27 October 2008

Fatboy & the Dancing Ladies (Michael Holman)

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

I need to preface this review by admitting that I loved its prequel so much I nearly wallpapered my study with it... At the time, about a year back, I likened Holman's debut novel, Last Orders at Harrods, to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, with the following:

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.

Fatboy is less Smith-ish than its predecessor. More chilling. Less cheerful. More messages. Less merriment. In short, it's not be quite as fresh, but it's as delicious. Like Charity Mupanga's dough balls the day after. The only downside? I can't recall if corruption was as clear a theme in Last Orders as it is here but, either way, it disturbs me. Perhaps things have changed in a year?

Here's a more detailed insight, with a little less editorialising from little old me:

Ferdinand Mlambo is in big trouble. Not only has disloyalty to Kuwisha’s corrupt Life President cost him his prestigious job as senior kitchen toto, but he has also been stripped of his name: henceforth he will be known as 'Fatboy'. With the help of Titus, leader of the notorious street-children, the Mboya Boys, and under the watchful eye of the irrepressible Charity Mupanga, her suitor Ed, and a motley crew of other ex-pats, locals and neighbourhood lunatics, Mlambo sets out to recover his name - and his dignity.


One Fifth Avenue (Candace Bushnell)

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

Yes, Candace Bushnell's latest work, One Fifth Avenue, is very Sex And The City. Lots of couture and money and nose-in-the-air New York culture. Lots of very explicit but very interesting sex. And lots of feuds, secrets and foibles, a la Carrie, Miranda, et al.

But, more than that, One Fifth Avenue is what would happen if the SATC girls aged twenty years, developed a bizarre obsession with high-end property (and I mean obsession, not girly awe) and married Ben Elton. Why Ben Elton, you ask, and not a grizzled, grumpy older version of Mr Big? Well, there's some weird murderous stuff in this book; some dark scary overtones that I don't recall feeling in Bushnell's debut novel. And these inject a touch of Elton-esque farcical blackness into an otherwise fluffy (yet tightly penned and colourfully charactered) story.

It's about five women: actress Schiffer, spoiled Lola, classy Annalisa, miserable Mindy and eccentric Enid.

She's a particular delight, the glam old duck and popular gossip columnist who "has lived at One Fifth for decades and sees everything there is to see from her penthouse view". Wanna be her, when I grow up. Picture an amalgamation of Audrey Hepburn and Carol Burnett... with the backbone and brains of Boston Legal's Shirley Schmidt.

In short? One Fifth is nowhere near as iconic as its more fashionable sibling (grand-daughter, maybe?), but certainly worth a week at the beach this December, with the obligatory Cosmo - or perhaps a pink gin?


01 October 2008

The Konkans (Tony D’Souza)

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

My goodness, did I love this book! And I didn’t expect to – which makes it all the better. Weird name. Weird cover. Weird premise. But what a superb story. What delicious writing. What heavenly characters. And the possibility that it is autobiography thinly disguised as fiction? Yum.

This is how the author positions it:

Francisco D'Sai is a firstborn son of a firstborn son — all the way back to the beginning of a long line of proud Konkans. Known as the ‘Jews of India’, the Konkans kneeled before Vasco da Gama's sword and before Saint Francis Xavier's cross, abandoned their Hindu traditions, and became Catholics.

In 1973 Francisco's Konkan father, Lawrence, and American mother, Denise, move to Chicago, where Francisco is born. His father, who does his best to assimilate into American culture, drinks a lot and speaks a little. But his mother, who served in the Peace Corps in India, and his Uncle Sam are passionate raconteurs who do their best to preserve the family's Konkan heritage.

Friends, allies, and eventually lovers, Sam and Denise feed Francisco's imagination with startling visions of India and Konkan history. Filled with romance, comedy, and masterful storytelling, The Konkans leaves us surprised by what secrets history may hold for us if only we wonder enough to look.

And all I can add is this: abandon your preconceptions about what you do and do not like to read. Dismiss your ideas about your favourite genre, or style, or setting. Lose your literary biases. And fall in love with The Konkans; truly one of the best books I’ve read in years.


Under a Blood-Red Sky (Kate Furnivall)

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

Sofia and Anna are imprisoned together in Siberia’s Davinsky Labour Camp in 1933 – and inseparable. When Anna becomes gravely ill, Sofia promises to escape the camp and return with Vasily: the long-lost love of Anna’s life and the chief character in the decades-old, desperately remembered and often retold stories that have, so far, kept the two women alive.

But Sofia’s dangerous quest drives her to a remote village in the Urals, where she discovers an unusual community. Fraught with the ugly betrayals that simmer beneath the dusty streets walked by Stalin-era bolsheviks, mensheviks, kulaks and assorted revolutionaries, it is also a town in which gypsy magic and white arts work hard to keep the good people safe.

Like The Russian Concubine, Kate Furnivall’s last novel of love, loss and liberation in the pre-revolutionary East, Under a Blood-Red Sky is wonderfully drawn portrait of the little people who writhe beneath totalitarian fists. Its love stories also ring beautifully true, based as they are on the part-Russian author’s belief that “…love is also a fundamental reason for survival. Love of someone, of one's family. Or of an ideal. It is like girders round the soul; it gives you strength.”