15 December 2012

Two books about unusual women

Five days of holiday. Three separate car trips of four hours each. Four provinces. Four cities. Insufficient reading time. And two books. One: among the top five pieces of trashy, self-serving, barely literate piles of drivel I've read in my lifetime. The other: so brilliant I can't stop thinking about it.

The first is Loui Fish's Walking in my Choos. It's hogwash. Fascinating, sensationalist, poorly translated hogwash. It is peppered with typos, missing a few critical editorial items (like attribution for the foreword) and profoundly lacking in class... but I read it twice. And loved every minute of it.

I knew little or nothing about Loui Fish a week ago, other than that she's the ex-wife of local footballer and (supposed) hunk Mark Fish. I've spotted her in Heat, draped over this or that young buck and showing lots of booby, and I thought she was pretty. If you like that sort of thing. But I had no real idea of the shenanigans - the drugs, affairs, criminals, drama, mutually assured destruction and other chaos - that accompany celeb living.

And if I had the inside track, as Loui does, I'd be too skaam to tell anyone.

Her ex must want to murder her. He, fellow sportsman James Small, and a cast of other local bigwigs come off looking like a bunch of coke-addled miscreants, and the laughingly recited tale of how little Luke Fish tried to loosen his dad's girlfriend's tires is terrifying in the least. Oy. Those poor kids.

So if, like me, you love reading trash and you get off on knowing who's done what to whom and for what bizarre reasons, and you particularly enjoy stories about people you may spot in Tasha's, this book is divine holiday reading. But wrap the cover in brown paper, for God's sake, because I'd be more embarrassed to be caught reading this than I would 50 Shades of Grey, or even Twilight. Yeesh.

Number 2 Holiday Book is Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and it's possible I am the last bookworm on earth to have discovered it. Those in the know have been raving for ages, and I've been ignoring them. The blurb simply doesn't do this novel justice. That's my defense.

Anyway, here's my take on it:

The story is genius. The writing is magnificent. The characters are utterly believable. The twists and turns are many. The dialogue and internal dialogue are insightful.

In short, it's a winner - reminding me a lot of a book I adored about ten years back: The Drowning People, by (I think) Richard Mason. There's also a lot of Wally Lamb, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris in Flynn's style, and I really like all three.

Here's what some others have said:
Gone Girl is one of the best—and most frightening—portraits of psychopathy I've ever read. Nick and Amy manipulate each other—with savage, merciless and often darkly witty dexterity. This is a wonderful and terrifying book about how the happy surface normality and the underlying darkness can become too closely interwoven to separate. - Tana French, New York Times bestselling author of Faithful Place and Into the Woods 
Gone Girl builds on the extraordinary achievements of Gillian Flynn's first two books and delivers the reader into the claustrophobic world of a failing marriage. We all know the story, right? Beautiful wife disappears; husband doesn't seem as distraught as he should be under the circumstances. But Flynn takes this sturdy trope of the 24-hour news cycle and turns it inside out, providing a devastating portrait of a marriage and a timely, cautionary tale about an age in which everyone's dreams seem to be imploding - Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of The Most Dangerous Thing and I’d Know You Anywhere
Gillian Flynn's first two books, Sharp Edges and Dark Places, are already on my Kindle. Yay!


30 October 2012

Mad River (John Sandford)

This novel, the latest John Sandford, is very Bonnie ‘n Clyde, except that the loved-up couple also has a moronic sidekick. 

All three of the dead-end teens are absolutely crackers and they’re killing people all over rural Minnesota, just for the hell of it.

But BCA agent Virgil Flowers, one of my top 5 literary heroes (largely because he’s also a nut job; imagine a poetry-writing Matt McConaughey in a rock ‘n roll T-shirt, without a gun) is on the job. And trying to out-run a host of moronic cops.

Here’s a quick taste:

Jimmy said, "Shit," looked down at Ag, who'd gotten to her knees. He could have changed his mind, then, and everything that came after would have been different. He hesitated, then pointed the gun at Ag's head and pulled the trigger.
The Smith flashed in the dark, Ag went down, and Jimmy ran after the others.
Tom and Becky had already gone through the front door, which stood open to the streetlight, and as Jimmy crossed the front porch he heard the other sister scream, "Mama, mama. He killed Ag, he killed Ag."

If you’re a Sandfordian, read Mad River. If you’re not, you will be. So start today.

Keep in mind, while doing so, that the killing-spree-by-mad-teens theme has been done before, but this author is so very, very good that it’ll feel like a fresh, new topic.

What’s more, this isn’t a whodunnit. It’s an intelligently written police procedural with a host of eccentric characters. As one reviewer puts it, Sandford’s novels aren’t “mysteries in the sense that there is anything for us to figure out… Crimes are solved through interviews, and require legwork and street smarts rather than science and tech. The appeal [is in] watching the protagonist close in on the criminals.”

Especially when he brings in a prison full of convicts as ‘consultants’. Genius.

The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling)

It’s JK Rowling, one of the finest young adult authors in the world, writing for adults. What can possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it turns out. The New York Times sums it up: "This novel for adults is filled with a variety of people like Harry [Potter]’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us."

Set in the fictional village of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy refers to a spot on the parish council, made vacant by the death of council member Barry Fairbrother. It chronicles (in detail) the political squabbles exacerbated by Fairbrother’s death and class tensions in Pagford – but it does so with such darkness that there’s no way it can be considered comedic. It’s not Jilly Cooper. Not even Christos Tsiolkas.

To illustrate, there’s suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and racism; there is a sex scene in a cemetery; and there are alarming scenes of domestic abuse. Rich fight with poor, teenagers fight with their parents, wives fight with their husbands, and teachers fight with their pupils...

Granted, the writing is intelligent and the characters finely wrought, but there’s no-one to like. And the plot is, in a word, odd. I didn’t love it. In fact, I was relieved when it was over – not because JK Rowling doesn’t write well, but because this novel depressed the hell out of me.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Philippa Gregory)

In my eyes, Philippa Gregory can do no wrong. She introduced me to historical fiction as a genre (before which I assumed it was all Georgette Hayer) and aroused my fascination with the British royal family. She broadened my literary horizons.

In The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Gregory takes the final step in her Cousins’ War quartet (the others are The Red Queen,The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers) and introduces the daughters of Richard Neville, formidable Earl of Warwick.

The Earl is ‘the kingmaker’ because he orchestrates events so that only his favourites take the throne. It is little surprise, then, that he pulls the political strings for Anne and Isabel too – not of love for them, but of a thirst for power and control.

England being what it is in the fifteenth century, it’s not long before the Earl makes war on his former friends. And Anne, married off at age fourteen, must face early widowhood, a second marriage, intrigues and conspiracies, and the loss of her mother and sister (one to house arrest and the other to the enemy camp).

The New York Post has described this series as a tale of “royal witches, philanderers and kingslayers” and this novel as “the story of King Richard III's wife, Anne Neville, who went from the marital bed of one royal prince to that of another king-to-be during this long family feud.” I can’t improve much on that summary. This is another goodie.


28 September 2012

Tell The Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rivka Brunt)

And... it's live. Have a look at the Women24 Books page for my review of one of my top 2012 reads: Carol Rivka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

I loved this novel, which tells the story of 14-year-old June and her beloved gay (yes, this really is central to the story) Uncle Finn.

If you appreciate beautiful writing, realistic characters and profound messages, add it to your pile. (Also available on Kindle and from kalahari.net)


27 September 2012

Upcoming reviews: September

Just because I'm a nerd doesn't mean I can't be a kugel.
Hello readers (Mom, Dan - howzit).

Penguin Books has just delivered JK Rowling's latest adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. I can't wait to get stuck in.

On top of that, I'm also about to start reading:

  • Funky Business - The Secrets of an Accidental Entrepreneur (Ronnie Apteker, Gus Silber)
  • Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan)
  • Spark Your Dream (Candelaria & Herman Zapp)
  • Tommy Toad (Joy Sachs)

Chat soon.



04 September 2012

The Top Prisoner of C-Max (Wessel Ebersohn)

I’ve said before that I’m not a wild fan of local crime fiction. But Wessel Ebersohn was the writer who converted me, so it’s highly appropriate that I’m reviewing his latest offering. (And, although The Top Prisoner of C-Max is the sequel to Ebersohn’s The October Killings, I’ve not read the latter and I still enjoyed this book thoroughly.)

To begin with, The Top Prisoner of C-Max brings back oddball Jewish psychologist, Yudel Gordon – who fascinated me in Those Who Love Night – and pairs him with talented lawyer Abigail Bukula. There’s also the improbably named Beloved Childe, an American prisons prodigy, and a cast of highly charged, overly politicised, brightly colourful and deeply scary characters in the post-1994 Dept of Correctional Services.

At Pretoria’s high-security prison, C-Max, convicts are now called ‘inmates’ and warders ‘members’, and Yudel is trying to find his professional feet in ‘the new country’. Enslin Kruger, a brutal criminal, is on his last legs and wants to exact revenge on Yudel before he dies, by establishing a prison contest to choose his successor: The first of two men to murder the beautiful Beloved takes the throne.

Twenty-five years before our story begins:

“Yudel did not see the man with the shovel move. He also did not see Masuku fall, but now he was down on his hands and knees. Exactly what had happened, how he had lost his balance, whether or not he had had been pushed or even where the man with the shovel had been standing, had not been clear to Yudel afterwards. All that he remembered with any sort of clarity was that within a moment of Masuku landing on his hands and knees, three picks had been driven into his skull, and power among the prisoners had passed into the hands of Enslin Kruger.”

Despite a contained start within the prison itself, the story is packed with chases, subtle in its violence and authentic in its dialogue. What’s also interesting is that this is the latest of six thrillers featuring Yudel Gordon, the first of which was penned in the 1980s. My, my – how times have changed for the character and his allies.

29 July 2012

My Friend Is Sad (Mo Willems)

Elephant and Piggie is a book series by Mo Willems. It has a fantastic comic book style, and features two friends: an elephant, Gerald, and a pig, Piggie.

Issues of friendship are addressed: My Friend Is Sad, Should I Share My Ice Cream? Can I Play Too? I Will Surprise My Friend! And my favourite, We Are In A Book!

My Friend Is Sad begins with Gerald, the ellie, who has a very sad face.

Piggie tries all sorts of things to cheer him up: dressing up as a cowboy, a clown and a robot. But Gerald remains sad

Eventually we discover that Gerald is sad because Piggie isn’t there, and because he can’t share the cool cowboy, clown and robot with Piggie – whom he is unable to recognise beyond the disguise. Happily, it all works out in the end, with a clever twist (that I subsequently spotted in all of the Elephant and Piggie books).

Mo Willems’s books are not only gorgeous to look at and easy to read, with very clean, well-designed pages and simple text – they’re also widely recognised: Two books in the series have been listed on Time magazine's ‘Top 10 Children's Books of the Year’: Today I Will Fly in 2007 and Elephants Cannot Dance! in 2009.

In terms of target reader, I’d say parents could read these books to toddlers from age 1, but – as the pages are paper rather than board – solo reading would probably be best from ages 2 to 4. And the range of books would be good to keep, to come back to in primary school, when it comes to navigating friendships and conflicts.

(This review will soon appear on the JoziKids blog.)