Birdseye by Maire Fisher

This is Maire Fisher’s first novel and I have been waiting for it for ten years. I know Maire, you see, and have watched her mold her writing in those brief moments she has managed to snatch out of her busy life. Although she is a friend of mine, I must assure you that I am not just giving this a positive review because of the friendship. This is truly a very readable, likeable novel that I would have read in one sitting if I had had the time.

Birdseye coverThe main character is Bird, the youngest of five children in a family that lives in an old mansion (called Marchbanks) on the cliffs above a Cape Town seaside town. On the top floor of the house lives Ma Bess, Bird’s grandmother, who never comes downstairs yet rules Marchbanks from above. She is a nasty old tyrant, reminiscent of Miss Havisham, who is beastly to all and sundry who venture into her dark bedroom. The children know all about their parents lives and love hearing about how their father wooed their mother, yet they know nothing about Ma Bess and why she lives a reclusive life.

Soon after the book starts, Bird’s 10-year-old twin brothers go missing and, in her refusal to believe that her brothers have gone forever, Bird starts a diary in which she tells her brothers what’s going on in the family so they don’t miss out it. This literary device can go horribly wrong and become tedious, but in this novel it works well and becomes a credible source through which we learn about the family – Bird has an all-seeing eye that reveals the humour, vulnerabilities and ultimately the truths about this complicated family. Maire Fisher

One of the things that I liked about this novel is that Fisher never shies away from the nasty side of life. It would be easy for her to gloss over the boys’ disappearance and to bring them back to the family for a happy ending, but she doesn’t. This gives a balance to the story and makes it more like life – filled with humour, pathos, tragedy, love and loss.

What makes this novel so delightful is, not only is it set in Cape Town, but it has a wonderfully authentic young narrator who brings a freshness to the prose. Writing from a child’s point of view is never easy – bringing in the naivety, vulnerability and honesty of a young character – and sometimes authors get it wrong, but Fisher maintains the girl’s voice throughout and by the end of the book, I wished I could hear more from her.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

This is a book about war. A first novel, it has been met with acclaim and won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, as well as the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. But ignore all the accolades and read it just for what it is because it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read and will become one of the great books about war. 

The Yellow Birds is about the US occupation of Iraq, written from the point of view of a young soldier, John Bartle. It centres around a single, tragic incident in a small village involving him, his brutal sergeant and another vulnerable soldier, Murph, and then the resultant psychological damage that John Bartle has to deal with when he returns home. The book does not try to describe the war itself, it serves to bear witness to the sensitivity of the soldiers involved and the horrific decimation of human life. The style is detached and non-sensational. It is not for the faint-hearted but everything it describes has happened in war before and will again.

ImagePowers himself spent time in Iraq as a US soldier, and this reflects in the tiny details (such as the flowers growing in a field) he includes when describing war – whatever war is, since it seems so senseless by the time you have finished reading this book. It is written in a lyrical style that brings beauty to the horrors and yet brings them alive in front of your eyes. I have already gone back and reread parts of the book because of the sparse, perfect use of words and the rhythm of his sentences.

This is an important book, and I seldom describe books as that. I think people who glorify war should be made to read it, or youngsters who are filled with a misinformed sense of nationalism. War all so pointless after all and so damaging on those involved in it. I haven’t stopped thinking about the book since I read it. Image

A few books I have read over the past year

I haven’t written on my blog for ages – life got in the way – but I have done tons of reading. When my mother was really ill, I found that I could only concentrate on short stories or magazines, and only recently have I started books again. However, here are a few that I have enjoyed over the past year. Only a few, as I can’t remember the titles of the others.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: at times confusing, this is a novel based on the question ‘what if?’. Ursula is the main character and Atkinson writes her life differently each couple of chapters. Such as, what if Ursula hadn’t got married, or what if this had happened to Ursula instead. It is brilliantly conceived, well written and Atkinson holds the plot together well.Image

Dominion by CJ Sansom: It wasn’t so much the quality of the writing that I liked in this book than the idea on which it was based – what if Germany had conquered England in World War II? A novel full of intrigue and spies, a real war story.

Ancient Life by John Banville: an exquisitely written book about a man remembering the illicit affair he had with his best friend’s mother when he was a teenager, and the same time dealing the memories of his daughter’s suicide. The first sentence says it all: “Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: not nearly as good as I thought it would be, but it was gripping nonetheless.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: this is one of those cross-over books that can be read by both teenagers and adults. It is a bit schmaltzy (about two dying teenagers), but pretty good in a tearful sort of way.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke Brunt: a wonderful tale of love, art, family life and betrayal.Image

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel brought me back to viewing Kingsolver as one of my favourite authors. Based on the flight of the Monarch butterflies from Europe to Mexico, it has a fascinatingly ‘ordinary’ main character and a good depiction of a small town affected by an outside source.

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: Part fairy tale, part love story, part family tale, this was a wonderfully poignant novel, well worth a read.

The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton: This is not the sort of book I would usually read (sports biography) but I found it utterly fascinating. Tyler Hamilton rode with Lance Armstrong in his team for Tour de France and here exposes the extent to which doping was (and probably still is) going on. Mind-blowing.

The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese: he wrote Cutting for Stone and this book is in no way similar. One of his earlier books, it is a memoir about tennis, friendships, relationships and drugs. Not as well written as Cutting for Stone, but a fascinating read.

Thinking of a Hurricane by Martinique Stilwell: why this book has not received more press, I don’t know. When Martinique was young, her father decided that their family would sail around the world, so she, her twin brother and her parents got onto a sailing boat and set off. Her parents had never sailed before. Seven years later, Martinique got off the boat and went back to school in Alberton to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. A quite extraordinary tale – I don’t know how the family survived.Image

Heft by Liz Moore: A wonderful story about the unexpected relationship between a morbidly obese professor and a teenage American football student. Poignant but an easy read.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver: although I disliked the main character (the brother) immensely, this was a fascinating look into the world of obese people and their relationships with those close to them. It is loosely based on Shriver’s own brother who died of obesity.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Simply the best book I have read over the past year. It’s long, a bit too long, but worth the read. She is a phenomenally good writer.

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: beautifully evocative story about two brothers set in India and America.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: it reminded me a bit of Gone Girl, in that I expected more from it, but it was a good gripping read nonetheless.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: Alternating between American and China, this novel focuses on a woman going in search of her father who left when she was little. Her search takes her to China, where she discovers things about her father she never knew. An easy read, but rewarding.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce: I loved this book (despite it being called Perfect, because how does one live up to that title?). In 1972, two seconds were added to time and that made all the difference in 11-year-old Byron’s life – an accident occurs that affects him and his family’s life. I’m still not sure why it was titled Perfect.Image

Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala: only read this if you like reading about death and extreme tragedy. I do, and so I was fascinated by this book (in a bit of a ghoulish way, I suppose). A mother loses her children and husband in the tsunami and this memoir relates how she overcomes what has happened to her.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: I also felt this novel went on a bit too long, but it was beautiful and tragic, as his books always are.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: As spooky and eerie as ever. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it.

Short stories: I’ve read a variety of collections, mainly by Flannery O’ Connor, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver. A great collection called Bloody Satisfied (local). This is How You Lose Her by Juno Diaz. Short stories are making a come back, at last. They are greatly under appreciated.Image

Gold by Chris Cleave

I looked forward to reading this book because I had so enjoyed Chris Cleave’s previous novels, Incendiary and Little Bee (called On The Other Hand in England). They were what I call ‘delicious’ books, ones I don’t want to put down with characters that I wanted to get to know.

ImageHis new novel, Gold, did not do that to me. I completed it and enjoyed it in a light-hearted sort of way with flashes of irritation. On the surface, it’s a book about Olympic cycling (the kind that goes round and round a track getting faster and faster). It is also about friendships, suffering, conflict, love – big issues that Cleave has written about so well in his previous novels.

The two main characters are Zoe and Kate, rivals who have become friends who are both going to go to the 2012 Olympics in London to represent Britain. Zoe is single, driven to the point of recklessness,  a smoker and drinker, one of those spiky sort of people you wonder why anyone likes her. Kate is married to Jack, also an Olympic cyclist, who is good-looking and causes Kate to wonder why he even likes her. They have a daughter who has leukaemia  and we get to know her mainly through her obsession with Star Wars (a narrative device which generally works though it did become tedious now and then). 

Neither character is particularly well depicted, although they are well stereotyped. Zoe is the bad one, a loner although obviously a sensitive soul, and Kate is the good one who has sacrificed a great deal for her daughter. It is quite unfathomable to me how Kate every gets time to train while looking after a gravely ill child, however, she seems to be able to get up to competition standards. 

Zoe and Kate’s coach, Tom, is training them for the Olympics when the Olympic Committee announces that only one athlete is allowed per flag, meaning that only of them can ride. They are so close in talent and time that not even Tom can choose. Which means there has to be a final training race to decide.

I won’t give away the twists in the plot, suffice to say the book has a happy ending, all nasty moments are forgotten and everyone is friends by the end. It also has the most beautiful cover.

It’s not a badly written book, and it’s a fairly entertaining holiday read, but don’t expect the joy of Cleave’s carefully nuanced writing that emerged in his previous two novels. The shouts on the back of the books rave about it – it will make you cry, it will make you count your blessings, it will make you good to be alive. I’m afraid it did not such things to me, other than to make me quite glad to have finished reading it.

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

This subtle debut novel has a central theme of love and loss within relationships and it told from the point of view of two characters, Alice and Daniel.

ImageAlice – a wanderer, a backpacker – returns from Mongolia to spend time with her father who is dying of cancer. Her older sisters, Tilly and Cee, are also in the house, and instantly the sibling’s dynamics start up again – Tilly is sympathetic and warm towards Alice and bakes when stressed, while Cee – a compulsive list-maker – criticises and nags her. Alice has always sensed that their father has shared a secret with her sisters that she doesn’t know about, felt a twinge of exclusion, but also a sense of being protected from that secret. Their mother died when Alice was young, when picking Alice up from her ballet lessons, an event about which Alice has carried guilt for many years. She still yearns for her ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up because he wouldn’t tell his parents about her (I want Kal. I want him to massage the soles of my feet and paint my nails.)

ImageDaniel is a homeless man, a vagrant who searches London for the daughter he has never met, the result of a year-long affair with a married woman. A synaesthete, he sees colours in letters and numbers (‘the letter A is the colour of glacier water…L is gold…I is magenta pink) and creates artistic ‘messages’ out of discarded junk which he leaves on street corners and fences for his daughter. Every year he makes a birthday card for her and posts it, fantasising that she’ll receive it (‘I write your name – I have that at least – but I don’t have an address).

Both characters are compulsive list-makers, always of ten items – this device allows for information to be conveyed to the reader in a quick, easy way, although I sometimes felt it disrupted the flow of the narrative. 

The outcome is fairly obvious, but the book never descends into sentimentality and concludes in an open-ended fashion that remains open to interpretation by the reader. 

A friend of mine found the book disappointing after the reviews she had read about it, but I enjoyed it. It is written with pathos and humour and I sympathised with both characters throughout the book.

7 Days by Deon Meyer

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Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer is one of my favourite crime writers and the rest of the world likes him too. His books have been translated into 17 languages and he has won numerous prizes in South Africa and abroad. He bases most of his books in Cape Town, which makes them more pertinent if you are familiar with Cape Town.

7 Days brings Meyer’s favourite detective back onto the scene, Benny Griessel. Benny is what a detective should be in the crime genre – a recovering alcoholic haunted by his cravings for alcohol who throws himself into his work, obsessing about whatever case he’s working on.

In this book, Griessel’s brought in by the South African Police Services when they receive an email saying: I’ll shoot a policeman every day until you arrest the murderer of Hanneke Sloet. The trouble is that the case had never been solved and the murderer of the ambitious lawyer  had never been found. Griessel is ordered to reopen the case and find the murderer.

As the sniper stays good to his word and starts shooting policemen, the pressure on Griessel mounts to solve the seemingly impenetrable case. At the same time, his tentative relationship with a former pop star grows as he promises to make sure she stays sober for her comeback.  Griessel’s investigations lead him into the worlds of corporate greed and organised crime while he tries to solve the puzzle. 

Griessel’s colleagues in the police service are well portrayed, particularly the delightful Captain Mbali Kaleni who is determined to track down the sniper.

Image7 Days is perhaps not as intricate and political as his previous novel, Thirteen Hours, but it is a fast-paced crime novel that kept me guessing to the end. 

Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson’s skill at portraying the undercurrents running beneath a family’s daily routines is superb. In Daughters of Jerusalem, she tells the story of the Lux family, who live a normal academic type of life – the father, a professor, the mother a translator, the elder daughter brainy and serious, the younger one pretty and demanding. 

But beneath this facade of normality, emotions and secrets brew and bubble until they have to spill over and break open the fragile security of the nuclear family. Jean, the mother, is bored of her life, she is sick of Oxford, hates the town and its inhabitants, and badly wants to get away. An unexpected declaration from a friend gives her a new escape from her life and in her obsession, she ignores her family.

Victor, the father, appears to be a typical absent-minded professor, yet he is insecure in his post and is desperate to be chosen to give the prestigious Spenser memorial lecture.

Eve, the elder daughter, is exquisitely portrayed as a teenager full of self-hatred and anger at the world. She is ignored in the main by her parents, who concentrate on trying to appease the younger daughter, Phoebe, and Eve resorts to desperate measures to impress her parents, like asking her father to teach her ancient Greek, or give her books on French art. She is a lonely, unhappy teenager, who cuts herself or pricks herself with her mother’s needles to be able to feel something and who plots the demise of her seemingly charmed sister.

Phoebe, the younger daughter, is flirtatious and demanding, wants attention all the time, wants a pony, gets what she wants – but she is not happy, either. She is a ‘dunce’ in an extremely clever family and she secretly drinks and takes drugs to seek distraction from family life. 

The story crescendoes when Victor’s nemesis, Raymond Snow, appears in Oxford and in some way, each member of the Lux family is affected by him. He is a noxious man, yet charming and a perfect antagonist.

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The author

Mendelson description of the character’s inner lives is brutal – she doesn’t pretty up any of it. She writes what many of us have thought, but would never say out loud. She depicts familial relationships in as honest a way as possible with all the vicious undercurrents and petty hatreds that suffuse families. Reviews talk about the Lux family being dysfunctional, yet I believe so many families function with similar pathologies – they are just never exposed until a crisis occurs.

Mendelson has written two other books and her fourth is being publishing in August this year. I look forward to it immensely.

 

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

This novel won the Arthur C Clarke Science Fiction award in 2011Image, so Lauren Beukes is getting known around the world. She has a third novel coming out soon and because she is South African, I thought I would give Zoo City a try.

I’m not a science fiction reader – I think the last one I read was Dune in the 1980s – so I cannot compare this to others in the same genre. I haven’t finished the book yet, but have to give it back to a friend soon, so thought I would just say that this book is wonderfully wild, weird, wacky and highly readable. What an imagination Lauren Beukes has. 

It is set in a dystopian Johannesburg – having grown up in Johannesburg, I was able to recognise some of the places she writes about – and the main character is a young woman called Zinzi December, who has a sloth clinging her back. Anyone who has committed a crime gets ‘animalled’, ie: becomes magically attached to an animal familiar, so criminals are instantly identifiable.Image

Each owner gets a psychic power from his/her animal, however, has to stay close to the animal or suffer extreme withdrawal symptoms. Zinzi’s power is her ability to find lost things and, in a desperate attempt to earn money and get out of Zoo City (the inner-city slum), she takes on the job of finding a missing pop star.

As I said, I haven’t finished the book, but I am overwhelmed by the originality of Beukes’ writing and the accurate depiction of humanity, albeit it in an alternate reality.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

I’m not sure how to categorise this debut novel. It’s a coming-of-age novel, yet it’s also a love story, a family tragedy, and one about friendship. It’s a wonderful book, very poignant, sad, heart-warming, although I didn’t ‘sob uncontrollably’ as one critic did.

ImageJune is 14 years old and is in love with her uncle Finn, a renowned artist. Desperately in love – she makes up any excuse to see him and believes that no one else understands her like he does. June doesn’t fit in at school, she’s a weird child who’s obsessed with medieval times and dresses funnily, and Finn provides her with a special friendship. Yet Finn is dying of AIDS and his last big project is to paint June and her sister, Greta. 

The book is set in the ’80s, when AIDS was still a taboo subject, and June’s parents are virulently against Finn’s partner, Toby, believing that he was the cause of Finn’s death by AIDS. When Finn dies, June is devastated and confused. She’s ashamed she loved her uncle in such a deep way and she hates the idea of him having a partner who she didn’t know about. 

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The author

But when a present arrives in the post from Toby for her, she reaches out to him and a fragile friendship develops between these two lonely people who both loved Finn. As she gets to know Toby, June’s eyes are opened to the fact that she was not the only one who loved Finn and misses him terribly. She slowly learns to trust Toby and to enjoy the friendship he offers her when she most needs it.

June’s relationship with her sister, Greta, worsens as Greta suspects that June has someone in her life that she doesn’t know about. June and Greta used to be very close and in the book, Greta is awful to her, mean and spiteful. Towards the end of the book, their relationship improves and we learn of Greta’s jealousy of June and Finn’s friendship. 

There is so much to this book that I can’t sum it up here in a short review. One of the side stories that I so enjoyed was to do with the painting of the two sisters that Finn finished before he died  (called Tell the Wolves I’m Home) – it is put in a safe box in the bank for the girls to go and look at when they want to. They each separately go and add little details to it – it’s secretive, poignant, and at the same time dreadful in that you know they are defacing a valuable painting. To them, though, it is a part of their uncle Finn and that’s all that matters. 

Brunt stays clear of sentimentality in the book, an admirable feat in that it is a sad story that she tells here, and she depicts June’s adolescent emotions with clarity and accuracy. Some reviewers haven’t liked how Brunt characterised June’s sister, Greta, yet I feel she created a true reflection of a sibling relationship where both children feel isolated in their own self-focused lives.

I loved this book – perhaps if I were a crier, I would have cried. It is tender and beautifully written, it’s not highly intellectual or particularly challenging, but I think it is well worth reading. 

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is a fairy tale, a beautifully written, poignant fairy tale that is tinged with sadness and wonder. 

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The novel is set in Alaska (where Ivey herself lives) and the care with which she describes the landscape exposes a deep love she must have for the land. It made me want to visit such a place, a landscape of snow in winter, running brooks in summer and wild northern hemisphere animals.

The main characters, Jack and Mabel, are a couple in their 50s who decide to go to Alaska to farm, moving away from all family and friends. Mabel had had  still-born child and she couldn’t stand the pity and the stares anymore. She had hoped she and Jack would work the land together and bond as a couple, but two years down the line, she sits at home all day in the log cabin while he works in the fields. She drowns in loneliness and longing for her dead baby, who she never saw. Her depression and grief are so deep she is virtually incapacitated, yet she leaves the home to commit suicide. The ice won’t break beneath her when she walks onto the stream, however, and she goes home, as dark inside as the winter sky.

Then it begins to snow and Mabel is entranced by the snow, she twirls gazing up at the snowflakes and, in a moment of mischievousness  she throws a snowball at Jack. They laugh and play, then decide to build a snow girl, which they clothe with a red scarf and mittens. In the morning, the scarf and mittens are gone. Mabel is reminded of a story book she had when she was young, which told the Russian tale of the snow child who came alive from a snowman and then melted when she got too close to the fire.

Then, mysteriously, Mabel sees a glimpse of a little girl, blonde-haired, running through the forest, red scarf around her neck. If, like me, you enjoy fairy tales, the story becomes a joy to read as the little girl appears at their cottage one day – a wild snow child, with white hair and delicate features. She appears only when it is winter and disappears when summer comes. Ivey writes of her so delicately that as a reader, you don’t know whether the girl is real or not. Is she a figment of Mabel’s imagination? A result, perhaps, of cabin fever and depression? Is this novel to be fantasy? She is real to Mabel and Jack – her name is Faina; she sits at their table and shares their food, gets warm. But she always leaves, running into the cold woods and disappearing. 

Then, just when I thought she was purely a product of Mabel’s desperately sad mind, Faina takes Jack deep into the woods and shows him her dead father – frozen solid, being eaten by voles. He drank himself to death and she has learned to look after herself, living off the land, killing animals for food and pelts. Yet she has an unearthly quality about her – she runs effortlessly through the snow, hardly denting the surface of it, she craves the cold, snowflakes don’t melt on her skin, she has a fox as a friend. She is ethereal.

Faina brings such joy into Mabel and Jack’s lives that they accept her coming and going, her refusal to live with them, and her feralness. They grow closer as a couple, the deep love they have emerges again. Yet, no one else ever sees Faina, and their neighbours and close friends don’t believe that she exists.

Up to this stage, I was so entranced by the story and the beauty of the setting that I couldn’t put the book down (well, the Kindle), and in fact I never wanted to through the whole book, however, the utter charm of the novel dwindled slightly when Faina became real to others (and the reader). I suppose that Ivey had to carry the plot along and do something with her characters, round off the story somehow, but I was little disappointed – but that was only a little bit and it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment. The beauty and enchantment of the story carries on right till the end with a sadness that lingers throughout the writing – for, if the Snow Child is to be like the original fairy tale, there will be loss. 

The book probably could have done with a bit of editing to tie up loose ends – for example, Jack and Mabel are described as an old couple, in their fifties, yet they had only recently lost a baby. But these are quibbles that shouldn’t stop anyone from wanting to read the book. The cynical side of me sometimes poo-pooed the fact that at one stage I was worried that Faina might well melt in front of the fire, but I shut that horrid self away and let myself enjoy the tale without judging.

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A journalist based in Alaska, this is Ivey’s first novel and she acknowledges that she based it on Arthur Ransome’s tale, Little Daughter of the Snow’. This is perhaps why the story was so familiar to me and why it made me feel like I had lived in another world for a couple of days.