life in small-town America during the Clinton years. Artist Mia Warren moves herself and her teenage daughter Pearl to the conservative community of Shaker Heights in Cleveland. Here everything is carefully ordered, just as Mrs Richardson prefers. But soon Mia and Pearl disrupt the “perfect lives” of the Richardson family. Ng builds up the tension wonderfully, and her storytelling is refreshing as she doesn’t feel the need to wrap everything up neatly. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
 

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Scrambled lives: Michele Magwood reviews Neel Mukherjee’s viscerally realistic A State of Freedom

Published in the Sunday Times

A State of Freedom
Neel Mukherjee, Chatto & Windus, R295
*****

At the beginning of this intricate, adroit book a man and his young son are being driven through the streets of Agra in India. He is a wealthy academic who left his country for the US 20 years before, his six-year-old son is entirely American. The visit has a melancholic tone about it: the man is uncomfortable and alienated, feeling like a tourist in his birthplace. The child is listless and overwhelmed by the crowds and the touts.

They are both sickened when they witness a worker falling to his death from the scaffolding of a high-rise building.
 

In the last chapter of the book Neel Mukherjee returns to this doomed worker, taking the reader into his head as he frets and sweats, dreaming of the money this dangerous job will bring, an agonising stream-of-consciousness lament that culminates in his falling, “everything pouring up around the rushing arrow that he cuts through the unimpeded air”.

Between these dramatic bookends Mukherjee interleaves several stories. Another returnee, this time a liberal hipster from London, is writing a book about regional food in India and tries to engage with his family’s cook in Mumbai, to the chagrin of his class-bound mother. Two best friends from a remote Bengali village are pushed in two radical directions: one as a servant in the city, the other into the Maoist guerilla movement.

In another poor village an abusive father finds a bear cub and trains it – cruelly – to dance, and abandons his family to seek his fortune. This man appears at the car window in the first chapter; his brother is the man who falls from the skyscraper. The young servant from the Bengali village is the cook’s assistant in the Mumbai house. Gradually, through echoes and recurring motifs, we learn the characters’ backstories and their destinies, but there are no neat endings. Rather, as the author implies, the frayed ends of their lives reflect the untidy nature of contemporary India.

At times acutely, viscerally realistic, and others dreamlike and fey, this is a startling book that reinforces Mukherjee’s reputation as a writer on the rise. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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Book Bites: 29 October

Published in the Sunday Times

The Silent Corner
Dean Koontz, HarperCollins, R285
*****
This is the first in a new thriller series by Koontz, and features a tough, fiercely intelligent female lead. After her husband’s mysterious suicide, FBI agent Jane Hawk sets out to discover what really happened. As more strange deaths emerge, Jane uncovers a conspiracy centred around terrifying advances in science. Koontz is prone to weave supernatural elements into his work, but there is no tinfoil-hat paranoia here as he shows just how easily the technology we rely on can be used against us. Jane is forced to go off-grid and this is where the character comes into her own. She has to out-think her pursuers every step of the way, proving herself as a powerful adversary. – Sally Partridge @sapartridge

The Seagull
Ann Cleeves, Macmillan, R285
****
DI Vera Stanhope is back in all her blunt and assertive glory, and this time the case is personal. John Brace – former detective superintendent, ex-friend of Vera’s father, ageing convict – trades Vera information on an old cold-case in return for a favour. But the new insights lead only to more questions and dead bodies, tangling the past with the present. This well-paced thriller is part of a series but reads easily as a stand-alone. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Democracy and Delusion
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Tafelberg, R225
****
Sizwe “myth-buster” Mpofu-Walsh shows how dom we are if we think we are free from the inheritances of apartheid. He investigates long-held beliefs such as the ANC as true liberators, Model C and private schools as racial-integration platforms, and the media as beacons of truth and independence. He also analyses the awful massacre at Marikana in August 2012, saying it acts as a mirror for all that is broken in the country. The hip-hop album he has brought out along with the book is super nice though. – Vuyo Mzini @vuyomzini

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The savant of the biltong – Diane Awerbuck reviews Nick Mulgrew’s The First Law of Sadness

Published in the Sunday Times

Nick Mulgrew’s short stories explore the varieties of human experience in all their horror and comedy, writes Diane Awerbuck.

The First Law of Sadness
Nick Mulgrew, David Philip Publishers, R120
*****

You don’t have to hate The Talented Mister Mulgrew: prize-winning poet, publisher and wannabe publican. But you can learn from him. And there’s a lot to take away from his new collection of short stories, The First Law of Sadness.

One takeaway is that Nick Mulgrew is easily the best thing we have. Another takeaway is that absolutely everything can be written about, regardless of how squeamish it makes us. This collection allows us to see how an accomplished writer handles both the horror and banality of experience.

Most of us have a comfort zone. Mulgrew has only discomfort zones, and he is determined to share them with us. A little dog eviscerated by an eagle; the terrible truth behind the sale of a boy’s Momo mags; a man who finds he quite likes being filmed for a gay porn site: they’re all nestled here between the pages, preserved for our perusal.

And there is something more than usually voyeuristic about the stories in The First Law of Sadness. It’s hard to say what it is – Mulgrew’s ability to negate his own persona completely in the pursuit of characterisation, perhaps, fused with an intimate knowledge of the (many, varied) settings he chooses.

We get the sense that real life had its way with some of the stories: a couple of them seem to be the processing of grief. In “Ever Elizabeth”, the protagonist decides that “…[t]here is the universe, I have come to know, and it is full of pain. This pain can neither be created nor destroyed: only transferred. For every pain healed in someone, a new one felt in another. The amount of pain in the universe is thus constant. This is the first law of sadness.”

That projection is philosophically risky, but it works. And, like the man in the giant practical joke that is the story “Jumper”, Mulgrew often emerges as the end of the tale with some useful, practical truth.

But the interesting thing with Mulgrew is that he’s also here for the lols. “Bootlegger”, for example, is a pretty hilarious and definitely dire depiction of res life, ingenuity and the immigrant experience of South African culture. How does he get the diction right? Don’t ask me. But the story reads like William Blake in a room with Roald Dahl, and it slips into some technical detail about biltong-making too.

Spare a thought for Yerodin Fermin, who finds himself a victim of his own drug-induced culinary success: “The residence-mates, they are too enthusiastic. They tell more of the others. I’m woke that evening at 11pm by an alcoholic acquaintance of Bubbles, asking for biltong… [T]he man says he will pay one hundred rand for one Ziploc of biltong. He sways like the palm trees…He says I’m a savant of the biltong.”

Funny-peculiar; funny-ha-ha. Maybe that’s the takeaway, more than Mulgrew’s startlingly apt imagery, or the pathos of the other characters’ mourning processes. He understands that life is various, and we must all make the rules we want to live by. Now there’s a manifesto that ought to be signed into law. Mulgrew for president.

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Lee Berger’s Almost Human “rollicks along like an adventure story,” writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Sunday Times

Almost HumanAlmost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi
Lee Berger and John Hawks (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R295)
*****

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger probably wouldn’t dispute his reputation as a controversial figure – there are those who consider him a publicity-seeker, prone to shoot from the hip when it comes to announcing his discoveries. Be that as it may, he is a born storyteller and populariser of his field.

Berger and John Hawks, who is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have collaborated on this book, which covers more than its subtitle suggests. It starts with Berger’s nine-year-old son, Matthew, out with his father and a colleague on a fossil hunt in 2008 at Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind, turning over a rock to discover an ancient, fossilised collarbone.

That turned out to be Australopithecus sediba, a previously unknown hominin (humans, their early ancestors and related primate species) who walked upright as we do, but displayed many of the characteristics of an ape.

Then, five years after the discovery of A. sediba, Berger decided to have another look at the area around Malapa, suspecting the existence of unmapped caves. So he recruited some skinny amateur cavers (underground passages can be claustrophobically narrow), and a search began. Then, having squeezed through an 18cm gap in the Rising Star cave system, 40m underground, they hit the jackpot – a cave with hominin fossils littering the floor. Homo naledi had been discovered.

Berger is too big to wriggle into the cave – but he’s always up for a challenge. Using Facebook, he advertised for archaeologists and palaeontologists who had caving experience and were small and thin. His assistant was soon alarmed by the messages that poured in for him from women giving their vital statistics. Skype interviews were set up, National Geographic agreed to take the expedition live on social media, and the time-honoured, slow and secretive methodology of the profession was turned on its head.

It makes for a riveting read. Berger’s “underground astronauts” did their job. Even for those of us who don’t know our Australopithecus from our Homo, it rollicks along like an adventure story. There is still debate, of course, about exactly who and what H. naledi was and how the fossils got into the cave, but Berger and Hawks bring these dry bones to exuberant life.

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Rewriting history: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Robert Harris’s Munich

Published in the Sunday Times

There’s no changing the fact of World War 2, but Robert Harris gives us an intriguing reinterpretation, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Munich
Robert Harris, Hutchinson, R295
*****

“Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination … re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture.”
 
 
For three decades, it seems that Robert Harris has been harbouring a fascination with the historical Munich Agreement of September 30 1938 – some would say an obsession. In our telephonic interview, Harris chuckled when I put this to him, but his response was measured. “I may not have felt it with the same intensity throughout that period, but I have been interested in this subject for a long time.”

The backstory is the beginnings of World War 2. After annexing Austria, Hitler demanded parts of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was signed to facilitate this. After Hitler received his piece of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain (UK) and Édouard Daladier (France) hoped a catastrophic war had been averted. However, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the world into war.

With Munich, Harris enters the fray from the unconventional angle of fiction. “Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination. It offered me the possibility of re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture,” he says.

There are real and fictional characters, but it is the latter who provide the clearest lens through which we can see “what really happened”. Two fictional characters in their late 20s — Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat – are the chief literary poles around which the narrative revolves. Through Legat and Hartmann, Harris guides the reader into the inner circle. Through their observations, as well as their unlimited access to the German Führer and the British prime minister, the reader sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels the looming war.

Given their pivotal role in the narrative, were Legat and Hartmann entirely fictional? “Strictly speaking, yes, they are. But there were enough real people like them in the late 1930s, aspects of whose biographies I used to construct these two and other characters.”

Harris’s refined ability to reconstruct setting, to recreate a sense of place and time, and his knack for the creation of believable characters, enable him to tease fiction out of history. In Munich, fiction dances with non-fiction, sucking the reader deeper into a breathtaking literary mirage.

The Hitler of Harris’s novel is neither pleased with himself nor sure of himself, before and after signing the Munich Agreement. He feels outplayed, outmanoeuvred and belittled by Chamberlain. Similarly, Harris’s Chamberlain is imbued with more grace, depth and integrity than many history books suggest. Only time will tell if Harris has done enough to rid him of the Pontius Pilate-like role assigned to him in the popular imagination.

I ask Harris what he wants his readers to feel or know after they have read the book. After speaking briefly about the precariousness of facile notions about the “politics of appeasement”, he said: “Above all else, I would like my readers to feel entertained.”

Few writers can blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as masterfully and as delightfully as Harris does in Munich. The reader must be warned: this book will be hard to put down. – @ProfTinyiko

Munich

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Book Bites: 22 October

Published in the Sunday Times

A Gap in the HedgeA Gap in the Hedge
Johan Vlok Louw, Umuzi, R230
***
Amnesia is a strange thing. How do you remember how to drive a car or make a casserole but you can’t remember what your own name is? In this novel it sometimes feels as if Johan Vlok Louw is leading us up the garden path as Karl gets closer to knowing who he is. The only clues to guide him are an old grey Ford, and a taste for Coke, whisky and Paul Revere cigarettes. As he proceeds, step by step, through his sleazy, bewildering world, you are either drawn along through curiosity or, if you are less indulgent, you leave him to his own devices. – Yvonne Fontyn

The Floating Theatre
The Floating Theatre
Martha Conway, Zaffre Publishing, R295
*****
When the steamer she is travelling on sinks, May Bedloe finds herself, for the first time, in charge of her own destiny. Joining a travelling theatre on the Ohio river, the divides between North and South and between freedom and slavery become apparent and divisive and May is drawn against her will into a dangerous war. She begins to realise that everyone makes a choice and those choices come with costs that can be hard to bear. The book starts off a little slowly, but May is captivating as she stumbles through her discovery of the complexities of life. A beautiful coming-of-age novel. – Jem Glendinning @jemathome

Did You See Melody?
Did You See Melody?
Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, R275
*****
Hannah easily transports you to sunny Arizona, to the Swallowtail – a sprawling resort spa with luxury three-bedroomed casitas surrounded by swaying cacti, sparkling pools and seemingly super-friendly staff. There’s an underlying atmosphere of menace and a group of dubious folks (residents, staff, police, and a talkshow host) – all with some sort of agenda. One of the twists is that there is no murder per se, rather a supposedly murdered girl named Melody who has been spotted by the unwitting heroine, Cara Burrows. Burrows herself has things to resolve as she has just run away from her husband and two kids in the UK. This novel works best as a binge read – Hannah is such an accomplished storyteller that solving the mystery of Melody becomes urgent. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
 

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On evil’s own trail: Michele Magwood reviews Retribution Road

Published in the Sunday Times

Retribution RoadRetribution Road
Antonin Varenne, MacLehose Press
****

Don’t be put off by the cowboy on the cover and the words “adventure story”. This is no cartoon Wild West tale, although guns are slung and whisky is drunk in quantity. Antonin Varenne is a French author who has won several prestigious awards in France for his noir novels. Here he travels back to the 19th century, where we meet the British mercenary Arthur Bowman, one of the East India Company’s private army of some 300 000 soldiers. He’s a vicious killer and a charismatic leader, but a mission in Burma ends up with his company captured and tortured.

Bowman barely survives and returns to the slums of London where he sinks into alcohol and opium addiction. When a corpse turns up bearing the same markings of torture that he suffered in Burma, he sets off to hunt the killer, convinced it is one of his men.

Bowman trails the man to America and follows his tracks across the vast young country. It is a pacy, vivid tale that moves at rapid speed for 500 pages and twists and turns like a thriller. Varenne breathes extraordinary life into history, from the junks on a Burmese river, to the Great Stink of London when the Thames dried up, to the gold mines of Colorado and virgin ranches of the Sierra Nevada. He captures the creak and suffocation of stagecoaches, the terror of working women protesters shot in New York, the tedium of sea crossings and the blinding vistas of the New World.

It is an intriguing blend of quest tale, detective story, Western and war drama, with an unusual love interest stirred in – but underneath it all are serious questions about the nature of courage and honour, and whether an evil man can ever be redeemed. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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