Monthly Archives: November 2017

Review: Camino Island by John Grisham

Camino IslandJohn Grisham has published two dozen books since I last read him at university. His The Partner was my introduction to the thriller genre and, thinking back to the impact the brilliant twist at the end of the novel had on me, I still think I could not have asked for a better one. Twenty years on, and I still remember the shock and delight of the final revelation. Grisham had me fooled as much as the main character had been fooled by the real “partner” of the story. I read some of his other titles at the time, have watched a few of the films based on his books since then and loved all, but have not longed to return to reading Grisham until recently. The premise of Camino Island sounded too intriguing for a reader and writer like me to resist. Once again, Grisham did not disappoint.

This crime thriller is set in a world which will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been interested in the secret lives of books. How they are written, when do their manuscripts become precious and why, how do they change hands when they are published and when does their possession become a criminal offense are only some of the questions that perhaps not all readers ask themselves, but Camino Island answers in the most entertaining fashion. The story is relatively simple: the priceless manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s five only novels are stolen from the Princeton University during a nearly perfectly executed heist. The opening chapters focus on the tense choreography of the criminal plan. A single drop of blood from one of the thieves leads to the first arrests of suspects, but they refuse to talk to the authorities and the trail to the missing treasure goes dead.

The FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery Unit is doing its best to find the manuscripts insured at a value of $25 million – the amount at stake for the prestigious insurance company which has to pay out if the goods are not recovered. Working closely with the FBI, Elaine Shelby begins an investigation on their behalf. Her approach boarders on illegal, but seems to have been far more effective in the past than official routes, and her latest plan looks like it might have a chance to succeed again.

Elaine recruits Mercer Mann, the protagonist of Camino Island, to spy on Bruce Kable, a bookshop owner located on the titular island in Florida and suspected of dealing in stolen rare books and manuscripts. The Fitzgerald originals are believed to be in his hands.

Mercer is a young, talented writer with a crippling university debt to pay off and on the verge of losing her job. She has a short-story collection and a highly acclaimed novel to her name, but has been experiencing a few years of a creative drought since her last publication and is desperate to write again. To escape her predicament she agrees to help Elaine who makes her a financial offer she can hardly refuse in her situation. She returns to Camino Island where she used to visit her beloved grandmother every summer when she was a child and where she still part-owns the cottage which she inherited when the grandmother died eleven years ago. Mercer’s assignment is to start on her second novel, get close to the other writers based on the island and, most importantly, to the mysterious bookseller at the centre of the literary community. Elaine hopes that Mercer can infiltrate the island’s literary scene in time to discover whether Bruce Kable is somehow involved with the disappearance of the Fitzgerald manuscripts and whether they are indeed hidden somewhere on the island.

A cat and mouse game ensues. No one knows whom to trust and what to do. And the people initially responsible for the theft of the irreplaceable manuscripts and not apprehended by the FBI are following their own agenda. They will stop at nothing to get their share of the millions the manuscripts are estimated to be worth on the black market.

Grisham delivers what he is famous for: the ultimate page-turner. I found myself as much involved with the plot as with the lives of his fascinating characters: the struggling writer who can’t make ends meet, longing “for the freedom of facing each day with nothing to do but write her novels and stories”, but aware that she might be selling her soul to the devil in order to achieve her dream; the bookseller who knows how to charm and satisfy his customers so as not to only stay in business but to prosper; his highly successful wife who spends a lot of time in France searching for antiques she sells on to discerning American buyers and seems to have no qualms about her own or her husband’s infidelities; the two gay women known for their bestselling romance novels and their writer friend whose new manuscript promises to be a flop while alcoholism threatens to destroy him; or the sly agent working around the clock to retrieve the stolen goods as her boss is liable to cover the insurance claim in case she fails.

What I do not recollect from my initial reading of Grisham twenty or so years ago is whether the prose of the early novels was as bland as this recent offering. There was not a single exceptional sentence in Camino Island that would have made me wonder at the ingenuity of the writer. Having experienced the stylistic prowess of a thriller writer like Mick Herron in the past few months, I was particularly struck how unappealing Grisham’s was in this respect. And yet, I confess to not having been able to put the novel down. Camino Island was great fun and it made me want to catch up on my Grisham reading. Apparently his next legal thriller, The Rooster Bar, is already in the bookshops. Exciting holiday read guaranteed.

Camino Island

John Grisham

Hodder & Stoughton, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 17 November 2017.

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Review: The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

The Blessed GirlThe Blessed Girl is Angela Makholwa’s fourth novel. Although it was published only a few weeks ago, it has already gone into its second print run and I have an idea it is not going to be its last. The book sheds light on a phenomenon which has moved into the public eye in the last couple of years: the life of a blessee (usually a woman “who lives a luxurious lifestyle funded by an older, sometimes married partner in return for sexual favours” and who flashes that lifestyle on social media) and her blessers (the sponsors of that lifestyle and recipients of the sexual favours).

In interviews, Makholwa has stated that she did a lot of research into these opulent lifestyles and has spoken to people involved first-hand, even registering for a website which connects potential blessees with their blessers. The outcome is an authentic portrayal of the scene. Makholwa’s wit will make you laugh but while entertaining, she incisively delves into the much darker aspects of her story than the glitter lives of her characters would suggest on the surface. The Blessed Girl reads like chick-lit and does what the best of its kind achieve: for all its humour and light touches, it is a very serious analysis of the topic at hand.

Bontle Tau is the narrator of the novel and the blessee who seems to have it all: she is not even thirty, has the looks of a supermodel, owns her own penthouse apartment, drives a luxury car, throws money around on fancy restaurants, beauty treatments and designer goods like there is no tomorrow. She is offered business opportunities most of us can only dream of. It all comes at a price, of course. She is at the beck and call of her three main blessers who are all older, married, more or less affluent, and use her as they please. But she wants us to believe that it is all worth it, that she is the one exploiting others, not the other way around.

Bontle is not the kind of woman you would necessarily want to be friends with, and Makholwa makes sure that we know not to trust all that her protagonist is trying to sell to us, but she gives Bontle a voice that is genuine and thus allows us to care for her in a manner which surprised me. As the story progresses and Bontle’s seemingly charmed life unravels on the pages in front of us, it is nearly impossible not to feel empathy for the young woman as she makes her choices and deals with the ones forced on her. Makholwa paints a credible, moving backstory for her which explains Bontle’s position in life. It fills you with sorrow and anger. The ending of The Blessed Girl looked predictable at times, but Makholwa managed to surprise and I appreciated the unusual way Bontle’s fate unfolded. A book of our times; not to be missed.

The Blessed Girl

Angela Makholwa

Pan Macmillan, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 10 November 2017.

Angela Makholwa and Lauren Smith

Angela Makholwa and Lauren Smith at the launch of The Blessed Girl at the Book Lounge.

 

A time of feathers

HopeTraumatic events in your life have a tendency of distorting your perception of time. Accumulated layers of distress and pain can be paralysing. One of the saddest consequences of trauma is that it often becomes extremely difficult to live beyond the present moment, to imagine a future, especially a future that is kinder, filled with light. Survival mode takes a lot out of you. You have to be careful with your limited resources to simply take the next breath, to move one step forward. Just keeping still requires enormous effort.

I have been thinking a lot about my own near-inability in the last three years to make long-term plans. A year ago around this time, it felt like there was hardly any future left to look forward to. I lived from day to day, managing, coping. It is a strange state of being – when you don’t ask of a day, What good things may I expect of you? but just pray to get through it. And then, of course, the night awaits, and the morning beyond can feel like an eternity away, the darkness absolute.

Despite everything, I coped. Got on with it.

The morning always arrived. Eventually an evening in November when there was a glimmer of joy. Soon after mornings began to taste of hope.

You can never know when something happens to change it all. The small kindness, the little light. The few words which flutter with true meaning.

A year later, the past is undeniably with me; the pain might be slightly more rounder, but it hasn’t disappeared; I struggle to think about things beyond the end of this year. But, my everyday is gradually overflowing with opportunities and I have more and more strength to recognise and honour them.

Most of us do not want to just cope; we want to thrive, feel content. We want to welcome every day with a smile  to say good night, not fearing the night. We want to see the future and be able to reach for it with hands capable of holding on. Mine are still frail and tired from the burdens they have had to carry, but they are reaching out. And I plan to make the most of it.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

 

— Emily Dickinson

 

Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet by Fiona MozleyEvery year, I try to pick at least one of the titles shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and read it before the winner is announced in mid-October. This time, the novel which intrigued me the most on the list was Fiona Mozley’s debut, Elmet. The narrative draws you in from the first sentence: “I cast no shadow”, it begins, and continues in Mozley’s beautifully balanced prose that is balm for the aesthetic soul: “Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count sleepers and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid.” This kind of writing is difficult to resist.

Mozley’s story is deceptively simple: the siblings Cathy and Daniel are living with Daddy in the house he built with his own hands for the family. The land their home stands on used to belong to the children’s mysteriously elusive mother. Before Daddy reclaimed the land for them, Cathy and Daniel lived with Granny Morley and still went to school. Their parents came and went for different reasons, until one day one of them did not return. And then their grandmother died and Daddy decided to move the family to the place where their mother came from. Now, a distant neighbour takes care of the children’s schooling, but otherwise they are mostly allowed to roam free. They keep house, live off the land, drink and smoke, and fend for themselves – more or less successfully. Their Daddy used to box in illegal fights arranged by migrating travellers. He never lost. His reputation opens up possibilities, but eventually also comes to haunt him and his secluded family: “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen.”

Daniel, the younger of the siblings, is the novel’s narrator. His sister is not only older but tougher, wise and brave beyond her years. Despite the seeming neglect the children experience, there is a lot of tenderness and love in the family and there is little doubt that they do the best they can to take care of their own. The place they settle in York has an ancient history. In the novel’s epigraph Mozley quotes Ted Hughes’s Remains of Elmet: “Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom … even into the seventeenth century […it was] a sanctuary for refugees from the law”.

Elmet is remarkable for its mythical quality. The novel is obviously set in recent times in a specific landscape, but the story could have happened anytime and anywhere where those who think and live distinctly and want to carve out an existence outside the norm are hounded down and made to conform or to pay the price for their independence. From the opening paragraphs we know that something dark and dangerous is looming. Mozley builds up her narrative masterfully and when it explodes, it leaves you reeling and dazed. She did not win the coveted prize, but Elmet was a worthy contender and Mozley is a writer to keep on your literary radar.

Elmet

by Fiona Mozley

JM Originals, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 3 November 2017.