Monday, 30 June 2014

Book Review: Captives by Angela Meyer (AKA Literary Minded)

Angela Meyer
Inkerman and Blunt, 2014

Flash fiction might be a foreign term to many of you.  It's a relatively new term in the mainstream literary world, a genre of short fiction which describes bite-sized morsels of story, moments and thoughts that encapsulate an emotion, an interaction, the calm before disaster strikes.  It is also notoriously hard to publish.

But Angela Meyer won't be unknown to you.  For a number of years now, she's been queen of the Australian Book Blogging scene, running her own website known as Literary Minded.  She's judged the AWC Best Bloggers competition Book Blogging segment.  She's written book reviews for The Australian and Crikey.  And these are just the things that I can remember about her without googling her.  I guess you could say that Angela Meyer is one of my heroes.

Last month, Meyer launched her debut book, a collection of Flash Fiction called Captives.  Its tag line says it all:  "Bad things happen.  Or they could.  At any moment."  This tiny book covers a vast landscape of the literary mind at work, spanning through historical fiction, speculative fiction, crime and relationship dramas and many more.  Stand-outs include 'Thirteen Tiles' (in which a man contemplates his imminent death after her becomes locked in the toilet), 'One of the Crew' (in which an outsider infiltrates the green room at a writer's festival), 'Foreign Bodies' (in which a prison inmate systematically swallows large objects) and 'Nineteen' (which is a beautiful piece about growing up.)

It's hard to review this book because it's hard to pin down, but suffice to say that this was a wonderful thing to carry around in my bag, and pull out to read on my lunch break or before dinner.  My enthusiasm for Meyer's reviews aside, this collection displays great skill.  It is a showcase of the kinds of fiction, films and relationships which have had an influence on both author and potential readers.  It is a marvel.

I gave it four stars.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Welcome to my Bookshelves, with Robert Schofield

This time around, we're joined by WA crime writer, Robert Schofield, whose first book Heist was reviewed by none other than... my Mum.

Robert Schofield's second book, Marble Bar was released in Australia this week, with lead character Gareth Ford returning to the fray in a brand new mystery.

Gareth Ford, with a cloud still hanging over him because of his involvement in the Gwardar Gold Heist, has decided to make a new beginning in the iron mines of Newman. But when he returns home from the night shift and finds his flatmate has been murdered, suspicion quickly falls upon him. He, however, fears he himself was the real target and soon discovers he is being tailed. He summons his old ally from the Gold Squad, DC Rose Kavanagh, and soon they find themselves in Marble Bar, searching for the Gwardar Gold and being pursued by a variety of desperadoes, each with their own agendas.
But that's enough from me... I'm going to hand over to Robert and let him show you his beautiful books.

Bookshelf Tour – Robert Schofield

I saw one of those internet aphorisms just before I started taking these photographs which said:  ‘The odd thing about people that have a lot of books is that they always want more.’ I realised that I seldom actively covet books, or go out seeking them, they just seem to coalesce around me.  Much like coat-hangers, they seem to appear out of nowhere.  I noticed there were far too many books on my shelves that I had never got around to reading, and an alarming number that I had no recollection of owning or any idea where they might have come from.  I think I inherit these strays them from friends or family, or get a box full from a garage sale that I forget about.

I try to limit the number of books I buy, but still they come.  I have a sculpture on the mantelpiece beside my bed, a nice Modigliani head, and beside I stack my ‘to read’ pile.  I made myself a rule that if the pile got taller than the head, I wouldn’t let myself buy another book until I had read through the pile.  What a woefully optimistic crock of self-delusion that was.  I’ve recently started research on my third novel and the books started piling up and soon I had two stacks taller than the head and went into denial.

Before I could take the pictures I had to tidy the shelves, because there were more books than space available, and I had started to double-stack the shelves and jam books sideways into every available gap.  It made me realise that I didn’t have enough shelves, which prompted a conversation with my wife about where I could put some more.  Discussion swiftly turned into argument.  I was told I already have bookshelves in three rooms of the house, and am not taking over any more rooms.  I didn’t see the problem.  Every room should have books.

Whenever I see photographs of the inside of someone’s house in a glossy magazine, or one of those interior design lift-outs in the newspaper, I always look for the bookshelves.  Nearly always the house is bare; a sterile interior created by a stylist to look good in a magazine, but not for people to live in.  I always shout: ‘Where do these people put all their stuff?  Where are their books?’

When we renovated our house we built bookshelves in two rooms: the bedroom and a room we used to call the study.  When the kids arrived the study became a second living room and I now have to write in my shed.  The built-in shelves in the house soon filled up and I had to put an Ikea bookshelf in the shed for the overflow.  That shelf is now full.  (Incidentally, I saw recently that Ikea are planning to cease production of the Expedit bookcase.  I wept when I read that.  It was almost as bad as when I heard that The Smiths had broken up).

The shelves were originally arranged in some sort of order, but the system didn’t take long to break down.  They are organised mostly by size.  All the big hardback books are stacked on the tallest shelves.  I am a structural engineer by profession, and used to work for an architectural practice, so I have a lot of hardback monographs and art books that are kept on high shelves out of the reach of sticky little fingers.

I have one shelf where I keep signed copies, and I’ve been getting more of those since I’ve been invited to festivals, but apart from that the paperback shelves are pretty random.  I try to keep books by the same wrier together, but then an author will publish a book in a different format, and it doesn’t fit on the shelf, and the system breaks down again.

I keep all the books related to my writing in the shed next to my desk: dictionaries, reference books, non-fiction, biographies of writers, and all my notebooks and manuscripts.  I have a reading chair in there as well.  Writing is an excuse to lock myself in my shed and shut the world out, which is an extremely selfish thing to do.  Luckily I have a family that lets me do that.  Sometimes they even encourage me to go away and leave them alone. 

The shed is slowly filling with clutter: things I’ve collected, old toys, scientific curiosities and random junk.  I’m trying to turn it into a Wunderkammer: a cabinet of curiosities.  When the kids come to the shed, they like to take things down from the shelves and we sit in my chair and talk about them.

Thanks for that tour, Robert!  

You can buy Marble Bar now in any bookshop worth its salt!

You can also find this post, and many more, at Robert Schofield's blog

Friday, 27 June 2014

Book Review: Sweet One by Peter Docker

Sweet One
Peter Docker
Fremantle Press, 2014

In a small town called Baalboorlie, up north in Western Australia, The Old Man (a decorated war veteran and Aboriginal elder) perishes in the back of a prison transport van on a sweltering hot day.  The repercussions of this event will blow the town out of the water.

Sweet One, The Old Man's grandson, is informed about the death and returns home to exact justice on those involved-- with payment in kind.  As the body count rises, a journalist from Queensland named Izzy Langbourn realises that this is about more than just a story.  This is about the Truth.

Part literary condemnation of the fate of Aboriginal and non white prisoners in the Australian justice system, and part crime thriller, Docker's new novel fits into a genre with other rural Australian crime writers-- Robert Schofield, Alan Carter and the like.  The book mixes a strong small town flavour with the thrills and spills of a big city manhunt, and spares nothing on the gore factor.  Each murder committed by Sweet One is gorier than the last, but my personal favourite is the two GLP4 guards responsible for prisoner transport who are locked in a boiling sauna overnight with only a plastic bottle of water and a frozen pie.

While the setting and the incident that begins the novel are thinly disguised versions of things that truly happened, this novel goes far beyond reality in a kind of cautionary tale meets Saturday night prime time movie thriller.  Baalboorlie is Kalgoorlie, and one wonders if the reference to the Egyptian god Baal is significant.  The death in custody of an Aboriginal elder in the back of a hot transport van; that is based in fact, and Docker's treatment of the scene surrounding it, though clearly coming down against the authorities, is well thought out and empathetic.  The men who work at the Baalboorlie and Somerset police stations and at GPL4 are not evil themselves, but products of a flawed system that only creates more problems.

Another major theme of the novel is the long term psychological effects of active service on Australian soldiers.  Izzy's partner Josh is in Iraq, and she's been there herself.  It has deep ramifications on their relationship, but nothing quite so bad as the mental issues faced by Sweet One, Mort, and the other returned soldiers at the heart of the violence in this book.  At times, the action in this novel is somewhat obscured by the complexity of the conspiracies at work here.  I'm still not one hundred per cent sure who was on what side.  Blackmail and backstabbing have characters crossing the floor all over the plot, but a fast pace and a strong lead character (Izzy) keeps those pages turning.

Izzy is a character whose point of view goes through a drastic arc of change because of the events of the novel, but in a believable way.  Her beliefs are tested, and her allegiances.  Yet at times, she behaves in a way that seems unnatural and almost masculine.  After finding out that her partner, Josh, has been killed, she immediately responds to a callous invitation to have sex in the front of a car with a man she barely knows.  While her quest for physical solace is not unheard of, particularly in dramatic storytelling, she seems almost predatory in her actions, somehow male.  At the rest of times, it is easy to believe that she is a strong woman.

This book is definitely not the kind of thing I would have picked out for myself, but it was a great read.  I gave it four stars.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Book Review: The Glass Kingdom

The Glass Kingdom
Chris Flynn
Text, 2014

Simply put, The Glass Kingdom is a novel about the ins and outs of meth dealing, set on a travelling carnival.  It is narrated in turn by Corporal Ben Wallace, who returns to his carnie roots after being injured in Uruzgan province in a roadside bombing attack, and Mikey 'Mekong Delta', a wannabe rapper from Fremantle picked up by Ben as the show passed through.

But to be less blunt, The Glass Kingdom is an exciting novel which tests your allegiances with literary skill.  It allows the reader (whatever their level of experience with this criminal underworld) to enter a very specific slice of the world and look out from the inside.

The first half of the novel is narrated by Ben.  It moves quickly.  Ben has meth, and is trying to make a killing selling it.  He seems like a nice guy, a little damaged by what he's seen and extremely sensitive about the wounds to his neck, caused by burns sustained in the attack.  People are afraid of him.  He's resigned to this but not pleased by it.  He reluctantly takes Mikey in because he sees something fragile in him.  Mikey seems annoying as all hell, talking like a television gangsta (Fifty Cent perhaps), and constantly busting rhymes out, although these are pretty clever.  Then Mikey takes off.  He takes Ben's girlfriend's car, which actually seems like a favour to Ben because it brings Ben and Steph closer together.  Steph loves Ben despite the scarring, and they seem together.  She doesn't mind what he does for a living, and goes along for the ride when Ben decides to follow Mikey down the Glass Highway to get back what was stolen from him.  The section ends on a cliff hanger that left this reader actually missing Ben's voice.

The second half is told from Mikey's point of view, in a kind of dialect monologue.  Mikey's section is less direct, told almost passively, in a way that would make a great monologue if it were to be performed on stage.  This section is not as compelling, as the reader does not get to be in the moment, and at times it is hard to tell what is real and what Mikey is hallucinating, such as his conversation with the girl Deb in the bar.  What's great about this part of the book is that everything we already thought we knew about the characters is tipped onto its head.  Ben is a scary meth dealer who's not averse to killing people.  Mikey is young and innocent and vulnerable... okay so maybe not as innocent as he thinks he is... and is not all there in the head thanks to childhood trauma and abusive step parents.  He's got big dreams that he doesn't know how to go about realising.  In this section, Mikey is good and Ben is the bad guy.  So who do we believe?

And how are we supposed to feel about the shocking conclusion?  (Please, someone tell me, because I'm still chewing on this one.)

There is a section in the middle of the book which is narrated by Voltan, the Master of Electricity which explain's Ben's past, most likely because the author has decided Ben is the kind of character who wouldn't give this up on his own.  It's confusing, and it detracts a little from the flow of the book.  I don't even know if the information in it is strictly necessary, but it does give the story balance, as Mikey is given a chance to tell about his roots.  Some of the imagery set in this section is repeated in the coda of the book which seems almost like a dream sequence, a fading consciousness hallucination.  I actually don't think either of these sections were needed.

My other gripe was the lack of clarity and immediacy in the climax of the book.  Because the  action sequences in Mikey's section were told in this indirect, hip hop style, they lost some of their punch.  If they'd been told in Ben's voice, I got the feeling they would have been told just right.  I don't think that true balance was achieved between the two narrative sections.

However, I really enjoyed this book and I did not even expect that I would.  This is a book for anyone, young, old, interested in meth dealing or totally against it (like me, in case you're wondering).  It's funny, it's got great Australian social commentary in it, and it's quick without being insubstantial.  I'm definitely going to find Flynn's first book, A Tiger in Eden  now, because Flynn's got skills.

Four stars

Monday, 23 June 2014

Book Review: Only The Animals

Only The Animals
Ceridwen Dovey
Penguin, 2014

Short stories can be wonderful things.  As a reader, you immerse yourself in them quickly and emerge changed not long after you begin, so long as they are written correctly.  A lot of modern short stories are what I have heard termed 'moment of truth' short stories, in which the world is presented as being something that seems normal, and perhaps even innocent at first, but by the end of the story we see that the narrator/protagonist/we are completely wrong.  It's like being punched in the stomach, yet it's pleasant.

A lot of readers don't have time for short stories which is a shame.  As a result, a lot of publishers don't have time for them either, unless they are by someone who is already famous for having written a novel or two.

Into this comes Ceridwen Dovey, a South African born Sydney-sider, and her collection Only the Animals.  This collection consists of ten pieces told in varying styles which feature as their main characters animals at the periphery of history.  It begins with a story told from the point of view of a camel in the Australian outback who is travelling with Henry Lawson, and ends with a special ops dolphin writing to Sylvia Plath from beyond the grave to try and mitigate her guilt for her part in modern naval anti-terrorist activities.  In between there are all kinds of wonderful.

Dovey's writing is fresh and adaptable.  Her style changes with feline grace to suit her subject matter.  In her story about Kiki the Cat, who follows Collette to the trenches of World War One and is left behind, she is suitably aloof and in a strange way, seems to slip fluidly between genders, in a homage to Collette herself.  In a series of letters between Red Peter and his wife in-training, Dovey's prose enters a Kafka-esque world where chimps are humans and humans are chimps, and the lines between them are so blurred that it soon becomes evident that the object of Red Peter's affections are not the chimp bride 'appropriately' trained for him, but for her human owner.  His sense of betrayal, when he is returned to the cage during the time of great starvation in 1930s Germany is all the more poignant because we come to picture him in his suit, in a hotel suite, writing letters.  In times of affluence this is all right, but in times of famine, the people see Peter as obscene and forget that it was human curiousity that made him behave that way in the first place.

In 'Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl would be Handed to Me', a narrative of three Mussels travelling the ocean floor is told in a style that pays tribute to Kerouac (prefaced with a quote from the man himself).  The reader, who by this point is familiar with the historical significance of the other stories is left wondering what event this story is to shed light on until the last possible moment.... it turns one of the most traumatic events in recent American history into a senseless, random attack that the marine life had no means of understanding, cleverly parallelled with the way the American public must have felt at the same time, before Pearl Harbour became synonymous with all the eulogising it's had since.

This collection is brilliant, beautiful, subtle and un-put-downable, to use that non-word again.  If you're looking to get back into reading short stories, begin here.  Dovey showcases a talent for allegory and restraint that is not to be missed.  Perfect for reading on lunch breaks or tedious commutes, enter the world of the animal kingdom.

Five stars.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Have Certain Nameless Online Retailers Changed the Way We Shop?

We all love convenience, and what's more convenient than being able to log onto a website and search for that book/ cd/ other that we want, pay a fraction of the price for it and then have it delivered straight to our door.  But is this ease of access in the online world making us unreasonable in the real world?

First, take a look at this article that was published on the esquire site earlier this week.  It was shared by lots of Perth bookshops via their Facebook pages.  I originally found it via Elizabeth's Bookshops.

What's great about this article is that it's doing something.  It doesn't just sit there on the web like some angry little hate bundle, pissing people off, either because they agree but nothing changes, or because they disagree.  No, this article, by Stephen Marche celebrates real book stores and what's wonderful about them in a cheeky set of instructions on how to use them.

But it also illustrates to me the root of a fairly common problem in book selling.  How many times have I been at the receiving end of someone's impatient ire because their book club is THIS Tuesday, and they need ten copies of Burial Rites like *right now* and I only have four.  Or they need ten copies of a best seller from 2008, and what am I talking about I don't have it in stock.  Living in Western Australia, like we do, we're not only facing the possibility of (shock horror) a wait for items ordered to be delivered, but we're waiting for them to be road freighted across the country.  That's a ten day wait sometimes, provided that the book you want is in stock.  And book club lady wants it now.

The assumption that shopping for books (or CDs, or other sorts of products that are unique and can be indexed by titles) is a singular transaction seems to come from a misunderstanding that shopping instore can be just like shopping online.  To the customer of today, it seems as simple as approaching the counter, saying what book you want, having the staff member retrieve it, paying and getting the heck out of dodge.  But as Marche says, where is the joy in that?

And don't even get me started on e-books, man.

Shopping instore can be an act of discovery.  There is nothing quite like a browse in the store.  There is nothing quite like asking the bookseller what they're reading, what they love, what's great but isn't selling.  The joy of discovering your new favourite book.  And the shopping habits we form when we get used to shopping online, they are keeping us from this joy.  So next time you visit a bookstore, venture deeper than the enquiries counter.  Go on.  I dare you.  

For a hilarious take on bookseller problems (#booksellerproblems?) you should definitely check out Customer Service Wolf.  Particularly this one.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: Harvest

BOOK: Harvest by Jim Crace
Format: Hardback

Although some sources name it the favourite to take out this year’s Man Booker prize, I have to say that Jim Crace’s Harvest was the title that interested me the least out of this year’s bunch.  It is one of the few that was available for purchase long before the release of the longlist, and although I’d seen it, I’d never picked it up to have a look.  From the title and the colouring of the cover, I had it pegged as a kind of rural drama, probably set in outback Australia, thus revealing my cultural bias.  In fact, Harvest is an English historical drama centred around the conversion of a small nameless village from wheat and barley farming to sheep farming. 

The story begins with a broad scope, describing the landscape and the hard work being done before zeroing in to the privileged ‘I’ position of Walter Thirsk, although his name is not given away until a few chapters in to the book.  He was not born in the village and does not come from one of its old families, but arrived with the now-Master of the village, Charles Kent.  He and Kent are milk cousins, raised together and both suckled from Mother Thirsk’s breast, though Charles as a nobleman has far more rights than Walter.  Kent is the owner of the village manor by marriage only, and as his wife Lucy died giving birth to a stillborn daughter, their only child, his grip on the land is tenuous at best.  Change is signalled in the village by the lighting of two fires; the first in the master’s dovecote, indicating trouble afoot and the second on the village outskirts, announcing the arrival of newcomers.

The plot immediately follows the pattern of ‘a stranger comes to town’, beginning first with the arrival of Mr Quill (Mr Earle) who is employed to map the nameless village for some unstated reason, Walter being enlisted as his assistant.  Next is the arrival of ‘the Beldams’, two men and a woman who are accused of the trouble in the dovecote and treated like prisoners, despite the fact that most of the village seems to know it was some of their youths responsible.  All keep mum about it.  And Walter once again is set apart from them, having injured his hand in the blaze, and not therefore being present at the sentencing.  Finally, a new lord rides into the village, a Master Jordan who is Kent’s cousin-in-law by marriage and the rightful heir to the land.  He is the one who wishes to convert to the more-profitable practice of sheep-farming.

The language of Harvest is old fashioned yet lyrical and it is easy to see why this book may have been tipped the favourite, as it bears the most similarity so far to the work of previous winner, Hilary Mantel.  However, as a reader I often found my attention waning during the perusal of run on sentences.  Walter’s position as observer gave him insight into the many happenings of this short book, but his point of view was simply not compelling enough to have me hanging off his every word.  I found no reason to feel sympathetic for him, because he clearly felt as if the village were both below him and that they owed him something.  His sadness that they would set him apart at the first sign of trouble is not surprising to the reader as he has been setting himself apart unknowingly all along, first by referring to himself as the master’s milk cousin, and then by sleeping with the desirable but unkind widow Gosse.  When he injures his hand, he makes a show of it so as no one will accuse him of shirking his duties, something no man with the true friendship of his fellows should have to do.  It is as if he expects them to think he is faking to get out of work. 

He is also set apart from them in his ideas; he does not understand the need to punish the Beldams for the actions of others and only does not dob in his neighbours because he fears the anger of all the others, I believe.  Fundamentally, Walter Thirsk is a coward.  He does not pull a stone up to the pillory for the short man tethered there because he fears ruining his hand and being useless for work in the future.  But he does not go for help either.  As a result, the man dies.  I learned a lot about Walter from what he did not manage to do while reading Harvest

This book would not be my pick for the Man Booker Prize of this year, although I do think that I would read more of Jim Crace’s books in the future.  I certainly recommend this book to anyone who likes well considered historical fiction, particularly as I said, fans of Mantel.  Bodice-ripper this is not.  It is a work which is deeply psychological, examining the human spirit in the face of tension and change. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: TransAtlantic

Book: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Format: Trade Paperback (I own a copy)

We're past the half way point now of last year's Man Booker Prize longlist, and I'm definitely finding that this sort of reading makes for a lot of diversity.  Colum McCann's TransAtlantic is a series of interlinked narratives that experiment with the idea of Irish identity in relation to a changing interaction with America and Britain (depending on the level of influence these countries have in the time period used as setting.)  Narrative one tells the story of two World War One pilots who are attempting to fly across the ocean from America to Ireland, and the media furore that follows their wait for good weather.  In particular, two journalists are singled out: Emily Ehrlich and her daughter Lottie, who are tenacious reporters but outsiders in the eyes of the other journalists.  The second narrative follows Frederick Douglass on his tour of Ireland following the publication of his book against the slave trade in his home country of America.  Douglass, a black man, attracts a lot of attention everywhere he goes, and is startled by the astonishing poverty of the Irish working class.  He keeps a set of weights in his luggage so that his muscles do not diminish now that he is no longer doing slave work.  The final thread of the narrative is that of a politician in the modern (but pre 9/11) era.  Senator Mitchell is in advanced years but has a young wife and a five or so month old son, whom he is constantly leaving to fly between Dublin, Washington and New York.

The premise of this book seems to be to document the view of the outsider as they traverse unfamiliar territory.  Much time is spent developing feelings of not belonging, of shock or outrage, or a sense of something being off kilter.  As for the story, there actually appears to be very little to it.  The book is a slow, considerate read.  It is written in a slightly clunky style which is given to repetition and explanations that are somewhat unnecessary and obscure the reader's ability to get to know the characters.  One hundred or so pages in, I gave up on reading this book to the end, because I felt no connection to the characters or the landscape.  The tone of each segment, however, was beautifully realised, and very different from the one before it.  Immediately the reader is in that era and feeling the emotion of the time.  Particularly in the scenes with Douglass, as a reader I felt the cold, smelt the damp, pictured the hollow eyes of the hungry.  The imagery was sharp, but a little over-emphasised.

I think perhaps if I had any understanding of Irish identity this novel would ring truer for me.  As it stands, I didn't finish it, and on the basis of the writing and my inability to find something to connect to and keep me interested, I give this book two stars.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: The Kills

Book:  The Kills by Richard House
Format:  Hardback (Courtesy city of Melville Library)

I would be lying if I said I was excited to read this particular book.  The Kills is a 1000+ page novel about American contractors operating out of post-war Iraq, consisting of four separate novels as well as interactive content if you happen to be reading the book on a tablet or kindle etc.  The four novels are: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and The Hit.  Sutler is the codename of the character introduced in the first pages, who has already been given a new identity but reverts to his old name after he is set up to take the fall for the embezzlement of large amounts of money from a contracting company.  He takes off across the desert with a professional hitman on his tail, and the overarching figure of his boss, a man named Paul Geezler.  The Massive is the name given to a project that does not officially exist, and this the project being worked on at the time of the embezzlement.  These stories by all accounts are somehow linked.  I would not know.  I never got that far.

This book is intelligent, well-paced and written with a tight control on language.  So why didn’t I finish it?

To begin with, the subject matter lies well outside my areas of knowledge and interest.  While one of the joys of reading is exploring exactly those, there is a certain point at which the brain just disengages.  When reading becomes a chore, it is time to switch books, and for this reason, I gave up after fifty pages.

Add onto that the fact that this is novel which speaks in a shorthand belonging to that particular area of interest.  There are business and military terms galore in The Kills and nary an index in sight.  All the characters (so far male) refer to each other by their surnames, and seem largely indistinguishable in their personalities and roles.  In short, I was not drawn to the world nor the characters it was peopled with.

One thing that did interest me was the subject matter I had read would be in the third book, ‘The Kill’.  Apparently if I had gotten that far, I would have been able to read about the book within the book, a novel about a bizarre campus murder which is gaining popularity throughout the novel, and is later mimicked in real life.  The point at which I stopped reading, this novel had already been mentioned by a young man Sutler sits with on a bus.  But the military and thriller aspect?  Arguably the whole centrepoint of the novel?  Really, 100% not for me.

And truly, life is too short to force yourself to read 1000+ page novels you are just not into.

If you want to read a review by someone who did like the book, here’s one from the Guardian.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: We Need New Names

BOOK: We Need New Names
FORMAT: Hardback (borrowed from Library)

While voices in the diaspora are becoming more and more recognisable to the average reader, I would hazard a guess that only the smallest few are familiar with the vast bodies of African literature available in English at the present moment.  Books such as We Need New Names take an important step in bridging cultural differences between European/ Western societies and developing African nations because more than anything else, they highlight the similarities.  This is what struck me most about this remarkable book. 

Darling and her friends are normal children.  They play games of make believe like the country game, where everyone wants to be a ‘good ‘ country like the USA or Australia or Britain, but no one wants to be somewhere like the Congo.  They play ‘Find bin Laden’.  And they hunt for guavas because they are hungry.  But this is not childish hunger- this is starvation.  Darling, Bastard, Chip, Sbho, Stina and Chipo hunt for guavas in a place called Budapest, which is where all the rich people live.  They gorge themselves on these guavas even though they know that this will make them constipated and that the seeds might rip their anuses when they defecate, because it is better than starving.  The worst a child might see when out exploring in Australia is tame compared to the things Darling and her friends see; a white man and woman taken from their homes by a mob advocating ‘Blak Power’; a neighbour shot; a dog kicked over a fence; a woman hanging dead from a tree because she has contracted The Sickness- AIDS.  Each time something like this happens, as I reader I found myself thinking that no, this was a feint that would be reversed at the last moment.  After all these are only children.  But only once does that happen.

In the scene from which the book has taken its name, Sbho and Darling and a new girl in the village perform an operation to get rid of Chipo’s pregnant stomach because it is in the way of their playing.  They adopt new names and become characters from ER.  Thankfully, at the last moment a village woman named MotherLove discovers them, and stops the backyard abortion before the new girl can insert the mangled coat hanger inside of Chipo. 

Darling talks of going to America and her dreams are only limited by her imagination.  She tells her friends she will have a Lamboghini car, that she will go to Cornell, that she will live in a big house like the ones in Budapest when her Aunt Fostalina comes for her.  But America is not the country where dreams come true.  As a Zimbabwean and as an African living in America, Darling encounters hardships.  No one understands her even when she is speaking English.  She has to pay her way through college working in a supermarket where her job is to sort cans for recycling.  She cleans the home of a rich man whose daughter is an anorexic.  Darling finds the idea that a white girl choosing not to eat could ever truly know starvation laughable.  She feels it all the time, that she is not an American.
But neither is she a Zimbabwean anymore.  In a powerful Skype conversation with the grown up Chipo, Darling is admonished for her sympathy for her country’s plight because she chose to leave.  Chipo uses the analogy of the burning house- do you leave, or do you get water and try to save it?  Darling is left with a sense of loss and does not know where she belongs. 

We Need New Names is a powerful and subtle tale of identity and coming of age, and it is a mighty shame that this book did not win the Man Booker Prize.  I see NoViolet Bulawayo’s writing as on a par with the great Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s.  I heartily enjoyed this book and gave it five stars.  

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

BOOK: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Format: Hardback, courtesy Simon Clark (on loan)

Weighing in at just over 100 pages (something akin to between 30 000 and 40 000 words I think), The Testament of Mary was the shortest contestant on the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist, and is in fact more of a novella than a novel.  While in comparison to this year’s winner, that might seem dwarfing, I have come to realise that the length of a book, its form and structure, are as much a part of the story itself. 

The Testament of Mary tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion from the point of view of his mother, Mary, who is under the watch of a few sullen guards.  She tells her story from a point of grief struck awe, not understanding what has happened or why.  The words of Monty Python spring to mind: “He’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy!”  As Mary observes her son’s influence and popularity among the people of Jerusalem, and hears of his performing miracles, she begins to feel detached from him, and her pain serves as a sense of foreboding.  When Lazarus, the beloved one, is risen from the dead, only Mary seems to see the anguish that he feels at being drawn back from a place where he was at peace into the tumultuous, material world.  She suspects that Jesus has not done this deed to ease Lazarus’s suffering, nor that of his sisters, but in fact to soothe his own naysayers.  His deeds help him to grow in popularity and he becomes the figurehead of a rebellious youth movement that causes unrest among the Jewish community.

But the extent of Jesus’ changes can only be seen truly at a wedding where Mary attempts to warn Jesus about the negative attention his actions have attracted.  She tries to get him to flee with her, and he asks her who she is, and why she leans so close to him.  He is so far gone from her, she wonders if perhaps he believes his own hype.  To this reader, the character presents as a kind of pretentious, hipster Jesus pulling out party tricks like turning water into wine.

This book is told rather than shown but in a way that plays with image and scene so that it feels as if you are being guided in your own remembrances.  It is more of a political tale than a religious one, but it’s multiple layers of interpretation raise the question of whether the book was intended to put forward a sceptical, atheist point of view or not.  It took me a while to get into, but I would rate this one 3.5 out of 5.