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So many books, so little time

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TO harold fry cover

The two winners of the Boeke Prize 2012 are, perhaps predictably, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There are always two winners – one selected by a panel of judges from the SA media, and the other by Exclusive Books Fanatics members who vote for their favourite read. This year marks the 18th annual Exclusive Books Boeke Prize, proving that it has become a coveted accolade in the publishing industry. The Boeke campaign celebrates Exclusive Books’ love of literature with the shortlist of the best books of the year selected for their readers. Here are the choices of Diane de Beer (who is also a judge) for this year’s competition.

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, R211)

This is an easy one to recommend. If you watch(ed) the American talk shows like the now defunct Larry King Live, you might remember a murder case that was closely followed by the US media where a young pregnant mother disappeared and her husband became the prime suspect. Her body was eventually found and her husband was accused and found guilty with all kinds of lurid details like a mistress also coming to light.

It’s that story this book exposes. You don’t need to know anything about the case, but it does add some intrigue if you do. A wife disappears and the husband who has problems with social interaction immediately comes under suspicion. The story is told from different points of view which is huge fun because it invites the reader to become part of the jury in a sense.

TO Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It is the twists and turns that makes this such a gripping experience. It’s one of those thrillers that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never lets go. Even when you turn the last page, questions will come tumbling out as you think of the different possibilities the writer could have chosen.

But that is precisely what makes this such a good one. The story is refreshing. There’s no formula at play and everything has been worked though so carefully that it makes perfect sense. Watch out, Hollywood, this will be a movie. How could it not with that great title?

Apart from my winning choice, I made compromises with all the other books. All of them had something of merit, but with so many books out there to keep us going, I wondered about these particular choices. Each one needs almost a justification if you want someone to pick it up and read it. Life for some will seem too short. As a reader once remarked, so many books, so little time...

But here goes anyway:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry

Rachel Joyce (Transworld Publishers, R221)

TO the watch

Your whole life runs in a particular fashion because of the way you were treated as a child and it has huge impact on your future relationships – sometimes devastating effects. This is especially true of Harold Fry who seems to wake up out of a slumber when he receives a letter from one of his only friends after years of no contact, to be told she’s dying of cancer.

It’s as if something has shaken him loose and he decides to go on a pilgrimage to honour his friend dying in hospital – but that’s a very long way.

He tackles this walk with no planning in the very clothes and yachting shoes he happens to be wearing and sets off without telling his wife. He does contact her, however, and then starts a remarkable journey. It’s especially the story of Harold and his long-suffering wife as their thoughts, dreams and hopes are what propels the story.

Somewhere, about two thirds into the journey, the author introduces a group of pilgrims that adds an unnecessary element to the story. It’s not as if the relationships already established aren’t rich enough without the sudden intrusion of the pilgrims. Suddenly they seem to take precedence over the title character and if that’s who you’re investing in, this spectacular intrusion hampers rather than adds to the novel. I would have much preferred to let those few chapters go. Harold and his personal life were more than enticing enough to get me invigorated and involved in his story.

The Watch

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (Random House, R221)

It’s A well written story about especially the US soldiers at war in Afghanistan. It’s also very topical if you live in the US, but perhaps in a country where we have been through our own wars, why should we read about someone else’s?

It’s not as if we’re going to gain anything, because this is about telling the American people what is happening to their soldiers fighting in foreign lands. One would imagine that they know by now, but rolling from one war to another, perhaps not enough to call a halt.

It’s a heart-rending story about an Afghan woman who had both her legs shot off and wheels herself to the closest American army camp because her brother who has fought in retaliation has been killed. She wants to bury him according to their culture.

The unrolling of the event is told through the eyes of different characters all involved in the incident including the woman who is the introductory voice and an Afghan interpreter who gives another angle to the American point of view.

It does cover all the angles, the young men who change dramatically during their stint on the other side of the world, the estrangement they experience when they return, the many wives and girlfriends that desert them, the lack of support for the veterans once they’re back, the difficulty of adapting to normal life, their inability to come to terms with the culture of another people even if you are trespassing on their land ... and it goes on.

Because there’s nothing new and as each character tackles yet another aspect of war, it does feel a bit like a propaganda drum roll being run through. So even if it is not badly told, I kept wondering why on earth I would take time out to read this one.

Age Of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker

(Simon & Schuster, R206)

The stories seem to be strong this year yet it is what happens once the writer sits down to develop the idea when things seem to go awry.

Think about this one. One day, Earth suddenly begins to turn more slowly, which has a huge impact on the way people live.

In this instance, the protagonist is an impressionable young girl who has a strong voice – no problem with character development here.

But once the author puts the idea out there, it is almost as if she didn’t know how to colour it in. Halfway through the story – and it isn’t a thick book – you become almost bored. The story seems to go round and round with not much of an inkling of how to tackle the problems that face this particular state of living.

It’s an intriguing idea. Because the world slows down, daylight hours change and darkness suddenly descends at a time

you don’t expect it.

The US government decides that people must stick to real time, which means kids go to school in darkness, or to bed in bright sunlight. Others prefer to adopt this new world and to rise when it’s light, whatever the time, and go to bed when darkness appears.

This creates all kinds of animosity between the two groups which spills over into individual lives more dramatically than you would expect.

It’s a strange kind of book in that the idea seems to surpass the execution. It feels as if much more could have been made of the story.

The Light Between Oceans

ML Stedman

(Transworld Publishers, R221)

A young couple live on an isolated island where the husband is the lightkeeper. He adores his young wife and would do anything to make her happy. Her priority is a family, especially as they have to make their own life in this inhospitable environment. They seem to manage well until she has one miscarriage after another, finally three in total.

But then one day, a boat washes up on the island. The passengers are a dead man and a baby – very much alive.

Too good to be true? Of course, but it makes for a good story as the couple decide to keep the baby in spite of the husband arguing that they have to report the incident to the police.

Everything you think will happen does in almost too-good-to-be-true fashion, but for the first half of the book there’s enough torment and struggle in the young couple to get your teeth stuck into the story. But as they return to the mainland, it’s as if the events unfolding slip on to a rollercoaster and take off.

Walk Across The Sun

Corben Addison

(New Title/Quercus, R199)

If it was just about storytelling and what should grip you, this would have stood a better chance.

Human trafficking is something we all hear about, perhaps not often enough, but anyone who can speak with any authority about this evil will tell you how prevalent it is around the world.

I can’t think of anything more terrifying for the person being trafficked or those who have to try to find their missing sibling

or daughter – because sadly, the people involved are mostly female.

A story is perhaps the ideal way to get all this across to the most willing ears, but this one doesn’t delve deep enough. It’s not badly written, which is almost worse – all the more reason to ask why we don’t get under the skin of any of the characters, instead skimming the surface.

To really get to grips with the horror of what is happening out there, the characters have to get into our lives and make us feel for them. That doesn’t happen here. Even if the story seems to have all the ingredients, the most important one – real characters – is missing.


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