The thing with this time of the year is not the weather. It’s not the lengthening days. Nor is it the thought of the summer holidays fast approaching or the overwhelming slog to get beach fit. It is the annual glut of the best books of the year all jostling for attention, popping through letter boxes or piled one upon the other in a mouthwatering display in book stores. It also means hard and concentrated reading.
I’ve delighted with this month’s selection of books, each of them worth befriending and capturing.
As ever, non-fiction makes history stranger and more implausible than genuine fiction. Crime novels fall over themselves to be read (my current one, totally unheralded, is Sleeper by Mike Nicol). He does not disappoint, and again Cape Town exposes it’s underwear with villains and crooked politicians vying for the most corrupt award. More of that next month.
Why you’ll enjoy Sea Prayer: Khaled Hosseini is one of the most widely read and beloved novelists in the world. Think of The Kite Runner, named the book of the decade; then A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008) and, in 2014, And the Mountains Echoed. He is a joy to interview, modest, even humble, and is now a Goodwill Envoy to the UN High Commission for Refugees. It is no surprise to note that the publisher will donate £1 for the sale of each book to the UN Refugee Agency. This slim volume nears no resemblance to any of his previous novels. Each page is movingly illustrated by Dan Williams, accompanied by the sparest of prose by Hosseini. Sea Prayer was inspired by Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on a beach. A father looks at his little son and tells him of his own childhood, his beloved farmhouse, the city of Homs with its markets, the smell of cooking, the ancient minarets. And then they embark on a journey to another land and another hope when all is lost in their ancestral land. It is heartrending. I suspect the first edition, if signed, will become a collector’s item.
Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini, illustrated by Dan Williams (Bloomsbury)
Why you’ll enjoy The Colour of Time: Dan Jones has written more than 15 historical non-fiction books. In an interview with him, he told me he was browsing online and came across an astonishing old photograph that looked as if it had been taken in colour before colour photography existed. But it turned out that the historical photograph of nine European kings in one room at one time had been digitally and hand coloured by Marina Amaral, an artist based in Brazil. He made contact and out of that chance online meeting came this absorbing book spanning 110 extraordinary years in world history. The research done by both Dan and Marina is extensive, but Marina’s immaculate rending of historic black and white photographs is close to an art form. Both of them, one in Europe, the other in South America, went through archives and, estimates Dan, they looked at more than 100 000 photographs. The book is also breaks the old geographic constraints of focussing only on Western history, finally encompassing Africa (the Mau Mau uprising, for instance), the Boxer Rebellion, an Abyssinian war as well as the more traditional imperial and colonial European and American histories we take for granted. The reviews have been effusive and if history is your bag, this is a book that requires careful attention to the amazing detail stretching from the American Civil War to the first man in space.
The Colour of Time: A New History of the World 1850-1960 by Dan Jones & Marina Amaral (Head Zeus)
Why you’ll enjoy These Things Really Do Happen to Me: Khaya Dlanga’s formidable mom likes this book (it says so on the front cover). So does Trevor Noah, who used to be a neighbour (it also says so on the cover). As for me, it is a book that cumulatively delights as the pages turn. From a four year old living in rural Dutyini, near Mount Ayliff, to a short chapter defending small talk towards the end of the book, we fall captive to the man’s gifts as a storyteller. Dlanga’s greatest talent, though, is his effortless recounting of stories that brought him to tears at the time he lived it, and laugh out in the retelling of it years later. Read the chapter when his grandfather sent him to capture a horse or, twenty years later, interviewing the formidable Paul Kgame, President of Rwanda for a television story, and introducing him as the head of Nigeria. He is still not sure how he made the frosty head of state laugh, if only briefly, at the faux pas that had the president’s men flinching with shock. If anyone has a character far too big for his boots, it is Khaya Dlanga and the book is testimony to his prodigious and modest modest gifts. Stocking filler material? A beach read? Oh yes.
These Things Really Do Happen to Me by Khaya Dlanga (Pan Macmillan)