Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Hangman’s Replacement
Taona Dumisani Chivenenko

Full of intrigue, mystery, humour and secretive; well, that about covers the author! This book has been written by the above named person, who has no immediately available image on ‘Google’, translated by ‘somebody’ and ‘another person’. There doesn’t appear to have an easily trackable   ISBN and the title, although central to the plot line has very little to do with erasing the idea that this is a gloomy, morbid tale, which it isn’t. So, what is it?

Science fiction, horror, satire, humour and an investigation of ‘what if...’ It starts with a simple man applying for the job, as stated in the title. He may be a simple man, but he certainly is no simpleton. Following several logical, humane but somewhat difficult philosophies, we will leave him part way through the story, only for him to return at the appropriate time. For example, to prĂ©cis a segment of his interview; how he would feel if he found out that he had dispatched a third of his prisoners who were in fact innocent. He remarked that as his wage would keep his entire village in food and drinks, which numbered many more than in the prison, he would still be saving lives by becoming the hangman. Difficult to argue with, I think but alien to our sense of decency? Discuss.

As we move through the tale, we meet the super rich, the politicians that might just be veering ever so slightly down their own path, with somewhat obscure motives and plans. So now all we need is the introduction of the flesh eating plants!  Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the human organ smuggling gang that use living cattle to transport across the borders.  But who will be the winners and losers in this battle that resembles ‘The Day of the Triffids’ and ‘Frankenstein’?  There are chapters entitled ‘The man with two brains’ (which will make sense when you get there, and there is an encounter with a dead, naked man, found in the lake, completely wrapped in a full sized condom! Again, this will make sense at the right time.

This is a book that is easily looked over, with a title that does not automatically lend itself to further investigation. But I cannot recommend highly enough that you resist the urge to pass it by, take it off the shelf, look on your e-reader, or if you have to, contact me and I will point you in the right direction – but please do try and find time. Just put your disbelief to one side for a short time, immerse yourself into every conceivable genre that 300 pages can manage to accommodate and get stuck in. I promise, you will not read about or experience the last moments on any criminal’s life.

I am told by the author (whoever that may be) that there is to be a sequel. I, for one, can’t wait. I hope it will be just as quirky and odd, but it must remain as true to humanity; and humane philosophies as this one. I can’t recommend this one highly enough! 

Monday, 16 June 2014


The Blind Man’s Garden
Nadeem Aslam

ISBN 978-0-571-28794-9

Pakistan – contemporary times, with young, passionate angry men who see their country, and neighbouring Afghanistan being invaded by westerners, infidels who are putting the very fabric of the Islamic faith in danger.  So sets the scene for this book that is not a book of war or terror, but one of internal struggles, both personal and political. And, as everywhere in the world, we enter a world of love, family standards and expectations, and simple yearning for the things that can’t be attained when young.

The story has three strains running through it. Firstly, Mikal and Jeo cross the border to Afghanistan into the war zone, for totally different reasons. Then we have Jeo’s father’s experiences whilst left at home, with fundamentalists threatening to undermine all his life’s work, while his past is a constant torment to him. Finally, we are witness to a love triangle that is doomed from the very first words on the page.  

So why does this seemingly run of the mill love triangle novel work? Because it isn’t! The Islam religion comes into play, Pakistani senses of honour and family standards are cleverly mixed in. It becomes a mental battle for my western upbringing and ways of living. The same should be said for the passages that follow the two men across the border. Their thinking patterns are expressed as the men of that part of the world would be expected to think. The western forces are trying to impose their will on the traditional way of life, and these men, and many others like them, are resisting. It does make for some uncomfortable reading in parts, not in any particular violent way, but perhaps with the realisation that all the propaganda we in the west are given about the conflict and the men concerned are not entirely with a firm basis. It does challenge our thinking.

Finally, what must it be like having self confessed terrorist in the neighbourhood? To not believe in their actions and motives, but unable to act in a decisive way to stop it must be difficult indeed. As the story progresses, it is instinctive to think that everything will be fine in the end, but you will constantly be reminded that you are viewing events from the ‘other side of the fence.’

Written in a crisp, fast paced fashion, it does have a certain ‘un-putdownability’ about it; we are always left with an urge to know what happens next. Don’t expect an easy read though; as I say, it will challenge all the perceptions and ideals that the average westerner is brought up with. I do say that with all due respect to those of the Islamic faith and upbringing. It has certainly made me realise that as with all people of the world, we all just want to do what we believe is right for our own family. And that is quite right too!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Garlic Ballads
Mo Yan

ISBN 978-1-61145-530-4

Venturing into China, I decided to look for a contemporary work that would move away from the historical way that is well documented in other reviews. It was whilst rummaging around the works of Nobel Prize winning authors that I came across this story from an author whose work is often banned from his native home. I do think if I was the Chinese government I too would ban his work, or else be thoroughly ashamed that my actions were being exposed.

 It s a love story, (or not), a story of family values (or stresses), but mostly a story about the ordinary working folk trying to make a living for their family in spite of the actions of the local governing party members. It becomes a story of human frustration that spills over in a low level demonstration by the farmers that have devastating consequences. The garlic crop has been planted and farmed based on the request, and I use that term loosely, of the collective. A glut ensues, the farmers lose their entire years earnings, and finally they begin to ask why the government is failing them. The inevitable consequences appear disproportionate, however they are described with great plausibility.  

Into this mix, we must consider the way that a modern family still treats the women of the home. Certainly in this tale, we might have been reading a book written a hundred years ago. The wife has become a devoted slave to her husband’s whims, and the daughter is certainly not invited to offer an opinion on anything. She is to be sold, via a dowry, into a marriage that she has no wish to be part of. When she expresses a love for the young man in the next field, she is beaten brutally by her father and lambasted by her brothers while her mother stands by. Although the brothers are not entitled to beat their sister, they have no such inhibitions towards her young lover. Powerful stuff indeed!

The story is written at many levels. The three entwined threads, as I have described, goes through several time spans. Firstly we are living with the consequences of everybody’s actions. We are also taken back to the various recent histories of each of the characters and families, and finally, we are taken back to their earlier histories to explain how and why they are all in the situations they find themselves. However, throughout the novel we have the government attitude in the background. This is probably where the censor has a problem. We, the outside world, are aware of their attitude to all manner of issues concerning the ordinary folk trying to eke out a living. ‘Might is right’ is a phrase that runs as an underlying threat to every strand of this excellently written, well crafted novel concerning dreadful behaviour of all manner of departments, courts, government officials and heads of families.

I do urge you to try and find a copy of this book; if you choose to disbelieve all the claims made by the author it is still a very good read and if you do believe the claims, prepare to ask yourself what you might be able to do to change to lot of the ordinary hard working people of China.