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Book Bites: 10 September 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Gather the DaughtersGather the Daughters
Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press
****
Given how long it takes to write and publish a book, it is unlikely that Jennie Melamed timed her debut novel to benefit from the popularity of the TV series based on The Handmaid’s Tale. Melamed is probably sick of having her book compared to Margaret Atwood’s. But it can’t hurt. Melamed’s fictional world, like Atwood’s, can be read as a dark allegory of patriarchy. Her central characters are children living on an island in a religious community cut off from “the wastelands” – the wider world into which only select male elders, the “wanderers”, may venture to bring back supplies and occasional fresh recruits. On the surface this is a gentle, pastoral life, but every time a girl-child is born, all the womenfolk wail and weep. The island way is to give fathers free access to their daughters until the girls reach “fruition”. Far from looking forward to the day when they can kick dad out of their beds, the daughters dread it because it signals no more summers of freedom. Until puberty bites, children run unfettered for a quarter of the year, roaming the island in naked, muddy packs. When one of these wildlings sees something she shouldn’t, it triggers a rebellion led by a 17-year-old who has staved off menstruation by starving herself. Melamed tells a stirring story in lucid, luminous language. – Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

GraceGrace
Barbara Boswell, Modjaji Books
*****
This gripping story tells of how a woman from Cape Town was subjected to abuse from her father. Later in life, Grace thinks she has overcome her hideous childhood until two people from her past make a reappearance in her life. Her suburban lifestyle is on the brink of collapse and it is only Grace that can save herself. The graphic details of the abuse that Grace endures is chilling. Her relationship with her father, and how she thinks she has “beaten” her past, makes the story so relatable and even more worthy of a reread. This book has earned every one of its five stars. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Koh-i-NoorKoh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond
William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, Bloomsbury
****
The Koh-i-Noor brings out so many angry emotions, because it is at the centre of important historical issues: why is it still part of the crown jewels of England? Where does it belong? Dalrymple and Anand investigate the history, dismissing the mythology around the diamond. What they find, is what one suspected – there has been misappropriation by all sorts, along with plenty of torture and murders. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Paradise found: Rosa Lyster reviews Patricia Lockwood's memoir Priestdaddy

Published in the Sunday Times

PriestdaddyPriestdaddy
Patricia Lockwood, Allen Lane
*****
Patricia Lockwood’s career has always seemed like an exception to the rule. She is a very famous and successful poet at a time when such creatures are presumed no longer to exist. It’s not just her career, though. She has been an exception to the rule since the day she was born. The title of her memoir, Priestdaddy, is a reference to her father, a former atheist who underwent “the deepest conversion on record” after watching The Exorcist 88 times on a submarine while in the navy, became a Lutheran minister, and eventually applied for the dispensation from the Vatican which allows married ministers of another faith to become Catholic priests.

This seems like enough to be getting on with already, ie: rich autobiographical material. Married Catholic priests are rare, and Lockwood and her four siblings grew up viewing the church from an almost unique perspective. Her family is also dementedly eccentric, and Lockwood has done a great service to this world by getting them down on the page.

This isn’t even the half of it, though. I would read Lockwood describing a trip to the bank. I would read 1000 pages of her just explaining how a very boring piece of machinery worked. She is inspiredly, unforeseeably funny, and her powers of description are unmatched. She is on another planet, and her writing makes you wish you lived there also.

Priestdaddy has been described as “kooky” and “quirky” and “whimsical” – all those words used to indicate that a writer isn’t to be taken totally seriously, especially if that writer is a woman. This is rubbish, obviously. It is a very funny book, but also a serious one, about family, and religion, and how it feels to be a writer, and about learning how to understand the world.

Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster

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Book Bites: 3 September

Published in the Sunday Times

How to Stop TimeHow to Stop Time
Matt Haig, Canon
****
Book hug
Tom Hazard has anageria — a condition that causes him to age very slowly. So he might look as if he is 40 now but he is over 400 years old. Not a vampire, not a highlander — he is not immortal. There are rules though, as his mentor Henrich explains: “You are allowed to love food and music and champagne and rare sunny afternoons … but the love of people is off limits.” But Tom wants an ordinary life, one where he will find happiness, and so he chooses to live in London as a high-school history teacher. Except it reminds him of when he met Rose. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, this works wonderfully as a modern take on a romance. It’s not too schmaltzy as Tom is a funny, dark character. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The FriendThe Friend
Dorothy Koomson, Century
****
Book fling
Cece moves her three children to Brighton after her husband’s promotion. Her children’s new school is costly, cliquey, and has just become a crime scene. Yvonne, one of the parents, is found battered and left for dead in the school grounds. School mums Maxie, Anaya, and Hazel (Yvonne’s former friends) bring Cece into their fold. But police suspect that one or all were involved in the crime, and Cece starts to investigate her new friends. It is no easy trick to write a captivating read that bounces between the years as well as the main characters’ perspectives, but Koomson effortlessly carries it off, creating a fast-paced and absorbing read. -
Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Doll FuneralThe Doll Funeral
Kate Hamer, Faber & Faber
****
Book buff
There has been much anticipation for the follow-up to Kate Hamer’s extraordinary debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, and this meets every expectation. It centres around Ruby, who at 13 discovers that Mick and Barbara aren’t her real parents. Her search for her biological folks leads her into the forest where she discovers some children who will help solve her mysterious past. You’ll have to exercise patience and concentration; you’ll find yourself flipping back a few pages now and then for reference. However, the eventual outcome is worth every hour spent poring over this carefully crafted tale. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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Getting to grips with memory in Wings of Smoke: Dave Mann reviews Jim Pascual Agustin’s new collection

There are moments in Jim Pascual Agustin’s latest collection that will test both mind and memory and, really, that’s what makes it so good.

Titled Wings of Smoke, the collection comprises 41 poems spread across four parts and features both new and previously published works by the Philippines-born, Cape Town-based writer and translator.

To take a leisurely read through Agustin’s works is no easy task. His writing is the kind that encourages you to stop and consider what you have just read, and in this way, you’ll find yourself combing through the same lines and picking out newer and more complex treasures each time. This is not to say that a cursory read of Wings of Smoke isn’t possible. Rather, it’s a flexible read – you pick it up and take what you want from it.

Structurally, Agustin’s collection is considerate. There are small poems early on, such as ‘Pause’ and ‘Midnight Bugs’ that read like exercises in the senses, full of new smells, tastes, and sounds. Pieces such as ‘Unbearable’, also early on in the collection, play around with space and movement so viscerally and succinctly that you’ll need to backtrack a good few times in order to grab hold of the piece in its entirety.

In the sections that follow, you’ll traverse the ephemeral and intangible, the humorous, the horrific, the political, and even a touch of the lyrical. Read in succession, the poems tend to dart from tone to tone, almost intentionally cutting the tension between each other, rather than expanding upon any singular, thematic thread. Pieces such as ‘Armed Response’ for example, with its somewhat reflexive and cheeky take on suburban living, come just before the painfully visceral ‘Red Letter’.

Altogether, Wings of Smoke reads like a spell of nostalgia or recollection – (Ten. Or nine. / Memory plays with me. / Stillness was a butterfly carefully settling on skin.) – the way a sound or smell may break the floodgates on a set of memories, or how a dream you don’t remember having will revisit you the following afternoon. Agustin’s writing is sharp and measured, each line plump with thought and vivid remembrance, relentless in its delivery, but light enough in its form to keep you pressing on, keenly.

***

International orders may be placed via Onslaught Press, and SA orders and queries can be coursed on Jim’s blog, Matangmanok. PS – Fixional recently conducted an interview with Jim; read it here.

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Dark mirrors: readers are lapping up stories about our bleak times

Published by Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Dystopian fiction has knocked the glistening vampire off the young adult shelf. It is hardly a new genre – think Lord of the Flies, 1984 – but there has been a steady uptake of these novels for young adult readers. Maybe it is because these novels are mirrors of our world, which is a terrifying place.

Dystopian fiction recognises the crisis we are in today and through an alternative prism allows the reader to play out worst-case scenarios. The protagonist is often a young person trying to overcome odds like love triangles and fighting the controlled social structure of the new broken world.

It gives the younger reader a chance to relate; a way to view society and possibly solve problems.

But it’s not only younger readers who are immersing themselves in these bleak realms. Many people enjoy a good yarn and most of the stories are just that. These lesser-known novels will hopefully appeal to most dystopian fans.

AsylumAsylum, Marcus Low
Set in the Great Karoo, Low’s story plays out in a not-too-distant future in which a lethal, incurable illness kills off most of the population. Barry James is one of the sick – imprisoned and quarantined in an asylum where he is expected to die.
 
 
 
 
The PowerThe Power, Naomi Alderman
The Baileys Prize-winning novel imagines a world where women have the ability to electrocute men at will. It’s a work of contemporary feminism that confronts today’s patriarchal system.
 
 
 
 
Station ElevenStation Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
A travelling theatre troupe, a deadly strain of swine flu and destructive relationships are the basis for this award-winning novel set in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.
 
 
 
 
 
Apocalypse Now NowApocalypse Now Now, Charlie Human
Baxter’s life as the 16-year-old drug kingpin of his school changes when his girlfriend Esme is kidnapped. To save her, he goes into the dark, supernatural underground of Cape Town. Trippy.
 
 
 
 
Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor tweeted that her novel has been optioned by HBO to develop as a TV series with Game of Thrones author George RR Martin as executive producer. Dealing with race, ethnicity and female sexual empowerment, it focuses on 16-year-old Onyesonwu who must learn to navigate life in post-apocalyptic Sudan.
 
 
 
 
The RaftThe Raft, Fred Strydom
Humanity has lost its memory. Civilisation collapses. Kayle Jenner has vague visions of his son and as he sets out to find him, he discovers the truth about the world’s memory loss. Set partly in the Tsitsikamma forest and Kroonstad, The Raft explores existential and philosophical questions.
 
 
 
 
The Knife of Never Letting GoThe Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness
The first of a series called Chaos Walking. Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown, where everyone can hear each other’s thoughts through something called the Noise. About information overload, it’s relevant as we are swamped by the noise of social media.
 
 
 
 
Dark Windows, Louis Greenberg
The Gaia Peace Party has been in power in South Africa for 10 years, promising a cure for crime. A contractor for the party is given the job of blackening the windows of several Joburg buildings. The dark windows project shows the cracks in the ruling party. A too-close-to-home political thriller.
 
 
 
 
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Fraught relations: Tiah Beautement speaks to Zinzi Clemmons about her book What We Lose

Published in the Sunday Times

What We LoseWhat We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons (Fourth Estate)
****

This is a debut work of great beauty and depth, a poignant fictional memoir that began as a series of journal entries Clemmons wrote while caring for her mother. Like the main character Thandi, Clemmons is an American-South African who loses her mother to cancer. It was this experience that brought home to Clemmons the disparities in US healthcare. She explains: “Oppression in the US tends to operate under the surface, usually through policies that ensure that minorities, and blacks especially, do not have access to the same opportunities as whites… by the time a black person is diagnosed, their conditions are more advanced, and they aren’t able to access proper treatment.”

Clemmons’s story masterfully illustrates grieving. It is raw and brutal, devoid of platitudes. Thandi reflects, “I realised that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back; her soft, accented English telling me Everything will be all right, Thandi. This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.”

The writing style of What We Lose – a series of vignettes, peppered with charts and e-mails – contributes to the portrait of grief. “My only thought during the entire [writing] process was to tell the story in the way that felt right to me, and it was only later in the process that I realised that this style mirrored the way that grief fragments memory and thought,” Clemmons says.

What We Lose has been described as a coming-of-age story. Clemmons believes this to be a fair description as “losing parents is an event that forces us to grow up, that accelerates adulthood”. But the story’s greatest strength is in its unromanticised depictions of motherhood and its complex portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship.

“I think [my mother and I] both compounded that conflict when we saw ourselves not living up to some idealised version of how our relationship should be… These expectations we as women place on ourselves – in many aspects of our lives – ultimately cause nothing but harm.”

Thandi’s story, however, is not Clemmons’s. Thandi’s grief-stricken journey contains her own mistakes. She is an intelligent and sympathetic character, honest and open about her sexual needs. “It was absolutely a conscious decision to present Thandi as a sexually powerful person,” Clemmons says. “I think that authenticity – that unwillingness to bend to the male gaze – is unfortunately rare, but it’s necessary.”

The story is set in both the US and South Africa. Thandi, raised in a well-to-do US suburb, is hypersensitive to the contrast between her home and Johannesburg. This American lens means that Thandi’s observations on Oscar Pistorius, for example, will undoubtedly be controversial for some South African readers. By contrast, many South Africans will empathise with Thandi’s observations on identity and race, because she is not only stretched between two countries and cultures, but her very skin leaves her dislocated from her peers – either too light or too dark. As Thandi says: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.”

Follow Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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