Archive for the Reviews Category

Review of The Up-Country Man “An Absolutely Riveting Book”

Posted in africa, Biafra, Civil War, nigeria, Reviews, Tribalism, West Africa on 27/06/2013 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

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An absolutely riveting book! The events in Biafra in the sixties seem like an age away, so this is real, living history. It all happened less than 50 years ago and is reliably and entertainingly recounted by the author who lived through it all. An excellent book if you were alive at the time and want an inside view of what was happening, or for younger people, who are bored by the safe, gap years of today’s litigious culture and yearn for the days of real life and death adventure.

***** (five stars)
S.I.

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Review of The Mine “A Real Page-Turner”

Posted in africa, Civil War, General, nepotism, Reviews, Tribalism, West Africa with tags , , , , on 05/04/2013 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

themineThe author has a real problem at the beginning of this book and that is getting the reader to appreciate the complicated historical, social and political background that is vital to the story he is about to tell. However, once this phase of the novel is over, the story grips the reader and Ryeland’s real skills come to the fore.

The strengths of the book come from the author’s effortless command of the complex series of plots and sub-plots underpinning and driving the story. It is admirable how Ryeland balances so many balls in the air at the same time, keeping the reader keen to find out how the trick will work out in the end as the juggler finishes his final act with a flourish.

At the same time as the author is entertaining us with a multi-faceted thriller, we are being shown insights into the world of post-colonial Africa. If some of the scenes of utter corruption seem far-fetched to readers who have never experienced it, I can assure them that from my own experience of living in West Africa at the time, the picture Ryeland draws up of betrayal, sleaze, bribery and the general cheapness of human life is an accurate portrait of the times and is probably still reliable today, if news reports from the area are anything to go by. Ryeland’s Nibana may be imaginary, but the Nigeria on which it is based (and whose history it shadows so closely) really was the fraud-ridden, chaotic, divided nation of this book.

The book can be depressing at times, since with the exception of the three main heroes, everyone else in the novel is on the make or else pursuing their own political ambitions. Honest, decent men in Africa of the calibre of Bello do appear to be sadly thin on the ground. However, this trio of good men certainly arouse our approval and by this means the author ensures that the reader cares what happens to them as well as focusing our sympathies on their plight as the novel develops.

I would guess that some people might find some of the minor characters in the book to be rather two-dimensional. However, I would come to the author’s defence by noting that the kind of pompous and insensitive “cartoon” attitudes shown by the High Commissioner (for example) are in fact accurate portrayals of the public personas that those characters exhibited to the world at the time. The bar at the Ikoyi Club, in Lagos, where expatriates met to socialise, was full of such apparent “caricatures” when I frequented it as a child.

Having said all that, “The Mine” is a real page-turner. The reader will surely be anxious to find out how the various plot strands come together and who will survive the violent times in which the characters find themselves: times in which power seeking military bullies and corrupt officials covering their asses are only too willing to utilize people and then cast them aside.

Like Ryeland’s other books set in West Africa, “The Mine” is also a valuable document that records (from a largely European perspective) the reality of Africa at a vital time in its development. Historical records of the time might give readers a dry account of the facts and figures of the conflict that resulted from the first serious attempt to redraw the map of post-colonial Africa, but Ryeland’s novel gives us an insight into what it was actually like to be there among all the turmoil and chaos.

**** (4 stars)

Berni Armstrong

Review of The Last Bature “A James Bond Style Thriller”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 22/06/2011 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

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Kenneth Ryeland will not be straitjacketed into a single genre or style. His first book “The Up- Country Man” is an autobiography that read like a thriller. His second “Tribal Gathering” is a series of varied short stories outlining life in postcolonial West Africa which echoed the work of authors such as Orwell, Graham Greene, Chinua Achebi or Cyprian Ekwensi…. and Ryeland can certainly stand his own in the company of the above-mentioned.

In his full-length novel “The Last Bature” Ryeland starts us off in familiar Graham Greene territory. His police Inspector, Mike Stevens, is a very believable “last white man standing” in a force that has been rapidly Africanised after independence. Like Obi Okonkwo in “No Longer Ease” or Greene’s Scobie in “The Heart of the Matter” Mike Stevens is a decent man in a world dominated by corruption. But unlike the pair just mentioned, Stevens never falls into the trap of allowing himself to be open to bribery.

As the story develops, we are drawn into the intrigue that Stevens is investigating. The heart of the story is almost prophetic as it turns on the shady involvement of Asian powers in Africa. This was indeed happening in West Africa at the time the book is set, but such presence has since become massive, indeed it has almost converted Africa into the backdrop for a covert Cold War between Asian and Western interests today.

Along the way, we meet some fascinating minor characters such as Stevens’ sidekick Bello or the slimy Major Etuk. Ryeland is good on minor characters and at his strongest in depicting events that carry the story along, as well as accompanying reflections in dialogue, or the little sketches which perfectly illustrate Stevens’ life as a policeman, or the conditions the locals have to put up with. The author is at his weakest, however, when the dialogue is merely explanatory with characters filling in plot details and political background in unlikely conversations (such as that involving the Soviet Ambassador).

There is a powerful sub-thread running through the book about plans for a coup d’etat and counter coups as tribal tensions among the army lead to powerful elements from each tribe planning to take over the government. The power crazy cynicism of such characters is perfectly evoked by Brigadier Nissi Offiong, a well-crafted super villain, who is willing to carry out annihilation of the capital city and the millions living there if it means he can take power from his brother, the current head of state.

At some point in the novel the writer starts to leave behind Graham Greene territory and opt for a more sensationalist “Hollywood” line. Ryeland handles this very well, but personally I find it hard to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief when characters are involved in incidents, which, in reality, they would surely have turned over to the relevant authorities. Ryeland does his best to justify Mike Stevens being involved at every stage of the denouement of the book, but as the story takes on the characteristics of an action movie, I found myself visualising the central protagonist as Claude Van Damme, rather than as a kind of tragic-heroic Peter Postlethwaite figure. This I felt was to the detriment of the book, but perhaps fans of Dan Brown and Hollywood action movies would disagree with me.

That said, the resulting thriller is a real page-turner that has you wanting to read just another few pages to see what happens next and the climax is generally satisfying. Though there is a final chapter postscript to the story which attempts to cram in too much information about what happened next to our protagonist and the country he had dedicated most of his life to serving.

Altogether, Ryeland has written another good book about life in post-colonial Africa, with the added attraction of a James Bond style thriller plot.

**** (4 stars)

Berni Armstrong

Review of Tribal Gathering “Fine Examples of the Storyteller’s Art”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 03/03/2011 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

“Tribal Gathering” is a collection of eight short stories set in the fictitious Republic of Nibana in the 1960s. Readers familiar with West Africa, however, should have little difficulty identifying many of the fictionalised places mentioned. The stories draw upon the author’s extensive experience of living and working in West Africa and are fine examples of the storyteller’s art. The author takes the reader into the heart of the changing West Africa of the time, creating a vivid picture of human shortcomings against a background of tribalism, corruption, rebellion and civil unrest. Recurrent themes include the clash of European and African cultures and the continuing impact of ancient religions and old ways upon everyday lives.

***** (5 stars)
Dr Peter McCree

Review of Tribal Gathering “To Understand Sub-Saharan Africa Read This”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on 25/02/2011 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

The world of “Dash” or be dashed.

These eight stories perfectly recreate a lost world: the early post-colonial era in West Africa. They present both a faithful portrait of expatriate society and a brave attempt to get under the skin of local West African cultures.

The stories from a European perspective amply illustrate the fascination/aversion, and above all, frustration that the European managers felt towards local traditions; while the stories from a native perspective attempt to get inside a civilization that appears to both repel and captivate the author.

Many of the stories draw on the incomprehensibility of both parts of the equation. The Europeans cannot understand why the local culture is as it is and the locals find it difficult to come to terms with European demands which are totally alien to their society. However, the worldview presented in “Tribal Gathering” is not (and excuse the pun) just black-and-white. In the story “The Visit” we clearly see how the visiting director from Europe neither knows, nor desires to know anything about the country in which his company has invested; contrasting greatly with the superior knowledge of the local British manager, who has lived in the country long enough to know how things work there. The story “Tief Man” attempts to give us an insight into how the grinding poverty of much of West Africa leads otherwise honest citizens into a life of crime that their better off counterparts find incomprehensible.

There are stories dealing with the strange and powerful world of local “juju” beliefs, or the pantheon of local gods; and a story which explains how sudden death can be met at almost any crossroads on the continent.

In many of the stories, the motor that drives the story is self-deception, deliberate lies or incomprehension, most notably in the moving final story in the collection “Smoke Screens”.

Most of the stories work perfectly well within the vignette style of the best short stories. There is one exception however, and that is the centrepiece of the work: “Boom Town”. The canvas of this longer story is vast, perhaps too huge for all of the themes it covers. Through the story of its protagonist, the author attempts to give us an insight into the corrupting influence of the bribery and semi-legal theft that is behind almost every transaction, at every level, of West African society. In such a climate, nobody is immune from, and nobody is free of, the shadow of “dash”. Without actually stating it, the author implies an agreement with those who would dissolve the artificially created countries that the imperialists created and redraw the map along tribal lines. That would appear to be the only possible answer to what the Europeans living there described as “the tribal problem”.

Anyone wishing to understand why Sub-Saharan Africa is in the sorry mess it is today would be advised to read this latter story above all others. Indeed, if I have one criticism of the book it is that this story reads like a truncated novel. I felt there were enough themes in this one tale to have expanded the story to novel length.

However, this criticism aside, I can think of no other book I have read, with the possible exception of David Pownall’s more comic “African Horse” that so accurately recreates the postcolonial scene in Africa. In many ways, these stories have helped me to understand the world which, as a child living in West Africa in this period, I did not have the maturity to fully understand.

***** (5 stars)
Berni Armstrong

Review of The Up-Country Man “A Fascinating Insight”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on 26/01/2011 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

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My interest in the war in Nigeria was piqued some time ago when I read Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Being a child of the 70s it was something I knew virtually nothing about. Therefore when I came across this book I thought it would be really interesting to read a first-hand account. The author Kenneth Ryeland moved to Nigeria as a young man in 1967, working as an engineer. His company had played down reports of previous unrest and Ryeland planned to move his young family to the country to join him after the completion of his probation period.

The book intially details the culture shock experienced by the author and another young colleague upon their arrival, having to adjust to a new geography and culture. Ryeland is moved to a posting in Enugu amid rumours that secession will occur, and when it does he finds himself living in the new state of Biafra. The “police action” seriously disrupts life for the Europeans as well as for the rest of it’s new citizens.

I found the book fascinating. I really liked the use of Pidgin English in the book as I felt it illustrated one of the most obvious difficulties the author must have faced on arriving in Nigeria and lent real flavour to the book. The story of Adam and Eve in Pidgin at the start really helped my understanding, so while I couldn’t translate it I certainly got the gist. The story was so descriptive of the places and people, but without being unnecessarily wordy.

I can imagine some people might be uncomfortable with some of the portrayals of the white man as master and the locals as servants but it is illustrating how things really were at the time, is basically a historical account of events and it would be wrong to sanitise the book to appease people.

This book contained enough description of Nigeria and it’s people to satisfy me as a travel book, enough about factual historical events to make me feel like I was learning something by reading it, and enough emotion and anecdotes for it to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.

***** (5 Stars)

Tracy Cook

Review of The Up-Country Man “I Thoroughly Recommend this Book!”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on 23/11/2010 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

UCMcover16x24I have to admit to a natural bias towards this book. I was a young man in Nigeria during the time the book is set and it brought back so many memories for me.

Ryeland captures the uncertainty of the build up to the Nigerian Civil War with mastery. His observations are incredibly detailed and perfectly illustrate the society to which I belonged as a child: the ex-patriot community. He truthfully depicts the lives of the Europeans resident in that young independent country and their attempts to try to help it get on its feet (while enjoying a life style we’d never have had “back home”). He observes how we remained outside of the mainstream African culture which fascinated, repelled and puzzled us in equal measure.

 As another reviewer has mentioned, this is not a book for the PC brigade. Ryeland is no racist, but his portrayal of the sense of superiority that was instilled in the Europeans working and living out in the ex-colony is bound to offend some. I would advise people likely to be offended by that to simply appreciate those aspects for what they are, invaluable first-hand accounts of a particular moment in history, whose protagonists are now slowly disappearing off the world stage.

 The book reads like a thriller. I found it difficult to stop myself starting another chapter as I finished each one… even when common sense said it was time for sleep. You really get drawn into this first person narrative and rapidly become keen to find out what happens to him, his friends and acquaintances as the political situation deteriorates.

 As for his use of Pidgin English, I recognise that for some this might present a problem to the uninitiated, but if you persevere, it will become easier to understand and it is yet another element by which Ryeland allows you to put yourself into his predicament. As a fluent pidgin speaker myself, I found those dialogues really added to the atmosphere and to the authentic tone of the book.

 If anyone is seeking to understand what it was like for a European to live in post-colonial Africa, under the threat of coup d’etats and civil wars, this book will offer you the chance to experience that life in great detail.

 It has even given me a desire to finish my long abandoned novel about my own experiences in Nigeria as a child. I thoroughly recommend this book!

***** (5 stars)

Berni Armstrong