Reading List (2021 edition)


21. The Year of The Runaways

I had mentioned in an earlier note that I have three works of fiction set in India in my 2021 TBR list. The Year of The Runaways is the second of the three. Sweeping between India and England (mostly Sheffield) and between the early teenage years of its protagonists and present-day, The Years of The Runaways follows the lives of three young men who have been pushed by poverty and other excruciating family factors into a desperate search for a new and better life. Tarlochan (Tochi) is a former rickshaw driver who refuses to say anything about his traumatic family life in Bihar before he migrated illegally to the UK. Avtar has taken great risk to the point of organ harvesting to make the journey to a land where he thinks his fortune will be turned around. Randeep whose chaotic nature means that Avtar has to keep protecting him. Avtar has a student visa for which he is not interested in schooling. Randeep has a visa wife (Narinder). Their reasons for migrating differ but the desperation of their actions and the grimness of their lot while in England is uniform and almost indistinguishable.

From afar each bears the burdens of their families and each is the candle that keeps the hopes of their families from being extinguished. It is a heavy load to bear and made even heavier by the illegality of their stay in the UK and the unavailability of decent enough jobs to service the enormous loans that facilitated their migration. All of these make The Year of The Runaways a very painful and grim read but one that is grounded in the reality of what life is for the average migrant who is seemingly helpless enough to dream of migration as the only option in the face of shrinking options at home.

In the midst of the gloom and suffering that encompasses the three male protagonists is the welcome diversion of Narinder, Randeep’s via wife. Narinder’s character is a welcome diversion not just because she is not a migrant (she is British of Indian origin) but also because her characterisation lacks the three male protagonists. Apart from their background, nothing separates Avtar and Randeep and their lives in England is basically interchangeable. There is no depth in their characterizations. Her battles and internal conflict between spiritual devotion and human empathy, between the chains of patriarchy and freedom and that between innocence and loss, are keenly observed and her character evolution is apparent.

Altering between four protagonists was always going to be tricky but what makes it worse in the case of The Year of The Runaways is the lack of depth and similarity in the characterization of the male characters. This made it difficult to track which character was in focus most of the time. The Year of The Runaways is sustained by the realism of the plot. However, it is let done by the workmanlike nature of the prose. It reminds me of a recent discussion I read online where someone said some fiction writers are storytellers while some have a gift for writing and that very few have both. After reading this book, I am inclined to believe that Sunjeev Sahota is more of a storyteller. This is not one of those books where you are captured by a sentence, quote or paragraph. It is one where you recognize the reality of the plot and empathize with the characters without finding any of them memorable.


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19. The Awkward Black Man

There are certainly too many books in the world to fit into a lifetime. You could live and not hear of some authors or read their books in your lifetime.  One of such authors, I did not know until recently is Walter Mosley. Until last year I had barely heard the name and not seen any of his books. How I had not heard of such a revered author with over 54 published works (most of them critically acclaimed), is a wonder in itself. Since then I have gotten over half a dozen of his books and The Awkward Black Man is one of his two books that found its way into the 2021 TBR list. Short stories are not my favourite form of fiction but you will not guess so with the amount of short stories collections that I randomly picked for my 2021 TBR list.

The Awkward Black Man is a collection of seventeen stories of black men living life on the margins due to their awkwardness. Interestingly, the awkwardness is not about their race but about characteristics that can be applicable to anyone irrespective of the colour of their skin. Some marked out by their weight, mental illness, infidelity, mortality and inability to handle social interactions. As is often the case with short stories collections, some of the stories in The Awkward Black Man are ordinary and unmemorable, while others are excellent and seem too short as you wish the beauty of the lasted longer. However, one common thread runs through the entire collection – Walter Mosley’s unique ability to capture the imagination and attention of the reader throughout. His writing is sharp and clear-eyed, with enough detail to draw you in. Even with the uneven nature of the collection, I enjoyed some gems in it. Pet Fly, Reply to A Dead Man, The Letter and Breath were excellent. Reply To A Dead Man was my favourite story in the book. While I am not sure I look forward to another short stories collection from the author (that is because I am not really a big fan of short stories), I am enthralled enough with his writing skill to look forward to his novels in my collection.


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Black Sunday is Tola Abraham’s well-written debut that follows twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike and their younger brothers, Peter and Andrew. The sociopolitical upheaval in Nigeria is a minimal backdrop to the plot as changes in the country is a catalyst for their mother losing her comfortable job in a government parastatal. Their father is largely unemployed but it matters little as their mother’s job is good enough to ensure that they all live a decent enough middle class life.  Their dad is more available for school runs and other home-bound responsibilities. Their entire family life is turned upside down when their mother is sacked. This sack is the beginning of the pain, abuse, abandonment and poverty that envelopes the whole book.

The first thing that struck me about Black Sunday is how excellent Tola Abraham’s prose is. For a debut novel, the writing is accomplished. Also, she creates a very realistic portrait of family experiences in Lagos, Nigeria – both for the middle-class life that the twins and their family lived before their mother lost her job and the life of poverty that they fell into thereafter. It takes a special skill to write about poverty for a story set in a developing country without turning it into poverty porn. Tola Abraham has that skill.

The thing about poverty is that it stripes you of options. The thing about economic and political decisions by politicians is that it has real-life consequences. Our politicians seem oblivious of this fact. The solitary political decision that led to Bibike’s mother losing her job is what pushed her family into poverty, destroyed their family bond and striped all members of the family of options to the deplorable point where being abuse became enticing. A lack of options makes some victims become vulnerable to abuse. There is a lot of sex in Black Sunday but sadly most of it is non-consensual. Power dynamics distort even the few that seem consensual. Females are all on the receiving end of this abuse of power. The younger brothers, Peter and Andrew, are distant beneficiaries of the abuse as it provides a means for their sisters to take care of them. However, one is left to wonder what the plight of the boys would have been if they had no elder sisters whose desirability were being exploited. it is a bleak prospect all round.

As if the abuse and poverty is not a bleak enough combo, abandonment makes it worse. The cruel reality of teenagers and pre-teens waking up one morning and finding themselves parentless is very traumatic. It is one thing for a father or mother to abandon their kids but for both parents to up and leave their children in the face of difficulties is something almost unimaginable. The scene where Peter seats in his grandma’s veranda looking far into the horizon until nightfall while anticipating the return of his runaway father is heartbreaking. Broken people are always vulnerable and nowhere is this more visible than in the exploitation of Arikiye by the hypocritical brand of pentecostalism displayed in the story.

Black Sunday has a lot of good going for it but lets itself down on some critical fronts. The book is written in a form where each of the four siblings is the protagonist in each chapter and tells their story in the first-person narrative. This is a bit problematic as it makes the book feel episodic and unwholesome as a novel. As you approach the closing chapters. you realise that a lot of mini-narratives had been nothing but distractions and the very introspective chapters of Peter and Andrew that held so much promise had been abandoned without closure. The ending seemed rushed and dull. In all, what started as a very explosive novel petered out in the end. Also, one is left wondering if the alternating POV of 4 characters was the best structure for the plot. Despite these misgivings, Black Sunday is sustained by the excellent writing of Tola Abraham – not just excellent prose but very keen observation of middle-class Lagos living and universal ills that resonate well. For these reasons, it is well recommended.


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17. Easter Enigma

If you ever paid any attention to the Easter narratives in the gospels, it is obvious that there are inconsistencies across all four narratives.  Gaps in the stories of hat happened during the passion, crucifixion, burial and particularly the resurrection.  Which of the Marys was at the tomb on that Sunday morning? How many angels did the followers meet at the tomb? The makeup of the crowd Jesus met at the Galilee appearance if it was eleven disciples or a much larger crowd? These and many more are inconsistencies that bother genuine inquirers of the gospel narratives.

Easter Enigma does not settle any debate nor does it promise to. What it sets out to do is set the Easter narrative within the context of a historical event, contextualize each of the 5 biblical writers (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul) within the confines of their history, bias and the entire body of work. In this harmonisation, a leap of the imagination is employed. This may be troubling for some biblical scholars but I find it acceptable as none of the assumptions employed in the book was baseless and almost none of them alters the primary premise of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and would revisit it in the future as the contents are too critical and relatively dense to be digested in one reading. I love books like this that remind me that as supernatural as the gospels are, they are historical documents written with flaws and biases of the first-hand witnesses. Jesus was a concrete, complex and fascinating figure of history.

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16. We Wish To Inform You

The awkward title of this book takes its cue from the lines of that infamous letter that serve Tutsi pastors of the Seventh Day Adventist church wrote to their church president who happened to be a Hutu – Pastor Elizaphan Nkakirutimana. A chilling letter in the midst of an even more chilling genocide that left blight in the face of humanity. Killing eight hundred thousand people in as short as a hundred days is as evil as it has ever gotten and while everyone wonders why it happened in the first place, I have not read or heard a convincing explanation for the genocide. Ethnic tensions are not sudden eruptions. They are often built up over time and the final act is often the culmination of decades of hate and distrust.

What this book excels in is tracing the history of the Rwandan nation and showing how the stratification fault lines started and how subsequent actions led to 1994. Before 1994, there were 1895, 1959, 1963 and a few more sad interludes. A common thread that runs through Rwandan history is conformity. Like Nkurunziza told the author that “conformity is very deep, very developed here. In Rwandan history, everyone obeys authority. People revere power, and there isn’t enough education. You take a poor, ignorant population and give them arms and say it’s yours. Kill. They’ll obey. The peasants, who were paid or forced to kill were looking up to people of higher socio-economic standing to see how to behave. So the people of influence or the big financiers, are often the big men in the genocide. They may think they didn’t kill because they didn’t take life with their own hands but the people were looking up to them for their orders. And, in Rwanda, an order can be given very quietly.” The excerpt above is one of the most insightful anecdotes I read in the book. It not only captured Rwanda from the viewpoint of a person who lived through the genocide, but it also explains how Rwandans have been able to conform to this image of a unified nation devoid of ethnic lines since Kagame’s presidency. Dissent is suddenly a taboo and everyone seems to tow an official line. You begin to wonder if the nation has truly healed or the strong arm of the man in power is holding it all together. Extrapolating the same excerpt into the Nigerian situation where ethnic nepotism is currently running wild and tribalism is almost an official government policy, one begins to wonder whether ingredients like poverty and illiteracy do not mean that we are seating on a keg of gun powder? A situation where peasants are most excitable by ethnic jingoistic cries. Lessons must be learnt from the past as there is no guarantee that the international community would not look away like they did in 1994, if such happen again elsewhere.


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15. Last Night At The Bassline

This book is primarily about The Bassline, a jazz club that left an indelible mark on the sands of the South African jazz scene. Much more than that, the book encapsulates a portion of a nation’s history and an industry that reimagined a future against the backdrop of a painful past. In very accessible and passionate prose David Coplan ushers the reader into a world of music and a venue that was completely borderless, anti-xenophobic and truly multicultural.

Brad Holmes was inspired not just by his love for music but also by the birth of a new nation to launch The bassline. Between September 1994 to September 2003, The Bassline was both a creative engine room and a symbol of a united identity and acceptance. The demise of that venue and similar venues that came afterwards (places like Orbit and Kippies) is an indictment of the system and not the practitioners of the industry. Last Nite At The Bassline captures the struggle that birthed some of the most memorable nights in the South African jazz scene. Some of the recollections are almost priceless and enable a better appreciation of the music that was created in that venue and define that era.


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14. The Choice Factory

I owe my love for Behavioural Economics to an old lecturer of mine, she is a professor of Psychology and taught Decision Making at a Business School I attended a long time ago. While I have no interest in the very dirty research work that birth the pop literature that get to enjoy, I have always enjoyed the literature that comes out of this field. I make an effort to read a minimum of one of such books every year. This year, I got The Choice Factory in my 2021 TBR.

The Choice Factory is an enjoyable read that explores behavioural biases that influence how consumers decide what they buy. It is a short and crisp book that is divided into 25 short chapters with each chapter covering a specific bias. While the book is primarily aimed at advertising practitioners and marketing executives, the writing is simple enough to be understood by anyone interested in consumer behaviour. Some of the biases include price relativity, fundamental attribution error, social proof and the pain of paymenT. Throughout the book, the author replicates and affirms many classic experiments that examine human behaviour and prove that they still apply to today’s consumer world. The experiments are interesting and the conclusions are illuminating. Suddenly the context of an advertisement or the price relativity created by a new category begins to make new sense and you finally understand why you seem to spend more when using your debit/credit card than when paying cash. Good simple read.


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13. The Gold Diggers

An interesting coincidence is that I read Sue Nyathi’s The Gold Diggers during the same days when I had Bheki Mseleku’s new album, Beyond The Stars, on heavy rotation in my playlist. The common thread that runs between the jazz album and the work of fiction is not immediately obvious but a closer examination makes the similarity evident. Beyond The Stars comprises previously unreleased solo piano compositions that Bheki Mseleku wrote and performed after he returned back to the UK in 2005 after his brief return from Exile to South Africa and releasing his only South African album, the 2003’s Home At Last. He became incredibly disillusioned and unappreciated as opportunities were scarce and he returned back to the UK in 2005. He had built a reputation as a renowned jazz maestro in Europe while in exile for decades, so he had a solid reputation to fall back on when home seemed to appreciate his immense talent.

Listening to Beyond The Stars, I wondered how his idea of him had been altered by the reception he received back home in South Africa that led to him seeking solace for the second time in a foreign land that had become more accepting and how it all crystallized in the sound in that album. The relevance of the above in the light of The Gold Diggers is that the book also examines similar fundamental themes from a completely different angle. The themes of leaving home, achieving hopes and visions in a strange land, dashed expectations, rejection, the perils of migration and what constitutes a home in a world where migration is now a fluid concept.

It all starts in a Toyota Quantum. It is the vehicle where the fate and future of diverse Zimbabwean strangers are united and conveyed as they seek a better future in the land of gold – Johannesburg.  None of them is going for a short visit. None is making a holiday trip. For all of them, they were leaving the home they knew to build a new home in South Africa. Dumisani, wrecked by the ruinous government of Mugabe is hoping to get a good job and get his wife Christine and children to join him. Portia and her son Nkosi were going to join her husband who had migrated earlier but unwilling to send for them. All seven passengers were hopeful of a better life in South Africa hence the migration and the willingness to take the risks that the journey in the Toyota Quantum entailed. In the global world that we live in today (and even in 2008 when The Gold Diggers is set), the concept of home is no longer static. It is fluid and its fluidity is fuelled by not just war and apartheid (as was the case in Bheki Mseleku’s initial exile) but also fuelled by economic collapse, an innate desire for better prospects, escape from domestic violence and longing for fulfilment in family life. The Gold Diggers shows that this longing and need for relocation is not the exclusive preserve of the highly talented and publicly lauded but an option that is also explored by ordinary citizens seeking reunion with their migrant spouses as in the case of Portia, Chamu and Chenai escaping the memory of a damaged childhood and an incestuous father and Dumisani who is seeking a way out of a ruined economy. The intentions are as humane as you can imagine but the journey is more heartbreaking than can be imagined.

It is soul-wrenching that none of the migrants in The Gold Diggers achieved their vision or goal for migrating. In diverse manners, Johannesburg swallowed each of them whole. Ironically, those that migrated to better the economic fortunes of their families lost their families in the process. Those that migrated to escape danger fell into the evil hands of xenophobia and drug addiction. Whatever the past of these migrants, the fact that it was disfigured enough for them to seek solace in a foreign land rendered them permanently vulnerable to the point that the handicap of their past was a marker to their final destiny.

Sue Nyathi’s prose is brutally honest, vivid and uncomplicated. There are no complex layers of meaning in her prose. It is simple and unadorned – easy to read and the pages turn effortlessly. While it may not be my cup of tea, I could not help but notice that the author’s erotic descriptions are expertly done with a ting of mischief. The only minor complaints I had with The Gold Diggers were the thinness of the Gugu narrative and the callousness of all the male characters in the book. They were all evil and seemed to have no redeeming character. The only one who was up to some good died a brutal death in the hands of a xenophobic mob. As for the Gugu narrative, it fizzled out too quickly and felt rushed in the end.

The Gold Diggers is a very good work of fiction that calls for empathy for the migrant community. Much more than that, it questions how much sacrifice is worth the perils of migration. It is a very good read.

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12. Tales of the Metric System

Tales of the Metric System is the second work of fiction written by Imraan Coovadia that I have had the pleasure of reading. A couple of years ago I read the witty, satirical and insightful Green-Eyed Thieves. Coovadia is a writer who makes you work hard for the pleasure you derive from his writing but in the end, the effort is always worth it. Tales of the Metric System is no different. The rather dry title is a subtle play on the notion of change. The title refers to South Africa’s adoption of the metric system of measurement fro the previously used American customary units in 1971.

The changes which the book tracks are the social and political changes of over four decades in South Africa. Coovadia takes an unusual but successful spin on the structure of the book – episodic in nature and comprises of ten interconnected vignettes of South Africa’s history between 1970 and 2010. A fine thread runs through the chapters as themes of non-racialism, the measure of life, responsibility and forgiveness are explored and they all cast long shadows in the stories and characters that surface and recede at different points in the course of the four decades span. Questions are asked and topics are subtly probed with no easy answers in sight.

Imraan Coovadia has a very effective satirical talent in his writing and this is exploited to a great deal in the chapter where Albert Mokoena is hospitalized and finally dies of HIV/AIDS. The amusing poking of AIDS-denialism is thoughtfully done. The chapters each capture a day in the lives of the characters overarched with well-known events and relatable public figures in the background. Tales of the Metric System is a unique but highly effective take on historical fiction.


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