Books in Brief

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Borrowed Light (fiction)
by Joolz Denby
Serpent's Tail (2006)
ISBN 1-85242-905-4

"My name is Astra Selene Sharp, I have great teeth and I read a lot. Jesus, I suppose that sounds a bit odd, the teeth bit, but you see it does tend to be what people notice about our family and compliment us on." Denby's quintessentially northern English protagonist drops out of university to take care of her family after her mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At twenty-seven she still lives with her hippie parents and siblings in a beach house in Polwenna, a surfing village on the Cornish coast.
Astra works in a café run by her best friend, Connie; has a boyfriend who plays keyboards in an unspectacular local band; and develops a monster crush on Luke, a wealthy surfer whose family owns a holiday mansion on the cliffs. When Angel, Connie's beloved, beautiful young sister, visits the idyllic coastal village, she leaves a trail of destruction in her wake.
Borrowed Light is an undemanding, readable novel about the perils of jealousy and obsession. Denby's lively, slangy and often humorous, first-person narrative holds considerable charm, and as the story progresses, she develops enough menace to keep you turning the pages. An entertaining beach book.
Longlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize
White Ghost Girls (fiction)
by Alice Greenway
Atlantic Books (2006)
ISBN 1-84354-440-7
"This summer, the one I'm going to tell you about, is the only time that matters. It's the time I'll think of when I'm dying, just as another might recall a lost lover or regret a love they never had." In the late 1960s, Hong Kong is no longer the safe British enclave it once was. Red Guard factions - supporters of Mao Zedong - plant bombs across the island and bloated bodies wash up on its shores. Not far away, war ravages the thickly canopied jungles of Vietnam. 
Out in the harbour, at the end of summer, fishermen feed the hungry ghosts. They float paper boats shaped like junks and steamships. One is double-prowed like the cross-harbour Star Ferry which plies its way back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon, never having to turn around. The fishermen load each tiny paper boat with some tea leaves, a drop of cooking oil, a spoonful of rice, a splash of petrol before setting it afloat. Boats for the lost at sea, for the drowned. They hire musicians to clang cymbals. Children throw spirit-money into the waves. 
The narrator, twelve-year-old Kate, and her older sister, Frankie, live with their mother in a greying stucco house near Pok Fu Lom, a colony village. Their father, a Time magazine war photographer, is rarely at home. Marianne, their mother, occupies herself painting ethereal, nostalgic watercolours of Hong Kong.
Thin, angular Kate is quiet and secretive, watching everything closely. Frankie, a "fully-fledged heathen" with a tempestuous nature, "uses her young body, strong, brown, voluptuous, like a weapon". They call themselves "secret sisters". Ah Bing, their bossy amah, calls them houh hoi, "little whores" and gwaimui, "white ghost girls". One day, on an excursion to Ah Bing's temple, Frankie and Kate give her the slip. Tragedy ensues and as the action moves toward an unexpected climax, no one is perceptive enough to protect the young sisters or prevent further catastrophes from taking place.
Within the escalating tension of this mesmerising debut the author captures the awakening sexuality of adolescence and the confusion of living in a foreign country during a tumultuous time. The pleasure of this slim volume lies in the details: Greenway brings alive the sights, sounds and pungent smells of Hong Kong with poetic finesse. You will smell sweet joss, tiger balm, silver fish drying in rattan baskets and musty clove hair oil as you turn the pages. White Ghost Girls is a pure delight.
Shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize
The Secret River (fiction)
by Kate Grenville
Canongate (2006)
ISBN 1-84195-828-X
Australian author Kate Grenville has written three works of non-fiction and seven novels, including The Idea of Perfection (1999) which was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001. Grenville's most recent novel, The Secret River, was awarded the 2006 Commonwealth Writer's Prize and the 2006 Australian Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.
River Thames boatman William Thornhill grows up in poverty and hardship on the mean, twisted streets of late eighteenth-century London. In his twenties the waterman is found guilty of stealing Brazil wood from a barge and sentenced to hang. Unexpectedly, he receives a reprieve on condition that he is transported to New South Wales, Australia, for the term of his natural life.
In 1806 Thornhill's family arrives at the rough, frontier settlement of Sydney, "a town of scars". Bewildered by the sandy, tangled landscape, the unmapped reaches of sombre forests and the unfamiliar natives, the family faces the demise of life as they know it.
Grenville has expertly created an Australian historical novel in which cultures collide and anger, fear, hatred and retribution run high between the Aborigines and emancipists. The first and second parts of the book make for a slow start – 130 pages would have benefited from a reduction to a third of that number. The following 219 pages are dramatic, explosively powerful and utterly riveting.
Night Jasmine Man (fiction)
by David Lambkin
Penguin South Africa
(First published: 2002/ This edition: 2006)
ISBN 0-143-02437-X
Respected classical composer Richard Turnbull travels to Kenya in search of his teenage daughter after he receives a telegram from the District Commissioner which advises that Pia has gone missing on an overland trip to the Tana River. She may be dead: "The official interpretation is that the overlanders were killed by Somalia shifta but it's equally possible that they simply stumbled on a gang of poachers loading tusks and rhino horn onto a dhow."
In Malindi, Turnbull discovers that before her disappearance, his daughter had been arrested in Mombasa for drug-dealing and then released. His investigations lead him to Peponi, a remote island off the East African coast. Ruled independently by a diabolical sultan, the island is the centre of the drug, ivory and rhino horn trade. Although Peponi means "paradise" in Swahili, the sultry island is like a beautiful but poisonous flower.
On Peponi, all clues to Pia's fate are shrouded in mystery. Immersed in an outlandish, mythological world, a cast of eccentric inhabitants offer the music professor little succour: debauched writer David Penbroke; island guide Mohammed-the-British; the deaf Night Jasmine Man who sings but cannot speak a word; Pia's friend, the desirable young hedonist Sabine; alcoholic hotel proprietor Nicholas Skeby; remote yet sensual cartomancer Gretchen Els; and the mad Sultan himself.  
Before I came to this island I was a boy. Not in years, but because I would not acknowledge evil. To become a man I had to see evil clearly: see its slyness and delights, the slipperiness of all morality, the smugness of the self-righteous. To grow, I had to face the beast inside me. This is the story of that confrontation. In growing up I also learnt two other important things. First, only music and silence can be true to themselves. Secondly, only love endures. All else dies. 
Night Jasmine Man was first published in 2002 and has recently been released again by Penguin South Africa. Complex, magical and beautifully written, Lambkin's third novel will stay with readers for a long time. It deserves to be hugely successful. 
Time to Say Goodbye (crime fiction)
by Pat MacEnulty
Serpent's Tail (2006)
ISBN 1-85242-468-0
In 1976, sixteen-year-old Vera Lee Gifford is arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for committing three murders. When Officer Rodney Ellis and his partner catch up with her, the pretty blonde in the string bikini is stoned out of her mind, idling in the middle of traffic in a stolen convertible with a vintage Walther P38 in the trunk. The teenager suffers from blackouts; she doesn't remember going on a killing spree, but the prosecutor and jury call her a stone-cold killer and the rare James Bond pistol discovered in the car is the same gun used in the shootings. Sentenced to three life sentences for first-degree murder, Vera Lee is a model prisoner until she escapes from the Florida Correctional Institution for Women and vanishes without a trace.
Twenty-eight years later, Detective Ellis is still haunted by nightmares of his tour of duty in Vietnam. Until now, his life has revolved around his daughter and his work: Now his daughter has gone, and between the paperwork and politics his work has lost its allure. He's been in the truth and lies business for thirty years, but "Hot Rod's" only post-Vietnam assassination has been a loud boom box. Then Vera Lee's name resurfaces on the same day he begins an investigation into the violent murder of a motel maid in the college town of Gainesville. Is the fugitive woman from his past linked to the crime? Ellis resolves to uncover, once and for all, the truth about what happened on September 26, 1976. MacEnulty has an informal, hip, punchy writing style. This is another book for the beach.
The Million-Rand Teaspoon (non-fiction)
by Nikki Riddley
Zebra Press (2006)
ISBN 1-77007-321-3
The Million-Rand Teaspoon is the true story of ex-drug abuser, Paul Bateman, written by local freelance writer Nikki Riddley. Bateman, a polysubstance abuser (Mandrax, heroin, Wellconal), fell into a coma after an overdose at the age of twenty-six. Blind and brain-damaged, he was unable to continue doing what he loved best. 
When I saw Lee cook up the paregoric, strap the tourniquet around her arm and put the needle into her vein, I was instantly captivated by a ritual that would eventually come to dominate my existence. But of course I didn't know that then. I just wanted to try it. 
A good-looking, popular young man, Bateman had everything: supportive, loving parents; a beautiful girlfriend; friends; fairly good school grades; and a natural aptitude for sports. Nine years after his overdose he is still paying the price of his addiction as a resident at a shelter for people unable to hold their own in society. Nine years after his overdose he cannot write or sign his name. Far from being liberating, Bateman's Wellconal addiction was a descent into the underworld with little chance of recovery.
Written in the first person, the book is a combination of interviews, written accounts and correspondence between the author/ghostwriter, Bateman, his family and friends. The title refers to a teaspoon found in Paul's flat which he used to cook up drugs; it was his only remaining possession and symbolises the enormous emotional and financial cost of addiction to addicts and their loved ones.
In direct, considered and intelligent prose, Riddley has realised the sensitivity required in telling a story that is not her own. The Million-Rand Teaspoon does not preach the evils of drugs, nor is there any attempt to distribute blame and justify the story's contents. Bateman wanted at the outset "to put his story out there, and … give some meaning to the direction his life has taken". With Riddley's assistance, he has done this, even though he cannot read his own story.
Blinding Light (fiction)
by Paul Theroux
Penguin (2006)
ISBN 0-141-01573-X
Fifty-year-old Slade Steadman's only published work, Trespassing – a daring travel memoir from twenty years ago – made him famous and very wealthy. Inspired by William Burrough's The Yage Letters, the irascible recluse and his ex-girlfriend, Dr Ava Katsina, travel deep into the Ecuadorian jungle on a drug tour. The trip they had planned as a couple cannot be cancelled, and so, rather than lose their deposit and forgo the tour, they travel together.
Theroux's protagonist longs to reclaim his reputation as a writer and produce another book worthy of his first; due to writer's block, he has published only occasional magazine articles and opinion pieces. He hopes the Ecuador experience may result in a book. To Slade's and Ava's disgust, the tour is joined by a predatory German, Manfred Steiger, and four boisterous, rich, opinionated American tourists:
"Kenya's a fucking zoo," Hack said. "India's a total dump. China sucks big-time. Egypt's all ragheads. Japan's a parking lot. Want a sex tour? Go to Thailand. Want to get robbed by a Gypsy? Go to Italy. Want a truly shitty experience among dirtbags? Come here."
On a visit to a Secoya shaman in a remote jungle village, the opportunistic Manfred introduces Steadman to Methysticodendron, a form of highly atrophied datura, also known as "La venda de tigre" or "the tiger's blindfold". Through the dark psychotropic brew, the writer achieves a supremely altered state of consciousness: "He was a hovering witness, seeing everything, all the guts and gizzards, the nakedness of familiar people, the sadness of their deceits." In exchange for inspiration gained he is prepared to suffer the drug's side-effect of temporary blindness.
Upon return to his Martha's Vineyard mansion, Steadman begins work on his second work, The Book of Revelations, which he dictates to Ava. Fuelled by daily doses of the "wonder" drug and evenings of rampant sex with his doctor-lover (who remains with him), he chronicles the erotic encounters of his past. When, in the middle of a book tour, he becomes permanently blind and loses his gift, he has to face the consequences of his past choices.
While Theroux is a cynical, unforgiving observer of human frailty, his descriptions of cities and natural landscapes are superb. The novel's copious sex scenes are over-written: " … the hot grip of her mouth, triggered his orgasm, which was not juice at all but a demon eel thrashing in his loins and swimming swiftly up his cock, one whole creature of live slime fighting the stiffness as it rose and bulged at the tip and darted into her mouth." The author's intermittent comments on the hazards faced by a celebrated writer are clever and no doubt heartfelt, but fans of his travel writing might not find Blinding Light as illuminating as they had hoped.
Longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize
The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel (historical fiction)
by Barry Unsworth
Hamish Hamilton (2006)
ISBN 0-241-14221-0
The hero and narrator of Barry Unsworth's fifteenth novel, Thurstan Beauchamp, begins his tale of political and religious intrigue with a wonderfully exotic image: "When Nesrin the dancer became famous in the courts of Europe many were the stories told about the ruby that glowed in her navel as she danced."
The Ruby in Her Navel is set in 1149 in Sicily after the failure of the Second Crusade; it is a land of Normans, Arabs, Sicilians, Greeks and Jews. A combined Venetian and Byzantine fleet blockades Corfu and threatens Sicilian control of the Epirus coast and the southern Adriatic. Within the Royal Palace of Palermo, rivalry for the King's favour grows fierce between the Saracens and the Norman nobility. Secrecy and suspicion are in the air.
Beauchamp, an ambitious, puffed-up young courtier of Norman descent, holds the official title of Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows at the medieval palace; unofficially, he is a spy for the Diwan of Control. He is sent on a mission in the guise of a pilgrim to meet with a rebel leader and, during the journey, meets the mysterious belly-dancer Nesrin, who comes from a faraway land. In addition to his appetite for the dancing girl, we learn that Thurstan is in love with the beautiful widow, Lady Alicia of Bethron. His world is to be profoundly transformed and his loyalties tested as he becomes further embroiled in deception, espionage and complicated sexual liaisons.
A richly-told historical novel, The Ruby in Her Navel is at times slow-moving, but it ripples with intelligent, imaginative prose in extensively researched scenes from twelfth-century Sicily. The book's themes of cultural conflict and religious intolerance have much relevance in contemporary society.
Unsworth was awarded the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger (together with Michael Ondaatjie's The English Patient), and two of his previous works (Pascali's Island and Morality Play) have been Booker nominees.
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