THIS UNITED STATE by COLIN FORBES

Not quite sure how or why I’d never read any Colin Forbes before.

Bit of (probably unnecessary) scene -setting before I start.

This big, satisfying chunky novel was bought years ago, in a second hand bookshop in Johannesburg, when we lived there, and has travelled back to India with us, and sat, unread, on a shelf for years.

Cue a bout of spring cleaning and I saw this book, read the blurb “The Island state – Britain – is in mortal danger” and thought it was perfect for the current Brexit mess we’re living through.

What I hadn’t realised until I was a fair bit into the novel is that it is one of a series. Unlike many authors, Mr. Forbes doesn’t do the quick recap & potted history of his characters for new readers, so I battled a bit working out who was whom. Turns out I plunged right into the murky world of international politics with the 16th book in the series.

The story line was interesting & almost prescient in some respects – the US trying to make Britain its next state, planning to take over the country, in an attempt to shore up its defences against the perceived European and Muslim threats just waiting to engulf the UK.

The story is reasonably gripping but a tad repetitive. There are only so many dark, wintery, freezing cold European cities I can take, and ditto smart hotels, and ditto car trips through said cold, dark wintery European countries. I felt Mr. Forbes could have axed several days of expensive hotel stays and the plot wouldn’t have suffered.

The book was written in 1999 (which is only 20 years ago, remember), so the technology side of things reads a little dated, but it is the character of Paula who best illustates how attitudes have changed in 20 years. Each time she got up to pour coffee or hang up someone’s coat, I felt like shouting “Sit down, Paula. Let one of the blokes get the drinks.”

Was the world really like this only 20 years ago?

Were London cabbies really plucky, patriotic fellows?

Was England, Europe & the US so white? Unless I missed it, I don’t think there’s a non-white character in the book.

Reading “The United State” was like reading about a different-but-vaguely-familiar world.

Nevertheless, a fun-enough read in these confused days, where Britain’s place in the world is being assessed by millions of puzzled and baffled observers, including her own citizens like me.

Listen to the US Secretary of State speaking to a Brit:

When we look east we see Europe losing all its strength with their crazy idea of merging countries – nations all with different languages, histories, ways of life. History shows us the Austrian-HungarianEmpire, also a hitch-pitch of nations who detested each other, was held together by Tito for a time. Tito dies. Yugoslavia, as a similar federation to the one proposed for Europe, collapses in a bloodbath. The Soviet Empire is another example of different nationalities which broke down into chaos. You see why Washington is so worried about Europe.

Will i go back and read the preceding 15 novels?

Not sure, to be honest.


THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING SEVEN by ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH

Can there be many things better than reading 2 Alexander McCall Smith novels back to back ?  One day “The Forgotten Affairs of Youth”.

The next day, “The Importance of being seven”.

The joys of being on holiday.

Both of these novels are set in Edinburgh, but in different parts of the city, and they both featuring different social circles.

“The Importance of Being Seven” brings us up-to-date on the comings and goings of the group of people who love in 44 Scotland Street – neighbours, friends, even rivals at times – and their lives and loves.

Every single one of Mr. McCall Smith’s characters is a fully rounded, fleshed out, delightful individual in his or her own right, from Big Lou to the appallingly vain Bruce, from Matthew in his distressed oatmeal sweater to Cyril, the dog with a gold tooth and (in this book) a red spotted bandana.

But the undisputed star of  “The Importance of Being Seven” is the articulate, well-read, Italian speaking, much put-upon Bertie, aged 6 and a half, but oh-so-longing to be seven.

This book is Bertie’s, and in his charming preface Mr. McCall Smith shares with us his affection for this little boy, and the fact that so many of us are on Bertie’s side, willing him on to escape from the clutches of his quite dreadful (though doubtlessly well-intentioned) mother Irene.

Poor (ghastly) Irene.

Who hasn’t met a version of this Dragon Mum in real life ?  Ruthlessly steering their child along the path the mother has chosen, no deviation allowed, cramming their young lives with a bewildering array of activities, leaving no time for play.  And, in poor little Bertie’s case, certainly no place for crisps, chocolate or Irn-Bru.

My Irene was a breathtakingly ruthless Ballet Mum in Johannesburg, reliving her own cut-short-through-marriage ballet career through the lives of her pliant, ultra-obedient, quiet daughters.  My poor daughter never stood a chance of getting the lead in the annual concert.  How could she, when Ballet Mum organized private classes for her daughters, and always secretly sewed on more ribbons and sequins than we had been told to ?

But I digress, almost as though I were an Alexander McCall Smith character.

Pliancy – and Bertie’s inherent good manners – are what allow Irene to march this little fellow off to psychotherapy and yoga, and to force him to speak Italian, all of which he hates, but is too polite to refuse.

And then there’s baby Ulysses, he of the sticky-out ears, so unlike his father’s but so like those of Bertie’s previous psychotherapist.  Although not yet able to speak, Ulysses lets known his hatred of his mother, by vomiting all over her whenever she approaches him.  I have high hopes for baby Ulysses in future 44 Scotland Street books.

There are many funny bits in this book, that made me laugh out loud, which is always a wonderful moment when you read.

Such as this delicious conversation between Bertie and his new friend Andy, who leads such an exotic life in Bertie’s eyes – being allowed knives and Meccano and Irn-Bru, and with the promise of being allowed to stalk deer.  When he’s eight.

 

Dear little Bertie.

One does so hope that life will change dramatically for him when he turns seven, but to be honest, with friends like Olive and Tofu and Pansy and Hiawatha, his little future does look rather bleak.

There is love and pregnancy (and what a pregnancy) and manipulation and decency, and moments of joy in this delightful, beautifully crafted book.

Mr. McCall Smith is a master of elegant prose, of gentle humour and of great affection for his motley array of characters, including the one and only Cyril,  who has the order of “cane-cavaliere” bestowed on him for…ah, but that would only spoil the pleasure of reading about Cyril’s adventures in Pisa.

And, by the way, whoever knew that Factor 40 sunscreen makes a good thinner for oil paints…

Published by Abacus, the paperback costs £7.99.

After reading this review, should you wish to buy the book (and how flattering would that be) simply click on the link below :

SUNDOWNERS by LESLEY LOKKO

Any book that has the expression “a rattling good read” quoted on its cover sounds ideal for holiday reading, and so this big fat first novel, published in 2003, was a nicely satisfying pick for a rainy European holiday.

I have a pronounced weakness for any book about South Africa, and admittedly, it was the title that first drew me to this novel.

Sundowners are a delicious way of life in Africa, particularly in the bush, where you watch the African sun set against a backdrop of animals at a waterhole…but I digress.  Lovely as the title is, I couldn’t see how it related to the novel, but never mind, I read it anyway.

The novel follows the lives of 4 friends from spartan boarding school in rainy England, through to adulthood, love affairs, marriage, motherhood.  One of the four girls is a wealthy, blonde, beautiful, brattish South African who has much to learn about life and co-existing and sharing, and especially dealing with people who are not white.

Rianne has been brought up all her pampered life in Johannesburg by black South Africans, but has never had a black friend.

And so we follow all their lives, with more or less degrees of commitment and interest, as they make mistakes, make bad choices and good decisions, but always stick together.

The school days, the early scene-setting, bonding part, is way too long and detailed.  But it does provide a backdrop for Rianne to meet Riitho, who is at the neighbouring boys’ school.  A fellow South African, Riitho is black, the son of a leading political activist.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Which it would be mean to divulge, since “Sundowners” does make for a good page-turner.

Far and away the most compelling parts of the book are those about South Africa.  The author writes with warmth and knowledge and compassion about Johannesburg and the struggle, and her cast of African characters, both major and minor players, are convincing and affectionately drawn.  The inclusion of many real South Africans, especially in those turbulent times around the end of the apartheid era, add to the effective atmosphere.

Yes, obviously I am talking about Nelson Mandela.

 

Published by Orion, the paperback costs £6.99.

If you would like to buy the book now, nothing could be simpler.  Just click on either of the links below to order :

 

PEOPLE LIKE OURSELVES by PAMELA JOOSTE

“People like Ourselves” by the South African novelist Pamela Jooste is both engaging but also ever so slightly disappointing at the end.

Perhaps it’s because I lived in Johannesburg for several very happy years, in a gated community that is featured in the novel, that I felt an instant connection to the world described. In fact, the writer even mentions my former street, so there was an immediate feeling of engagement and familiarity about this well-written book.

Johannesburg in the early years of the “new” South Africa still runs on traditional lines.
The rich, white South Africans live in their elegant homes in the northern suburbs, attended to by an army of black staff. Although cautiously aware of the need for reform, and new attitudes, and new language – for instance you no longer refer to your maid as a maid, but rather as a house worker – old habits otherwise die hard.

We follow the closely inter-connected lives of Gus and Caroline, Julia and Douglas, all born into the wealthy upper crust of Johannesburg society. Their mothers and mothers-in-law are friends, they all frequent the same parties, they are expected to inter-marry, and usually they do.

And when they don’t, as Douglas did in his first, frowned-upon marriage to the rebellious young English woman Rosalie, just look how things turn out. She runs away with another man, gets involved in politics, but now, thank goodness is far away, back in London.
And so the privileged of Jo’burg live out their middle-aged lives, worrying about rebellious children, and loveless marriages, with financial woes crowding ever closer.
Plus, of course, there is the new South Africa to deal with.

Crime.

The new order of things.

The whites may think they are reaching out to their fellow – read black – compatriots, but the feeling is hardy reciprocated. There is trusty old Gladstone, whose name is absolutely not Gladstone, but that’s what his white employers think he is called.

There is the canny, ambitious small-time actress in TV soap operas, whom we see through the eyes of her young daughter, Tula. Her mother, who is absent from her life most of the time, is categorical about the rules in the new South Africa, contemptuous of the way her own mother treats her white employers :

Do I look to you like I was born to know anything about “back gate,” “servants’ entrance” kind of rubbish ? No more “master” and “madam” and “yes, sir” and “thank you, miss.”

The book weaves all the varied stories together skillfully, shifting from one character and view point to another, not only within Johannesburg, but also to and from London, where Rosalie is heading inexorably towards her own nightmare.

Possibly because the Jo’burg parts of the novel are so well written, finely attuned to every verbal and social nuance, the London chapters are not quite as convincing. We are not as interested in the minor English characters as we are in their African counterparts.

The end of this very enjoyable novel comes upon us rather abruptly, with several loose ends untied.

I, for one, could have down with many more chapters, to finish off the many stories in as leisurely a way as they started.

“People like Ourselves” is published by Black Swan, and the paperback retails for £6.99 or Can $19.95.

If you wish to order the book, you can do so now by clicking on the link below :