Wonder by R.J. Palacio

wonderbanner.jpg“I’m just me. An ordinary kid.
But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s okay. I’ll take it.
I didn’t destroy a Deathstar or anything like that, but I did just get through the fifth grade.
And that’s not easy, even if you’re not me.”

 
Deviating quite a bit from the heavy, serious fare I’ve been devouring lately, this melt-your-heart sweet and touching novel was just what I needed to lighten up an otherwise blue week. It’s an endearing, lighthearted read that had me in stitches as often as in tears.

August Pullman is, in his own words, just an ordinary kid. He loves Star Wars, science, his dog Daisy and lives with his older sister Via, his mom, and dad. And this year he will be starting middle school. All of which is perfectly ordinary, only Auggie has not been dealt the kindest hand. He was born with severe facial abnormalities and, at ten years old, he has become accustomed to curious stares and often rude comments. Navigating middle school will be as much a challenge as a new adventure.

I adored the characters in this book. It’s a quick read with short chapters, easy to breeze through on a lazy afternoon. We get to experience Auggie’s story through various perspectives, each distinct and wonderfully written. I usually balk at kid narrators, but Palacio’s cast is so relatable and compelling, it’s impossible not to be enchanted. From kind-hearted Summer, best friend Jack Will, unfortunately named but encouraging Principal Tushman, to class bully Julian – each character’s life is touched and changed by the courageous Auggie. I admired the spirit with which Auggie tackles whatever comes his way – he is often humorous, always honest. There are lessons to be learned, perceptions to be challenged and Auggie himself finds that while encountering jerks is inevitable, kindness and respect always win out in the end.

I think this is one of those books that everyone needs to read at least once. It’s told with heart-warming empathy and sincerity, with the importance of friendship, family and compassion at its centre. I dare you to read this and not feel uplifted and inspired by Auggie’s story. He truly is an unforgettable, extraordinary middle schooler.

Recommended if you’re in the mood for a brave, feel-good read that will change your every perspective. Remember to keep those tissues handy.

Eye of the Bookholder – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Unknown Artist

“We all have such fateful objects — it may be a recurrent landscape in one case, a number in another — carefully chosen by the gods to attract events of specific significance for us: here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane’s heart always break.”

“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.”

“I shall be dumped where the weed decays. And the rest is rust and stardust.”

 

Where images are uncredited, I was unable to trace them to their original designer. Should anyone know who the relevant artist is, please let me know and I will add a credit.

Coconut by Kopano Matlwa

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“I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell.”

So reads the epilogue to this thought-provoking portrait of what it means to be young and black in modern South Africa. But the story that precedes it is not boring or plain in the least. It’s achingly familiar, candid and unforgettable.

The book is divided into two parts, each a snapshot of a Sunday in the lives of two very different young women, Ofilwe and Fikile. Interspersed are memories, instances and conversations that have shaped their view of the world and, more importantly, what they perceive to be their place in it. Matlwa writes frankly an intimately and her characters are vividly brought to life – no easy feat in a book just under 200 pages. I felt for the young Ofilwe – rich, pampered yet desperate to fit in with her white friends and being both included and excluded in the social circle she yearns to belong to. Fikile too, a waitress from the townships who knows hardship and lives a life the complete opposite of Ofilwe’s, wants to escape more than just poverty. Her words “I am not one of you, I want to tell them. Some day you will see me drive past here in a sleek air-conditioned car, and I will roll up my windows if you try to come near me, because I am not one of you. You are poor and black and I am rich and brown” encapsulates both their sentiments. Their crisis of self and views of society are challenged and changed throughout the novel and I think both girls and the reader come away thinking of the world around them a little differently.

This is a novel which describes a loss of culture and identity, the price of longing to be accepted and fit in, and the sting of racism sometimes subtle, often not. But it is also a captivating story of growing up and finding oneself. A grand and important coming-of-age told by an impressive young writer.

Eye of the Bookholder – Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

As plenty of bookworms, I imagine, I am guilty of judging books by their covers. If I’ve fallen in love with a pretty cover, I am almost guaranteed to add it to my collection. I am also frequently stumbling upon brilliantly reimagined covers by freelance artists, which I feel sometimes capture the character of a book much more intimately than the originally published jacket, and wanted to start a weekly post showcasing my favourite finds. Starting off with an old favourite of mine – Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.

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“I lived like a man who wanted to die but who had no courage to do it himself. I walked black streets and alleys alone; I passed out in cabarets. I backed out of two duels more from apathy than cowardice and truly wished to be murdered. And then I was attacked. It might have been anyone – and my invitation was open to sailors, thieves, maniacs, anyone.
But it was a vampire.
He caught me just a few steps from my door one night and left me for dead, or so I thought.”

Book jacket recreated by Simon Povey.

The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund

thecrowgirlbanner.jpg“Don’t take my hate away. It’s the only thing I’ve got.”

This novel is like a cold shock of ice to the psyche.  A deeply complex and disturbing psychological thriller not recommended for the faint of heart. It starts with the gruesome discovery of a young boy’s mummified body and ultimately unravels as a cruel web of sadism and depravity.

Don’t get me wrong – this is definitely one of the best crime thrillers I’ve read this year. The writing is excellent. It was originally published as a trilogy written under a pseudonym by Swedish duo Jerker Erikson and Hakan Sundquist. And the hefty 750-page translation by Neil Smith doesn’t miss a beat. It echoes the skilful plotting of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and reminded me why I am such a fan of the Scandi-crime genre.

Its protagonists are superbly drawn. At the helm is superintendent detective Jeanette Kihlberg, torn between her career and family, already familiar with the murkiest of humankind, and now pulled into an increasingly unsettling case of sadistic murders and depravity. Her path crosses with the intriguing Sofia Zetterlund, a psychologist dealing with child abuse cases, who is soon revealed to have disquieting secrets of her own.  The novel’s darker edges are haunted by Victoria Bergman, by far the most compelling of its characters; her world is lurid and conjures our worst nightmares.

The plot is taut and unrelenting; it’s hardly ever what it seems and even in its final chapters it reveals ever more grisly details. And while the book is never gratuitous in its themes of child abuse, paedophilia and psychological disorders, it does inflict a sour aftertaste and a desire to leave the light on at bedtime. What it implies is often more horrific than what is written on the page. This is a book that plays with your perception and deceives as frequently as it terrifies. Heart-stopping stuff.

But the subject matter and frequent plot twists do require a resilient reader. After spending just under a month in the den of The Crow Girl, I myself am in need of sunnier reading material. By the end of it, I felt just as tense and emotionally drained as I imagined its characters feeling throughout.

An intense portrait of the human psyche gone terribly wrong.

And one to read with caution.

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”

Fair warning, this post contains spoilers for both the book and Netflix series adaptation, as well as potentially triggering subject matter.

About a month ago I flipped through Netflix, selected a series entitled 13 Reasons Why and binge watched the entire thing in a day and a half. Afterwards, I switched off the television and I cried. Two weeks ago, I read the book that inspired the series in a single afternoon. I turned the final page and wept.

If you haven’t been following the internet storm around Jay Asher’s powerful YA novel and its television adaptation, it centres on 13 tapes recorded by 17-year-old Hannah Baker prior to her suicide. Each tape involves a specific person who Hannah feels played a role in her tragic decision, and as per her instruction, the tapes are passed from one person to the next. This very dark premise touches on themes of high school bullying, slut-shaming, rape, the meaning of consent and the tragedy of teen suicide. It never shies away from presenting its subject matter in the most raw, honest and straightforward way possible. This approach has also garnered more than its fair share of criticism. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find article after article debating whether the series glamorises suicide. For myself, reading about and watching a young girl silently sink deeper and deeper into what we know from the get-go is an inevitability, was nothing less than harrowing.

Because I have been a Hannah Baker.
I kept quiet while being severely bullied in school. I simply relented, never fought back. The shy, silent target. Easy.
I stood quietly while being sexually abused. I still often wonder whether he took my silence for some perverted form of agreement, and I don’t think the cloying shame that week left me with will ever quite fade.
I sat silently on my bed while my mind conjured scenarios in which I would have taken my own life in an angry, vindictive manner. Because then they would finally see and hear what I couldn’t show or tell them.

I relate to Hannah’s nightmare. There was never anything glamorous or heroic about my thoughts. They were a sticky tar of shame and fear which I am infinitely grateful I never gave in to. I feel that I should add that what kept me going throughout those years was writing – for many people a refuge and a therapy – and reading about girls who went through the same things I did. I was still silent, but I was not alone after all and imagination kept the darkness at bay. Although, at 30, I am yet to tame it and I do note that speaking up and getting professional help would have helped me heal a lot more successfully. But I am here, and for now, that is enough.

When you read Jay Asher’s book, Hannah’s voice is initially angry, bitter and you may suspect that she made her decision out of spite. But as you continue – as she talks about having her reputation scandalized by rumour, being objectified and ridiculed, watching a girl get raped by her boyfriend’s best friend and being raped herself – there is an undeniable sadness and desperation, a longing to be heard and helped. In the Netflix series, her suicide is graphic, almost sickening because it seems so real. But it is in no way glamorous. In both adaptations the effect on her classmates is brutal; they are left with guilt as to their perceived part in her decision and forced to confront their own actions, which iterate the devastation felt by those left behind. It is never a pretty act.

And it is this, the controversy surrounding this story, the shame and silence of its characters, their failure to hear or see Hannah’s need, that makes this a book and series we should be watching and reading. Because Hannah’s story ends in tragedy, we need to pay more attention. Because she failed to get the help she so badly needed, we need to look deeper and listen closer. Because Hannah’s ordeal belongs to all of us – we have been her, or we are her now, or we have sensed her in the silence of someone close to us. And we need to be the person who asks “are you okay?”, and then we need to be the person who listens when the answer is “no”.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahbanner.jpg“There was cement in her soul.
It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

No one turns a phrase quite like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I fell in love with her writing when I read Half Of A Yellow Sun last year and this year I finally cracked open my long-owned copy of Americanah after the book was selected for the One Book, One New York campaign – a brilliant initiative, which I hope will spread to all cities, towns, continents – and joined in from half a world away.

Americanah centres on Ifemelu and Obinze, one-time lovers, who depart a Nigeria choked by the grip of military rule, and head to the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Obinze is soon deported from the UK as an illegal immigrant, but Ifemelu remains in the States, finding love and carving out a life for herself before returning home to Nigeria, jaded and homesick. I rather wished that Obinze’s story would have had a bit more substance, as the chapters focussing on his life post-Ifemelu is rather sparse. But this is a small annoyance as Adichie brings Ifemelu’s story so brilliantly to life.

We see Ifemelu first as a poor college student living hand-to-mouth in a country so alien to her own, rudely awakened to what it means to be Black for the first time. Later, when she becomes a successful blogger, she refers to this in a post, saying:

“We all wish 
race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

And while she grapples with what race and racism entails – the novel’s central themes – she explores the intricacies of love, sex, body image and hair politics. I loved Ifemelu for her boldness and strength. She is often flawed and intensely human in her decision making and provocative in her opinions which makes her a very relatable protagonist. The novel is also uniquely interspersed with Ifemelu’s blog posts and I found her observations very insightful – read this novel, if only for those posts!

Life in the States grows and changes her and when she is once again on African soil and reunited with Obinze, changed by his own experiences, their love holds new and unexpected challenges. Theirs is a happy ending, but almost at the expense of their moral fibre and I wondered if a less world-weary Ifemelu and Obinze would have made different decisions.

Much more than a love story, this novel is one that educates as it entertains, with its characters delivering piercing social commentary. Adichie is blunt in her delivery, her writing is superb and time and again challenges the reader to ponder themes of identity and belonging.

Highly recommended.

The Returned by Jason Mott

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“People and events of wonder and magic are the lifeblood of the world.”

Just about 300 pages into this beautifully written but ultimately disappointing novel, a mere 140 pages from the end, I decided to cut my losses (three weeks of reading time) and move on to other things.

I ached to love this book. It’s been sitting on my TBR for years and the premise sounds fantastic: all over the world the dead are returning to the living world, just the same as when they died, but touched by a certain oddness the “true living” can sense a mile away. The story centres on Arcadia, a small town nestled in the American Southern Bible Belt and mainly on an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille whose 8-year-old son, Jacob, returns to their lives 50 years after drowning. There are plenty of other interesting characters included in the plot: a priest longing to make contact with his 15-year-old high school sweetheart, no longer dead; a family who was brutally murdered several years before and whose return causes tension within the community; a still grieving husband whose sorrow turns to dangerous envy when he is unable to find his wife among the Returned. With the town mystified, new laws dictating that the Returned may not leave their homes and subsequent offenders arrested and placed in a prison camp of sorts, I was gearing up for a thrilling experience.

But while the characters grappled with their loved ones coming back from the dead, I grappled with finding meaning in the story. I just couldn’t relate. The plot moves at a painful crawl and at the time of my decision to abandon the book completely, I had spent plenty of pages patiently waiting for something worthwhile to happen. I found myself longing to connect with the people of that small town – both living and Returned – but the characters felt hollow and ultimately I simply didn’t care for them enough to continue. A quick Google search (I had several unanswered questions) told me everything I needed to know about how events finally play out, and I am quite happy that I left off where I did.

Nevertheless, I will be keeping an eye out for Jason Mott in the future. Although this debut did not appeal to me, I found his writing to be striking. His career as a poet certainly shines through in how he turns a phrase.

Not quite recommended, but worth a peek.

I have since discovered a Netflix series by the same name and somewhat similar plot and am now getting ready to plop down on the sofa, overindulge in snacks, and watch the heck out of it. Seems the returned dead is not quite done with me just yet.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

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“She holds the phone to her mouth and starts speaking.”

If you regularly dredge the depths of the internet searching for just the right sort of uncanny, you’ve probably stumbled upon or heard of Eric Heisserer’s quite genius The Dionaea House; a viral internet-told story that is brilliant not only for its disturbingly realistic seeming tale, but also its epistolary delivery – it is told through emails, blog posts and other correspondence by a set of characters linked in some way or another to the mysterious Dionaea House. Its setup is elaborate and definitely worth checking out. Now, not to digress too wildly from the title I should be reviewing: as soon as I finished the first chapter of South African author Sarah Lotz’s The Three, I knew I would devour the rest of the book and most likely love it – it has the same intricate, layered construct as that viral online story I enjoyed so much. And that same brand of subtle creep.

A fair bit of warning: if you require your book plots to be neatly stitched together with no loose ends, this book will most likely have you tearing your hair out in pure frustration. Though there is a bit of explanation for the story’s events towards the end, it’s still left up to the reader to decide whether what they’ve been told is true. Also, even though it is described as “horror”, I would rather categorise it as a creepy thriller. It delivers its scares in more of a chewing your fingernails to the quick, way, than genuine bolting for the door terror.

Its concept is compelling and imaginative. On what soon becomes known as Black Thursday, four passenger planes crash within hours of each other, on four different continents. There are only four known survivors – on American soil, a little boy named Bobby, in Europe a young girl by the name of Jessica, and in Japan, an American named Pamela May Donald (who dies shortly after the crash) and a Japanese boy, Hiro. The fourth plane plummets to its doom in the township Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, and in the resulting chaos, no one immediately suspects any survivors.  Not only are investigators and the general public flabbergasted by the fact that three children survived the horrific crashes, but when it is revealed that Pamela left a chilling cell phone recording in her final minutes hinting at the Japanese boy as a sinister, supernatural entity, the press and conspiracy theorists have a field day.

What happens after is told in a book-within-a-book style through a compilation of interviews with the children’s (dubbed by the international media as The Three) guardians, friends of the families, those who suspect alien involvement and religious fanatics who believe The Three to be harbingers of the Apocalypse. The characters, even the ones who only make an appearance once, are convincing and excellently written. Their stories are delivered through transcripts of Skype sessions, text messages, voice recordings and emails, and the effect is unnervingly real. You can just sense the paranoia seeping into this cast of characters’ everyday lives, as they’re not only hounded by the press and investigators seeking answers but especially once they begin suspecting that the zealots and theorists might be onto something. And dispersed between hints at the paranormal, lie the much more menacing accounts of those in power seeking to exploit the global fear caused by the crashes. To say any more would be to spoil a fantastically entertaining plot.

While there are not many jump-your-seat terrifying moments in this book, Lotz delivers some eerily ambiguous scenes with the subtlest of hands. If you’re looking for an addictive read, with a perfect blend of thrills and chills, this comes highly recommended.

Gospodin Libar – For the love of bookselling

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I just love stumbling upon old favourites. There’s nothing that tugs at the heartstrings quite like nostalgia – yes, even this hardcore crime reader has her moments of sentimentality. And if you combine nostalgia with my other great love – bookselling – you’re bound to find me sniffly and homesick for my day job. Yes, I have been fortunate enough to be, in one way or another, involved with that dreamiest of dream jobs for just a smidge longer than five years now.

If you’ve ever worked in a bookshop, you’ll know the agony and ecstasy of stacking those sacred tomes, locating the ever elusive “it had a blue cover” title (a bookseller’s proudest moment) and the struggle of not coming across as overly obsessed as you launch into your top ten reasons why Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is only the best read ever. And by far the best part of bookselling is placing a recommendation you’ve carefully selected into the waiting hands of a fellow reader and hoping they’ll love it. Hardly anything compares to the strangely addictive feeling of trepidation and delight as you watch them saunter away, knowing that book might just change their lives. So, when I discovered Gospodin Libar quite a few years ago, it was love at first read.

Cue this evening: me aimlessly browsing, completely ignoring the stack of books I’ve been dipping in and out of (for shame!), and again this very special story pops up in my newsfeed. What is a bookworm to do, but share the bittersweet feels? First two panels posted below, please do follow the link to Library Cartoons to read the complete version.

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Gospodin Libar (
Mister Bookseller), written by Croation author Darko Macan and illustrated by Tihomir Čelanović.