November books: Four novels, four good reads, and four stars each

stuart-head1-bw-hires-portraitOne of the oddest novels I’ve read in recent times is Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert. I was swept along by this off-key tale of Rose, the Armenian centenarian, reminiscing about her life from the haven of her Marseille restaurant. She survives the Armenian genocide, suffers multiple sexual predators, becomes great friends with Himmler, and makes plenty of tasty dishes along the way. It’s a clever story and a smart retelling of bits of twentieth century history, but in the end, not entirely satisfying. The difficulty I had was conceptualising Rose as a person rather than a literary device. Perhaps I was looking for too much.

Francis Guenette’s The Light Never Lies took me to British Columbia. This sequel to Guenette’s Disappearing in Plain Sight preserves the central device of the void left by the death of Caleb, husband of Izzy, the glamorous youth counsellor in the remote settlement of Crater Lake. While Guenette’s work is heavy on social issues – mental health, marriage equality, youth suicide, Indigenous rights – it presents a very persuasive reality of fraught relationships, emotional pinch points, gorgeous scenery, and wholesome food you can almost eat off the page. There are a lot of characters to get to know in this longish book, but perseverance pays off.

I read Peter Hobbs’s In the Orchard, the Swallows around the time that the progressive press was fulminating over Lionel Shriver’s remarks about cultural appropriation. I sit on the fence with this topic, having done plenty of cultural appropriation in my own writing. But I felt uncomfortable with Hobbs’s first-person story of a man in the remote border regions of Pakistan recalling his long imprisonment and banal, meaningless torture – the consequence of an innocent indiscretion with a would-be girlfriend in his adolescence. Yes, the text is poetic and lyrical, but I could not drive from my mind the thought, “How would the author know this boy’s experience?” The first-person technique is, I think, the difficulty: It eliminates the distance between the author and the narrator and leaves a taste of implausibility A fine read, nevertheless, if you can ignore the clamour about who’s allowed to write about what.

And this leads me to John M W Smith’s A Crazy Act in Uganda. Smith has solved the cultural appropriation problem in the first two of his Dictator Thriller Series (see also An Unlawful Act in Libya) by interposing himself (or someone like him) as the second-hand narrator of the story. Here, Smith’s literary avatar recounts a story told by an old man about a brutal episode in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Forty years previously the man, a disease epidemic expert, accepts a contract to work on a project to eliminate smallpox; but matters are more convoluted and evil than he expects, and some truly ghastly events ensue. I enjoyed this novella for the tension built into the plot and the cleverly calibrated balance between evil and expediency. There are no laughs to be had here, but I did wonder whether Smith could have injected some of the macabre humour of An Unlawful Act in Libya. But then Uganda’s history is perhaps just too dark for humour.

I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. You can read about my books here.

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