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Book Bites: 23 April 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Heartbreak HotelHeartbreak Hotel
Jonathan Kellerman (Headline)
Book thrill
A refreshing departure for Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels. Instead of being thrown into LA’s sick psychosexual underworld, this novel opens with Delaware being asked to meet an almost-centenarian at a once-glamourous LA hotel. He likes the dynamic Thalia Mars, who asks him questions about guilt, victim selection and patterns of criminal behaviour. Thalia, though, is dispatched swiftly, and it’s up to Delaware and his cop pal, Milo Sturgis, to unravel her murder. A heart-thumping romp through LA gangster history, replete with jewel heists and blood feuds, Kellerman’s latest is the most genteel of his novels in a long time – and all the more enjoyable for it. – Russell Clarke @russrussy

Affinity Konar (Atlantic Books)
Book buff
Mischling is a horrifically beautiful novel that follows 12-year-old twins Stasha and Pearl. It’s 1944, and they’ve been brought into Auschwitz and placed in the notorious Mengele’s Zoo. “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele especially sought out twins to perform grotesque experiments on. The fictional tale has been well researched. Mengele is the main factual character. The rest are imaginary but, like the twins, have been modelled on people who suffered during the atrocity. Konar’s artistic prose sucks the reader into a nightmare where children endure the unbearable. The devastating contrast between the writing and the monstrosity creates an eerie and unforgettable read. Keep the tissues close. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Fiona Cummins (Pan Macmillan)
Book thrill
Former Daily Mirror showbiz journo Fiona Cummins’s debut thriller has a shout by Val McDermid, no less, and is rumoured to be in the works as a TV series. Detective Sergeant Ella Fitzroy is investigating a spate of missing children: her personal life is a mess so she invests her energy in her job, trying to discover what links the abductees. A psychopath is using London as his hunting ground, stealing children with bone deformities so he can add their skeletons to the collection in his private museum. A story the Daily Mirror would love. – Aubrey Paton

Turbo Twenty-ThreeTurbo Twenty-Three
Janet Evanovich (Headline)
Book fling
It’s just more of the same Stephanie Plum adventures: gun-wielding Lula, two unbelievably sexy gents vying for Plum’s attention (the cop Joe Morelli and the mysterious Ranger), her unconventional grandma, and Rex the hamster. Many readers must be hoping that this will be Evanovich’s last, because the magic seems to be dwindling – maybe due in part to the disastrous film adaptation with the badly miscast Katherine Heigl. The banality of this latest endeavour will not change their minds. But if you are looking for nothing more than a light, funny read, Turbo Twenty-Three is not too bad. In this one Stephanie has to go undercover in an ice-cream factory. Hi-jinks involving human lollies and nuts abound. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

Lives the numbers game: Michele Magwood talks to Paul Auster about his latest novel 4 3 2 1

Published in the Sunday Times

4 3 2 14 3 2 1
Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In the first cycle of Paul Auster’s colossal new book, a young boy is recovering in bed, having broken his leg falling out of a tree. He is musing on things more suited to an older child: on happenstance and destiny, on what is predetermined and what is fortuity or accidental. If his friend Chuckie Brower hadn’t asked him out to play, if his parents hadn’t bought a house with a tree in the backyard, if his parents had bought a house somewhere else and he wouldn’t even know Chuckie Brower. “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree.”

“So there, right at the beginning” says Paul Auster, “we’re being told what kind of book this is going to be, and how to read it.” He is speaking from his home in Brooklyn, his famously gravelled voice is warm and he is genial and expansive, despite dozens of interviews and appearances for the new book.

Now 70, Auster is a giant of American letters, frequently bracketed with De Lillo and Roth, or Thomas Pynchon. He is known as a writer of concision and elegant brevity and in latter years there have been murmurs of the Nobel Prize.

At 866 pages, though, 4 3 2 1 is a behemoth, a sprawling Bildungsroman that owes more to the German writer Heinrich Von Kleist than to spare modern stylists. A character’s description of Von Kleist could be applied to Auster here too: “The speed of his sentences, the propulsion. He tells and tells but doesn’t show much, which everyone says is the wrong way to go about it, but I like the way his stories charge forward.”

This is the story – or rather, four stories – of Archibald Ferguson, a Jewish boy born in New Jersey in 1947. He is the only child of Rose and Stanley and first we read of how they met and married. After that the story splits into four different trajectories, four different roads that Ferguson will travel.

In each of the contiguous versions, things change. The circumstances of his parents, for instance. In one Stanley dies in a fire, in another he divorces Rose. One Archie never has to worry about money, another gets by on scholarships and hauling furniture. One is bisexual, another learns he is sterile and will never have children. The extended cast of characters is the same, too, so his cousin Amy becomes a stepsister in one version, in another she’s no relation but Ferguson’s first great love.

Round and around the cycles whirl, charging on, intricately detailed, sentences streaming at times for half a page.

There are important similarities between the four. Every one of them is athletic and adores baseball and basketball, each will become a writer of some sort – poet, journalist, novelist – each loves old movies and classical music. All are precocious readers.

Midway through the book, however, they start to blur and one almost needs family trees to refer to. Is this the Ferguson whose cousin Francie is a saint or a harridan? Whose mother is a brilliant or a middling photographer or who has succumbed to depression? It is frustrating and all the reader can do is be carried along until it crystallises again.

“I didn’t want to write one of those wild fantasy books,” Auster explains. “Where one Archie becomes an astronaut, another becomes a scientist or a criminal. It didn’t seem plausible. They are the same genetic person, they have the same parents, after all. I didn’t want to do anything that seemed juvenile. I wanted to write a very serious book about human possibility.”

It is not a spoiler to say that one Archie dies, appallingly, at the age of 13 at summer camp. Another’s friend dies, equally awfully, at summer camp, a death that will stain that Archie’s life forever. Auster himself witnessed such a death at camp when he was 14, something he says has influenced his writing ever since. In much of his work cruel accidents or disaster strikes. This, then, seems to be the apogee of this theme.

“I think it’s the reason I wrote this book,” he agrees. “I was right next to my friend when he was killed in a lightning storm. It was probably the most important thing that happened to me in my young life. I had a sudden understanding that anything can happen at any moment to anybody. And that the solid ground I thought I’d been walking on up to that moment was not very solid at all. It’s affected me in all kinds of ways and certainly as a writer.”

4 3 2 1 is being described as “the crowning work of a masterful writer’s extraordinary career”. It’s going to be hard to cap that, but Auster has other plans. He was most recently in the headlines describing Donald Trump as “deranged and demented” and is determined to make his voice heard. He is set to become the head of PEN America next year. “Writing articles isn’t very useful, “ he says. “Anything I would publish would be read by people who agree with me. Whereas PEN has more of a presence in the world, a platform from which one can speak out more effectively.”

It reminds us of a note he wrote to JM Coetzee, with whom he has a close friendship. Their letters were published in 2013 in the book Here And Now, and in one he teases Coetzee about their advancing years. “I feel it is our duty to gripe and scold, to attack the hypocrisies, injustices, and stupidities of the world we live in. Let the young roll their eyes when we speak… we must carry on with utmost vigilance, scorned prophets crying into the wilderness – for just because we’re fighting a losing battle that doesn’t mean we should abandon the fight.”

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

*Listen to the podcast of Paul Auster here.

Book details

4 3 2 1 is also available as an eBook.

John Conyngham's Hazara "a story about longing and allegiance," writes Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson recently reviewed renown author and former journalist John Conyngham’s Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm for Business Day.

Read an extract from Robinson’s review here:

The word Hazara in the title of this fascinating portrait of settler life in Natal is not an exhortation that is yelled as the panga whacks the sugar cane. Rather, it is the name of a British army regiment in which one of the author’s ancestors served.

One of the imperatives of an Anglo-South African family was to maintain “standards” and keep Africa at bay. So as John Conyngham notes drily, the whites who settled in Natal in the 19th and 20th centuries tended to name their properties after places or things that reminded them of their earlier lives in far off places.

Through successive generations, European settler men fought in the Crimean, Anglo-Zulu, Anglo-Boer, first and second world wars — and if they survived, they farmed.

The author has ingeniously reconstructed his family history to show how Hazara came into their hands and then became a lucrative operation employing a hundred farm hands, bankrolling an enviable way of life of parties, private schools and trips overseas.

But there was also a lot of damage to be observed on the neighbouring farms — drunken quarrels, bolting wives, faithless husbands, still births and sudden deaths as the bush revealed its dangers. The most tragicomic example of a sudden death was the five-year-old boy who expired from a puffadder bite while the mother and the family servant quarrelled over who should suck the venom from his wound.

This settler society, of course, floated on a giant lake of alcohol knocked back on the veranda at sundown and quite often at breakfast too.

Most Europeans who move to Africa go slightly mad one way or another, for they lack the essential cultural inoculation of having been born there. Natal was not the Congo, but neither was it “home” for the incomers. As Joseph Conrad wrote of Kurtz, “the wilderness had found him out early and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion”.

Hazara, near Stanger (KwaDukuza), originally came into the family as a dowry for the author’s maternal grandmother upon her marriage in 1924. The marriage was not happy, partly because the couple lost all three of their children as infants to a suspected genetic abnormality. In those days, it was considered perfectly normal for a childless colonial couple to adopt an abandoned English child and ship them out to Africa.

Continue reading Robinson’s review here.


Book details

Mischling reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction, writes Margaret von Klemperer

This review was published in the Witness

AFFINITY Konar’s debut novel is an extraordinary piece of writing, powerfully imaginative, cleverly constructed and lyrical…but it is not an easy read. In places, it is close to unbearable.

The novel opens in 1944 with Polish identical twins Pearl and Stasha travelling to Auschwitz in a cattle truck with their mother and grandfather. On the verge of adolescence, they are immediately taken from their family and handed over to Dr Josef Mengele, whose name will resonate through time as one of the most evil people who has ever lived, and who is, of course, a man who never faced justice.

As part of Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the twins may have certain privileges not granted to other inmates of the death camp, but they will also be subjected to unspeakable horrors and experiments.

Konar, who has used many testimonies of Auschwitz survivors as source material, tells the story in alternating voices. Pearl is the gentler twin, the child who loves to dance, while Stasha is physically stronger and more imaginative.

The author controls the two streams of narrative skilfully as we read of the damage done to the children and the growing carapace of hatred that they, and particularly Stasha, grow in order to survive.

Then, with the end of the war coming closer, Pearl vanishes from a concert organised by Mengele. All Stasha has to cling to is the possibility that she is still alive somewhere, and when the camp is liberated, Stasha and Feliks, another surviving twin, escape from the Death March and set off on an odyssey of their own to the ruins of Warsaw with two aims in mind: to revenge themselves on Mengele and to find Pearl.

Nothing is spared of the sheer horror of the feral existence of the refugees in war-ravaged Europe, making the second half of the novel no easier to stomach than the earlier part set in Auschwitz.

This book reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction. It is a debate that leaves me slightly conflicted: while Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful came in for a lot of criticism for using humour to tell its story, it worked for me, but I disliked John Boyne’s manipulative, heavy-handed and implausible 2006 teen novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Certainly Affinity Konar trivialises nothing, nor does her manner of telling the story manipulate our feelings.

Whether a novel is a good way of describing the horrors of Auschwitz is something people have to decide for themselves, but this book may persuade you that fiction is a legitimate and a powerful tool to remind the world of the existence of evil. – Margaret von Klemperer

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Scars that Shine "holds nothing back," writes Marchelle Abrahams

Donvé Lee’s biography of legendary South African muso Syd Kitchen, Scars that Shine, was recently reviewed for The Mercury. Reviewer Marchelle Abrahams wrote:

DONVÉ Lee is no stranger to telling other people’s stories.

She has written the biography of artist Dan Rakgoathe and the books The Unfolding Man and An Intimate War.

After more than three years of research, many e-mails and trips, she has written a book about her friend, Syd Kitchen.

The guitarist, singer-songwriter and poet died of lung cancer in 2011. His career spanned 45 years and he was possibly the only artist to perform at every Splashy Fen Festival until his death.

Lee, who studied fine arts, worked as a textile designer, a TV news assistant, a graphic designer, a feature writer, an art teacher and a traveller, works hard to paint portraits in text.

“Syd was a friend of mine and he asked me many, many years ago to write a biography. He was a brilliant music artist and he didn’t get the recognition that he should have during his life.”

Lee spent three years writing the book. “I spent between six months and a year just doing the research. I interviewed more than 120 people. I flew to Durban several times to speak to friends and family and fans, then I spoke to people on Skype. I sent a lot of e-mails.I wanted to get it right.

To continue reading Abrahams’ review, click here.

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Donvé Lee's Scars that Shine "a rocking rendition" of Syd Kitchen's dark life

Mark Verbaan’s review of Donvé Lee’s biography of South African musician Syd Kitchen, Scars that Shine, recently appeared in the Independent on Sunday. Verbaan describes Lee’s biography as a memoir which “whips the reader through a life that leaves one open-mouthed in admiration and antipathy in equal measure.”

An extract from Verbaan’s review reads:

I was in my mid-teens when I went out with my parents one night to the Durban Folk Club. I don’t remember much from that evening. The image of one musician, however, has always stayed with me. He was a skinny bloke with black hair down his back. He was wearing a long black coat, a leopard skin hat and an acoustic guitar. That was Syd Kitchen.

Click here for Verbaan’s full review.

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