14 November 2010

Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant (Lyall Watson)

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

Lyall Watson is a well-known naturalist who lives in Ireland, but his youth was spent in South Africa, and this is where his lifelong fascination with elephants began. Elephantoms wanders across diverse terrain, drawing on history, anthropology, evolutionary theory and the author's experiences to illuminate the elephant world. Colourful anecdotes from animal trackers and wildlife researchers alternate with tidbits on elephant biology (the trunk can lift more than 450 kilograms) and behaviour (elephants mourn their dead: burying and revisiting the bones of family members). And above all, you close this book with a strong sense of having evolved as a human being. I absolutely loved it. And it's in my top 10. For life.


Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer (John Grisham)

Available at all good bookstores.

I don't usually review tween fiction, but this is John Grisham...

After years and years and books and books, John Grisham is paying attention to the younger set with his new legal thriller, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, targeted at readers aged 9 to 12. The only child of two busy lawyers — one a divorce attorney, the other specialising in real estate — Boone has a dog named Judge and spends his free time at the local courthouse. His interest in the law is so well-known that classmates seek him out for legal advice and judges deign to speak to him. Boone even scores prime seats at the local murder trial. But then he is approached with evidence that could affect the trial's outcome. And this dilemma results in some ethical wrestling for Boone, who must decide between betraying a confidence and letting a guilty man walk. Absolutely superb for tweens!


Skinny Bitch (Rory Freedman & Kim Barnouin)

Available at all good bookstores.

Show me a woman who hasn't been on a diet. (And I'll beat her to death with a box of Pick 'n Pay assorted glazed doughnuts.) As a woman who's been on every diet there is, from Atkins to Zone, over 20 years or so, there was no way I wasn't going to read a book positioned as 'A no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous!'

Especially when the blurb reads, 'If you can't take one more day of self-loathing, you're ready to hear the truth: You cannot keep shoveling the same crap into your mouth every day and expect to lose weight.'

How divine? Skinny Bitch. A book that tells it like it is. A book containing the real truth about carbs, sugar, aspartame, meat, dairy and a whole lot of other things... A book that cuts to the chase, doesn't encourage completely unfeasible bullshit like on-again/off-again fasting, 350 supplements a day or cutting out major food groups... Woah, hang on. I'm getting ahead of myself here...

Because just after Chapter 3, Skinny Bitch reveals itself as a skinny piece of thinly veiled propaganda for the vegan movement. Complete with extensive reference to dead, rotting, decomposing flesh.

It also promotes not eating breakfast, lunch or dinner until you're absolutely starving, eating a lot of boring green things that taste like earth, fasting once a month and removing all meat, chicken, fish and dairy from your diet, because they make you fat, constipated, bloated and really, really ill.

So, so much for Skinny Bitch. There's a lot of what looks like good research in there, and some of it even sounds perfectly logical, but I'm skeptical. Deeply so. And unless you've been wanting to go vegan for ages, are teetering on the edge of the cliff and would like that last convincing shove, avoid this book at all costs. (You can also probably avoid sugar, aspartame and fatty meat without doing yourself too much damage. But I guess you knew that.)


09 September 2010

The White Queen/Red Queen (Philippa Gregory)

Available at all good bookstores and on the Amazon Kindle.

Philippa Gregory’s latest two pieces of historical heaven are so tightly (incestuously, in true Tudor fashion?) intertwined as to warrant simultaneous review. So here it is…

First, The White Queen – Book I in the series Gregory calls The Cousins’ War (the original name for the War of the Roses, which pitted Lancaster against York).

Elizabeth Woodville, a young Lancastrian widow of exceptional beauty and ambition, catches the eye of the handsome, virile and newly crowned king – and marries him in secret. She is The White Queen; the York queen. But, rising to the demands of her position, Elizabeth is forced to fight, sacrifice and bewitch for the sake of her family. And, as the intrigue unfolds, her two sons – ‘the missing princes in the Tower’ – become central figures in a mystery that has confounded historians for centuries.

(Incidentally, for the historians among us, Elizabeth is indeed mother to a royal dynasty, just as her father and mother hoped she would be. She is mother of Henry VIII and her granddaughter is England's greatest queen – Elizabeth I.)

Then, there’s Elizabeth’s arch-enemy, The Red Queen, who makes a tantalising appearance as a shrewish matriarch in Book I, but earns a novel to herself in Book II.

Margaret Beaufort grows from a pious nine-year-old who wants to be Joan of Arc into a conspiring courtier who stops at nothing to see her son on England's throne. The opposite of her alluring rival, plain Lancastrian heiress Margaret Beaufort weds warrior Edmund Tudor at age 12 and pours her ambition into his only son, Henry.

While England seethes with discord during the turbulent War of the Roses, Margaret transforms from powerless innocent into political mastermind – so that rival heirs to England's throne are killed in battle, executed or deliberately eliminated.

And now, onto the actual review…

What I have always loved about Gregory’s books is their overlaps: the fact that the evil one-dimensional bitch from one book is sometimes the ditzy heroine of another. And because The Red Queen and The White Queen cover roughly the same period from different perspectives, the reader really gets a voyeuristic sense of insight; of peeking through a dusty keyhole into a secret room in which dark things happen.

So, a thumbs-up from me. However

Gregory is veering away from the sexy and intricate historical fiction – and here I emphasise ‘fiction’ - that she championed in A Respectable Trade, The Queen’s Fool and The Other Boleyn Girl, and towards a more accurate, sensical historical fiction – and here I emphasise ‘historical’. I like it better when she makes stuff up.

28 July 2010

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

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

I read The Slap a while ago and must admit that I'm only reviewing it now because a Penguin Books press release jogged my memory. Christos Tsiolkas, the Aussie author of this brave and bizarre book, has been nominated for the 2010 MAN Booker Prize. Deservedly so. This is a novel to be talked about.

In short, an already troubled family man slaps someone else’s child at a barbecue. The sound reverberates around the garden; the onlookers gasp in horror. And the small universe at the heart of this piece of middle-class, suburban, non-white-bread Melbourne begins to unravel - because not only are friends and family deeply divided by the event, but it also brings to the surface all the ugly stuff lurking below.

First things first, the people in this novel are not mainstream. They are real. Disturbingly so. Screwing around, making poor choices, fighting with friends, lying about each other, fantasising about each other. Coming to terms with their own private miseries. Everyone's muddled; everyone's soul is murky.

The sex is explicit, and more than a little cheesy, but it fits. As does the hardcore language. Sorry.

And beyond it all, Tsiolkas displays magical control of the multiple threads of his narrative, via eight of the people, across three generations, who were present at the ill-fated barbecue. There are raw themes to be examined, yes, but this is masterfully carried out and, with sensitivity and pathos, Tsiolkas shows us how to understand even the most despicable people, whether we want to or not. The Slap is, as other reviewers have put it (who am I to reinvent the wheel?) a 'rewarding' read.


26 June 2010

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

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

A lot of people have said a lot of things about Kathryn Stockett’s completely brilliant debut novel, The Help; among them:

“…immensely funny…” – Daily Telegraph
 “A laugh-out-loud…must-read” – Marie Claire
 “Touching, disgraceful, funny.” – Daily Mail

I’m sorry – are we talking about the same book here? I’m prepared to put money on the fact that none of the reviewers quoted above are South African.

Because only a South African, raised by a nanny, used to having a full-time maid around and used to being raised, in many cases, by two moms – one white and one black – can appreciate that this is a sad book.

A masterfully written book, yes. A tragicomic book, yes. But a heart-breaking book, above all. Maybe I’m making too much of it. It’s possible. Read the book yourself, and let me know. To start with, here’s the blurb:

“Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…”

That world hasn’t vanished, okes. Not really.

Granted, there are no separate water fountains, no separate counters at the grocery store, no separate seats on the bus – but there were more recently than 1962 and a lot of what’s in this book rings very true for me. Okay. Rant over.

Stockett’s The Help is spectacular. Each of its three narrators, Minny, Aibileen and Skeeter, have her own voice; her own way of explaining what’s going down in segregationist Jackson. And regardless of who’s talking, you can’t put it down.

Here’s Aibileen:

“I arrange the-this and the-that for her lady friends. Set out the good crystal, put the silver service out. Miss Leefolt don’t put up no dinky card table like the other ladies do. We set at the dining room table. Put a cloth on top to cover the big L-shaped crack, move that red flower centerpiece to the sideboard to hide where the wood all scratched. Miss Leefolt, she like it fancy when she do a luncheon. Maybe she trying to make up for her house being small. They ain’t rich folks, that I know. Rich folk don’t try so hard.”

There’ve been so many rave reviews. This book is the must-read of the year. Even the one-book-a-month bookclub bobbas are reading it. But the only reviewer with whom I agree is the legendary Marian Keyes, with her “Daring, vitally important and very courageous.”

She clearly got it. Must be because she’s Irish.

22 June 2010

Fieldwork (Mischa Berlinski)

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

This is a story about a story.

If you’re used to the way I write my reviews, and you don’t mind that everything is more or less about me, read on.

If you’re new to this blog and want ‘a real book review’, maybe fish around in the archive?

Anyway, approximately six months ago, Penguin sent me a box of review books that included, among others, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. I read the back; it sounded great. So I took it with me on holiday. The sad part is that I never got to it. It looked wonderful, but there were so many other wonderfuls in December! Like...

  • Chic Jozi (Nikki Temkin)
  • The Well and the Mine (Gin Phillips)
  • Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee)
  • Bright Shiny Morning (James Frey)
  • Ways of Staying (Kevin Bloom)

So, I left Fieldwork at the beach house for my in-laws or their guests to enjoy on a future holiday (there’s a burgeoning library there, next to the fireplace, largely thanks to Penguin and, I suppose, me) – and duly forgot all about it.

Until this trip.

There it was. Waiting for me. Not on the shelf where I’d left it, but in full view. Not inside. On top. I vaguely recalled the original appeal and picked it up for a cursory flick-through. Three days later, I put it down again; thrilled with myself.

Whadda book!

Here’s a hint:

“This novel began not as fiction but as a history of the conversion of the Lisu people of northern Thailand to Christianity. Then one afternoon, I woke up from a long nap with a plot in my head, and my history became a novel. At that moment, I abandoned any intention I had to tell a true story. The Dyalo do not exist, except in these pages. None of this stuff happened to anyone.”

– Author’s Note

How fantastic?

I’ve kind of ruined things for you, though, because I didn’t have this compelling context until the very last page (literally) of the book. So all the while I wondered about Mischa, who writes in the first person, as himself, and that was delicious, to say the least. But the fact is that this book – even if you don’t like anthropology, ethnography, religion, research or fieldwork (and I really, really don’t) – is completely and utterly brilliant.

More information:

This sort-of-thriller is about Mischa Berlinski, a reporter who's moved to northern Thailand to be with his schoolteacher girlfriend. He hears from a friend about the suicide of Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist, in the Thai jail where she was serving 50 years for murder. Fascinated, Mischa begins to investigate Martiya's life and supposed crimes and in doing so, uses readable and clever backstory to explore the enduring conflict between faith and science.

The problem is that the plot doesn’t do the book much justice. Read it. It’s lekker.


20 June 2010

Okay, okay. So I lied.

I didn't mean to. Really. But, yes. The promised reviews never materialised. Time rolled on. I read more books. Life happened.


The good news is that I have a good story about a good story. Gird your loins. Here it comes...

23 April 2010

On the cards (I swear!)...

To come, as soon as I have a free moment (ha ha), are reviews on Lyall Watson's genius book (and one of my all-time top 5), Elephantoms; Lori Lansens' superlative The Wife's Tale (think Wally Lamb, but sadder, if that's even possible); and local copywriter Paige Nicks' fiction (I think?) debut: A Million Miles from Normal. Hang in there. I'll get to 'em. As soon as humanly possible, assuming I'm human. Promise.

Chic Jozi (Nikki Temkin)

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

So, Chic Jozi. I've been threatening to review it for months and months. But the problem is, I've been too busy reading it, reading it again and re-reading it. I even - no jokes now - keep it in the bathroom, right next to the loo, for ready referral. (And by that I mean to cast no aspersions whatsoever on it.)

Penned by prolific Jozi scribe, Nikki Temkin, this pink-'n-black mini-tome is a resource for must-knows related to shopping, preening, eating, jolling, chilling, decorating and other critical pre-occupations - and its author has clearly done her research.

Which must have been heavenly [she italicises jealously].

From secret spots for glorious trinkets to top facialists and nail experts; superb restaurants to plain and simple good ideas for sunshine fun, Chic Jozi has it all. It's also tiny. Handbag-sized, really. Which is useful. And it's good for new info, or to remind you of 'that place' you've meant to check out.

I was particularly smug about the fact that I'd been there and done that, mostly, until I came nose to page with a coupla tip-offs I'd never even heard of, let alone mastered. So that just goes to show.

One thing, though. I'm a bit puzzled by the constant, albeit thorough, reference to kosher stores, restaurants and resources, as I hadn't thought these to be important to most (waspy) Joburgers - much less chic. But if, like me, Temkin's readers are mostly kugels, so be it. Good to know. I guess.

Buy it. It's cute.


03 April 2010

My top 5 (and maybe 10) books of all time...

Even as I type this, I'm not sure I can limit it to only five. Because, this weekend, I'm reading a book so spectacular that I've had to re-visit a list that hasn't changed in some time... (Review and more info to follow next week. In the interim, any guesses? It's about mammals, of all things.)

So, something unusual is now about to happen: a long-time book reviewer / commitment-phobe is about to put down, in writing, committedly, her top five (ish) books of all time. [Whew. Deep breath.] Here goes, in random order:

1. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
2. The Girls (Lori Lansens)
3. Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)
4. The Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
5. Where the Heart is (Marita van der Vyver)

So much for only five...

6. The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory)
7. The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb)
8. Shutter Island (Dennis Lehane)
9. The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)
10. This weekend's book - review to follow

Disclaimer: For those of you who have seen some of the (frankly, awful) movie versions of the books above, please do me the kindness of not unfairly judging their literary counterparts. Thank you.


28 March 2010

The Well and the Mine (Gin Phillips)

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

"After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash."

Wouldn't you chalish [Yiddish, v.: yearn] to read a book that started there? Well, I did. And it was worth it.

This, Gin Phillips' first novel, is set in a small coal mining town in Alabama in Depression-damaged 1931 - where little Tess Moore watches from her favourite night-time hiding place, the back porch, as a strange woman lifts the cover of the family well and without a word, tosses a baby in.

The story shifts narrators often and suddenly, which I usually don't like. But each of the characters (Albert, Tess's father; Leta, her mother; Virgie, her older sister; and tiny Jack, her baby brother) is so likeable and so real that this device soon becomes comfortable and indeed, useful.

Each in their own way, the family members try to get to the bottom of the baby in the well, all the while mildly disbelieving. And in the end, against the overarching tapestry of the hardest, hungriest of times in American history, they find the answer.


Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee)

Available at Exclusive Books and all good bookstores.

As I've said before, I'm not a book buyer. Reviewers (and Kindle owners) seldom are. But this book was on sale. And the title intrigued me. So I did what we're never supposed to do, and I bought it largely based on the cover. Lucky me.

Free Food for Millionaires has been positioned as a potential 'Great American Novel' which is, um, a little out there - but it is a super read. Have a go at the first bit of the blurb, and you'll see what I mean:

"Casey Han's years at Princeton have given her 'a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, and a magna cum laude degree in economics'. But no job, and a number of bad habits."
And it gets better from there. Casey Han is fabulous - a gal with a designer lifestyle she can't possibly afford, a knack for choosing the right friends and the wrong men, and a spectacular taste in and addiction to beautiful hats. Hats?! I ask you.

She's also trying to make it in high finance, from the bottom up, while dragging behind her all of the fundamental crises of immigrants' children, class struggle, social status and, yes, love.

All this, against the backdrop of Nineties New York. Read it.

P.S. I realise that the hats and clothing and man drama collaborate to make this book sound alarmingly like chick lit, which I unreservedly and unapologetically despise, but I promise it isn't. Vaguely. Even a little bit.


Bright Shiny Morning (James Frey)

Available at Exclusive Books and all good bookstores.

I have to be honest here... When Oprah publicly glorified and then just-as-publicly crucified James Frey for writing an 'autobiographical account' of his drug-addicted past that was, actually, largely fiction, I snorted and harrumphed along with everyone else. The shyster! I thought. The liar. The cheat. I bet he can't even write.

Silly me.

As the Evening Standard so aptly puts it, 'Frey really can write. Brilliantly. And if you don't think so f*** you.' (Frey also has a sense of humour. His first page reads, 'Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.')

Anyway, back to the point...

Bright Shiny Morning rips the glittery veil off the city of Los Angeles, revealing beneath its pocked and grimy skin, topped with a pair of fairly pretty (if bloodshot) eyes. To do so, Frey uses a cast of related-yet-unrelated characters who get up to mischief or sadden us or force us to recognise within them strong hints of real celebrities (look out for Tom Cruise, Perez Hilton and several others). Frey also injects each chapter with real-life facts, stats and figures about LA - some of which are, frankly, horrifying.

To say that I loved this book beyond reason is true. To say that it made me even more afraid of Los Angeles than three previous visits have caused me to be, is truer. Particularly since I am married to an actor. But what's truest of all is that James Frey is a kick-ass writer and I no longer care whether or not he lied unashamedly in A Million Little Pieces. I'm going to read it, and My Friend Leonard, anyway.


Ways of Staying (Kevin Bloom)

Available at Exclusive Books and all good bookstores.

Reviewers usually don't buy books. Why would we? We're lucky and suitably smug buggers who typically take delivery of a large box every month - free, gratis, for nothing - thanks to the many superb publishers out there (Penguin, chief among them).

And since the arrival of my Kindle, I buy new books even less. But that's another self-satisfied rant for another day...

My point is that I bought Kevin Bloom's Ways of Staying. I didn't even have a book voucher. I took the money out of my purse and paid for it. (Which hurt. A lot.) It's not my usual choice of reading material, in that I'm not a wild fan of local authors, much less local journos who are much, much smarter than me and whose regular columns I seldom, if ever, understand. But the blurb spoke to me.

Here's why.

Like many, we've been thinking about emigration. In a vague, passive-aggressive, weak-willed sort of a way, but still. I've been moaning about how I didn't work this hard to move to Boston and be 'poor'. My husband's been whining about how shitty the service is here and how, in the States, you get Amazon deliveries the next day. To the front door. (We don't talk about crime. It's too real an issue.)

And Bloom's blurb ends thus:

"Ways of Staying is in the final analysis a love letter to a country that will not be forsaken. This is not only the story of why we stay, and how; it's the story of who we are."

So I brought the book home, took it on holiday with me a week or two later, and didn't put it down again til I was done. Oy vey. It's a ride and a half, through truth and lies and human suffering and humour and the tragedies of communities including my own tiny Jewish one. On the surface pretty harrowing, its content is surprisingly palatable, thanks to Bloom's interesting narrative style and on-the-ground insights.

Also, as he's a journo by day, he writes clean. None of the droning waffle, effusive adjective use and academiish you'd expect from someone with a Writing Fellowship.

I never like to give too much away in my reviews, so I won't here either. But my parting shot is this: if you've ever considered leaving the country because you feel like you can't take the drama any more; if you've even dwelt on the idea briefly and then put it out of your mind; or if you've had it and you're outta here, this brilliant book should be your next step. At the very least, you can read it on the plane.


07 March 2010

I've been the slackest of slack reviewers lately...

I've been reading a lot (but not as much as usual, thanks to audiobooks and my Kindle full of old classics), and gradually adding review books to the teetering 'To be urgently reviewed' pile on my desk. (Which I largely ignore, but for balancing the occasional coffee cup on it.) This means, of course, that I haven't actually posted anything substantial for some time. Apologies. I do plan to remedy the situation. Soonest. So please check back in a coupla days...