This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
Narcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.
As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.
As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.
Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.
It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :
An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”
The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.
The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.
Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.
In the five years since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads and Library Thing but I never gave much thought to putting them on Amazon. It’s not that I’ve consciously ignored that site or decided to make a stand over the way they allegedly use strong arm tactics to squeeze discounts from publishers and authors. It just never occurred to me that there was any real need to post reviews or comments there.
But then I got an email from an indie publishing company late last year which has caused me to rethink my approach with books I get via NetGalley. Anne from Le French Book www.lefrenchbook.com provided a reality check on the economics of book publishing and why, for small publishing houses Amazon reviews really do matter. Apparently publishers have to pay to get their books listed on NetGalley – they give these copies away in order to promote their authors. The reviews we put on our blogs don’t bring them any income however though they are important in word of mouth promotion.
On average, there are about 260 people who click to read our titles on Netgalley. If they actually all bought the title, we could pay our Netgalley subscription, but they get it free. If we actually got 260 (or even 200, or 150, or 100) reviews online, it would have a real impact on our sales. Amazon’s algorithm would do the work.
Despite an aversion to Amazon that I’ve noticed among some bloggers, the reality is that this is the site where visibility matters. This is still the biggest market place for potential buyers, they go there in their hundreds of thousands and they use reviews to help them make decisions on which books to buy. A handful of reviews per book, simply isn’t enough for readers to start noticing – these publishing houses need well beyond 30 reviews for them to make the promotion efforts worthwhile and help them keep generating enough profit to bring out new books.
How we can help
The appeal from Le French Book is really simple. It’s just requires each of us to take these few steps:
- Visit the Amazon website page for the books we read on Netgalley.
- If you are able to buy it, the publisher would be extremely grateful
- Either way, leave an honest review of the book. Even just a few lines could make all the difference but of course a few paragraphs are even better one line or five.
- And a step that never occurred to me – if you are A UK, Canadian or Australian reader, don’t just put your review on the local version of Amazon. Cut and paste it to the US page, too (that’s the one the publisher refers to when they try to book advertising and promotions).
Not difficult is it? It doesn’t take much time but when publishers are feeling the pinch it seems only fair for us to show our appreciation of the free copies we receive.
One other thing I’ve learned from this publisher is to avoid getting over enthusiastic when requesting books from NetGalley. I have too many sitting unread on the e-reader and for every one of those, there is a cost impact on the publisher. So from now I am going to request only those books I am committed to reading. And to make sure I upload the review to Amazon.
|Now it’s over to you
Do you put reviews on Amazon? Will you consider doing so for books you get from indie publishers in the future?
Although How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia sounds like the title of a self-help book, it’s actually a work of fiction. It does however take its structure from the kind of book that is bought and opened with great anticipation and expectation only to invariably disappoint. Self-help books are a triumph of hope over reality but we still can’t seem to get enough of them because every year sees a new clutch of titles. Mohsin Hamid’s novel ridicules such books and – by implication – the people who read them and try to follow their advice.
Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. And it’s true of personal improvement books too…. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.
The 12 chapters of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are positioned as guidance for a poor, nameless, boy who wants to rise above his impoverished circumstances. Each chapter contains a lesson: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. It follows him from a child who is “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth” to a metro city which is “enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached, tropical island republic”. There he spots an opening selling bottled water. To get from a lowly job as a water delivery boy to the proprietor of his own distilling plant takes many years of effort, intuition and cunning plus some questionable practices – this is a business based initially on selling food with false eat-by dates and then selling boiled municipal water as ‘mineral water’ Over time in order to grow into our entreprenneur has to resort to bribery and extortion. All the time his heart remains set on something else: the ‘pretty girl’ from his neighbourhood whose star rises along with his. Their paths cross and recross but always she seems one step ahead of him.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in an audacious second person narrative style. Hamid says at the end of the novel that he adopted this approach because he wanted to push the boundaries of the reader-writer relationship. He sees the process of writing as a collaborative effort so for him the novel “is a self help book that is a second-person life-story that is an invitation to create. Together.”
I know some readers felt Hamid didn’t quite pull off the second person narrative voice and I don’t see how it fulfilled his objective of being a collaborative endeavour but I still loved the boldness and freshness of the style. There is a feeling of real energy about the novel, partly coming from the pace of the story – large chunks of time pass in just a few pages. Sometimes I wished Hamid had slowed down a bit to give more depth to his hero’s struggle up the greasy pole of business. It’s only in the latter chapters do we get a slower feel, when the boy is now an old man alone in the world and appreciating that he can find happiness only by relinquishing the advice of the self-help book. In essence the book’s message puts a different spin on the title – to become filthy rich as a human being means giving up on material ambitions.
Because the location is not specified (though it’s a fair bet the events take place in Hamid’s home country of Pakistan) and none of the characters have names, only generic descriptors (“the politician”; “the pretty girl”); the implication is that this is a tale which could be about anyone. The desire for wealth doesn’t apply just to Asia; aspiration is a fundamental part of human nature. There are thus – or could be – people just like them in many parts of the world going through similar experiences. The ‘you’ to whom this book’s guidance is directed could equally be ‘me’ is what Hamid seems to be suggesting. But this isn’t a book of mere polemic. Yes is does paint a portrait of the perils of a love of wealth but it’s also a warm and charming love story.
The Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid was published in 2013 by Penguin.
The Author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan though has since lived also in California, New York and London. His first novel, Moth Smoke was a riches-to-rags story about a Pakistani financier, who descends through the circles of Lahore society becomes addicted to heroin. His second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review is here), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and looked at the changing relationship between the new Pakistan and the west.
Why I read this book: Quite simply because I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The revival of interest in crime classics from the Golden Age of (the 1920s and 30s) continues unabated it seems. The British Library decision to publish hitherto neglected titles from that era was a smart move, coming just as book pundits began to detect a desire by readers to move away from dark modern thrillers. Whether the interest in the Classic Crime series (now 20 titles and growing) was really a reaction to the complexity of modern life and a yearning for the ‘simpler’ life of the past, is debatable. It may be that the interest in the Golden Age will be short lived but for now, it’s definitely on the rise.
Miss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson harks back to that era but also brings it up to date with a whodunnit trail involving espionage and a threat to national security. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of the Golden Era detective story (no locked room mystery here for example or English country house setting) but it acknowledges its heritage with multiple references to the leading practitioners of the genre like Marjorie Allingham and of course Agatha Christie.
This is the second title in a series set in the Hampstead area of London and the police station serving that suburb. It features some of the same characters of the earlier novel Death in Profile; in particular Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, the psychologist Peter Collins and Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis. It begins with the discovery of a body at an art gallery/museum, with our old friend the blunt instrument soon identified as the murder weapon. There are a few obvious suspects including the caretakers of the building though the security system was so lax anyone could have walked in from the street and done the evil deed. The police team are already struggling to make much progress when a second murder victim is discovered in the basement of an iconic apartment block which boasted illustrious tenants including Miss Agatha Christie herself. Collinson is convinced the two cases are connected even though they happened some 60 years apart. He’s also convinced Miss Christie somehow holds the key to the mystery. He’s not able to make much progress however until Special Branch begin to reveal some of their secrets. I won’t give the game away much further other than to say the trail uncovers connections that the intelligence service have sat on for decades.
It’s a plot that’s not fiendishly difficult but has enough complexity to keep me guessing until the final stages. Miss Christie Regrets has a satisfying quota of dead bodies though they happen off stage as it were and are not described in any gory detail and plenty of red herrings. Ultimately it’s a straight forward police procedural murder mystery in which the detectives reach a solution not through sudden ‘light bulb’ moments but by meticulous attention to detail and protocol. Good old fashioned detective work I suppose one could call this.
My enjoyment would have been even greater if there had been less of the police procedural element and more depth to the setting. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Isokon building which was intended as an experiment in communal living and designed in the style of the Bauhaus movement. But given that the series is named Hampstead Murders I would have expected more of a sense we were in this particular part of London. There are some occasional references to pubs or buildings like Burgh House where the first murder victim is found:
Burgh House sits rather smugly in New End Square, as if well aware of the fact that it is both one of the largest and also one of the finest houses in Hampstead.
These glimpses were tantalising. I’d hope that as this series progresses and the characters are given more depth that more emphasis is also given to portraying the unique character of Hampstead. I would have welcomed more of that element and less of the daily recaps of the investigation. Police work does involve a higher degree of routine work than TV dramas suggest but I don’t necessarily need to see that mapped out in such detail as in this novel. It made the book feel longer than it needed to be.
Overall however this was a highly readable novel and one I can see having a strong appeal to people who enjoy being challenged by the mystery of death but don’t need all the gruesome details.
The Book: Miss Christie Regrets is published January 2016 by Urbane Publications UK
The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.
Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review (which I hope this is).
The Broke and Bookish has chosen as the theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday: 10 books released in 2016 I meant to read – but didn’t. I read more contemporary fiction last year than in previous years but even then couldn’t keep up with so much that was new. Here’s my list of the ones that got away….
The Sellout by Paul Beatty – the novel that won the 2016 Booker prize. I have a signed copy awaiting me….
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: I read a sample of this when it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize and was struck by the strong voice of the narrator. It’s had mixed reviews since then but I have my own copy now so will get around to reading it. Someday..
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: I wanted to read her collection of short stories before starting on this novel but never got to finish the collection.
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello: This is an unusual choice for me because it’s essentially a story of love but it’s set in one of my favourite cities (Paris). I know from Isabel’s blog that she researched the setting extensively.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, the debut novel that ‘everyone’ seemed to be talking about last year
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet- another Booker contender. I’ve taken this out of the library twice now and each time had to return it unread. Third time lucky maybe.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I saw a number of reviews all recommending this but couldn’t get it via our library system and I don’t typically buy novels in hardcover on the grounds of cost so have been waiting for this to come out in paperback.
Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards. This account of life in the trenches of World War 1 was published in 1933. It was given fresh life last year through a new edition by the National Library of Wales
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Another popular novel from 2016 that I missed. Usually the more attention a novel gets the less likely I am to want to read it but this one refused to go away.
Human Acts by Han Kang. A very intriguing novel but before I get to this I’d better hurry up and read her earlier novel The Vegetarian
A few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of progress on my 2016 goals. It’s now well into 2017 and high time I set my goals for this year – in an attempt not to repeat the same mistakes I’ve turned for guidance to some experts.
In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that the key to success is in regular and extensive practice. Whether you want to get your golf handicap into single figures, become a chess master or perfect your language skills, it takes effort. In Gladwell’s view success would require 10,000 hours of practice in your chosen discipline or task. To support his argument, Gladwell cited the Beatles, who amassed over 10,000 hours of playing time during their club days in Hamburg, and Bill Gates, who spent a similar amount of time on computer programming.
Sadly I don’t think even if I were to find that much time I think it a bit late for me to become the net computing guru, nor am I likely to top the music charts, become principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet or become the winner of the new-look Great British Bake Off. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is still a good piece of over-arching advice for anyone setting a goal: to make any progress requires time and effort. There is absolutely no point spending hours crafting a goal and then doing little to achieve it. If I’m not 100% committed, then it shouldn’t be a goal……
Another influence on this year’s plan is an article I found in Harvard Business Review written by Dorie Clark a marketing strategist and the author of Reinventing You – a guide to how you can identify and change your professional ‘brand’. Clark says two of the biggest mistake corporations – and individuals make – when goal setting are attempting to do too much at once and then trying to stick too rigidly to the plan.
Dorie Clerk’s advice is to build in more flexibility to goals on the basis that research by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath shows that the best companies plan on a quarterly basis not annually. This shorter time frame means they can be more responsive to changes in their environment.
For individuals, says Clerk, it means that if part of the way through the year you discover your original goal is unworkable or you no longer have an interest in it, you don’t feel compelled to press on regardless. A goal that seems desirable at the beginning of the year like learning to play Mah Jong, or reading the entire sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time might seem like a terrible idea after four months. If you press on regardless it means you might miss out on an even more attractive opportunity that comes along later in the year.
The other key mistake is to be too ambitious, spreading the energy over too many projects and activities. Many of us fall into this trap where the only way to manage all the activities is to keep a To Do list – and then end up frustrated because instead of crossing stuff off, the list just seems to grow … and grow…. and grow. We’re not alone – research by a others fail to generate meaningful accomplishments because they spread their energy too thin and attempt to accomplish too much at once. A startup called iDoneThis analyzed their users’ data and discovered that 41% of the to-do list users created were never accomplished. Why? Too many items were included so the list looked overwhelming and there was little attempt at prioritisation. It was easy to knock off some things – ‘send email to xyz’ for example or ‘buy milk for tonight’ but by spending all the effort on the easy things, the harder, more rewarding activities simply never got done.
Understanding these two challenges helped me reach a decision on my 2017 goals. My mantra is encapsulated in this image….
Booker Talk’s 2017 Goals
Instead of creating an annual goal I am going for a six month plan. I’ll re-assess it at the end of June and decide on the plan for the remaining six months. And instead of a long list of goals for each half-year, I am limiting myself to just two.
Goal 1: Relish the books I own but have not yet read
I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve seen over recent weeks about the ever-expanding size of people’s ‘to be read’ collections. Mine has grown enormously since I started this blog. It’s now around the 295 mark as a result of far too many indulgent purchases last year (69 I think) and there simply isn’t enough room left to stack them all. I could see this as a problem but thats not the relationship I want with my books. So henceforth my TBR is re-named as ‘my library’ and I am going to make the most of it this year.
My goal is: Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months.
Yes it does mean in effect a ban on buying anything new but it sounds much more positive stated this way doesn’t it? Especially since I’m the kind of person when told I can’t do something, I immediately want to begin doing that very thing. My get out clause is that I have the right to borrow from the public library if anything strongly takes my fancy but I will not be requesting anything from NetGalley for a while or succumbing to deals from publishers no matter how attractive.
Goal 2: Unleash my creativity on the blog
I’ll be coming up to the fifth anniversary of this blog next month and it’s time to up the stakes. I’m bored with the way I use images on the site – there isn’t often anything very unusual about them, just a basic cover image of whatever book I am reviewing for example or a photo of the author. There’s surely more I can do…
My goal is: Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images.
And there you have it – a plan that I think is so realistic I’m confident it will be successful.
Anyone feel like joining me in this new breakthrough with your own goals?
It’s 9ºC this morning in my little corner of the world but I’m turning the thermostat down a few pegs for the first #6Degrees of 2017! Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best has chosen a mega blockbuster as the trigger for this month: The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson.
I bought this book in Detroit airport (back when the airport still had a bookshop and not the few measly news outlets that exist today). I was en route to Brazil for a business meeting, a trip that was both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I’d never been to South America before but daunting because it was my first week in a new assignment and I felt very wet behind the ears. I didn’t have much time to browse so just scanned the ‘hot titles’ shelf and recognised the book from a recent lunch conversation. Although rather unbelievable at times, it kept me amused on what proved to be a very long journey over two days.
It’s a tricky business choosing books for long journeys – make the wrong choice and you could end up with little to occupy you beyond the in flight magazine (assuming of course that you don’t have a fully loaded e-reader at your disposal). I’ve fortunately not had a disaster (yet) but I’ve had a few really good experiences, most memorably Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky -it was my first encounter with this author and it was so gripping I almost wanted the queue for immigration to go a bit slower (OK, that’s a joke but you get the point). As I stood there a guy in the parallel line to mine caught my eye and started one of those conversations that always start with ‘that’s a great book’ and meander into a list of recommendations. Unfortunately it was too much to juggle a big fat novel, my documentation, laptop bag, handbag and pen/notebook so I couldn’t jot down his recommendations. Who knows what delights I’ve missed out on as a result?
I fared rather better last summer while waiting for a medical appointment. A young Indian girl sat alongside me, noticed I was using a Kindle and started asking for my thoughts on it because she was thinking of buying one. As we chatted, talk invariably drifted into what kinds of books we both enjoyed reading – when I mentioned I’d enjoyed a few authors from her country she started rattling off a whole list of names I’d never heard of before. One of them I’m reading right now – Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. It’s set in 1970s Bombay (before the city was rebranded as Mumbai) and takes us into the darker depths of the city, into a world of opium dens and brothels. It’s rather a hallucinatory tale of prostitutes, opium ‘cookers’, pimps, alcoholic bad boy artists and addicts. Compelling if rather baffling at the moment.
I’ve never seen any of these characters on my trips to Mumbai though I recognised descriptions of how the city attracts the desperately poor who leave their barren villages in the hope of a new life only to end up sleeping on the pavements or under a road bridge. It’s a fascinating city brought superbly to life in one of my favourite non fiction books – Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. It’s a series of essays written when Mehta returned to the city of his youth after an absence of 21 years and finds a place of contradictions. Bombay, ‘the biggest, fastest, richest city in India’, is the country’s commercial, financial and entertainment hub attracting those with vast wealth and those without even enough to buy a meal a day. Mehta interviews a cross section of the population from murderous gangsters and the police who hunt them down, film stars who are feted for their roles in Bollywood productions, dancers who dream of escaping from their work in seedy bars to people who live on the streets. At times it makes very sobering reading but Mehta can also laugh at the ridiculous side of the city – he nicknames it ‘the city of no’ because no matter what you want, the first answer will always be a no.
I wish there were similar books written about some other megacities , particularly those in Japan and China, both countries which fascinate me. Historical China I’ve got a glimpse of through Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the country’s history during the twentieth century. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.
For more up to date insights I’ve relied on the detective series written by Qiu Xiaolong which I came across by accident while browsing my local library a few years ago. The books are set in Shanghai in the 1990s – the decade when the country began its momentous change into a world class economic powerhouse. All nine titles feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a poetry-quoting cop who has high levels of integrity which often bring him into conflict with the Party machinery and his bosses. Well worth reading for the insights these novels give into Chinese cuisine, architecture, history and politics.
As remarkable as Wild Swans undoubtedly is, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Chen Cao crime series, they don’t satisfy an itch I have to read something equally engaging about China in the twenty-first century. I can find lots of learned tomes but a well written, accessible non- fiction book about modern day China has so far eluded me. If anyone has some suggestions please do send them my way….
I’m going to ignore the fact this week’s Top Ten is meant to be about debut books that will be published in 2017. Since I am planning to restrict my purchasing habits for at least the first half of the year I really can’t be tempted this early on can I? Hence my list is going to be ten books that are on my wishlist that I’d dearly love to buy but will have to await their turn.
- The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. Published in 2016 I’ve seen several positive reviews for this including Kim at Reading Matters and Lisa at ANZlitlovers. Click on those links to see their reviews.
- Solea by Jean-Claude Izzo. This is the first part of his Marseilles trilogy. It’s apparently a classic of European crime fiction that was the catalyst for the foundation of an entire literary movement (Mediterranean noir). It might be the closest I get to the South of France this year 🙂
- Transoceanic Lights by S. Li tells of three families who immigrate to the US from post-Mao China. After my delightful experience with Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say we Have Nothing last year, I’m ready for another immersion in the culture of China.
- Rumours of Rain by Andre Brink. One to help deepen my knowledge of South Africa’s past. I already own another of his novels – A Dry White Season.
- All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. I read the debut novel by this Irish author (The Spinning Heart) and loved it. His latest novel has been recommended by A Life in Books and Lonesome Reader. Follow those links to see their reviews.
- Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okpranta. I wish I’d had a £1 for every time I saw this mentioned last year – either on blog sites or in ‘best of’ and ‘highly recommended’ lists but I never got around to this tale of a young girl learning to understand herself amid the turmoil of civil war in Nigeria.
- An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire. There are so many good books coming out from Australia and yet so few of them seem to be known about outside the southern hemisphere. My own knowledge of the literature from Australasia is limited to the handful of Booker prize winners so I want to rectify that. This novel which examines the aftermath of the killing of a young girl in a small town of Strathdee comes highly recommended.
- The Tower by Uwe Tellkamp. Having spent some time last year in East Germany, including Dresden, this tale of the experience of the Communist downfall caught my attention.
- Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan. This is a tale of a family set against the background of Taiwan’s history from the end of Japanese colonial rule to the decades under martial.It was nominated in the historical fiction category of the Goodreads awards 2016.
- Ru by Kim Thúy. The author based this novel on her own experience of fleeing Vietnam who has to make a new life in Canada on a boat with her family.