26 May 2008

Don't Panic! (Alan Knott-Craig)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

It was a fresh, new year. The first few days of 2008. Optimism. Promise. Potential. We’d had our well-deserved rests, spend more than we should have and eaten more than we’d thought possible – and the hard work was upon us. But then, the world went dark.

In the midst of the Eskom disaster, climbing interest rates, soaring fuel costs and plummeting property prices, we were all starting to wonder whether the grass wasn’t actually a bit greener in Perth, Toronto, or even sweltering Dallas. We were whining and whinging, albeit by candlelight.

And then, like a friendly virus, Alan Knott-Craig’s reassuring missive began to make its way across the country and soon, across the world. Oh, the power of word of mouth! Don’t panic, it said. See 2008 as a year of opportunity and remember: we’ve had worse, and survived worse, before.

I read it, and felt better. I sent it to everyone I could, and they felt better. Tsotsis started to attack helpless foreigners in the townships and we almost panicked, but didn’t – because we were feeling better. We just did what we could, donated blankets and bought gas.

The end of this long story is that Alan Knott-Craig’s e-mail has spawned a little book of joy, titled Don’t Panic: a book by South Africans, for South Africans.

The result of South Africans wanting to share their positive messages with the rest of the country, it includes thoughtful contributions from John Robbie, Branko Brkic, Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, local writers and thinkers, and a whole lot of cheerful kids for whom ‘there’s no place like home…’

It’s upbeat and inspirational. It’s sweet. I liked it. But I am a little disappointed that the original message couldn’t remain just that: a simple piece of writing with a cracker of a message, able to achieve surprise success – without yielding a whole jolly bandwagon.


A$$HOLE (Martin Kihn)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

Where do you start, when the book is called A$$HOLE and sub-titled, ‘How I got rich and happy by not giving a shit about you’? Well, you kick off with a hefty chunk of tongue in your cheek and you keep an open mind.

Martin Kihn’s A$$HOLE is an eye-opener.

Promising access to a revolutionary programme for assholism, it covers essential body language (‘no smiling, unless others are in pain’), workplace etiquette (‘take credit for everything, except mistakes’) and feelings (‘the one luxury you can’t afford’), while detailing the author’s real-life journey from utter dorkness to total jerkhood.

I loved it – until the end of the second chapter. And then I started to wonder how someone could fill an entire book (granted, a small one, but 244 pages nonetheless) with tips like ‘be a fighter, not a lover’, ‘become the alpha dog’ and ‘put the tame back in team’. It was getting cold, fast. There’s only so much anti-nice I can stomach.

The story behind old Martin’s transformation is interesting, but it’s no page-turner – and the contents are funny, but hardly bursting with brilliant dry wit. My advice? Mid-year stocking filler. Buy a copy of A$$HOLE for the person in your life with the best sense of humour (a man, ideally) or get your own and keep it in the loo. No jokes. It’s great toilet reading.


21 May 2008

Requiem for an Assassin (Barry Eisler)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

In my crazed mind, Barry Eisler’s sexy assassin, John Rain, is a hybrid of Lee Child’s drifter Jack Reacher, Keith Lindsay’s dark vigilante Dexter, and Chow Yun-Fat. And in the long-awaited sixth Rain novel, Requiem for an Assassin, he’s better than ever.

Newly entangled in a tempestuous romance with Israeli Mossad agent, Delilah, Rain is caught off-guard when friend and fellow hit-man-for-hire, Dox, is kidnapped from his Bali villa by rogue CIA operative Jim Hilger (a familiar Eisler antagonist).

Carry out three hits for me, demands the vengeful Hilger, meet my deadlines and make each look like a natural death, or Dox dies.

And so John Rain enters a web of murder, mayhem and madness that stretches from Bali to Paris, San Francisco to Saigon and New York to Rotterdam, as he tries to work out what Hilger is up to and how to rescue Dox – before the final likely hit: Rain himself.

Requiem is a goodie: tight, taut and tough, with rare insights into the moral dilemmas that must plague any assassin who, deep down, starts to wrestle with his own humanity. But I’m faced with my own dilemma: what happens if…gasp!...this is the last of Rain?


The Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter (Yasmin Hai)

THE MAKING OF MR HAI’S DAUGHTER, a memoir by Yasmin Hai (VIRAGO) IN A NUTSHELL: For Mr Hai, a Pakistani immigrant, becoming English is something to be taught to his wife and children. No Urdu, no long plaits, no salwar kameezes and - although they are Muslim - no religion. BUT IT’S NOT JUST ANOTHER BOOK ABOUT RELIGION; it’s a book about family, and fitting in. THE SADDEST BIT: “…something changed once we dropped Urdu... It just became too frustrating trying to explain complex matters of the head and heart to my mother in English. After dropping Urdu, she became lost to me for years.”


The Perk (Mark Gimenez)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa

Mark Gimenez has been touted as 'the next Grisham' - which excited the hell out of me, as I adore Grisham (when he sticks to his formula, that is, and stays away from unwelcome and unexpected gallops towards painted houses, pizza and bizarrely, bleachers).

But as I devoured Gimenez' third offering, The Perk, I realised that the similarities between the two writers are superficial (backwater settings, rural justice, strange characters, patent racism and unimaginative titles starting with 'The'), while the differences are major.

For one, The Perk contains more genuine heartbreak, more realistic feeling and more children than any of Grisham's legal masterpieces. For another, the former is not as much a courtroom thriller as it is a tale about people that unfolds in and around the legal system.

...as much as there is a legal system in one-goat Fredericksburg. Finally, The Perk has more twists, more turns and - admittedly - more cheap shots, than Grisham is known for.

It's about Beck Hardin - recently bereaved and utterly bereft - who returns to his hometown with his two young kids and finds it completely changed. Pushed into running for district judge, he unleashes a chain of disturbing events (and a pack of rabid white-collar 'old boys').

In sum, The Perk is a well-considered, well-plotted, well-penned novel that I munched in one shot, and it has turned me on to seeking out this author's first two novels. But positioning it as a Grisham-esque opus, in my mind, did it no justice - if you'll pardon the...


08 May 2008

Look out for...

New book reviews coming, including Yasmin Hai's The Making of Mr Hai's Daughter, Gillian McKeith's new Food Bible, Barry Eisler's Requiem for an Assassin, Mark Giminez' The Perk, Anita Shreve's Body Surfing, and others (available from Penguin)!