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20. Zonal Marking

In Zonal Marking, Michael Cox takes the reader on a tour of the evolution of European football tactics. Each section is dedicated to one of Holland, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and England. The trip through each of these countries explores the tactical evolution, cultural impacts and the key figures (coaches and players) that shaped the evolution.

In Holland, as expected, the effect of Johan Cruyff, the backpass rule and Louis Van Gaal’s 1995 Ajax team were pivotal to the tactical evolution and particularly their use of ball-playing central defenders. The impact of the Dutch culture on their national team is also explored. After back passes were outlawed, the ball-playing liberos in the form of Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard took centre stage.

The evolution of Italian football highlight how the rigidity of football philosophies in coaching was broken by pure number 10s like Baggio, Zola, Totti and Rui Costa. In Spain, it was all about how the Tiki-Taka of Pep Guardiola (influenced by Cruyff) influenced not just La Liga but also the Spanish national team. For France, most of the tactical evolution was in the national team and not in the local league. From the evolution of wide forwards to the water carriers that have defined an era of midfielders. In all, Zonal Marking is an exciting exposition of how tactics have evolved in the major European leagues over the last two decades. The little snag I had was the excessive description of specific goals that were used as examples of specific tactical innovations. Most of them seemed excessively detailed and it was like anecdotes were being forced to suit narratives. One of those correlation/causation things. In all, it is an excellent football read.

3.9/5 Zonal Marking 1Zonal Marking 2Zonal Marking 3Zonal Marking 4Zonal Marking 5Zonal Marking 6

21. Dominicana

In Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, the migrant and coming-of-age tale of 15-year-old Ana Cancion takes centre stage. She is 11 years old when Juan Ruiz who is more than twice her age proposes to marry her. Four years later, while barely 15, she marries Juan and he whisks her to America using forged papers that claim she is 19 years old. In America, Ana is assaulted on all sides; a possessive and abusive husband who sees her as a trophy and proceeds to make her fearful of everything and everyone around her in New York, her lack of English and a violation of her childhood in the name of marriage she is clearly not suited for.  It is hard to not feel a lot of empathy for Ana as she is buffeted on all sides.

Dominicana is loosely based on the story of the author’s mother and set in 1965, it encompasses the political instability in the Dominican Republic at that time. Political and economic upheavals have always been precipitating factors for migration. When economic and political spaces collapse, both legal and illegal migration become attractive. The quest for a better life has always been universal but the route to attaining that quest can be questionable. Ana’s mother wanted the best for her family but her route to achieving the perceived best is exceedingly questionable. Violating your child’s childhood in a bit to give better chances in life to the whole family is not the exchange she thinks it is. It is true that poverty diminishes the choices that are available to the poor.

While in New York Ana faces situations and challenges that a young teenager of her age should not be saddled with. César is pivotal to Ana’s tide turning. Juan travels back home to attend to his businesses back in the Dominican Republic which is being impacted by the political impasse and this is when Ana comes of age. She enrols in English classes, starts a business and with César’s help begins to explore the city that Juan had hidden away from her. César helps restore Ana’s self-confidence. When Juan returns, it is too late. I am not sure I share the opinion that Ana is helpless in falling in love with her brother-in-law César, as understandable as her situation is. While César is not the abuser and controlling freak that Juan his brother is, his insecurity shows up in other ways.

Dominicana is a decent migrant tale but it is not spectacular. The prose is pedestrian and the structure makes it worse – it is loose and casual. The political backstory which was meant to be critical to the setting was vague and largely unexplored. In all, there seemed to be so much going on, with little depth. It is a decent read that I will recommend it but not highly.

3.3/5Dominicana 1Dominicana 2Dominicana 3

19. The Strangers of Braamfontein

I have just finished reading Onyeka Nwelue’s The Strangers of Braamfontein and it is at the very end while flipping through the very long list of acknowledgements that I solidified my main grouse with this book. For a book that I was not particularly impressed with, I read it in very few seatings. This is rare because I am a notoriously slow reader. Two reasons why I found this an easy read were that I found the characters very relatable and the writing very crisp. I know a lot of people in real life who fit almost every character in the book. They are fully formed and stereotypical; drug-dealing Nigerians, corrupt South African immigration officials and gang-related South African police officers. My relative familiarity with the Braam area where the book is set is another reason why I felt at ease with The Strangers of Braamfontein.

As illegal as the arrival (and stay) of most of the migrants in The Strangers of Braamfontein is, Onyeka Nwelue succeeds in humanizing their existence. The unfairness of life that causes them to find the proverbial golden fleece in South Africa is well highlighted; the grinding poverty, absence of family structure, sexual violence and in some cases a combination of all three led the migrant characters in The Strangers of Braamfontein to make the aspirational journey to South Africa despite the dubious processes that led them there. Osa the major protagonist had chanced on an illegal visa agent, April had been trafficked for sex work and it was no different for the many other migrants from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the Francophone countries that we encounter in the book. The Strangers of Braamfontein chronicles their lives of drug dealing, prostitution, mafia-led violence and murder. The ironic thing is that by exchanging one life of uncertainty (poverty) the migrants have embraced more ways of uncertainty (xenophobia, sexual violence and death in the hands of rival drug dealers).

Rather than glorify the illicit nature of their migration and their means of sustenance, The Strangers of Braamfontein rightly highlights the futility of their damned choices. The book is even-handed enough to highlight that the problem is not just with the migrants as they have willing accomplices within the South African community. From the airport, immigration officials display their brazen corruption and police officers are not left behind as they collect bribes from criminal gangs.

With all of the above in view, my grouse with this book was (and still is) too strong. It is devoid of a narrative plot. It reads as a series of events weaved around related characters. The book only ends because most of the characters die. On that note, irrespective of the multiplicity of crimes in the book, it is barely a crime-fiction novel. Irrespective of the crispness of the writing (especially if you are a fluent reader of Nigerian Pidgin English), there is no depth in the writing to qualify it as literary fiction. The structure of the book is also very problematic. It jumps from one character to another and flashbacks are so haphazardly inserted that it makes the story almost incoherent. While going through the acknowledgements at the back of the book that it becomes clear that the book is a reworking of a movie script. A script inspired by the acclaimed novel – On Black Sister’s Street. It still reads like a movie script and despite the familiarity of the characters and the setting, it does not quite work out well as a novel.

2.9/5

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18. The Man I Think I Know

Mike Gayle’s The Man I Think I Know is a refreshingly different read for me. It is a simple novel about two men. Men who are devoid of toxicity, destructive ego and a presence of vulnerability that humanizes their pain. The Man I Think I Know is about male friendship. Much more than friendships, it is about second chances and redemption and highlights how easily lives can be turned in a split second.

James and Danny were high school classmates. Though classmates, they did not mix much due to the differences in their social classes. James was a posh kid from a rich home while Danny was from a poor background who only go to attend an elite school because of a scholarship he won. The barrier created by their backgrounds comes crashing down after their individual lives are turned around for the worse after different incidents. Years later, they find themselves at a care home. James as a patient and Danny as a carer. There at the bottom, they find each other and a platonic friendship that revels in the vulnerability of their individual pain lead the road to their individual redemption.

Redemption and second chances are at the heart of The Man I Think I Know. The unrealistic tone of the book is that everyone who seeks a second chance gets it. While that is not always true in life (some don’t even get the first chance, much less a second one), it is a very humane tale that stirs hope in the reader and reminds us how life’s turns are so fickle. The structure of the book in which both James and Danny take turns in being the protagonist in subsequent chapters gives depth to the character development despite the simple nature of the book. The Man I Think I Know is not a deep read but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

3.3/5

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17. Ghosts of the Tsunami

March 11 2011 was no ordinary day. An earthquake shook Japan. However, the earthquake which moved Japan four feet closer to America and caused the earth to move ten inches off its axis was a precursor to something more disastrous. It led to a tsunami that killed over 18 thousand people. In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry evaluates the effect of the Tsunami on the Japanese and particularly its impact on the people of the Tohoku region with a specific focus on what happened at Okawa Elementary school.

At Okawa Elementary school 74 of the 78 students who remained on the school field after the earthquake died. In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry explores not just the circumstances surrounding their death but the trauma and grief that their death has caused their parents. All of these are done within the context of how grief is processed within the Japanese culture. This is a society where seismic shifts have defined daily life. Evacuation drills and emergency processes are part of every school curriculum. In exploring this disaster, Ghosts of the Tsunami examines what went wrong at Okara Elementary School that day. Were the school officials negligent or ill-prepared? The answer to that question is not provided but the ways in which the government officials are evasive impact the grieving process of the parents in a very moving way.

In reference to the Japanese society, Herman Ooms once said that “The dead are not as dead there as in our own society”. This point is brought alive in how the grieving parents in The Ghosts of the Tsunami cope with their losses. Ancestor worship is a big thing in Japan and investigating how they cope we see the thin line between the living and the dead, in their view. This makes their pain even more palpable and enables their perseverance in searching for the bodies of their dead loved ones.

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a very well-written memoir. The topic is not upbeat and in fact very depressing but the author manages to explore a great depth of the grief that enveloped the survivors of this natural disaster while dignifying the dead and the living. The only issue I had with the book was that fewer survivors would have been focused on as the sheer volume of survivors covered in the book, making it harder to keep track of whose grief was being explored at each point in time.

3.3/5

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16. The Fortunes of Africa

It is unclear where Africa would be today without the rapacious impact of colonialism. Fanciful retrospective views would often proclaim that its future would have been so bright that without the intrusive force of colonialism Africa would have been the envy of the rest of the world. Racist views on the other side deduce that without the benevolent intervention of the West, Africa would have remained a backwater to date. More considerate views would conclude that without the destructive and evasive effect of the West, the future of the African continent was unknown, as no one knows what the people themselves would have made of themselves over three thousand years later. What is certain and acceptable to anyone devoid of insincerity is that the plunder and exploitation of the continent and its resources disfigured Africa so badly that it is impossible to understand its present without incorporating the effect of the past on the conquered and her conquerors.

The Fortunes of Africa is a panoramic view of the continent that spans back as 3000 years. It captures the fortune of the continent in this period. A panoramic view that encapsulates the economic, social and cultural themes in the period with economic themes taking a center stage. It makes a clear and undeniable claim that the riches of the continent have shaped the past and present of Africa. The greed and plunder by the West were only triggered because there were resources to be exploited. If Africa had been less endowed, the story might have been very different. Not satisfied with shipping slaves and resources away in the course of regular expeditions, European conquerors in the spirit of explorative adventure invaded and overrun African locals in a bid to not just access the resources but also the land that hosted the resources. The Fortunes of Africa chronicles the way many cast characters played a part in the history of the continent; from religious leaders to kings to explorers to freedom fighters to warlords. From exploiters masquerading as explorers to foreign corporations, the cast has been varied but the purpose has remained the same – plundering the wealth in various guises.

A history of a continent as large as Africa and dating back so far back is a huge task that Martin Meridith undertakes with great aplomb. His narrative is crisp, concise and coherent. He obviously lays greater emphasis on some countries than others (Egypt, South Africa and Ethiopia get more detailed insights) but by taking a pre-colonial view of the continent’s boundaries, a holistic view is presented.

The thing about greed is that it is often limitless. Europeans went from plundering African resources in occasional forages to not only conquering the locals but taking their land. Land remains a touchy subject in Africa and of the many interesting anecdotes in The Fortunes of Africa, none highlights this as well as that told about the 1659 battle between the local KhoiKhois and the Europeans. In the negotiations that followed, a Dutch participant recorded one of the Khoikhoi’s grievances as follows; “They spoke for a long time about our taking every day for our own use more of the land which belonged to them for all ages, and in which they were accustomed to pasture their cattle. They also asked whether if they were to come to Holland, they would be permitted to act in a similar manner?” That question has still not been answered almost 400 years later and puts into context the ongoing land agitation in South Africa.

The Fortunes of Africa is not only about the distant past. It is also about the relatively recent past. Post-colonialism, the plundering has continued, this time by Africans themselves. The future is yet unknown but in charting the course, the past must be reckoned with and the economic past is what Martin Meridith has captured so succinctly in The Fortunes of Africa. I slugged through this as I found the early parts too ancient for my non-history-loving self but the structure and narrative kept me going and the impeccable summary of a long time period makes for an interesting reading experience with lots to ponder on long after the last page.

3.7/5

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15. The Scapegoat

Sophia Nikoloidou’s The Scapegoat is a timely read. It goes far back and recent in the eras it captures in this thoughtful historical fiction novel. It takes a nuanced look at the 1948 murder of American journalist George Polk  (the namesake of the prestigious Polk Awards) who was killed in Thessalonica while investigating the corruption in the right-wing Greek government. In order to cover up the state’s alleged complicity in his murder, the crime is pinned on Grigoris Staktopoulos, a journalist and former communist, despite the non-existence of believable proof. The plot of The Scapegoat is anchored on two planks of history; Polk’s murder in 1948 and the 2008 Greek Financial crisis. Both planks have the common thread of lack of trust in the political elite by the polity.

Soon after the 2008 financial crisis, with the Greek polity in despair and the people feeling let down by their politicians, the past is examined through the lens of the present as Minas Georgiou a high school senior is despondent, bored and gropes his way toward adulthood. His despondency reaches the point where he opts out of his final exams and is unwilling to go to university. The unwillingness is alarming for his intellectual parents – his mother and grandmother are teachers and his father is a journalist. From childhood, they have prepared him for a legal career and his current rebellion means their invested dreams in him are dying. Teta (Minas’ mother) approached Souk his History teacher to intervene. Souk is an eccentric and unusual character. Unlike most teachers, he has chosen to challenge his students to think critically. His idea of intervention is to ask Minas to write an investigative report on the Polk murder.

Alternating between 1948 and 2010, the story not only mirrors the past in the present, the cynicism, evasive tendency of the governing elite and the self-preserving tendency of the governments at all times to find scapegoats to pin its failure on reverberates across the time periods. Minas’ relationship with Evelina his classmate mirrors what happened between his grandmother and Evelina’s grandfather Dinopoulos in the 1940s. Dinopoulos was the lawyer of Gris (the character based on Grigoris Staktopoulos) and he is the major physical source of Minas’ research for the assignment that Souk has given him. In all of the back and forth, one thing remains constant, the loss of hope in the government by the people is palpable and constant. The hopelessness is captured in Dinopoulos recollection of the 1948 case and recycled in Minas’ loss of hope in the system in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. In both cases, the government works hard to absolve itself and find scapegoats to blame.

While The Scapegoat is a complex story that Xrays the Greek political system, it is timely because its application is certainly universal and current. While the first-person narrative for multiple characters across the two time periods was slightly distracting, the structure works in the end because Minas the main protagonist truly typifies the angst and despondency of the polity.

3.4/5  

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14. The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus

Soon after reading The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus, I checked online for a novel with a similar theme and/or plot. I found none. My initial conclusion is that a new genre has been created by Adam Leigh; Fictional Business Memoir. Using language that would not be out of place in either The Financial Times or be out of place in Tony Parsons’ Man and Boy, The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus, explores the human drive for pursuit and ambition in a capitalistic 21st-century entrepreneurial landscape. All of this is done with a good dose of humour, devoid of a condescending tone and a total absence of verbose.

There is an ordinariness that permeates The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus. This ordinariness works out quite well. It makes it very relatable. At one turn it feels like you are reading about one of those narcissistic American tech founders and in the very next turn, you recognise several of the Nigerian fintech founders whose excesses and hubris have gone viral on social media in recent months.  You can even recognize colleagues in one or more of the many colourful characters in this book. In keeping with the ordinariness of the plot, it makes sense that the two main characters; Alex and Julian met in the most ordinary of circumstances – while watching over their toddlers on the playground.

Alex has had the itch to pursue an entrepreneurial venture for a while. He finally takes the plunge when he meets a willing partner in Julian. They both strike up a partnership and set up a parenting website. The company ends up growing bigger than the founders ever imagined. The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus covers the full gambit of the startup ecosystem; the fundraising, selling hope and expectations, the toll it takes on familial relationships and the tensions that make or break partnerships. While all of these are in the fore, what gives the book its relative depth is the philosophical question that goes on in the background – what exactly is ambition? How far should one go in pursuit of it? Are the trade-offs worth it? In the midst of all the funny jokes and everyday plots, there are serious issues that the narration tries to grapple with in the book.

The structure of The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus is excellent. It starts from the present where the company has imploded and takes a reflective view of the years that led up to the present. It unfolds the present from the past. Adam Leigh is an exciting storyteller. More of a storyteller than a writer (and that is not a slight at all). I found myself yearning for Alex to take the money and run before he got eaten up by the sharks, while also rolling my eyes at Julian’s solipsistic tendencies. Characters are as real as we know and see in our everyday working lives.

3.5/5

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13. JOBURG NOIR

Joburg, Jozi, Egoli, Johussleburg, etc. Johannesburg is known by a few more monikers asides from the aforementioned ones. This megacity is South Africa’s biggest and busiest city. Established in the late 1880s on the back of migrant mining activities, it is a city as vibrant as can be imagined for a megacity; a city full of hope, trauma and possibilities, each in a substantial measure. It is this sprawling city that Joburg Noir is set in. A collection of 20 short stories that explore and illuminate the very plural nature of the cosmopolitan city.

Joburg Noir, like most short stories collections, has hits and misses. In its favour, there are lots of hits and very few misses. I found some of the stories to be very impressive hits. I particularly enjoyed Weep For Me, Willow by Fred Khumalo, Dreams and Others Deceptions by Keletso Mopai, Nineteen Questions by Nkateko Masinga and The Airport Project by Styles Lucas Ledwaba. In typical Noir fashion, these hits and a few others expose the underbelly of the city – be it corruption, crime, xenophobia or the decay of public infrastructure. More than these, Joburg Noir has an eclectic mix of stories that relive the past and explore the present while pointing the way to a future that serves as a warning. In these stories hopes are dashed, dreams are extinguished and yet in some, hope is rekindled. Like the city, the stories explore the plurality of the city.

The only issue I had was that a few (three) of the stories felt more like essays than fiction. As much as they conveyed the nostalgia of the writers, they lacked any air of fictionality and felt misplaced in the midst of the fictional narratives of the other stories. In all, this was a very decent collection and anyone who enjoyed Lagos Noir should enjoy this too. Recommended.

3.6/5

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12. Prince of Monkeys

Prince of Monkeys reminds me of a conversation I stumbled on a few months back on Twitter. In describing a particular fiction writer, one of the tweets said that there are three types of fiction writers; those who are good writers, those who are good storytellers and those who are excellent at both. Obviously, the last group are an esteemed class and very few. Most fiction writers fall into one of the first two groups. Reading Prince of Monkeys over the last few days, I was reminded of that categorization.

Prince of Monkeys is an incisively dense debut set in Nigeria (mostly Lagos and Enugu) between the mid-80s and late 90s. It follows the lives of four teenagers (actually five if you count Zeenat); Ihechi, Maradona, Mendaus and Pastor’s son. In Prince of Monkeys, they come of age with the military rule and insincere transition to democratic rule in the background. The change in the polity mirrors the changes in the lives of these 4 teenagers. The forming, reforming, adapting and readapting all make for lives in flux and society in a similar flux. They question the decisions that have been made for them by their parents, interrogate their biases and reexamine their political choices in the context of all the changes around them. In all of these changes, they reevaluate their friendships while testing the bonds that glue them together.

Ihechi and his friends come of age as they begin to question the spiritual identities they have inherited from their parents. The search for clarity and conviction is not limited to spiritual beliefs but also sought in sexuality, the pursuit of wealth and political aspirations. Nnamdi Ehirim writes lyrically. His prose, taken in isolation is like butter to bread. However, the excessive use of metaphors and seemingly intellectual jargons distract from the narrative flow. Also, there is way too much going on in the book that makes for a relatively dense read for such a simple plot. I get the feeling that if the author had addressed fewer topics, the narratives would have been tidier. While the portrayal of the Nigeria of a middle-class Gen Z is realistic, the pacing and metaphor-laden prose make it a decent but not spectacular read.

3/5 Prince of Monkeys 1Prince of Monkeys 2Prince of Monkeys 3