08 November 2007

Anybody Out There? (Marian Keyes)

Marian Keyes once wrote (an equally heart-breaking and hilarious) novel about the battle to overcome alcoholism, and a reviewer – whose name I don’t know, but if I did I would certainly mention it here – didn’t read it and wrote it off as ‘forgettable froth’.

It’s this deplorable review I think about when I open anything written by Marian Keyes.

Marian Keyes writes funny novels about wacky families and mad siblings and loony relationships and wild, passionate love and shoes and handbags, but she roots them in touching plots so searingly real that there’s nothing forgettable or frothy about them.

Actually, sometimes they hurt. Anybody Out There? is one of these.

Badly injured in an accident, Anna Walsh is staying in Dublin with her parents and batty older sister, Helen. She’s pining for her Big Apple home, her heavenly husband Aidan and The Most Fabulous Job in the WorldTM. But where the hell is Aidan, and why is he refusing to respond to Anna’s messages?

Proving that she is a maestro able to mix dark and light, tragic and comic, in a way that few writers can, Marian Keyes is getting better all the time. Always just as cheeky as they are thought-provoking, her stories are getting cleverer, her characters nuttier and her dialogues more delicious. Read this book!


There is a Season (Marita van der Vyver)

When I encountered Marita van der Vyver’s last book, Where the Heart is, I described it as ‘a pretty cake tin filled with slices of life’ and I mentioned how some of its tongue-in-cheek comments on people and personalities ‘made my shoulders shake with such uncontrollable mirth that I woke the sleeping man at my side’.

Well, Marita’s done it again. This time, when my chuckles woke the (same) man beside me, he knew enough to ask, “It’s that Afrikaans author again, isn’t it?”

There is a Season (translated from the Afrikaans Vergenoeg) is both very funny and very heart-breaking. It gives us Adele, a charismatic woman of 60, who leaves hospital to go home to rural Vergenoeg and die of cancer – in the arms of her adult daughters, the irritatingly responsible San and the unashamedly irreverent Bella.

As Adele's physical deterioration – and the feelings that accompany this process – is described in painful detail, we ache for all three characters. And we’re reminded of mothers and daughters and family and fights and present selves and past mistakes and journeys that, in the end, have nothing and everything to do with death.

Like Where the Heart is, There is a Season doesn’t read at all like a translation, instead featuring beautiful English flavoured with whimsical ingredients and delicious dialogue.


Cry For Help: 36 Scam E-mails from Africa (Henning Wagenbreth)

This colourful little book is as bizarrely humorous as it is magnificently illustrated and cleverly laid out. Beginning with the premise that “African scam mails differ from other fraudulent e-mails in their creativity, audacity and their ludicrous claims”, the author/illustrator of Cry For Help has selected and presented a fanciful collection of original missives from fraudsters posing as repentant Islamic guerillas, wealthy orphans, corrupt yet repentant government employees, and other richly detailed characters:

You’ve seen a few of these before, haven’t you? And after the tenth or twentieth, you probably hit ‘Delete’, twiddled your spam filter and got on with your life. But pity the poor schmuck who’s not as skeptical as you are. The ignorant American, for example, for whom Africa is rich and wild and exotic. The letter assures him that he’s been carefully selected as a business partner, the description of a tragedy awakens his compassion and the awareness of his civilising advantage sways him to certainty. He pays a (relatively small, in USD) ‘admin fee’, and he never hears from the swindler again.


A bigger shame, however, would be if these deliciously enticing e-mails (which read like old folk tales of good and evil kings, and golden treasures) were sacrificed on the altar of anti-spam. They’re a true piece of social commentary, unveiling in a tragicomic and artful manner some of the practical ins and outs of the North-South conflict and how easily the Internet, a tool of globalisation, can be turned on its industrialised creators.

I salute the author and illustrator, and I urge you to buy this cheeky book. It’s worth chatting about, laughing at and (as a contemporary relic) having on your bookshelf.


Any Way You Want Me (Lucy Diamond)

ANY WAY YOU WANT ME, a novel by Lucy Diamond (PAN) TO SUM UP: A wry, funny and curl-your-toes-in-delighted-shock story with a fresh view of the ‘bored housewife has an affair’ cliché. WHY IT’S BETTER THAN YOUR AVERAGE CHICK LIT: Sadie, the yummy mummy, has the cheek/guts/lunacy to do something we’ve all wanted to: pretend we’re more successful, more important and infinitely cooler than we are. THE LINE THAT’LL MAKE YOU NOD IN AGREEMENT: “We discussed for hours how gorgeous we were, and how great our lives were going to be, and made idyllic roses-round-the-door plans for our wonderful, romantic future. How come then, we’d ended up like this?”


The Fence (Andrew Gray)

THE FENCE, a novel by Andrew Gray (HUMAN & ROUSSEAU) TO SUM UP: Jan Klein is hired by the world’s biggest diamond company to investigate their top trader, The Fence. But soon Klein is ensnared in a web of corporate Jozi politics. WHAT IT REMINDS US OF: The superbly Souf Effrican dialogue of its protagonists is very Mike Nicol (Out to Score). WHY IT’S GREAT: For too long we’ve devoured novels set in Central Park, Afghanistan and Mordor. We’ve consumed local colour not our own. But The Fence is the N1 and Grootfontein and Boksburg. Real. Dusty. Familiar. Ours.


The Mesmerist (Barbara Ewing )

Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist is a rich piece of historical fiction cloaked in crimson velvet curtains, redolent of heavy stage makeup and heavier perfume, and tasting faintly of old-fashioned steak-and-kidney pie sweetened with a touch of port. It is, in a word, delicious.

Set in early nineteenth-century London, the story begins on the cheap wooden stage of a dingy local theatre, moves into a candle-lit, star-bedecked Bloomsbury basement and culminates in a crowded coroner’s court – tempered along the way by mad old ladies, stoic gentlemen, chamber-pots and copious cups of restorative tea.

The Mesmerist is Miss Cordelia Preston, a forty-something actress with great theatrical talent, a sharp instinct and a solid sense of the surreal – but no acting work. Bolstered by her friend, Amaryllis Spoons, Cordelia launches a ‘phreno-mesmerism’ business – and to the distant strains of Rillie’s flute, makes a success of examining the shape of clients’ skulls, advising betrothed couples on their mutual suitability and gently guiding skittish young women as to what to expect of the conjugal bed.

It’s more common-sense than the supernatural, says Cordelia, “[w]’re not making it up; it just is!”, but in no time at all, her hard-won achievements bring limelight, and with limelight comes curiosity, catastrophe, murder and infamy. Yes, The Mesmerist has it all, served warm in a thick and thoroughly satisfying plot.


In the Country of Men (Hisham Matar)

Hisham Matar’s debut novel, In the Country of Men, has been vaunted as “[o]ne of the most brilliant literary debuts of recent years”; as “exquisite”, “outstanding” and “masterly”. While I wouldn’t venture quite that far, I would certainly draw attention to its magnificent writing and to the achingly honest portrayal of a Libya trapped in terror.

Nine-year-old Suleiman lives with his parents in golden Tripoli, 10 years after Moammar Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution. There, he tries to reconcile the things he understands (sesame sticks, football and mulberries) with the things he doesn’t: secret police, clandestine agitators, intimidation and torture, televised trials and hidden addictions:

“I returned to the television. The screen was covered now in a still photograph of pink flowers. This was the picture that meant the broadcast was temporarily interrupted. I heard it said that the Guide [Gaddafi] had a switch in his sitting room, beside his television set, so that whenever he saw something he didn’t like he flicked the flowers on.”

And a little time later, Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee has Suleiman’s own family in its sights. His father is accused of political dissidence and vanishes “like a grain of salt in water”, his mother falls apart, and the boy’s fragile psyche begins to tremble under the combined weight of lies, fear, mistrust, betrayal, grief – and childhood itself.


Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale (Michael Holman)

My adage has always been that if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck. This time, however, I was wrong. Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale looks like a book by Alexander McCall Smith, sounds like a book by Alexander McCall Smith and features a township heroine who closely resembles one of Alexander McCall Smith’s – but Last Orders is another species of novel altogether.

Penned by Michael Holman, born in Zimbabwe and formerly Africa editor of the London Financial Times, Last Orders draws us into a notorious East African slum in the fictional country of Kuwisha (read: Kenya), where political tensions, wild riots, gangs headed by street urchins and government corruption combine with chicken necks in Worcestershire sauce, bumbling characters, Tusker beer, devastating hilarity and legal action over the name of Harrods International Bar (and Nightspot) – where everything happens.

Like McCall Smith, Holman relies on a gently satirical fable and a strong African woman, Charity Mupanga, to introduce the reader to everyday life in Africa; unlike McCall Smith, Holman comments fearlessly on the continent’s unfortunate and often ugly realities. There is humour, but no cuteness; the story is simple, but it is no bed-time story. Holman is a serious political commentator in satirist’s clothing, and his debut novel is a must-read.


The Loner (Josephine Cox)

The Loner was my first Josephine Cox. Extremely enjoyable and a very easy read, it reminded me of Lesley Pearse, without the social commentary; of Martina Cole, without the cockney dialect. In fact, if this novel had a personality, it’d be straightforward and down-to-earth – perhaps even a little bit simple, like the loner for whom Cox has named her story. Davie Adams is a deeply good young man from Blackburn who leaves home, hearth and family under tragic circumstances in 1955, and makes his way in an uncertain world. Buy this book if you like happy endings.


The Savage Garden (Mark Mills)

I should have suspected, perhaps, that a 355-page novel centred solely on a garden would yield literary brambles, weedy characters and watery puddles of plot. Mark Mills’ The Savage Garden is set in 1958, when young Adam Strickland leaves Cambridge to study a famed 16th century Tuscan garden. There, in post-war Italy, Adam finds a “mysterious world of statues, grottoes, meandering rills and classical inscription”; a place that is probably just as dark, dank and hard to navigate as the story itself. If you really love gardens, you may like this book. But I make no promises.


The Tenderness of Wolves (Stef Penney)

Novels set in snowy climes never resonate with me, perhaps because their plots are always messily entangled with the weather – yielding trite images like blood on snow, footprints on snow, frantic refuge from snow. The Tenderness of Wolves, despite rave reviews and award wins, is one of these. Set in the Canadian outback in 1867, Stef Penney’s debut novel begins with murder and a search for the young suspect. One by one, groups of people with diverse motivations become embroiled in the matter. There are insights into the personalities, relationships and social norms at play – but this novel is no masterpiece.


The Observations (Jane Harris)

The beauty of this novel is its narrative: so thick and delicious you could stir it with a ladle. In The Observations, Jane Harris introduces Bessy Buckley, a first-time maid in a big country house in Scotland. In her bawdy brogue, peppered with observations of those around her, Bessy talks the reader through life in creaky Castle Haivers – while trying frantically to satisfy the strange requests of her beautiful, enigmatic Mistress. The Observations is historical fiction with a twist: there’s no romance in it. Instead, it’s a gripping story of what happens when simple people need desperately to be understood.