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Melissa Bank's first volume of stories, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Viking, 1999), received enthusiastic reviews on its publication. The Wonder Spot, a striking collection of eight interlinked stories with titles like “Boss of the World”, “The Toy Bar” and “20th-Century Typing”, deserves no less acclaim.
Bank is a funny, intelligent, quirky modern woman, as is her protagonist, Sophie Applebaum:
The Wonder Spot is about family chains and friendships, romantic relationships, loss, connections and finding a place in the world. In the vein of that short story writer par excellence, Lorrie Moore, Bank's prose is fluid, incisively witty and keenly observant.
Experimental writer Kate Braverman begins her bold, incandescent fourth novel with a Pablo Neruda quote, "In this net it's not just the strings that count/ But also the air that escapes through the meshes." Frida Kahlo was an artist, a revolutionary, a morphine addict, a bisexual and a crippled wife. A pagan, she was a solitary renegade, an unrepentant heretic and a water woman:
The Incantation of Frida K. is a fantastical, fictional meditation on the life and times of the Mexican visionary. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Los Angeles, the subversive Jewish Braverman brilliantly depicts Kahlo's ferocity and passion for her work, her physical and psychological pain, and the complex carnage that was her relationship with Diego Rivera, her husband and fellow artist:
This novel is an exotic and formidably intelligent feast: a tiger lily, a rare black pearl, a flash of violet lightning, a brutal red neon sign. Braverman's sentences are fireworks, mortar rockets and scars that startle and shock. She is a writer of luminous and explosive talent, of secret journals and delirious kisses, of guerrilla barricades and life rafts. She stands on the cutting edge of literature, a member of an endangered species. I am going to buy all her books.
Pregnant and jobless, Minty sets off to the registry office to become the second Mrs Lloyd. She craves silk and tulle, the hiss of champagne and the perfume of expensive flowers, but discovers that despite having left his first wife for her, Nathan, her new husband, still measures his life by his first marriage.
Elizabeth Buchan prefaces her tenth novel with an apt quote by Charles Darwin from The Origin of Species: "We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence." If you've been holed up all winter with serious literature, The Second Wife is pure escapism. An entertaining chick-lit read.
This is not a book you can slip into your hand luggage to while away the hours reading in an airport terminal. Don't try to read it in the bath either – at 960 pages, it's heavy. Despite its gimmicky title, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a beautifully produced reference book with glossy pages, 600 full-colour pictures of authors and book covers, and an eye-catching front cover reproduction of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1972). It is organised chronologically in sections, from Pre-1700 to the 2000s. Half-page critiques of 1001 books ranging from Aesop's Fables to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go have been shared between 107 novelists, poets, academics, journalists and full-time arts critics. Although by no means claiming to be a definitive or exhaustive list of the world's greatest works of fiction, this absorbing guide would make a splendid gift for bibliophiles and anyone interested in improving the quality and scope of their reading. Even well-grounded fiction lovers are sure to discover unfamiliar titles and authors to pique their curiosity.
As May Matthews lies dying in hospital, her younger daughter Danika sits at her bedside unearthing her own past to make sense of a childhood spent within a dysfunctional family living through recession in apartheid South Africa. With a deft lightness of touch, Capetonian author Maxine Case illuminatingly encapsulates what it was like to be a young coloured girl in the eighties. Six-year-old Danika is a compelling character. The author has created insightful, beautifully drawn passages from childhood involving tree climbing, mulberry picking, baking shapes from grandmother's leftover dough, failed fudge attempts and licking the mixing bowl clean. All we have left unsaid is a gratifying debut novel about quiet desperation, grief, death and the enduring bonds between a mother and her two daughters. With its gorgeous front cover it is thoughtful, realistic and well worth reading.
Patrica Cornwall's protagonist in her most recent mystery is Winston Garano, an investigator with the Massachusetts State Police. His formidable, insatiably ambitious boss summons the African-Italian detective away from a training course at the National Forensic Academy. In an attempt to garner national attention, politically aspirant District Attorney Monique Lamont decides to reopen an unsolved, twenty-year-old homicide and use it as a showcase to her advantage. The murder victim, a wealthy elderly widow, was brutalised and beaten to death in broad daylight in a quaint little Southern town. As the best cop in Lamont's unit, Winston is the perfect choice to head up the high-profile investigation, but hours after his briefing, the taunts and threats begin. Written in a terse, economical and fast-moving style, At Risk is an enjoyable novella, although for me it was not as satisfying as the Scarpetta books. Patricia Cornwall's whodunits appeal to a wide audience and At Risk will probably be no exception.
Gil Courtemanche's debut is a brilliant, terrifying and haunting chronicle of the ravages of AIDS and the Rwandan genocide told from the viewpoint of Bernard Valcourt, a French-Canadian expatriate living in Kigali. The dedication reads: "To my Rwandan friends swept away in the maelstrom … I have tried to speak for you/ I hope I have not failed you." Un Dimanche à la piscine à Kigali was originally published in 2000, spent over a year on the best-seller lists of Quebec and received the Prix des Librairies, the booksellers' award for outstanding book of the year. If you read only one book this year, make it this masterpiece; then pass it on. It is a deeply felt piece of work from a groundbreaking writer.
When tragedy strikes, Marayam Mazar flees family responsibilities in London, returning to the country of her birth. Angry and bitter, she has never come to terms with her past and an ill-fated, life-shaping love affair she had left behind in Iran many years before. The Saffron Kitchen is a beguiling story of an exile's yearning for home and the uneasy, ambiguous relationship between a mother and daughter. Yasmin Crowther is a fine writer and her engrossing first novel contains evocative descriptions of people, places and traditions.
Twenty-nine-year-old Lucy Arigho is mourning the death of her fiancé when she meets dashing crime writer Greg Millar. Months later, her exhilarating new relationship disintegrates and Lucy finds herself amid a family ripped apart by mental illness. Love Comes Tumbling initially lacks depth. It's all too idyllic to be believable. Thankfully, this chick-lit paperback set in Ireland and the south of France improves. It picks up pace and redeems itself somewhat. It's a mixed bag.
Seventy-nine-year-old retired businessman and asbestos mining boss Bernard Klamm is doused in petrol and burnt to death in the sumptuous study of his Johannesburg home in the affluent northern suburbs. Shortly after midnight, Inspector Jacob Tshabalala of the Murder and Robbery Unit, is called from his Soweto home to investigate the crime scene. Five framed photographs of a handsome, young black man have been removed from the dead man's study, and in the locked compartment of a bookcase the inspector discovers several photograph albums filled with pictures of violated girls. The victim's wife, Henrietta Campbell, estranged from him for thirty-eight years, believes the answers to the murder are to be found on Oranje Genot, a farm outside Leopold Ridge, a small settlement in the Northern Cape. On her husband's brutal murder, Campbell enlists the services of Harry Mason, Tshabalala's ex-partner, to find her missing daughter. The disappearance of the nineteen-year-old woman has remained unsolved for thirty-nine years. Kunzmann has written beautifully observed, detailed evocations of the South African landscape and has crafted authentic, rounded local characters. Salamander Cotton sheds some light on the evils of the asbestos mining industry. You may find yourself wondering what else you don't know about this country. Meanwhile the pages of this gripping, chilling crime novel turn effortlessly.
In the opening paragraph of her introduction to Female Chauvinist Pigs, thirty-year-old feminist Ariel Levy writes:
The author may be viewed by some as the latest in a long line of uptight radicals, old-fashioned moralists and prissy sissies, waving tattered, fishmoth-eaten flags for an archaic women's liberation movement, but this is not the case. The provocative, contradictory subject of female empowerment in our plastic, pervasive, “post-feminist” 21st-century culture is exposed in a fresh, articulate and well-researched book. "If you were to put the last five or so years in a time capsule, womanwise, it would look like a period of explosive sexual exhibitionism, opportunism, and role redefinition." In this celebrity-obsessed, reality TV world, where lusty, busty pole-dancers, outsized breast implants and waxed vaginas are de rigeur, feminism is considered “uncool”. “But,” demands Levy, “how far have we come when women are socialised to objectify themselves in order to be more desirable? It's about sexual power and consumerism,” she writes. “Now, more than ever, sex sells. Yet ‘raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms." Female Chauvinist Pigs is an important polemic which calls out for our attention and examination. It is an arch, yet profoundly serious, thought-provoking and, ultimately convincing, read. Ariel Levy writes for New York magazine. Her work also appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue, Slate, Men's Journal and Blender magazines.
"… too few writers favour their audience with a genuine surprise," Gina Ochsner writes in “Last Words of the Mynah Bird”. The original and unpredictable author of People I Wanted To Be presents an unusual collection of eleven magical short stories. Set in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and America, the Oregon-based author's thought-provoking pieces are populated with troubled marriages, missing people, nuns, ghost children, black dogs, canaries and intriguing, unexplained phenomena.
Before his disappearance, the Reverend Mack goes spectacularly off the rails, causing something of a stir in church circles and in the small town on the east coast of Scotland which is his parish. Months later, a bulky handwritten manuscript, the missing minister's testament, comes to light. His remains are discovered in an advanced state of decay on the dismal slopes of Ben Alder. James Robertson's third novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack, is on the Man Booker longlist for 2006. Strange and compelling, this book is definitely recommended reading.
“Where are you staying?” the Bedouin asked. “Why you not stay with me tonight – in my cave?” In 1978, twenty-two-year-old New Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen is travelling through the Middle East with a friend when she finds the adventure she has been seeking. Fate takes the form of Mohammed Abdullah, a Bedouin Arab whom she meets amid the stony hills and perpendicular red rock-faces of Petra in Jordan. “It was as Mohammed guided us singing through rocky, oleander-crowded canyons that I fell in love with him … He fixed his red and white mendeel, throwing the knotted ends up over his head into an exotic Bedouin turban, and flashed me a smile," reminisces the author. Two and a half months after meeting, Marguerite and the al-Manajah tribesman were married.
Married to a Bedouin is a vivid memoir of wind, sand and stars, of becoming a member of a Bedouin community and bringing up three children in a two-thousand-year-old Nabataean cave. Colour photographs and a glossary of Arabic terms are included in the book.
For as long as six-year-old Faith Steenkamp can remember, she has been surrounded by fairies. A terrifying Tokoloshe occupies the farmhouse cellar. During the days of the State of Emergency, Pik Botha and Springbok Radio, the little girl lives with her fey mother, Bella, and trusty mongrel, Boesman, on a neglected citrus farm in the parched and dusty Northern Transvaal. One day her father, a travelling salesman doesn't come home; then Boesman disappears. Faith's world is transformed into a frightening, alien landscape when her mother becomes ill and slips over into the realm of evil fairies.
Gem Squash Tokoloshe was selected as one of five finalists out of 46 000 entries on The Richard and Judy Show competition, How To Get Published, in 2004. It's not difficult to see why. Zadok sparkles. Her prose is pitch perfect and every page of her bewitching, wildly imaginative debut novel deserves to be savoured. You will want to ration out the pages. It is finished far too quickly.
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