My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some if her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. Mum and Dad had a big argument when the police found ten bits of her body. Mum wanted a grave she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation and to sprinkle the ashes in the sea. That’s what Jasmine told me anyway. She remembers more than I do.”

I am destined to spend my reading life having my heart torn apart because I can’t resist a tearjerker. And Annabel Pitcher’s touching and candid story about a family trying to put itself together again after the death of a child, had me reaching for the tissues more than once.

Five years after his older sister, Rose, died in a London terrorist attack, 10-year-old Jamie’s family is still in turmoil. His parents have split up and his mother is largely absent from his life. His father remedies his grief and guilt with vodka. His teenaged sister, Jasmine, Rose’s twin, barely eats and has grown alarmingly thin. And Jamie has questions. He doesn’t understand why his family worries because he has never mourned Rose’s death – he barely remembers her. Or why his friendship with the pintsized Muslim girl, Sunya, his only friend at a new school where he finds himself an easy target for bullies, will upset his father.

I adored the characters in this novel. They are so well written and unforgettable. I don’t often enjoy books written from a child’s perspective, but Jamie won me over immediately. His sweetly naive and often downright cheeky narrative is fresh and honest. And I couldn’t get enough of brave Sunya. She’s a fiercely loyal little badass, and she lends a bit of sunshine to such a seriously themed novel. Nurturing and sassy Jasmine’s sense of responsibility towards her father and brother, taking care of them while she struggles to take care of herself and escape Rose’s shadow, broke my heart. Even Roger the cat has a larger than life presence. And Rose, even though she’s never physically present, is surely the most interesting character. We only get to know her through the eyes of her family, but through their memories and anecdotes, she’s brought vividly to life.

This is a timely and hopeful novel. Pitcher skilfully and sympathetically explores themes of prejudice, alcoholism, abandonment, and grief – which she portrays especially well. There’s often a touch of humour to her writing, offering a bit of relief from its heavy subjects, and I appreciated her wit and warmth. In the end we don’t find a happily-ever-after, but rather a family coming to terms with and learning to accept eachother and their personal tragedy. Definitely a must-read.


The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

“The first of my father’s illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.”

Where to begin.  You know a book has left an impression when you sit down to write about it and the only word that forms in your mind is “wow”.

If there’s one author who can make me laugh hysterically and sob uncontrollably within the course of a single chapter, it’s John Irving. If you’ve read him you’ll know he deals in the absurdity of everyday life with a stunning mastery. Just so with this grand novel that chronicles the exploits of the family Berry – their lives ruled by hotels, bears and Freud.

The plot is enthrallingly silly. Narrator John Berry is the middle-child of a rather eccentric family. His father, Win, is a hapless idealist guided by his patient and accepting mother. His older brother, Frank, dabbles in taxidermy. He grows up infatuated with weight-lifting and his older sister, the crude and desirable Franny. His younger sister, Lilly, spends her life never growing taller than a small child but becoming a larger than life presence.  And then there is the youngest sibling, the unfortunately nicknamed Egg. Their family saga spans twenty odd years and takes them from New Hampshire to Vienna to Maine – all the while chasing Win Berry’s seemingly elusive desire to own a successful hotel. Preferably a hotel with a bear. Along the way, they encounter an unforgettable cast of supporting characters – from prostitutes to revolutionaries at typewriters turned terrorists – all skilfully written.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a true John Irving novel if he didn’t temper his fantastical narrative with a good dose of tragedy, and the family Berry is persistently taunted by fate. From strange sexual couplings and some truly macabre occurrences, there are few sensitive themes not touched on throughout the book. The Berry siblings’ coming of age is much more dark comedy than fairy-tale ending. But then, what is stranger, more bizarre, than this thing called life.

Recommended if you’re aching for something peculiar and heartbreaking.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

I cannot think of any other way to start this review than the above iconic line. I inherited my well-worn copy of this classic from a woman named Natalee, who printed her name neatly in the top right-hand corner of its first page and eventually donated it to the little second-hand shop where I happened upon it. Apt, I think, since Du Maurier’s exquisite gothic novel is as much about inheriting the remnants of another person’s life as it is, in her own words, a study in jealousy.

If I had read Rebecca as a much younger me, fresh in the throes of having just encountered the likes of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester (who first played host to the definitive “woman in the attic”), I would have considered it a romance, and indeed at first it may seem the quintessential love story: a young, naïve girl meets a brooding, handsome widower who promises marriage and comfort, a stark contrast to her bleak existence as an impoverished lady’s companion. But for older me, the dark turbulence that soon after clouds our young unnamed narrator and her haunted Maximilian de Winter holds much more interest than the notion of a happily-ever-after.  Once Maxim brings his timid bride home to his family estate, the imposing Manderley (as much a character as any of the flesh and blood personalities that inhabit the novel), it becomes evident that their new marriage will be ruled not by love, but by the memory of the deceased former Mrs de Winter, the titular Rebecca.

From beyond the grave, Rebecca exercises an uncanny control over the occupants of Manderley. From the intimidating, skull-faced housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – who makes no secret of her quiet animosity towards Maxim’s new wife, or her eerie obsession with his former – to a host of servants who remain loyal to the ways of their previous mistress; the very estate itself seems possessed of her. Her lingering presence feeds Maxim’s melancholy and at Manderley he is brusque and elusive – far removed from the intriguing man who wooed our narrator. She herself becomes haunted by the memory of Rebecca, and struggles not only with being made to feel like an impostor in her new home but with jealousy of Maxim’s perceived undying affections for Rebecca. Her insecurity runs deep and creates much of the delicious tension that pulses through the novel. Ultimately it is also Rebecca that finally determines the fate of these characters.

This is by far the most impressive aspect of the novel: how a woman, who never appears in anything but memories, often ambiguous, can wreck such influence and ruin on the lives of the living. And Du Maurier captures with aching precision this insidious presence on a young girl desperately in love with a man unable to let go of his past and the severe consequences for them both.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from start to finish. It is an expertly crafted and nuanced tale of suspense, deceit and passion that left me tingling with a new appreciation for brilliantly written literature. I cannot recommend paying a visit to Manderley highly enough.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“I’m just me. An ordinary kid. But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s okay. I’ll take it. I didn’t destroy a Deathstar or anything like that, but I did just get through the fifth grade. And that’s not easy, even if you’re not me.”

Deviating quite a bit from the heavy, serious fare I’ve been devouring lately, this melt-your-heart sweet and touching novel was just what I needed to lighten up an otherwise blue week. It’s an endearing, lighthearted read that had me in stitches as often as in tears.

August Pullman is, in his own words, just an ordinary kid. He loves Star Wars, science, his dog Daisy and lives with his older sister Via, his mom, and dad. And this year he will be starting middle school. All of which is perfectly ordinary, only Auggie has not been dealt the kindest hand. He was born with severe facial abnormalities and, at ten years old, he has become accustomed to curious stares and often rude comments. Navigating middle school will be as much a challenge as a new adventure.

I adored the characters in this book. It’s a quick read with short chapters, easy to breeze through on a lazy afternoon. We get to experience Auggie’s story through various perspectives, each distinct and wonderfully written. I usually balk at kid narrators, but Palacio’s cast is so relatable and compelling, it’s impossible not to be enchanted. From kind-hearted Summer, best friend Jack Will, unfortunately named but encouraging Principal Tushman, to class bully Julian – each character’s life is touched and changed by the courageous Auggie. I admired the spirit with which Auggie tackles whatever comes his way – he is often humorous, always honest. There are lessons to be learned, perceptions to be challenged and Auggie himself finds that while encountering jerks is inevitable, kindness and respect always win out in the end.

I think this is one of those books that everyone needs to read at least once. It’s told with heart-warming empathy and sincerity, with the importance of friendship, family and compassion at its centre. I dare you to read this and not feel uplifted and inspired by Auggie’s story. He truly is an unforgettable, extraordinary middle schooler.

Recommended if you’re in the mood for a brave, feel-good read that will change your every perspective. Remember to keep those tissues handy.

Coconut by Kopano Matlwa


“I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell.”
So reads the epilogue to this thought-provoking portrait of what it means to be young and black in modern South Africa. But the story that precedes it is not boring or plain in the least. It’s achingly familiar, candid and unforgettable.

The book is divided into two parts, each a snapshot of a Sunday in the lives of two very different young women, Ofilwe and Fikile. Interspersed are memories, instances and conversations that have shaped their view of the world and, more importantly, what they perceive to be their place in it. Matlwa writes frankly an intimately and her characters are vividly brought to life – no easy feat in a book just under 200 pages. I felt for the young Ofilwe – rich, pampered yet desperate to fit in with her white friends and being both included and excluded in the social circle she yearns to belong to. Fikile too, a waitress from the townships who knows hardship and lives a life the complete opposite of Ofilwe’s, wants to escape more than just poverty. Her words “I am not one of you, I want to tell them. Some day you will see me drive past here in a sleek air-conditioned car, and I will roll up my windows if you try to come near me, because I am not one of you. You are poor and black and I am rich and brown” encapsulates both their sentiments. Their crisis of self and views of society are challenged and changed throughout the novel and I think both girls and the reader come away thinking of the world around them a little differently.

This is a novel which describes a loss of culture and identity, the price of longing to be accepted and fit in, and the sting of racism sometimes subtle, often not. But it is also a captivating story of growing up and finding oneself. A grand and important coming-of-age told by an impressive young writer.

The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund

“Don’t take my hate away. It’s the only thing I’ve got.”

This novel is like a cold shock of ice to the psyche.  A deeply complex and disturbing psychological thriller not recommended for the faint of heart. It starts with the gruesome discovery of a young boy’s mummified body and ultimately unravels as a cruel web of sadism and depravity.

Don’t get me wrong – this is definitely one of the best crime thrillers I’ve read this year. The writing is excellent. It was originally published as a trilogy written under a pseudonym by Swedish duo Jerker Erikson and Hakan Sundquist. And the hefty 750-page translation by Neil Smith doesn’t miss a beat. It echoes the skilful plotting of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and reminded me why I am such a fan of the Scandi-crime genre.

Its protagonists are superbly drawn. At the helm is superintendent detective Jeanette Kihlberg, torn between her career and family, already familiar with the murkiest of humankind, and now pulled into an increasingly unsettling case of sadistic murders and depravity. Her path crosses with the intriguing Sofia Zetterlund, a psychologist dealing with child abuse cases, who is soon revealed to have disquieting secrets of her own.  The novel’s darker edges are haunted by Victoria Bergman, by far the most compelling of its characters; her world is lurid and conjures our worst nightmares.

The plot is taut and unrelenting; it’s hardly ever what it seems and even in its final chapters it reveals ever more grisly details. And while the book is never gratuitous in its themes of child abuse, paedophilia and psychological disorders, it does inflict a sour aftertaste and a desire to leave the light on at bedtime. What it implies is often more horrific than what is written on the page. This is a book that plays with your perception and deceives as frequently as it terrifies. Heart-stopping stuff.

But the subject matter and frequent plot twists do require a resilient reader. After spending just under a month in the den of The Crow Girl, I myself am in need of sunnier reading material. By the end of it, I felt just as tense and emotionally drained as I imagined its characters feeling throughout.

An intense portrait of the human psyche gone terribly wrong.

And one to read with caution.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“There was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

No one turns a phrase quite like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I fell in love with her writing when I read Half Of A Yellow Sun last year and this year I finally cracked open my long-owned copy of Americanah after the book was selected for the One Book, One New York campaign – a brilliant initiative, which I hope will spread to all cities, towns, continents – and joined in from half a world away.

Americanah centres on Ifemelu and Obinze, one-time lovers, who depart a Nigeria choked by the grip of military rule, and head to the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Obinze is soon deported from the UK as an illegal immigrant, but Ifemelu remains in the States, finding love and carving out a life for herself before returning home to Nigeria, jaded and homesick. I rather wished that Obinze’s story would have had a bit more substance, as the chapters focussing on his life post-Ifemelu is rather sparse. But this is a small annoyance as Adichie brings Ifemelu’s story so brilliantly to life.

We see Ifemelu first as a poor college student living hand-to-mouth in a country so alien to her own, rudely awakened to what it means to be Black for the first time. Later, when she becomes a successful blogger, she refers to this in a post, saying:

“We all wish 
race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

And while she grapples with what race and racism entails – the novel’s central themes – she explores the intricacies of love, sex, body image and hair politics. I loved Ifemelu for her boldness and strength. She is often flawed and intensely human in her decision making and provocative in her opinions which makes her a very relatable protagonist. The novel is also uniquely interspersed with Ifemelu’s blog posts and I found her observations very insightful – read this novel, if only for those posts!

Life in the States grows and changes her and when she is once again on African soil and reunited with Obinze, changed by his own experiences, their love holds new and unexpected challenges. Theirs is a happy ending, but almost at the expense of their moral fibre and I wondered if a less world-weary Ifemelu and Obinze would have made different decisions.

Much more than a love story, this novel is one that educates as it entertains, with its characters delivering piercing social commentary. Adichie is blunt in her delivery, her writing is superb and time and again challenges the reader to ponder themes of identity and belonging.

Highly recommended.

The Returned by Jason Mott

“People and events of wonder and magic are the lifeblood of the world.”

Just about 300 pages into this beautifully written but ultimately disappointing novel, a mere 140 pages from the end, I decided to cut my losses (three weeks of reading time) and move on to other things.

I ached to love this book. It’s been sitting on my TBR for years and the premise sounds fantastic: all over the world the dead are returning to the living world, just the same as when they died, but touched by a certain oddness the “true living” can sense a mile away. The story centres on Arcadia, a small town nestled in the American Southern Bible Belt and mainly on an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille whose 8-year-old son, Jacob, returns to their lives 50 years after drowning. There are plenty of other interesting characters included in the plot: a priest longing to make contact with his 15-year-old high school sweetheart, no longer dead; a family who was brutally murdered several years before and whose return causes tension within the community; a still grieving husband whose sorrow turns to dangerous envy when he is unable to find his wife among the Returned. With the town mystified, new laws dictating that the Returned may not leave their homes and subsequent offenders arrested and placed in a prison camp of sorts, I was gearing up for a thrilling experience.

But while the characters grappled with their loved ones coming back from the dead, I grappled with finding meaning in the story. I just couldn’t relate. The plot moves at a painful crawl and at the time of my decision to abandon the book completely, I had spent plenty of pages patiently waiting for something worthwhile to happen. I found myself longing to connect with the people of that small town – both living and Returned – but the characters felt hollow and ultimately I simply didn’t care for them enough to continue. A quick Google search (I had several unanswered questions) told me everything I needed to know about how events finally play out, and I am quite happy that I left off where I did.

Nevertheless, I will be keeping an eye out for Jason Mott in the future. Although this debut did not appeal to me, I found his writing to be striking. His career as a poet certainly shines through in how he turns a phrase.

Not quite recommended, but worth a peek.

I have since discovered a Netflix series by the same name and somewhat similar plot and am now getting ready to plop down on the sofa, overindulge in snacks, and watch the heck out of it. Seems the returned dead is not quite done with me just yet.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

“She holds the phone to her mouth and starts speaking.”

If you regularly dredge the depths of the internet searching for just the right sort of uncanny, you’ve probably stumbled upon or heard of Eric Heisserer’s quite genius The Dionaea House; a viral internet-told story that is brilliant not only for its disturbingly realistic seeming tale, but also its epistolary delivery – it is told through emails, blog posts and other correspondence by a set of characters linked in some way or another to the mysterious Dionaea House. Its setup is elaborate and definitely worth checking out. Now, not to digress too wildly from the title I should be reviewing: as soon as I finished the first chapter of South African author Sarah Lotz’s The Three, I knew I would devour the rest of the book and most likely love it – it has the same intricate, layered construct as that viral online story I enjoyed so much. And that same brand of subtle creep.

A fair bit of warning: if you require your book plots to be neatly stitched together with no loose ends, this book will most likely have you tearing your hair out in pure frustration. Though there is a bit of explanation for the story’s events towards the end, it’s still left up to the reader to decide whether what they’ve been told is true. Also, even though it is described as “horror”, I would rather categorise it as a creepy thriller. It delivers its scares in more of a chewing your fingernails to the quick, way, than genuine bolting for the door terror.

Its concept is compelling and imaginative. On what soon becomes known as Black Thursday, four passenger planes crash within hours of each other, on four different continents. There are only four known survivors – on American soil, a little boy named Bobby, in Europe a young girl by the name of Jessica, and in Japan, an American named Pamela May Donald (who dies shortly after the crash) and a Japanese boy, Hiro. The fourth plane plummets to its doom in the township Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, and in the resulting chaos, no one immediately suspects any survivors.  Not only are investigators and the general public flabbergasted by the fact that three children survived the horrific crashes, but when it is revealed that Pamela left a chilling cell phone recording in her final minutes hinting at the Japanese boy as a sinister, supernatural entity, the press and conspiracy theorists have a field day.

What happens after is told in a book-within-a-book style through a compilation of interviews with the children’s (dubbed by the international media as The Three) guardians, friends of the families, those who suspect alien involvement and religious fanatics who believe The Three to be harbingers of the Apocalypse. The characters, even the ones who only make an appearance once, are convincing and excellently written. Their stories are delivered through transcripts of Skype sessions, text messages, voice recordings and emails, and the effect is unnervingly real. You can just sense the paranoia seeping into this cast of characters’ everyday lives, as they’re not only hounded by the press and investigators seeking answers but especially once they begin suspecting that the zealots and theorists might be onto something. And dispersed between hints at the paranormal, lie the much more menacing accounts of those in power seeking to exploit the global fear caused by the crashes. To say any more would be to spoil a fantastically entertaining plot.

While there are not many jump-your-seat terrifying moments in this book, Lotz delivers some eerily ambiguous scenes with the subtlest of hands. If you’re looking for an addictive read, with a perfect blend of thrills and chills, this comes highly recommended.

Gospodin Libar – For the love of bookselling


I just love stumbling upon old favourites. There’s nothing that tugs at the heartstrings quite like nostalgia – yes, even this hardcore crime reader has her moments of sentimentality. And if you combine nostalgia with my other great love – bookselling – you’re bound to find me sniffly and homesick for my day job. Yes, I have been fortunate enough to be, in one way or another, involved with that dreamiest of dream jobs for just a smidge longer than five years now.

If you’ve ever worked in a bookshop, you’ll know the agony and ecstasy of stacking those sacred tomes, locating the ever elusive “it had a blue cover” title (a bookseller’s proudest moment) and the struggle of not coming across as overly obsessed as you launch into your top ten reasons why Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is only the best read ever. And by far the best part of bookselling is placing a recommendation you’ve carefully selected into the waiting hands of a fellow reader and hoping they’ll love it. Hardly anything compares to the strangely addictive feeling of trepidation and delight as you watch them saunter away, knowing that book might just change their lives. So, when I discovered Gospodin Libar quite a few years ago, it was love at first read.

Cue this evening: me aimlessly browsing, completely ignoring the stack of books I’ve been dipping in and out of (for shame!), and again this very special story pops up in my newsfeed. What is a bookworm to do, but share the bittersweet feels? First two panels posted below, please do follow the link to Library Cartoons to read the complete version.


Gospodin Libar (
Mister Bookseller), written by Croation author Darko Macan and illustrated by Tihomir Čelanović.