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10 under rated books

10gemsThis 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”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

Review: Holiday by Stanley Middleton

holidayEver heard of Stanley Middleton? No neither had I until I started reading my way through the list of Man Booker Prize winners. He published more than 40 novels and won the Booker in 1974 with Holiday but you’d be hard pressed to find any of his books on the shelves of your local bookstore. Had it not been for the Booker prize he would simply have faded into obscurity and I would have missed a treat of a novel.

Holiday isn’t one of those books full of action or big dramatic moments. But to dismiss it on the basis that it’s a book in which nothing much happens, is unfair. The action is all inside the head of the main character,  Edwin Fisher, a university professor who takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday.

Recollections of those, not always happy, days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories of his wife from whom he has recently separated. All this is revealed in snatches as Fisher has mooches about on the promenade, sits in full clothing on a beach deckchair watching young girls sun bathing and buying them ice-cream (behaviour that today would render him more than a little suspicious), has some stilted conversations with fellow guests in an old-fashioned B&B and meets his father-in-law a few times when the latter wants to effect a reconciliation between the estranged pair. And then the holiday is over — I won’t spoil this for other readers by explaining what happens to Fisher but just don’t expect any sudden revelations or denouments.

Fisher doesn’t come across as a very likeable man initially. He feels superior to his fellow holidaymakers and is contemptuous of his father’s narrow, working class attitudes but we also sense that there is a vulnerability behind the hard exterior he shows to the world.  The memories from the past and recollections of his relationship with his wife that occur at different points during his holiday, help him to understand where his marriage went wrong and the changes he needs to make in his behaviour and attitudes in the future.

There are many finely observed scenes in this novel. Middleton does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the type of seaside holiday that was in decline by the 1980s with the advent of the cheap package holiday to Spain. And he does make Fisher more of a sympathetic figure as the novel progresses and we see the complexity of his nature. He struck me as rather a lonely figure for all his bonhomie with fellow guests and how he seemed to be more of an observer of life rather than a participant.

Verdict

A well observed study of character and reflections on love, marriage and death told in a style that doesn’t contain many flourishes but has the strength of authenticity. According to some articles written on his death in 2009, Holiday was not actually his best work so I’ll look forward to reading other books by him if I can track them down.

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