Saturday, 17 February 2018

Ten of the Best #112

Good morning all you wonderful people. What a week it's been. So much has happened in this little country at the tip of Africa, and for the first time in years, we are waking up hopeful on a Saturday morning. It's a new day, a new dawn. #Sendme. Yes, I watched (and listened to - had to do a late lift) SONA. I'm inspired.

It made me think about this, first off . Jansen's article about bad leadership, example and education. Oh, and SONA, as it turns out - I'd forgotten that. The original article is on a site that you have log into (here's the link), so if that annoys you too, click the picture below, where I've reposted it, with no annoying login requests. Don't forget to come back here to read more.

And for all of you not living in the land of the beautiful and the brave, don't despair. You too can have a new President by Friday. Or Valentine's Day, as it turned out. Hope you didn't miss the Poplak article on how it all went down (language warning). Here it is, just click the marvellous Zapiro. Hasta la vista indeed.

And the end of an error it is too. What with the corrupt government ministers looking at their job opportunities going flying down the toilet at last night's SONA, where are our comedians going to find inspiration. Sorry for them, but not sorry enough. You'll find something.

Jansen's article on children, leadership and SONA

It's irritating me that I have to log in to read this, so I'm posting it here, for those of you who feel the same. Jonathan Jansen's article on children, leadership and SONA. Word for word. And no annoying ads.

It was the late Philip Jackson who gave us the term “hidden curriculum” to describe the things children learn, inside but also outside the classroom, that are neither planned nor intended.

The explicit curriculum contains official knowledge —teachers are required to teach the structure of the atom or the meanings of metaphors or the reasons for the Great Trek. But children learn much more than what is printed in the school syllabus or the government’s Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS).
In a good school, children line up for classes, wait their turn during question time and compete to win one of the academic or cultural or sporting awards of the school. In this way they learn about discipline, respect and achievement. In a dysfunctional school, on the other hand, children learn, when the teacher is always late for classes and the broken window never gets fixed and the toilet is a pit latrine, that they really do not matter to the adults around them.
There are scholars who argue that this hidden curriculum is even more powerful in shaping the values of youth than the official knowledge they are required to learn.

Which is what got me thinking about the powerful hidden curriculum that millions of young people are being “taught” by observing what is happening in South Africa over the past few days but, indeed, also during the past several years.

There are scholars who argue that this hidden curriculum is even more powerful in shaping the values of youth than the official knowledge they are required to learn.

They learn that you can be corrupt and still be a leader in this country; that you can conspire with wealthy, foreign families to steal this country bare and lie about it with impunity; that you can appoint to leadership in government the most incompetent people regardless of the consequences; that you can oversee the loss of lives of mentally challenged patients, leave the country for studies and then come back and blame everyone else; that state-owned entities are looting fields and that tenders offer routine opportunities for self-enrichment not selfless service to the public; that the powerful can defy the courts for as long as they can; that when you are angry as a man you can lash out and kick a woman from a rival political interest group on the ground; and that loyalty to the party is more important than loyalty to the country.

Young people are not stupid. They learn their most important values through careful observation of what happens around them and, importantly, from how influential adults behave in public life. This is the real damage of the Zuma presidency. It has made normal what should be repulsive. It has weakened democratic institutions. It has set such a low bar for public life that any lazy, unskilled and avaricious persona can make a run for office whether in a local municipality or the national government.

Young people observe these phenomena and make calculations of their own. Yes, a degree can be helpful in landing a job and hard work probably helps; but much easier to do and more quickly achieved is to get on that slimy path to deployment. That is how we should understand the political killings in parts of the country — somebody is a threat to the advancement of someone else, so the person gets taken out. And all the time the children are watching us.

As I passed through entrance to Parliament this week for a meeting with one of our ministers, the security staff greeted and told me that I should turn around — SONA was postponed. I was happy about this. I could not bear the thought that once again thousands of South African schoolchildren would have observed the hidden curriculum of chaos, crudity and impunity.

Not too long ago young people gained their confidence and modelled their behaviour on the life of Nelson Mandela. I hardly go anywhere in this beautiful country without a teacher quoting his famous statement: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Mandela respected our public institutions and, when a wealthy person asked what they could do for the new South Africa, invariably he would ask them to build a school. To young people across the world, Madiba became the best example of a compelling hidden curriculum.

Our new government, and its leadership, will have to rebuild from scratch what the Zuma presidency destroyed. It could make a really good start by not paying the outgoing President Zuma as an encouragement for him to leave office. That would be simply a continuation of the destructive hidden curriculum to which we have all become accustomed.

The problem is that, in South Africa, the hidden curriculum is not so hidden after all.

Jonathan Jansen is a senior professor formerly associated with the University of the Free State, South Africa. Apart from having served as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in 2016/17, he is also the president of both the South African Institute of Race Relations and the South African Academy of Science. 
He started his career as a biology teacher in the Cape after he had completed his science degree at the University of the Western Cape. He went on to obtain an MS degree from Cornell University and a PhD from Stanford. Jansen also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Vermont and Cleveland State University.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Girl Unknown by Karen Perry

From Goodreads: 'I think you might be my father . . .'

When first-year student Zoë Barry walks into Professor David Connolly's office and tentatively says these words, he is left reeling. But it is the lives of his family - particularly his wife Caroline - which are turned upside down by the arrival of this stranger.

A daughter, a sister, a friend . . . an enemy?

Though no one knows quite who Zoë is, she is soon entangled in their lives. Yet her stories don't ring true and Caroline is determined to learn if the girl is the unlucky innocent she claims to be or someone with a far darker agenda.

A deadly cuckoo in the nest . . .Because by letting Zoë in, David and Caroline aren't just leaving themselves vulnerable. They're risking the most precious thing in the world - the lives of their children . 

Karen Perry is the pen name of Dublin-based authors Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. Both have written other books, and received some acclaim for their work. 

I started this book not knowing much of the above - I hardly ever read blurbs, and I didn't know much about the authors. It moved nicely and the writing style was pleasant. But as the plot unfolded, I started feeling irritated. It was just not working for me. The characters seemed contrived - even a little unnatural. They were interesting, but there wasn't enough background on Zoë. David was also annoying. Although he was the victim, I kept feeling he was getting exactly what he deserved. And then I felt guilty about that. Caroline could've been stronger, more deceptive. I kept reading, hoping the story would resolve and all would be redeemed.

But that ending. It was so bad. So very bad bad bad. There was no redemption. And it looked so promising. 

Two stars.

ISBN: 9781405920308


Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I've had a bit of a binge on the books I've wanted to read for a long long time. And this one didn't disappoint. Brave New World considers a whole different environment - one where everyone's happiness is paramount. 

How would you go about creating that? Well apart from lots of sex, recreational drugs and entertainment, you may just have to brainwash people too - you know, just in case they decided they wanted to be sad, with all that unadulterated joy available. Then they'd want what they achieved too, because they'd always wanted it. And oh, you'd need to decide early on who is going to do the menial labour - like street cleaning and window washing - and get those people to like doing that too. And while you're at it, better meddle with the genetics and make them a bit stupid too - don't want to waste good brains on that kind of work. They'll be happier that way.

Scared, a bit? You should be. It's eerie work this making people happy forever business. And then of course you do have to watch them - just a little - to make sure it keeps working. And then you notice that Bernard Marx is a little different. He doesn't seem to be accepting of his fate. Let's send him to the savages, where the world is as it was before - quite prehistoric - and he'll realise. Only he doesn't. He wants more.

I'd better stop. Or I'll spoil it. (Although it has been pointed out that spoiling a book that was written in 1932 is really not so bad - you should have found time by now to read it. I disagree - if you were only born in 1998, you may not yet have had the time, because you've been doing other stuff.) 

I'm glad I read this. It's happier in tone than George Orwell's 1984. But no less worrying. And it's almost as good (but not quite) as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. You should try those, if you liked this one.

4 stars


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Ten of the Best #111

Hello and happy weekend. Hope you're enjoying it, wherever you are.

For all the faraway friends, here's an update on our water woes. Yes, Cape Town is fighting back Day Zero, but actually, we all need to be a lottle more water conscious and water wise than we have been. And that goes for these 11 cities too.  Click Zapiro for the SA story.

And Helen Moffet gives us tips on her blog on just how to save water.

Don't panic everyone - Joburg has water, and an underground station - buried deep beneath Park Station. Fabulous.

Friday, 9 February 2018

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood

About a year ago, it seemed that every second book had the word "Girl" in the title. I think someone realised that if you did that, sales would increase by 50%. Well, I think that may work with "Sister" too. It certainly does for me. Whenever I pick up a book about sisters, I'm suckered. And My Sister's Bones  seemed particularly intriguing.

But I had to wait for the husband to read it first. He bought it after all. And then I grabbed it, and read it, engrossed. From cover to cover, this is enticing. 

Kate Rafter is the war reporter. She has lived through bomb blasts, raids, survived gunfire, and knows the breathless fear  - so well, it gives her nightmares. So when she returns to her mother's house, the scene of some childhood trauma for Kate and her sister, Sally and is woken by a deadly scream in the middle of the night, she knows it's for real. This isn't Syria anymore.

But where did it come from? And what is going on with her sister, Sally, who lives down the road?

This is dark, sinister, and has a ferocious ending. Ok, maybe that's a bit OTT, maybe I was ferocious by the time I got to the end? Or reading ferociously?

It's one heck of a read and I loved it.

4 stars

ISBN: 9780241978153

You may also enjoy The Confession by Jo Spain, or The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. Or what about Dead Scared by Sharon Bolton?


Friday Books - The Good House

On Fridays we hook up with other book admirers and share excerpts from the books around us. I haven't done this for a very long time,  so it's good to be back.

We join Book Beginningshosted by Rose City Readerwhere you share the first line, and  a few thoughts about the book.

Today I'm featuring The Good House by Ann Leary. Here's the beginning.

I don't know exactly why, but that opener drew me right in. I was hooked, and I couldn't hep thinking about how she does it. What a great start.

From Goodreads:

"Hildy Good has reached that dangerous time in a woman's life - middle-aged and divorced, she is an oddity in her small but privileged town. But Hildy isn't one for self-pity and instead meets the world with a wry smile, a dark wit and a glass or two of Pinot Noir. When her two earnest grown-up children stage 'an intervention' and pack Hildy off to an addiction centre, she thinks all this fuss is ridiculous. After all, why shouldn't Hildy enjoy a drink now and then?"

At Freda's Voice, you'll find the Friday56, where the excerpt comes from page 56 or 56% in your Kindle.

Isn't Wendy your favourite best friend? Everybody needs a friend who steals their listings. Especially in Wendover, where there aren't that many to start with.

I'm thoroughly enjoying this book. I'm slowly getting the feeling that when it was written in 2013, it was way ahead of its time. And that a number of more recent books, using similar ideas, have gone on to be much more famous. This may just be the original. Sorry - i know I'm being cryptic, but I don't want to give anything away. Read it, you'll see what I mean. And if you've read it - let me know if I'm onto something.

Enjoy your reading this weekend  - leave me a comment with what you're up to and I'll check it out.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I've been looking out for more Alice Hoffman, ever since Faithful this time last year, which I loved. 

I picked up The Rules of Magic, written in 2017, but a prequel to Practical Magic, which is her most famous book, and has been made into a movie. Even though this was written later, I thought I'd read it first.

The Owens family know they're different. Not just unique in an 'everyone is special' way. Really very different. Talented. Which makes them awkward. And odd. This may be easier for the adults, it's the children who have to navigate a world that expects them to be normal. Franny, who has skin as pale as milk, blood red hair and communicates with birds; Jet, who reads everyone's thoughts yet is shy and reserved and Vincent, who is highly musical, and so charismatic - even as a baby, someone tried to steal him, must figure out the "rules". Mom, Susanna helps by giving them some - we meet her in the first sentences.

"Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were , and fit into polite society. The children's mother had done exactly that."

So what are the Rules? No walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows and no venturing beyond Fourteenth Street. Of course, normal children don't obey any rules, so that's problematic, what with them trying to be ever so normal. 

"Yet no matter how Susanna tried to enforce these rules, the children continued to thwart her."

And it's the family curse that gets them - don't ever fall in love.

This is a delightful charming tale of unusual proportions. The writing is beautiful, and I fell in love with all the children and their friends. Alice Hoffman says she writes for the same reason she reads - to escape into a world that is completely different. She allows us to do that here. I loved it.

4 stars.

ISBN: 9781471157677

You may also enjoy Faithful by Alice Hoffman, or what about Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin?

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson have been sentenced to death, for the murder of Natan Ketilsson. Welcome to Iceland, 1830. 

“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”

And so it begins. A beautiful, haunting story of a young woman sentenced, the naive priest - Tóti - whose duty it is  to counsel her to see the error of her ways, and the upright family, upon whom she is thrust, who must provide her with food and shelter in her final weeks.

“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

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Hannah Kent, in this debut, which took her ten years of research - information on the last woman sentenced to death in Iceland was difficult to come by - creates a realistic world for Agnes. You will weep for her lost childhood, ache with her pain, feel her anger and desperation, and realise there is no escape from her desolation. It's brilliantly done. There is no remorse in the bleak, dire landscape, neither in the hearts of those who condemn her too.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The narration by Morven Christie is superb, and it's one of those that will stay with me for a long time. 

Not a happy tale but well worth the reading.

4 stars.


This reminded me of another atmospheric tale - The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. Or for more good historical fiction, try His Bloody Tale by Graeme Macrae Burnet.


Saturday, 3 February 2018

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Who wouldn't love a classic, narrated by the delightful Colin Firth?

Well, maybe me, actually. I'm not sure, I'm fence-sitting on this one.

Maurice Bendrix is a writer, respected and liked. He has an affair with Sarah Miles, who is married to   Henry - a boring old fart, who is Maurice's friend. It's World War II, and Sarah ends the affair, abruptly, which drives Maurice rather mad. I'm going to stop right there, because even though this book is a classic, therefore old, and spoilable, I think I would have found it even more tiresome had someone spoiled it for me.

But maybe tiresome is a bit harsh. The writing was good- it flowed and it was very likeable. Thoughts on love, jealousy, faith, belief, doubt - all woven together for a pleasant experience. The narration was superb. Clearly not everyone has the same problems I had with the book, and either Colin Firth loved it too, or his acting is even better than I thought it was.

So what was the problem? Well, it was so flipping unbelievable. And Sarah, not half as well-written as Maurice, nor understood, nor unpacked, just annoyed me. I just couldn't relate to the flip-flopping faith/love/hate/war themes. They didn't resonate, and for that reason, after the events described above, everything felt false and wrong and weirdly silly. I'm not addicted to happy endings either, so it wasn't that. It just didn't hang together and irritated me. Loads.

You should still read it though. It's worth it, not least of all to be able to say that you've read it. And download the Audible version. Colin Firth does redeem the experience.

ISBN: 9780140184952

2 stars

You may also enjoy The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Claire Danes. Or what about Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin?

Ten of the Best #110

Morning peeps, it's time for your Ten. And it's been such a busy, busy week, I don't know where to start.

James summarised January 2018 for us. It's all here, neatly wrapped.

Apparently the State of the Union address was not a night for facts, though. Even Melania didn't look impressed.

Friday, 2 February 2018

2017 also had some good books

So how many other book bloggers do you know that publish the best books of 2017 in February 2018? February! Yes, I know that I've been in a bit of a blogging slump recently, and found very little time to do this. If it makes you feel any better, it's so much worse for me - just imagine having gone without your favourite treat for a long time, and you'll get how profoundly grumpy, tired and sad I am.

But enough about me, let's get to those books. Because I know you guys. You've been waiting for these so that you can buy for book club, and that's on Monday (or it's happened already, and you're mad - sorry). Ok, let's get to it.

First, the rules: All these books were read in 2017. And I get to choose my favourites. That's about it. On this page there's a short description of why they're my favourites, but if you click the covers of the books you'll link through to my detailed reviews. At the end of this post is a link to the full page of books I read in 2017. All 100 of them. 

Usually in this post I do a little recap with some Goodreads statistics - how many, shortest, longest, most popular, number of pages, but I missed my "Year in Books" - it's disappeared off their site already, so that's one good thing (for you) about me only doing this in February. (Don't sigh so loudly, I can hear you.)

I may even do a little categorisation, to make things more interesting.

The best book of 2017, hands down, and in fact the best book I ever have read in my lifetime was Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

I'm sure that's got a few of you frowning and scratching things (hopefully your heads), but it's true. Never before have I read a book that resonated with so many places in me that I didn't know were there, and that sprung to life afterwards, and then that resonance echoed through the year. Honestly, every time I remember the story and my reading experience, I get chills and thrills and I start thinking about all the issues again. This one wins BOOK OF ALL TIME.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

From Goodreads: "Smart, warm, uplifting, the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open her heart"

When a friend whose opinion I rate wrote that this book made her sob, my interest was piqued. There wasn't much else to go on. The title didn't exactly draw me, and I've never read Gail Honeyman before. (This is her debut, so I suppose that is understandable.)

Eleanor lives alone, and works - mainly alone  - doing admin in a small office. When the annoying IT guy, Raymond needs to be called, things get interesting. Then, perchance, they stumble upon and assist an elderly man, Sam, who has collapsed and needs an ambulance, and suddenly they are almost friends. It's all rather nice - what with Eleanor's frozen pizza, lots of vodka so she can face her regular calls to her dreadful mother and plan to woo and win a famous singer - she needs some support sometimes.

The writing is somewhat wry and dry, which adds to the charm of the book. It's also moving - though maybe not quite "sob-worthy".

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine is more than completely fine. It's warm, unique, well plotted, has delightful characters and will have you smiling on every page. I loved it.

5 stars

ISBN: 9780735220683

You may also enjoy A man called Ove by Fredrik Backman.


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

65 Years of Friendship by George Bizos

George Bizos became a friend to Nelson Mandela at university, a friendship that lasted (as most of Mandela’s did) for the rest of his life. Mandela referred to George as the “father of my family”, and clearly in the many accounts of their escapades through their common education in law and resistance to the apartheid government, relationships like these were forged in fire, and left deep and lasting impressions.
This book is like that. In language appropriate to an advocate, which does make for a level of detail that won’t appeal to all, this account is accurate, carefully thought through, observed from first-hand experience, and true. Not much of what we read today, from online and media sources can fit that description. It’s powerful.
And the friendship shines on every page. Told with humour, insight and deep fondness, this is a book I will return to often, to remember the nobility of the early ANC – their goals, ideals and aspirations were paid for with personal sacrifices and lived out with passion and purpose. It’s a great pity so little of that remains today.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
4 Stars
ISBN: 9781415207581

Monday, 29 January 2018

What are you waiting for?

It's been a while, right?

You've been running without me. And I've been running too, without you.

I'm back here, though and today, I have excellent news for you. No more excuses. We're doing this. Today is the perfect day for a run.

Just look at that tree-lined street. I'm fortunate enough to live in a city where the suburbs are green, leafy, cool. And there's even a pavement most places, so we don't need to dodge traffic. 

So we have no reason not to get out there and pump the tarmac. It's been raining, and there is still that lingering cool. The birds are filling the fresh morning with tweets, gurgles and songs. The dampness of the leaves and grass smells rainy, dirty and fresh. And if we go now, we'll be back before the sun bakes down too hard, but we'll have worked our bodies to that perfect ache that makes sitting down at a desk the rest of the day so much easier to face.

I've even got a song to fit our mood. It's Ed Sheeran's Perfect. And it is.

So what are you waiting for. Let's go.
I found a love for me
Darling just dive right in
And follow my lead
Well I found a girl beautiful and sweet
I never knew you were the someone waiting for me
'Cause we were just kids when we fell in love....
.....Baby, I'm dancing in the dark with you between my arms
Barefoot on the grass, listening to our favorite song
When you said you looked a mess, I whispered underneath my breath
But you heard it, darling, you look perfect tonight

Here are some more Monday Motivations.

See you here next week. Have a great run.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

From Goodreads: "In 1558, the ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral look down on a city torn apart by religious conflict. As power in England shifts precariously between Catholics and Protestants, royalty and commoners clash, testing friendship, loyalty, and love. 

Ned Willard wants nothing more than to marry Margery Fitzgerald. But when the lovers find themselves on opposing sides of the religious conflict dividing the country, Ned goes to work for Princess Elizabeth. When she becomes queen, all Europe turns against England. The shrewd, determined young monarch sets up the country’s first secret service to give her early warning of assassination plots, rebellions, and invasion plans. Over a turbulent half-century, the love between Ned and Margery seems doomed as extremism sparks violence from Edinburgh to Geneva. Elizabeth clings to her throne and her principles, protected by a small, dedicated group of resourceful spies and courageous secret agents.

The real enemies, then as now, are not the rival religions. The true battle pitches those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else—no matter what the cost."

 A Column of Fire is the third in the series, and I read the first many moons ago, so can't really compare the two, it was too long ago. From what I do recall, this one contains fewer details on the construction of the cathedrals, not so many ups and downs for the characters, and is less focussed on the particular history of the town than the broader story of the world at the time. 

It's also set in a historical time about which so many books have been written. In a history we all know so well it's hard to be different, but Ken Follett does this part well. The religious tolerance in the centre of a world charged with overbearing egos and too much passion about was a different take. 

I loved Ned and Margery's story. It was long, but also unique in its content and strangely satisfying - maybe that's just me.

Hence three stars - probably four if Ken Follett hadn't written better books before. But immensely worthwhile. The Audible narration was excellent - John Lee does a superb performance.

3 stars

ISBN: 9780525954972

You may also enjoy Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo or The Constant Queen by Joanna Courtney.

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