“She’ll read anything,” my mother would say, “even the labels on jars.”
On occasion she would decide that I was reading too much, and the book of the moment would be confiscated and put on top of the fridge. I hated that. Much of my childhood was, at different times, lived through the books I read. At boarding school, Saturday and Sunday evenings’ leisure often included a “home movie”. Reels of film were loaded and projected on to a screen and had to be changed halfway through the movie.
A necessary degression: the films were often skop, skiet en donner. Not my cup of tea: I was am terrified of anything bloody, violent and scary. Suspense I could manage. Just. Not horror. Most of the time I’d ask to be excused in favour of solitude in the dormitory I shared with three. I’d happily curl up on my bed with the book of the moment. If I was compelled to join the crowd, my essential companion was a little cushion. When things got too much, I’d clutch it to my developing bosom flee as far down the passage, or up the stairs, away from the terror as I could. When I thought it was safe, I’d creep down and peer into the darkened room, prepared for instant retreat.
This is another ramble inspired by the @yourtop3 team, with this month’s theme, our favourite authors. Having nailed my colours to the mast with the team, and having missed the December edition because the wheels fell off, I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity to write about a passionate pastime I now rarely get to pursue.
If you’ve got this far, I suggest you get coffee. This is a long read and I hope, if you’ve not met some of these authors, what follows is enough of a soupçon to whet your appetite.
I couldn’t wait to start school: I wanted to be able to read and write. As soon as I was able to read independently, books and I have not been far apart. I still love reading, but don’t do it as much as I’d like any more. I have said before, I’d be hard pressed to choose a favourite book, let alone a favourite author, or even to confine the choice to just three.
The early years: school and university
My reading palate (like most things in my life) is eclectic, and I read across genres. The flavour of the moment has varied considerably, ranging from the classics and modern fantasy to murder mysteries, political thrillers, to crime-inspired non-fiction and biographies. I’ve not read much modern fantasy in recent years, but I do periodically revisit Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Why I don’t own a copy, is a mystery. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it. Another read, if not due, will inevitably happen. Had the option been available when I read for my English Literature degree, I’d have selected that genre as an elective; it was available the following year. I did, however, devour the reading list which consisted of among other authors, Ursula Le Guin, including her Earthsea trilogy. In the ensuing years I read Frank Herbert’s Dune, work by Stephen Donaldson and Richard Adams.
All made enormous impressions on me – for different reasons. My first cat, Comfrey, was named for the main character in Duncton Wood which was as much for the qualities of the character and the herb, as it was what I needed at the time. Dune, the first instalment was pivotal and the best in the series. Subsequent instalments were so disappointing that I didn’t finish the series. The complexity of the fictional society and its religion, I have never forgotten. Nor the prophetic use of water as the most precious element in the world. In case you’re wondering: I’ve not seen any of the film versions of any of the novels I’ve mentioned so far. They’re not on the “must see” list. I did see a little of the Dune series but, as is so often the case, much was lost in the adaptation.
Another author, had I not finished my English degree the year I did, that I’d have loved to study, was John Fowles. I had a set of his books – not just The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but also The Magus and The Collector and a couple of others. Why I don’t have them anymore? Well that’s a story best not told. Copies of those books are very hard to come by, and very high up on my “must-buy” list.
They mystify it by calling it “literature”
Disappointed though I was, that I could not elect to formally study Fowles or modern fantasy, I chose an author who, in some ways, represented the opposite, for my specialisation: Thomas Hardy. Yes, he of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge fame. Those films I have seen, at school because it was mandatory, or because it was the vogue. However, a film can’t do justice to the narrative devices that Hardy employs to convey a world either malevolent or benevolent; he does both in different novels. The course included some of his lesser known novels which are equally compelling, and which also explore similar issues of class, particularly treatment of the rural poor, relationships, the parlous treatment of women by men.
During my studies, I loved some of the early modern literature, including Spencer’s Faery Queene and Shakespeare. I have noted that the only poetry that I could successfully come to grips with, is Willy Wobbldagger’s sonnets.
I couldn’t deal very successfully with the modern novel. Paul Bellow’s Herzog was my nemesis. It’s one of the few times I have been incapable of finishing a book. I wanted to. I chose to attack my final year’s reading list during my summer (Christmas) vacation. That year I had no job and spent most of my days languishing by the university pool. Book in basket. Every day. Book on towel. Book open. Every day. I tried for three months and could make absolutely no headway. With hindsight, I should probably have put it aside and selected another. I didn’t. I persevered. Even six months on, with one of our best, most hip lecturers, I just could not hack it. Nearly 40 years later, and with a life of living, it occurs to me that it might make sense to me now. If I fall across a copy, I promise, I’ll try.
Before I leave that era of my life, I must mention two female authors, no, three. All, in their own ways, make statements about the status of women. All struggled to publish, and one remains published in her nom de plume. George Elliot’s Middlemarch still sits on my bookshelf and has been re-read at least three times since I studied it in 1983. It’ll be read again.
Then there is Jane Austen and her take on the gothic novel with Northanger Abbey, as well as her social commentary through Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. On superficial level, Austen’s novels quelled the nightmares of any teenage girl terrified of not finding love and marriage. It amazes me how, in the 21st century, these social pressures have not, for so many women, gone away. My blog pal, Katie (@plantstoplanks) deals with another aspect of these social pressures in this post.
More exciting for an adolescent girl, though, were two Brontë novels. Like Elliott and Austen, the Brontë sisters all published (as brothers) with noms de plume. I admit to not having read anything from Anne, but the two seminal novels from Charlotte and Emily, live with me. I first read Jane Eyre in primary school. It excited and terrified me. I still can vividly imagine the scenes of that house burning down at the hands of the mad, first Mrs Rochester, and the terror that preceded it. Of course, the piéce de resistance of the Brontë novels was Wuthering Heights, so full of passion and pain. Immortalised for the adolescent Fiona in Kate Bush’s 1978 song, written and composed when she was just a teenager.
Fast forward forty-odd years, and I can’t remember the last time I spent an entire day alone with a book. I do, though, have vivid memories of a couple of book Christmas gifts from The Husband that turned me into an unsociable bookworm. One is from one of my favourite authors in the psychological thriller genre. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (also known as the Millennium series) kept me enrapt. It’s a good thing it was over the Christmas holiday. As usual, I’d cooked myself to a standstill: the leftovers meant I didn’t have to cook for a while. I read all three in short order. I’ve re-read them, and I’ll re-read them. Although the translation isn’t the best, the character development, especially of the two protagonists, is part of what I found so enthralling. Blomkvist is conflicted and his relationship with Salander surprises the reader no less than it surprises him. Salander starts off as an annoying enigma who grows on one. The development of their relationship over the three instalments is only part of what keeps the reader engaged. The series also explores the dangers and opportunities of the cyber world, entangled with constant and real physical danger. One is left feeling that resolutions are not resolutions at all.
In a somewhat similar vein are Dan Brown’s novels. I gorged myself on the Da Vinci Code and although I’ve not had the opportunity to read all of his subsequent novels, I will add them to the list that have had similar treatment from me – Inferno and Digital Fortress. While the plots are formulaic and Langdon’s character (now we’ve got to know him) a little flat, I do enjoy Brown’s use of symbolism and how he incorporates literature, history and current affairs into plots that create heart-stopping page-turners. His were precisely the type of novels that I loved when I frequently travelled on business: they were a great way to take my mind off stuff and, at the same time, help me to cocoon from inevitably boring or irritating fellow travellers.
Evidently, I love a good thriller, so my trips to the airport (especially after moving to McGregor) were planned so that I had time (never enough) at the book shop. Author whose novels I’ve delighted reading, all my adult life, is Erik van Lustbader. No, I’m not only talking about the Bourne series, some of which I’ve read, and which falls into another favourite sub-genre – political thrillers – but his other novels which include “pure” thrillers and fantasy. I’ve dipped into all of them. Again, I’ve not read some of the more recent work, and they’re on my wish list. We donated books to a local charity not so long ago, and most of the Van Lustbaders went. I have no doubt that the “un-reads” will assume their places as I scour the shelves in the local shop to which I (and many in the village) donate their “spent” books and buy “new” ones. As and aside: it’s a great way to support the care of the community’s animals.
Returning to the topic, Robin Cook’s medical thrillers have engrossed me for years. I have a number in my bookshelf and have been fascinated by all his novels since his first, Coma, and which I must have read while still at school. I remember being beguiled by images of the 1977 film (which I’ve not seen) in a local magazine, when I was about 16. As soon as I could get my hands on a copy, I was hooked and I’ve been reading his novels ever since. Having just looked at a full list, I have read many of them and, like Brown’s work, and coupled with Cook’s own background, the extensive research conspires to make the stories all the more gripping.
Law and Politics
It’s an open secret that I have an interest in current affairs and politics – both fiction and non-fiction. My introduction to political thrillers was courtesy of John le Carré (partly through A C O’Neill whom I mention below) and, around the same time, Gerald Seymour. In the latter’s case, it was the novel, A Song in the Morning, set in Apartheid South Africa, and which I read in the 80’s, and have subsequently re-read. I then sought out his novels: all are all thrilling and set in conflict areas and although the characters are often less than memorable, the plots are well thought through with the scenes of conflict and landscapes, well researched. Two that I vividly recollect are At Close Quarters, set in the middle east, and the Irish conflict story, The Journeyman Tailor.
My parents are responsible for introducing me to crime novels. They had entire bookshelf filled with John Creasey’s novels. When my library books were read and I was bored, I’d fish one out. I made friends with inspector George Gideon and learned my way around Scotland Yard. The Toff and I were great pals. They might have been dated – even in the 70’s – but they were a great read and did little to put me off a life of crime. They laid the foundation for my affair with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. I most definitely will not see any of those films. Tom Cruise, I’m afraid, could simply never live up to my Reacher! Oh, and having recently heard an interview with Child, he (not Reacher) seems like a downright nice person.
Continuing my partiality for writers whose work is well researched, is my fondness for John Grisham. I have been reading his novels since before Julia Roberts appeared in one of “his” films. Different from some of the authors I’ve mentioned, Grisham’s protagonists are a more rounded: they are (usually), ordinary people whose lives resonate for the reader. The Chamber, still in our bookshelf, deals with an issue close to my heart – the death penalty.
The South African Connection
A relatively new entrant to the crime genre is Deon Meyer, a South African, who writes in his native Afrikaans, and whose books have been translated (well, I hasten to add) into English and several other languages. Although he (must) make use of creative license, the characters, especially Bennie Griessel, are not just believable, but recognisable. He manages to weave current South African reality – socio-political – into his stories without making it appear forced or overt. Meyer remains on my “must-buy” list.
Even closer to home
On authors who write about this part of the world, I must make mention of friend and old Rhodian, A C O’Niell, whose debut novel, The Rain That Clears The Chaff, is well worth a read. I lent my copy to someone and rue the day.
That I happened to know the author at university is a happy accident – it’s the only way I got to hear about the book. I don’t know whether there’s another novel. He did tell me that the publisher was asking. Perhaps I’ll ask again…
Among the books on my bedside table is another debut novel from blog pal (and Sandbag House diner) and coincidentally, an old Rhodian, Briony Chisolm – One Night Only – serendipitously snuggled between Lee Child and Dan Brown. It’s a great chick book.
Almost there – another coffee?
My reading tastes are not confined to fiction and, of course, I have an ever-growing collection of recipe and cookery books.
They might deserve a post of their own, and keeping the home fires burning, there is a cookbook author that deserves mention. Nina Shand is also an Old Rhodian who, with her husband, Paul de Jongh, own Millstone Pottery. She’s also a debut author of not simply a recipe book. It’s a book about food and the pottery. The food is prepared and served in and/or on vessels they’ve made in the pottery. The beautiful photographs (taken by a villager) are the vehicle for the food to showcase the ceramics about which Nina also writes. Another OR and local, designed the book which is full of imminently cookable recipes. I know – I’ve cooked some of them already. It’s also had a rave review from our neighbour and a doyenne of South African cookery, Myrna Robbins. Nina and I have adjacent stands at the market and while away the time between customers, catching up on “stuff”.
I mentioned two book gifts from The Husband that had me riveted. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the Millennium Series. The other was a non-fiction and autobiographical story from South African journalist, Redi Thlabi. Endings and Beginnings recounts Thlabi’s childhood friendship with a man who was a criminal, and who was her protector. It’s a harsh and gentle, gut-wrenching story that left me sobbing. I’ve not read her second book. It’s on the list.
Mandy Weiner is another South African journalist and a contemporary of Thlabi’s. Weiner’s speciality is crime and I’m now reading her second book. Funnily enough, I discovered that we have two copies of her first book, the eponymous, Killing Kebble, in which she delves into the death of the mining magnate. I am nearly halfway through Ministry of Crime. It’s taking me a while to get through – I read every night before I turn off the light and often, the spirit is willing, but the eyes are heavy, so if I manage a page or two, I’m happy. Usually, it’s the same paragraph three times over, notwithstanding how riveting it might be. And it is.
The top three?
Choosing my top three authors is agonising. In making the selection, I’ve used a few criteria:
- s/he must have a body of work – not just a single novel/publication – sorry Nina, Briony and Alan
- the writing must be as riveting as the content/story line
- I would be happy to spend money on another of their books – a hard copy – for the bookshelf
The small print
I reserve my right to change this selection at any time after the end of January 2020. It changed while I was writing and revising….
After serious consideration, and given my present state of mind, my current top three authors, in no particular order, are
- Mandy Weiner – because I do want a non-fiction author in the mix, and I’m reading her at the moment
- John Grisham
- Lee Child
Also, because I can, the runners up: Stieg Larsson, Deon Meyer and Erik van Lustbader.
And yes, in case you’re wondering: I do still read labels on jars.
Until next time
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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