Books We Read: 11 Readers On Reading in 2016 | Tolu Daniel 

Some books can be excitable, yet not exert the kind of force or the kind of power to accord them the honour of prizes or notable mentions. Yet any book, good or bad, excellent or average is a function of a selective bias either from the perspective of the readers or judges of prizes.

I remember reading a review of E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey in 2014 and almost basing my decision about whether or not the book was worthy of my time on the negativity of the review. To sum the review into a few words, Kat Brown opined that “the writing was bad”. Another reviewer on USA Today described the book as 50 Shades of monotonous. Yet when I got to read the book months later, I didn’t think the books was half as bad as it had been described in those reviews.

Another instance which comes readily to mind would be Percy Zvomya’s review of Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen which he described as overwritten with many metaphors creaking and stretching beyond the point of breaking. I would eventually get to read the book and fall in love with the writing on the same basis with which Percy debased the book in his review. I would enjoy his use of metaphors to describe, to evoke the images his narrative couldn’t concoct on their own. 

This year, I have learnt to form my own biases and decide what fits into my own categorization of what is a good, bad or great book. It has been an enriching experience, I have travelled cities by foot, on trains, fought battles, befriended kings, married princesses, had orgasmic sex and within several turns of pages, my thirst to know more is ever on the increase. Here is my list of 10 Notable Books I read this year. Each title is here because of beautiful, cliché-free prose and daring to wing language to do their bidding like magicians wing their wands.
  • Notable Reads

Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim showed his ability to deliver very concise prose through his debut offering; The Whispering Trees. This debut novel of his depicts the realities and the intricacies of the puritanical society which Northern Nigeria is known to be. It darted questions at the societal concepts of right and wrong and more importantly morality. This story is the story of love and lust between two unlikely characters, Binta Zubairu and Hassan Reza Babale and everything that surrounded their relationship.

I enjoy reading very detailed and graphic first chapters in any book I read. This is because this chapter decides how the rest of the book should be for me. It is this chapter which invites me into the narrative and piques my own curiosity. Word for word and sentence for sentence, that first chapter for me was a hit. It reminded me of VS Naipaul’s opening line in House for Mr Biswas in its ability to squeeze in everything important about the book in one beautiful sentence.

The narrative also had a pace about its delivery which would keep a reader’s mind and eye glued till the story ends. It was the kind of narrative that can earn applause at the end as though it was a movie being seen at the cinema.

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

Igoni Barrett’s Blackass gave us a character that successfully transitioned from being a full blooded black Nigerian man and to a white man. What struck me most about this character of Furo Wariboko was the fact that despite his skin and facial transformation, he retained every other aspect of him, his voice remained the same and his thinking faculties too. The narrative wasn’t big on limiting itself and scope to a single theme but danced around a variety of themes. It moved from racial identity and its effects on the psyche of people and how they respond to these changes to themes of psychological and physical transformation. Especially in a world that is struggling with the problems of racial profiling, xenophobia, homophobia and trans-phobia. Blackass deals subtly with these issues as though the writer intends to provoke a discussion. But what I like most about the book is the ease at which each transition is made, touching on sensitive issues without bordering on sentiments.

Igoni begins the narrative with one of the most powerful opening lines I have ever encountered in a novel.

“Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep”.

Blackass started strongly and maintained that rhythm for the duration of the story. The story centres on the life of Furo Wariboko who, born and bred in Lagos begins the morning of a long anticipated job interview which to him was going to be like any other one—unsuccessful—because of the number of applicants that he would meet there. He woke up that morning and finds out to his horror that he had turned white for no reason at all. This was one of the things I found a little curious about the narrative. I believe like most people that for any change to occur, it must be a result of a process in whatever form that this process may take but like Kafka in The Metamorphosis, this writer decides not to give an explanation.

Blackass is very funny and provocative. Its characters were fully formed, self-aware and they matured with time as the writer intended. Each character was a classical representation of the typical Lagosian. A closer examination of the characters shows that the writer clearly understood the working and politics of a city like Lagos and how it reflected the psyche of Nigerians.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

With one of the most colourful prose I have ever read or encountered in a work of prose, Zusak’s Book Thief runs the risk of being labelled a masterpiece. The Style of the narrative awakens in you, a sense of dedication to imagery. In The Book Thief, the man hiding a Jew named Max Vandenburg is a decorator and part-time accordion player, Hans Hubermann. One of the reasons why he’s hiding this particular man is because Max’s father saved his own life when they were both German soldiers in the First World War. He and his wife, the ever angry and shouting Rosa Hubermann have also adopted a girl named Liesel, the main character of this tale. The growing relationships between Hubermann and Liesel and, later, Liesel and Max Vandenburg are central to the book.

Another delightful thing about the book is the narrator, a very observant narrator in Death who seemed to see the world in colours. This gives the story a kind of balance with glimpses of what is yet to come.

We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo

Easily one of the best books I read this year staking a place because of Bulawayo’s intimate portrayal of Zimbabwe. The first part of the narrative was centred on a little girl in a small shanty town called Paradise which Bulawayo describes in the simplest of language, the kind which is at once alive and confident, often very funny.

I enjoyed reading this book more because of how relatable those experiences which accompanied Darling—the central character—were, the carelessness and carefreeness of childhood and of course, the perfection of the child narrative voice. The second part of the book was a little less dramatic and funny, perhaps owing to the maturity of Darling and the colourlessness of her new reality in the United States. Here, the novel descends into trite observations about the oddness of snow, the sound of gunshots and the clash of cultures when a skinny Zimbabwean marries a fat American in order to get immigration papers.

Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe

This book is a witty pile of memoirs about Okey Ndibe’s time of living in the United States and not an angry, anti-American screed as the title implies. It is an addendum to an assumption made by one of Ndibe’s uncles who had been fed with perhaps a few tens of some movies titled Westerns that every American carries a gun and that if you were caught, you being a stranger or a foreigner, it was likely that you would get shot.

In this memoir, we were allowed the luxury of seeing the making of Okey Ndibe, both as a writer and a journalist. He took us on a journey which allowed us to see his relationship with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and some of his tutors while he was in grad school. The memoirs also gave us front row seats to watch Ndibe’s struggles to keep the African Commentary magazine which had been his reason for going to the United States in the first place.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I found two things particularly attractive in Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and the first is the manner in which time was handled and also the attention the writer gave into describing to the last detail every plot and every nuance in the narrative despite the timeline. It is a story of friendship between two girls, the narrators being Ferrante and her friend, Lila. A friendship shared through books and continuous juxtaposition of ambition.

The narrative shows both characters as fascinating portraits of admirably strong, ambitious women in a patriarchal world. While Lila is enigmatic and volatile, Elena is often more subdued. These features in both characters are more or less what drove the book. These characterisations are also why I found the book amazing. The characters grew with the narrative and one could almost guess how either of them would respond to any given situation which were presented in the book.

The Dove’s Necklace by Raja’a Alem

This book relied on the brilliant use of a variety of literary devices, notably personification and metaphors. And this usage of these devices without veering off on the idea and ambition of the story is why I think this book is a winner. In some parts of the book, you may be dismayed at the extent of details which the narrator provides but when you critically reason the point of view of the narrative voice, it would sink in and you would find yourself applauding the audacity of the writer to attempt such feats.

Policeman Nasser al-Qahtani is assigned to investigate the death (and possible murder) of a woman who fell naked from a window onto the Lane of Many Heads, an alley in a poor section of Mecca. Positive identification of the dead woman is complicated by the disfigurement caused by her fall and by the silence of collective shame that hovers over the victim’s exposed, naked body.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Oyeyemi is arguably one of the most important writers of this generation. This book contains some beautiful writing with an incredible penchant for detailing. Her stories were real to the points of being labelled fantastic. I particularly enjoyed her interplay of the themes of youth and desire throughout the stories that made the book. There is a reassuring grace and subtlety to her style of delivery which makes the narratives very believable.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

If there was a book, I badly wanted to read this year, this was the book. Written in a blend of Spanish and English, Diaz delivered what I believe to be a masterpiece. The story is like a biography of sorts for Oscar, who has never had many good things happen to him in his short life which was punctuated by his disastrous weight issues. Despite all these, the young man harboured dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien or Stephen King and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú—the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim—until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an unusual story. A story that is at once difficult and disturbing at the same time. It is the story of an event seared into the fabric of history told in the innocent voice of a young boy. This story will break your heart. It is the story of nine-year-old unhappy Bruno; his father has a new job and he’s leaving his comfortable house, his neighbourhood and his three best friends behind. His big sister Gretel is hopeless, for like older sisters everywhere, she’s in a world all her own, though it is obvious she isn’t thrilled about the move either. Their servants are tight-lipped and nervous, and Bruno’s mother tries to explain that this is not only a promotion for his father, it is his duty she says but Bruno is not convinced.

I like this book for various reasons, one of these reasons is simplicity in delivery and also suspense. The narrative is woven in such a manner that despite its childlike simplicity, nothing is given away about the outcomes and despite the story being set in a familiar past, the reader still needs to turn the page to untangle themselves from the web of mystery that the book was woven with. If you haven’t already guessed, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a young adult novel about the Holocaust.

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

This is the story of an aging philology teacher, who finds a book of memoirs in a book store and starts to read them. The author of the memoirs was a Portuguese doctor and a resistance fighter during the Salazar dictatorship. Gregorius, the teacher, believes he has found his fantasized soul mate in this resistance fighter, Amadeu Prado, a brooding and tortured aristocrat.

The story of Amadeu Prado’s life reveals itself to him in bits and pieces as he completes his journey to Lisbon to talk to all of Prado’s relatives, friends, and teachers. It is through Prado’s life that Gregorius discovers and virtually relives a life of passion he never allowed himself as a fifty-eight year-old dull ancient-language teacher. One of my issues with the book was that it seemed like a drag with very long soliloquy like thoughts expressed in long boring sentences, but eventually I got used to them. I got to travel through Europe in all its intimacies with the writer. This is one of the reasons why I found this book fantastic.

  • Not Worth the Hype

Here are three notable books I didn’t enjoy.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This book came highly recommended and also after winning the Man Booker prize, one may have been right not to expect less from it. In terms of prose, it was an amazing work of historical fiction into the life and death of Bob Marley. But it makes my bad books for the year because of the same reason it can be ascribed as a good book. I found the switching from personality and voice very distracting and the book became a bore barely few pages in to it. I could not easily identify the timelines or the characters. I had to keep going back to look for sentences to define things that should have held my attention.

Bury Me Come Sunday Afternoon by Nike Campbell-Fatoki

I endured this collection of stories and for me, asides one or two stories in the collection; the rest is unworthy of this author. The narratives are ridden with everyday clichés almost as if the writer intentionally wanted to display her not so good works in a book.

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

When I started the book, I enjoyed the writer’s directness, his fast short sentences and straight-to-the-point-ness. The story was majorly about the disappearance of a supposedly moral and upright boy. The writer was detailed in his descriptions, hence the perfection of his opening chapter. But the following chapters took us on a journey of pasts, most of the details there honestly were not necessary for me. They didn’t move the narrative forward in any way. But like I always say, I am entitled to my biases. The story moved from what it began with—the disappearance of a boy—to a careful study into the lives of members of his family. I didn’t think we needed to read all those bits. I was pissed that the writer neglected his hook and circles back to him only later at the end of the story when I as a reader had almost completely forgotten about him despite the initial story being all him.

Looking Forward to Read in 2017

Hopefully, 2017 will give me the chance to read more rewarding books.

Here are the books I look forward to reading the most.

•        Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

•        Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi

•        Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

•        What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Arimah

•        Carnivorous City by Toni Kan

This post originally appeared on http://www.read.i.ng

Image culled from Fiona Raven

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