Best reads this year a mixed batch

2010-09-08 00:00

THIS is the 16th year of the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize, the annual book promotion that started life as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the solem- nities­ of high-flown literary awards.

This one aims to find a book that is unputdownable as well as being well written, the kind of book that you put in your suitcase to liven up your summer holiday. Publishers nominate titles from among those who have come out in the previous year, and then booksellers pick a shortlist based on what is generating a word- of-mouth buzz at the tills.

Around 30 South African book reviewers are presented with a pile of six shiny new books and asked to rank them in order. The winner, the one with the most support, will be announced on September 14.

This year we were given Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress; Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten; The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell; Hilary­ Mantel’s Wolf Hall (which won last year’s most solemn literary prize of them all, the Man Booker); David Nicholls’s One Day and Scott Turow’s Innocent.

It’s a good, meaty pile, although I would have liked to see something local­ in there as well. But there should be something in it for most readers, whether they are after thrillers, romance­ or history. Here is what I made of them, starting with my winner and going downhill from there.

One Day

David Nicholls

Hodder

DAVID Nicholls has been pigeonholed as a comic writer, but that underestimates him. Yes, he is often laugh-out-loud funny, but the beautifully written One Day is also moving, sometimes very moving, and his characters, Dexter and Emma, don’t just lurch from one comic setpiece to another. They grow.

We first meet them in 1988 when they are graduating from university and get together for a steamy graduation night. And then we see them, year by year, on the anniversary of that event as they go their separate ways.

She is prickly, lefty and intense; he’s a weak, charming rogue and their lives, like most people’s, don’t quite live up to those heady graduation dreams. But there is something between them that never goes away. They don’t always like each other, but they will always love each other, even as they find other people and live other lives. It’s the kind of romance we all need and it’s a lovely, satisfying read. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, but I thought it was terrific. (1)

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate

LAST year’s Man Booker winner, showing that really classy writing can make even the snooty literary establishment nod to a historical novel, is something it would usually dismiss as genre fiction.

Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell, one of history’s villains, and makes him a fascinating and appealing, if ruthless, central character. The book is written throughout in the present tense, which allows it to retain dramatic tension, even though we know where poor old Cromwell is going to end up.

Mantel is going to follow Wolf Hall up with a second novel taking Cromwell further — presumably to the block — and I for one can’t wait. But whether its appeal in South Africa is going to equal its appeal in Britain, I’m not sure. When all is said and done, it is about English Tudor history, brilliant writing notwithstanding. That’s the only reason it’s not my winner (although One Day would have taken some beating). (2)

The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell

Harvill Secker

A GRIPPING thriller, part murder story­, part scary look into what China is up to in Africa.

A massacre in a remote Swedish village convulses the country. And Helsingborg judge Birgitta Roslin realises she has a connection to some of the victims. It’s a connection that links back to the 19th century, and a large section of the book takes the reader into the lives of Chinese peasants, forced by the economic meltdown of their own country to become virtual slaves working on the westward expansion of the railway in Athe United States.

Mankell ratchets up the tension when Roslin finds herself in China. She is anxious to follow up on what she has discovered about the massacre, despite a lack of interest in her findings from the police back home.

It’s good, but I had a problem with Roslin’s irritating dreariness as a heroine­. My other quibble, and it’s one I’ve had with Mankell’s books in the past, is that in places the translation clunks — enough to make you pause. (3)

Innocent

Scott Turow

Pan Macmillan

Back in the mists of the eighties that we lapped up Presumed Innocent, and then went off to see Harrison Ford and Raul Julia in the film version. Now Scott Turow has picked up the lives of his characters almost 30 years on.

The novel opens with Judge Rusty Sabich, who was charged with the murder of his lover in the earlier book, sitting beside the body of his dead wife. He is the obvious suspect in what begins to look like another murder.

The previous cast is reassembled — Rusty, his son, Sandy Stern, Tommy Molto (who seems to have suffered something of a personality sea change). Turow again makes them all interesting and Innocent is an enjoyable thriller, but I found the construction creaking a bit at the joints, and the whole concept not as much of a tour de force as it once was.

Perhaps the main appeal is a nostalgic interest in the characters. If you haven’t read Presumed Innocent, I’m not sure Innocent would grab you. (4)

The Postmistress

Sarah Blake

Viking

HOW many of us still keep in touch by letter — those things that are handwritten, have a stamp stuck on the corner and are delivered by a postman? Not too many, I’d guess.

Sarah Blake’s novel is set during World War 2, when letters and radio were the main means of communication, and her three central characters are Frankie, a radio reporter telling Americans what is happening in the Blitz in London; Iris, a postmistress in a small United States town; and Emma, the young wife of the local doctor­.

There are two love stories — Iris and local handyman Harry, and Emma and Will, who leaves his practice to go and work in the Blitz. Blake tells a good tale, with Frankie’s exploits in war-ravaged Europe perhaps the most gripping part. There’s some over-lush prose as the lives of the three women intersect, but it’s a book that holds the reader’s interest. (5)

Valeria’s Last Stand

Mark Fitten

Bloomsbury

RIGHT from the first page, I found myself having a problem with this one. The author tries so hard to be cutesy, warm, magical and generally appealing that I found myself mildly nauseated. Which was a pity, because there are some good things in there as well.

The story is set in a remote Hungarian village, where the population is coming to terms with life after Communism — that’s one of the good bits. Valeria is a grumpy old woman, but finds herself falling for the local potter whom the raunchy Ibolya, who runs the local pub, considers her property.

Add a cast of oh-so comic locals, and a travelling chimney sweep (shades of Mary Poppins), and you have the ingredients for a confection that will either enchant or turn your stomach. For me, sadly, it was the latter­. (6)

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