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Tea-drinking introvert found either behind a book or within arm's reach of one. Book reviewer, and book sniffer. You may have seen me on W24, BooksLive, Aerodrome, Bark Magazine, CultNoise Magazine, or Expound Magazine.

28 Nov 2019

Review: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Nearly a decade has passed since we last saw Lyra Silvertongue. Still at Oxford (now a student and no longer a pixie-like child getting into trouble and haunting the corridors), Lyra’s life has become a blur of books and study. In addition to changing the way she sees the world or expresses her opinions, years of study have made her a more timid version of her younger self. Her burning curiosity seems to have been stoppered by paper. In contrast, Pan yearns to rekindle their imagination; their lust for exploration and discovery. While the two remain at an awkward impasse, the tension reaches breaking point, until Pan – frustrated and worried – leaves Lyra to find a solution. In Lyra’s search to recover him, she is once again thrown into danger and excitement. Travelling across the world in search of her soul mate, Lyra begins to learn about her past, and the importance of believing in the secret commonwealth – the world of all things fantastic and magical.  

Pullman is a master story weaver – many delicate threads from a myriad minor tales merge into a single, glorious tapestry of adventure. His latest offering is also by far the most mature, featuring (for the first time) an entirely adult cast, and with dark overtones and internal struggles that are reflective of adulthood – noticeable from the use of profanity, to the tense situations that are explored and prodded. The Secret Commonwealth demands a mature reader who is not afraid to face the shadowy places in society. Reading this book is like diving into the minds and experiences of Lyra and Pan, who have problems far more pressing yet far less fantastic than their childhood ever featured. The void left by Pullman’s previous offerings of faeries, angels, talking bears, and witches is now filled with the grizzly reality of adulthood – cynicism, politics, existential crises and assaults on the body and mind.

Despite the prolific danger and darkness throughout the pages, there remains an element of hope and beauty characteristic of Pullman’s style. The Secret Commonwealth contains the possibility of forgiveness of sins, the potential for a love story, and small acts of kindness that serve to renew faith in (literary) humanity. In short, this novel covers all the bases, and is an emotional and intellectual triumph.

My only complaint about this book is the ending – it came too soon, and I am already anxious at the idea of a long wait before the next volume. Cliffhanger? Really, Mr Pullman; you’re a tease.  

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman is published by David Fickling Books, and is available in South Africa from Penguin Random House South Africa.

16 Nov 2019

Review: The Institute by Stephen King

Luke is a smart kid. So smart, in fact, that he’s been accepted to start at two universities, simultaneously, despite only being 12 years old. However, after just sitting for his SATs, and with a brilliant path mapped out before him, everything changes. In the middle of a perfectly ordinary night, Luke’s parents are murdered, and he is kidnapped. When he wakes, everything seems normal until he realizes that he is not, in fact, in his bedroom. On the contrary, he is in a strange room designed to look like his bedroom, but with a few key differences. Luke is now a resident of The Institute.

Luke soon learns that he and his fellow young captives are part of a secret programme which was designed to test for and enhance the psychic abilities of American youths. Despite its long history, it remains unclear who runs The Institute, and why. Using his extreme intelligence, Luke decides to escape, and ensure that The Institute is closed down.

Often, I find that stories with young protagonists fall victim to a fatal flaw which can cause a narrative to be jarring and unnatural - the presence of the writer. When literary pre-teens think, speak, and act more like the forty-something year old writing the story than any young person you’re likely to meet, it shatters the easy belief in fiction. However, King has found a clever way to circumvent this hitch and make hs story believable, through a kid with an IQ that’s through the roof. It’s easier to believe that a 12-year old could outsmart and bring down a programme run by scientists because he’s a genius, and not as a result of luck, or media-induced precociousness.

With a reliable, albeit young, character in place, it becomes easier for the reader to suspend their disbelief throughout the rest of Mr King’s latest offering – a necessary prerequisite, as King shows once again that he’s royalty when it comes to supernatural fiction.

The Institute is an all-systems-go adventure from the first page. In this world, children fall victim to the fight between good versus evil, being used as pawns in a battle beyond their grasp. While King makes us voyeur to abuses, torture and neglect of the children within The Institute, he forces us to reflect on the myriad damaging beliefs that we subject each other to on a daily basis. As the humanity of the children is slowly eroded, one can’t help but notice that the line between scientist and monster is slowly blurred, banishing traditional notions of black and white, wrong and right, good and evil, into an indeterminate grey soup.

In true Stephen King style, The Institute is creepy, thought-provoking and just a little too close to home to be easily dismissed as pure fantasy. In short; it’s a treat that’s bound to sew a seed of suspicion, and get you thinking.

The Institute by Stephen King is published by Hodder & Stoughton, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

14 Nov 2019

Review: Night for Day by Patrick Flanery

Hollywood in the 1950s was the embodiment of sunshine and spectacle; a true golden age. To ensure the continuous glitter, movies stuck to safe names and safe narratives – a formulaic approach that stifled the creative buzz of writers like Desmond Frank. Yet the charade of perfection that Hollywood demands is not all that is slowly suffocating Desmond. In an era when homosexuality, communism, and atheism are considered taboo, and often punishable by law, Desmond has to hide so much of himself, that he has no choice but to leave Hollywood in order to finally, and fully, be himself.

Desmond’s departure is abrupt and ugly. While his career crashes around him and he panics about the future, he abandons his lover, painfully severing everything that held the pair together. Now, half a decade later and thousands of miles away, Desmond attempts to explain his actions, using the only method he knows; writing. In retelling his story as a justification and heartfelt plea for forgiveness, Desmond Frank allows us to survey his life, and the America of the past.

There are so many aspects of this book that are just right. The seamless transitions between time, space, and medium are delightful, and so engrossing. This is a multi-level story with multiple narratives and yet the flow and ambiance are perfection. Apart from an impressive literary tool which has been the downfall of many other writers, Flanery uses his collection of texts to illustrate the sharp contrasts that permeate our life. The use of dual timelines is a clever manner of showing how much society has progressed, yet simultaneously stagnated. Where Desmond’s past necessitated hiding who he was for fear of repercussions, his present requires concealment in other regards.

Night for Day employs an ingenious manner of examining biases and oppression with regard to gender, sexuality, politics, race and religion, across both time and space. It highlights all that has changed, and all that still needs to change within the divisions of society. It is a rare treat to have a book with a poignant message that nevertheless ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable read. The only downside to reading this book is the inevitable wrist cramp – it’s a whopper at nearly 700 pages, but what a joy each page contains.

Night for Day by Patrick Flanery is published by Atlantic Books, and is available in South Africa from Penguin Random House South Africa.

4 Nov 2019

Review: Corrupt Bodies by Peter Everett

In the 1970s, minor actor Peter Everett decided he needed a change. In his 30s and with acting prospects at a worrying low, he decided to take the plunge into death. Determined to follow his passions, Everett decided to seek a job at a mortuary. Despite having no experience or qualifications behind his name, this proved easier than many current job seekers would expect. Needless to say, the first day in a mortuary confirmed that Everett had found his niche. Fast forward a few years, and he’s added to his experience with the right qualifications, and is set to be the Superintendent of Southwark Mortuary.

Having been at the helm of one of the UK’s busiest mortuaries, you would expect stories akin to those of your favourite TV show (cough, cough, CSI) – capable professionals uncovering microscopic clues to solve cases, and putting the dead to rest amid a puffy cloud of righteous justice. However, after reading Corrupt Bodies, you will unfortunately discover that the going on at a mortuary are far from the justice-soaked corridors that Hollywood would have you believe.

Everett’s position at Southwark was not coveted – in fact, it soon became apparent to him that the morgue was in a great deal of trouble. With bodies being robbed, disappearing, or incorrectly cremated or buried, the only thing in the Southwark corridors were whispers of dodgy dealings. Through incredible hard work, determination, and perseverance, Everett managed to transform Southwark into a crime-free zone. However, the process was not without casualties – in unveiling the criminality at his own mortuary, Everett accidentally stumbled onto a far larger scandal. Mortuaries across the country were implicated in fraud, theft, and malpractice, and it was all due to the Superintendent at Southwark.

Everett’s story is captivating, scandalous, and thrilling in equal parts. He has an undeniable talent as a story-teller, making the macabre and the morally cloudy both fascinating and incredibly educational. Corrupt Bodies is an adventure into the dark world behind death, and the terrible acts committed when one turns a blind eye; the dead are silent no more – they have a  voice, in the form of Peter Everett.

Corrupt Bodies by Peter Everett is published by Icon, an imprint of Faber & Faber, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2 Nov 2019

Review: Death on the Limpopo by Sally Andrew

On a Friday in midwinter in the Karoo, Tannie Maria and the staff at the Gazette receive a surprise in the form of Zaba Kani, a Daily Maverick reporter sent to Africanise the paper. Zaba Kani is renowned for her hard-hitting investigative stories, which have earned her threats and awards in equal measure. For that reason, it is even more surprising that Zaba wants to start her work at the Gazette with the cookery and advice column penned by Maria. However, Zaba’s posting is really a front for a new story, involving politics, history, murder, and Tannie Maria.

Strap yourself in, because you’ll be joining Maria and Zaba on an epic journey from the Karoo to the Limpopo in search of answers, in true Tannie Maria style – danger, discovery, and padkos.

Sally Andrews has an unparalleled talent for combining a handful of seemingly unconnected stories into a feast for any reader. Death on the Limpopo is reminiscent of a series of short stories with a central theme, and boy, is that theme a whopper. A clever mixture of crime thriller, with romance, history, social dilemmas and an unavoidable South African flair, Death on the Limpopo is an unexpected and thrilling journey from the start. The third book in a series, Death on the Limpopo answers many of our questions about our favourite Tannie, and addresses important aspects of modern South Africa.

Wielder of the red herring and distractor extraordinaire, don’t let this writer distract you from the mystery with her sneaky food obsession. Be strong; put aside the tantalizing images of mouth-watering desserts and treats and join Maria on another epic adventure across the country as she connects her own history to that of her country.

Death on the Limpopo by Sally Andrew is published by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa.