Reviews

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Blood River – A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Gripping tale about a journalist's trip down the Congo river

Blood River is the extraordinary story of journalist Tim Butcher’s brave journey down the Congo River in the footsteps of legendary H.M. Stanley. It’s the tale of  a country which has regressed, where traces of a civilisation (one built during the brutal Belgian King Leopold’s ‘reign’ of the country): train tracks, decrepit abandoned cities can be found if you scrape the earth. Fear lingers everywhere, to the extent that Congo’s inhabitants rely on the fast growing vegetable cassava as their main food, simply because they might be chased away from their homes any time.  Butcher’s passion for Congo and compassion for the Congolese shines through in his great writing. I read this book many years ago and it has stayed with me ever since and, I fear, is still as relevant today as it was in 2007. Gripping reading!

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The Truth

Palin’s eco thriller examines the Meaning of Truth

The book’s epigraph is “Truth is a very complex thing.” Indeed it is and Michael Palin’s second novel tackles that question within the world of publishing and environmental causes. Given the title of the book (and the hint in the epigraph) it is hardly a spoiler to suggest that nothing is quite what it seems. Thus the stage is set for Michael Palin’s eco-thriller, which raises some relevant questions about the definition of truth, the price of truth, and the meaning of being “true to oneself”.

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The Discreet Hero

Funny and sensual from Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa

Peruvian Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa is a rarity amongst Nobel Prize winners: a funny, accessible writer. I really enjoyed his erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother, a tale of sexual morality and loss of innocence. His latest book The Discreet Hero is a page-turning mystery story written with humour and sensuality. It probably won’t be considered Vargas Llosa’s most important book, but it’s definitively worth the read.

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The Goldfinch

A success, and enjoyable in its own right, but a disappointing Pulitzer

There has been a lot of hype about this book and some very polarising reviews. Comparisons have been made to Dickens – which likely refer more to the rather convoluted and dramatic storyline (Oliver Twist’s endless “mishaps” for example), and improbable rescues, than the style or language of writing. Donna Tart’s strength in fact is (as she has shown us with The Secret History) her ability to inhabit a younger voice with credibility and she does not fail us here, wielding her secret weapon – great dialogue – with pace and reality. We like Theo for all his self-absorption and watch the oncoming twists and falls that meet him on the way with mixed dread and hope. It is not without its faults – unlikely plotline convergences (what a coincidence!) and the last pages would have benefited from some heavy editing as it descends into syrupy philosophy (“We can’t escape who we are”) but it is nevertheless a book worth reading. From the first calamitous event, we are pulled along the roller-coaster story: gripping, achingly sad, action-packed, fateful, and very unputdownable.

 

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Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Endearing memoir that falls short of full potential

An endearing little memoir of a loyal and subservient (“my passion is to serve”) secretary’s years with Nelson Mandela. Her dedication does her credit and it is clear that ‘Madiba’ was very lucky to have found her. This is a subject of great interest and possibilities, both personally and politically, and yet it always felt like an opportunity missed with only superficial glimpses and references. This is not because La Grange chooses to include such details as his constant use of moisturiser – which she does – but because it isn’t very well written. In the hands of another writer, it is a gripping tale of an unwitting Afrikaan racist who is transformed by her exposure to this great and gentle leader. Later, as Mandela becomes infirm, it is a dreadful tale of intrigue and battle for power, of exploitation, even from his own family. Fascinating stuff but poorly told. Despite La Grange being only 44 years old, I often felt I was sitting at the feet of a rambling old dear who may have had a very interesting life but still rather sending me to sleep. If you can get beyond the writing, it is worth reading.

 

Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

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Gorsky

The seductive sounds and smells of Russian billions, Great Gatsby style

I couldn’t resist the gorgeous cover of Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky and the promise of a contemporary Great Gatsby-esque story, featuring Russian billionaires in London. Goldsworthy unashamedly follows the storyline of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great classic (one of my absolute favourites so I was a bit wary…), but it works! It works because of Goldsworthy’s beautiful writing, her succinct take on extreme wealth and our fascination with Russian oligarchs. If this book doesn’t turn into one of this summer’s big beach reads I’ll eat my hat…

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H is for Hawk

A thrillingly different nature book

H is for Hawk and H is for Helen MacDonald. An in-depth account of the author’s experience training a goshawk after the loss of a dear parent, it would indeed be correct, and natural, to categorise this book as “Nature” and “Memoir”. In the past, though, those categories have left me a little cool – (with exceptions of course) the former often too pedantic, and the latter a little too self-absorbed to regularly engender great writing. This is not the case with H is for Hawk which showcases some exceptionally sublime writing.

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God Help the Child

Veneer from venerable Morrison

It’s rare these days that I wish a book were longer, but that’s what I did with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s latest book God Help the Child (to be published on 23 April). For the wrong reasons, unfortunately. Morrison’s writing is beautiful, as always, but this novel about child abuse felt like a thin veneer of a story. One in which I constantly wanted to scratch the surface for more information.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Still good after all these years

There’s something wonderfully innocent and warm about this 1950s classic, despite its dead serious subject matter of racism. Life is simple; the goodies are good, the baddies are bad. Fundamentally, the book is about tolerance, for the lonely, weirdo neighbour, for the sick, angry, old lady down the road and, of course, for blacks, otherwise ostracised by 1930s Alabamian white society. I read this book 20 years ago and found it a joy to re-read, although my older more cynical self did think it a bit sentimental at times.

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Dept. of Speculation

Snapshots of a marriage

Jenny Offill’s little gem of a book Dept. of Speculation was on The New York Times’ list of 10 best books of 2014, and with good reason. It’s an unusual novel, written in snapshots, in much the same fragmented way our memory works. It’s the sum of those memories that create the narrative of our past or, in this case, the story of a relationship. In Dept. of Speculation, Offill tells an age-old tale in a refreshingly new way and creates something truly different.

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