The Fionavar Tapestry – Guy Gavriel Kay

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Whenever someone asked me what I was reading during the last few weeks, I coyly avoided the question, palming it off with the response “Oh, just some mindless fantasy, it won’t change the world or anything, but it’s very entertaining.” Which, coincidentally, is the ideal way to describe The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay.

I searched long and hard to get my hands on copies of these books, which I originally read in high school, but have always wanted to own for myself. I remembered being blown-away by them at that time, and was hoping for the same experience when I re-read them recently.

I must say, it’s clear to see the Tolkien influence in these books. Most of the time, you feel like the story is the love-child of Lord of the Rings and Narnia, with a bit of Biblical influence thrown in there (not that this story has any Christian allegory whatsoever, unlike the more famous predecessors). But, by the time it reaches its conclusion, it does stand as a trilogy in its own right, even if it feels quite cheesy a lot of the time.

It tells the story of five American students transported to another world to join in annual celebrations of the King. However, they arrive on the brink of catastrophic war, and each discovers that they have a purpose much greater than just celebrating.

It’s fluffy and entertaining, and if you can dig into a bit of fantasy-escapism, then you’ll probably enjoy this series. I paired it with the magical Nitida Cabernet Sauvignon, which carries flavours of cherries, vanilla, leather and musky tobacco leaves.

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The Historian- Elizabeth Kostova

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I’m very seldom disappointed by books, probably because I’ll pretty much read anything, and generally it’s a rule of mine to approach books without any expectation. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova had me gripped, until page 500-and-something, when I realised that the characters just kept doing the same things, and the scenes they witness in one country, are repeated in another on their search for Dracula and one of his victims.

The concept of the book is great: Academics seem to be targeted or “chosen” when they receive a mysterious, dragon-centred book. Thus the protagonist’s father tells the tale to his daughter of how he received such a book, and coincidentally how he met her mother. When his lecturer, Bartholomew Rossi goes missing, after revealing that he too, owns one of the mysterious books, Paul begins a desperate search for his mentor, encountering supernatural beings along the way.

The story is bity- told through the narrator, then through a series of letters and documents written by a range of characters. No doubt Kostova thoroughly researched all the historical facts and events that imbue this book, however, it just goes on too long, and lacks the haunting thrill of Bram Stoker’s original.

I will say that Kostova’s writing itself is great, and she gives a very established sense of place throughout the various countries that the characters travel too. However, this book is a commitment, and if you’re a Dracula fan, I would say rather give it a miss.

I paired this book with the delicious Dimersdal shiraz, which contains deep blackcurrant and chocolate flavours, with notes of pepper, pomegranate, cigar box, cloves and spice.

Sister Noon – Karen Joy Fowler

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After reading a few heavy novels (Tell the Wolves I’m home, The Girl on the Train) I was desperately looking for something uplifting and light-hearted to sink my teeth into. Fortunately for me, my friends have my best interests at heart, and Dear Sam loaned me her copy of Karen Joy Fowlers’ Sister Noon.

This delightful historical novel, set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco drew me in to the genteel life of spinster, Lizzie Hayes, as she has a “magical juncture” courtesy of the local woman of notoriety, Mary E. Pleasant. Fowlers’ writing style for this novel drew me straight in and made me feel like a was strolling the dusty streets full of women in skirts, parasols and horse-drawn carriages alongside Lizzie, who has a mystery to uncover after Mammy Pleasant deposits a new orphan at the children’s home that Lizzie fundraises for. It’s a scandalous mystery, which has the potential to redefine Lizzies whole world. As Mrs Pleasant says, we don’t have to be the same people forever.

It’s a great story, highly entertaining. I paired it with the equally great and easy-drinking Porcupine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, which has dark berry flavours, including blackberry, youngberry and what the makers describe as “bramble aromas”.

The girl on the train- Paula Hawkins

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I’m someone who only reads a thriller about once every two years. But I am someone who takes the train to work everyday. I love taking the train (when it’s not delayed by 30 minutes or packed to capacity). I love seeing the regulars, and I love seeing the many (many) crazy random commuters. Often, a poor man will serenade the train just for some coins to buy a cup of coffee.

Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to reading this book, because of the title. I also heard that it is similar in nature to Gone Girl, which, though disturbing, I grudgingly enjoyed. This story is told by three very different women, who all have one (deadly) thing in common. It is a typical Whodunnit, with a satisfying twist.

That said, the jarring jumping between years (2012/2013) and narrators can make it annoying and inconsistent. Also, it often feels very depressing and hopeless at times, especially for the primary narrator and girl-on-the-train, Rachel. Rachel is an alcoholic with a broken marriage and failed career who still takes the train to London everyday so that her roommate won’t discover that she’s been fired. On one of these everyday trips, she sees something unusual happening in her old neighbourhood, and thus begins the impetus for the story.

It’s a quick read and satisfying if thrillers are your thing. But a more literary-inclined person will be left disappointed. Rachel’s drinking habit makes you not want to sip an alcoholic beverage with this, but I paired it with the Kanonkop Kadette, a very satisfying and easy-drinking red blend with hints of dark chocolate and blackberry.

The Shadow of the Wind- Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind is a complex, beautifully written story that weaves an intricate narrative of different lives and generations in post-war Spain.

Young Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, a second hand book dealer. He is allowed to choose one book which he must keep and treasure always, as he will go into the second hand book business like his father. Daniel picks a book by a likewise forgotten author, Julian Carrax. Hidden here for safety from a mysterious character hell-bent on finding and destroying all of Carrax’s works, Daniel goes on a quest to discover more about the mysterious author, whom he finds he has so much in common with. The deeper Daniel digs, the more dangerous his quest to find out what really happened to Carrax becomes.

I really loved reading this story of love and misery in a post-war Europe. I must admit, I know very little about Spanish history or the Spanish civil war, but it was an interesting read nonetheless. Zafón has a unique way of writing that is both intricate and circular, often picking up threads later in the story that he drops right at the beginning. He also plays on the notion of history repeating itself and the danger of revenge and desire. His attention to detail brings the streets of Barcelona, and the characters that inhabit them, to life.

I paired this with the Stellenzicht Golden Triangle Shiraz, a wine imbued with rich flavours and deep philosophy that perfectly complements this complex novel.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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I have a rule about books: if it involves death in the first chapter, I generally don’t read it, because I feel it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the story.

I made an exception for this novel by Rachel Joyce, because it comes highly recommended and I have yet to decide if I made the right choice or not. Its a very emotional read, as you walk with Harold Fry, who leaves home one day to post a letter to an old colleague dying of cancer and never goes home. Instead he decides to walk from his town at the bottom of England, to hers at the top of the country, where she is in a hospice, in a move of faith and in the hope of saving her from terminal illness.

In terms of construction, Joyce is a master. The story flows well, the characters are rounded, and the fact that the themes of redemption, forgiveness and healing from the past are fluidly woven together makes an excellent read. However, it is just a really sad story.

It ends on a high and beautiful note, and I think I’m glad I read it. I paired this one with the 2007 Spookfontein Phantom, a bordeaux-style blend that is well constructed and fruity, with berry flavours. If we’re talking about dealing with ghosts from the past, then this wine goes perfectly with this book.

Not all that glitters is gold

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There is a little old bookshop close to where I work. Its the size of a small cupboard, with shelves up to the roof piled with books of all shapes and sizes. It is here I stumbled across Tobias Hills book, The Love of Stones. Deciding not to be deceived by attractive covers again, I bought it and took it home with me.

This is not the kind of book I normally read, it is classified as “historical thriller”. In some parts it was tedious because of Hill’s meticulous descriptions. At times I felt lost because he transitions between characters so quickly, I wasn’t always sure who’s point of view I was reading at the time. However, Hill uses his meticulous descriptions to bring to life a very different world: the world of lapidaries

The story traces the events of Katherine Sterne, a 25 year old woman in the 21st century who has dedicated her life to recovering the lost jewel forged in the 1500’s known as the Three Brethren (if you’re interested, it is a real jewel, or at least it has existed in history). It also traces the story of two Iraqi Jews trying to make their fortunes in 19th century England as lapidaries, Daniel and Salmon Levy. To see where their paths cross through the centuries is what makes this story intriguing, and where they eventually meet is where the Brethren will be found.

Its definitely worth a read if you’re a history buff. Sometimes Hill fails to explain some of the terminology or historical implications of certain characters, but if you can work around that, you’ll enjoy this story.

I paired it with the absolutely delicious Anura Cabernet Sauvignon from the hills of Simondium. This jewel of a wine has rich raspberry and fruit flavours which are complex and memorable, and the makers describe this wine as “the fulfillment of a dream and the pursuit of perfection” much like Katherine’s search for the Three Brethren.

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I wonder what my country would be like

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(first off, apologies for the silence of the blog of late, I’ve been adjusting to a new lifestyle)

This is a hard post for me to write.  I very seldom give up on books, but this is a hard read.  It is the first hand account of what happened to Steve Biko, as written by friend, journalist and editor Donald Woods. I thought I should read it, not only because of Wood’s journalistic background but also because it is an election year, and Mamphela Ramphele was a close friend of Steve Biko’s in fact, she introduced Wood and Biko to each other.

I’ll come clean: I didn’t finish the book. It doesn’t end happily (because it was written at the most violent period of apartheid) and even with the hindsight of living in a free democratic South Africa, I couldn’t read about the beatings, torture and injustice these men endured.

The book comprises of Wood’s dealings with Biko, and he has included lectures by the icon as well as a transcription of the inquest into his death at the hands of security police (of course the inquest found them not-guilty and they got off scott-free). It is a hard read, but I think one that any student of politics or history, or both should try to wrestle with.

If you didn’t know: Steve Biko was literally beaten to death. And it took a few days for him to die, they think that he had a stroke as a result of a head injury, while the apartheid state claimed that he died of a hunger strike. Steve Biko was a natural leader and one of the most prominent propagators of Black Consciousness

The hardest part is that much has not changed for the very poor and marginalised in this country, while the party that fought for it’s freedom has now become it’s jailers. I can’t help but wonder what the country would have been like if Steve Biko had been allowed to live.

Good luck to you if you do try and read it, and I would recommend that you try. I have paired it with the Reyneke red from Woolies, its an organic dry red that could have aged a bit more.

Help me understand…

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I’ve been a fan of radio host and journalist Redi Thlabi for some time, especially as a young journalist with a vested interest in the industry. She is a no-nonsense woman, but she is complex as well, often referring to her father and her childhood on her show.

The depth of her debut novel astounded me, taking me by the hand into a world that I, as a privileged white South African, can only get glimpses of. Redi tells the story of her eight month friendship with a notorious (and at times dangerous) Soweto criminal, Mabegzo, and how his life and death impacted her own story for the next fifteen years.

Its a powerful tale, both sad and moving, told with an intimacy and openness I wouldn’t have expected from such a public figure. It draws out a larger societal problem as it tries to analyse why young South African men become violent criminals.

I’m so glad Redi won the Alan Paton award this year for this book in which she wrestles her own demons. Read it, that’s all I can say. Oh ya, and pair it with a good Villiera Cab Sav, you won’t regret it