Summer reads with substance

A round-up of substantial fiction and non-fiction reads

17 December 2023 - 00:00 By Mila de Villiers
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Finding Endurance: Shackleton, My Father and a World Without End by Darrel Bristow-Bovey

'Tis the season to be donning your SPF 30, yet Darrel Bristow-Bovey's exalted book (and many-a bibliophile's local literary highlight of the year - buy your copy of the paper on the 24th...), takes the reader to the biting and isolating environment of the world's largest desert: Antarctica. Natural history meets literature and memoir as Bristow-Bovey delves into the history of the intrepid Antarctic explorer's numerous odysseys to the south; one of which his father undertook with Ernest. A tale which he was told as a young boy and still believes to be true...

The Guest by Emma Cline

An apt seasonal read for Emma Cline's work of literary fiction is set during summer on Long Island where 22-year-old protagonist, escort Alex, is dismissed by a wealthy client she imagined a future with and forced to improvise a life for herself. Ultimately pretending to be someone she's not, this follow-up to The Girls is a tale of sensuality and the ever-looming potential of self-destruction.

Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning by Steven Friedman 

In light of the tragic devastation, displacement and slaughtering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since Hamas's assault on Israel, political theorist Steven Friedman's work on the warped and weaponised understanding of Jewishness and its correlation with anti-Semitism is set to be a timely yet harrowing read.

The Ghost of Sam Webster by Craig Higginson 

Master storyteller Craig Higginson's latest novel can be read as a war novel, murder mystery, love story and navigation of what it means to remain human(e) when faced with adversity. When protagonist Daniel Hawthorne learns about the vanishing of his historian friend Bruce Webster's beautiful daughter Sam, he exchanges Johannesburg for Zululand in the pursuit of finding the truth behind her disappearance and, ultimately, death by drowning. The human psyche is explored as Daniel's pursuit takes him to darker, more turbulent waters...

The Kingdom of Sweets by Erika Johansen 

Fantasy, folklore, Gothic thriller and grand jeté fans, this one's for you. A dark reimagining of Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Nutcracker - set on Christmas Eve - Erika Johansen's novel tells the story of twin sisters Clara and Natasha's destinies as per a curse by their godfather Drosselmeyer: one light, one dark. Clara over-praised; Natasha overshadowed. In a pique of resentment when Drosselmeyer, one Christmas eve, arrives with a magical, dangerous object - a nutcracker which transports you to the magical Kingdom of Sweets - Natasha enters this wondrous space where the powerful Sugar Plum Fairy grants wishes - at a cost. Clara follows suit and what ensues is the uncovering of a dark destiny inflicted on her, forcing her to choose between the real world and the magic world, and good and evil.

Pathogenesis: How Germs Made History by Jonathan Kennedy

Subtitled A History of the World in Eight Plagues in the US, academic and writer Jonathan Kennedy posits that the transformation of humankind as species was shaped not by our mental ingenuity or physical puissance but the spread of virus and disease. As opposed to conquests and warfare, we have pathogens to "thank" for societal upliftment. Bacteria and viruses have spread - and lead - to all corners of the globe, their effects resulting in the downfall of the Neanderthals, the growth of Islam, and exchanging feudalism for capitalism to name a few. Popular science and Yuval Noah Harari stans, this one's for you.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver 

Published in 2022, Barbara Kingsolver's lauded novel re-entered the literary sphere when announced as co-winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Price for fiction, in addition to her 2023 Women's Prize for Fiction win. Set in Appalachia our first-person narrator, Damon Fields, leads a life synonymous with stereotypes attached to this rural mountainous space of Virginia: raised by a single (teen) mother in a trailer park, Damon must traverse the reality of poverty and othering by means of his magnetic personality and gift of the gab. 

mahogany by erica lewis 

erica lewis's poetry collection's title is derived from the popular, prized, dark-hued and durable wood and Diana Ross's eponymous 1975 movie, with each poem named for, or featuring a line of, a Ross and The Supremes' songs. An exploration of loss, love, courage and existential questions, lewis's poems - sans stanzas - are gripping, moving and memorable.

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch 

The recipient of the 2023 Booker Prize, Irish author Paul Lynch's imagining of Dublin's descent into dystopia sees tyranny meeting rebellion as the protagonist, scientist and mother-of-four, Eilish Stack, is simultaneously forced to fight for her family while challenged with painful decisions. An unravelling Ireland, totalitarianism, societal decay and humanity add to the exhilarating and original nature of Lynch's acclaimed novel.

I Write the Yawning Void: Selected Essays of Sindiwe Magona edited and compiled by Renée Schatteman

Legendary writer and storyteller Sindiwe Magona's contribution to South Africa's literary sphere and political zeitgeist is unsurpassed. In this collection of essays, Magona delves into her own history, alongside her convictions, patriotism and firm belief in activism as means for change. A wise and welcome addition to her fictional work, Magona's revelations are a must-read in celebration of her life and legacy. 

Black Racist Bitch: How social media reveals South Africa's unfinished work on race by Thandiwe Ntshinga 

With the title of the book coming from a comment Thandiwe Ntshinga received on TikTok after sharing her findings on critical whiteness studies, this work by the social anthropologist argues that critical whiteness studies is a field crucially needed in South Africa. "What is whiteness about and who benefits from it?" serves as the main narrative thread as perceived - and perpetuated - by social media. 

Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg 

Acclaimed writer Jonny Steinberg's exploration of an oft-overlooked aspect of Nelson Mandela's life is laid bare in this in-depth, illuminating and insightful epic: his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. From their shared (and divisive) approaches to transforming South Africa's unjust political system to the love, longings and obsessions synonymous with matrimony, Steinberg's work is - as per JM Coetzee - "unlikely to be superseded in a long time".

Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon by Wole Talabi

African fantasy is brought to fantastical life by Nigerian writer Wole Talabi's debut novel. Traversing between Lagos, London and Singapore, the disgruntled nightmare god Shigidi is gatvol of the restrictions the Orishi spirit company (which he belongs to) enforces on him. Enter pseudo-succubus Nneoma, whose appearance in Shigidi's life leads to a heist across two worlds, superpowers, mingling with magicians, new nemeses, revenge, sex and violence. Nnedi Okorofar fans, magic your way right in. 

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead 

Two-time Pulitzer Award winning author Colson Whitehead returns to the Harlem introduced to readers in Harlem Shuffle. Picture the scene: New York City, 1970s. A metropolis synonymous with destitution, debauchery, depravity and delinquency. Amid all the seediness and societal ills, protagonist Ray Carney is attempting to keep afloat, yet gets embroiled in crooked behaviour owing to his cop friend (and fixer), Munson, and criminal Pepper. As dark as it is funny, Crook Manifesto evokes a time and place long gone, alongside the perennial meaning of capital 'F' Family.

Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright

Jennifer Wright's Gilded Age medical history book introduces the reader to one "Madame Restell", the glamorous, self-named Manhattanite women's health practitioner who pursued a woman's (then - and in a grim repeat of history - current, in light of the overturning of Roe v Wade) denied choice and right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Born Ann Trow in 1811, the "abortionist of Fifth Avenue's" relentless quest to grant women their bodily autonomy is explored in this book which also captures her wit, resistance to authority, and empathy towards the disenfranchised across the board. 

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