Bedside table books for March

These were the books that landed on Vivien Horler’s desk this month. Some may be reviewed in full later. The top four are among Exclusive Books’s top choices for March.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson (Michael Joseph)

Black cake is a type of fruitcake made at Christmas in the Caribbean, featuring blackened sugar, dried fruit soaked in red wine and rum, preferably for months, as well as candied citron, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. It is reportedly a mission to make. And black cake is a recurring theme in this family saga of love and loss (and a bit of murder) set partly on an unnamed Caribbean island, the UK and eventually in southern California. When Eleanor Bennett dies a widow, she has been estranged from her daughter for eight years. Before the funeral brother and sister are summoned to a lawyer’s office and told their mother’s last wish was for them to hear the truth about where they come from and their family history. This truth is expressed in a recording made by Eleanor over many hours, and it turns the adult children’s world upside down.

I’m halfway through this and loving it.

Serpent Crescent, by Vivian de Klerk (Picador Africa)

The cover blurb is promising: retired English teacher Megan Merton lives in the small Eastern Cape town of Qonda, where the power and water supplies are unreliable and the municipal dump spews noxious fumes. Merton lives in Serpent Crescent, and is very nosy about her neighbours, to the extent she goes through their rubbish. She is also a self-confessed sociopath who believes in administering small secret punishments to people who offend her sense of justice. And she’s decided to write her memoirs.

When a neighbour suffers a stroke and ends up in a care home, Merton gets the keys to her home to keep an eye on it. This gives her a really good chance to snoop. She visits the neighbour in the care home, and over time the two women develop an unlikely relationship.

The cover blurb refers to the book’s hilarity, sharp observations and brilliant acerbic satirical wit, but Merton is such an unpleasant creature the book is hard to read. On page 39 Merton says: “I hope my ‘confessions’, recounting all my own unpleasant stuff, are not becoming unbearable, because I still have a long way to go…”

Oh dear. Presumably she gets her come-uppance eventually, but do I care enough to press on?

The Couple at the Table, by Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton)

Six couples are staying at an exclusive honeymoon resort when one woman gets a note of warning: “Beware of the couple at the table nearest to yours.” But the tables are equidistant. What can it mean?

Later however Jane Brinkwood is found stabbed twice, and police have no leads. Could it have been Lucy, whose husband William left her for Jane? Could it have been William? Or was it a stranger who broke into the complex? But no one has been picked up on the security cameras.

This looks like fun.


Greenlights – your journal, your journey, by Matthew McConaughey (Headline)

Matthew McConaughey is an Oscar-winning American actor who, a few years ago, took a couple of months off to write a memoir based on diaries and journals he had kept from the age of 14. He described it as a collection of “stories, prayers, poems, people and places and a whole bunch of bumper stickers”, one of which read: “Sometimes the guest list needs to be for one. You.”

It was published in October 2020, debuting  at No 1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Reviews have been mixed, from “stuffed with vaporous, circular proverbs” to “truly entertaining”.

When I chose this volume from the Exclusive Books top books for March, I hadn’t realised the memoir was two years old. I thought I was getting the memoir – what I got was essentially an empty journal, with handy aphorisms perched on blank pages, such as: “Knowin the truth, seein the truth, tellin the truth are all different experiences. What’s a truth you know, a truth you’ve seen, and a truth you tell? What’s a truth you live by?”

In his introduction to this empty journal, he says his journals helped him to understand who he was now, and who he wanted to be tomorrow. He adds: “This is your journal. This is your story. Write it. Just keep livin.”

Not sure what the Gs at the end of words have done to offend him.

Thrown Among the Bones – My life in fiction, by Patricia Schonstein (African Sun Press)

Acclaimed Cape Town author Patricia Schonstein has ventured away from fiction in this memoir in which she provides the backstory to her seven novels, which include Skyline, about Long Street, The Apothecary’s Daughter, A Quilt of Dreams and the brilliant The Inn at Helsvlakte. The text is accompanied, in the form of endnotes, with brief extracts from the novels.

In an author’s note she writes: “They illustrate how my own life, together with the ficitious worlds I’ve fabricated, correspond with each other, acting as mirrors, allowing deconstruction and reconstruction of real events, in order to fathom the complex arena into which I was born.”

She had some rich material to work from: born to a Jewish Holocaust escapee and an Italian Catholic mother, she ended up being educated in a Dominican convent in what was then Rhodesia.

She writes: “These two great religions would predispose me to seeing life through the eyes of a magic-realist. Their repertoire would alert me to the polarities of Heaven and the Underworld, Light and Dark, Angels and Demons, the Real and the Preposterous.”

This looks fascinating.

Death on the Trans-Siberian Express, by C J Farrington (Constable)

I mentioned this novel last month before I’d read it and now I have. It has a great deal of charm and humour, but I’m afraid I got bogged down in the minutiae of the plot, and I think the plethora of Russian names didn’t help.

But there were two bits that I thought were brilliant, and want to share them.

The first sees the hero, Olga, being driven home on snowy roads by Glazkov, who has been drinking. “But that wasn’t unusual on a Saturday in Kemerovo Province. The joke was that you could spot drunk drivers because they drove in a straight line; the sober ones wove from side to side to avoid the potholes.”

And then in the pub Fyodor the Dreamer ponders which is a better system of dictatorship: a tsar or an all-powerful president. When his drinking mates tell him they don’t need some “hoity-toity ponce in a crown” telling them what to do, he counters: “But that’s exactly what Russians do need.”

Fyodor explains the problem is that presidents are chosen by election, which gives them legitimacy. “Presidents can do anything they like, because it’s the will of the people. But a tsar has to remember … what happened at the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, when the Romanovs perished from the Earth. A tsar, in short, has to tread carefully. Can you say the same of our glorious President Putin?”

This was of course written well before the events in the Ukraine.

Thrown Among the Bones, by Patricia Schonstein (African Sun Press)


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