The grand book tour

15 December 2019 - 00:00 By sunday times books

Published in the Sunday Times: 15/12/2019

The Blackridge House by Julia Martin (Jonathan Ball Publishers); Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson) and Look At Me by Nataniël (Human & Rousseau)

I can't decide between these three books, all of them life stories: The Blackridge House is magnificent, centering on family and the devastation of dementia. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott conjures up the hollow lives of a set of New York society women in Swan Song. They were the muses of the great writer, Truman Capote, until drink and madness destroyed him. Finally, Look At Me by Nataniël is a kind of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Swartland Boy, a lesson in oddness and the genius it bred. Just brilliant. Michele Magwood

Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in our Changing World by Marcus Byrne and Helen Dunn (Wits University Press)

Deified by the Egyptians, dangling from the Victorian bourgeoisie's ears, depicted in art throughout the centuries: as unobtrusive as it may seem, the dung beetle has captured homo sapiens' imagination for millennia. The marvellous miskruier navigates itself by means of the Milky Way, plays an invaluable role in maintaining present-day ecological sustainability and - contrary to its name - is the legit opposite of nature's very own shit-stirrer. Big shout-out to the scientist-writer duo of Byrne and Dunn for providing this information (and more) in an accessible and engaging way without making the reader feel like an entomological ignoramus. Mila de Villiers

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Hutchinson)

I can't remember the last time I had such an obsession with a book. I have listened to Jenkins Reid's "soundtrack" Spotify list over and over again. Maybe it's because I was brought up on California Canyon rock. Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Mamas and the Papas have always been playing in the background of my life. I want to see this '70s band that Jenkins Reid has manifested in their bellbottom paisley shirt glory and I want to hear their beautiful songs that she created as well. Holding thumbs that the 13 part series which Reese Witherspoon is producing lives up to what has been created. Jennifer Platt

Travel Light, Move Fast
by Alexandra Fuller (Serpent's Tail)

Weep softly, laugh loudly. Fuller's evocations of our continent - found, lived, lost and yearned for - rival those of any writer in the past century, and that includes Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. Fuller's latest, a celebration of her British-born father's and their family's life well lived in what was then Rhodesia and later in Zambia, is poignant and rambunctious, sad and hilarious. For once, I shall be politely didactic: please don't miss this unforgettable book. William Saunderson-Meyer

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Oneworld)

This story of a Jamaican woman who follows her heart to America, leaving her five-year-old daughter behind, is an intriguing read that challenges what is known of motherhood, love, the green pastures of the First World and the traumas that influence people's behaviour. We are treated to a deep insight into the lives of two women at different stages of their self- discovery and self-love. The language is vibrant with Jamaican patois throughout. Dennis-Benn deserves all the mentions, especially the one from O Magazine's Best Books of 2019. Thulani Angoma-Mzini

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Penguin Fiction)

I kicked off the year with a review of My Sister, the Serial Killer by Nigerian novelist Braithwaite, which has taken the publishing world by storm. Ayoola tends to kill her lovers while her sister, Korede, grudgingly helps her get rid of the bodies. But when they fall in love with the same man, Korede needs to choose between her sister and love. Braithwaite has been reaping the rewards of her debut - and with good reason. This book is dark, witty, well-crafted and digs a little deeper into the nature of patriarchy, trauma and sisterhood. Anna Stroud

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth Press)

The novel is remarkable for its sheer ambition: a genre-bending fictional history of Zambia and its people in a book that is over 500 pages, covering four generations of three multiracial families. As with all great books, it is the characters that are the real champions of this story, entrenched in the reader's memory long after turning the last page. An African classic waiting to be ordained. Nokuzola Zingithwa

'Gun Island'.
'Gun Island'.
Image: Supplied

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray) and The Anarchy by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury)

I was entranced by the way Ghosh's novel uses an age-old myth and the historical origins of a single word as entry into a narrative that not only unspools the age-old mercantile links between Bengal and Venice but speaks to the most pressing global issues of our age. Ambitious and provocative. Similarly, Dalrymple's extraordinary history of the British East India Company is a gripping standout. It speaks to the current moment as fearlessly and as provocatively as it charts two-and-a- half centuries of untrammelled looting by this ruthless joint stock company which, despite its Tudor origins, remains the ultimate prototype for many of today's joint stock corporations. Bron Sibree

A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed About Love
While Dying by Joe Hammond (HarperCollins)

Outstanding. Even though Hammond's body is failing him every day from motor neurone disease, what he writes about is the ways he discovers gratitude and love, and loss and death and what truly matters while living in this world as he floats further away. The opening line: "If I could just stop falling over, this would be a funnier book," sets the tone of this memoir, written for his two young sons. Hammond has also made 33 birthday cards for each of them to read on their birthdays until they are 21 years old. It's a book about being alive, with the power and grace of When Breath Becomes Air and Being Mortal. Claire Keeton

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (Bloomsbury) and Blessed by Bosasa by Adriaan Basson (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Barr's is an exceptional book. He intertwines a story about the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war with a story of a gay teen being sent to a camp to "make him normal". There are powerful themes throughout showing how the past continues to influence the future. It also prompted a visit to a few historical sites in the Free State, where many obscure landmarks are the only signs of what happened during that brutal war. Even if you've never had an interest in news, terms like state capture, Zondo Commission and Bosasa have entered into your realm. Basson details how he uncovered the corruption involving the Watson family and senior politicians as well as the slew of threats on his own life. His bravery, despite the intimidation, must not be overlooked. Jessica Levitt

The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom (HarperCollins) and Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin)

A fantastically entertaining epic tale, this story could be described as Forrest Gump meets The Book Thief - with guitars. Presto is a complex, flawed character; a sensitive artist exposed to the trials of huge celebrity and a sweet, approachable man with a somewhat tortured psyche. It's a story to appreciate on many levels: for the skill and imagination in the writing but also for fascinating dips into history. Klay's fiction is not about escapism. Having served as a Marine in Iraq, his knowledge of the intricacies of life on the front and - just as brutal - life back in the States brings both authority and intimacy to his short stories. These stories will make you hate the wastefulness of war, weep for those irrevocably damaged by it and admire the effort made to seem strong by those who don't shirk responsibility for their actions, feelings or memories. Bruce Dennill

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (Virago)

This was the best book I read this year, easily, which so many people with excellent taste have recommended to me over the years, assuring me that I'd love it, and which I'd always dismissed as being somehow "not for me". I have no idea why I thought that now because reading it I had the slightly creepy sensation that it had actually been written specifically for me, like articulating ideas I'd never been able to spell out, and making me see people and things in ways I'd always wished I was capable of doing. I know a lot of people feel that way about it and are as astounded by the magic trick Hazzard pulls off as I was. Rosa Lyster

White Fragility: Why it's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press) and The Freedom Artist by Ben Okri (Head Zeus)

If Malcolm X were a white American and Steve Biko a white South African; if Frantz Fanon were an American sociologist and Stokely Carmichael a modern-day white US immigrant and their lifetimes straddled the 20th and 21st centuries, all of them might have sounded just like DiAngelo. Such is the erudition and insight into the nature of racism of white people contained in the slim volume. Written after more than 25 years of activism as a diversity trainer in the US, the book focuses on how to interrupt the strategies and tactics with which white people avoid, resist and deflect discussion of their racism - what DiAngelo calls "white fragility". Okri takes the reader into a dystopian world which feels familiar and strange, far and near, likely and unlikely, believable and unbelievable - all at once. Imagine a world of splendour which is also a giant prison. But citizens are forbidden from mentioning the idea of a prison in case they dream of escaping. It is a world ruled by a faceless Hierarchy who command a cannibalistic police force which feeds on the restless populace, literally. Tinyiko Maluleke

Sissy by Jacob Tobia (Putnam)

Sissy really got me thinking in a big way as well as being enjoyable and readable (not always found in the same book). This young, fascinating gender-queer warrior made me rethink not only gender constructs but also the American South and its particular version of Christianity. Tobia found solace and some acceptance in the church, and as someone who was experimenting with high heels, lipstick and a beard, this was no mean feat. The book has just been optioned as a TV show by Showtime, and Tobia offers their voice as that of Double Trouble in season-four of the Netflix show, She-Ra. Take that, Trump. Russell Clarke

'Lacuna'.
'Lacuna'.
Image: Supplied

Lacuna by Fiona Snyckers
(Picador Africa)

I found Disgrace a disturbing and bleak book and was puzzled by the praise and awards it garnered given its discomforting use of rape as a metaphor for both retribution and restoration in post-apartheid South Africa, along with the erasure of the rape survivor's voice. Fiction is not obliged to articulate all sociopolitical concerns but I found the novel's blind spots on gender and race distressing given the importance of these issues in a brand-new democracy. So when Fiona Snyckers sent me the manuscript of Lacuna, I was electrified. (Disclaimer: I was later asked to edit the novel and did so, so here I'll confine myself to that initial gut response.) It was everything I had ever wanted as a response to Disgrace - and much more. A novel of multiple layers, as compelling a page-turner as any thriller, I read it in one sitting. It requires the reader, upon finishing, to re-read it, this time aware of the twists and turns introduced by an unreliable narrator who shines a disquieting light on the fissures and assumptions in our public narratives about sexual violence, crime and who the real monsters are. It's also bitingly funny, with no sacred cow unprodded. Helen Moffett

Crowded, Volume 1: Soft Apocalypse by Christopher Sebela, Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell, Cardinal Rae and Juliette Capra (Image Comics)

Crowded is an ongoing comic that masterfully satirises the gig economy with the story of a bodyguard who has to protect a woman who has a crowdfunded bounty on her head. (Volume 1 additionally skewers influencer culture.) It is incredibly fast-paced, info-dense and frenetic, frequently featuring seven to nine panels per page and parallel storylines (the art telling one part and the words another) and is a wild ride that's very funny, very gay and full of explosions. Mandy J Watson

If You Keep Digging by Keletso Mopai (Jacana Media) and Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld)

Mopai gives us a layered collection of short stories where the line between memory and imagination thins out as you read. These stories did not only happen to other people, they are a regular occurrence in our communities. The diction is simple and retains Mopai's Khelobedu heritage. This collection showcased the author's ability to hold a single short story together while connecting all the vignettes into universal themes. Manchester Happened, a two-part collection of short stories on living in and leaving Manchester and going home to Uganda, is exceptionally written. It's about the emotional tug and pull as the characters struggle in Manchester and their heartache as they return home. These stories about the cost of mobility when you are a foreigner seeking to set roots elsewhere are universal. Lorraine Sithole

All the Places by Musawenkosi Khanyile (uHlanga Press) and Wilder Lives: Humans and Our Environment by Duncan Brown (UKZN Press)

At their best, books can open minds and alter lives. The two on my list of favourite reads of 2019 did exactly that for me: Khanyile's debut poetry collection is the only book which moved me to tears this year, allowing me to look at the world with new eyes; and Wilder Lives changed my understanding of how to best interact with our environment, making me feel more connected and aware of my privileges and responsibilities. Both titles are intellectually enriching and simply beautiful. Karina Szczurek

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

Naturally, I rate the winner of the Sunday Times non-fiction prize, Terry Kurgan's Everyone is Present, as my great read of the year, but alongside it, on the fiction side, is Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt. It may not be all that fictional a novel - the protagonist is 23-year old SH from Minnesota, who heads for New York to write a novel. Forty years later she looks back on that first year of her life in the city, her writing, thoughts, fears and yes, a #MeToo moment long before the hashtag. As it happens, Hustvedt and I are just a month apart in age and like Hustvedt and SH I too moved alone in my early 20s to a big city. Hustvedt's precise writing and her psychologically probing, often funny, revelation and dissection of this younger self reverberated with me. It's an engrossing read, particularly for those who've reached the age of introspection. It's also the book I would have written if I could. Paddi Clay

Lord of All the Dead by Javier Cercas (MacLehose Press)

A family memoir of the Spanish Civil War by one of Spain's most brilliant novelists. Memory, military records and personal stories held dear by the survivors of the conflict swirl around one another in a whirlwind of long-remembered pain and half-forgotten truths. The narrative is unputdownable and leaves no comfort to those who feel purified of their cruelty by the political choices they made. A brilliantly noteworthy read in a time when history, fact and memory are brutally perverted in the service of political goals.
Hamilton Wende

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (Random House)

To be one of the best writers at the New Yorker is as easy as standing out in a basketball team where every player is a LeBron James. But Jia Tolentino is one of the best writers at the New Yorker. Her book of nine original, well-researched, biting and fascinating essays is so good I've bought it twice. Tolentino writes about things that feed our self-delusion, from the scam of "pop feminism" to the never-ending performance that is online life, and she tackles how these distort our sense of self. Tolentino does this without sounding better-than - she's just as trapped in this panopticon as we are. Pearl Boshomane

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Sandstone Press) and Things Even González Can't Fix by Christy Chilimigras (MFBooks Joburg)

Winner of the Man Booker International Prize this year, this is a multi-generational family saga set in Oman. A lyrical tale about three very different sisters and their extended families, Celestial Bodies explores serious themes such as the slavery in Oman's not too distant past without lecturing or hectoring. It brings the mystery and mysticism of the desert before the reader without falling into cliché and presents an array of masterfully drawn characters in a series of interconnected vignettes. Chilimigras's memoir is an assured, hilarious debut that deals with horrific issues such as alcoholism, family dysfunction and abuse with the lightest of touches. Full of pathos and humour from a young, unique and fresh South African voice. Ayesha Kajee

The Blackridge House by Julia Martin (Jonathan Ball Publishers) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Viking)

The Blackridge House is a brilliant combination of memoir and quest as well as being a moving exploration of dementia, memory and familial love. And for people in Pietermaritzburg, the setting resonates. A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those novels that come along all too seldom. The tale of Count Alexander Rostov and his 30-year house arrest in Moscow's Hotel Metropol is gentle, funny and poignant. A novel of immense humanity. Margaret von Klemperer

'A Sin of Omission'.
'A Sin of Omission'.
Image: Supplied

A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland (Penguin) and Theatre Road: My Story as told to Sindiwe Magona by Thembi Mtshali-Jones (Karavan Press)

An unashamed fan since Shades (1997), I've loved all Poland's titles, most especially The Keeper, haunting and heartbreaking. But A Sin of Omission is heartbreak on another level. Based on the real life of young Anglican missionary Rev Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, it's the story of Stephen Malusi Mzamane, who travels to a missionary college in England and returns, his heart filled with hope. But fate and faith have other plans. There is no story more intense than one told face to face. Apart from the almost fairytale, domestic-to-diva life story of the elegant, award-winning performer, Thembi, in Theatre Road, you can hear both her voice and that of her teller, Sindiwe Magona, another living legend. Rich with setback and achievement, pain and elation, spangled with celebrity and South Africa's shame, this book is a collector's item - nearly a decade in the making and released just in time for Ms Mtshali-Jones 70th birthday. Nancy Richards

Okay, Okay, Okay
by Finuala Dowling (Kwela)

I'm still thinking good thoughts about Dowling's novel, set backstage at a university in crisis. What I like about Dowling is that her empathy does not hamstring her wit. She's flipping funny but she never lets us forget that adulthood is being able to put your own feelings aside in order to consider events and situations from other people's perspectives. That ability is priceless. We're going to owe her for this one forever. Diane Awerbuck