Booktopia is pleased to welcome Caroline Baum to the role of Editorial Director of our monthly newsletter the Booktopia BUZZ. Here is Caroline’s introduction from the BUZZ plus some of this month’s highlights.
Some of the most compelling fiction published this month shares a common theme: violence, and its aftermath, the psychological scarring of war and upheaval pushing people to their limits.
By sheer coincidence, The Road to Urbino and two starkly authentic debuts, The Mandrake File and Beneath the Darkening Sky are all books that bear the wounds of lives disrupted by strife: civil war in Sri Lanka, conflict in Afghanistan and turmoil in the Sudan.
They brought home to me very powerfully just how much of a privilege it is to be able to read. Reading is an activity that requires peace. You simply can’t do it when your life is in danger or when you are stressed. It’s an act that requires security and a degree of serenity. These novels have made me savour the luxury of reading in a whole new way.
This month’s books are not all about darkness. I laughed out loud a few times while reading The Antidote, a very entertaining and thought-provoking argument against positive thinking. And I defy you to read Albert of Adelaide without smiling at its playful, charming platypus hero in search of the Old Australia – whatever that is.
by Cédric Bannel
After the chilly climate of so-called Scandi noir, it’s high time for a change of scene and a hike in temperature to refresh the crime genre. Where could be more extreme as a location for a thriller than Afghanistan? It’s a territory only superficially known to us through news and documentary footage. We have a dim awareness of it as a seething mess of tribal feuding and corruption, without understanding any of its subtleties and social nuances. But all that is about to change thanks to a French black belt in karate, one-time diplomat and internet entrepreneur-turned-novelist called Cédric Bannel. With his fourth crime title, he’s really hit the target. When was the last time a French crime thriller got translated into English and published internationally?
In The Mandrake File, Bannel has created one of the most fascinating, complex detectives of contemporary crime fiction: Osama Kandar, a conspicuously tall, proud former mujahadeen fighter and devout Muslim turned cop married to a feminist doctor runs the murder squad in Kabul. Dodging suicide bombers, religious fanatics and corrupt officials he and his trusty deputees, Gulbudin and Babrak have all the flourish of the three musketeers as they dodge and weave their way through a complicated international espionage plot.
Bannel gives Kandar’s personality many facets: he contrasts his religious devotion and noble incorruptibility with a passionate relationship with his wife Malalai, revealing a more sensual and lighthearted side. But it’s the authentic detail of local life and police procedure, of the highly codified rules, hierarchies and traditions that make this such a satisfying and rich experience and elevate it beyond the boundaries of the genre : from the etiquette of greetings with all the rituals of tea pouring and embracings to the byzantine layers of allegiance and indebtedness that characterise Kandar’s transactions with the book’s most intriguing character, Mullah Bakir, a moderate member of the Taliban. It’s easy to be so seduced by these aspects of the novel that one almost forgets the elements of suspense and urgency, so that solving the crime becomes secondary to the sheer pleasure of learning about how Afghans navigate the violent landscape of the everyday. The picture that Bannel (who spent ten high-risk days in the country undertaking research) paints is a grim one, with little room for optimism about Afghan’s society’s chances of peace and reconciliation. But in Kandar he has created an unforgettable expression of the resilience of the Afghan spirit. Here’s hoping that this is the first in a Kandar series – or should that be Inshallah?
by Oliver Burkeman
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the happiness industry, whether in workshop or book form. It smacks of easy formulae, the psychological equivalent of detox retreats and diet books – and the language the happiness business uses is often so hyperbolic, so full of upbeat cheerleader slogans and motivational jargon. Besides, relentlessly sunny people are just so bloody exhausting. Now here’s a book to make all us melancholy, glass-half-full curmudgeons feel smug. Turns out that happiness is fleeting and elusive ( duh!) and that the more you pursue it, the less likely you are to find it ( ditto duh !). Turns out that goal-setting can lead to rigid thinking which can in turn result in disaster. I could jump for joy, if that were not, well, a little too chirpy.
British sceptic Oliver Burkeman, a columnist who writes about psychology for the Guardian in the UK presents the arguments against positive thinking with incisive elegance, analytical energy and even-handed wit. He underpins his investigation with research both passive and active, traveling the globe for examples that illustrate how lower expectations lead to greater moments of satisfaction and undertaking various practices, from buddhist meditation ( his description of the various stages and mental and physical thresholds of a vipassna silent retreat is gripping) to bizarre exercises such as one that requires him to say the names of the tube stations on the London Underground out loud at each stop. His visit to a museum of failed products is also entertaining and enlightening about our attitudes to success and its opposite and his chapter on fear, security and terrorism casts all those post 9/11 checks at airports in a very different light . Ultimately, the most powerful thesis Burkeman explores is that positive psychology is a denial of our own mortality. Death plays an important role in how we appreciate life and to deny it is to play a futile game of delusion.
This book will appeal to those who enjoy the essays of Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point) that provide such great insights into aspect of contemporary social science as it applies to creativity, business and the twenty first century state of mind.
by Roma Tearne
What do the Renaissance frescoes of Piero de la Francesca have to do with twenty first century terrorism? This novel explores that question and leaves the reader with more questions than answers as it draws together the themes of art, obsession, the legacy of trauma and the complex bonds and loyalties of family, love and friendship.
It’s a complex, slowly unfurling narrative that requires patience from the reader to get where it’s going, the atmospherics building slowly like a grumbling storm to reveal a complex web of damaged relationships.
The narrative is told from an unusual point of view by two characters speaking in the first person to a lawyer. Elizabeth is the legal counsel and defence for Ras, a Sri Lankan man accused of stealing an Italian masterpiece from the National Gallery in London. In the course of discovering what motivated this uncharacteristic crime, she also interviews Alex, a cynical and amoral world-weary writer who has drifted in and out of other people’s lives with almost reptilian froideur, falling in love carelessly and observing tragedy unfold in a picturesque setting of comfort and privilege.
Tearne, who layers her characters emotions like pigments shading them with subtlety, knows what she is writing about: she is a painter and Sri Lankan refugee, outspoken about the civil war that has ravaged that tropical paradise and that most of the world continues to turn a blind eye to.
Her blog shifts between fragments on the writing of the novel and her activism. You can read it here: Romatearne.blogspot.com/
by Majok Tulba
You know when a book has a cover blurb by Anna Funder (Stasiland and the recent Miles Franklin winner, All That I Am) on the cover that it has moral gravitas and deals with the darker side of the human psyche. It’s a bit like the literary version of a health warning as well as a confirmation of impeccable credentials.
The trouble with the brain is that when you’ve downloaded images into it, you can’t wipe them like you can on a computer. So readers need to be aware that this book is full of very disturbing graphic violence. But how else to tell the story of child soldiers kidnapped by rebel forces in southern Sudan and forced to execute the orders of their drug crazed sadistic masters? To be effective and meaningful rather than gratuitously sensational, to shake us out of the torpor of desensitisation inflicted by the endless cycles of brutality on the evening news, the story has to be as shocking as the barbaric acts it records.
The fact that the story of Obinna, older than eleven but younger than sixteen, witness to the savage murder of his parents and kidnapped by terrorists, is based on the experiences of the author and others he knew in refugee camps makes this a poignantly authentic and very harrowing experience. The spare, unadorned prose only heightens the intensity of this powerful contemporary tragedy. First time author Tulba, now resettled in Australia, is working on a second novel. One can only hope that, if it is again based on personal experience, it is a tale of redemption.
by Howard L Anderson
It’s ironic that the title of this strangely whimsical book, which defies easy categorisation, features the city from which its unlikely hero, a platypus, is fleeing. Adelaide is the last place Albert wants to think of as defining him: he’s escaped from the city’s zoo and is on a quest for the Old Australia, which he believes to be a promised land. As he wanders the outback he encounters a cast of marsupials of good and bad character and makes friend with Jack, a wily wombat who specialises in arson. Is this charming story a fable about this country’s loss of identity and the untarnished meaning of mateship? You can’t help but think of it as an antipodean combination of Watership Down, the Wind in the Willows, with a hint of Winnie the Pooh with its gentle tone and celebration of journeying companions muddling through modest trials and tribulations but it’s also got a touch of the American western to it, with its saloon brawls, posses, wanted notices and shoot-outs. The writing is so visual that it’s easy to imagine the story as animation. If penguins can do it, why not a platypus?
Author Anderson is an enigmatic character, a Vietnam vet currently practising law in New Mexico and with a clear fondness for Australia based on a visit made here years ago. The book has a playful tongue-in-cheek innocence but Anderson also writes about the bush with the eye of a connoisseur. Perhaps his time flying in a helicopter battalion has stayed with him as he traverses a seemingly empty landscape, noticing the details of every blade of grass, rock and shifting shadow, painting scenes with eloquent simplicity. If the book is published in the US, Albert of Adelaide could turn out to be our languishing tourism industry’s secret weapon.
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