Book Review: What to do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein

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What to do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontain, by Colette Victor, explores the all too familiar battles being fought between necessary progress and the fear of change. Set in a small town near Springbok in South Africa it opens with the delivery of a tank of lobsters to the general store. The locals have never seen anything like it and cannot understand what the proprietor, Oom Marius, can have been thinking of bringing such a thing to a place such as Klippiesfontein. Change is frowned upon by the land owning white folk and city ways are regarded with suspicion.

Oom Mariius was trying to impress one of his lady customers but his mind is soon distracted from her by an announcement by his wife. They must travel to Cape Town which means leaving someone else in charge of the store. Oom Marius asks around town but can find nobody willing to step in to help. Eventually he settles on a radical solution which will upset his peers far more than a tank of crustaceans; he announces that his coloured assistant, Petrus, will be running the store in his absence.

The Afrikaans population is appalled and vows to close the store down rather than allow a coloured man to assume such responsibility. The racism and tension rise although not all of the residents are comfortable with the angry men’s actions. A few openly stand up to them while more continue to support the store quietly. A tipping point is reached when one of the vigilantes is turned down for a job by a coloured man and vents his anger in a drunken rage.

The story develops at a gentle pace but is constantly simmering beneath the surface. The lengths some will go to maintain a status quo that suits them is a world wide problem. The residents of Klippiesfontein appear more appalled at the idea of boiling lobsters alive than in confronting their treatment of fellow men.

In this tale the author explores the unasked for impacts of change on those who are oppressed. It looks at rifts within families when views differ. It shows that even those who have reaped the benefits of progress can still struggle to stand up for that to which they are entitled.

As a simple example, although segregation had been outlawed, areas of towns remain coloured or white. Those who stray outside boundaries find themselves feeling uncomfortable when they are stared at. It can easier to stay away.

The story contains much humour alongside the pathos but I found myself feeling angered and saddened. This is how things are and it is hard to see by what means change may be effected. Education plays a part in raising up those living in poverty but they also require opportunity. Perhaps it is the privileged who now need educating, although they seem much less willing to learn.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo Publishing.

Book Review: Tokyo

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Tokyo, by Nicholas Hogg, is a story of loss and of the anchors that are grasped when a life is cast adrift. The writing demanded pauses for appreciation. It was a pleasure to read.

Social psychologist Ben Monroe studies group behaviour: the power of community, an individual’s desire to fit in, the benefits and drawbacks of crowd co-operation, and cults. Through his interest in the latter he meets his wife, Lydia. She is a strong willed woman who dismisses her husband when their toddler daughter, Mazzy, nearly drowns whilst in his care. However much Lydia may blame Ben for his momentary lapse it is nothing compared to the blame he heaps on himself.

Rejected by Lydia, Ben leaves her and Mazzy in California, traveling first to England and from there on to Japan. Whilst exploring this teeming yet fragile country he meets a beautiful young woman, Kozue, with whom he has a brief affair. Conflating good sex with love he struggles to forget her when he returns to England:

“this woman could bring me back to life”

Ben writes a book which will make his academic name and is subsequently offered the chance to return to Tokyo as a visiting professor. He persuades Lydia that Mazzy, now aged fifteen, would benefit by joining him there for six months. On her flight out she meets a young Japanese man, Koji. They speak only briefly but, unbeknownst to Mazzy, Koji becomes obsessed with her. It is not his first obsession.

Ben struggles to see his daughter as the beautiful young woman she is becoming. In trying to deal with his superficial perception he misses that underneath she still needs care. He takes to leaving her to pursue his will-o’-the-wisp of Kozue, a distraction that, once again, puts Mazzy in danger.

The style in which this book is written reminds me of Japanese authors I have read with its slightly surreal plot development and imagery. Characters are introduced but remain opaque. The reader is offered only glimpses of their depth, shadows emerging briefly as from behind the paper screen doors of the houses in which they live. Suggestion is powerful and no more is needed.

Japan is brought to life. I loved the observations on the irrelevance of so much that is valued by man:

“The earth moved […] oblivious to the act played out upon its surface”

When Ben visits the Fukushima exclusion zone he observes:

“In a shopping arcade grass shoots up from the steps of an escalator. How quickly the earth reclaims its space from our feeble endeavours.”

From “the safest country in the world”, despite the earthquakes, tsunamis and radiation, the descriptions of Japan darken as the tale progresses. The historical sex trade, where the geishas have morphed into hostesses, is explored alongside the attendant drugs and extortion. As the tension builds this distasteful side of Tokyo is offered up in contrast to the previously lauded order and honesty.

The plot of this story is compelling but it is the psyches of the protagonists that drew me in. The author captures the weaknesses of the middle aged man, the truculent teenager, and the let down wife with brutal honesty. He also takes the reader inside Japan, a country that I have never visited but, having read this book, feel I now know just that little bit better.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo.

Book Review: Beauty Tips for Girls

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Beauty Tips for Girls, by Margaret Montgomery, is a novel about three women, society’s expectations, loneliness and the challenges which all ages must face when coping with day to day life.

Katy Clemmy is the beautiful and talented teenage daughter of a farmer and an alcoholic mother. To help her through her isolated life she turns to Misty magazine with its fashion and beauty obsessed, bitchy advice columns. She sees herself as overweight and ugly. In the primal battleground of her small town school she suffers the usual verbal attacks from her peers which continuously erode her self esteem.

Katy’s English teacher, Jane, has reached middle age without finding the husband and family she grew up expecting to have. She wonders how her life has turned out this way, blaming her mother for decisions made for her when she was young. When Katy disappears Jane reluctantly becomes involved with the Clemmy family’s problems, seeing in Katy traits which she recognises in herself.

Corinne is Katy’s mother. Pained and unhappy she drowns her feelings in alcohol, seeking oblivion. Corinne narrates her story from the future, her past being a disastrous blur of bad choices, tragedy and destructive behaviour.

As these three women tell their interwoven tales we gain an insight into the inner lives of an angst ridden teenager, an addict and a disillusioned teacher. The author has done a fantastic job of getting inside her character’s heads and showing the reader how each are thinking and feeling. The writing is funny, perceptive, entertaining and considerate.

I absolutely loved the meeting between Jane and the cosmetic surgeon. Their mutual inability to comprehend the other’s point of view was brilliantly portrayed. The book is full of such insights. Each character, major and minor, is presented fully rounded and with all their quirks and preconceptions providing humour in what is a poignant tale.

The inclusion of the articles from Misty magazine, the advertisements and To Do lists, all helped convey how influenced Katy was by these windows into a wider world of skewed priorities. The male teacher’s attitudes added resonance whilst the inclusion of environmentally friendly Dan showed that not all men are so shallow. It was not just the men of course. The cosmetic surgeon’s view of the world was perpetuated by the female clients with whom he spent his working days.

The underlying messages conveyed were all too painfully real but this adds to the power of what remains an entertaining read. Never preachy but truly thought provoking I would recommend this book to everyone who dreams of being more beautiful.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo. 

Book Review: The Other Ida

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The Other Ida, by Amy Mason, tells the story of a dysfunctional family and the legacy of abuse over three generations. The protagonist, Ida, is a thirty year old alcoholic who left home at fifteen but has never moved on from the troubled, squalid lifestyle in which she was raised. She has been estranged from her mother and sister for many years but is now returning to the family home for her mother’s funeral. She feels no sadness at the death of her parent and questions her own worth for feeling this way.

The book moves between time frames giving the reader glimpses of Ida’s childhood and adolescence as well as the period in which the novel is set. Her mother, also an alcoholic, did not cope well with responsibility. She lived a life filled with bitterness and resentment, her only apparent achievement a play written before her children were born. The shadow of this play has affected them all.

The young Ida did her best to care for her little sister, worrying about her well-being and insecurities. This responsibility created its own resentments, the repercussions of which affected Ida deeply. Their father left when they were very young and, although he lived nearby, did little to help them out of the mire their mother created with her dependencies and depression. Ida swung between hate and awe of her enigmatic mother, both enjoying at times and hating the way she made them live.

In getting together to arrange the funeral she and her sister go through their mother’s possessions and unearth secrets which go some way to explaining why all of their lives turned out as they did. With the help of a family friend they find out who their mother was.

The book is a page turner, nicely written with good pace and flow. It is rarely predictable and has a satisfying denouement. Having said that though I have read a number of books with the same premise, of families with a broken history getting together for a funeral and uncovering secrets. This book was an original take on the theme with a very strong build up, but the second half of the book did not deliver the punch that the first half suggested could be possible. Had the beginning not been so very good I may not have felt that slight disappointment, my only criticism of an otherwise solid tale.

The story is brutal, challenging and almost cruelly realistic in its portrayal of a complex mother-daughter relationship. It is also funny and warm in places with an undercurrent of hope despite the damaged people it portrays. An impressive debut by the author, one that is well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo.