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Archive for the tag “book reviews”

The Native Commissioner (book review)

The Native CommissionerThe Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

One of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliar, but this book comes far closer to home, in time, in place, and even in people.

A man opens a box left by his father, George Jameson, who had died when he was 8 years old, and tries to reconstruct his father’s life and his own family history. In this the book reminds me of A recessional for Grace by Margurite Poland. One of the similarities is that the protagonist in that book was researching the life of a Xhosa linguist, making a study of the terms for different kinds of cattle, and in The Native Commissioner the protagonist is fluent in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans as well as English, his native language, so it is difficult to avoid comparisons.

The father was a civil servant, and, like many civil servants, was subject to numerous transfers in the course of his career, and most of those places I was familiar with, having passed through them many times. George Jameson was born to a white farming family in Babanango, and when I lived in Melmoth 35 years ago I regularly visited a farming family there. Jameson was stationed at Tsumeb in Namibia, and at Libode in Transkei, which I passed through on the way to visit my mother when she worked at St Barnabas Hospital, Ntlaza. So it was easy to picture the places and the settings.

Also, I could not help picturing the protagonist as being like Buller Fenwick, a retired Native Commissioner I knew in Melmoth. When I knew him he was doing odd jobs for various people, and would come to us for photocopies, because back in 1979 we had the only photocopier in Melmoth. He was an interesting bloke, and confirmed in real life one of the things that is central to the story. Before the Nats came to power in 1948, his job as a Magistrate and Native Commissioner was to administer justice — white man’s justice to people of a different culture, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. After the Nats came to power the nature of the job changed; it was no longer to administer justice, but to administer government policy. And that is the central dilemma faced by the protagonist in this book, which eventually drives him to a nervous breakdown.

The book is therefore, at one level, true to life. It can give an authentic picture of what life was like for some people in South Africa in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But was only like that for a relativly small proportion of people — white civil servants who had doubts about the morality of the National Party policy juggernaut, where the alternatives, if you did not jump on the bandwagon, were to get out of the way or get crushed. Jameson tried, but failed, to get out of the way, and got crushed.

The method of telling the story, reconstucting a life from documents, has its disadvantages, however. I know from my own interest in family history how difficult it is with real people — it is all so fragmentary, and there are so many loose ends. Using such a technique in a work of fiction is unnecessarily limiting, though I think Magurite Poland handled it better than Shaun Johnson does. In this case it leaves too much of the story untold.

For example, the narrative tells us that “On the 5th of September he sends a reply to the Johannesburg head office regarding its instruction to repatriate one Buthi Mngomeni to his homeland. Unfortunately, writes my father curtly, your order cannot be acted on as neither we nor he know where his homeland is.”

In real life biography, coming across such correspondence in the archives is pure gold. It speaks volumes to the researcher. It portrays exactly the impersonal bureacratic cruelty of the apartheid system, treating human beings who have names, like Buthi Mngomeni, as non-persons, as mere “human resources” (why is that obscene term still in such common use?) And it tells you of a civil servant who is gatvol of the whole system, who has had it up to here.

But the average reader of a novel is not a historical researcher, easily able to tease out the significance of such documents. Many people, especially white people, lived through that period with very little clue about what was going on there, and so its significance would escape them. Those who were born after 1980, or those who have never been in South Africa, unless exceptionally well-read, would miss it altogether.

The fiction writer has the opportunity to tell the story fully, to show Buthi Mngomeni as a real person with a life, with a family. It could be expanded to a paragraph, a page, a whole chapter even. But the “documentary research” format does not allow it.

So while one can say that the story is true to life, it is what apartheid was really like for some people, it gives only a tiny fragment of the picture. There is also much more to the story than this.

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22 Britannia Road (book review)

22 Britannia Road22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Polish couple is separated at the beginning of the Second World War, and reunited in Britain after the war is over. In the six years that they have been apart their different experiences have made them different people. Then there is the child Aurek, who has only known the life of a fugitive, hiding in the forest. He has to adapt to living in a suburban house in a society where the language, is strange.

The story alternates between the present and the past, starting with their reunion, and going back to their former life, leading up to the present.

I picked this book up on a remainder sale, after reading the blurb I thought it looked interesting for the same reason that I found the The long road home the aftermath of the Second World War interesting (my review here). I’m interested in transitions, in between times, changes from war to peace, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers. How do such people make a transition from one life to another?

And so I bought it and brought it home to read it, and was surprised at how good it was. When I read historical novels, I tend to look out for anachronisms, well, not actually to look for them, but when I spot them I find them jarring, and so I tend to be reading in nervous expectation. In this book I didn’t spot any, or at least none that were jarring. It seemed remarkably authentic and true to life — not that I’ve ever been to Poland, so I might not know anyway, but it didn’t seem much different from novels by Polish novelists that I’ve read.

The characters and their reactions are believable, yet not predictable, and this unpredictability is what makes the novel seem so authentic. It is like the unpredictability of real life, when you never know what will happen next or how people will respond to it.

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Journeys in the dead season

Journeys in the Dead SeasonJourneys in the Dead Season by Spencer Jordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An awaiting trial prisoner reads a book written by an ex-World War 1 soldier. The prisoner is apparently facing a charge of being an accomplice in kidnapping and murder in Leicestershire, while the soldier makes notes for his book while travelling around the same general area visiting his war-time companions, but the events of his journeys are mainly revealed in letters to his father, which the prisoner has apparently not read.

Both the ex-soldier and the prisoner have witnessed scenes of death, and meet with psychotherapists, and both end up wandering around the Leicestershire countryside in apparent fits of madness. It is difficult to make any kind of sense of this, but that seems to be the point, as it made very l;ittle sense to the protagonists. In spite of the apparent pointlessness, it made compelling reading, even though in the end one is left wondering what exactly has happened.

It also left me wondering what has happened to book editors.

I think I would be reluctant to write historical novels, especially novels that contain, as this one does, texts purported to date from a different period. In this case, the letters of the ex-soldier to his father are dated in the early 1920s, and yet they use some anachronistic expressions that I think may not have been used then. Referring to the young soldiers who fought in the First World War as “teenagers” seems out of place. Perhaps they did, but I’m sure that people of that period would have been more likely to refer to them as “boys” or possibly “youths”. I thought “teenager” only came into widespread use in the 1940s of 1950s. Similarly, I do not think people of that period would have been familiar with the 1970s malapropism “parameters”, or with the misuse of “sojourn” apparently popularised by Stephen Donaldson‘s “Thomas Covenant” books. I thought it was only in the last 20 years or so that people have begun to use “proven” instead of “proved” as the regular past tense of “prove” — before that I understood it as a technical term of Scottish law, found in the verdict of “not proven”.

But perhaps this anachronism is all part of the book’s topsy-turvy timeline, in which the personalities of the protagonists from two different periods seem to merge.

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Dreamcatcher: a book review

DreamcatcherDreamcatcher by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m never sure what to expect with Stephen King novels. Some I think are very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in between. The ones I liked best are Needful Things, Pet Sematary and The girl who loved Tom Gordon. I’ve generally enjoyed his supernatural horror stories rather than his science fiction ones or other genres, though The girl who loved Tom Gordon, about a girl lost in the woods, is neither science fiction nor horror.

I read a couple of his science fiction ones, including a UFO novel, The Tommyknockers, which I thought was his worst. So when I picked up The Dreamcatcher at the library, I wasn’t expecting much, but thought that as it was only a library book, I didn’t need to feel I had to finish it. In the end I did finish it. It was a page turner, in the sense that I wanted to see what happened, but it confirmed my opinion that King is better at writing about spooks than about space aliens. Dreamcatcher was better than The Tommyknockers but not much.

The story line was disjointed and made little sense, and thoughout the story telepathy seems to be overused as a deus ex machina. The eponymous “dreamcatcher” is never really explained in any coherent way. The main characters are unreal; we are told virtually nothing about their families, and they hardly ever think of them or miss them when they are experiencing tough times.

But there is also a kind of moral thread running through the story. Stephen King clearly has a lot of sympathy for bullied children, and one could say that there is a moral in the story: be kind to bullied and disabled children.

A possible explanation for this might be that King had been in a serious accident, and appears to have written this book while recovering from it, and one of the characters experiences a similar accident, and goes through similar suffering. The girl who lived Tom Gordon, written shortly before the accident, was a much better book.

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The Waves (book review)

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is different from most novels. It’s about six friends, Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, Neville and Jinny, from childhood to old age, but it says little about their external circumstances. It is told entirely from the viewpoints of the people concerned, and is an internal description of how their friends and life affect them.

Describing it like that, it doesn’t sound like much of a story. Seeing the world through six pairs of eyes, moving from one viewpoint to the other, sounds as though it will be like living in six separate boxes, but it isn’t. It is a marvellous evocation of friendship. The trouble is that it is so evocative that my mind kept wandering, every paragraph at least, if not every sentence. When it describes the feelings of one character when leaving school, I was taken back to when I left school, aznd got so absorbed in the vivid recollection that I must have remained stuck on the same page for about 20 minutes or so,

It was the the same with the description of their leaving university, and I was taken back 46 years (gosh, was it as long ago as that) when I took the train from Grahamstown to Alicedale, and waited on Alicedale station for the train to Johannesburg, and the realisation suddenly struck me that I would never be a full-time student again. I hadn’t been a student all the time before, but even working for two years full time I was still saving up to go to university, and suddenly it was all over. And Virginia Woolf captures that “it’s all over” feeling brilliantly. To one character it’s a drop of water gathering and growing, and then suddenly it drops, and life changes, irrevocably.

But at the same time there is a continuity. As the characters move from youth to age, so there are interludes describing, quite impersonally, the course of a day, the sun rising and setting over the sea shore, with the waves continuing to crash down, so there is also a repetition, and it reminded me of the verse of Psalm 41/42:

Deep is calling to deep
as your cataracts roar;
all your waves, your breakers
have rolled over me.

Actually there is a seventh friend, Percival, who was at school with the boys. We hear of his unrequited love for Susan, and Neville’s unrequited love for him, and he goes to India and is killed in a fall from a horse. But his viewpoint never appears, he is seen only only through the eyes of the others, and the effects of his life and death on them.

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Relics — a book with a fetid stench

RelicsRelics by Shaun Hutson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was on the “horror” shelf of the book shop, it had been reprinted, and was going cheap. I’d never read anything by the author before, so I thought it might be OK for some light bedtime reading. I suppose it does fit into the horror genre, just. It’s also a sort of half-baked whodunit (one of the main characters is a detective, though he doesn’t do much detecting).

I suppose in that there are some very faint echoes of Phil Rickman, who seems to hover uncertainly between the supernatural horror and whodunit genres, with his more recent works leaning (to my disappointment) to the latter. But Rickman’s books have character and plot; this book has neither. And Shaun Hutson seems to try to cover over the lack of such things by playing the grossout card, right from the very first chapter, going over the top with blood and gore. Oh and the obligatory sex scenes with “throbbing members” — it was, after all, first published in the 1980s, when most publishers seemed to make such scenes obligatory. In this book, however, they are combined with the “fetid stench” of still-throbbing freshly disembowelled entrails. The trouble is that when you have a “fetid stench” in every second chapter (and there are seventy chapters) one’s sense of literary smell tends to become a bit jaded.

The book has a bunch of archaeologists who discover a cave with inscriptions and skeletons. Some of them meet with nasty accidents, which apparently serve no purpose in the plot other than to provide the occasion for another grossout. The archaeologists seem to know as little about archaeology as the detectives do about detecting.

I’m eagerly awaiting the next book by Phil Rickman, and now at least I know that Shaun Hutson doesn’t fill the gap.

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Dead man’s grip – book review

Dead Man's Grip (Roy Grace, #7)Dead Man’s Grip by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called on to investigate a serious hit-and-run motor accident, where the victim is an American student whose family have Mafia connections, promptin fears that they might take revenge on those they see as responsible.

Roy Grace has worries at home, however, as his girlfriend Cleo is having a difficult pregnancy, and has to spend some time in hospital. These were the bits I thought I had read before, and, having reached the end of the book I realise that that is because I must have read the next book in the series before this one, and in that one the pregnancy and its problems continue.

This is a police procedural rather than a whodunit, as you know who is going to do it even before it is done, but I think it is very well done, and is one of Peter James‘s best books I’ve read so far.

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The age of miracles: dystopian fiction

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Julia wakes up one morning to find that the sun is late. The earth’s rotation speed is slowing, and soon clock time is out of sync with the procession of days and nights. At first there is panic, and people behave strangely. Julia’s best friend, a Mormon, moves with her family to Utah. A Jewish family is not sure when to observe the Sabbath.

For a schoolgirl the problems of friendship, popularity and peer pressure are exacerbated by the changes in the environment. As nights lengthen, crops are threatened by the lack of sunlight, and people begin hoarding food. Animals begin to behave in strange ways, and some species become extinct.

The story is not altogether believable, as some things that one would expect to be affected by the changes appear not to be. Though the wheat supply is threatened, there seems to be no problem in ordering pizzas, and ice cream continues to be readily available, through fresh fruit is not. People in the middle-class suburb where Julia lives still appear to go to work every day, even though one would expect there to be massive unemployment in sectors affected by the changes.

The story is told through the eyes of a child, of course, and one would not expect a child to know of everything that was happening. Apart from a few discrepancies, it is well told, and a good read.

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Bury your dead (book review)

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #6)Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the one we bought first, because of the blurb, and only after getting it did we discover that there is a metastory that runs through the series, with the same characters popping up again and again.

Chief Inspector Gamache is on leave in Quebec, recovering from injuries received in an earlier shoot-out, and is asked ny the local police to help with a case — an amateur archaeologist, notorious for his obsession with finding the grave of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, is murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, an English-speaking institution. The murder could increase tensions between the French and English-speaking communities of the city, and Gamache is asked to help because he speaks better English. He has also been doing some historical research of his own in the library.

I suppose one of the reasons I like books like this is my own interest in historical research, and so mysteries of the past that have repercussions in the present are the kind of thing I like reading about. Added to that is that my wife Val’s great great grandfather, William John Green, was born in Quebec in 1790, so the city is the setting of a historical mystery that has exercised many members of the Green family for more than a century. The period is entirely different to that of the story in this book, but the setting is the same, and the book gives a feel for the city and its present inhabitants.

In addition there are some more historical threads in this book. Gamache keeps having flashbacks to an earlier case, where he feels he failed, and he sends his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, to have another look at yet another case, which he thinks may have gone wrong, in the village of Three Pines, which seems to crop up in all these novels. These cases may have been covered in a couple of the books that we haven’t read, so mentioning too many details may be spoilers for the books we haven’t read yet.

There are a couple of things about the series that become slightly annoying — Louise Penny seems to be more given to detailed descriptions of every meal the characters eat than Enid Blyton and I, for one, get a bit tired of reading yet another description of maple-cured bacon and other Canadian delicacies. But it is generally a good read.

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The cruellest month (book review)

The Cruellest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #3)The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The first one I read, Dead Cold, is the second in the series, and this one features many of the same characters in the same setting, the small village of Three Pines somewhere south of Montreal (review here).

I’m beginning to feel that there is not much I can say about this book until I’ve read more of the series, and get a picture of where things are going. I’m beginning to wonder if Three Pines is about to rival Midsomer Worthy as the murder capital of the world, despite its small size, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache trying to overtake Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders. Tom Barnaby’s exploits are chronicled in books like Written in Blood by Caroline Graham.

The other reason for wanting to read more is that in the two books I have read there seems to be a metaplot that carries over from one book to the next. In addition to solving the case at hand, Chief Inspector Armand Gamashe has to watch his back because some of his colleagues are out to get him because of an earlier case.

In this book a group of people in Three Pines decide to hold a seance, and when it proves to be a bit of an anticlimax they decide to repeat the exercise in an abandoned house that is believed to be haunted. One of the members dies during the seance, apparently of fright, though it in the post mortem examination there are indications that it could be murder.

One of the interesting things about the book is that, like the novels of Phil Rickman there are hints of supernatural forces at work. Rickman started off writing horror stories that gradually moved towards becoming whodunits. Louise Penny‘s novels seem to have the same mix. This doesn’t seem to be quite as well-researched as Rickman’s books, however. The character who leads the seance is a Wiccan, but in the book is called a Wicca, but perhaps that is a term preferred by Canadian Wiccans.

That’s enough for now — I’ll need to read more to see where the series is going.

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