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3. DRY

Jane Harper’s atmospheric debut The Dry is a classic crime novel in the sense that there is a central crime and whodunit remains a mystery till the end. However, it has not won many awards and topped several bestselling lists for being typical. What makes it stand out are realistic portraits of not just the Western Victoria landscape but how well the drought season in the fictional outback town of Kiewarra is captured. This realistic portrayal matched with Jane Harper’s excellent storytelling means that The Dry is a formidable debut and a very enjoyable read.

Luke Hadler is found dead at his home. It looks like an apparent suicide but the outrage takes understandably bigger proportions because his wife Karen and son Billy are also killed. The crime rocks the small town of Kiewarra and the multiple death is not the only thing rocking it – the drought and attendant heat are making everyone in the town cranky and visibly irritable. Aaron Falk returns home from Melbourne to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke. He ends up staying longer than he first imagined as he tries to join forces with the local police to unravel the mystery of the death of his friend and his wife and son. The mystery in The Dry is not just the primary death in view but also the sudden death of a mutual friend of Aaron and Luke, twenty years ago.  The death of that friend is a mystery that has a bearing on Luke’s death as it explains the hostility that Aaron faces in his informal investigation into Luke’s death and also clouds Aaron’s views on the theories that surround Luke’s death.

One thing is almost certain in a fictional tale set in a small town – there are many secrets. Secrets outsize the population of the town. The Dry weaves twenty-year-old secrets as they bring to the fore a previously unresolved murder and the current triple deaths. Red herrings abound and the author keeps the reader guessing until the least expected suspect emerges as the killer. While swinging between the past and the present, Jane Harper’s storytelling skill keeps the reader engaged and ensures that one remains focused on the present (unlike Aaron who often let the hostilities of the past impact his judgement in the present). While the prose was nothing special, the storytelling is top-notch. The depiction of a drought-filled Australian outback and its heat was palpable in the story. It was as palpable as the joyless character of Aaron Falk. It was often hard to tell if the title referred to the principal character or the weather in Kiewarra. Whichever it is, it is as spot-on as the story itself.

3.2/5

4. International Sisi Eko and Other Stories

I remember picking up a copy of International Sisi Eko and Other Stories a few years ago from the bookshop in Terra Kulture. I just fell in love with the cover and decided to get a copy despite my usual misgivings about short stories while having no clue about the stories in it. It finally made it into the 2022 TBR list and it has been a decent treat. International Sisi Eko and Other Stories is a collection of sixteen short stories by different authors about Lagos life – its people, their experiences and the very many ways the city leaves a mark on its inhabitants. Like in every short stories collection, there are hits and misses. Some of the stories are random and portray nothing unique about Lagos Life. In some other stories, the vibrancy of Lagos is in full display and the effect of that vibrancy is not always positive.

2. AUGUSTOWN

In 1920, Alexander Bedward led thousands of Jamaicans in August Town to a huge landing instead of the ascension to heaven that he had prophesied. In Augustown the story of Bedward is fictionalized very lyrically by Kei Miller. However, this is not a story wholly about Bedward. He is one of the many stories in

1. The Book of Leeds

I made a random choice to begin my 2022 reading with The Book of Leeds, A collection of 10 short stories written by ten writers based in Leeds and also set around Leeds in the United Kingdom. Like most short story collections, some of the stories were hits and others were misses.

Among the ten stories, I particularly enjoyed Findling Polish, Manoeuvres, The Falling and Twenty-Five Reasons. A lot of the stories tell the stories of migrants in Leeds. Characters who either moved to the UK as kids or were born there. The prejudices that the characters face are laid bare as much as the xenophobia that is sadly a familiar problem to this day. Another theme that recurs in the stories is how Leeds United and its Elland Road stadium plays a pivotal role in the lives of Loiners. The prejudices against different cultures and the central role that Leeds United play in the social fabric of the city is most highlighted in Manoeuvres where a young lad is in awe of a football hooligan and the adverse influence sees Mark, the young lad cross lines that he knows are wrong and puts him at risk. Finding Polish is my favourite story in the collection and it is about an aspiring loan shark who forces an old debtor to confront a past that the old man does not wish to revisit. It is a humane story that humanizes supposedly tough men. A common complaint about short stories is how abrupt and incomplete most of them are. The ones I have enjoyed in this collection do not have this problem. Each of them peaks appropriately and provide closure adequately in each case. The only problem I had with Twenty-Five Reasons is that it is sexist and humorously paints an unsavoury picture of men; a speed date where each woman gets to encounter twenty-five men within a very short period in quick successions. All twenty-five men meant by these two female friends are bumbling idiots. Not one of them has a redeeming quality.  All men being scum is a generalization that should not be encouraged.

The Book of Leeds is a decent collection but nothing extraordinary or outstanding in it. I am sure the year has better reads in store.

2.8/5

2022 TBR List

As usual, I have picked out some random books to constitute my 2022 TBR list. The only criteria are that my usual broad genres are covered; Fiction (novel and short stories), Non-fiction, faith and football. Outside of those criteria, the books are all randomly picked and there are surely lots of books on my shelf that I would have loved to read this year. Sadly, luck favoured these. I look forward to the pleasure that lies ahead.

Here is to a bookish 2022!

2022 Reading List

THE BEST OF 2021

It is that time of the year again! That time when most persons reflect on the year and hand out platitudes and superlatives. Just like I did at the end of 2019 and 2020, while I was still getting through the 42nd and final book of my TBR list, I began to reflect on which of the books I had read this year and which would make this esteemed list.

The most obvious point about these lists of mine is that the books in them are almost never published in the year that I read them. I am a firm believer in the view that most books (even non-fiction titles) have no expiry date. You can find as much joy in a book written decades ago as you will from one published last week. Additionally, the fact that I pick my TBR lists randomly but deliberately means that books that have been on the shelf for years have as much chance of ending up on the yearly reading list as those published and bought days ago. So this is not one of those lists where you find the shiniest new toys from the publishing industry.

Like in the past years, I have tried picking this list based on broad genres but this year there is no pick for football. I read 3 football books this year and while I found each of them decent enough, none was good enough for this esteemed list. So this year, I have gone for Fiction – Novel, Fiction – Short Stories, Non-fiction and Faith. While reading any book, I take pictures of sentences and paragraphs that resonate with me. Since I only read physical books and detest underlining books, these pictures are my chosen alternative. I actually have a folder on my drive full of these pictures and every now and again, I look through them and reminisce over the books from where I had extracted them. In the usual tradition, I will be choosing one excerpt (sentence or paragraph) in each of the categories below.

Fiction – Novel

The mind is a funny thing. In recent days, I have been reminded of a phenomenon that is common in football where a player’s worth rises when he is injured, unavailable and his team is not playing well. Suddenly, fans remember his strong points and overlook the weak points they had been highlighting when he was fit. My last 5 or so reads of the year had been non-fiction and as much as most were decent (and one or two of them excellent), I suddenly yearned for the comfort of fictional reads. I seem to not remember any average fictional work I read this year and all that fills my memory is the exceptional novels I read in 2021. Truth is, I did read some exceptional novels this year. Whether my memory is playing tricks on me is one thing in terms of the average ones, is one thing but the exceptional ones were really good. This was the year I read Bridge, Black Sunday, Deacon King Kong, A Fine Balance and Djinn Patrol on The Purple Line. There were a few other good ones (excluding one or two (like Blacktop Wasteland) that were average in my view) but these 5 were a class apart. The interaction between the reader and the book is always unique. So in choosing these 5 or the final one, my choice is entirely subjective and based o the pleasure I derived from them. A pleasure that could have been dependent on my mood at the time I read them. A mood that could have been conditioned by external factors. The summary of the matter is that any chosen book hit most at the right spot, at that moment. You know that saying by Heraclitus that just as water flows in a river, one cannot touch the exact same water twice when one steps into a river.

I had a hard time picking between Deacon King Kong and A Fine Balance. As different as two books can be but each was extremely satisfying. Deacon King Kong was as straightforward as they come. The plot was seemingly basic but its basic nature only served to highlight the lyrical writing skills of James McBride. I found the tale gorgeous and the writing extremely assured. A Fine Balance on the other hand seemed to verge on the voluminous side (Once a book clocks at more than 320 pages, I am automatically biased against it). However, the relatively large volume is masterfully contained by the masterful storytelling of Rohinton Mistry. The gift of using simple prose to capture a reading audience is a rare gift and Rohinton Mistry has that gift in abundance. A Fine Balance is ultimately a heartbreaking tale but one that you enjoy despite the heartbreak. While breaking the reader’s heart, A Fine Balance makes poignant points about religion, social class, financial status and gender relations. All of these are done without being preachy as is the wont of some writers.

It is my reading pleasure to choose A FINE BALANCE as my Fiction – Novel book of the year.

For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one from Black Sunday. There is a whole lot to unpack from this paragraph. It is succinct in its delivery and perfect in its layering. In all of this, it is simple and almost pedestrian. It deals with poverty, sexualization of the female and the causal despair that women have to shoulder amidst everything else.

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Fiction – Short Stories

It is no secret that If I had my way, I will rather read novels than short stories. With that taste, you will think that I will not buy short stories collections. Alas! There are a good number of them on the shelves and there is no guarantee that I will not buy more. The advantage of my ”random but deliberate” approach to my reading lists is that it forces me to pick books that I ordinarily may never pick or that would stand no chance of being read until favourites have all been read in almost a decade (which is not a given as more favourites will be added while the unchosen would be gathering dust on the shelves). In 2021 I found a relatively large number of short stories collections in my TBR list. I read four Short stories collections this year and two of them topped the list – A Broken People’s Playlist and A Lucky Man. While the former was excellent all through, the latter was decent but had a few stories that I found outstanding. The former is set in Port Harcourt city while the latter is set around the Brooklyn and Bronx areas. I’m biased about A Broken People’s Playlist. It is set in my home city and the author can do very few wrongs in my eyes but even in my moments of rare objectivity, it is an excellent collection. I have heard an accusation that he is a commercial writer, whatever that means, but I found this collection as impressive as I found his debut novel. In fact, his writing is more assured in this sophomore work.

It is my reading pleasure to choose A BROKEN PEOPLE’S PLAYLIST as my Fiction – Short Stories book of the year.

For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one from The Awkward Black Men by Walter Mosley. I had considered Godson’s police chase in The Broken People’s Playlist but at the last moment, I have gone for this. Child-rearing teaches adults a lot of things. In this excerpt, it is obvious the parent has learnt to humanize his children and not consider himself above apologizing, something common among older generations where the adult is always beyond reproach. The funny part is that the protagonist here has refused to apply what he learnt from child-rearing to his dealings with his spouse who he is holding a grudge against in the story.

The Awkward Black Men 1

Non-Fiction

The low point of my TBR list this year was that my non-fiction collection was not as strong as in previous years. Most of them were average and I can only think of one that stood out – The Intelligence Trap. As the title says, The Intelligence Trap highlights how even intelligence does not insulate the intelligent from making poor decisions and how better decisions can be made by anyone. In a world where we are currently bombarded by information and expected to make definite choices on a myriad of topics, the toolkit that The Intelligence Trap provides is a worthy armour and it is was an enlightening read.

It is my reading pleasure to choose THE INTELLIGENCE TRAP as my Non-Fiction book of the year.

For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one from The Intelligence Trap. Franklin’s moral algebra is a vital tool in navigating today’s world where moral and social issues lack nuanced takes and opinions are reduced to my way or the highway. Social media has created a world where nuance is absent and biases are running wild. This paragraph is incredibly important.

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Faith

Unlike the last category, my picks for this year’s TBR list in this category were above average as usual. I thoroughly enjoyed the books I read in this category in 2021 and of the lot, I found The Wrong Messiah, The Return of The Prodigal Son and The Cross and The Lynching Tree excellent. The latter is different from the rest as it explores a biblical theme from a recent historical perspective. If I had been asked to pick a favourite from these three a week ago, I would have gone for The Return of The Prodigal Son. However, I read The Wrong Messiah last week as the last of the books on my list and recency bias has me in a chokehold. I heard about The Return of The Prodigal Son a few years back in a sermon I listened to and have been longing to read it. The book invites the reader into a level of introspection that leaves one bare but rejuvenated. It opens one to a level of spiritual humility that I found very necessary. If I had read it and The Wrong Messiah around the same time, my final choice might be different but reading the latter more recently and particularly around Christmas, has titled the scale for me. Nick Page is a favourite of mine and I love how he brings alive the first-century Jewish world as he contextualizes the birth, life and (briefly) the death of Jesus Christ. I enjoyed it a great deal and the extensive research behind it coated in Nick Page’s wry sense of humour makes the dry history very appealing.

It is my reading pleasure to choose THE WRONG MESSIAH as my Faith book of the year.

For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one The Return of The Prodigal Son. I actually could have chosen any one of 3 or more quotes from that book alone. In the end, I have gone for this. The heart of God, the father (or even mother) is apparent and worship-worthy from this paragraph.

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So, those are my books of the year, for 2021. I hope I have conveyed the pleasure I had in reading these picks, just as I enjoyed reading them.

Here is to even better reads in 2022 and a better year on all sides!

Happy New Year in advance!

41. The Wrong Messiah

Every time I see a Nick Page book on my bookshelves, I am reminded of a long-lasting desire of mine to share a couple of pints in a pub with him. It is a desire that started when I read A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity. It was such a breezy, insightful and enlightening piece of history that I imagined him feeding my curiosity over a few bottles. After reading The Wrong Messiah, my longing for that pub hangout has only heightened. I am officially a Nick Page stan! He has this rare ability to relate history, be it that of the early church or the Christian faith itself and relate it with so much dry wit, extensive research and relative objectivity that leaves you curious and your faith strengthened at the same time. All of these and more he has done in The Wrong Messiah.

In The Wrong Messiah, Nick Page explores the birth, life (ministry) and a little bit of the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. While none of these topics is new, the approach is what makes for a refreshing read. The approach reminds me of the famous N.T. Wright quote – ”For too long we have read Scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first first-century eyes and 21st-century questions”. The Wrong Messiah does a good job of contextualizing the gospel narratives in their correct context – 1st century Israel. The juxtaposition of a living scripture in the context of the world where it happened yields plausible answers to some of the vexing questions of its authenticity, relevance and plausible contradictions. The Wrong Messiah does not seek to provide an answer to all questionable aspects of the gospels. It actually makes no such attempt. Rather what it does is to highlight extensively why Jesus was the wrong man, from the wrong town and even used wrong methods in pursuing his messiahship. Everything about him was contrary to what the Jews expected of a messiah. A peasant, who preached forgiveness instead of wielding the sword, one who stopped low to accommodate and validate sinners while forgiving their sins and one who sought to serve rather than be served was not what they had in mind for a messiah. More importantly, after dying his band of followers were suddenly energized to not just preach his message but were energized enough to live new lives while no plausible reason could explain his empty tomb giving credence to their assertion that he had resurrected from the grave.

The wrongness of his messiahship within the first-century Jewish traditions is understandable. More importantly, it makes the events and the claims of the early church more profound. With extensive research (and a good dose of references to the work of Flavius Josephus), Nick Page makes a good case for the historicity of Jesus and in highlighting the wrongness of Christ’s messiahship within the 1st-century context, echoes the scripture that states that ”the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. Two thousand years later, the kingdom that the stone established is still waxing strong. Excellent read!

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40. No Hunger in Paradise

No Hunger in Paradise is the third of Michael Calvin’s books that I have read. The first was The Nowhere Men, which focused on the work of football scouts. The second one was Living on the Volcano, which examined the pressures of managers in English football. In No Hunger in Paradise, the author tackles the academy system of English football. It is full of human stories of youngsters who fell through the cracks of the academy systems, the majority whose dreams are extinguished by the cut-throat industry, those whose lights burned too brightly too soon, those who were trapped by the destructive influences of external factors and the very few who make it to our screens.

There is a common joke on social media where young parents seem to be grooming their toddlers for a future of football stardom – Project Mbappe, it is jokingly called. Football academies are full of 6 to 10-year-olds whose barely discernible talents are propped up by their parents’ dreams and aspirations. But not all academy kids are being shepherded by their parents, some come from rough parts of English cities and have been shepherded by mentors who are doing a thankless job of being the guardian that most of those boys do not have. So, No Hunger in Paradise is a combination of anecdotes that documents the driving forces of community football teams, youth centres and academies. It highlights the roles that these community mentors play, the evil of football agents as they prey on youngsters while selling false hopes and the academies themselves where dreams are wither made or dashed before the very few from those academies who grace our scenes arrive the first team.

No Hunger in Paradise is another well-written book by Michael Calvin but my problem is that it tries to grapple with too many sub-topics. The academy system in modern football has too many stakeholders and this book would have been better served if it focused on two or three of these (e.g. parents, agents and youth coaches) but it tries to take them all in a singular sweep. The outcome is that the book lacks depth and none of the anecdotes sticks. Also, it would have been a better read if one of two of the few success stories was x-rayed in detail. In all, it is a decent but not spectacular read.

3/5

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39. The Intelligence Trap

I cannot remember when I started being alarmed about the high rate of poor decisions made by intelligent persons. However, the current political and cultural climate has heightened that alarm. One of those days I decided to find a book that dealt with the issue and ended up buying The Intelligence Trap by David Robson. The Intelligent Trap explores why intelligent people make silly decisions, what skills and dispositions make intelligent people susceptible to silly decisions and finally it explores how we can cultivate those positive decision-making qualities that protect us from the errors of silly decisions.

High IQ and other academically-tested intelligence measures are no guarantee for avoiding dumb decisions. The Intelligence Trap highlights decades of research that have pointed out that rather than high IQ, a better predictor of quality decision making is evident-based wisdom. It provides practical techniques that can be used to cultivate wise thinking and escape the intelligence trap of biases. The Intelligence Trap uses the springboard of highly people to highlight that intelligence is no vaccination against stupidity. The anecdotes are illuminating – going from Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship to Houdini to Arthur Conan Doyle falling for the scam of the Cottingley Fairies photo hoax to the FBI’s wrongful arrest of Brandon Mayfield. The curse of knowledge, inflated self-confidence, earned dogmatism, meta-forgetfulness and motivated reasoning are some of the biases that induce poor decisions of not just highly intelligent individuals but also intelligence communities.

The Intelligence Trap is not just a book that explores the downside of intelligence, it provides antidotes to poor decision-making. Antidotes apply to both the highly intelligent and the average Joe. No other anecdote explores these antidotes other than the stories of Benjamin Franklin told in the book. The intellectual humility and moral algebra that underpinned his decision-making as highlighted in the book are foundations that can be implemented by anyone, irrespective of the person IQ. In a world where we are currently bombarded by information and expected to make definite choices on a myriad of topics, the toolkit that The Intelligence Trap provides is a worthy armour.

3.4/5 

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37. DOUBTING

The moment I came around to the fact that doubt is not the opposite of faith nor is certitude equivalent to faith, I began to feel comfortable enough to interrogate my moments of doubt as it concerns issues of faith. I have read and enjoyed a few books that have explored the topic. Last year this was the pick for the 2020 TBR list and this year I found myself reading Doubting by Alister McGrath.

Doubting is different from most of the other books on Christian doubt that I have read. It is more pastoral in approach. It is relatively shallow on the philosophical front. What it lacks on the philosophical front it makes up for on the pastoral front. It provides in-depth details on how to overcome doubt for a new believer. It is a vital read that acts as a handy reference.

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