19 December 2011

What I'm reading this December

A couple of years ago, my in-laws introduced me to a wonderful friend of theirs: Mary from Minnesota.

(Really. From Minnesota. I'd never met anyone from Minnesota before.)

Anyway, during the course of our time together, I learned two very interesting things from Mary and her husband, Terry.

(Yes, really. Mary and Terry.)
  1. The first was that, on his birthday, Terry chooses which birthday to celebrate - i.e. not the birthday linked to the current year. So, on his 50th, he celebrates his 24th. On his 51st, it's his 80th. On his 52nd, it's his 18th. This little eccentricity keeps his birthdays fun. (They also share birthdays - 2012 will be Terry-'n-Mary's 130th!)
  2. The second interesting thing I learned is that Mary keeps a 'Book Book'. This is a list, contained in several hardcover notebooks, of every book she's read since she was 20 or so. Broken down by month. It reminds her what she's read, so she doesn't read the same books twice (I do this a lot. I'm getting old and dof.), and it's very cool.
Having used this blog for book reviews for the last number of years, and having largely ignored the beautiful (and expensive, because it came from Exclusive Books) notebook I bought for this very purpose after meeting Mary, I am going to list my books here. Lucky you.

So, every month, all two or three of you (Hi Mom.) will be able to see what I'm reading, whether I loved it or hated it, and which of those I've deigned to review. If there's a book I've mentioned, but not reviewed, feel free to ask me what I thought of it. I'll be honest. Promise.

Let's begin.

December's reading list (1 Dec 2011 to date):

In random order

  • Some Girls - My Life in a Harem (Jillian Lauren)
  • The Family (Mario Puzo)
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender
  • True Detectives (Jonathan Kellerman)
  • Lady of the Rivers (Philippa Gregory - an audiobook)
  • Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)
  • Rules of Prey (John Sandford)
  • Eyes of Prey (John Sandford)
  • Silent Prey (John Sandford)
  • Shock Wave (John Sandford)
  • Storm Prey (John Sandford)
  • Buried Prey (John Sandford)
  • The Governor's Wife (Mark Gimenez)
  • Married Lovers (Jackie Collins) - holiday drivel :)

More to follow...


Photo credit: Pinterest

18 December 2011

I've been a pretty shitty reviewer...

Apologies. To the two or three of you who read this blog. (Hi Mom.)

I've been a pretty shitty reviewer lately. Not because I'm not reading. But because I've been writing so much for work that I simply couldn't face writing for the sheer unbridled pleasure of it. However, that's soon to stop. I'm on holiday. In one of the world's most beautiful, simple, chilled places. With childcare reinforcements in the form of my in-laws. In the last seven days, I've read about seven books. I'm not writing AT ALL for work (believe it or not, Mom) and I've just started the mammoth tome that is Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs. So, there are reviews in the pipeline. Promise.


Photo credit: Pinterest

23 September 2011

A Year in the Wild (James Hendry)

The best place to read a book set in the bush is in the bush. So you can imagine my glee when it arrived before I left for a week in Madikwe Game Reserve. And A Year in the Wild: A Riotous Novel by James Hendry continued to delight me from there.

It’s both delicious and deliciously funny. It draws easy-to-imagine pictures of madness and mayhem; hilarity and horror. And it gives the most fascinating insights into what goes on behind the posh scenes of larney lodges, in a very similar manner to Imogen Edwards-Jones’s Babylon novels, all of which I have greedily devoured.

But I don’t think the back cover blurb does this book sufficient justice, because there’s so much more to it than the rivalry between brothers – and newly appointed Sasekile Private Game Lodge staff members – Angus and Hugh MacNaughton.

It’s about strong and strange personalities, ridiculous holidaymakers, broken rules and ignored regulations. It’s about animals and birds and the human beings who live and work alongside them. And it’s about the author’s own real-life experience of the bush and the game lodge world, translated into comic (and sometimes tragic) fiction.

I typically disparage novels written in correspondence form. I don’t like them as a rule; I find them cheesy. But the device works well in A Year in the Wild, because the plot is mostly light and undemanding. The writer has also taken great care to give his two main narrators, Angus and Hugh, completely different voices, styles and tones.

Not an easy thing to achieve for an author who’s new to fiction. I’m impressed.

My only criticism, then? The novel gets more enjoyable the deeper you delve, with a strong middle and a great end. It’s neither as flawless nor as compelling in the start as it could be, and is, elsewhere. Buy it for bush or beach reading, though. It’s fun.


Photo credit: Google Images

11 June 2011

Your Sensory Baby (Megan Faure)

Available at all good bookstores and from Penguin Books South Africa

So, like all new moms, I have a copy of Baby Sense

I’ve read some of it. Like most moms-to-be, I intended to read all of it, but then my baby arrived and my reading ground to a screeching halt. And like several moms, I’m convinced that Baby Sense is part utter genius and part stuff that I’m simply too lazy to try. (Eep! Honesty!)

I do know which page the Jungle Juice recipe is on, though, like everyone else. So that's something. But it was with no small measure of trepidation that I opened Megan Faure’s new book, aimed at helping moms to achieve ‘happy days and peaceful nights’: Your Sensory Baby. Was I ready?

Yup. My trepidation was largely unwarranted.

Before I get into that, however, let me first say that Your Sensory Baby is not a sequel. Not a part II. It’s a whole new book. (It’s not like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which gets re-vamped and re-written every few years, with the necessary updates and a preggie in increasingly modern attire on the cover.)

So if you’ve read one, or several of Megan Faure’s superb books in the past, you should read this one too. And if you’ve never read one of her books, start here.

The first three chapters of the book are about, you guessed it, senses, and how these influence your new baby’s feelings, sleep and development. You’re also taught to use ‘gentle and flexible’ routines to soothe and feed the little creature. 

They're largely simple and straightforward, mind you, but if they feel like hard work, select the ones that don't... (That's what I've done. Or, am trying to do. Or, will do.)

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are about translating your baby’s behaviour into meaningful signals, about getting your own personality to work for you, and about baby’s potential for development, and from Chapter 7, you’ll encounter age-banded sections – your premature baby, your newborn, your baby at two to six weeks, your baby at six weeks to four months, and so on – that hold answers, tips, techniques and testimonials relating to particular periods in your mommyhood. I really like this element...

So, my take? This book is fantastic.

It’s beautifully presented, easy to read through in detail or to scan with a screaming kid swinging from your neck, and full of useful, user-friendly, simple-to-apply advice you can use immediately, wherever in the parenting game you are. 

Its advice is all-encompassing, and whether you choose to use all of it, some of it or tiny bits of it, depending on the kind of parent you want to be, there's something for you.

I have only one criticism and here it is: the book divides babies into ‘social butterfly’, ‘settled’, ‘slow to warm up’ and ‘sensitive’, and it’s not that easy to tell which one your child is until they’re four months or older. This means that a fair bit of the good value in the book, because it’s linked to the four ‘types’, can’t really be accessed til later. By which time habits have formed – for mommy and baby…

But on the whole, this is a must-read if you’re that sort of mom. You know, the one who has, and reads, most of the must-read mommy/baby/parenting books. Or, the one who wants to.

The Empress of Ice Cream (Anthony Capella)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa, and on www.kalahari.net.

For my money, Anthony Capella is the master of literary deliciousness. Firstly, because he writes books about food. Okay, centred on food. And the people who produce it, eat it and love-make with it. And secondly, because his characters, plots, and colour are utterly yummy. (If a leetle simplistic and one-dimensional.)

In this, his fourth novel, following in the lip-smacking footsteps of The Food of Love, The Wedding Officer and The Various Flavours of Coffee (one of my favourites), Carlo Demirco is the dashing Italian confectioner-to-the-king who rises from nothingness to be vaunted by the French and English courts.

What does he confection? Cream ice. Or rather, ice cream. [There was a bit of Italian-to-English translation confusion, you see, and the term 'ice cream' was born.]

In short, Signor Demirco is the god of creating smooth, sultry, addictive ice cream in fruity, herby and other flavours I'd never even considered, let alone heard of (pippin, rose petal, celery, hibiscus, basil, maidenhair fern, black pepper, fig, cardamom, lavender - yum!), and his icy masterpieces, together with their exquisite and whimsical presentation, become the talk of two royal towns.

Along the way, Carlo meets Louise de Keroualle, an impoverished yet beautiful lady-in-waiting, and the two become friends, enemies and then allies as strangers to England and to the awkward English way of doing things. This is when the novel becomes largely Philippa Gregory-ish in its orientation... And this is when I really start to enjoy it. Because there's only so much ice cream I can dream about.

[The novel is narrated in the first person by both Carlo and Louise - not a beloved device of mine. But it works in this story. Especially since Louise is a lot like Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl...]

So, if you're into novels focused on food, and you like historical fiction, and you're not looking for complexity, disturbia or major drama, get yourself a bowl, a spoon and this book. Bon appetit.


15 April 2011

His Last Duchess (Gabrielle Kimm)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa, and on www.kalahari.net.

This is a debut novel. By a teacher. A teacher of drama, among other things. Which is probably why I couldn’t help thinking, throughout, what a beautiful movie it’d make. Think The Tudors meets Love in the Time of Cholera meets Under the Tuscan Sun. Delicious. 

Only problem? It’s more than a little simple*.

Having said that, perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

If you like historical fiction, or need a nice, pretty, easy, feel-goody, ever-so-slightly sinister novel masquerading as a love story, His Last Duchess is for you. I predict that the bookclub bobbas will love it. (Wonder what that says about me?)


The sixteen-year-old gem of the de Medici family, Lucrezia, is wed to a handsome, wealthy Duke (aren’t they always?) and packed off to live with him in his lush duchy, Ferrara. She tries to love him, and to make a happy life in her new home, but the man is – quite simply – deeply disturbed.

And, as her married life progresses, poor Crezzi becomes ever more isolated, seeking companionship from household servants, visiting artists and her loyal cousin, Giovanni. You can imagine how delighted her evil husband is.

In short order, Crezzi finds love elsewhere. With Jacomo, who has been commissioned to paint a magnificent fresco on the castello’s walls. And her husband, rendered desperate by the fact that he is physically unable to consummate their marriage and produce an heir, and may lose his precious title to the Vatican as a result, becomes a very dangerous foe.

* By ‘simple’, I wish to imply little more than lots of convenient plot twists, characters who do exactly what you want them to, and smooth segues. I prefer more elaborate story planning but, having said that, I’d read a sequel.

11 February 2011

Gold in Graphite - Jozi Sketchbook (Somayya A.E. & Zafrica Cabral)

You know, book reviewers get a bit jaded sometimes. It happens. It happens to all of us eventually – not just the real skeptics like me. And when we get jaded, we feel blasé about books that publicists rave about, before we’ve even seen them.

But then, like the one green Smartie left in the box, something special comes along. And, as we unfold the flap of the envelope or cut the plastic tape on the box, we start to feel an unmistakable sense of surprised delight. ‘Hey! This looks pretty good.’

When we finally open the book in question, and it really is pretty good, well – that’s wonderful. Why the long back-story? Because Gold in Graphite – Jozi Sketchbook (Impressions of Johannesburg through Sketch & Prose) is just such a treat.

Gold in Graphite – Jozi Sketchbook is an upbeat portrayal of the city. A collection of frozen moments in which the city’s original masterpieces - some dilapidated, some forgotten, some unknown – are captured by a single artist in stark black and white.

Among these (50-odd) are the original Park Station, Carlton Centre, the Rissik Street Post Office, the Oriental Plaza, the Orlando Cooling Towers, Astor Mansions, Ponte City Apartments, Gandhi’s House, Mai Mai Muti Market and Northcliff Ridge.

Stunning, really. The only negative thing I have to say is that I don’t like the typefaces used. Any of them. The layout, the artwork, the words and the paper are so deeply classy – so appropriate – that the fonts just seem brash to me. But that’s me.

The artist is Zafrica Cabral. Born in Johannesburg, he has worked in the city as a construction worker, Ellis Park snack vendor, flea market salesman, fitness instructor, designer, model builder and architectural technologist.

The supporting text was written by somayya a.e, who completed a BA with majors in English and Social Anthropology and punctuated her studies by exploring the wonders of language, food and culture. She lives in the City of Gold.

Pseudonymas notwithstanding, Zafrica Cabral and somayya a.e. are otherwise known as Zubair Hassem and Somayya Essack, a married couple with two small children. And they have collaborated for the past year on this fascinating book, producing what they believe is the first sketchbook of buildings in Joburg.

Something else you should know about Gold in Graphite is that its foreword, penned by poet Dr Don Mattera, is more than a mere introduction. It is a lullaby.

“The City has changed dramatically…so much so that the new must give credit to the old; where today’s Jozi came from must inform the journey ahead… No room for moping and pining: people must extol Johannesburg’s right to exist as a world-class city…as well as…a centre of…coexistence for peace, progress and prosperity.”

I adore this book and, while I’m not a coffee table book person, it proudly adorns my coffee table. You should own one. But before you do, there is one thing you should know: you will want these sketches for your walls, where you can see them.

Worth Dying For (Lee Child)

Available on the Amazon Kindle.

If you’re a Lee Child fan you’ll know that Jack Reacher - former US Army Major, former military policeman and current wandering nomad - can’t leave things alone. 

He’s like a rabid dog that way: he smells a bit of small-town drama, some nasty local lore, and that’s it. He’s mad. And bad people (notably those who hurt women, children, animals or the vulnerable) are going to get hurt in all the ways they deserve to. Impressively. Brutally. Utterly unemotionally. In about three seconds flat.

If you’re not a Lee Child fan, meet Jack Reacher – the coolest hero of contemporary skop-skiet-en-donder fiction. (There are 14 books before this; find them.) But you should know a couple of important and fascinating things at the outset…

Reacher’s a drifter. His only possessions are a foldable toothbrush and, since 9/11, an expired passport. He wears his clothing for a couple of days before discarding it and replacing it at cheap chain stores - because he doesn’t like luggage. 

And although he doesn’t own a cell phone, or know how to use Google, he can tell the time – to the minute – using the ‘clock in his head’. He’s also passionate about strong black coffee, blues music and gamine yet powerful women in positions of authority.

Worth Dying For, host to Reacher’s latest appearance, is a by-the-book Child: there is a small town with an egomaniacal boss family, a couple of broken-hearted locals, a few cases of mistaken identity, some seriously dark and dangerous secret stuff going on, and Reacher in the middle – with the clock ticking towards a showdown.

Here’s a taste of our man, and of this novel: 

"Reacher smiled. He had been raised on military bases around the world, battling hardcore Marine progeny, honing his skills against gangs of resentful native youths in dusty Pacific streets and damp European alleys. Whatever hardscrabble town…these guys had come up in had been a feather bed by comparison. And while they had been studying the playbook and learning to run and jump and catch, he had been broken down and built back up by the kind of experts who could snap your neck so fast you never knew it had happened until you went to nod your head and it rolled away down the street without you."

Those Who Love Night (Wessel Ebersohn)

Available on www.kalahari.net.

Let me start by saying that this was not an easy book for me to read…

The Witness review on the jacket of Wessel Ebersohn’s Those Who Love Night suggests that it ‘will be gobbled down by even the most jaded reader’. Guess what? I’m the most jaded reader. I’m not typically a fan of local fiction. I’m usually unenthusiastic about stories of African political tragedy. And I’m largely disparaging of crime thrillers set in Zimbabwe. But I couldn’t lower this book.

For starters, I should admit that I’m seven months pregnant. And in the opening scene, Janice Makumbe, who is eight months pregnant, flees into the bush in the dead of night, to save herself and her two small children from the soldiers of the Five Brigade during Zimbabwe’s brutal Gukurahundi Massacres of the 1980s.

She doesn’t make it. (From there, you can imagine my morbid fascination.)

Abigail Bukula is the talented South African lawyer who is asked to travel to Zim to defend activist Tony Makumbe – Janice’s surviving son and Abigail’s cousin – one of seven detained at the notorious Chikurubi Prison. And when she and oddball Jewish psychologist, Yudel Gordon, arrive, what they find is a messy web of murder, corruption, secrets, lies and political charades. Against the backdrop of a ravaged country that is hanging onto some of the traces of its former beauty. And interspersed with a cast of Zim locals who are alternately charming and chilling.

That’s all I’m going to give you on the storyline front, because I believe that this particular book deserves to be read without too much context or background.

But I will say that Wessel Ebersohn is a gifted writer – able to adopt convincingly the voices, nuances and personalities of his characters; able to pen colourful sketches of locations and interactions; and able, in a way that is unusual for South African writers, to distance himself sufficiently from ‘our’ closeness to Zimbabwe to give it representation that is simultaneously objective and deeply touching.

(I intend to read his other books, even though they’re local. Don’t tell anyone.)

17 January 2011

Rush Home Road (Lori Lansens)

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

If you love Wally Lamb, Lionel Shriver and Kathryn Stockett, and wish they’d just write faster, dammit, your heart will sing when you read your first Lori Lansens. She’s authored three books to date, every one of which I have passionately loved, and the latest, Rush Home Road, is an utter triumph.

(Note: This book is actually the author’s first, but released only now, in 2010.)

Rush Home Road is about Addy (Adelaide Shadd), a coloured woman living in a pristine square of Ontario trailer park, circa 1978. A neighbour, Collette, abandons her troubled five-year-old daughter Sharla one afternoon, to run off with the latest in a line of shady boyfriends, and Addy takes her in – beginning a beautiful, loving relationship that irrevocably transforms them both.

Throughout the novel, Addy recalls the tragic, turbulent and touching details of her 70 years: her childhood in Rusholme, a town settled by fugitive slaves in the mid 1800s; L’il Leam, her baby brother; Chick, her lost daughter; heart-rending sadnesses; blissful moments; successes; hungers and feasts.

She daydreams about past lovers, old friends and kind strangers. She dips in and out of her history, both consciously and unconsciously – and against the backdrop of historical events like the Underground Railroad, the Pullman porter movement and Prohibition – the tapestry of Addy’s life unfolds. 

This writer has been likened to John Steinbeck but for me, her style is much more contemporary than that. She’s what Pat Conroy would be if he got to the point; what Jeffery Eugenides would be if he kept it slightly simpler. She’s as good as both, but cleaner. More concise. If possible, more disciplined.

In short, Lansens is a superlative writer, and her trio of books – The Girls, The Wife’s Tale and now Rush Home Road – succeeds masterfully in showcasing how unusual story ideas, exquisite character development, fabulous plotting and great structure can manifest in three completely different ways. Unlike so many writers who find their way, see that it works and then stick rigidly to it, there’s no formula here – Lansens just gets it right every time.