Saturday, December 30, 2017

Alive Again by Andre Eva Bosch

Alive Again by Andre Eva Bosch was a review copy that fell on my desk, so it's not necessarily a book I would have chosen to read myself, but in the spirit of fairness, I'll give this winner of the 2013 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize my best. 

Alive Again tells us the story of Nandi, a bright young girl who grows up in KaNyamazane township. Her mother is a cook by profession, and her father appears to be largely absent – doing manual labour. Her parents couldn't be more different. Her mum believes that her children should have a good education so that they can be the best that they can be, while her father is an embittered man prone to violent outbursts. (It's this strong dualistic divide between good/bad attitudes in the parents that did grate on me a bit.)

Nandi harbours dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, so she works hard towards that dream, supported by her friend Maryke and her Special Boy Bheka. And the friendships between the youngsters is all quite charming, and the budding romance is a lovely counterpoint to the Terrible Thing that Happens. I won't say more for fear of spoilers, but I'm sure savvy folks will be able to read between the lines and figure out what topic I'm skirting around.

Bosch's writing flows well and is most certainly accessible, and it's easy to see why the judges liked this story – despite the tendency to indulge in exposition, there is well-defined narrative: Despite the absolute awfulness of The Terrible Thing, this is a tale about hope and about being strong in the face of incredible adversity. Love conquers all, and all that. But. (There is going to be a "but" for those who know me well.) I personally felt that this novel verged on being too didactic and the development of the characters could have had more nuance when I compare this to novels in a similar genre. The style of the narrative is very much like a memoir, so there is more focus on Nandi's feelings and less on direct and indirect characterisation, so layering felt a bit glossed over, and there could have given a little more friction between characters as one would find in real life. As it is, the antagonist's motivations for their actions feels almost left of field, even if they are painted out from the get-go for being a horrible person. (So in that sense they're a bit two-dimensional and even though some sort of historical basis is given to justify their actions, it still didn't ring quite true with me.) 

I give that it's beyond the scope of the novel to delve too deeply into the darker aspects of the plot, but even that to me felt as if it had almost been brushed off. Granted, I suspect this story was written with the motive for providing a role model for girls who might be in a similar situation, so the transformative aspects that hinge on the Terrible Thing are focused on rather than the negative aspects. (Hence me maintaining my feeling that this story is didactic in nature – the author stating clearly about "universal messages" in the foreword is a dead giveaway, in my opinion.) I'm not certain how young readers might feel about reading a book that's been set up to deliver such an overt message. I guess that's up to individual readers, and I feel that as a devoted reader, I'm a little leery of authors who employ certain devices to progress character development and sound clarion calls for hope and courage, even if their motives come from a good place.

I can well imagine this book may be stocked in school libraries or gifted to young readers who may be in need of a bit of inspirational literature. But if you've got a teen who's into their action-packed Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons, then maybe steer clear and try to find something more to their tastes.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Anyone who finishes Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (book #2 of his Gentleman Bastard series) will understand why I muttered, “Damn it, Locke” under my breath when I reached the end of the book. As always, Lynch weaves a convoluted tale, filled with double crossings after double crossings, until unwary readers may go quite squint trying to keep up with things. And trust me when I say there were times during this novel that I wondered whether a) things could get any worse and b) how the heck the two friends were going to get out of their predicament. Which kept me turning pages, so I guess that’s half the author’s work done right there.

I will add that Lynch is one of the few fantasy authors who, in my mind, can get away with writing the kind of shallow third verging on omniscient point of view that he does. He sometimes skates dangerously close to withholding key information, but the break-neck speed of his telling at key moments means that even when he does neglect to share what Locke or Jean knows, he usually shows the rest of his hand soon enough after. So I forgive him. However I will state this much: I am difficult to please when it comes to omniscient third because so few authors get it right. Lynch gets around this by having short sub-sections per chapter, so that he cycles through characters’ points of view as and when it’s necessary, but every once in a while the author-narrator intrudes.

For fear of spoilers, I’m not going to go into a general overview of the novel, suffice to say that it starts out with Locke and Jean planning the heist to end all heists – a job that’s two years in the making as they execute their designs of the aptly named Sinspire gaming house.

The environment in which they find themselves is decadent to say the least, and I lapped up the descriptions of the people. Lynch’s world building is intricate and layered, and I’ll hazard to say that nearly every small detail is important – so take note. He does a lot of foreshadowing to get around the fact that he doesn’t immediately clue you in with the full details. You’ll know something is afoot, but not much more than that until he reveals.

Also, I went into this novel expecting one thing, and about halfway through Lynch pulled the rug from under my feet and the kind of story I thought I would be reading turned out to be something completely different. I won’t say what, but it was awesome, and fun, and he introduced me to some unforgettable characters.

Damn it, Lynch. There is The Thing that happens near the end. I won’t say what but I was gutted. Not quite to the degree that I am reading Robin Hobb, but pretty darned close. And that’s all I will say on the matter.

Getting into Red Seas Under Red Skies was not immediate, as it felt to me that there was quite a bit of setting up that happened before the story really got underway. Lynch’s style isn’t for everyone, nor is the subject matter – focus is very much on action rather than emotional layering, which he keeps close to his chest. But once I got going, I was invested, and that’s what counts. I really do love the dynamics between Locke and Jean, even if the novel tends to stagger around unexpectedly. The worst part is that I finished reading the novel while on holiday in an area where I had to walk 1km to just get cellphone signal, so at the time I couldn’t go google to see whether there’s another novel to follow up this one… Yeah, it was that sort of book. (And there are more in the series… so I’m happy)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What About Meera by ZP Dala

What About Meera by ZP Dala is one of those books I chose to read because I knew it would take me way out of my comfort zone, and not only that, but show me a slice of life I'm not privy to. Also, please just take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the cover. Just a little bit. It's even prettier when admiring the book in real life.

The blurb on the back goes on about the book being "full of black humour" and goes on about a "woman's attempts to shape her own destiny" but that makes it sound somewhat uplifting. This is, as the title, a story about Meera, an Indian South African woman who grew up on a sugar cane farm in Tongaat, but if I had to think of a subheading for the book, it would be more along the lines of "awful people being awful". And there are many awful people in this book who cross paths with Meera.

Dala digs deep beneath the skin of the South African Indian culture, examining the relationships between parents and children, wives and husbands, and the power structures that exist in communities. This is not an easy read, and truth be told, I found nothing at all humorous. Not even darkly humorous. Just crushingly dark and unrelenting – the way I like my books.

ZP's storytelling flows between past and present, sometimes digressing to show us more about the people in Meera's life and giving you an idea of what motivates them to be ... well ... the awful people doing the awful things.

I'll also have you know that I find this kind of digging under the skin absolutely lush, and some of the imagery is just perfect (like the wedding where the marigolds and human ordure accidentally met) so don't for one moment think I don't like it – I do. Even if the story is heartrending, even if you find yourself shaking your fists impotently at the situations Meera finds herself in.

At first she is passive, accepting an arranged marriage, accepting others' decisions for her, but there comes a time when the cumulative cruelty others mete out becomes too much, and Meera cracks. At first she runs back to her parents, but here she is a woman who doesn't know her place. "Go back to your husband," they keep telling her, but instead she flees to Dublin, of all places, in a desperate attempt to find something for herself.

And for a while it seems that she's doing all right, that is until she has a passionate affair with an Irishman ... which drives her to The Awful Thing. And it is awful. Truly godawful. And I find it difficult to forgive her. But I do have empathy for her. Meera is broken. Her responses are as a result of the brokenness of her upbringing and her desperate attempts to gain direction in her life (and her eventual failure to do just that).

ZP doesn't flinch from ugliness. In fact, she purposefully holds up that cracked, dirty mirror so that we may examine ourselves and how we relate to others. This is not an easy book to read, but I savoured every chapter and the fluidity of the telling that went at exactly the pace it needed to go, even when it digressed to nearly surreal moments that, I feel, did well to express Meera's desperate situation.

If you're looking for hope, for some sort of reassurance of something better, this is not your book. What About Meera is an evocative, dark existentialist fugue that revels in the brittle, broken parts of human nature; it's about the realisation that we are all, in a sense, victims of circumstances and there is no escape. It's about not getting the words to the song right, and being okay with that. And then revelling in the absurdity of life, in its short, nasty and brutish nature.