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Spring Snaps

Michelle McGrane

Click on the book titles to buy your copy from

The Wonder Spot (short stories)
by Melissa Bank
Penguin Books
ISBN 0-141-02184-5

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:

I look around, trying to pretend, as I always do at parties, that I could be talking to a fellow partygoer if I wanted to, but at the moment I'm just too captivated by my own fascinating observations of the crowd … The women are young, young, young, liquidy and sweet-looking; they are batter, and I am the sponge cake they don't know they'll become. I stand here, a lone loaf, stuck to the pan.

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.

The Incantation of Frida K. (fiction)
by Kate Braverman
Seven Stories Press
ISBN 1-58322-571-4

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:

I was born in rain and I will die in rain. Know me as a river, as harbor. They will say I was a slut with a brazen sailor's mouth. They will not remember my elegance and restraint. They will say they looked in my eyes and counted one hundred forty-six pelicans flying in a wavering line into a marina at sunset.

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:

They will say, she wore flowers, hair a bouquet of intricate ribbons. She dressed as if for a fiesta. Listen. That is not the case. I wore gardens pinned to my head like floral tumours rising from my brain. I wore orchids not in celebration, but in mourning. I prepared daily for my funeral. I painted myself with birds and monkeys, with a necklace of thorns and with the well where my heart should be gouged out, as if by scalpel.

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.

The Second Wife (fiction)
by Elizabeth Buchan
Michael Joseph/Penguin
ISBN 0-718-14987-4

On my wedding day, I got dressed in a red silk full skirt, to hide my ten-weeks pregnant figure, and a black jacket.

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.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (reference)
General Editor: Peter Boxall
ISBN 1-84403-417-8

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.

All we have left unsaid (fiction)
by Maxine Case
ISBN 0-7957-0229-9

My mother and I have a polite relationship. Distant, but polite … I try to keep my relationship with my mother to myself. It is better this way, a kind of censoring.

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.

At Risk (crime fiction)
by Patricia Cornwall
Little Brown
ISBN 0-316-73298-2

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.

A Sunday at the pool in Kigali (fiction)
by Gil Courtemanche
Translated from the French by Patricia Claxton
Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 1-84195-525-6

On the way home he had to stop three times at makeshift roadblocks set up by young militiamen of the government party. Beers in one hand, machetes in the other, eyes rolling up in their sockets, legs unsteady. The party had also been distributing a little marijuana to boost militia fervour.

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.

The Saffron Kitchen (fiction)
by Yasmin Crowther
Little Brown
ISBN 0-316-73299-0

In north-east Iran, on the plains of Khorasan, there is a village called Mazareh. It is a honeycomb of brown mud walls where the foothills meet the plains, far from the nearest city of Mashhad, with its golden domes and minarets.

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.

Love Comes Tumbling (fiction)
by Denise Deegan
Penguin Ireland
ISBN 1-844-88094-X

I avoid looking at him, yet notice his every movement, word, breath. Our legs are touching, something I wasn't initially aware of when we sat down but that I'm intensely conscious of now.

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.

Salamander Cotton (crime fiction)
by Richard Kunzmann
ISBN 1-4050-4100-5

They say a devil lives there. They say it walks upright, like a man, but is covered in spines the way a porcupine is. Some say it's half-burnt and the size of a child; others that it's tall like you, and tan-coloured with long talons and sharp teeth.

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.

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (current affairs)
by Ariel Levy
Pocket Books
ISBN 1-4165-2638-2

In the opening paragraph of her introduction to Female Chauvinist Pigs, thirty-year-old feminist Ariel Levy writes:

I first noticed it several years ago. I would turn on the television and find strippers in G-strings explaining how best to lap dance a man to orgasm. I would flip the channel and see babes in tight, tiny uniforms bouncing up and down on trampolines. Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body ultimately became so familiar to me I felt like we used to go out.

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.

People I Wanted To Be (short stories)
by Gina Ochsner
Portobello Books Ltd
ISBN 1-84627-008-1

"… 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.

The Testament of Gideon Mack (fiction)
by James Robertson
Hamish Hamilton
ISBN 0-241-14357-8

When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: yet I was already, in so many ways, the man I would become … Gideon Mack, time-server, charlatan, hypocrite, God's grovelling apologist; the man who saw the Stone, the man that was drowned and that the waters gave back, the mad minister who met with the Devil and lived to tell the tale.

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.

Married to a Bedouin (memoir)
by Marguerite van Geldermalsen
ISBN 1-84408-219-9

“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.

Gem Squash Tokoloshe (fiction)
by Rachel Zadok
Picador Africa
ISBN 1-7701-0023-7

Something wake him, stir a hunger in his guts, call. He lick the breeze, taste a morsel of fear on the icy air. His glands drip, drip, his cheeks, taut drawn, long to stretch, distort with moans and screams. There's a pain out there.

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.

LitNet: 30 August 2006

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