Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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James Baldwin is better known for his essays, but this is no rational think-piece. This is love of the gut-wrenching-temporary-madness-inducing kind. Hailed as a queer fiction masterpiece, this is one of the most agonising break-ups I’ve ever witnessed, regardless of sexuality. It’s brilliant and tragic.

American abroad David hears that his former lover, handsome and charismatic Giovanni, is due to be executed. He reminisces on their meeting in a Parisian bar and subsequent brief love affair. They bully and bicker and flirt their way around decadent, squalid Paris with crackling intensity.

Told from David’s perspective, it’s also about being an outsider and the search for identity- be the it that of American or European, straight or gay, out or closeted. Some of this is quite literal at times, verging on cliche. I’m not entirely convinced by the Paris setting (seems pale and unreal outside the confines of the room) or peripheral characters either.

I don’t need to be though, because in this novel the only ones that matter are David and Giovanni. Baldwin’s gorgeous prose expresses all those relatable, nuanced, complex emotions in the life cycle of a love affair so accurately that I never once doubt in Giovanni and David. Even if they doubt themselves.

Read: To feel grateful when you regret a break-up and wonder what could have been.

Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

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Of Human Bondage is sometimes described as a dark and erotic masterpiece, a young man’s coming-of-age through a tortured love affair. Which is entirely to mis-sell this Bildungsroman. Yes, protagonist Phillip does have an obsessive relationship with waitress Mildred. But prior to that he is orphaned, suffers from a club foot, moves to Germany to study and becomes an artist.

Philip is an exquisitely conceived character. Equal parts infuriating and sympathetic, he is confused and conflicted in his search for the meaning of life. You can clearly see the competing forces of Phillips irrational urges driving against his own interests.

There are a lot of philosophical musings, often in the form of friends who like to lecture on abstract art theory and the like. It’s also very long- it could have done with some editing down. And certainly not erotic, so don’t read this expecting a bodice ripper.

It is dark though. Mildred and Phillip’s relationship is messed up, entirely dysfunctional. She uses him for money as he seeks to possess her. Mildred has concurrent affairs, while Phillip stalks her through the streets of London. Mildred returns contrite but Philip won’t touch her. It is this interplay of light and dark, loving and loathing and all the other contradictions that make Phillip compelling and the novel a classic.

Read: As a caution to switching jobs or girlfriends to find meaning in your life.

 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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The Haunting of Hill House is the archetypal haunted house story. Way before we had 90s teenagers sprinting around spooky cabins, Dr Montague, Theodora, Luke and Eleanor decide to explore Hill House, the creepiest abode of them all.

As the group comes together to explore the mysteries of the house, we see the sequence of events through meek and mild Eleanor. Liberated from cares in the first time in her adult life, she has been invited to spend the summer because of her supposed sensitivity to psychic activity. The house takes a hold of Eleanor, with is gothic turrets and chilling past.

The writing is wonderfully uneasy, designed to unsettle: the descriptions of the house as confusing, off-kilter and uncanny, and the dialogue between the four characters which seems to be innocuous banter but with a weird, sinister tone.

This is a psychological thriller as much as a supernatural one- nothing too gory happens, there is no defined evil antagonist and yet it still manages to terrify. After all, it’s what you can’t see that’s scary.

Read: For a proper old-fashioned scary story.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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#menaretrash is currently trending in South Africa so reading this book is a sad, sad reminder that the gender violence it depicts is certainly still present in society. The domestic abuse, attempted murder and institutional indifference are truly horrifying.

This seems pretty weighty for a celebrity biography- I didn’t expect a laser sharp commentary on race, class, and sexual politics. But then this celebrity is Trevor Noah so it is actually his day-job too. Plus it’s pretty hilarious too.

Not all comedians have such a rich seam of life experience either. Born a Crime details Noah’s unique life as a mixed-race child in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa. Not part of just one race or class, he navigates his way between private schools and Townships, educated multilingualism and a pirate CD business.

He’s outspoken, that’s for sure. I can’t really hold him to account though; as a comedian and provocateur, this is his story. And his mothers. One of the loveliest things about this book is the deep and abiding love Trevor and his mother have for one another, under the most trying of circumstances.

Read: To find out more about that guy on The Daily Show. And South Africa in general.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

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Insomnia is my biggest nightmare. I LOVE sleep- I’m one of those people who needs a full 8 hours and turns into a grinch if I don’t get it.

Therefore I was very scared of Nod. This is a world where a sleepless contagion has swept the world. No one can sleep at all except for a lucky few, mostly children. The first night it happens it’s a baffling coincidence. The second night, it’s a global panic. Technology shuts down, systems crumble and people start going bonkers over lack of sleep.

Except for our hero, writer Paul. Based in Vancouver, we see perfect his lovely Canadian life disintegrate as his girlfriend becomes more and more manic. Amongst all the crazy, a prophet arises. Paul’s friend gets hold of one of his manuscripts bearing a passing coincidence to their current predicament. ‘Nod’ is born- a new organised twisted religion, complete with sleepless zombie humans. Anarchy reigns and Tom and a stray ragamuffin child he picks up desperately fight for survival.

I lost the plot as it became more dystopian, incidentally as the writing gets more deep and symbolic. I suppose that’s actually what would happen in these circumstances; alternative belief systems would arise, violence and atavism come to the surface, and all the survivors fight it out in a random scramble. By the end I’m so disorientated that I’m not sure what happened so I’m not sure the deeper narrative stuff works for me.

Read: For tips on how to survive the apocalypse. Not when you have insomnia.

Conclave by Robert Harris

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I’ll read anything by Robert Harris. There’s a reason he’s one of the most popular modern storytellers around- his Cicero trilogy was a triumph.

So reading Conclave was a no brainer. Amongst the melee of the modern world, the cardinals of The Catholic Church go into Conclave to elect a new Pope. Within this sequestered community, we explore the candidates with all their flaws and foibles. An intriguing subject, strong characters and potential dramatic resolution.

Intrigue and plotting abound as we get sucked into an intricate and ancient ritual, cleverly overlaid with the concerns of a modern church. The wannabe-Popes discuss declining congregations, female clergy and reform. However, all the action takes place away from the talking which is perhaps why the tension suffers a bit and the ending is a little anticlimactic.

I absolutely enjoyed it, but it lacked some of the dramatic punch of Harris’s thrillers and the political intrigue of his other novels. Maybe (and I’m slightly ashamed to admit it) it’s because I couldn’t help thinking of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons which has a not dissimilar concept. It’s not that I preferred Dan Brown, more that the rituals and mystery were less alien and arcane.

Still a very good read- its compelling prose propels you along and I happily devoured it in a single sitting. If only I hadn’t seen the name Robert Harris on the cover.

Read: After Fatherland, Enigma Archangel, and his Cicero Trilogy

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

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I’m a classic millennial. I’m constantly on my phone interacting with an online community and my priority is travelling to far-flung destinations. So to me, geopolitics is quaint and outdated. Why do maps, mountains and seas matter nowadays? Time for a Geography lesson.

Tim Marshall shows us that they very much do. These are his ten maps that tell you all you need to know about global politics. Some of his hypotheses: the decline of America is over-stated because of its prime real estate, Russia’s tense relationships stem from its shape, and the arctic is the battleground of the future.

A great premise but the book’s real secret weapon is that it reads wonderfully. It’s clear and compelling, like having something explained to you by a passionate teacher. This is the best type of learning and incidentally great material if, god forbid, someone insists on talking about the EU for too long.

It’s maybe not all you need to know- there are some parts of the world or events crying out for a chapter. I’d love a follow up post-Trump and Brexit. I want to see how these massive world events are rooted in geography. Marshall does state that leaders and history have influence too but that they exist within the land itself.

Ultimately, you can have all the wireless in the world but we are still grounded in the reality of the physical world.

Read: When you wonder what Putin’s up to now

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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What if in the future, by some freak genetic mutation, women become more physically powerful than men? This is the premise of Naomi Alderman’s ‘feminist fiction’, The Power.

A teenage girl discovers her hands are charged with electricity and attacks a man. But this isn’t an isolated incident. As the power emerges amongst girls globally, physical strength translates to cultural clout. There is a massive shift in sexual politics as women overthrow oppressive regimes, construct female-centric religions and dominate society.

The reversal of power is electrifying (sorry). It is crude but effective to read about a man fearful to walk the streets because of groups of women around or a male opinions being shouted down by the stronger sex. We see these smaller experiences through the eyes of four main characters, scattered across the globe.

Maybe some of it is too obvious. An exact reversal of paradigms gives a very black-and-white, upside-down dystopian feeling to the book. It reads a bit like Young Adult fiction (other than horrific violent scenes), although that’s not necessarily a criticism; it’s zingy and current with trolls living on Reddit and news through vloggers.

Either way, Alderman gets her point across loud and clear in this crackling, thrilling page-turner that will leave you gasping for breath but also pausing for thought.

Read: to challenge your assumptions on gender

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

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Hyped new million-copy shifting crime novel from Japan? Yes please.

Although if I’d known what I was letting myself in for I might not have been so flippant in picking up Yokoyama’s book. Warning: this was a gruelling marathon, not a sprint like most other whodunnits. There are no action sequences or shoot outs. There is a lot of admin. And the pay-off is perhaps even more satisfying for it.

This is an unusual police procedural. The plot centres on the unsolved case of Six Four; a girl ransomed and then brutally murdered years back. So far, so typical, but then there are some cultural specifics.

Our hero Mikami is not the detective, but actually the Director of Media Relations for a prefecture of Japanese Police. He battles administrative politics and unruly journalists, rather than criminals. There are instances of Yakuza, a reclusive son, the strength of corporate hierarchy and ‘saving face’ which all give the novel a uniquely Japanese flavour.

The combination of these unusual elements with the strong universal human emotions when a young girl goes missing is a potent combination. And whilst I can’t tell how faithful it is to the original prose, Lloyd-Davies’ translation is pleasingly crisp and understated.

Read: if you enjoyed the manoeuvring and politics of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

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‘Lesbian Dickens’ was how I heard Fingersmith once described. Crude, but not miles off at first glance. There are definitely lots of Dickensian elements to the story: criminality, identity, class, poverty.

Sue Trinder is an orphan and thief from a den of iniquity in darkest, dirtiest London. She is recruited by a swindler as part of his scheme to con a young heiress out of her fortune. So they travel to Briar, the country home of cocooned and cosseted lady, Maud Lilly. Trickery ensues.

But Dickens, for all his subject matter, was a gentleman writer whereas Fingersmith is unsparing of the sordid detail. Gothic flourishes like asylums and perverted books are all thrown into the mix too. This blurring of genres means it’s certainly reductive to call it a Lesbian novel. The mixed genre makes it feel very modern, as does the unflinching gaze and fast pace.

These elements quickly accumulate to create a richly-textured page-turner. You do have to concentrate very hard though not to get lost in the silk layers, thimble-sized details and plot twists.

Not just Lesbian Dickens then, Waters shows that her prose is consistently and intensely readable- it says a lot about her writing that Fingersmith isn’t even my favourite of her books!

Read: on a gloomy afternoon in the countryside