The Books 2014 Forgot

It is my constant lament that great books go unread while trite, unimaginative and poorly-written pablum rockets to the top of the charts. It is even worse when those bestsellers are scientifically illiterate and lack any basis in reality or common sense (see The Real Meal Revolution) or lacking any foundation in fact or originality (anything by Malcolm Gladwell) or just the same old crime thrillers by the same old names, with the same grizzled detectives solving superficially interesting crimes (like half of the NYT bestseller list).

Some of the books I’ve mentioned below did well overseas but not in South Africa, and that kills me because some of these are local and deserve better. And in my constant, never-ending and admittedly ill-fated mission to promote excellent (and sometimes slightly inaccessible) books, I would like to promote some books that everyone should read or buy as gifts for people like me who are difficult to please. Where possible, I have added links and reviews.

Onwards!

71QTSFmYk6L._SL1500_The Three by Sarah Lotz

Read my full review

Elevator pitch: Four planes drop out of the sky at the exact same moment. Three children survive. The world freaked out in 2014 when MH370 went down – imagine 4 planes, at once, across the world. A tightly-written, utterly compelling thriller of the highest order anointed by the High Writer of Horror Stephen King.

Sold at a massive auction off a manuscript fragment, this locally-authored book did spectacularly overseas, but I was saddened by poor local support.

10352275_637546756336934_2894595274120220687_nBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes 

Read my review here

Elevator pitch: Detroit, rotting corpse of America’s dreams, is being stalked by an imaginative and terrifying serial killer. This is not your bookclub’s crime thriller: it is a superb mix of every genre, with literally dozens of ideas bursting off every page.

Also locally authored, with excellent international support but not enough local readership. Can we all get over our cultural cringe, please? Also anointed by the Dark Lord Stephen King.

books24f-2-webThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

My review here

Elevator pitch: A young girl is married off to a rich merchant in Amsterdam. The marriage is strained from the beginning, and he attempts to appease her with a cabinet containing a miniature version of their household. But when the cupboard’s contents start to predict household events, all that is hidden is forcibly revealed.

I loved this for its immense historical detail, crisply and deeply detailed characters and lyrical prose, as well as its gorgeous setting.

Awards: Waterstones Book of the Year 2014

9781594633171_custom-72d13cb6685ce632b975840ffc997395a0f5e4e7-s6-c30In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Review by the Washington Post
Review by The Guardian

Elevator pitch: It is 1996, and strangers gravitate to Auschwitz, sleeping in the guard’s quarters, meditating in the snow and listening to apologies from clergy and congregation. They attempt to make sense of the madness, but can anybody? A lyrical take on survivor’s guilt, religious guilt and Holocaust voyeurism.

It is a shortish little book, but it is weighty and challenges the  facile idea of closure and healing around such a cataclysmically monstrous event.

DW_full coverDark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Review by the Mail and Guardian

Elevator pitch: What if Joburg suddenly knew peace and harmony? When a New Age government takes control, a wave of calm sweeps through the country. But the Transformation is not complete, and requires the blacking out of windows in rooms where violent acts have taken place. Why?

A quick-thinking, provocative piece on Joburg, the legitimacy of hippie thinking and the causes and costs of violence. The ending alone is worth the read.

Gordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRKill Yourself and Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

My Sunday Times review here

Elevator pitch: What happened to all the soldiers who didn’t suit the Calvinist apartheid government? They were sent to Greefswald, a camp for the broken toys of the sociopathic Dr Levine. A rage-inducing, haunting look at a hidden and shameful chapter in South African history.

This is a tremendously difficult read at times due to the weight of its history and suffering, but it should really be taught in schools.

the-collected-works-of-a-j-fikryThe Collected Works of AJ Fikry

My review here

Elevator pitch: This is a bookseller’s book, a tribute to the life and times of a little bookstore and its owner, and the girl he finds abandoned in it. It is a wonderful, quirky read and a love song to literature.

I especially loved the reading list suggestions by Mr AJ Fikry himself, broad and fascinating and uploading.

Review of Sarah Lotz’s “The Three” (SPOILERS!)

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The author, Sarah Lotz

Another South African author has landed a much-coveted six-figure publishing deal, and rightly so. Landed by Oliver Munson of Blake FriedmannThe Three continues in the most excellent speculative fiction vein that South African authors are so interestingly dominating. Consider Apocalypse Now Now, The Shining Girls, Space Race and For The Mercy of Water: it is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

So, to whit: The Three is the story of four airplanes crashing at the same time, with three survivors (or maybe four). Understandably, this throws the world into a panic, exacerbated by conspiracy, fear-mongering and Rapture-obsessed Christians. The book is styled as a collection of stories collected by a journalist called Elspeth Martin, who collates the stories of the Three (the three children who survive), the apocalypse groupies, the guardians of the Three and eyewitness accounts of the crashes. As time passes, the effects of the crashes begin to spiral completely out of control, changing the world as we understand it.

Now to the technical stuff: Sarah Lotz has an incredible gift for voices. She moves smoothly and seamlessly from voice to voice: from South African paramedic to Baptist housewife to Japanese chatroom personas – she shows a stunning flexibility of voice and research. Books often don’t reach for my eyeballs and keep them stuck to the pages, but this one absolutely did, from opening page to haunting final chapter. This is speculative fiction at its sublime best: what if a single event with no clear cause or purpose really could change the world?

[Spoilers now, you have been warned!]

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This book has a terrible menace underneath it all, a dark implication for human nature. It wasn’t the idea of the planes just dropping out of the sky, or the terrible way the victims died, immolated and separated. This may just be for me personally, but its the awful way the Christians in the book leverage this horrific event for their own purposes that gives this book such scope. These terrible, hateful people celebrate the deaths, celebrate the signs of the end times and use it to get into power. It happens in the background of the book, and ostensibly it isn’t the major plot point. But for me, as someone who keeps a chary eye on the right-wing elements of religion, this was one of the scariest implications of the book: that some people might use a horrific disaster to usher in another Bush, or even worse: a president that institutes theological law. Considering the charming statements by American politicians in 2013 alone about ‘legitimate rape‘ and abortion, this isn’t that much of a stretch. America becomes a hardcore religious state, and Rationalists are tortured and exiled. That is the kind of dystopian fiction most people are too scared to write about for fear attracting flack for it. I applaud Lotz for this unflinching thought experiment. Maybe its just me, but it is such a feat of narrative that Lotz placed this world-altering plot point in the background, giving it heft without dominating the story.

And here ends the spoilers.

TheThree1

It is very much more than this one point, though. It skims off a number of places, ideas and issues: the suicide forests of Aokigahara in Japan (possible trigger warning), the self-isolation of young adults and teens online, cults, crime and corruption in Cape Town, journalism, grief, psychosis (‘Hello, Uncle Paul’) and mega-churches. This is a book that covers so much ground so swiftly and so excellently that it feels to be just the right length. I do wish the ending had been a little less obscure, but there’s apparently a sequel on the way, which I’m excited for.

It is unfair to call this book commercial, but it is commercial in that it is very accessible and easy to read, though it offers delicious food for thought for the reader who seeks more. I do so love unreliable narrators. This is a bold, brave act of storytelling and absolutely deserves your attention.

The Three will be available in South Africa this May. 

Review of Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz

This isn’t a new title, having been published by Penguin in 2009 and brought for me by friend Mark during the infamous Exclusives.co.za firesale of 2010 for about R15. Now I don’t usually read crime novels (I used to until Patricia Cornwall ruined everything) and I usually don’t read local crime fiction because well, its on the news too. But I was looking for an easy read in the time of tonsillitis and so Exhibit A volunteered itself after Travels With A Roadkill Rabbit was just too painful twenty pages in. (I hate reading novels that read like self-indulgent travel blogs. It really is a mom gushing about her holiday with her perfect family; I barf in my scorn.)

Anyway, so Exhibit A. A lawyer mostly overworked, terrifically clumsy and nicotine-riddled takes up a court case on behalf of a young woman raped by a policeman in a police station. Set in the fair Cape with a small, entertaining cast, Georgie Allen (Cape Town’s worst-dressed lawyer) tries to find out if Nina was lying, if everyone else is actually telling the truth, and what really happened on a cold Friday night at the Barryville police station. No gore and with a sharp eye aimed at all the charming prejudices of South Africans, it was free of the cliché and sleaze that so often accompanies crime novels. My favourite character is the dog, Exhibit A. A proper brakhound as fierce and loyal as any companion one could hope for, he is far more endearing than any of the other characters, and I was most gleeful when (spoilers!) Georgie chooses to get Exhibit A back rather than sleep with the rather pedestrian Rachel. As a pet-lover and avowed enemy of the shoehorned love story, this pleased me greatly.

I don’t have many gripes with the story, but the author could have held off on writing out the accent of Patrick, the Scottish advocate. It has become almost verboten to write accents, as it is considered ham-handed and often poorly reflective of the actual accent itself. It also disrupts the actual flow of the sentence, as the ‘pronounced’ words looked misspelled amongst the normal spelling, unlike actual sentences from another language. I know this is one of the reasons why I don’t really enjoy Pratchett’s Wintersmith series; the accent of the Wee Free Men grates upon my eyes like a furious cheese grater. Whether its Cockney in Victorian literature (Oh, Arthur Conan Doyle) or Scottish brogue amongst South African English, it just mangles the writing. How many times does one need to see ‘fooking’ before getting the point?  A personal point, but still worth mentioning.

In any case, Cape Town and all its folks was a well-handled setting, and the crime itself was fascinating. Georgie would make for a good television show, being self-depreciating without being unbearable like Victoria in Language of Flowers. It makes for good reading when one can sympathise with the shortcomings of the protagonist, instead of disliking them as much as they do themselves.

I’m not sure hardcore crime fans will dig it, since there isn’t as much gore and ruined female flesh as crime seems to be burgeoning with, but the story was honest and the characters interesting and there was far less artifice and deus ex machina that litters crime novels these days. (I really have no respect for authors who start every book with a destroyed female body and then add ten more before the book is through in clichéd gore porn.) Exhibit A is dry and funny and a quick read. Sure, it won’t appease the gore fans, but that’s why I enjoyed it.

And maybe Cape Townians will enjoy the references more than I could.