Let's start with the local: one of the joys of year's end is Nataniël's annual short story collection published by Human & Rousseau. He uses sketches from his performances and stories from his restless mind, and one thing you can never accuse him of is boring you.
He's left his mark on local short stories, in Afrikaans and English. The language is straightforward, the ideas fresh and entirely unexpected. Often, he takes the lead role: the unassuming chubby boy who doesn't fit in anywhere. When a woman from the area enters the classroom looking for a boy who can sit very still, the teacher points to him. The woman's reaction: “What is that? Did the children make it?” When he had to finish writing a book, someone recommended an ugly, quiet guesthouse in Cullinan that nobody ever goes to. With bad food. Of course, it's not that quiet. About one of the characters:
Bonnacasina Botha was one of the first women in our country to have her lipliner tattooed … But it was a bit too dark, so she had her eyebrows done too, and then she just went ahead and had the eyeliner done as well. Now she has to fill in everything, lips, eye sockets, eyelids, otherwise she looks like an application form. When her husband gets angry, he calls her “Sign Here”.
There is always a laugh with the tear, the absurd prevails, and the reader is struck by the strangeness of life.
Nataniël is the ambassador of diversity, the patron saint of fantasy, and a grocer of the surreal, to bend Leonard Cohen's words slightly. The enchanting worlds he creates elevate the everyday. It's the perfect gift for young and old, straight and bent.
Help, Help by Nathaniel was published by Human & Rousseau and costs R232 at Graffiti.
I read Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These, about which the Sunday Times (in the UK) enthused: “A snow globe of a story that fits a whole bustling, striving, yearning world into 114 finely wrought pages.”
She is a master of minimalism and sketches vividly and memorably. It takes place in an Irish village. The reader gets to know Bill Furlong — someone who doesn't know who his father is, who has made something of himself and is good for his family; a gentle, righteous man.
People's lives are controlled by the church and there is the monstrosity of the Magdalene Laundries, where unmarried pregnant girls had to work like slaves, after which their babies were taken away without them having any say in the matter. The last laundry was closed as recently as 1996. The reader steps into the shoes of a man who cannot live with himself if he fails to do the right thing.
It is told simply, succinctly and purely. A small masterpiece. Keegan's books have been translated into 30 languages and she has been awarded multiple times. Just listen to how it starts, like a painting or a film:
In October there were yellow trees. Then the clocks went back the hour and the long November winds came in and blew, and stripped the trees bare. In the town of New Ross, chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings before dispersing along the quays, and soon the River Barrow, dark as stout, swelled up with rain.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan was published by Faber & Faber and costs R285 at Exclusive Books.
I like crime novels because they have strong storylines. If the characterisation also happens to be brilliant, genre classification becomes incidental.
Such a book is The Lie Maker. Jack Givins is a struggling author. His first two books were well received by critics but didn't sell well. His agent tells him his third manuscript has been rejected but brings him an assignment with an above-average fee: the FBI wants to hire him to write background stories for people in its witness protection programme. It's all highly confidential, and he can't even tell his girlfriend what he's doing.
Jack is an engaging character: a good person with a dark past that the reader gradually learns about. Without giving too much away, it so happens that he is no stranger to the witness protection programme and is in search of his biological father; a dark character with dangerous enemies.
It's the kind of book that keeps you awake all night then haunts you for days. I highly recommend it. Unlike Givins, Linwood Barclay is the author of international bestsellers.
The Lie Maker by Linwood Barclay was published by HarperCollins and costs R378 at Exclusive Books.
Scales of justice
I have a weakness for courtroom dramas, especially with a jury system. It's pure theatre.
On the cover of Conviction is Lady Justice, unblindfolded, with blood on her scale and blood on her sword.
Neve Harper is a lawyer who has to defend Wade Darling — he is accused of murdering his family. Unfortunately, Neve has a dark secret that leaks out early in the book: she bludgeoned her (loving) husband to death and buried him in a shallow grave in the woods behind their house. The reader only learns why much later. Well, one suspends one's disbelief that a woman can load a man's body into her car boot and bury it in the middle of the night. Maybe he was scrawny. But she has been living for years with this skeleton in the closet. No one suspected a thing; he is still considered missing.
But someone has been watching her and knows what she did. Someone with an agenda. And a mission: ensure Wade Darling is found guilty or your secret will be exposed. It's a dilemma, but well, if you've already killed and covered it up, you can probably navigate some moral ambiguity. Except: her lawyer instincts kick in and she defends her client properly. Now what?
It's a book that rides you bareback like a nightmare and makes you wonder: what have I done, how did I end up here, and how do I get out of this life-and-death predicament?
The plot is strong and suspenseful and the characters are convincing, but, oh dear: the language editing is terrible. How does Simon & Schuster publish a book that's so riddled with grammatical and typographical errors? In my opinion, it repeatedly jolts the reader back to reality and detracts from the credibility of the story.
Conviction by Jack Jordan was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R359 at Exclusive Books.
What are we listening to?
Brandi Carlile sings The Story:
♦ VWB ♦
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