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11. Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business is the third book in the Amaka Thriller Series. The first two were Easy Motion Tourist and  When Trouble Sleeps. The formula remains the same; a young lady gets entangled with a rich Lagos man, and she gets caught up as collateral damage amid a larger crime scheme but her ability to find justice is hampered by the illicit sexual relationship that entangled the young lady with the rich and famous in the first place, then Amaka comes to her rescue by liberating the young lady from the clutches of law enforcement agencies and the rich and famous sexual partners who would rather silence the girl permanently as she much has seen and heard incriminating things. In When Trouble Sleeps, the plot is set within the Nigerian political landscape amid a gubernatorial election. In Unfinished Business, the Pentecostal churches take centre stage and the corruption found there is the underlying narrative that drives the story. A pastor and his wife are executed most professionally and a young lady, Funke, who is the pastor’s mistress, is in the room when the murder occurs and needs to be rescued from the clutches of the law. At the end of When Trouble Sleeps Amaka relocated abroad and it is from the UK that she returns to rescue Funke.

The good part of Unfinished Business is that like the earlier Amaka Thriller books the author has the art of crime prose locked down. The suspense and the thrill are well-paced and well-described. Also, his description of locations is vivid and exceptional. It makes the story feel realistic and the characters relatable. The place where the novel disintegrates is in the implausibility of the plot; how Amaka gained access into the murder scene in a hotel as prominent as Sheraton Hotel and got a suspect out of the room despite all the CCTV cameras and dozens of police officers in the building. Nigerian police are known for their ineptitude but their lapses are stretched to almost unbelievable levels in Unfinished Business. Personal connections are the engine that powers institutional interactions in the Nigerian state but it still does not explain how Amaka can get limitless resources to fight her social justice crusades nor does it explain how she randomly impersonates a state governor successfully in a bid to bail a murder suspect. Additionally, the church politics seem random and thoroughly underdeveloped.

In all, Unfinished Business is a decent read but the plausibility of the plot leaves a fair bit to be desired and the actual crime feels flat. While the Amaka Thriller is a good start for Nigerian crime fiction, those from the Southern part of the continent are better developed and way more gripping.

3/5

10. Lydia

Paula Gooder’s excellent Lydia is a follow-up to the very insightful Phoebe which I read a while back. Both books are very innovative works. It is a genre-defying work; a potpourri of fiction (historical fiction), history, theology and rigorous imagination. In Lydia (Like in Pheobe), the story is an act of historical imagination. The author has allowed her imagination, while guided by rigorous scholarly research, to run wild and create a compelling story around the life of Lydia of Thyatira. Lydia appears very briefly in the bible but there is enough to weave a story around her as a major protagonist and 3 other biblical ladies as minor protagonists – Euodia, Syntyche and the slave girl healed by Paul. The story is set in Philippi and contextualizes Acts 16:16-40 and Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. Conceding the historicity of the New Testament (and particularly the epistles) as a given, there is nothing that brings history to life in the current days like reading a historical text within the context of its original audience. This is what Lydia achieves on a surface level. On a deeper level, it is a theological work empowered by imagination that asks what Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi meant to its intended original audience. The reason why this question is important is that nuance is missing when we look at such historical texts from the lenses of the 21st century but it comes alive more and opens up vistas and layers of understanding that enriches the original text. Through the many characters in Lydia and not restricted to the 4 main protagonists, we get a historically astute view of what the letter meant to various individuals; the slave girl who was healed by Paul, the jailer who got converted after Paul and Silas preached to him, the Jewish members of the Philippi congregation, Lydia (who despite not being mentioned in the epistle is imagined to have been a recipient of the letter since she is from Philippi), Euodia, Epaphroditus and Syntyche who are mentioned in the letter. Through these characters in Lydia, we see that a historical text does not mean the same thing to all recipients. For modern readers, this means that these texts which we consider God-breathed are living and able to speak to us in different times and diverse circumstances.

As much as Lydia is a work of fiction, it is a work of imagination which is bound by a text (Acts 16:16-40 and Philippians) and the interpretation of that text based on the author’s scholarly research. This makes it a story that is not a novel. A work of fiction that leaves the reader with a lot to ponder, introspect and reconsider. It is a refreshing read and I suddenly can’t read the book of Philippians again without imagining what it meant to its original audience and by extension, what it means to me. As much as I loved Phoebe, I love Lydia even more and I can’t wait for the next instalment of this excellent series.

4.2/5 

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9. The Book of Rio

A while back I got a recommendation for the A City in Short Fiction anthologies. I had read the Leeds one a while back here and got The Book of Rio this year in the TBR. The Book of Rio brings together ten short stories that go beyond the postcards and snapshots, and introduce us to real residents of Rio. From stories that touch on life in the favelas to happenings around the Copacabana and lesser-known parts of the city of Rio. The stories pulsate around music, sex and everyday activities of ordinary Rio inhabitants. From a female student working as an escort who is more interested in texting her friends than in the client who is with her to two flat-hunters who end up viewing a bullet-ridden flat together to the electrician musing on why he has to be in the big city at all and why the longest bridge project he is involved in has to be built in the first place to a bored woman with a successful career but with no lover who dabbles into the occult in a bid to find love. The stories in The Book of Rio are full of inhabitants who are muddling through in the big city. The stories leave no lasting impression, very much like inhabitants in most big cities who are lost in it.

2.4/5 

8. Baking Cakes in Kigali

A few years ago, I wanted a novel set in Central Africa that was not set in Congo Brazzaville. I could not find anything I liked set in DRC, so I looked for one set in Rwanda and Baking Cakes in Kigali was the top of the very few available picks. Baking Cakes in Kigali has a simple premise; Angel Tungaraza is an expat’s wife, a Tanzanian housewife living with her husband and 4 grandchildren in a multitenant complex in Kigali. She expands her cake-baking hobby into a business from this apartment. Customers from all parts of Kigali and across all social classes knock on her door to order a cake and their personal circumstances envelope the need for a cake. The plot of the book revolves around her interactions with her customers. The plot is basic but it is infused with a lot of social commentary that makes it a worthwhile read.

The plot device of Baking Cakes in Kigali is incredibly formulaic and simplistic; a person needs a cake, they knock on Angel’s door, and she goes to brew a pot of tea while they look through the cake photo album to choose a design of that fits their taste and need, while discussing the occasion they divulge private stories that ties to a social burning topic and soon after they pay a deposit for the cake, Angel puts the cash into her brassiere. While the sanitary implication of stuffing money notes into her underwear is one thing, the number of times it is repeated in the book makes it a bit boring. That aside, Angel’s charming humour and her candid interactions with her customers make for a pleasurable read. It can be argued that while weighty issues are touched upon in the book, none of them is developed extensively enough to make Baking Cakes in Kigali thought-provoking enough. However, the counterargument could be that Baking Cakes in Kigali was not structured to be a deep story but one which with gentle humour and a lightness of touch in its prose, varied serious topics are touched upon. Topics like women empowerment, forgiveness, foreign aid, menopause, email genital mutilation and reconciliation make enough of an appearance in Baking Cakes in Kigali an easy read that provides some thoughtful moments.Baking Cakes in Kigali 1Baking Cakes in Kigali 3

3.3/5

7. FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION; Funmilayo Ransome Kuti

I remember an old Twitter friend (who later became a friend in real life but suddenly outgrew our friendship) who once tweeted in anger that all she ever heard about Funmilayo Ransome Kuti while growing up was that she was the first Nigerian woman to drive a motor car. Reflecting on that tweet, it occurred to me that I had not seen any proper biography of this icon, so it was plausible why pedestrian narratives prevailed. Upon reading FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION, one realises how much a disservice has been made to her legacy by only recognizing her as the mother of the iconic maverick, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and being the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. She was way more than those. In the face of few proper biographies that depict her life story, finding FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION, was hectic and the task was justified by the cost of the book and the extensive scholarly output in the book. FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION is written by two history scholars; Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba. Despite the multiplicity of authorship, there is an even tone throughout the book.

Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (nee Thomas) was born in 1900 in Abeokuta and from this South Western Nigerian city she earned the affectionate nickname of Beere (first daughter); the first female student at Abeokuta Grammar school, the first Nigerian woman to head a movement to attempt (and successfully depose a king even if was later reinstated), the first woman to travel with a nationalist delegation to London, and first Nigerian woman to hold office in an international women’s organisation. In all of these, she did not seek a pioneering role for its sake or to advance her agenda, she was constantly at the forefront of emancipating Nigerian women; whether it was to unshackle market women from the burden of excessive taxation imposed by colonialists and their apologists or extending suffrage to Nigerian women, or the nation’s independence from colonial Britain. Her entire life was about liberating Nigerian women and enforcing equality in a society that was deeply (and still is but to a lesser extent) skewed against them. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was a pragmatist. She was not beholden to her Western education, her Yoruba culture or even her Christian faith. She deployed every aspect of her life to push the agenda of Nigerian women.

A careful reading of FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION shows that the iconic role of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti would not have materialized without the active participation of her spouse; Rev. Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Theirs was an egalitarian union. Rev. Israel Ransome Kuti did not feel emasculated in his masculinity as he often played second fiddle to his wife’s prominent role as an activist. In fact, he was an enthusiastic supporter and always found a way to merge and weave his activism as an educationist (a founding president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers) into her activism as a women leader or pre-independence nationalist. Her nationalist activism entails a lot of international travel and he willingly supported her by managing the home front in her absence. Such an egalitarian marriage was rare in Nigeria in the 1940s and 50s and highlights how the structure of the Kutis household played a major role in Funmilayo Ransome Kuti’s success as a pioneer in the emancipation of the rights of Nigerian women. It is slightly ironic too when one considers Fela’s subsequent views and conduct around women.

FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION is an excellent exploration into the life of an iconic figure and is a work that deftly positions her life within the politics of her day, the life and times of her husband and the prevalent Yoruba culture of the time. I was initially sceptical when I first picked up this book as soon as I became aware that it was written by academicians. I was concerned it might be too scholarly and dry. My worries and concerns were dispelled with the first few pages as it is a very accessible work that does not compromise on the relevant rigorous research that makes it an authoritative output. FOR WOMEN AND THE NATION is highly recommended.

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6. The Psychology of Money

In recent months, I have been thinking of money, It is not a topic that has occupied my mind until recently. I have never lacked it nor had an abundance of it. Almost every need and some wants of mine have been met. However, in recent times due to the current economic realities (mostly local but also global), I have begun to look over my shoulder. I have gotten to that stage in life where I have begun to ask myself if I have been a good steward and if an evaluation of the past might lead to regret. I have also begun to be slightly apprehensive about the future. I decided to interrogate my view on money from all angles; first from a spiritual perspective and the secular perspective. The two-sided evaluation was not deliberate but coincidental. I recently started a more devotional attitude towards biblical themes and the book I started with had riches and poverty as its theme (for anyone who may be interested, it is Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions by Craig Blomberg ). Not completely sold on the prosperity gospel of the Pentecostal movements that I largely identify with, I wanted a nuanced view of money and I could not have found a better study. While this piece is not about that book, I was struck by some of its finer points that were reechoed in The Psychology of Money. Unlike most finance and prosperity books (which I can’t stand),  is not a motivational book on how to get rich and stay rich, it is a pop-psychology book about how to reorientate the reader’s bias around money. Not necessarily how to make it but how to handle it, both in the present and the future. It is about the place of risk and luck in evaluating financial decisions. Luck and risk humble the wealth holder and cause him or her to handle it with caution because no proven 100% rule ensures it can always be replicated. The Psychology of Money evaluates how humans frame savings and how the rational decisions we make limit our saving culture. It also examines concepts of greed and contentment as factors that impact how we relate to money. The Psychology of Money has no magic bullet to getting rich nor does it have any of those silly 5 steps to being a billionaire. Instead, it preaches the patient mystery of the confounding nature of compounding and warns not to disrupt its tremendous power unnecessarily.

The Psychology of Money is a humbling read that stretches the mind, causes a lot of introspection and shifts mindsets. Also, it causes a late starter to start small and be hopeful of staying the cause. It subtly encourages the user to not only start small but also to manage the goalpost of desires that consumerism breeds. This is an excellent read that I will return to over and over again.

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5. Dog Eat Dog

I’ve got a little revelation – For a while I have alluded to a Twitter conversation where two users who are African fiction book lovers were arguing whether a particular writer was a good writer or a good storyteller. That writer was Niq Mhlongo. They could not reach an agreement but I always knew on which side of the divide I belonged. Dog Eat Dog is Niq Mhlongo’s debut which was published 20 years ago. I wanted to add a reread to my 2024 TBR and chose it for the special nostalgic memories it holds. I read it weeks after it was published and that period holds special memories for me.  Rereading it brings back those memories but while this review is not about the time when I first read it, previous memories play a part in rereads. One thing that is obvious in rereading Dog Eat Dog is how much Niq Mhlongo has grown as a writer. Dog Eat Dog is a post-apartheid novel that is set in 1994, and apartheid has just ended. Racial integration has just begun and non-segregation is becoming the mantra of public institutions. In it, the protagonist Dingz, is a young black Wits University student from a poverty-stricken family, whose mother single-handedly supports nine children (including grandchildren) from her pension. The basis of the story is how Dingz navigates life as a fresh undergraduate while being disenfranchised when his expected bursary does not come through and the new South Africa is unfolding. A new South Africa where the past holds back a typical black South African like Dingz and prevalent social issues like xenophobia, crime, HIV/AIDS and racism are at play.

Rereading Dog Eat Dog, there is a lot of fun and witty dialogue but the story is lacking in rigour and substance. The characters are barely developed and Dingz stumbles from one drinking session to a sexcapade to another drinking session. His academics are almost irrelevant in the scheme of things and he just seems to cruise through with little effect either way. The strength of Dog Eat Dog is not in its story (which is almost nonexistent), or even in its characters, but in its setting and descriptions of place. The description of the Soweto and larger Joburg environs is spot on. This is one aspect of Niq’s work that has been excellent from day one. No one describes or sets a story in South African townships any better. His subsequent works have been a marked improvement on Dog Eat Dog in terms of plot development and character development. This reread has satisfied a nostalgic itch but I’ll rather recommend his later works.

2.6/5

4. The Quarter

The Quarter is a collection of 18 stories. These stories were written by one of the Arab world’s foremost storytellers – Naguib Mahfouz. All 18 stories belong to a recently discovered cache of previously unknown stories found years after his death and labelled “To be published in 1994”. They are microfiction of some sort. Each story is very short, some as short as 2 pages and the longest no more than 4 pages. No one is sure if they were works in progress or completed in their current form. However, some things are set in this collection; all the stories are set in the quarter – a common living area in Cairo, its sparse infrastructure consists of a mosque, a fountain and a cellar (that seems to be a place where residents who enter it end u having encounters with the unseen and unknown and end up having their perspectives changed). The quarter is a place with its people in flux; either residents going, returning or just passing through. In all of these, two residents are constant and remain rallying points for the people – shaykh-al-hara, the administrative head of the quarter and the imam, the religious figure who supervises the mosque and serves as a regular counsellor to the former. Both find themselves constantly at the centre of all the actions that are provoked by the quarter’s inhabitants. It is through these two characters that an attempt is made to make sense of the mundane but important happenings of these ordinary Cairo residents.

The Quarter is short and crisp but the collection feels bare and incomplete as one is unsure if the reason why it was not published by the author is due to its incomplete nature. If this was written by a less celebrated writer, I doubt it would have been accepted for publication in its current form.

2.7/5The Quarters 1

3. Fortunate Son

Returning to that endless discourse of whether a fiction writer is a good writer or a good storyteller – Walter Mosley is an excellent storyteller. While I have almost a dozen Mosley books on my shelves, Fortunate Son is the third one I have read. The Awkward Black Man and The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey were the earlier reads. I had started the collection knowing that Walter Mosley was a mystery and crime fiction writer. Interestingly, none of the 3 books of his that I have read so far fall within those genres. However, what abides in all 3 is Mosley’s top-notch storytelling. Fortunate Son is a fable. A very simple fable. It is the story of two boys from Southern California – one black and the other white – who are as close as brothers at birth while being as different as can be in terms of the hand that fate deals each of them as they grow up.

Thomas is a black kid who is born with severe health complications and soon after he is discharged from the ICU, he and his mother move in with a widowed surgeon whose son, Eric, is the same age as Thomas. Thomas and Eric are as close as brothers while growing up. Suddenly, Thomas’s mother dies and the paths of the boys begin to diverge. Eric grows up effortlessly; academically, socially and otherwise. Progress comes to him easily. For Thomas, it couldn’t be any worse. Soon after his mother’s funeral, his biological father yanks him away from Eric’s home and he moves into a space that is filled not only with a lot of toxicity and abuse but also devoid of any support. A total contrast to what he had been used to. The trauma leads to a downward spiral in his life – he drops out of school, gets involved in drugs and the inevitable incarceration. Away from the other, the boys long for each other and sense a void that can only be filled with a reunion despite all they have to validate which is the nostalgia of growing up together. Their lives are intertwined and only when they reunite is redemption within grasp. On one hand, Fortunate Son is a fable about black and white America. On another hand, it is just a well-told simple tale of two young boys managing the differing hands that fate has dealt them. An enjoyable read, if not exceptional.

3.2/5Fortunate Son 1

2. Behold the Dreamers

Similar to most books that I own, Behold the Dreamers has spent a considerable amount on my bookshelves before its time in the Sun came as part of the 2024 TBR list. I have had it long enough not to remember what the synopsis of the book is. I was pleasantly surprised once I began reading it to realize that it is a Japa fiction; a tale of migration and about migrants. The basic plot of Behold the Dreamers is familiar. A migrant family with dreams, wanting to make it in the new land and brimming with optimism in the face of the hurdles that have come to mark migration.

Jende and his wife Neni are childhood sweethearts who have come to America in search of the American dream. Jende arrived first, being sponsored by his cousin Winston, an established lawyer in America, then Jende scraps enough to bring his Neni and his son Loimi to join him in New York. Like all migrants their outlook is optimistic. They look back at the destitution they left behind in Cameroon and her propelled forward by the promises of a better life in America. There is an individual optimism that each of them espouses and there is the communal optimism that they share as a couple.  The life of a migrant is often one of faith – dreaming of great achievements while not yet having a legal stay or not being welcome by natives. How far each migrant is willing and able to exercise this faith differs and for a couple the moment one person loses hope and the faith dies, a dislocation is birthed in their domestic life. They suddenly stop pulling in one direction, like the ancient prophet Amos once said, can two walk together, except they be agreed? For the Jongas, their union suffers when one of them realises that the odds were stacked against them to the point that it did not make survival in America worthwhile. The frustration and desperation escalated to the point where each of them did something despicable. The juxtaposition of the story of the Edwardes (Jende’s employers) and the Jongas is very critical. It is easy to be blinded by privilege and consider the Jongas too desperate in their pursuit of their American dream. Most of what they had to grapple with made little sense to the Edward family, the same way the Jongas felt the Edward family had no reason to experience misery of any sort.

Reading Behold the Dreamers, I am once again reminded of that Twitter exchange where two readers were arguing about whether a particular writer was a good writer or a good storyteller. Behold the Dreamers is a relatively basic narrative, one not uncommon in the Japa fiction subgenre. However, what makes it a page-turner is Imbolo Mbue’s exquisite storytelling skills. In very simple and seemingly unspectacular prose she keeps the story flowing and keeps the reader glued like a long-lost friend updating you on stories you had missed out on. The storytelling is excellent, the characters are emphatically well drawn out. Jende seemed a bit subservient but his ability to see the best in everyone else and extend care to others even when drowning is admirable. I was rooting for him until he did the unspeakable. Neni seemed more goal-oriented and willing to bulldoze any obstacle in the way of her American dream. Her desperation is palpable but understandable. Interestingly, my favourite character in the book was Natasha, the pastor of the American church that Neni approached in her most desperate moments. Behold the Dreamers is an excellent read and highly recommended.

4/5

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